Monday, October 31, 2011

Streep critiques

Fair or unfair, not everyone has liked Meryl Streep's acting

The following post is part of a series on Meryl Streep's vision of American history, part of a larger set of case studies.

Streep has always had her critics, and they have come in a variety of forms. Some of this has criticism has been the result of Streep’s early uneasiness with her peers, a problem that dogged her throughout her high school, college, and graduate education. In her first year at Yale one of her teachers placed her on a form of academic probation because he believed, as she later recalled, “that I was holding back my talent out of fear with competing with my fellow students.” Streep was hurt by this, but admitted it was true. Such problems became less obvious with the passage of time, but it’s hard to believe they disappeared entirely in a business as competitive as Hollywood. Streep herself has sometimes come out on the losing end of such contests, most notably in the case of the title role in the 1995 film Evita, for which she underwent considerable preparation. “I can sing better than Madonna,” she said at the time. “If she gets it, I'll rip her throat out.”
Streep has also had critics who have been less than enchanted by her style of acting. She can hardly be faulted on her technique, and her mastery of voices and accents – she learned Polish as part of her work in her Oscar winning performance in Sophie’s Choice, used a Danish accent for Out of Africa, and has spoken the Queen’s English in roles that ranged from the Victorian servant of The French Lieutenant’s Woman in 1981 to Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady thirty years later – are simply dazzling. But to some that’s precisely the problem: her acting calls attention to itself. Katherine Hepburn told her biographer, Scott Berg, that he considered Streep among her least favorite contemporary actresses, dismissing her with this bitchy appraisal: “click, click, click.”
The best known, and most damaging, of Streep’s critics was Pauline Kael (who, as you may recall, was not particularly fond of Clint Eastwood, either, though for the opposite reason: she didn’t think he was an actor at all). Over the course of her first decade or so in movies, Kael asserted that Streep acted “only from the neck up,” speculating that “in her zeal to be an honest actress, she allows nothing to escape her conception of a performance.” Kael too could be bitchy, describing Streep as “our lady of the accents.” In 1994, three years after Kael’s retirement, Streep offered her reaction to such criticism: “It’s so awful that someone you admire hates what you do.” But still later, she was less diplomatic. “You know what I think?” she asked in 2008. “That Pauline was a poor Jewish girl at Berkeley with all these rich Pasadena WASPs with long blonde hair, and their heartlessness got to her; then, years later, she saw me.” New York Times reviewer came to his former colleague’s defense: “Kael being quite dead, she can't address Streep's psychoanalysis, but one might also think she wouldn't have gotten far as a critic if she relentlessly avenged these theorized college slights with undeserved digs against everyone on screen with long blonde hair, a not uncommon feature for an actress. One might think it's possible to simply not like Streep's acting style.” Streep, it is clear, can also be bitchy.
Still, on balance, it’s hard not to be impressed by Streep’s overall equanimity, particularly when one learns of far more crude dismissals. In a 2008 interview with Entertainment Weekly, she related that during her audition for a leading role in King Kong (1976), a part that ultimately went to Jessica Lange, producer Dino De Laurentiis asked his son in Italian, with Streep in the room, “Why did you send me this pig? This woman is so ugly!” Steep responded in Italian, “I’m very sorry that I disappoint you.” As she explained, “He was so used to treating girls like bimbos, never imagined that a blond person could speak Italian,” she said. De Laurentiis, who died in 2010, denied describing Streep as a pig, or meeting with her about King Kong, though he does recall doing so for another movie. In her 1984 biography of Streep, journalist Diana Maychick has the actor describing a similar incident involving a different De Laurentiis project, the 1978 film King of the Gypsies, in which it is De Launentiis’s son, who died in a 1981 plane crash, who makes the disparaging remark in Italian. My guess is that the earlier version of the story is what Streep was remembering, largely because less time had passed at the time she related it. But that something like it happened – in that case, among others – is very likely. Even in the case of a high prestige project like Out of Africa, and as enlightened a director as the late Sydney Pollack, Streep felt forced to deal with comporting with traditional ideas of femininity. In a documentary on the making of the film, she described  Pollack as believing she was not sexy enough to play the part of Isak Dinesen, and wrangling with a meeting to further discuss the part. “I went, pathetically, to that meeting in a very low-cut blouse with a push-up bra. I’m really shamed to say that I did, and it worked.  That’s the really sad part.” Streep related the story lightheartedly. But the tone never entirely undercut the words. In a subsequent interview with James Lipton for Inside the Actor’s Studio, Lipton noted that he had recently interviewed Pollack, who reported no such recollection these exchanges. “I knoooow,” she replied to laughter. “He probably doesn’t remember. You know, he probably doesn’t remember that was the thing. But” – she pauses for comic effect – “that was the thing.”  
Of course, she could afford to be magnanimous. One can only wonder – no, one need not wonder at all – what less esteemed women have had to put up with in Hollywood, among many other workplaces. Streep has had about a charmed a professional life as woman could have had in the American Century, which is a way that it’s been charmed indeed, and yet to faintly damn those who have smudged the quality of that life. Even at this late date, Streep does not have a production company the way many male movie stars, among them Eastwood and Hanks, do. (Playtone, the company run by Hanks and his wife Rita Wilson, was one of the producers of Mamma Mia!)  “I don’t have anybody directing my career, it just depends on what scripts come,” she said in 2010. “If I like them I do them.” Now in her sixties, she has been phenomenally productive, with dozens to her credit, among them four movies in 2007 alone.

