Sunday, December 31, 2023

the last book I ever read (The Slip: The New York City Street That Changed American Art Forever, excerpt two)

from The Slip: The New York City Street That Changed American Art Forever by Prudence Peiffer:

The voice of this generation of artists, the critic Paul Rosenfeld, pens his manifesto Port of New York: Essays on Fourteen American Moderns in 1924. He discusses New York’s harbor and the transatlantic ocean liners as the influence and training of European artistic practice, before Americans return home to their native soil to establish a unique tradition in arts and letters. The “creators” he highlights, among them the photographer and gallerist Alfred Stieglitz, and the painters Arthur Dove and Georgia O’Keeffe, give him “the sensation one has when, at the close of a prolonged journey by boat, the watergate comes by, and one steps forth and stands with solid under foot.” His essay is a stake in the ground: American art has arrived.

This awakening of a pioneering and uniquely American creativity is rooted in a post–World War I nationalism and a kind of colonial manifest destiny, hammered into the piers of New York Harbor and its gritty, democratic openness to the sea: “Perhaps,” Rosenfeld muses in his epilogue, “the tradition of life imported over the Atlantic has commenced expressing itself in terms of the new environment, giving the Port of New York a sense at last, and the entire land the sense of the port of New York . . . through words, lights, colors, the new world has been reached at last.”

Saturday, December 30, 2023

the last book I ever read (The Slip: The New York City Street That Changed American Art Forever, excerpt one)

from The Slip: The New York City Street That Changed American Art Forever by Prudence Peiffer:

Coenties Slip is almost certainly named after an early colonial settler: Coenraedt Ten Eyck, a shoemaker and tanner who comes to the New World in 1651 with his second wife, Annetje. (One of the first zoning ordinances of Manhattan forces cobblers out of downtown in the 1640s due to their noxious fumes and dyes polluting the precious fresh water.) Coenraedt and Annetje have ten children. (In the nineteenth century, property on the Slip is still in the family.) According to a Dutch West India Company map, Coenraedt’s original village plot is northwest, just off the central marsh and sheep’s pasture, but they move east to the area around the Slip, which then becomes known as “Coentje’s”—a casual contraction of “Coenraedt and Annetje’s.” Everyone pronounces it “Co-en-tees,” but the artist Willem de Kooning once told Jack Youngerman that in Dutch, the name would be pronounced “Coonties.”

Thursday, December 28, 2023

the last book I ever read (Romney: A Reckoning by McKay Coppins, excerpt fifteen)

from Romney: A Reckoning by McKay Coppins:

As Election Day crept closer, Romney saw signs of yet another crisis on the horizon. Trump—who trailed significantly in the polls—was making it clear that he wouldn’t go quietly. In August, the president claimed the only way he would lose was if the election was “rigged.” Since then, he’d begun to weave dark rumors of election fraud into his speeches. In a video recruiting volunteers to join the campaign’s “election-security operation,” his son, Don Jr., asserted that Democrats were planning “to add millions of fraudulent ballots” to the vote: “The radical left are laying the groundwork to steal this election from my father.… We need you to help us watch them.”

By now, there were few depths to which Trump could sink that would surprise Romney. But he was disturbed by how widely the president’s rigged-election narrative was being adopted by his supporters. It didn’t take a constitutional scholar to see the threat this posed to democracy.

“If you don’t believe in the ballot, then you do believe that someone should be able to assert power without the ballot,” Romney would later remember thinking. “And once that happens, you’re now in an authoritarian regime.”

Wednesday, December 27, 2023

the last book I ever read (Romney: A Reckoning by McKay Coppins, excerpt fourteen)

from Romney: A Reckoning by McKay Coppins:

That same month, Romney began following reports out of China about a mysterious new virus. The initial intel was sketchy but unsettling—in Wuhan, hundreds of people had died from some kind of unknown respiratory disease, and thousands more were suffering from symptoms. It appeared to be spreading fast—first to nearby Asian countries like Malaysia, Singapore, and Japan, then to the Middle East and even Western Europe. Aside from case counts, little information was being released by from China, but there were whispers of extreme quarantines and lockdown measures.

