Catherine Savage Brosman’s “Plums”: An Analysis

Published by Louisiana State University Press in 2007, Range of Light is a collection of poetry by Catherine Savage Brosman that is largely dedicated to the art of landscape, casting the American Southwest as a land both treacherous and awe-inspiring. This makes “Plums” something of an outlier in the book. While it deals with a variety of fruit popular in the American Southwest, the poem is not a landscape but a still life. At just twelve lines, it’s also easily the shortest poem in the book. And yet, perhaps because of how much it sticks out in Range of Light, it’s my favorite piece in the collection, and the one I’d like to talk about.

Brosman begins the poem with a mimetic description of Santa Rosa plums, and what immediately pops out to me is just how lush her description is. Read through the first stanza, and take note of all the modifiers that Brosman uses:

They’re Santa Rosas, crimson, touched by blue,
with slightly mottled skin and amber flesh,
transparently proposing by their hue
the splendor of an August morning, fresh

Catherine Savage Brosman, “Plums,” lines 1-4 (emphasis added)

Even excluding the adjectives that function more like subject complements than modifiers (e.g., “crimson,” “fresh”), that’s five modifiers in the span of four lines, one of which (“slightly”) modifies another modifier. This is perhaps surprising to see from an accomplished poet. When we first start writing poetry, we are taught to write with nouns and verbs, to use adjectives and adverbs sparingly lest we allow our verse to be wordy and imprecise. Why say someone “ran quickly,” we are told, when saying they “sprinted” is both more concise and more evocative?

Yet Brosman’s heavy use of modifiers seems appropriate for her subject. First, the speaker draws attention to the multifaceted nature of the plums’ appearance. They are, as Gerard Manley Hopkins might call them, “dappled things”: bright “amber flesh” beneath dark “crimson” skin, which itself is “mottled” and “touched by blue.” The interplay of colors defies a compressed description. The closest Brosman comes to that ideal is by likening the plums to “the splendor of an August morning,” and it is true that the colors listed would be found in a summer sunrise. But importantly, the plums call to mind the splendor of that scene, not just the scene itself. They promise decadence, and the poem delivers on it.

Brosman’s language is not the only decadent element of the poem. Formally, “Plums” is written in heroic quatrains: four-line stanzas of iambic pentameter rhyming ABAB. The form has a stately rhythm to it, and it tends to suit grand and grave subjects. We see it used, for example, in John Dryden’s “Annus Mirabilis” and in Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard.” The form is a little rich when describing plums, but then again, so is likening their appearance to the great expanse. One senses that the speaker wishes to capture the subjective experience of these plums: that they’re brilliant, and probably delicious.

However, things are not always as they seem, and in the second stanza the picture of these plums gets more complicated. That initial “but” in line 5 carries a lot of weight here. True, Brosman has given the plums contrasting qualities prior to this point, but those qualities have been in harmony rather than conflict: both the dark skin and bright flesh are necessary to suggest an August morning. Here, though, we’re told the plums are “fresh // but ruddy, ripening toward fall” (4-5). Now they’re described as having incongruous elements, as though freshness and ruddiness shouldn’t go together, and the season shifts from summer to autumn. Where there was once clarity, now there is doubt.

As it happens, line 5 also suggests uncertainty in how it wavers from the poem’s metrical contract. Whereas the first stanza is written in strict iambic pentameter—no weak endings, no substitutions—line 5 does not scan so easily. The only ways to read the line as five iambs are 1) to pronounce “toward” as two syllables, with an unnatural stress on the first syllable, or 2) to pronounce “ripening” as three syllables and argue that “ing” should be stressed instead of “toward,” neither of which is appealing. A better way to scan the line is with a double iamb (a pyrrhic–spondee combination: u u | / /): “but rud | dy, ripe | ning to | ward fall.— | “So sweet“. Even scanned this way, the line is unusual for a poem in iambic pentameter; more often one sees a double iamb at the beginning of a line rather than the middle. The effect of this line’s rhythm is to put a sour taste in the reader’s mouth, even as it ends on the word “sweet”.

But of course, that’s the point: despite appearances, the plums are not sweet. When the speaker bites into one, she discovers that it’s “tart” (6). She says that the plum has a “sunny glow perfected in deceit” (7), with the rhyme reinforcing the false promise of a sweet treat. To the speaker, it’s as if the plum’s objective is to trick people into eating it, and so she finds a new appearance within it: the “emulation of a cunning heart” (8). This bitterness is a far cry from the painterly calm of that first stanza.

I find the reference in the second stanza to William Carlos Williams’s poem “This Is Just To Say” rather fitting. “This Is Just To Say” is a deceptively simple poem in which the speaker apologizes for eating the plums that the addressee has been saving. Specifically, Brosman quotes from the poem’s final stanza:

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

William Carlos Williams, “This Is Just To Say,” lines 9-12

One could read this final stanza as the speaker simply explaining why he ate the plums: they were just so hard to resist. But more than that, I get the sense that the speaker is rubbing his transgression in the addressee’s face, reminding them of just how wonderful those plums would have been—”so cold,” indeed. (This is one of the reasons why “This Is Just To Say” has endured as parody fodder. It became a popular meme on Twitter in 2017, and Kenneth Koch’s “Variations on a Theme by William Carlos Williams” spoofed the concept all the way back in 1962.)

If that second reading is correct, that the speaker of “This Is Just To Say” is teasing the addressee instead of apologizing, then it seems that the poor soul who lived with Williams isn’t his only victim. The speaker in Brosman’s poem is aware of Williams’s work, of how he presents plums as these irresistibly refreshing snacks. “This Is Just To Say” isn’t even the only famous poem where Williams sings the praises of plums; he does much the same in “To a Poor Old Woman.” But to the speaker in Brosman’s poem, Williams has not been fully honest, as this Santa Rosa plum has been anything but refreshing.

To recap thus far: “Plums” begins as an ode to the beauty of Santa Rosa plums, a celebration of their complex appearance, but the second stanza reveals that this particular plum does not taste nearly as good as it looks. We may well expect the poem to end there, and I think a lesser writer would do just that. In this hypothetical version of “Plums,” the meaning could be reduced to a variation on “all that glisters is not gold.” That’s hardly a novel sentiment, but if presented in a skilled fashion even clichés still have value.

But the speaker literally refuses to stop there. “I eat it anyway,” she says, “until the pit / alone remains, with scattered drops of juice” (9-10). She neither succumbs to disappointment nor denies it. Instead, she acknowledges the tartness and powers through it. That willingness to proceed despite the sour taste allows her to uncover a more nuanced truth than “appearances deceive,” for the remnants of the plum are “such sour trophies proving nature’s wit: / appearances and real in fragile truce” (11-12). According to this last line, it’s not the case that the tartness is the plum’s true nature, and that the beautiful appearance is a falsehood. Rather, the two coexist, not in pure harmony or pure contrast, but as two parties in “fragile truce.”

In a sense, then, “Plums” is a poem whose ending circles right back to its beginning. The plums really are dappled things—just in a way that’s trickier to unpack.


Thanks for reading! If this analysis has piqued your interest in Brosman’s poetry, then you should check out Range of Light, which is available through the LSU Press website or through Amazon. If, on the other hand, this made you want to read more about William Carlos Williams, then you should check out my analysis of “[The crowd at the ball game].”