In an important sense, Streep’s entire career has been a matter of using her talent and power to give voice to women. That career began at a propitious time; she had more opportunities that her predecessors did. But it also began in a culturally conservative one that decisively shaped Streep’s feminism.  The product of an anti-institutional moment, her statements on behalf of women took, if not anti-institutional tone, then a largely non-institutional one: the political was personal. That’s not surprising. What may be more surprising is that was only the beginning of her story.

Next: Streep's early years as a star.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Theatrical transformation

Streep's transition from stage to screen -- to (another) screen

The following post is part of a series on Meryl Streep's vision of American history, part of a larger set of case studies.

It’s worth pausing for a moment here to note that while Streep’s ascent was rapid, it was relatively invisible for those not familiar with the intricacies of the theater world. Unlike every other figure I've been studying, she did not have an apprenticeship in television. Clint Eastwood had Rawhide, Denzel Washington had St. Elsewhere, and Tom Hanks had Bosom Buddies. Jodie Foster lacked a regular perch, but did years of yeoman’s work on a variety of shows and spent a stretch of her early career at Disney. Hanks and Washington had real stage training, but only Daniel Day-Lewis, who also did a variety of television work, underwent as long or as rigorous a preparation as Streep did. When she finally did emerge in the mass media, her impact was uniquely swift and decisive: almost overnight, she became the gold standard of acting excellence across gender lines.
Ironically, it was television, a medium where Streep has done relatively little work, which made her a household name. After landing a supporting role in the 1977 NBC movie The Deadliest Season, as the wife of a hockey player played by Michael Moriarity, Streep was cast in a leading role in Holocaust, a 1978 ABC miniseries that followed in the wake of the hugely successful Roots (1976). Streep played Inga Helms Weiss, the gentile wife of a Jewish artist (James Woods), whose prosperous family is sucked into the Nazi vortex. (Her Deadliest Season colleague Moriarity plays Erik Dorff, a jobless drifter turned Reich functionary, giving a performance of satisfying inscrutability in an otherwise drearily high-minded affair.)  Holocaust was not as successful as Roots in terms of its reception or subsequent reputation, but it premiered during the golden age of television as a mass medium, and was viewed by some 120 people, half the U.S. population. Streep, who won an Emmy for her work in the seven-part series, nevertheless correctly described her part in Holocaust as “unrelentingly noble,” and says she took it largely for the money, as her fiancé Cazale was terminally ill with cancer. Upon her return from Austria shooting the series, Streep nursed him to his death. (She began seeing, and married, Don Gummer later the same year.) Streep would return to television in 1997 as the mother of an epileptic child who insists in the face of skepticism that his condition can be improved by his diet in First, Do No Harm, for which she was also nominated for an Emmy. She won her second Emmy for her work in the 2003 HBO miniseries Angels in America, in a tour de force clutch of parts that included Ethel Rosenberg, an angel, and, most amusingly, an almost unrecognizable elderly male rabbi.
It was in movies, however, that Streep cast her lot. Her first film role was small but significant: a snarky friend of playwright Lillian Hellman in the 1977 film Julia, which starred Vanessa Redgrave in the title role and Jane Fonda as Hellman, both of whom won Oscars. Its importance is less a matter of the part itself (most of which ended up on the proverbial cutting room floor) than Julia’s status as a feminist statement. Though generically related to the “woman’s film” or “weepie” that was a staple of moviemaking in the mid-twentieth century, Julia was packaged and perceived as a sign of the new power and prestige of women in the movie business. While this would prove to a false dawn, Streep’s association with the project, directed by old-time Hollywood heavyweight Fred Zinneman, would position her as A-level talent. Fonda, twelve years Streep’s senior and a feminist trailblazer in the business, conferred her blessing: “This one will go far,” she told Zinneman.

