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Scholars have been laboring for more than a century to transform Emily Dickinson’s faint pencil jottings on envelopes, letters, and sewn sheets into accurate and readable editions of some or all of her 1,800 poems. Recently, there has been a counter movement to return Dickinson’s verse to something like the textual fluidity of its original state, which in practice is rather like returning nonspecialists to the state of dazed incomprehension experienced by the small circle of her earliest readers. The online Emily Dickinson Archive, which reproduces the manuscripts with all their wayward calligraphy and unresolved word choices, is a necessary and laudable enterprise, but the last thing it does is make her poetry more accessible. You thought it was hard reading Emily Dickinson before? It just got harder.

More… “Reading Emily Dickinson”

Stephen Akey is the author of two memoirs, College and Library, and of essays in The New Republic, Open Letters Monthly, and The Millions.
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On July 31, the U.S. Postal Office issued an 89-cent stamp in honor of Henry James. The issuance is part of the Postal Service’s Literary Arts series — James is the 31st figure in American literature to be so honored.

It is ironic that the stamp arrives on the centennial anniversary of James’s death and the year he became a British citizen. This was done as an expression of support for England’s war effort in World War I (Americans would not enter the war until April of 1917). Yet for all his gratitude to England, his loyalties never fully strayed from his native land. James’s novels and stories are full of American characters, often naïve and foolish, but also upright and brave — always morally superior to their more worldly European counterparts. It is therefore fitting that he be honored as an iconic American, worthy of his own postage stamp.

It is also fitting that the end of James’s life be celebrated. This was when he ascended to the “major phase” of his writing career — when he became, as his most important biographer and critic, Leon Edel, put it: “the Master.” More… “Relentlessly Relevant”

Paula Marantz Cohen is Dean of the Pennoni Honors College and a Distinguished Professor of English at Drexel University. She is the host of  The Drexel InterView, a unit of the Pennoni Honors College. The Drexel InterView features a half-hour conversation with a nationally known or emerging talent in the arts, culture, science, or business. She is author of five nonfiction books and six bestselling novels, including Jane Austen in Boca and Jane Austen in Scarsdale or Love, Death, and the SATs. Her essays and stories have appeared in The Yale ReviewThe American Scholar, The Times Literary Supplement, and other publications. Her latest novels are Suzanne Davis Gets a Life and her YA novel, Beatrice Bunson’s Guide to Romeo and Juliet.
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How to best come to terms with the fiction of Philip Roth seems an almost idle question. What need do we have of any special terms? Can’t it simply be the old problem of how best to talk about the books we read, and some of those we come to love? And is it hagiography we might be after, or a stern desire to avoid any hint of such? Shouldn’t Roth take his unabashed stance and his licks with the others: Mailer, Bellow, Malamud, who are at once his compeers and his opponents, even in part his creation (think of the character of Lonoff in The Ghost Writer)? But more than a shadowy suspicion colors the problem. Could it be that Roth is the greatest of all his generation of American novelists, even with a nod to others such as Updike and Delillo? Would he himself be willing to play the games of genius and fortune and pace setter and the varied counters by which we measure literary achievement? In his work the (authorial) self is always trying to make the (existential) self answerable to the snares and glitter of ambition, irony, and self-delusion (not to mention self-abasement.) It might be the better part of wisdom to let Roth deal with his own artistic legacy, for after all his recently announced retirement from the life of writing suggests that he has come to terms with his own final self-estimations.

More… “Philip Roth’s Indignation

Charles Molesworth has published a number of books on modern literature. His most recent book is The Capitalist and the Critic: J.P. Morgan, Roger Fry and the Metropolitan Museum of Art (U. of Texas).
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The Naked and the Dead is an enormously long novel, washed up by the choppy waters of disillusionment, leaving nothing to the imagination.” That’s what David Dempsey had to say in a review on the novel for The New York Times in 1948. Dempsey went on to say that The Naked and the Dead revealed a great new talent in American fiction, Norman Mailer, but that the book was “not great.” A half-century after the publication of The Naked and the Dead and two years after Mailer’s death, it’s clear that Dempsey was both right and wrong. He sniffed out the general talent, but whiffed on the specific work.

No matter. The special risk of criticism is to be wrong in print, wrong for eternity. It is hard to blame Mr. Dempsey. The Naked and the Dead was… More…

Alime Sadikova was one of the smartest, most ambitious young women in Jizzakh, and one of the smartest, most ambitious women I had ever met. She was the first to learn English in her family — encouraging and helping her younger brother who was studying on a grant at a high school in Colorado at the time — and establishing her own successful language school in Jizzakh called En Course, where I taught. She would later receive a Fulbright scholarship to study at Texas Tech in Lubbock, but on the day after the En Course disaster, she had a quirky and tactless way of explaining my failure. She told me that I had been dumped. Again.

“Are you serious?” I said, shivering as I spoke on the public telephone in my host family’s… More…

 

Nobody ever really knows why someone else commits suicide — that’s what makes it an ultimate act, an unsettling challenge to those of us who keep on. Anyway, it doesn’t matter why. The death of David Foster Wallace is simply a fact now and we’re the ones who have to deal with it.

I fear that we didn’t do very well by David. We didn’t listen to him closely enough and we kept making him into something that he wasn’t. We called him an ironist. We suggested, often enough, that he was part of The Problem. Or we simply dismissed him as a cute and funny writer with a number of tricks up his sleeve. It was true, of course, that he never came up with a solution — no one has. But he dedicated himself to the… More…

H.L. Mencken was a bastard. He had a core meanness that showed itself in his writing and in his personal life. Without that meanness, though, his writing might never have gotten so startlingly good. Lots of people need lots of things to do what they do. Mencken simply needed to be hard.

In the early part of the 20th century, America needed Mencken. We needed him to wash away some of the Emersonian/Whitmanian enthusiasm that had started to clog up the collective joint. Not that Emerson and Whitman didn’t have their place. As Mencken himself notes in his essay “The National Letters,” it took Emerson and then Whitman, among others, to stand up and defend the possibility of an American Mind and an American Voice. They did so with boldness and with prose falling over itself in its excitement about itself. Sometimes with Whitman it seems that we’re but one… More…

In the street below my window the crowds flow on, an unending stream from the Duomo to the Uffizi and back again. They shoal for gelato, they pause in the shops that seem (but don’t) to sell every Chianti known to man, they look at leather and shirts and even at the statues in the niches of Orsanmichele. There’s an occasional bicycle or man in a suit, but otherwise almost everyone on the pedestrianized Via Calzauoli in Florence this morning is a tourist. There are groups of middle-aged Japanese, though not so many as one might expect, and of course a lot of Americans, the men given away by their shorts, even though it’s only April. Yet most of the people below me are, curiously enough, Italian, who turn out to be great tourists in their own country — retirees, flocks of teenagers on school trips, packaged parties of all… More…