Similes and Emotion in S. E. Grove’s “The Waning Age”

The premise of S. E. Grove’s most recent novel, The Waning Age (Viking-Penguin Random House, 2019)—a world in which people lose their capacity to feel emotion during adolescence—presents the author with a challenge regarding the tone of the prose: how to narrate the story without conveying emotion? One might expect that Grove would employ a detached third-person point-of-view, the sort of fly-on-the-wall narration that one associates with Ernest Hemingway. Certainly that would be the advice I would give to a student who wished to write such a story.

But that is not the strategy on display here. Instead, Grove uses a first-person narrator, telling the story through the voice of her protagonist, Natalia Peña. Writing in first-person may well be expected for a young adult novel, but it undoubtedly makes Grove’s task more difficult. Natalia may not have emotion, but she does have subjectivity; to experience the world through her eyes must feel like something. Grove must somehow craft a narrative voice that conveys subjectivity while excluding emotion—no easy feat.

In this post, I’d like to examine one technique that Grove uses to achieve the required narrative voice, the simile. The use of similes in The Waning Age accomplishes two things regarding emotion. First, similes remind the reader that whatever emotions that characters who have waned are expressing are simulations of emotions rather than genuinely felt experiences. The act of simulating emotion is a constant in the novel, and the simile is the literary device best suited to highlighting that fact. Second, in specifically emulating the style of Raymond Chandler, the similes in The Waning Age make humor a central feature of Natalia’s voice and suggest that her subjective experiences are more complicated than her ostensibly emotionless society would have one believe.

The Art of Simulating Emotion

Although the world of The Waning Age is defined by the loss of the capacity to feel emotion, it is not the case that emotion—or at least the appearance of it—is absent from society. What we might call “true” or “natural” emotion may wane around the age of ten, but the characters have various methods for simulating emotion when the occasion calls for it or when the desire strikes them. Foremost among these methods are synthetic affects, or as everyone calls them, “synaffs”: chemicals that allow one to experience emotions, particularly the physiological effects that accompany them. Pharmaceutical companies like RealCorp earn immense profits from manufacturing synaffs, which only the wealthy can afford with any regularity. Indeed, RealCorp’s presence in this field instigates the plot: it kidnaps Natalia’s ten-year-old brother Calvino, who shows no signs of waning, so it can conduct experiments on his brain.

For those in the lower classes, however, one must simulate emotion from within. Body language and gestures are a go-to device. For example, one of Natalia’s foster parents, Tabby, is an actress who does not use synaffs for performances; Natalia calls her “one of those purists who thinks it’s about remembering emotion and cultivating that memory, then channeling it when you act” and says that “she is very good at feigning emotions when she wants to” (p. 39). Conversely, Natalia is adept reading other people’s body language, even if she thinks that it’s “a major drag…having to the study the angle of a person’s nostril to figure out what they’re feeling” (p. 15). Such a skill is especially useful living with someone as emotional as Calvino, for it allows Natalia to respond in a manner appropriate to the situation, even without experiencing the attendant emotion.

One might then expect that Grove would lean into Natalia’s perception of body language, peppering the narration with small details about the other characters. And it’s true, Grove does exactly that, and on occasion effectively so. There’s something very uncanny in how the receptionist at RealCorp abruptly switches from looking “briefly crestfallen” to giving a “reassuring smile” (p. 64), and her inability to interpret the mix of signals from Dr. Glout during the boardroom confrontation (“Knotted eyebrows, tight lips. His papery skin was blotchy; his arms rested unnaturally on the table as if he had to hold himself in place” [p. 286]) does well in creating a tense atmosphere. But Grove tends to rely on the same handful of gestures, such as eye rolls and raised eyebrows, so those details gradually lose distinctiveness and, therefore, effectiveness.

This is where Grove’s use of similes comes into play. Whereas her examples of body language get repeated to the point of meaninglessness, her similes consistently find fresh material to work with. Figurative language is already a vital tool for describing emotion, as it can link an abstract, subjective experience to a concrete vehicle. Furthermore, one can account for nuances in the tenor by changing the vehicle. There is a difference, for example, between saying that something is “as white as snow” (which makes it sound soft) and that it is “as white as salt” (which makes it sound harsh). The more specific the vehicle, the more nuanced the reader’s understanding of the tenor.

To see an example of how Grove uses similes, consider this early example in which Natalia describes how children look when they’re in the midst of waning: “Almost all of [Calvino’s] classmates are looking the way I did at that age, dull and kind of mystified, like they can’t figure out who stole all the Halloween candy” (p. 13). There are a number of emotions and attitudes at work here. A kid who “can’t figure out who stole all the Halloween candy” would be confused, certainly, but in a way that suggests sadness and innocence; it’s different from how someone seems when they can’t solve a crossword puzzle, or when they can’t find their car keys. This particular simile also suggests that Natalia sees them with a sympathetic eye, or at least knows that one ought to; she has, after all, been in that same situation.

Let’s look at one more example. This one concerns Hoffman, who is a preacher and Calvino’s birth father. When he sees Natalia for the first time, she realizes that he has mistaken her for her mother; when he recognizes his mistake, she says that “he crumpled like a sheet falling from a clothesline” (p. 226). This is a sudden shift in perception, rather than a gradual dawning; otherwise he may have been likened to a deflating bouncy castle. And while Hoffman is obviously disheartened, he’s not angry about it, or else Natalia may have compared him to a collapsing wall. Coupled with the strong verb “crumpled,” and one gets the sense of exaggerated disappointment that the author is going for. All that is contained within the image of the falling sheet.

Based on this discussion, one may think about figurative language in the same way that Tabby thinks about acting: one searches through their history and their knowledge for the proper experience, then channels that experience when they write. Also like acting: it is always a simulation, never a reality. The vehicle may share important qualities with the tenor, but it is not identical to it. This is why I think that Grove’s preference for similes over other forms of figurative language, such as metaphor or personification, is so appropriate. Similes make explicit both the act of comparison and the artificial nature of that comparison. In a simile, A is like B, but not B itself. In most contexts, this distancing makes similes weaker than metaphor, but in The Waning Age, their use reinforces the novel’s world building: people experience something like emotion, but not emotion itself.

The Influence of Raymond Chandler

The first simile in The Waning Age that caught my attention occurs in the first paragraph of the novel, wherein Natalia describes the hotel where she works a cleaner: “Inside, the walls are white marble, the lobby chairs are rose damask, and the carpet looks like the polar bear population of the Arctic, scythed and steamrolled” (p .1) The nature of that simile—on the surface incongruous but upon reflection deadly accurate—immediately calls to mind the style of Raymond Chandler, whose writing is famous for bizarre and witty similes. Chandler will say that someone is “about as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food” or has “a face like a collapsed lung,” and one will simultaneously laugh at the joke and marvel at the precision of the image. In The Waning Age, Grove tries to give Natalia the same sort of voice found in Chandler’s novels.

Just in case one thinks that this is speculation, I would note that Natalia explicitly models herself on Chandler’s most famous protagonist, Philip Marlowe. She believes that Marlowe demonstrates how one can get by in an increasingly emotionless society:

[Marlowe] comes as close as I’ve seen to our emotionless future. Maybe Chandler had a nightmare, and Marlowe’s world was in it, or maybe, prophet-like, he could see the slow decline approaching in the cold hearts and callous faces of 1930s Los Angeles. However it happened, his Marlowe does it—even in a world still premised on the availability and influence of emotion, Marlowe moves through it, calm and unflappable, making it seem plausible that one might survive in a hard, sordid, unfair world without the soaring ecstasies and raptures of triumph and true loves that seem to carry every other character ever written.