Next: Streep's critics

Monday, October 24, 2011

Jersey girl

Scenes from a suburban childhood

The following post is part of a series on Meryl Streep's vision of American history, part of a larger set of case studies.

Meryl Streep is an anomaly among the figures I’ve studied: a movie star who appears to have had an unremarkably happy childhood. Denzel Washington, Tom Hanks, and Jodie Foster were all children of divorce; Daniel Day-Lewis had a father, previously married, who died during his adolescence. Clint Eastwood came from an intact family, but an itinerant one buffeted by winds of the Great Depression. Conversely, the prep-school Day-Lewis was born into a storied family of the intellectual elite; Foster is literally and figuratively a child of Hollywood.

Streep, by contrast, is a child of suburbia. Suburbia has had its thoughtful critics, but for her it appears to have functioned the way it has been most fondly imagined: as a kid-friendly place where an intact nuclear family, relative prosperity, and access to the metropolis function as a garden where success and happiness twine. It is surely no accident that Streep and her husband, sculptor Don Gummer, chose to spend the majority of the time raising their own four children in small-town Connecticut. (Two of those children, Mary and Grace, are now professional actors. In one of the more amusing turns in her career, Streep has a small role as the older version of Mary, also known as Mamie, in the 2007 ensemble piece Evening.) Clearly, there are multiple roads to greatness.
Mary Louise Streep was born on June 22, 1949, in Summit, New Jersey, the eldest of three children (she has two brothers). Her ancestry is mostly German; one branch of her family line goes back to William Penn.  At the insistence of her father, a marketing executive at Merck pharmaceuticals, she was named after her mother, who after her christening (as a Presbyterian) rued the decision and started calling her Meryl. The family spent much of her childhood in Basking Ridge and Bernardstown, two towns in central New Jersey, on the western rim of metropolitan New York.
Mary Streep had been a commercial artist before having children, and continued to work as a freelance illustrator after they were born. But motherhood was her vocation, and one that, notwithstanding the professional aspirations she nurtured for her daughter, made a deep impression on that daughter. Streep has referred to her mother’s example frequently in her work, both in gratitude as well as a source of inspiration for specific characters, whether they happen to be mothers, or not. “My mother was and is my role model,” she said at a time when Mary Streep was still alive (she died in 2001). “Not precisely for what she did in her life, but for the way she’s always done everything. She always started the day singing, she loves a good joke, she has energy and verve, wit and great natural graciousness. Everybody loves my mom because she’s the Will Rogers of women; she puts people at their ease and can diffuse any awkward situation with a witty aside or a joke at her own expense. I’ve always admired this ability to lighten the atmosphere when she enters the room, and I think the best role models for women and girls are people of either gender who are fruitfully and confidently themselves, who bring light into the world.”  
Both Streep’s parents were musical—Dad played piano, Mom was a singer—and Streep had ambitions for becoming a singer herself (her younger brother Harry became a dancer and choreographer). She’s fond of self-deprecatingly telling the story of her mother taking her for singing lessons on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, where the confident child was preceded by a student named Beverly Sills.  “Nobody had heard of her either,” she joked years later. “I thought she was sort of good.” (Actually, Streep has a very good singing voice that she has deployed to good effect in a number of films, among them Postcards from the Edge, A Prairie Home Companion, and Mamma Mia!)
Streep’s voice lessons were part of a larger cultural education that included frequent trips to the theater, musicals in particular. Still, an early love of the performing arts was only one element in the mix of a classic postwar childhood. As an early biographer noted, Streep quit her singing lessons after four years “and devoted all her time to playing out a winning performance among the boyfriends, girlfriends and teachers in the biggest drama of her adolescent life: high school.” Though she often describes herself as an ugly duckling as a child, there’s little sign that Streep, a high school cheerleader, was anything less than a star once she entered adolescence. Her 1967 yearbook portrait shows her to be an attractive, if somewhat unusual-looking, blonde, and the accompanying list of activities include being named Homecoming Queen as well as membership in the National Honor Society.  Interestingly, acting in school musicals is not on the list, despite the fact that she appeared in enough to engender envy among her rivals (a problem that would become familiar in the years that followed).
When Streep entered Vassar in 1967—one of the legendary “Seven Sisters” of liberal arts schools for women—same-sex education was still the rule among elite undergraduate institutions. But that was rapidly changing; indeed, Streep was a junior when the school went co-ed in 1969. She did not like it. In particular, she objected to the way men took over leadership positions in student activities and dominated political discourse. “Everybody was a miniature Abbie Hoffman in front of a swarm of adoring girls,” she remembered. “I just thought it was bullshit.”
Fortunately, by that point, she had carved out a domain of her own as a dramatic actor, where her talents awed her teachers. To escape the tumult of Vassar’s transition, as well as the jealousies of her classmates, Streep spent a term of her senior year as a visiting student at Dartmouth, which did not yet allow women to matriculate. This did not prove to be a happy experience for her, either, and she returned to Vassar, from which she graduated in 1971. She got her first work as a professional actor with the Green Mountain Guild, a Vermont troupe, supplementing her income by working as a waitress. Streep decided within months that if she were to have a future in the business she would need a graduate training, and so applied, and was accepted, into the three-year Master of Fine Arts program at Yale Drama School, where she was awarded a scholarship. Streep’s Yale years were the crucible of her career.
She had arrived at a pivotal point in the school’s history. A few years earlier, the legendary theater writer and critic Robert Brustein had founded a repertory theater program at Yale, and as its artistic director transformed New Haven into a powerhouse venue for arresting interpretations of classic works (Shakespeare, Chekov, et. al.). Brustein mentored Streep along with classmates like playwright Christopher Durang. The training she received there was the theatrical equivalent of a boot camp, fostering a range and intensity that would make much of what followed seem downright easy.
But not everything. Upon Streep’s graduation from Yale in 1975, she took a job with the Theater Communications Group, a company that performed in small venues around the country. From there she made the transition to the New York stage, performing with the New York Shakespeare Festival (where she met fellow actor John Cazale, who became her fiancé) and the Public Theater under the direction of Joseph Papp. These, too, were grueling proving grounds. By this point, however, Streep’s career was on a steep upward trajectory, earning rapturous reviews in a string of shows. She received a Tony Award nomination for best actress in the 1976 production of 27 Wagons of Cotton, and was poised for stardom far beyond live performance.