More alarming still to Romney was the U.S. government’s apparent apathy in response to the threat. Even as public health officials warned that it was only a matter of time before the virus started circulating widely in America, the president was downplaying the prospect of an outbreak. On February 28, Trump, standing behind a podium adorned with the presidential seal, told a crowd of supporters in South Carolina to pay no attention to the growing warnings. The media was “in hysteria mode,” he said; the Democrats were playing politics. This new coronavirus was much less harmful than the seasonal flu—and anyone who said otherwise was just trying to hurt him politically. “This is their new hoax,” the president declared.

Saturday, December 23, 2023

the last book I ever read (Romney: A Reckoning by McKay Coppins, excerpt thirteen)

from Romney: A Reckoning by McKay Coppins:

On December 19, Trump abruptly announced on Twitter—without consulting advisers or military leaders—that he was withdrawing two thousand U.S. troops from Syria. The move meant ceding crucial territory to Russia, abandoning allies, and imperiling Syria’s ethnic Kurds, who’d fought loyally alongside America for years to defeat the Islamic State. The next day, Defense Secretary James Mattis resigned, saying he no longer felt he could implement the president’s policies. Mattis, a retired four-star general, had been the quintessential adult in the room—a widely respected figure on whom official Washington had pinned its hopes for staving off an international crisis. Now he was ejecting from the figurative cockpit—and Trump was fully at the controls.

The turbulence wasn’t restricted to foreign affairs. The same day Mattis resigned, Trump petulantly declared that he would not sign any bill that continued to fund the federal government unless it included at least $5 billion for a border wall. If Senate Democrats didn’t acquiesce, he warned on Twitter, “There will be a shutdown that will last for a very long time.”

Two days later, the federal government ran out of money and ground to a halt, sending thousands of workers home without paychecks just before the holiday.

Friday, December 22, 2023

the last book I ever read (Romney: A Reckoning by McKay Coppins, excerpt twelve)

from Romney: A Reckoning by McKay Coppins:

Late on the night of September 30, Romney called Stevens with a startling question: “Should I just drop out of the race?”

Romney reasoned that Republicans would have a better chance if they swapped him out for someone who wasn’t so easily saddled with claims that he only cared about the rich. He suggested Chris Christie or Rob Portman.

The election was six weeks away, and the Republican presidential nominee was actively discussing resigning his candidacy.

Thursday, December 21, 2023

the last book I ever read (Romney: A Reckoning by McKay Coppins, excerpt eleven)

from Romney: A Reckoning by McKay Coppins:

Something strange happened once Romney clinched the Republican nomination. Almost overnight, the crowds swelled and became rabidly enthusiastic. The machinery of partisanship had churned into gear, turning Romney into a hero around whom all right-thinking conservatives now had to rally. They showed up with smartphones, snapping pictures and asking for autographs like he was a movie star. He first noticed the change at a rally in Chester County, Pennsylvania. He was giving the same stump speech he’d been giving for months, reciting the exact same lines he’d recited hundreds of times before, only now people were going crazy. It reminded him of the scene in his favorite movie, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, when George Clooney’s character starts singing “I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow” and is bemused to find the audience going wild and clapping along.

Wednesday, December 20, 2023

the last book I ever read (Romney: A Reckoning by McKay Coppins, excerpt ten)

from Romney: A Reckoning by McKay Coppins:

As the primary race progressed, the pundits took to calling it “whack-a-mole.” Every time Romney managed to put down one right-wing primary challenger, a new one popped up and overtook him in the polls.

First, it had been Bachmann, then for several months it was Perry. But after a disastrous debate performance in which he forgot which federal agency he wanted to defund, the Texas governor sank and was replaced by Herman Cain, the former CEO of Godfather’s Pizza. Cain was a gregarious political novice whose chief contribution to the campaign season was an oft-mocked proposal to replace the U.S. tax code with a flat tax that he’d enthusiastically branded “the 9-9-9 plan.” Romney was personally fond of Cain, but regarded him as a joke. His campaign had no money and virtually no staff, and his understanding of policy was, Romney noted in his journal, “thin as gossamer.” In one interview, Cain admitted that he didn’t know what neoconservatism was; in another, he said he was unaware that China had nuclear weapons. Party leaders and power brokers privately derided Cain, who was Black, sometimes in barely veiled racial terms. When Romney met with Roger Ailes, the Fox News chief ridiculed Cain’s signature fedora, grumbling that he should ditch “the pimp hat.”