S. E. Grove, The Waning Age, p. 37

Natalia does not merely admire Marlowe’s cool affect in the face of an unfeeling world; she puts that influence into practice. Indeed, she later remarks that latching onto a fictional character as a sort of life guide is quite common in her society:

Lots of us witty people do it. Books and old screen dramas are like disorganized bargain stores where you hunt for an angle; someone memorable, someone to imitate, someone who gives you a usable script. Someone behaving with emotional coherence so that you can follow along, seeming both emotional and coherent without being either.

S. E. Grove, The Waning Age, p. 118

In addition to borrowing survival tactics from Chandler’s novels, she also borrows their language, their penchant for similes, as a way of understanding the world around her. For instance, in observing how a liberal arts education fails to instill a sense of morality in children who have waned, she reasons that “nowadays serving up Shakespeare to a bunch of untrained adolescents is like handing a serial killer a pack of gum” (p. 78). It may distract them for a moment, but it will not get to the root of the problem: their incapacity for true empathy. It is that particular simile that allows Natalia to see the flaw in that system.

Going into the paratext of Chandler work, one may discover another way in which Grove’s similes are Chandler-esque: they show a speaker grappling with a language they are not fully fluent in. This is a point that Stephen L. Tanner brings up in his article “The Function of Simile in Raymond Chandler’s Novels” (paywalled), in discussing the relationship between Chandler, who grew up in England, and American vernacular:

Chandler once said, “I had to learn American just like a foreign language.” And in learning it, he fell in love with it. “I’m an intellectual snob who happens to have a fondness for the American vernacular,” he wrote in a letter, “largely because I grew up on Latin and Greek. As a result, when I use slang, solecisms, colloquialisms, snide talk or any kind of off-beat language, I do it deliberately.” Elsewhere he said, “If I hadn’t grown up on Latin and Greek, I doubt if I would know so well how to draw the line between what I call a vernacular style and what I should call an illiterate or faux naif style. That’s a hell of a lot of difference to my mind.” Chandler thought of himself primarily as a stylist, and his distance from American English allowed him to do what he did with it. In this respect, as Frederic Jameson has remarked, his situation was similar to that of Nabokov: “the writer of an adopted language is already a kind of stylist by force of circumstance.”

Stephen L. Tanner, “The Function of Simile in Raymond Chandler’s Novels,” Studies in American Humor, vol. 3, no. 4, 1984, p. 340 (internal citations omitted)

Whereas Chandler uses humorous similes to approach the language of another country, Natalia uses the same technique to approach the language of emotion. Unavoidably, every instance of figurative language will carry some connotation, some emotional charge, that colors how one views the situation. Even if Natalia cannot access a feeling through direct experience, she can still be conversant in emotion, as it were, by adopting this humorous style.

Granted, according to the internal logic of The Waning Age, humor is not exactly an emotion. In one of the essays that Calvino writes as part of Dr. Glout’s testing regimen, he presents the case that humor is not an emotion but rather an instinct. “Humor,” he writes, “is achieved by the intellect, which is part of reason. If you laugh at a joke it is not the same as laughing because you are happy. Just as crying because you are sad is not the same as crying because someone broke your leg” (p. 71). (It may be odd to treat a ten-year-old boy as an authority, especially when he is is talking to an actual academic, but as the only major character who still experiences natural emotion Calvino has more firsthand knowledge on the subject that anyone else.) But because they share some behaviors, one could say that humor is adjacent to emotion, in the way that Chandler’s classically educated perspective on American vernacular is adjacent to the genuine article.

Indeed, as Tanner goes on to suggest, humor can be useful in concealing emotion, in addition to approaching it. He says that Chandler’s similes “often consist of a self-deflating wit that disguises the sentimental note in Marlowe and his knight-
errantry” (p. 343). Natalia is well aware of this tendency: “I know he’s not actually emotionless. Sometimes his face gets red. Sometimes he even gets mad” (p. 37). Might I suggest, given the reveal near the end of the novel that Natalia is regaining the capacity to feel emotion, that the similes in Grove’s book achieve a similar effect? Might I suggest that we’re not wrong in inferring sadness from child without Halloween candy, or disappointment from the crumpled sheet? Natalia has always been capable, physically, of having true emotion; she merely lacked the awareness to process her thoughts as such.

A Brief Concluding Note

At this point, we seem to have reached two contradictory conclusions. In the first part, we found that Grove use similes because Natalia cannot feel true emotion, while in the second part we found that Grove uses similes because Natalia secretly can feel true emotion. So which is it? Surely it can’t be both—that would be a contradiction, right?

In a certain sense, yes, this is a contradiction in the novel, one which is never resolved. But this appears to be a contradiction that the novel is fine with—encourages, even. On multiple occasions, Calvino questions Dr. Glout when the researcher appears to express remorse regarding the the child’s situation (e.g., “I’m afraid [Natalia] can’t be here right now” [p. 73], “Sorry, I’m trying to keep things calm in there for you, and having people go in and out wouldn’t help” [p. 101]). After all, Calvino reasons, if Dr. Glout has waned, then he can’t be afraid of or sorry about anything. Dr. Glout explains that he’s using figures of speech, but Calvino is right to point out the oddity of using the language of emotional for emotionless purposes.

I feel that Grove is inviting the reader to take on the role of Calvino while reading The Waning Age, to question whether anything in the novel is truly without emotion. I will admit that at times, this posture feels like an escape hatch for the author, a way to preemptively brush aside any critique of the world-building: “Oh, that there? That’s an intentional inconsistency. You’re supposed to find that fishy.” But I’ll also admit that such moments got me to reflect on what I thought counted as emotion, and to consider those preconceptions more critically. Perhaps that’s worth some internal inconsistency.


I’ve said a lot more on this book than I’d predicted when I started, but I’d still love to hear your thoughts on The Waning Age. How do you think it handles writing an emotionless perspective in a first-person voice? Are there any techniques that you think exemplify its success or failure in that regard? Let me know in the comments!

Special thanks to Krysta of Pages Unbound, whose review of The Waning Age brought it to my attention. I can’t say that enjoyed it quite as much as she did; I found that beyond its main themes and this particular literary technique that the book seemed rather rote. But I did enjoy thinking and writing about it, which I do believe is more important.

And, as always, thanks for your time!

What an Episode of “Father Brown” Can Teach Us About Literature

Hannah Moxley describing the plot of new novel to Father Brown

Last year, when I wrote about the oddly soothing aspects of the murder mystery genre, I mentioned that I had another post about the show Father Brown that I wanted to write. Well, over a year later, I’ve finally gotten around to doing just that.

For those who aren’t aware, Father Brown is an amateur detective show loosely based on the short stories of G. K. Chesterton. The show follows the title priest (played by Mark Williams) as he solves various crimes—usually murder—around the fictional English town of Kembleford in the post-WWII period. Father Brown is joined by a group of supporting characters, including parish secretary Mrs McCarthy (Sorcha Cusack) and local noblewoman Lady Felicia (Nancy Carroll), and he often butts heads with an ever-changing line of police detectives, such as Inspector Sullivan (Tom Chambers), who rather begrudgingly tolerate the priest’s side hobby of sleuthing.