Next: The long road to overnight success. 

Friday, October 21, 2011

Jim is in Boston, on his school's annual 10th grade swing through New England: the Mashantucket Pequot Museum in Connecticut, memorial sites in Salem and the battlefield at Concord Massachusetts, as well as the Hub (with a detour to Charlestown to see the Bunker Hill Memorial). His big news, however, is editorial: his ongoing project on actors as historians -- early draft segments of which have been appearing on this blog -- has been accepted for publication by Oxford University Press. (It's had a working title of "Sensing the Past: Hollywood Actors as Historians," but discussions are underway to come up with a zippier title; right now "The Arc of American History: What Movie Stars Tell Us About Ourselves" is in contention.) The hope is to have the book out by the end of 2012, in time to coincide with the release of the forthcoming Steven Spielberg/Abe Lincoln movie Team of Rivals, based on the Doris Kearns Goodwin book and starring Daniel Day-Lewis (one of the subjects of the work-in-progress). More on this as the date approaches.

Stay tuned for further developments. In the meantime, draft segments on the final case study, Meryl Streep, will be running in the coming weeks.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Feminist line

Meryl Streep's cinematic choices sketch a trajectory in the history of women's work.

The following post is the first in a series on Meryl Streep's vision of American history, part of a larger set of case studies. 

  I can’t say she didn’t warn me. “The progression of roles you take strings together a portrait of an actor,” Meryl Streep conceded in a 1998 interview with Interview magazine. But, she added, “it’s a completely random process. In other words, which role was available which year has more to do with who was running a studio or who was bankrolling a particular project or who the costar was.
     “The people who write about films [like person you’re now reading] always attempt to find a through line to a career,” she continued. “There is a through line to a life based on the choices you make, and so you can discern some things about an actor. But not necessarily a lot.” 
     Actually, I won’t claim to have discerned all that much. Though I’ve now spent some time in her virtual company, I don’t claim to know Meryl Streep. I will say that making allowances for the promotional persona stars adopt for pitching their work to the public—in which every project was fascinating (if challenging), every co-star was a blast, and every director was brilliant—she appears to have an truly winning personality: spontaneous, funny, self-aware.  And, allowing for typical human foibles as well as those particular to celebrities, an intriguingly normal one. “The story about Meryl Streep is that there really is no story,” Roger Ebert, who has interviewed his fair share of stars in the last half-century, wrote recently. “She is a great actress, probably the best of her generation, and has given one wonderful performance after the other. The rest of the time she is an admirable wife and mother, utterly free of gossip, scandal and even anecdote. The stories that are told about her, even the funny ones, are essentially about how gifted she is, and how much people like her. That’s it.” 
      Well, not quite. Actually, there are “through lines” to Streep’s life that are reasonably discernible. Like this one: She’s a feminist, at least in the general sense of feminism as a belief in the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes. Streep is legendary for the diverse array of characters she has played: not just wives, mothers, daughters and sisters, but also clerks, journalists, teachers, and politicians. But all of them are strong characters who assert themselves in their respective environments. As does Streep herself, who has been active in any number of environmental or political causes over the years, particularly those related to related to food.
     She is a particularly acute, yet good-natured, critic of sexism in her own industry. I was amused in watching a slightly tart Streep assert in a 1993 interview assert that “actors, in general, as a general sweeping rule, are much more vain than actresses.” Deploying her vast gifts of mimicry, she then impersonated a male movie star (“they’re always checking their hair,” she says, gesturing with her hands). “I’m right, aren’t I?” she asks someone off camera, ratifying the apparent approval by saying “absolutely.” An offscreen (male) voice then asks, “And you’re not vain?” “No,” she says with mock solemnity, breaking into laughter. Still, the point remains: “I’m vain, but I’m nothing like these men.” 
     She was more pointed in a 1989 Premiere interview with Terri Minsky, who went on to have a successful television writing career. It’s worth quoting in a little detail:

