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Herman Wouk, the best-selling novelist, died on Friday, May 17, at the age of 103. Among his best-known novels are The Caine Mutiny, The Winds of War, and War and Remembrance (the latter two about World War II, inspired by his time in the Navy in the South Pacific). For me, however, Wouk will always be the author of the 1955 novel Marjorie Morningstar, about the coming of age of a Jewish-American girl in New York City. I published a piece about re-reading that novel in the Wall Street Journal four years ago. When I had first read the book, as a teenager almost 50 years earlier, it had been viewed by those in the know as a “woman’s book” and a rather vulgar page-turner. I now discovered that it was a serious work of literature, both well-written and psychologically insightful about a middle-class young woman struggling with the often competing claims of ambition, romance, family, and religious expectation. When my essay appeared, I was surprised by the avalanche of emails I received from readers who wanted to weigh in on what the novel had meant to them when they first read it. Below is a sampling from some of those emails:

I have been a lifetime voracious reader and an avid book club member.  However, I still return to Marjorie as my literary rock and foundation. Almost beyond number I have reread the section where Marjorie reveals to her lawyer husband to be that she lost her virginity to Noel Airman.  His reaction so touched my heart because she was no longer perfect to him. I am 69 years of age, Jewish, and a graduate of Queens College, in New York City. I confess to being another “Shirley.”  I have been married for 46 years and have two sons.  All my men our [sic] lawyers. 
I thank you for validating my feelings about Marjorie Morningstar and vindicating my rereading the book in the face of some of my acquaintances who could not understand why the novel means so much to me.

I am a product of the 1950s and Herman Wouk was confronting reality in my time not investigating history when his books came out. I do not know if Marjorie Morningstar survives as great literature but it is great humanity, and serves in the same instructive coming of age tradition as was Studs Lonigan, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, The Adventures of Augie March, Edith Wharton, and their peers.

Indeed, I was one of those teenage girls for whom  Wouk’s novel was “de rigueur reading.”  If I remember correctly, even as my life and career evolved, I read it every five years, simply to stay in touch with the hopes, dreams, and realities of becoming an adult, as you so aptly noted.  Now, I work assiduously to encourage the younger people around me, those with whom I work, those I mentor, my own children, to hold onto a particular moment in time so that sometime in the future that moment will be remembered both for how it felt and what it meant then, and how it feels and reflectively, what it means now.  I so enjoy the feedback I get when I learn that one of them has had a potent experience of, “Oh, I see what you meant!”

The following is the original article written about Wouk’s Marjorie, a young character with whom many identified.

More… “Herman Wouk’s Legacy”

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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Sylvia Plath has a way of showing up in everything I do. I find her in the essays I write, the things I say, the movies I watch — even the clothing I choose to wear. She is ever-present, ever-changing, working her way into my writing and conversations. I spoke with Emily Van Duyne, a writer, scholar, and feminist, who has also been heavily influenced and shaped by Plath, an American writer and poet best known for her novel The Bell Jar and poetry collections such as Ariel and The Colossus and Other Poems. Emily Van Duyne is an assistant professor of writing at Stockton University in New Jersey, where she is also affiliated with faculty in Women’s, Gender, & Sexuality Studies. Her work has appeared, or is forthcoming, in Harvard Review, Women’s Studies Quarterly, Meridian, and Literary Hub, among others. She has written many essays about Plath and is currently at work on a critical memoir called Loving Sylvia Plath. You can tweet her @emilyvanduyne.

More… “Pondering Plath”

Camille DiBenedetto is a staff writer for The Smart Set and an English major at Drexel University. In her free time, you can find her watching romantic comedies, listening to slam poetry, or rereading The Summer I Turned Pretty for the 27th time.

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Aside from getting intense about guitar solos, in my part of American culture it’s not manly to be too precise about beauty or goodness. There’s something peripheral and tiresome about a person who rattles on about all the ethical and aesthetic entanglements of the world — that’s what a bridezilla does, or a momzilla, or a punchline vegan. In Philip Roth’s books, not only is it acceptable for a person to be authoritative and also read a lot of fiction and care about what people are wearing, it’s the reason. A Roth character thinks everyone should fall in line behind him when he wants to talk to his friends about books and fight against oppression that’s the lifeblood of — more than democracy — the whole human experience. So I’ve been reading a lot of Philip Roth lately.

More… “Complaint Department”

Catherine Nichols lives in Massachusetts. Her work has appeared in Jezebel, Open Letters Monthly, and Seattle Review of Books. Find her on Twitter @clnichols6.

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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 the memoirs College and Library. A collection of his essays, Culture Fever, was published in January.

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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…