The episode I would like to look at in particular is “The Kembleford Boggart,” the seventh episode of the show’s third series. This is one of my favorite episodes of the show, not because of the mystery itself, but because of what the episode has to say about writing and about our reactions to it. I’m going to break this little investigation into three parts. In Part I, we’ll talk about the central figure of the episode and her concerns about how her writing will be received. In Part II, we’ll move onto the murder and how it instructs us on the way the artistic process actually works. Finally, in Part III, we’ll unravel the mystery and discuss the audience’s relationship with the author of a work.

Oh, before we begin—normally I find our age’s spoiler-phobia to be pretty obnoxious and a serious impediment to discussing art critically, but since this is a mystery we’re talking about, where half the fun is trying to piece the clues together yourself, consider this a spoiler warning: we’re going to reveal all the twists in this episode, because otherwise the themes are impossible to fully talk about. So, with that out of the way….

I: The Author

At the center of “The Kembleford Boggart”—aside from Father Brown, of course—is Hannah Moxley (Nathalie Buscombe), a 22-year-old woman who seems to be rather nervous about where her life stands. Some of her anxieties are professional. Hannah is a rising star of the British literary world; her debut novel, The Darkest Rose, was something of a sensation in the recent past, and she’s about to read an excerpt from her current manuscript at the home of Lady Felicia. For a writer that young, she could hardly ask for better. Still, she’s not certain that her new novel will find a publisher, even though Father Brown assures her that, from what he hears, “the literary establishment is waiting with bated breath.”

Of course, such anticipation can be its own form of pressure. Every writer who attains even the tiniest bit of artistic success fears that they’ll never be able to recreate that magic, that they’ve spent all their creativity on past works. But Hannah has an additional reason to worry about how her new novel will be received: it’s a significant departure from her previous work. We the audience aren’t told much about The Darkest Rose, but from other characters’ descriptions we glean that it’s an “uplifting” tale filled with “high jinks and espionage”. By contrast, her new book is an atmospheric horror story about a woman terrorized by a boggart. She’s completely shifted genres, and there’s no guarantee that her audience will follow her muse with her.

Judging by the response she gets at the reading, her concerns might not be unfounded. There’s a noticeable silence after Hannah finishes reading the excerpt from her work, before Lady Felicia hurriedly spurs the crowd into applause. Her story has certainly had an effect on Mrs McCarthy; she’s so shocked during the reading that she almost spills her sherry. But she’s more repulsed than enraptured by it, saying afterwards, “If that’s what passes for modern literature, I’ll stick with the Woman’s Weekly.” This is a small sample size, but it at least suggests that’s right to be worried.

It was a minor miracle, however, that Hannah was able to give a reading at all, which brings us to her second source of worry: her father, Jeremiah (Simon Williams). Although Hannah is an adult already, Jeremiah Moxley exercises a great deal of control over his daughter’s life. He won’t allow her to manage her own finances, and he doesn’t allow her to read the fan mail that she’s received from around the world. Had Father Brown not offered to act as chaperone, Jeremiah would not have let Hannah read at Lady Felicia’s, lest she start socializing with the wrong sort of people. Even then, he expects that she will not leave Father Brown’s sight and that she’ll return home by eight o’clock sharp. Hannah, for her part, does her best to comply with her father’s various restrictions, but when alone with Father Brown she vents about how unreasonable her current situation is.

Indeed, a close look at the first scene after the cold open reveals how her different worries tie into each other. It would appear that her father’s overbearing nature has done a number on Hannah’s confidence as a storyteller. We first see Hannah describing the plot of her new book to Father Brown, who looks a bit puzzled by it. She assumes that he doesn’t like the story, but in fact he’s merely unsure of what a boggart is. Her face lights up at the chance to explain this bit of folklore, but alas Jeremiah enters the room and cuts her off with his own explanation. He then dismisses his daughter’s penchant for such stories right in front of her. “Forgive my daughter,” he says to Father Brown. “She has a fine talent, I’m assured, but her fantasies are a little far-fetched for my taste.” One expects that a writer’s parents would be her biggest cheerleaders; if they’re not on board with the project, why would anyone else be?

Hannah’s got quite a bit on her plate—and we haven’t even gotten to the murder yet.

II: The Mystery

Why don’t hear a little bit of Hannah’s latest? Here’s the excerpt from her new book that so shocked the crowd at Lady Felicia’s:

Mrs Mallory lay stiff and bloated at Clarissa’s feet. Across her throat a tidy, fine slash, the stinging mark of a whip sharp tail. And all around the room, she saw the messy trail of an uninvited guest. A fresh fall of soot blanketed the hearth, and the floor was marked by jagged claws. As she rushed to the empty cot, she saw the boggart’s promise had been fulfilled. The housekeeper was dead and the baby was gone.

Hannah Moxley, unpublished manuscript, page numbers TBD

This being a murder mystery show, it’s only natural that this excerpt turns into the blueprint for an actual crime. The cinematic language makes it clear that Jeremiah will be the victim, as Hannah starts her reading over footage of her father opening her fan mail. After the reading, Father Brown loses track of Hannah, so he and Mrs McCarthy hustle over to the Moxley house in hopes of meeting her there. When they arrive, they find the door already open, and after some investigation they discover Jeremiah on the floor of an attic room, killed by his letter opener. It’s then that Mrs McCarthy notices that the room is full of soot and the floor all scratched up, just like the room described in Hannah’s novel.

Father Brown jokes that the perpetrator was the boggart from the story, but no one actually buys into that notion. Mrs McCarthy immediately suspects Alfons (Philip McGinley), an Irish Traveller who got into a spat with Jeremiah that morning, while Inspector Sullivan considers the possibility that this was a burglary gone wrong. Father Brown, however, does think that the secret to the murder lies in Hannah’s story, as he spends all night reading over her manuscript. His initial thought, understandably, is the prospect that someone has re-enacted the scene from the novel, or more disturbing, that the novel is a preemptive confession from a beleaguered daughter. It’s not until later on that Father Brown realizes that he’s gotten the whole thing backwards.

See, we have often think of creativity in limited ways. We imagine inspiration as a sort of epiphany, a sudden blast of the divine. This view has a certain romantic aura to it, but it tends to render the process of creation completely inscrutable and unknowable; one either has the spark, or one doesn’t. More often that not, however, inspiration comes from the synthesis of small details that we experience. It’s not necessarily a veiled autobiography or a confession, but it does come from the world of the concrete, either senses or emotions. It’s only when Father Brown remembers that fact that the mystery starts clarifying itself.

After finishing Hannah’s new book, he takes Mrs McCarthy back to the Moxley house for what he calls “a lesson in perspective.” This is Father Brown’s big lecture for the episode, the step-by-step explanation of what’s been going on. But it’s not an explanation of how the murder happened; he’s not sure who did it at this point. No, it’s an explanation of why the room resembles the one in Hannah’s story:

[N]either of us had ever been in this attic room before. So how would we know that what we saw was unusual? Perhaps it wasn’t unusual. What if soot fell from that chimney every day? For instance, when somebody retrieved something from it…For example [reaches into the hearth and pulls something out], a key. And what if a badly hung door made marks on the floor every time it is opened, makes the scratches of deadly talons. Not life imitating art, Mrs McCarthy, art imitating life. It wasn’t until I finished Hannah’s manuscript that I realised the most significant image of all: the missing child.

Father Brown then unlocks the door, revealing a hidden nursery, where Hannah’s baby is asleep. The implication is clear: Hannah’s novel, the whole story about the boggart and the missing child, comes from her own experiences of having to hide her baby from the world, and the atmospheric details come from the steps she has to take to see him.