“Can I just tell you [she told Minsky] that $11 million is what Jack Nicholson got for Batman. Eleven million. He was in Ironweed [with Streep herself], if you recall. Okay. All right. He was in Heartburn [also with Streep] if you remember . . . I was in Out of fucking Africa, remember? Kramer vs. fucking Kramer! The Deer Hunter.” Her voice retains its musical lit, but the passion shows in the way her pale skin begins to flush and she leans forward on her elbows. “I’m saying it’s a guy’s game. If I asked for $11 million, they would laugh. In my face. I make enough that nobody’s gonna weep on my side of the table. But it’s outrageous. I love Jack”—this is said very sweetly. “I’m happy for him. I know he’s laughing all the way to the bank when he makes these deals. But there are different rules for men than for women. I know it’s true. I’m not angry. I guess I’m angry, but not angry enough. I have a great life. If I were starving, I would be doing something about it. I’m not, obviously. And probably that plays against me in that whole negotiating process. But it stinks.”

Twenty years later, she was still fighting similar battles. There had been a time when one could plausibly claim that for all the laurels Streep had earned—among them an unprecedented 16 Academy Award nominations—the quality of her acting did not necessarily translate to box office success. But by the end of the first decade of the 21st century, that moment had long since passed. A string of her films running from The Devil Wears Prada (2005) to It’s Complicated (2009) were major commercial winners; the 2008 hit Mamma Mia! alone generated over half a billion dollars worldwide. Streep was also increasingly working with female writers and directors, notably her longtime collaborator Nora Ephron. And yet, as she noted, she still confronted what she called “vestigial” sexism every time she made a deal. Streep got some attention in early 2009 when she observed that “Three of the nominated films [for Best Picture] this year had 26 men and one woman— Slumdog [Millionaire] and Milk, and Frost/Nixon. You know, we accept it. It’s not unusual. But we would go nuts if three of the nominated films had 26 women and one man. It would be a very, very unusual thing. We’re still not telling everybody’s story in our country and that’s where we are.”
Of course, to call Streep a feminist is not really to say all that much. Notwithstanding the difficulties some women, particularly younger ones, have with the term, the affirmation of gender parity is not an especially rare or unconventional proposition in U.S. society, at least as a matter of genteel public opinion. More specifically, Streep is a liberal feminist, which is to say that her version of feminism focuses more on notions of equality, as opposed to assertions of female power that rest more on a sense of gender difference (consider the contrast between Hillary Clinton and, say Lady Gaga in this regard). Though Streep’s versatility as an artist has always been widely noted, her persona, particularly in recent years, has had a distinctly bourgeois cast.
But this is where history comes in to the Streep equation, and the particular “through line” that I’m tracking here. Unlike the male movie stars I’ve been looking at, Streep’s work does not reveal an implicit version of the U.S. past in the vein of Clint Eastwood’s Jeffersonianism, Daniel Day-Lewis’s frontier sensibility, or Denzel Washington’s generational vision. Instead, her work documents the integration of feminist ideology into American cultural life in the transitional decades between the 20th and 21st century. More specifically, it documents a shift in emphasis from private life to public life. Born in 1949, she came of age after major struggles—for voting rights, abortion, pay equity, reproductive rights—had already been launched. By the time she was a young adult, many had been substantially, though not completely, achieved. Her movies show these struggles to be ongoing, as well as the ways in which life remained complicated and contested even for women who were presumably emancipated.
 So Streep’s work tells a story of the past. But is also a story in the past. She came of age in a conservative era, witnessing the failure to pass an Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution in 1982, and a vocal antifeminist backlash on the Right, developments she tends not to address directly but ones which she addresses implicitly in her work nonetheless.
Streep’s tale of liberal feminism unfolds in three distinct stages. The first, which runs roughly the first decade of her career, is marked by characters whose self-assertion is typically played out in their private lives, particularly as wives and mothers. Then, for a brief period between the late 1980s and early 1990s, she took a series of parts that satirically comment on gender roles, part of a broader move away from drama toward comedy. Streep’s feminism shifted again at the turn of the century, this time focusing on women whose power was played out in public, institutional settings. These phases are not completely segmented, and one of the most distinctive aspects of Streep’s career is the way in which she has blended her roles. Indeed, one might say that Streep’s signal achievement as a feminist has taken the form of dramatizing the ways a woman can experience a full, if never easy, life with any number of public and private permutations—as well as the cost of not allowing this to happen. I nevertheless believe that these phases are reasonably distinct and usefully traced as such. The through line may not be entirely straight, and blurs at times. But it is one worth tracing if it allows us to see a bit more clearly how women have, and have not, changed.
Next: A biographical sketch.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Book of Revelation

