Sunday, December 29, 2002

Selected & Edited by Steven Gilbar & Dean Stewart
David R. Godine, $26.95, 240 pages

This is an appealing book that easily could have been more appealing including a title, “Published & Perished,” that can seem flippant at best or in poor taste.
This volume has the earmarks of originating as a BOGSAT “Bunch of Guys Sitting Around a Table” in the publisher’s conference room: “We need a quickie for the Winter list, a book that presents minimal problems and expense with, say, stuff that’s in the public domain. Then we can dig up a couple of professors or journeymen editors who can whip it into shape without giving us any grief …”
And here it is, 47 brief essays “memoria, eulogies and remembrances” of American writers, by other American writers. Some are by contemporaries and associates of the authors being eulogized, others are less personalized.
The book leads off with Ralph Waldo Emerson on Henry David Thoreau. Then Oliver Wendell Holmes bids farewell to Nathaniel Hawthorne, with Emerson himself eulogized by Julian Hawthorne, Nathaniel’s son.
Working forward in time, the selections include Willa Cather’s farewell to Stephen Crane, William Dean Howells’ to Mark Twain, with Howells appreciated by Booth Tarkington. F. Scott Fitzgerald reflects on Ring Lardner’s life and literature, Edna St. Vincent Millay is eulogized by Rolfe Humphries, Ernest Hemingway by Archibald MacLeish, and James Thurber by E.B. White. Mary McCarthy writes on Philip Rahv, Robert Penn Warren on Katherine Anne Porter, and James Dickey is memorialized by Reynolds Price.
For the most, the brief essays are affecting and insightful.
There are frequent gems of expression and homage. One of the truly elegant is Howells’ on Twain that Samuel Clemens “was sole, incomparable, the Lincoln of our literature.”
Julian Hawthorne notes the contradictions that exist in the astounding body of Emerson’s work and astutely goes on, “[I]t is a consequence of this that Emerson, though he has many readers and lovers, has never and can never have any disciples. He enlightens, encourages, and strengthens the mind, but guides it to no definite issue or conclusion.”
Henry James’ essay on James Russell Lowell is especially graceful and astute. “He carried style the style of literature into regions in which we rarely look for it: into politics, of all places in the world, into diplomacy, into stammering civic dinners and ponderous anniversaries, into letters and notes and telegrams, into every turn of the hour … .”
E. B White, who for years shared an office with his friend James Thurber at the New Yorker magazine, is lovely, as one would expect. “The whole world knows what a funny man he was, but you had to sit next to him day after day to understand the extravagance of his clowning, the wildness and subtlety of his thinking, and the intensity of his interest in others and his sympathy for their dilemmas dilemmas that he instantly enlarged, put in focus and made immortal … “
In the introduction, Editors Gilbar and Stewart write, “There is a great silence that surrounds these little essays.
They are fleeting moments of personal reflection written against the great background of time, destiny, and eternity. Yet, as a whole, they give the reader a rare look into the lives of most of the authors who constitute the canon of American literature.”
Nicely said, but that “great silence” needn’t be as mute as it is with more thoughtful editing of this book.
While the after-notes give a brief biographical paragraph to each of the writers and their eulogists, a context for the essays is absent. Were they presented at memorial services? Were they written at the time of the subject’s death or significantly later, and where did they appear?
That is not the principal annoyance of the book, however: Had the editors provided a brief introduction to each essay to connect the writer and the eulogist, a reader would have had a clearer sense of each life at so final a moment. The editors in their introduction do allude in Mary McCarthy’s essay on Philip Rahv that the pair had been lovers, a fact that one supposes would add poignance to the memorial (perhaps the editors reckoned that readers would be aware of this consequential connection a condescending assumption).
Likewise in William Dean Howells’ splendid eulogy of Mark Twain. A brief introduction would have noted the long and intimate friendship and its influence in the careers of both men.
A number of these essays dramatically expose the cultural distance in American literature. Horace E. Scudder, editor of the Atlantic Monthly at the shank of the 19th century, reflects on Oliver Wendell Holmes and the literary generation of which he was a part Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, John Greenleaf Whittier, Hawthorne, Emerson, William Cullen Bryant and Washington Irving, whose “writings are charged with high ideals, free thought, purity, a noble love of nature and humanity, a passion of patriotism.”
Mr. Scudder adds a provocative thought. “A common language is essential to anything like a common life in the nation … But a common literature is essential to any true community of ideals…”
Well, we can reflect on that at our leisure.

Woody West is associate editor of The Washington Times.

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