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!

Top Ten Tuesday: Best Books I Read in 2018

It’s been a while since I’ve done a list of any sort, but with the new year upon us, I think now’s the perfect time for another. This post is part of Top 10 Tuesday, a project currently hosted by Jana, known to the Internet as That Artsy Reader Girl. This week’s theme: the best books we read in 2018.

This year, I’ve noticed a distinct shift in my reading habits. In years past, the great majority of books I’ve read have been thin poetry collections, with a smattering of prose works to balance things out. This year, the ratio has more or less reversed, for reasons that I’ve previously detailed on this blog. So, in case you’re wondering why someone who writes about poetry so often doesn’t have more poetry on his best-of list, there’s your explanation.

Before we get to the list, two honorable mentions that I’ve chosen to exclude from the list for potential conflicts of interest: Alice McDermott’s 2017 novel The Ninth Hour (she was a professor at Johns Hopkins while I was a grad student there) and Nausheen Eusuf’s 2017 poetry collection Not Elegy, But Eros (I was paid to review her book for The Hopkins Review, and afterwards very briefly corresponded with the author). Both books come highly recommended, but there’s your disclaimer.

And with that out of the way, the list proper:

10) Plunge, by Alice Jones (2012)
When it comes to poetry collections, I often find formal experiments to be more memorable than the content of the poems themselves. Such is the case for Alice Jones’s Plunge. Jones is of course capable of crafting a striking image or allowing the language to carry the reader on its music. But what has stayed with me over the past year is the structural conceit. Each poem is an incremental series of smaller pieces, starting with a haiku and building toward a sestina (or vice versa), with certain key words repeated and recontextualized in every iteration. My favorite of the collection, “Valle d’Aosta,” perfectly summarizes Jones’s strategy: “Before we ever saw mountains / we imagined them, heaps of gravel and snow, islands / floating above all we knew.” It’s far from the best collection I’ve ever read, but it’s among the most I’m eager to imitate.

9) Men We Reaped, by Jesmyn Ward (2013)
Equal parts memoir and memorial, Jesmyn Ward’s account of the deaths of five young black men from her hometown takes a little while to find its footing. The narrative alternates between Ward’s own story and the five deaths that touched her life, with the memorial segments told in reverse chronological order, it’s a bit of a struggle to settle into the world of DeLisle, Mississippi. But once the reader gets accustomed to the narrative flow, Ward’s powers of description prove devastating, especially as the book begins to circle the first and final death, that of Ward’s younger brother Joshua. Yet through all the heartache and tragedy, Ward finds a way to press on. “We love each other fiercely,” she writes near the very end, “while we live and after we die. We survive; we are savages.” I’m looking forward to diving into Ward’s fiction in the coming months; I want to see her powers of lyricism and imagination really shine independent of the facts.

8) The Life Around Us: Selected Poems on Nature, by Denise Levertov (1997)
Conventional wisdom holds that love and death are the two most difficult subjects to write good poems about, but I’d personally add nature to that list. Handled poorly and a nature poem is just a pedestrian landscape rendered in language, or else a polemic without any craft. What makes Denise Levertov’s poetry so delightful is the variety of ways she has of approaching the natural world, whether it’s placing uranium mines in the context of colonialism in “What It Could Be” or turning “The Cabbage Field” into a painterly, almost surreal portrait of the sea. This collection would be much higher on the list if not for one baffling editorial decision: the last third of book is dedicated to nothing but descriptions of mountains, and it’s stunning how quickly the book becomes a slog in the home stretch. Had that proverbial mountain range been broken up and spread out, this would probably crack my top three.

7) My Life as a Foreign Country, by Brian Turner (2015)
Brian Turner first came to the attention of the literary world with Here, Bullet, a collection of poems inspired by his time as an American soldier in the Iraq War. It comes as no surprise, then, that his memoir of overseas service, My Life as a Foreign Country, functions as poetry in multiple senses: lyrical language, fragmentary progressions of ideas, and associative leaps between the different threads of the narrative. As with Men We Reaped, this book takes some getting used to, both with its structure and its content. Turner’s recollections are often stomach-churning and infuriating, as any response to war is bound to be, and what makes his account especially gripping is how far the effects of war spread. It colors Turner’s family, his life after returning home, and even his past: there’s a memorable sequence from his childhood where he and his friends make a war film, and the presentation of their backyard fun becomes unnervingly graphic. This is really the only book on this list that I “hyped” myself for, and in the end it surpassed (and circumvented) my expectations.