In The Leftovers, Tom Perrotta shows us the Rapture -- in all its confusing clarity

The following review was posted recently on the Books page of the History News Network site.

In the novels of Tom Perrotta, characters repeatedly stumble into the gap between high-minded ideals and far messier realities. Football coaches, high school history teachers, even knowledgeable and determined prospective brides establish standards that others are expected to follow. Perrotta protagonists are less angry than bemused by these (often self-appointed) authority figures, who always prove fallible, and in many cases feel some inclination to follow them. But they find their instinctive skepticism, and the pull of other, also fallible impulses, leads them to (often passive) resistance. They're decent people, though, and over the course of the story resolve internal and external tensions by arriving a point where, in the parlance of contemporary pop psychology, they "own" their decisions.

Perrotta's new novel, The Leftovers, continues this tradition. But at least initially, it feels very different. That's because it's a surprising foray into what could plausibly be called science fiction. The Leftovers offers us a Rapture scenario: a world in which a significant minority of the human population suddenly disappears without warning. The twist is that no one can really make sense of the disaster, which is widely experienced as entirely random. This is especially disturbing to those with religious inclinations; as apocalypses go, this one is deeply disappointing in the utterly inscrutable way in which both wheat and chaff both seem to go and get Left Behind.

This is not Perrotta's first foray into religious subjects. His 2007 novel The Abstinence Teacher focused on a culture clash between liberal secularists and evangelicals over control over a school curriculum. Still, it's considerably more ambitious in trying to realistically imagine an alternative world, and its success in capturing granular facets of reality in the way it plays out in the (presumably New Jersey) suburb of Mapleton is the best thing about it. It's high praise indeed when Stephen King -- whose own gifts as a writer and critic went too long unratified -- gives your novel a ringing endorsement on the cover of the New York Times Book Review.

There will no doubt be readers, prospective and otherwise, who chuckle approvingly at the premise of The Leftovers, which seems to be a satire of religious commitment. In the epistemological vacuum that follows in the wake of what is collectively dubbed the Sudden Departure, a wide array ad-hoc groups form to succor -- and exploit -- the grieving. There's the Guilty Remnant, whose members socialize their resources, wear white sheets, and smoke cigarettes ritualistically. There's the Holy Wayners, whose founder manages to convince his followers that the disappearance of his son will be redeemed by the birth of another by one of a growing cadre of teenage lovers. There are also the Barefoot People, whose Old Testament is essentially Woodstock. Perrotta's sense of humor, which guarantees at least one good belly laugh per novel, is in fine form here.

The narrative core of the novel forms around the four members of the Garvey family -- Laurie, Tom, Jill and Kevin -- which, strictly speaking, survives the Sudden Departure intact. But the lives of all four are upended by it, and it sends them in centrifugal directions. Laurie, much to her own surprise, finds herself joining the Guilty Remnant. Tom, in college at Syracuse at the time, falls in with Holy Wayne himself and ends up caring for the preacher's pregnant bride. For much of the novel, the and the girl are virtually on the lam, masquerading as Barefoot People. Jill, shattered by her mother's abandonment, shaves her head, ceases her A-level work as a high school senior, and falls under the subversive sway of a charismatic classmate. She and her ambiguous new pal live with Kevin, the mayor of Mapleton, who tries to do the impossible by maintaining a sense of normalcy. (One of the more felicitous developments of Perrotta's fiction in recent years is the emergence of flawed, but still admirable, father figures.) Kevin befriends a fifth major character, Nora Durst, whose husband and children did disappear in the Sudden Departure and is emotionally leveled by the catastrophe. One plotline concerns whether she and Kevin will be able to build an emotional bridge to each other and begin their lives anew.