Cain’s reign lasted less than eight weeks before sexual harassment allegations surfaced against him—and by November, Newt Gingrich was surging. Somehow, Gingrich’s rise was even more depressing to Romney than the others’. Yes, he was smarter than Perry and more knowledgeable than Cain or Bachmann, but he was also a ridiculous blowhard who babbled about America building colonies on the moon and referred to himself as “the most serious, systematic revolutionary of modern times.” What’s more, he embodied everything conservative voters—those inscrutable, exotic creatures Romney had spent his adult life studying—were supposed to hate.

Tuesday, December 19, 2023

the last book I ever read (Romney: A Reckoning by McKay Coppins, excerpt nine)

from Romney: A Reckoning by McKay Coppins:

Voters regularly demanded that he commit to balancing the federal budget in his first year as president. When he tried to explain that cutting trillions of dollars in a single year would drive the country into depression, they booed.

At an event in New Hampshire, a man confronted him with an accusatory question. “Are you going to compromise?” the voter asked. “I don’t want to vote for anybody who’s going to compromise.” Romney, unable to restrain himself, replied, “Are you married, sir?”

Monday, December 18, 2023

the last book I ever read (Romney: A Reckoning by McKay Coppins, excerpt eight)

from Romney: A Reckoning by McKay Coppins:

There is an old campaign adage: When you’re explaining, you’re losing. Romney’s problem was that he loved almost nothing more than explaining things. He believed it was one of his great strengths—his “superpower,” as he put it himself—and he held a naive conviction in the idea that logic would prevail if it was stated plainly enough.

Romney’s core argument—that the healthcare plan he’d championed as governor worked well in Massachusetts but not as a one-size-fits-all federal solution—was reasonable enough. But reasonable didn’t play anymore in Republican presidential primaries, and the conservative media panned his speech. He was dismissed as “arrogant,” his plan deemed “a liability.” On Fox Business, the executive editor of the Weekly Standard complained, “He dug himself in deeper.” The Journal ran another editorial: “These are unbridgeable policy and philosophical differences, though Mr. Romney is nonetheless trying to leap over them like Evel Knievel heading for the Snake River Canyon.”

The response demoralized, and embittered, Romney. It wasn’t just that so many of his critics had their facts wrong. It was the rank commitment to dogma over practical outcomes. “It was a little ironic,” he’d grumble to me years later, “that saving human lives was seen by some as being disqualifying in a Republican primary.”

Sunday, December 17, 2023

the last book I ever read (Romney: A Reckoning by McKay Coppins, excerpt seven)

from Romney: A Reckoning by McKay Coppins:

As Romney deliberated through the spring of 2011, the climate on the right only seemed to grow more fevered. Glenn Beck was riling up his viewers with predictions of a “Great Depression times 100” and hyperinflation on par with the Weimar Republic. Fox News was running stories suggesting that Obama had deployed the Secret Service to monitor the conservative network. And a bizarre conspiracy theory about the president’s birthplace was beginning to gain traction—boosted by an unlikely spokesman.

Donald Trump had begun popping up on political talk shows to muse about whether Barack Obama might perhaps be a secret Muslim born in Kenya who’d defrauded American voters to get elected to the presidency. This theory had been kicking around the fringes of U.S. political discourse for years and had already been debunked, but suddenly it—and Trump—were everywhere. On The View: “I want him to show his birth certificate. There’s something on that birth certificate that he doesn’t like.” On Fox News: “He’s spent millions of dollars trying to get away from this issue.… A lot of facts are emerging and I’m starting to wonder myself whether or not he was born in this country.” On The Laura Ingraham Show: “He doesn’t have a birth certificate, or if he does, there’s something on that certificate that is very bad for him. Now, somebody told me—and I have no idea if this is bad for him or not, but perhaps it would be—that where it says ‘religion,’ it might have ‘Muslim.’ ” On the Today show: “If he wasn’t born in this country, which is a real possibility… then he has pulled one of the great cons in the history of politics.”

