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Some Thoughts on Sylvia Plath

The woman next to me was astonishing in her stillness. She appeared perfectly composed, quiet, almost fixed in her concentration. She was softly pretty, her camel's hair coat slung over the back of her chair and a pile of books in front of her. Her notebook was open, her pencil poised. Everything seemed neat. This was Sylvia Plath.

Once More: the Actual and the Apocryphal

Some of William Faulkner's remarks about his work are now almost as famous as some phrases in the work itself. He quoted Sherwood Anderson's advice to him in New Orleans that he should go home and write about what he knew, that patch of north Mississippi where he grew up. As he meditated on it he discovered that "my own little postage stamp of native soil was worth writing about and that I would never live long enough to exhaust it, and by sublimating the actual into the apocryphal I would have complete liberty to use whatever talent I might have to its absolute top, so I created a cosmos of my own." It took many readers years to realize that his apocryphal Yoknapatawpha was basic to most of his best work. One of the earliest studies was Ward L. Miner's The World of William Faulkner (1952). Forty years later came Joel Williamson's William Faulkner and Southern History. Others have continued to explore various aspects of Faulkner's art both narrowly and broadly. Now comes Don H. Doyle with a compendious study of the sources from which this artistic vision sprang, presenting Faulkner's county in root and branch from the seeds in early stories to the final flowering in the last novels.


The Good, the Bad, and the Phony: Six Famous Historians and Their Critics

What a bad time it has been for the nation's best-known historians—that is, for the small number of historical writers, some affiliated with academic institutions and some not, whose books regularly inhabit the bestseller lists, whose faces frequently appear on television, and whose speaking fees reach well into the five figures. The entire roster consists of six people: Stephen E. Ambrose, Michael Beschloss, Joseph J. Ellis, Doris Kearns Goodwin, David McCullough, and Edmund Morris. All but Morris have recently been accused, in widely read publications and in some cases on talk shows, of offenses ranging from incompetence and superficiality to plagiarism and outright fabrication. Morris had his own spell of notoriety three years ago, when he published a "semi-fictional" (his term) biography of Ronald Reagan.


A Consummate Artist

Like her character, Mandy Ringer, in Sapphira and The Slave Girl, Willa Cather was "born interested." She wrote from many vantage points: autobiographical, historical, male, female. She understood that producing literature was not finding your subject, then repeating yourself endlessly, but approaching each new work with a fresh and inquiring eye. Thus she fit no type. Although Alfred Kazin called her "a consummate artist" in 1942, most critics, who were male, did not know what to do with her.


Spoon River Bard

Turn to the Edgar Lee Masters entry in Bartlett's Familiar Quotations (I happen to be looking at the 14th edition, published in 1968, the centennial anniversary of Masters's birth), and you will find brief quotations from five poems that originally appeared in the poet's most famous work, Spoon River Anthology (1915). Only one poem, "Anne Rutledge," contributes two different quotations, the first consisting of two lines that open this famous twelve-line epitaph ("Out of me unworthy and unknown / The vibrations of deathless music") and the second bearing the annunciation at the core of Rutledge's posthumous monologue: "I am Anne Rutledge who sleep beneath these weeds, / Beloved in life of Abraham Lincoln." If I were editing the next edition of Bartlett's and did not have to worry about space, I would include the following two lines as well: "Wedded to him, not through union, / But through separation."


A Man’s Man

In this biography, N. John Hall concentrates on the "facts" of Anthony Trollope's career by presenting the effects of the novelist's great creative energy and by recording the results of his multiple vocations and avocations. The Trollope who emerges from Hall's account is very much a "man's man"—sportsman, clubman, traveler, civil servant, an author doing business with his publishers.

This Brave Voyage

Joan Givner's biography of Katherine Anne Porter possesses this "passion for life"; it is a full and moving dramatization of an inner portrait of Porter as she fought to establish an artistic integrity for herself against the most unlikely odds. With a keen admiration for her subject, Givner never collapses into adulation, nor does she become crushed by the incredible flow of facts and documentation surrounding the nine decades of Porter's life.

The Sage At Sunset

The publication on Independence Day 1981 of the concluding volume of Dumas Malone's great Jefferson biography has inspired almost as much celebration of the author as reflection on the post-presidential years of his great subject. That is fitting. We prize gallantry where we find it. And there is gallantry in Malone's splendid conquest of what Mr. Jefferson himself called the tedium senectutem: the weariness of age.

A Moral Temper

Do read it. It's fun, oftentimes enlightening, once in a while quite irritating, highly readable. After all, Dwight, in single combat, grappled with most issues of the last century, from the Depression to the nuclear arms race, socialism to kitsch. He was the quirky observer, the cranky polemicist, endlessly, shamelessly inquisitive. He was ever the knightly freelance. It was important, too, that he had the capacity to create friendships and feel love, as well as be a witty, brisk, verbal foe.


Effie In Venice and the Roman Spring of Margaret Fuller

I first came to know Effie Ruskin some decades before the play brought her to public attention and made her a heroine of sorts. In the mid-1960's my husband and I, and our children, spent the summer at Venice's Lido, the locale of his youth. He was finishing a novel-in-progress. I had taken along to read on the beach Mary Lutyens' Effie in Venice, an engaging account, based on the letters Effie (born Euphemia Gray) wrote to her family in Scotland when she was newly Mrs. John Ruskin and beginning a ten-month sojourn in Venice as her already famous husband gathered material for the second and third volumes of his masterly Stones of Venice. They had been married in 1848, a revolutionary time that postponed their honeymoon trip to Italy until the fall of 1849 when she was 21, 10 years younger than John.