In what could be termed a further experimentation in genre, Perrotta also introduces a murder-mystery subplot. But it feels like a false step, less for aesthetic reasons than ideological ones. One way he keeps a sense of secular self-congratulation in check is his characteristic virtue of distributing sympathy widely. But in the end, it seems, every serious attempt at a spiritual response to the Sudden Departure must be shown as morally bankrupt. That seems like a cheap shot. Actually, far from a resounding refutation of faith, the Sudden Departure's lack of apparent design is in an important sense appropriate: a God whose ways are comprehensible isn't much of a God at all. Secularists tend to see faith as a crutch, which it sometimes is, but as often or not it's a struggle against futility that requires considerable discipline amid doubt. (That's the problem with New Age groups like the Barefoot People: they seem to consider friction, particularly institutional friction, a vice.) We get some sense of authentic struggle with Laurie, which ends up feeling a bit short-circuited. The skullduggery seems unnecessary.

The narrative detour also seems unnecessary because Perrotta does such a good job of bringing each character's journey to a satisfying conclusion by hitting that sweet spot of seeming both unexpected and inevitable at the same time. He really is an immensely talented writer. And a highly cinematic one: it's easy to envision The Leftovers joining Election (1998) and Little Children (2004) as movies, though I keep hoping that someone will make a good one of his wonderful debut collection of connected short stories, Bad Haircut (1994). Six novels later, it's time to stop comparing Perrotta to writers like Tobias Wolff, Raymond Carver, even Anton Chekov. We've reached the point where we can start referring to other writers to Perrottaesque. The fictional universe he's created is recognizably his -- and ours.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Black dawn

In Red Summer: the Summer of 1919 and the Awakening of Black America, journalist Cameron McWhirter looks at a familar scene through a particularly vivid lens

The following review was posted recently on the Books page of the History News Network site. 

Nineteen-nineteen is one of those years -- like 1776, or 1861, or 1968 -- that is deeply etched into American consciousness. Perhaps not coincidentally, all are associated with wartime, but the social changes they wrought were far more than strictly military. Each has been the subject of at least one book; 1919 has had a number of good ones that stretch from the the 1932 John Dos Passos novel 1919 to Ann Hagedorn's fine Savage Peace: Hope and Fear in America, 1919 (2007). Journalist Cameron McWhirter wedges his way into this crowded field with an entry that looks at 1919 from the specific angle of race relations. His reportorial skills make this an original and skillful contribution to the literature on the subject.

The core thesis of Red Summer is one of paradox. On one hand, the middle months of 1919 were among the most dreadful in U.S. history in terms of racial violence. White-instigated pogroms stretched from coast to coast, and encompassed a wide range of communities: North and South; city and country; racially diverse and highly segregated. The most spectacular conflagration took place in Chicago; though it has been been much analyzed, McWhirter offers a richly detailed portrait grounded in primary sources.

At the same time, however, the very intensity of hate crimes such as lynching was so extreme as to mobilize the first systematic African American response to the violence, laying the foundation for what would culminate in the successful battle to finally destroy the legal basis for Jim Crow a half-century later. McWhirter devotes considerable space to the rise of the NAACP, which had been founded a decade earlier but whose membership trebled as it mobilized political, media, and organizational campaigns for blacks that extended from major metropolises to the deepest heart of Dixie. McWhirter also pays some attention to the more militant efforts of Marcus Garvey's United Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), with cameos by other important figures like Monroe Trotter (who figures prominently in Hagedorn's Savage Peace) and Ida Wells, in the twilight of her career as an antilynching activist.

One other crucial aspect of McWhirter's argument is the role white public opinion outside the loud, and sometimes well-organized, extremist minority represented by constituencies such as the Ku Klux Klan and the Deep South congressional delegation. "Respectable" whites often expressed distaste, even disgust, at racial violence, but condoned it. One particularly appalling example of passive indifference that crossed the line into outright hypocrisy is that of President Woodrow Wilson, who courted the black vote in 1912 but who could barely veil a racism that has now badly damaged an already wobbly historiographic reputation. In effect, Wilson's incapacitating stroke in 1919 amid his efforts to lobby for the League of Nations becomes a metaphor for the sclerotic quality of his polite racism, which McWhirter argues was forced into eclipse after the outrages of 1919. From this point on, he asserts, segregationists were forced to fight an increasingly rear-guard campaign while civil rights activists began claiming, and seizing, the levers of government power to protect lives and property.

McWhirter, a reporter who has worked around the globe and is now based at the Atlanta bureau of the Wall Street Journal, makes his case with deft prose and an exhaustive survey of the historical record. Actually, he's almost too thorough for his own good; after a while, the blow-by blow reconstructions of riots and lynchings in geographically-based chapter-length accounts become numbing in their sheer detail. But he hits pay dirt in his reconstruction of a little known-lynch mob in Carswell Grove Georgia, which opens the book and becomes the setting for a satisfying coda.