Romney had not spoken to Trump in years, and he was surprised to see the Celebrity Apprentice host so hard up for publicity that he was reduced to pandering to the conservative fever swamps. But he chalked it up to another Trump rebrand, and put it out of his mind—choosing not to dwell on the unsettling fact that Trump was making gains in several hypothetical primary polls, or that half of all Republican voters believed Obama was born outside the U.S. This was a sideshow, Romney told himself, and he refused to pay it any attention.

Saturday, December 16, 2023

the last book I ever read (Romney: A Reckoning by McKay Coppins, excerpt six)

from Romney: A Reckoning by McKay Coppins:

And yet, there were moments on the campaign trail when the absurdities of partisanship got to him. During one rally, he’d later recall, the crowd roared with approval after he called for the repeal of the “death tax.” This was not a position he felt strongly about, but no one ever lost a Republican primary supporting a tax cut, and the line usually got a good response. “It was one of those things you say because you don’t know what you’re talking about when you’re first running for president,” he’d tell me. But at this particular rally, while he watched the crowd cheer, he was struck with an inconvenient moment of clarity: none of these people would ever be subjected to a “death tax.” The estate tax, which was designed as a bulwark against entrenched aristocracy by limiting the amount of wealth passed from one generation to the next, only applied to fortunes of $2 million or more. Repealing it probably wouldn’t help a single one of the farmers or mechanics or middle-class office workers in the audience. So why were they all cheering?

The answer, he realized, was a grim kind of team loyalty—This is what my side is for, so this is what I support. It all felt so absurd in that moment, so bleak. He chose not to dwell on the thought for too long.

Friday, December 15, 2023

the last book I ever read (Romney: A Reckoning by McKay Coppins, excerpt five)

from Romney: A Reckoning by McKay Coppins:

There was Mike Huckabee, the affable governor of Arkansas, who was busy carving out his spot as the field’s evangelical standard-bearer. A former Baptist minister, he was quick with a folksy aphorism and skilled at bringing every political discussion back to Jesus. He was also, in Romney’s private estimation, a “huckster”—the very “caricature of a for-profit preacher.” The two men had first met a few years earlier at a conference for the nation’s governors. “Huck,” as he liked to be known, had thrown an extravagant, staff-berating, I-demand-to-speak-to-your-manager tantrum upon discovering that Romney got a nicer conference room than he did. The episode had left Romney with an impression that beneath Huck’s aw-shucks persona lurked a fragile ego and a petty ruthlessness—two things that could make him a mean competitor.

Thursday, December 14, 2023

the last book I ever read (Romney: A Reckoning by McKay Coppins, excerpt four)

from Romney: A Reckoning by McKay Coppins:

Several of the men expressed discomfort with Romney’s record in Massachusetts, with Franklin Graham homing in specifically on his judicial appointments as governor.

“I cannot in good conscience support you in this campaign,” Graham told Romney, “because you named two people who were gay to the court in Massachusetts.”

Wednesday, December 13, 2023

the last book I ever read (Romney: A Reckoning by McKay Coppins, excerpt three)

from Romney: A Reckoning by McKay Coppins:

The new law was, by virtually any measure, a success. Massachusetts became the first state in the country to achieve universal healthcare coverage—by 2008, 95 percent of adult residents were insured—and mortality rates among non-elderly adults dropped significantly. Romney saw the effects firsthand when a member of his cabinet was diagnosed with brain cancer. “Had I not had Romneycare,” she told him, “I would not have been able to have the treatments to save my life.”

It was also just the sort of high-profile political accomplishment that propels ambitious governors to higher office. Romney had ignored warnings that the law might backfire if he ran for president; he believed it was the right thing to do. But it was also plausible in 2006 to think that he could run on such an accomplishment. The GOP was still billing itself as “the party of ideas.” George W. Bush had been elected not that long ago on a platform of “compassionate conservatism.”