This little lecture from Father Brown not only advances the plot, but also further clarifies why Hannah seems especially nervous about her new novel. While on the surface it seems more fantastical than The Darkest Rose, it is in fact far more personal than her first novel. She’s transformed a source of shame into art, and now plans on sharing it with the world. But we’ve still got one mystery left: whodunit?

III: The Killer

As I mentioned in the first section, Hannah’s gotten quite a few fans off the back of The Darkest Rose, and it’s obvious that a number of them have formed parasocial relationships with her. In what might be Jeremiah’s one instance of genuine insight, he notes that the men writing fan letters to Hannah “have not got literature on their minds,” and that the volume and the passion of the fan mail increased after Hannah’s photograph was included in Modern Profile magazine. His daughter has become the object of affection—or obsession—for a great number of men, and that’s not necessarily the sort of attention that a young woman wants.

As it happens, we meet one of Hannah’s admirers at the reading at Lady Felicia’s, a journalist named Harry Grandage (Ben Deery). His work takes him all around the globe, where he seems to cover one tragedy after another. This is why, he tells Father Brown, Hannah’s work means so much to him:

I’ve only just got back from Brussels. I spent two months there before traveling down to Antwerp. I was covering the damage from the North Sea floods…My work always seems to bring me to people in times of grief. It takes its toll. So, when I read The Darkest Rose, I was so happy to lose myself to it. It’s a modern masterpiece.

Naturally, Harry is very excited to meet Hannah in person, but if you pay close attention to his tone and his facial expressions you’ll realize that he’s more than a little perplexed that Hannah’s not already familiar with him. Even worse, when Hannah signs his copy of The Darkest Rose, she makes it out to “Larry”. He laughs it off, saying that it’s “charming”, but he’s clearly a bit stung by their interaction.

It’s sometimes tempting to think that we can know a person through their art and that, by extension, we can form an actual relationship with them through it. We will excitedly praise a work for understanding us in a time of confusion or crisis, even if we know, intellectually, that the work emerged independently of our struggles and that the author wouldn’t know us from Adam. These parasocial bonds that we form with artists can be helpful in certain ways; for example, they can give us the knowledge that we are not alone in our difficulties. But where Harry appears to go wrong is in thinking that this grants him knowledge of the actual person behind the work.

One word that Harry uses a lot when describing Hannah’s writing is “escape”. After Jeremiah’s death, he explains to Father Brown why he’s staying in Kembleford to comfort Hannah: “When I first read her book, I was in the Republic of Korea covering the war, a taste of hell. Her work offered me the chance to escape then, and now I can do the same for her.” It’s clear that Harry needed some way to escape his troubles as a journalist, but note how he’s made the assumption that Hannah needs the same thing. It’s true that by strict definition Harry’s relationship with Hannah is no longer parasocial, but it’s by no means intimate, either. Harry sees himself as a companion, but by any objective measure, he’s just a passing acquaintance.

This being a murder mystery, Harry’s relationship with Hannah turns out to be a bit more complicated than that. Father Brown realizes that Harry’s one of the men who’s been writing fan mail to Hannah, not knowing that her father doesn’t allow her to read such letters. Instead, Jeremiah has been corresponding with Harry, posing as his daughter for the purposes of arranging a marriage. Hence Harry’s confusion at the reading: he’s been duped. Long story short: he confronts Jeremiah at the house and tries to leave to tell Hannah the truth; Jeremiah attacks him the letter opener and in the struggle Harry accidentally stabs him with it. The whole killing was accident, the result of a tragic misunderstanding.

But even after all that comes out, even after Harry realizes his whole relationship with Hannah was a sham, he still can’t let go of the image of her that he’s created in his head. Father Brown meets Harry in the woods, where he’s planning on leaving Kembleford with Hannah in tow. “She’s desperately in need of escape,” he tells Father Brown, still insisting that his needs are hers as well. Once Hannah arrives on the scene and the whole truth comes out, though, she takes Harry to task for his assumptions:

Harry: All I wanted was to take you away to escape with you. Isn’t that what you wanted?

Hannah: No! You’re no better than [my father] was. You want to control me. Well, I won’t let you. I’ve spent too long locked away. I want a free life. I owe that much to him.

To be clear: Harry is correct in thinking that Hannah would like to escape her current circumstances—we’ve established that much in the build-up to this—but that in no way implies that she wants to escape with him. That’s a major, nigh unresolvable problem with trying to read an artist through the works we enjoy: even if we’re completely accurate in our diagnoses, it’s pure narcissism to think we have anything to do with them.

For the record, Hannah’s actual love, Alfons, also got to know her through her writings: she would head down to the camp of Irish Travellers when they stopped by and read her stories to them. But the context there is completely different than it was for Harry, as Alfons got the chance to know Hannah as a person, not just as a name on a front cover and a photograph in a magazine profile. There were no assumptions to be made, just life to experience.


That was quite a bit from me, but what’s your take on all this? Are there any other films or TV shows that deal with literature in this way? Do have a favorite episode of Father Brown that you’d like to share? Sound off in the comments.

While your here, perhaps you’d like to read more about our relationship with art and our tendency to form parasocial relationships with artists. In that case, check on my post called “On Angst Music,” which might be my favorite blog post that I’ve written here.

And as always, thanks for your time.

My Thoughts on Nicholas Dawidoff’s Edits to Stephen Jay Gould’s Review of Michael Seidel’s Book

As I start writing this post, I’m about halfway through Stephen Jay Gould’s posthumous collection of baseball writings, Triumph and Tragedy in Mudville: A Lifelong Passion for Baseball (W. W. Norton, 2003). At this point the weaknesses of the book have become quite apparent to me: Gould has a habit a reusing the same anecdotes across multiple pieces, the length restrictions of newspaper columns prevent him from fully developing ideas, and the introductory memoir—in fairness, written during the author’s terminal illness—suffers from incredibly stilted syntax.

Nonetheless, Triumph and Tragedy in Mudville shines with Gould’s amateur passion for baseball; I feel the pleasure he gets in taking a break from paleontology to wax rhapsodic about his favorite players. It doesn’t quite work when read straight through, but this seems like a pleasant book to dip into and out of for a few minutes at a time.

I first became aware of Gould’s baseball writing while I was preparing to teach a class on sports literature (something that, in a shamefully Gouldian fashion, I’ve mentioned several times on this blog). His essay on DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak during the 1941 season, entitled “The Streak of Streaks,” was included in one of my main source books for the class, Baseball: A Literary Anthology (edited by Nicholas Dawidoff). The essay is among the highlights in Dawidoff’s anthology, and it was one of the last pieces I cut from my syllabus before I had to submit it for approval.

Gould’s focus in “The Streak of Streaks” is on probability, specifically how people have difficulty analyzing things like hitting streaks in probabilistic terms. He cites Amos Tversky’s research on shooting streaks in basketball, which found that the “hot hand” phenomenon doesn’t actually exist: players who make a basket on one shot are no more likely to hit on the next, and players’ “hot” streaks can be predicted entirely based on their overall shooting percentages. Gould doesn’t bring up this research to denigrate athletes’ accomplishments, though. In fact, it serves as the context in which to celebrate DiMaggio’s hitting streak. Gould also cites Ed Purcell’s research on baseball streaks and slumps, and Purcell found that DiMaggio’s hitting streak was the “one sequence so many standard deviations above the expected distribution that it should not have occurred at all” (p. 177).

