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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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Part I of a two-part look at style examines Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Henry James. Watch for Part II, ...And How To Get It in the coming days.
An old window with some panes frosted, some panes clear, and some panes broken.
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Almost the first thing a reader notices about a piece of writing is its style — unless the style is transparent. Transparent prose is prose that lets you see the object before you. It has often been referred to as a window, for the window in no way obstructs your view. Indeed, it serves the view, quite as if it were a humble attendant.

When we speak of style, then, we usually mean prose that obstructs the view. But of course, we do still see something of the object in our line of sight (i.e., the sense of the sentence). How, then, is the object — the view, the sense — obstructed? By details of the sentence that yank our attention away from the sense, if only momentarily. Puns, alliteration, syntactical flourishes, words that call our attention to themselves are some of the details that can do this. Such details are, of course, snappy, playful, poetic, even enlivening, and the reader who reads them, if that reader wishes to be a writer, is apt to think, I’m going to get me some of those!

And why not?

There is no reason why not. But the getting of them is harder than one might think.
More… “On Style…”

Kelly Cherry‘s new poetry book is Quartet for J. Robert Oppenheimer. Her book of flash fiction titled Temporium is now available.

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I have been thinking about literary celebrity. Not the modest sort attached to living writers who get to have unflattering nostril shots on the cover of the New York Times Sunday Magazine but the extravagant sort attached to a select group of dead writers. Generally speaking, death is a big boost to literary celebrity (think Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton), despite a brief period in the 1980s when DWEMS (dead white European males) took a thrashing as emblems of exploitative patriarchy. But DWEMS have rebounded from their slump and are now being feted, along with a few DWEFs, on every possible occasion.

At the zenith of literary celebrity are Shakespeare and Jane Austen. Both are, as one editor I know put it, “best-selling brands.” The subjects of numerous adaptations and spin-offs, “Shakespeare” and “Austen” have replaced Shakespeare and Austen. They exist as memes in western culture — and in Eastern… More…

August 26 marks the 100th anniversary of the death of William James, a giant in American intellectual history. James was a founder of pragmatic philosophy and of modern psychology. His two greatest works, The Principles of Psychology (1890) and The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902), are towering achievements, still relevant today in providing insights into why we behave as we do and why we believe what we do.

 

For years, I had little knowledge of William James and was instead an enthusiast of his younger brother Henry. It still mystifies me how two such extraordinary minds could have come from the same family. I first read Henry James in college and was soon a fan of his late work. I loved his complex style and subtle if wrong-headed heroines (with whom I identified).

Only much later did I… More…

 

Kathryn Hughes recently wrote in the Guardian about biography overkill. For a while, the genre was so popular with successes like David McCullough’s John Adams that even the most insignificant of figures — heck, even the sisters of the most insignificant figures — were getting their own books. Every obvious choice for biography, from the founding fathers to the great writers and artists, has multiple volumes devoted to revealing every intimate detail of their lives. In “The Death of Life Writing,” Hughes explains:

The least imaginative response to this lack of good new subjects is simply to go back to the big lives and do them over — and over — again. You can justify this by an appeal to the idea that each decade (actually, every four years might be nearer) needs its own Dickens or Eleanor… More…

Once I met a man who did not travel. He lived in the Swiss city of Locarno, on Lago Maggiore — the city, famous now for its film festival, that Hemingway’s Frederic Henry rows across the Italian border to reach in A Farewell to Arms, making his sad separate peace with the Great War. It is a city of transit, a place to hide money, and probably my acquaintance knew about all that, for he was an investment counselor from an old family, a local pol, too, a man who looked as comfortable in a good suit as the rest of us do in jeans. But he did not travel. His wife might go to India or America, his children as well; he couldn’t even be bothered to cover the hour or so to Milan. Locarno had all the cultural and commercial amenities he needed, the lake was beautiful, and… More…