Tuesday, March 08, 2005

The day begins with Jay Parini – toward whom I’m beginning to warm somewhat, however reluctantly. I’m coming round to the opinion that even if it is a generic biography it’s a solid and often helpful one, and that while Parini can often be superficial he can, also, get to the nub of a particular Faulkner novel, and he’s not incapable of independent opinion. (He doesn’t have much use for Faulkner’s stories, for example.) Faulkner, too, begins to take shape as a character.


Scary development of the week: Is a Cinema Studies Degree the New M.B.A.?


A legend passes: Teresa Wright Dies at 86.

She was Charlie in Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt, the winsome teenager who gets the sentimentality knocked out of her when she discovers her dashing uncle is a killer.

She was the picture of 1940s small-town American girlhood, and when I watch her old movies, I want to borrow Dad’s jalopy and call her up for a date.

Nice to learn she was gutsy as well:

For all her allure as the fetching "girl next door," Miss Wright fiercely fought not to be a glamour girl. She loathed pictures in bathing suits and interviews with fan magazines, and told Goldwyn as much. He assured her he was not of "the bathing suit school of Hollywood producers," according to The Times in 1942, and promised to promote her more ethereal talents.

"There would be no leg art, no whispered romances for the columnists, no orchid and ermine setting for her background," her contract stipulated, according to The Times.

But Miss Wright's disregard for Hollywood's demands eventually caused Goldwyn to terminate her contract, in 1948. In their highly publicized exchange, he said she was lax in publicizing her pictures. She said movies had become too brazenly commercial.


Hunter S. Thompson's fond farewell: "At the memorial, neighbor and actor Don Johnson remembered once asking Thompson: What is the sound of one hand clapping? Thompson responded by slapping Johnson across the face."

Speaking of Thompson, want to read the worst obit of him yet -- as well as the worst obit of Arthur Miller? You can't do worse than J. Peder Zane in the Raleigh News and Observer: a perfect example of someone drafting a thesis and then shaping the facts to fit.

Zane begins by toggling these two disparate spirits together:
they "were literary supernovas who burst onto the scene with blinding impact," and "their flash quickly fizzled."

After "Salesman," Miller wrote a few admired plays, especially "The Crucible" (1953), but he never matched that early triumph (though off stage he labored heroically on behalf of writers and free speech).

Let's stop right there. First, Miller became successful at some level with All My Sons, then he became super-successful with Death of a Salesman. The latter is no ordinary play; whatever may be said against it, people never stop producing it. Afterwards, there was The Crucible. Granted, it didn't succeed at the level of Salesman, but what does? It still entered the pantheon of American theater, and it's still a play that is regularly taught in school.

Yet the sense of loss that infused their obituaries skated over their long artistic irrelevance. This is due in part to our hesitancy to criticize the recently departed. In addition, memory is kind. We remember artists for their rare high points and forget the many passable or even failed works that issued from even the best pens.

I don't know what obits Zane read, but I think just about everyone pointed out that both men had long been irrelevant.

Miller will forever be the conscience-driven author of "Salesman," not the creator of "Incident at Vichy" (1965), "Broken Glass" (1994) and other drudgeries.

I heard they were terrible, too, but I'm almost willing to bet money Zane has no direct knowledge of either.

Thompson will live as the gonzo-god of "Fear and Loathing," not the burned-out scribbler of "Generation of Swine" (1988).

True, but he had a better run than Zane seems to realize. First there was his book Hell's Angels, a recognized classic, then Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, then Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail `72 -- and afterwards, yeah, then it began to dry up. But Thompson wasn’t some one hit wonder, and neither was Miller.

In fact, it’s worth pointing out – someone has to – that both men kept working. They never gave up, never stopped producing, even if it wasn’t at the old level.

That said, Miller's work was too didactic to deserve comparison to the soaring plays of Eugene O'Neill or Tennessee Williams; Thompson lacked the sophistication of the great practitioners of new journalism such as Tom Wolfe and Michael Herr.

Whoa, horsey. Let's use our heads here.