Not all readers will find the affirmative tone of Red Summer entirely convincing. But the book is a carefully wrought document of a pivotal moment in African American history.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Jim is observing the Columbus Day weekend. His recent reading has included Adam Hochschild's To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918. By this point, it's hard to tell a compelling new version of the First World War, as it's a topic that's been as thoroughly mined as a northeastern French meadow. But Hochschild, author of the magnificent King Leopold's Ghost (on the 19th century Belgian ivory trade) and Bury the Chains (on the 18th century abolition movement in England) is a historical magician. As with these previous books, he takes a biographically-based approach that looks closely at people who have fallen off the main historical track, and resituates them in their worlds in vivid new ways. In this case, he portrays both those who supported the Great War in England, as well as the equally, if not more, courageous people who opposed it. Sometimes there were surprising ties between such people, who in a couple instances came from the same family. In the process, the past comes to life in a vivid new way.

Hochschild is the Steely Dan of contemporary historical writing: he takes offbeat progressions, and with consummate technique creates musical prose that's simply irresistible. Everything he writes is as good as gold. No one makes reading more fun.

Best to all for a relaxing holiday, with sorrowful thanks for the world Christopher Columbus wrought to make us possible.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Accounting your blessings

In Grand Pursuit: The Story of Economic Genius, Sylvia Nasar provides a biographically-based set of profiles that's on the money

The following review was posted recently on the Books page of the History News Network site.

The novelty of this book, currently on the New York Times bestseller bist, lies in its unreserved embrace of that old-fashioned  stratum of culture we know as middlebrow. It's a cross between Robert Heilbroner's The Worldly Philosophers -- which became a textbook evergreen by delivering its edification seemingly effortlessly -- and Will/Ariel Durant works like The Story of Philosophy and The Story of Civilization. Such an approach is a bit surprising coming from a woman who's got top-tier intellectual credentials: former New York Times reporter; Columbia School of Journalism professor; National Book Critics Circle award winner (for A Beautiful Mind, her 1998 biography of economist John Nash that later became a Ron Howard movie). But there's something shrewd in the burnished simplicity of Sylvia Nasar's set of interlocking portraits of economic thinkers from the mid-nineteenth century to the present, like a natty comfort food restaurant.

These portraits include the usual suspects: Marx, Keynes, Hayek, Friedman. For the most part, the contours of their lives and thought will be familiar to any economics major (not the primary audience in any case; the point is to introduce these thinkers via biographically-cased capsule summaries of their work rather than risk trudging through it yourself). The first part in the book in particular has a bit of a checklist quality: we get the Alfred Marshall to cover productivity question, Irving Fisher to do the same for monetarism, Schumpeter for the dynamism of economies captured in his famous phrase "creative destruction," and so on.

But Nasar does provide a few forms of leavening. One is the addition of women into the standard Gallery of Giants. There's a fine chapter on Beatrice Webb as the architect of the modern welfare state, and Joan Robinson adds a dash of color, though her presence her seems more a matter of her outsized personality than her somewhat embarrassing determination to laud the economies of Stalin's Soviet Union and Mao's China. And the final chapter of the book, on Amarta Sen, feels a like a perfunctory Affirmative Action gesture toward globalization.

In classic middlebrow style, Nasar stakes out a middling ideological position. But she manages to put a little spin on it. We're told more than once that Karl Marx managed to develop his critique of industrial capitalism without ever setting foot in a single factory. On the other hand, Nasar also notes that F.A. Hayek was hardly the darling of the political Right in his own time that he became later. She quotes him repeatedly as condoning, even advocating, government intervention in economic activity.  "We cannot seriously argue that the government ought to do nothing," he says at one point, comments of the sort that contemporary libertarian extremists would rather forget.

Beyond the celebration of genius for its own sake suggested in the "story" of the title, Nasar does have a broader point to make, one that is as simple as it is forceful: a hope for a better material life is not simply an abstract hope, but a historical reality. She notes that as late as the time of Jane Austen, rampant poverty was widely considered a fixed condition, as indeed it had been since the beginning of time. And yet over the course of two centuries, economic progress has been a decisive force in human affairs, one that not even two World Wars or a Great Depression could entirely impede. In this time of widespread despair, even foreboding, in the Western world, this cheerful message is worth hearing. "There is no going back," she asserts. "Nobody debates any longer whether we should or shouldn't control our economic circumstances, only how." We should count -- and Nasar does mean count -- our blessings. And then we should go make more. I'll buy that.