Tuesday, December 12, 2023

the last book I ever read (Romney: A Reckoning by McKay Coppins, excerpt two)

from Romney: A Reckoning by McKay Coppins:

One of Murphy’s first ideas was to have a camera crew follow Romney around as he performed various blue-collar jobs—selling hot dogs at Fenway, or laying asphalt on a paving crew. Romney did not exactly pull off the regular-Joe schtick. (When he spent a day driving a tractor, he complained about his “severe allergy to hay” and asked for a handkerchief.) But even as the stunts drew scorn in the press—the Boston Herald called his costume changes “Village People–esque”—voters seemed to get a kick out of watching him fumble around. “It’s not like people believed for a minute that I wasn’t some rich patrician,” Romney said later. It was just that he seemed like a good sport: “It’s like, he cares enough about the job and wants it bad enough that he’s willing to do this.”

Other efforts to humanize Romney were less successful. Six weeks before the election, his campaign released a TV ad titled “Ann” that featured the Romneys lovingly recounting their youthful courtship and gushing over their children while a cloying soundtrack twinkled in the background. Voters hated the ad. There was something phony and plastic in the way Romney doted on his wife—“Ann is just good to the core,” he effused—and he began to sink in the polls. The irony, of course, was that Romney really did talk about Ann this way, all the time. But, as he would later reflect, this was one of his failures as a candidate. “I was accused of being inauthentic. But in reality, that’s just who I am,” he told me. “I’m the authentic person who seems inauthentic.”

Monday, December 11, 2023

the last book I ever read (Romney: A Reckoning by McKay Coppins, excerpt one)

from Romney: A Reckoning by McKay Coppins:

“You know,” Trump went on, “the bank has me on $140,000 a month.”

Romney was confused. “What do you mean?”

Trump explained that his businesses owed more than a billion dollars to dozens of lenders. “The only chance they have of getting anything back is if we keep up appearances,” he said. “So, they loan me $140,000 a month” to maintain the Trump brand. He seemed tickled by this fact, as if he was getting away with something hilarious.

Sunday, December 10, 2023

the last book I ever read (The Beauty of Living: e. e. cummings in the Great War, excerpt fourteen)

from The Beauty of Living: e. e. cummings in the Great War by J. Alison Rosenblitt:

As Elaine kept her distance, Cummings’s life was in a strange place when—realizing that his father could not be fobbed off forever—he finally sat down to write the account of his imprisonment in France. He did so on the strict condition that it would not be used in any lawsuit. He and Brown stayed on in New Hampshire after the rest of the family left Joy Farm that summer of 1920. They moved from the house down to the cabin on the shore of Silver Lake. Here Cummings worked like mad every day, typing ten or twelve hours from the morning until long after Brown had gone to bed. Brown fished, relaxed, and made the most of the lake. Cummings did some of the cooking, including an omelet of his own invention based largely around molasses. “We both ate it though Cummings admitted that it was not a success.” In a few months Cummings had finished his manuscript.

Saturday, December 9, 2023

the last book I ever read (The Beauty of Living: e. e. cummings in the Great War, excerpt thirteen)

from The Beauty of Living: e. e. cummings in the Great War by J. Alison Rosenblitt:

Elaine’s affair with Cummings took place with Thayer’s knowledge: indeed, with his active connivance. Thayer and Cummings remained as close in their friendship as ever. It was a genuine and deep tie with complicated undercurrents. Thayer co-owned The Dial, the most prestigious modernist literary magazine in New York, and his stalwart backing of Cummings’s poetry was a decisive factor in Cummings’s career. Cummings’s own development as a poet was guided by Thayer’s aesthetic priorities: intensity, vitality, and the nobility of art. The Dial published some of Cummings’s pen-and-ink drawings as well as his poetry, and it was a highly emotional and important event for Cummings whenever Thayer would come to look through his work and select the art he wished to publish. The experience of putting his work in front of Thayer’s careful attention and incisive scrutiny became a part of Cummings’s own burgeoning adult relationship with himself as poet and painter.

Yet Cummings felt that Thayer withheld full support for the visual art. In late life, Cummings looked back on this rather bitterly. A part of him always believed that he should have been a painter. Ironically, the only major collection of Cummings’s art in any museum today comes about as Thayer’s doing. Thayer bequeathed his entire private art collection to the Metropolitan Museum in New York, including the seventy-four pieces by Cummings he had acquired from his friend.