That revelation honestly shocked me when I first read it, as I had regarded DiMaggio’s streak record as a vulnerable one. Beating it would be mighty difficult, yes, but surely a batter just would need to get “hot” for nine or ten weeks. But if, as Purcell found, baseball would need 52 career .350 hitters for even a 50-game hitting streak to be likely (actual number of such hitters: 3), then DiMaggio’s accomplishment is truly incredible. In his characteristically statistical way, Gould finds a way to place his baseball hero into the realm of the divine. As baseball has become ever more analytic, as launch angles and exit velocities and wins above replacement increasingly dominate discussions of the sport, the fact that DiMaggio’s hitting streak is nigh inexplicable becomes all the more important to me: there is still mystery in this weird little game.

I had gone back to Dawidoff’s anthology to re-read “The Streak of Streaks” multiple times. It was only when I got to that essay in Triumph and Tragedy in Mudville, however, that I learned that the essay was originally a book review. Specifically, “The Streak of Streaks” reviews Michael Seidel’s book Streak: Joe DiMaggio and the Summer of ’41, which purports to cover precisely that. Had I read the acknowledgments section of Dawidoff’s anthology, which mentions that the review portions of the essay had been omitted, this would not have been a surprise to me. But alas I had not, and I could not help but think: why would Dawidoff choose to cut such a significant chunk of the original piece?

It seems especially strange to make such an edit in a book called Baseball: A Literary Anthology, as Gould’s original review makes a point of placing Seidel’s book in the context of baseball’s literary history. Gould sees Streak as part of a trend of “serious, scholarly books treating baseball as something that might even get you tenure at a major university (as something other than an athletic coach)” (pp. 178-179). It’s as though Gould went out of his way to justify Dawidoff’s efforts over a decade before the anthology came out.

One may argue that removing the book review passages from the “The Streak of Streaks” makes the piece more accessible for general audiences, who are statistically unlikely to have read, or even have heard of, Seidel’s book. Better to leave the intertextual elements for the Gould completionists, no? But if that were indeed the goal, Dawidoff doesn’t fully commit to it, because Gould’s review is also a response to an article by John Holway called “A Little Help from his Friends: Hits or Hype in ’41,” which ran in a 1987 issue of Sport Heritage. Readers probably have as much knowledge of Holway’s article as they do of Seidel’s book—less, even, because Gould devotes less time to summarizing it.

Yet, having now read the original version of Gould’s essay, I do think that Dawidoff’s edits make the piece stronger. For one thing, the review portions include some rather self-indulgent quotations from Omar Khayyam and Alexander Pope, in an attempt to link sports streaks to our quest for meaning in a world dominated by chance. I appreciate the effort, but even as a baseball fan I find there’s something bathetic in Gould’s sincerity here. We are still talking about grown men playing a children’s game in oversized pajamas, and I’m not sure the subject can support a straight-faced digression on Absurdism.

More importantly, Gould’s discussion of probability with regards to DiMaggio’s hitting streak has little bearing on his review of Seidel’s book. Seidel, from how Gould describes his work, seems more interested in placing DiMaggio’s streak in the context of then-current events; Gould likens the book’s weaker passages to “reading old newspapers and placing the main events in order” (p. 179). The most Gould can do to make Seidel’s book relevant to his main point is to say that it “will help us to treasure DiMaggio’s achievement by bringing together the details of a genuine legend” (p. 181), which is about the vaguest praise possible. I do get the sense that Gould enjoyed Seidel’s book, but I get a stronger sense that Gould saw this review as an excuse to publish a different article that he was actually excited about writing.

For comparison, I would look at something like “The Cruelest Sport” by Joyce Carol Oates—which, coincidentally, did make the cut for my sports literature syllabus. “The Cruelest Sport” is a review of two books about boxing by Thomas Hauser, but it begins with a gripping discussion of the aesthetics and ethics the sport. Oates is simultaneously entranced and repulsed by the cruelty inherent to boxing. She spends the first six pages of that review exploring the tension between our humanitarian impulse that wants to abolish the deliberate violence of boxing and our spectator’s desire to see a satisfying, consciousness-crushing KO.

That tension is clearly what animates Oates to write that essay, but what makes “The Cruelest Sport” successful as a whole piece is that the opening discussion ties into the books that Oates is reviewing. The first is a biography of Muhammad Ali, an all-time great performer whose well-being boxing devastated; the second is an account of the grimy underbelly of the boxing establishment that belies the Las Vegas glitz surrounding the sport. Whereas Gould’s statistical discussion of DiMaggio’s hitting streak is at most tangential to the book he’s reviewing, Oates makes a persuasive case that her pet interest is central to the works before her. It’s true that someone like Dawidoff could easily excerpt those first six pages as a stand-alone essay, but they would not be improving the piece by subtracting from it.

It’s not as though I’m disappointed that Triumph and Tragedy in Mudville retained the review elements of “The Streak of Streaks”. That book is meant to be a compendium of Gould’s career work on baseball, so the need to accurately reflect his work ultimately trumps aesthetic considerations. Dawidoff’s anthology, meanwhile, is free of such requirements, and so it can tinker with pieces as much as it likes. There may inevitably be some hubris to that endeavor, but at least in this instance, it works out for the best.


I would love to hear your response to my thoughts on Nicholas Dawidoff’s edits to Stephen Jay Gould’s review of Michael Seidel’s book, if only to put as many brackets around this discussion as possible. What do you think about making cuts to essays for inclusion in anthologies? Do you have a favorite piece of baseball writing that you’re dying to share? Let me know in the comments!

If, on the other hand, you’d prefer to read more of my thoughts on Stephen Jay Gould’s work, I have a very old piece about his essay “Dr. Down’s Syndrome” that might interest you.

And as always, thanks for your time.

Some Thoughts on “How the Internet Happened: From Netscape to the iPhone” by Brian McCullough

Writing a history of the Internet is almost a fool’s errand. As an entity it’s so diffuse and diverse as to defy summary, and as a topic it’s so broad as to render any sufficiently comprehensive account incoherent. Furthermore, the Internet changes so rapidly that any attempted history risks becoming outdated by the time of publication. For example, Wendy M. Grossman’s Net.wars (NYU Press, 1997) devotes much of its page count to Usenet newsgroups and relegates search engines, then still an emerging technology, to a few off-hand mentions. Within a few years, Grossman’s version of the Internet would be almost unrecognizable to someone who had just gotten online.

It is perhaps wise, then, that in the introduction to How the Internet Happened: From Netscape to the iPhone (Liveright-W. W. Norton, 2018) Brian McCullough limits the scope of his narrative. “This is not a history of the Internet itself,” he writes, “but rather a history of the Internet Era, that period of time from roughly 1993 through 2008 when computers and technology itself stopped being esoteric and started becoming vital and indispensable” (p. 3). It’s a depiction of an era of the Internet which has come and gone, yes, but one that has the benefit of hindsight. McCullough knows, for example, that Usenet’s direct influence on the Internet Era is minimal, and so he gives it about as much attention as Grossman gives to search engines. The question is what McCullough deems worthy of inclusion.

One could say that How the Internet Happened presents the reader with a twenty-first century update to the great man theory of history, in which tech companies take the place of individuals. Corporations like Google, eBay, and Apple are the ones driving the development of the Internet in this telling of the story, and McCullough lavishes much attention on events such as Netscape’s initial public offering and the immediate reaction to Facebook’s News Feed feature. Given how tech companies can exercise near-governmental control over their platforms, there is more logic in McCullough’s framing than I’d like to admit.