The three leading playwrights of the American theater in the 20th Century are generally thought to be O'Neill, Williams and Miller, more or less in that order. O'Neill was a most prolific writer, but I doubt any of his plays are performed or remembered as much as Death of a Salesman. That's not saying they're not as good, but when you're sizing up people for immortality, it's worth keeping in mind. Name one O'Neill character besides Hickey or James Tyrone. The same goes for Williams, my favorite of the three -- and Williams' decline is extremely well-noted and well-documented. How many hits did he have in his last decades? None at all that compared to The Glass Menagerie or A Streetcar Named Desire or Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. His life slid into a wasteland of booze and pills

In light of the rest of what Zane has to say, it's interesting to hear that Thompson lacks the sophistication of Herr or Wolfe. I'll leave him to his opinion about Wolfe -- who, by the way, recently called Thompson "the [20th] century's greatest comic writer in the English language" -- but what, pray tell, ever happened to Michael Herr? Has that genius been heard from in the quarter-century or so since Dispatches? Has he become irrelevant too?

I mean, let's face facts here: it’s a rare writer who is even remembered at all, and if you lodge one or two books or plays in the national consciousness, you’rfe doing damned good.

"However, politics, not artistic merit, drove the myth-making coverage that greeted their deaths. The liberal media were paying homage to two of their own. Miller and Thompson reflected their values and aspirations. By celebrating these writers, they were celebrating themselves. By trumpeting the authors' wisdom, they were trumpeting their own."

Once again, I'm mainly hearing Zane's conservative prejudices, because one editorial after the next sought mainly to create some distance between the writer and Thompson.

"Though they attacked it from different angles, both were consumed with the American dream. And in the largest and most important sense, both misrepresented and misunderstood it."

Now the good part. See, Zane understands the American Dream, and very much the way Miller's character Willy Loman did. What gripes Zane's butt is that the New York Times said Miller "exposed the flaws in the fabric of the American dream" and that Thompson portrayed American politics as "a low-stakes minstrel show," among other things.

To Zane, this is heresy. In his world, American life is flawless simply because it's a free country. What Zane doesn't like is that Miller and Thompson, whatever their problems, whatever their so-called irrelevance, didn't fully buy into the concept.

As you sip your morning coffee, let me ask you: Do you really believe the American dream is hollow? If so, please alert the millions of foreign-born people who risk life and limb to live here. Do you believe that dark and venal impulses often drive the American character? If so, what are you going to do about ... yourself? And do you believe American politicians are conniving ferrets? If so, why are we the most prosperous and powerful nation on Earth (oh, right, we're dark and venal).

Who can answer such philistine foolishness?

I'll give it a whirl.

The way I look at Miller and Thompson is the way I look at every artist. They were dramatists, both, of a sort, who viewed life from extremes, the way artists often do. They were tragedians -- a comic tragedian, in Thompson's case. They looked at life from the bottom up, from the dark side, and if that's the side that's been availed to you, that's what you use. Miller lived through the Depression, Thompson through Vietnam. Would they have been more effective if they had gone to the Peder Zane School of Mediocrity, if they had "balanced" this or that, if they had shown the happy side of life or more positive virtues?

"Are we really a land of Willy Lomans, crushed by a repressive culture? Or are we a nation that offers wondrous opportunities to most of our people?"

We are both, and it's no easy call to say we are more one than the other.

At bottom, Miller and Thompson too often trafficked in the cheapest and easiest form of criticism: Garden of Eden dissent. They imagined a sinless world and judged us against it. There's a reason Diogenes searched in vain for an honest man. As Robert Penn Warren noted, "Man is conceived in sin and born in corruption and he passeth from the stink of the didie to the stench of the shroud.

That isn't Warren. That's a Warren character, Willie Stark, and the quote is an expression of his own dark, demagogic cynicism. What Zane is trying to prove here is beyond me.

The best social criticism -- and that, more than art, was the essence of Miller's and Thompson's work -- sifts all the evidence. It does not measure human achievement against the pure visions of the imagination but the gritty realities of history and selfish desires that shape our lives.

Here is the nub of the problem: Miller and Thompson weren't social critics in the usual sense. They were genuine individuals with a very distinct point of view. It sounds so naive to say they should have sifted the evidence. Ever heard of dramatic truth?

Miller and Thompson were not fearless truth tellers. They were agitators. They showed us slivers of the world and wanted us to believe they were presenting the big picture. They did not replace our illusions with truth; they created illusions that contained nuggets of truth.

They didn't say what Zeder thinks we need to hear. They didn’t talk about the greatness of the country. They didn’t elevate people.

Well, he’s in good company. Stalin wouldn’t have had any use for bastards like Miller and Thompson either.

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