Friday, December 8, 2023

the last book I ever read (The Beauty of Living: e. e. cummings in the Great War, excerpt twelve)

from The Beauty of Living: e. e. cummings in the Great War by J. Alison Rosenblitt:

Cummings spent a lot of his time digesting the implications of the artistic world to which he had been exposed in Paris as well as assimilating the irruption of a new literary extravagance: James Joyce’s Ulysses. From 1918, Ulysses began to appear as a serial in the magazine The Little Review, and Cummings recognized an incipient masterpiece. His notes give an invaluable insight into his immediate and personal response, articulated before Ulysses became a work incapable of being approached without preconception. Cummings was spot-on. “Ulysses consists in the provocation by the trivial of the futile, the instigation of the actual by the real.”

Cummings sought to incorporate his response to Ulysses into his ongoing search for an aesthetics of art that would unify painting, sculpture, dance, literature, and music. He compared Ulysses to Petrushka and commented on Joyce’s “plastic” language (in the sense of sculpture as the “plastic” art). These unifying theories of art were still dominated by the obsession with Cézanne. Alluding to the common view that Cézanne’s painting had a sculptural quality, he wrote: “To comprehend Cézanne’s sculpture is to know that Cézanne is the first sculptor.” The Greeks may have sought “marble equivalents of man and woman.” But “Cézanne demonstrated that a given degree of depth demands a certain colour. Reverse (what is usually called) this plastic statement and you have the musical truth which is Colour. Colour with its appeal absolutely to the individual.”

Thursday, December 7, 2023

the last book I ever read (The Beauty of Living: e. e. cummings in the Great War, excerpt eleven)

from The Beauty of Living: e. e. cummings in the Great War by J. Alison Rosenblitt:

Everything from France swirled around Cummings’s mind during these miserable months at Camp Devens: sex, prostitution, thoughts of venereal disease, Marie Louise, the poplars. In the war zone and in Paris, sex and the army and venereal disease were all of a piece. This trinity was no less operative in America. Dos wrote that the army camp to which he himself was posted in Pennsylvania was known locally as Syphilis Valley. Cummings meanwhile observed the ludicrous nature of attempts to confront VD at Camp Devens. Nothing, he said, was accomplished by designating two latrine seats as “crabs only” and “venereal only”—except that the available seats in the latrine were effectively reduced by two, since no man would ever consent to mark himself by using the crabs or venereal seats. One of Cummings’s most satirical war poems comments on “yon clean upstanding well dressed boy” who is fêted off to war, “with trumpets clap and syphilis.”

His iconic statement about the Camp Devens experience was not published until much later, in 1931 in his collection W [Viva], when he finally channeled his anger into one of his most searing indictments of brutality inflicted in the name of patriotism. In “i sing of Olaf glad and big,” Cummings immortalized a conscientious objector whom he had known at Camp Devens. The power of “i sing of Olaf glad and big” lies in the straightforward quality of Cummings’s anger, as he recounts the imagined treatment of Olaf, rolled through freezing water, beaten with fists and boots and shit-covered toilet brushes, and then anally tortured with heated bayonets, before the army concludes that his pacifism is irremediable and throws him in prison to meet his death. The story is fictionalized, but the man remembered in this poem as “more brave than me:more blond than you” did in fact die while incarcerated for his pacifism at the military prison at Fort Leavenworth. “i sing of Olaf glad and big” carries a protest in its meter as well as its subject. “i sing of . . . ” immediately signals the famous opening of Virgil’s epic Aeneid, “I sing of arms and the man . . . ,” but Cummings rejects both the hexameter meter of classical epic and the pentameter meter of many English epic poems in favor of tetrameter, a four-beat line associated with the Romantic poets and their celebration of individualism and emotional liberty. Cummings offers an epic hero in a Romantic mold—the man who is true to his own conscience, even to death.

Wednesday, December 6, 2023

the last book I ever read (The Beauty of Living: e. e. cummings in the Great War, excerpt ten)

from The Beauty of Living: e. e. cummings in the Great War by J. Alison Rosenblitt:

Berthe was no casual pickup. There was a genuine tenderness. Back in May, he had written a poem about her, in French, conceived through the terms of his Cubist experimentation. She was, in the language of the poem, stubborn but weary, with flesh that was green like a gourd, chewing a yellow rose between blue teeth, with red skin, heavy lips, and a mouth on fire. For her part, she cared enough about him to remember him when six months had passed, and to recognize him, changed as he was by the front and by his time in La Ferté-Macé. They smoked a cigarette, drank Champagne, “and talked gradually of the war France death my prison, all pleasant things.”