However, a company-centric history of the Internet will necessarily omit many key aspects of the story. Consider the role of the state. While McCullough acknowledges the role of public universities in the development of the first web browsers, the government almost vanishes from the narrative soon afterwards. Beyond the Microsoft antitrust case and the passage of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, the state appears as bit player in McCullough’s history. Yet governments surely have a much larger role in the plot; just think of the many legal battles that emerged over Congressional attempts to regulate pornography on the Internet, or the political debates over whether to codify network neutrality into law. Neither topic gets much notice in McCullough’s book.

Alternatively, consider the role of the end users. The Internet has been an absolute breeding ground for new communities, but to the extent that How the Internet Happened concerns itself with such communities, it considers them as a general, almost unified mass: “we” now act a certain way thanks to the Internet. But this rather flattens the unique cultures that sprung up in the various corners of the Web; each site has its own customs, mores, language, and so forth. It’s not as though McCullough interviews individual eBay sellers or Redditors to give a sense of the user experience. The reader much be content with the abstract knowledge that such user communities exist.

I could go on about what is missing from How the Internet Happened, but I’m afraid that I’m reading this book in bad faith. It’s unfair to demand a comprehensive history of the Internet from a single work by a single person—I mean, didn’t I say in the first paragraph that such a project would be doomed? And how can I be surprised that this particular person wrote this particular book? McCullough’s background is in the field of tech start-ups, so of course his version of Internet history skews corporate. It’s for the same reason that Grossman, a journalist embedded in early Internet culture, focused on political and cultural issues surrounding the Internet in Net.wars. “Write what you know” doesn’t just apply to fiction.

And, in fairness to McCullough, he’s often insightful as to how various companies have shaped Internet culture. I found his account of eBay’s reputation system especially compelling. The reputation system, which scores buyers and sellers based on other users’ experiences with them, allows people to gauge whether someone they have no relationship with will prove to be a trustworthy transaction partner. According to McCullough, this system has proven to be quite influential:

This is a key evolution. In so many ways, over the last twenty years, the web and the Internet have slowly trained all of us to get comfortable interacting with crowds and, often, crowds of strangers. eBay was one of the first websites to show that a largely anonymous community, carefully constrained by a few guidelines and regulations, but invested in a system of online reputation, could actually work. Today, this key ingredient of ratings and reputation continues on sites like Yelp and Reddit—and especially on sites like Uber and Airbnb. It’s hard to imagine that the current sharing economy could even exist without the reputation template that eBay pioneered.

Brian McCullough, How the Internet Happened: From Netscape to the iPhone, p. 115

McCullough certainly sounds more sanguine about the sharing economy than I am. Airbnb’s history of enabling racial discrimination, for example, shows that the sharing economy only “actually works” in the limited sense of successfully facilitating transactions, not necessarily in the broader sense of benefiting all users. (Again, the author’s background explains quite a bit here.) But at least in a descriptive sense, McCullough’s account seems accurate: we’ve become more willing to trust some rando with a weird username, and there is something inevitably unifying about that.

I feel that’s a microcosm for How the Internet Happened as a whole. It achieves what it sets out to do, and that is to document how tech companies shaped the Internet between the rise of web browsers and the rise of social media. It’s only fair to commend the book for accomplishing that goal. But, at the same time, it’s only fair to ask whether that’s the best goal to begin with.


That’s enough from me on the matter. What are your thoughts on How the Internet Happened? Are there other aspects of the history of the Internet that you believe deserve their own book? Let me know in the comments!

If you’d like to read more of my thoughts on historical works, consider checking out this piece I wrote on Blanche Wiesen Cook’s biography of Eleanor Roosevelt, which examines how much biographers should speculate on the psychology of their subjects. And as always, thank you for reading!

The Catered Affair (1956): A Review

An overlooked example of mid-20th-century social realism, The Catered Affair (dir. Richard Brooks, 1956) has quite the kitchen-sink pedigree. The film is adapted from a teleplay by Paddy Chayefsky and features Ernest Borgnine in a leading role, both of whom had just won Academy Awards for their work on the working class love story Marty (dir. Delbert Mann, 1955). On the more sensational end, director Richard Brooks had come to prominence for writing and directing Blackboard Jungle(1955), the seminal film about conflicts at an inner-city school.

The Catered Affair marries those two strains of realism, pairing family drama with energetic blocking and dialogue, and the result is a touching, if somewhat clumsy, depiction of life. At the movie’s center is Aggie Hurley (played by Bette Davis), a middle-aged housewife in The Bronx whose husband, Tom (Borgnine), is a cab driver who’s been saving money for years to purchase his own taxi medallion. Their daughter Jane (Debbie Reynolds) has just announced her marriage to her longtime boyfriend Ralph (Rod Taylor). The young couple would like to have a small, quick wedding so they can fit their honeymoon into Ralph’s teaching schedule, but Aggie would prefer that her daughter have the big fancy reception “with all the trimmings” that Aggie never got to have. Money is tight, though, and the process of planning the wedding brings on more conflict than anyone involved had bargained for.

In a brilliant bit of casting, the filmmakers decide to place glamour icon Bette Davis at the heart of action. There’s a productive irony in seeing Davis in the role of a woman who yearns both for the finery that’s beyond her social class and for the passionate love that her marriage to Tom denies her. Not only does the casting of Davis highlight the tragedy in Aggie’s character, but also it sells the audience on the hope that, just maybe, the Hurleys will be able to pull this affair off. If Bette Davis isn’t capable of giving her daughter a ritzy blowout, well, then who exactly is?

It’s Debbie Reynolds, however, who is the real revelation of the film. Primarily known for her roles in comedic films such as Singin’ in the Rain (dir. Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen, 1952)—or, if you’re my age, as the grandmother in the Halloweentown TV movies—Reynolds shows a startling amount of dramatic range throughout the film. She’s still got that light charm about her, especially when Jane and Aggie are out dress shopping. But her facial expressions during tense family moments help sell the scenes; like the audience, she is so often caught between concern for and exasperation with everyone else on screen. And the one time she let’s her temper flare, when she decides to just call the whole shebang off, is the single most cathartic moment in the film.

The film is strongest in its first act, which counterintuitively is also the least filmic portion of the movie. There’s a real sense of commotion when Jane announces her wedding plans, not because it’s earth-shattering news, but because life in a cramped, lower middle class apartment is naturally chaotic. Characters are constantly entering and exiting the scene like they’re walking on and off stage, which means that everyone has to keep restarting their conversations to catch the newcomers up. The use of static long takes is similarly more theatrical than filmic, but those shots serve to underscore just how little breathing room is to be found in the apartment.

Unfortunately, The Catered Affair suffers from some structural problems which blunt its emotional impact. Most notable among these issues is the role of Aggie’s brother Jack (Barry Fitzgerald). Uncle Jack primarily functions as a source of conflict for the rest of the family: he’s hurt about not being invited to Jane’s original wedding ceremonies, so he’s one of the motivations for having a big affair in the first place. But he also has a subplot involving his lady friend (Dorothy Stickney) that in theory should flesh out his character, but it’s so thin that it merely pads out the run time.

Further, the editing is less than inspired, and in some places actively detracts from the picture. Scenes will sometimes cut between two differently lit shots, briefly making it difficult to track the geography of the image. The use of transition effects is uniquely at odds with the staid realism of the rest of the picture; I suspect that fading to and from black, or even straight cuts, would have served the project better. There’s also a glaring continuity error during the dinner with Ralph’s parents, where Ralph teleports to the opposite side of the table. Normally, such a slip would be inconsequential, but the filmmakers repeatedly frame him and Jane tightly together while their respective families flaunt their wedding gift ideas. Their unified powerlessness to direct their own wedding is central to the scene, so to break that visual image is uncharacteristically sloppy.

Despite that, on the whole I’d say that The Catered Affair has a great eye for detail. I love, for example, how the light bulb hanging in the Hurley’s kitchen flickers when someone shuts the door to the ice box, or how a fellow tenant just happens to be carrying groceries upstairs when the Hurleys are about to start arguing. And I appreciate how, when the family is looking for a banquet hall to rent, the filmmakers decide to have someone sweeping up paper streamers from a previous engagement. The film’s world feels lived in, and if there’s one sense any kitchen sink drama must achieve, it’s that. For all the film’s faults, I’ve seen seen few classic Hollywood pictures that manage to capture daily life so effortlessly.

Considering Libraries in Their Historical Context

I would wager that most people, myself included, take a rather rosy view of public libraries. They are storehouses of knowledge, knowledge that is free for the people to access. More than that, they are community centers, places where all are welcome to bring their children, look for a job, or just find a quiet spot to read the newspaper. When Nathan J. Robinson writes in Current Affairs that the public library is “a model of what a community-run, not-for-profit, public service ought to and can look like,” I can’t help but nod in agreement. Of course, I say to myself—who doesn’t love libraries?

Before you get ahead of me: no, I am not about to argue that libraries are “bad, actually.” I probably wouldn’t even be writing this piece if I didn’t value their place in society. But I think it’s important that we consider that place in society critically, that we ask ourselves about the historical and material conditions that have made public libraries possible.

I recently finished reading Paul Krause’s book The Battle for Homestead, 1880–1892: Politics, Culture, and Steel (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1992), an academic history of the 1892 Homestead lockout. A major event in United States labor history, the lockout is most famous for the events of July 6, which saw local steelworkers and agents of the infamous Pinkerton Detective Agency battle for control of the Homestead Steel Works. The ultimate defeat of the locked-out steelworkers signaled the decline of American trade unions, who would not come back to power until several decades later.

So what does labor conflict in western Pennsylvania have to do with libraries? Well, the Homestead Steel Works were the property of none other than Andrew Carnegie, one of the richest men in history and the benefactor of literally thousands of libraries the world over. It’s common to see Carnegie’s philanthropic efforts as separate from or contradictory to his role as a titan of the steel industry and an embodiment of wealth inequality. According to Krause, however, the story is more complicated than that. Indeed, libraries factor directly into the history of the Homestead lockout.

For Krause, the relationship between Carnegie the robber baron and Carnegie the philanthropist is complementary. It’s not just that the wealth he acquired made his generosity possible; Carnegie could also use the promise of his charitable efforts to justify business policies that were detrimental to workers. For example, as a precondition to building a library for a town, Carnegie required that the employees of the town’s steelworks agree to adopt a sliding scale that would tie their wages “to the fluctuating market price of steel,” instead of “an annual contract that was based on the consistently higher market price of iron” (p. 236). In other words, his plan to enrich the public’s access to knowledge rested on cutting his workers’ wages.

His 1889 dedication speech for the Carnegie Free Library of Braddock makes that plan explicit; Krause quotes at length from a section in which Carnegie addresses the question of whether he had plans to build a similar library in the union stronghold of Homestead:

“Do something for Homestead?” he retorted. “Well, we have expected for a long time, but so far in vain, that Homestead should do something for us.” If Homestead would only do something for him, he would be pleased to build a library there, too. “I am only too anxious to do for them what I have done for you, . . . I hope one day I may have the privilege of erecting at Homestead such a building as you have here; but . . . our works at Homestead are not to us as our works at Edgar Thompson [the steelworks in Braddock]. Our men there are not partners.” The AAISW [Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers], Carnegie continued, had strong lodges in Homestead that compelled him to pay exorbitant wages. “Of course . . . the firm may decide to give the men at Homestead the benefit of the sliding scale which you enjoy. I know that for the success of [the] Homestead works, regarded from the point of view of the capital invested, . . . the present system at Homestead must be changed.”

Paul Krause, The Battle for Homestead, 1880–1892: Politics, Culture, and Steel, p. 237

Reading that part of the speech, I cannot help but picture Carnegie as a stereotypical mafioso, scratching his bearded throat as he offers to do a “favor” for the working class citizens of western Pennsylvania. Viewed in this light, it’s hard to see the libraries that Carnegie built in Homestead, Braddock, and elsewhere as charitable gifts at all. For a gift to be charitable, it must be freely given without the expectation of receiving something in return. At best, these libraries serve as monuments to Andrew Carnegie’s self-regard; at worst, they serve as tokens of economic extortion.

Lest one think this critique is simply a case of historical revisionism, Krause notes that there was significant skepticism and backlash towards Carnegie’s libraries in the late 19th century. First, steelworkers and local politicians understood his libraries as symbolic of his conflicts with labor, which explains why “in the thirty-three years during which Carnegie bestowed libraries, 225 communities turned down his offer,” including over 40% of towns he solicited in Pennsylvania (p. 238). Second, it’s not at all clear that libraries were all that beneficial to the towns where he built them—especially when compared to the wage cuts that accompanied them. Trade unions fought for higher wages, limits on working hours, and job security, all of which are necessary to even hope to enjoy a library. As one steelworker put it, “Carnegie builds libraries for the working men, but what good are libraries to me, working practically eighteen hours a day?” (qtd. in Krause, p. 239)

And all this doesn’t even touch on the shady way Carnegie acquired the land on which the library in Homestead was built. Krause details how Carnegie’s company colluded with the political machinery of western Pennsylvania to purchase the City Farm land for less than half of its market value (land that, perhaps coincidentally, overlooks the site of the Homestead Steel Works). Between the reduced wages of the town’s steelworkers and the hundreds of thousands of dollars lost to municipal governments, one could plausibly argue that the Carnegie Library of Homestead represented a net loss for the region.

After learning about just how his libraries came into existence, I certainly take a more cynical view of Carnegie’s philanthropy; I see the man less as someone torn between noble and acquisitive impulses and more as someone who served the public good merely incidentally. (I say that as a beneficiary of his legacy: I earned my undergraduate degree from Carnegie Mellon University.) Yet I cannot deny the fact that those libraries remain a benefit to the public. Last July, I wrote a short post about the theft of rare books from Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh. The news that those books had been stolen and sold for profit enraged me, and I stand by that sentiment. Libraries belong to us—even when they’re imposed on us.

If there’s any takeaway I’d like to offer on this, it’s that no institution is pure, even an institution as noble as a public library. They are all subject to the social, political, and economic systems that produce them. Just be aware of that history, and maybe use the library’s resources to understand it better. Case in point: you can find a copy of The Battle for Homestead at the Carnegie Library of Homestead. What better use of a library card is there than to learn something critical about that library’s history?


I hope you enjoyed this post, and I’d love to hear your thoughts on the subject. In particular, how do we properly engage with a public institution like a library when we’re aware of the troubling history of how it came to be? I certainly wish I had a definite answer for that!

If you’d like to read more of my musings on libraries in their broader context, I’ll point you to this piece I wrote on the OCLC Library 100 list, and what that list tells us about literature and society. And as always, thank you for reading!