At last, as he wrote to Brown, switching delicately to the French: “J’ai perdu quelque chose.” (I’ve lost something.)

Tuesday, December 5, 2023

the last book I ever read (The Beauty of Living: e. e. cummings in the Great War, excerpt nine)

from The Beauty of Living: e. e. cummings in the Great War by J. Alison Rosenblitt:

A month later, on November 20, 1917, the American embassy at Paris informed the State Department in Washington that Cummings had already been released—and was dead. He was lost at sea aboard the torpedoed American vessel Antilles. But at the same time that official news of his son’s death reached the Reverend at 104 Irving Street, Norton cabled to say that Cummings would be released within the next few days. There was hope, then, of a mistake. The Reverend cabled urgently to Norton demanding to know if his son were dead or alive. Four days later, on November 24, both the American State Department and 104 Irving Street were authoritatively informed that the man lost on the Antilles was H.H., not E.E., Cummings.

It is a hard piece of fortune to go down in history for the relief felt that it was you and not another who died. No man should be collateral damage in another man’s story. I have been able to find out very little about H.H. Cummings. His was one of sixty-seven lives lost when the Antilles sank in a submarine attack. He was from Philadelphia: he was the only Philadelphian to die on the transport. He must be the same man who appears in the register of births for Philadelphia City, Pennsylvania, as Harold H. Cummings, born May 16, 1894, to Wm. P. Cummings and Clara E. Cummings. That makes him six months (minus two days) older than E. E. Cummings, and twenty-three when he died. There is nothing more to know about who he was or who he might have been had he not died on the ocean when the Antilles went down.

Monday, December 4, 2023

the last book I ever read (The Beauty of Living: e. e. cummings in the Great War, excerpt eight)

from The Beauty of Living: e. e. cummings in the Great War by J. Alison Rosenblitt:

The prisoner whom Cummings admired most was Jean, a black man who had things particularly bad, since in addition to the conditions of the prison, Jean had to contend with the racism of the guards and of many of his fellow prisoners. Jean was even more vulnerable than the other inmates. When he arrived, he had entrusted all his money—sixty francs to sustain him at the commissary where additional supplies could be purchased—to one of the plantons to deposit. The planton pocketed the money and denied everything, and Jean had no redress. “Of all the fine people in La Ferté,Monsieur Jean (“le noir” as he was entitled by his enemies)swaggers in my memory as the finest.”

These memories—of Jean and Apollyon and the gang of four and of many others—materialize in The Enormous Room in a style as dry as bone. Literary critics have referred to this book both as a novel and as a memoir, but it is best just to call it an account. Cummings never sought to define it by genre. However, he regarded it in all meaningful senses as true, and he said that, insofar as it would have any appeal to the public, it would appeal as a document. When writing, he worked closely from his own ntoes as well as from his memory, which he cross-checked with the memory of Brown, who described the result as remarkably accurate. Many of its specifics are independently verifiable. As with all autobiographical writing, we have to assume, of course, that some material—like conversation—is shaped as it filters through memory. But what we have is far more valulable than any stenographer’s transcript could have been: we have access to the internal as well as external realities of Cummings’s world. The deliberate wryness and humor of the writing in The Enormous Room is the solution Cummings found in order to speak of nearly unspeakable things. Imprisonment was not an adventure. It was a terror.

Sunday, December 3, 2023

the last book I ever read (The Beauty of Living: e. e. cummings in the Great War, excerpt seven)

from The Beauty of Living: e. e. cummings in the Great War by J. Alison Rosenblitt:

Cummings had no idea even that he was under arrest. Some official-looking men arrived at the ambulance quarters. Cummings was told to collect his things and come. He witnessed them bundling Brown into one car; he himself was bundled into another. On the drive, his driver’s hat flew off in a gust of wind. The driver stopped the car and Cummings moved to collect the hat; the guard pulled his revolver. Only then did Cummings grasp the way things stood.

He was taken back to Noyon, into a civic edifice that looked to him like a feudal dungeon. He was full of adrenaline and exhaustion, demoralized by months of cleaning mud at the front, and alienated from the Americans in his ambulance unit. He was still desperate for his permission to get to Paris, but also convinced that he had been taken for a chump by his girl. He was oddly thrilled to find himself under arrest, just to shake the tedium and to feel as though something at least might happen. It was a day for impulsiveness, and it would change his life forever.

Saturday, December 2, 2023

the last book I ever read (The Beauty of Living: e. e. cummings in the Great War, excerpt six)

from The Beauty of Living: e. e. cummings in the Great War by J. Alison Rosenblitt:

Brown’s drinking brought him some luck and some mishaps. When he first came round to view his prospective New York lodgings, he was so drunk (“it being about 8:30 P.M.”) that he began to regale the landlady with the full story of his time in France, leading to many exclamations of “O My God” and an offer to lower the rent by a dollar a week. He found less indulgence from Gaston Lachaise, the French sculptor living in New York who was know to Cummings as the stepfather of his friend Edward Nagle and whose modernist style had already served Cummings as inspiration and bridge between New York and the artistic world of Europe. Lachaise was an important man: famous, controversial, and at the heart of several New York artistic circles. One day, he took Brown out for lunch and asked him if he believed in reincarnation. Brown was two bottles of wine in, and averred that after death they would all rot and turn into witch hazel. He had no notion why he specified witch hazel, but he proceeded nonetheless to defend it vociferously. He wrote later to Cummings that he had no idea what Lachaise had said, having been too drunk to maks sense of a word, but he was quite sure that he himself had defended the witch hazel hypothesis with vigor and at length.

After the witch-hazel incident, Lachaise began to avoid him.

Friday, December 1, 2023

the last book I ever read (The Beauty of Living: e. e. cummings in the Great War, excerpt five)

from The Beauty of Living: e. e. cummings in the Great War by J. Alison Rosenblitt:

For the moderns, the departure from established aesthetics was fueled by a sense that exciting, explosive ideas about art were pouring out of Europe. One turning point for Cummings was provided by the controversial exhibit of painting and sculpture in New York in 1913 known as the Armory Show. It was called the Armory Show because it was held at the Armory of the 69th Infantry on Lexington Avenue. It took place from the fifteenth of February to the fifteenth of March, and it was open from ten a.m. to ten p.m., including Sundays, before traveling on to Chicago and then Boston. It was all about drawing an audience. To call it and “exhibition” barely expressed the magnitude of the event: it was a phenomenon. There were more than a thousand works of art on display, many imported from Europe. The catalogue was eye-watering. There were eleven paintings and a sculpture in wood by Paul Gauguin; a Kandinsky; eight paintings by Cézanne; two by Edvard Munch; two by Toulouse-Lautrec; seven Picasso paintings and a bronze bust; ten pieces by Henri Rousseau; four by Picabia; and fourteen by Van Gogh. There were also fourteen paintings by Matisse plus a sculpture; two works by Seurat; four by Monet; four by Pisarro; four by Renoir; five sculptures by Brancusi and two by Rodin. Beyond these, there are dozens of other names that would glitter in any lesser company.

The Cubist painter and sculptor Marcel Duchamp entered four works. Duchamp is best known for a piece displayed in 1917: a urinal, which he signed “R. Mutt 1917” and titled Fountain, and which has since spawned a hundred years of experimentation with “found” art objects that challenge or transgress traditional ideas about what constitutes art. In 1913, a piece by Duchamp, more conventional in its materials—an oil painting on canvas—became one of the celebrated controversies of the Armory Show. Painted during the previous year, 1912, and exhibited at the 1913 show, Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 presented an abstract, geometric figure with warm-toned flesh against the planes of a dark buff-brown staircase. The full descent of the staircase is shown. The figure is in motion, painted in a kind of time-lapse, with the geometric limbs and bodies superimposed in sequence on one another as the figure moves down the stairs. Even by Cubist standards, Duchamp’s attempt to grapple with motion was cutting-edge. Cubism was not simply one style but a varied and multistrand movement, and the Armory Show brought Cummings into sudden contact with Cubism as a whole world of art.