6) Wolf Moon, Blood Moon, by Edward Falco (2017)
When I write about poems, I usually find myself thinking about the poetic argument, the idea or narrative that the writer wishes to get across as the poem unfolds. This approach, granted, risks treating poetry as essay writing rather than on its own terms, but Ed Falco’s Wolf Moon, Blood Moon is bold enough to embrace this approach. The pieces in this collection present themselves as essays aaddressing large topics, from grief to quantum theory, but along the way their whirlwinds sweep up the intimate details which mark successful poems. “On Language,” for instance, begins with the prosaic notion that “[t]he words we use to instill a sense of the ineffable / Carry us on a journey that’s mysterious,” only to use that thesis to frame a boy’s evolving relationship with his aging father. There were moments reading Falco’s work that made me feel how I did when I first read the later poems of Larry Levis, which coming from me is high praise indeed. Falco is primarily a novelist, but I sincerely hope that he returns to poetry in the future.

5) Ms. Marvel, Vol. 4: Last Days, by G. Willow Wilson and Adrian Alphona (2015)
Kamala Khan’s position as a (diegetically) marginal figure within the Marvel universe comes to a head in Last Days, as the world appears to be on the cusp of ending and the fate of Jersey City looks like an afterthought next to that of New York. Yet it’s in that milieu of hopelessness that everyone’s humanity bursts through most clearly. Kamala’s inevitable team-up with her idol Carol Danvers naturally takes center stage, but it’s her conversations with her mother and brother that make this collection an aesthetically fulfilling experience. And while I’m in no way qualified to discuss visual art, Adrian Alphona’s artwork throughout sells the characters’ emotions and the mood of the world just as much as G. Willow Wilson’s dialogue. Had the world in fact ended for Kamala and company, I couldn’t have asked for a more satisfying conclusion to the story.

4) Proxies: Essays Near Knowing, by Brian Blanchfield (2016)
Here’s a book that I admired enough to write a 2400-word blog post about it while imitating its style. Brian Blanchfield effortlessly manages to blend the abstract and the erudite with the grounded and the intimate. A series of self-searching essays which rely solely on Blanchfield’s memory as a reference for all facts, Proxies is a book which imbue supreme power in words as words, for they are his only certain path to understanding. It is much easier, for instance, for the author to confront how he left (abandoned?) his teaching position at a Massachusetts boarding school if he first interrogates what it means “to withdraw”: “To withdraw—when it doesn’t take an object, like: an offer, or a question, or the troops—to withdraw, as an intransitive verb, is, as it happens, always reflexive. If I withdraw, I withdraw myself. From what?” Proxies is a book that teaches us through example that before we can even hope to sort out our lives’ decisions, we have to figure out what the questions even are.

3) The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, by Michael Chabon (2000)
This is the part of the list where I start praising books that don’t need anyone else’s endorsement, but to hell with it—I love these books. First up is Michael Chabon’s most beloved novel, the story of a Jewish-American duo in the golden age of superhero comics. Sam Clay and Joseph Kavalier’s friendship and art perseveres through business hardships, through anti-Semitic sentiments, through war, and it’s one of the most touching relationships that I’ve read about in a long time. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is also miraculous in its structure, a modern 600-page novel that feels epic but is never sprawling; by the time I closed the covers on it, I only wanted to cut about 50 pages from its length. (Normally, that number is closer to 300.) Even when he’s indulging himself with an extended digression on comic book history, Chabon never loses sight of the novel’s focus, its richly developed characters.

2) Homage to Catalonia, by George Orwell (1938)
Earlier this year, when I wrote about the use of dark comedy in George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, I said that the author’s ability to “find humor in such dire circumstances feels like a testament to human freedom.” The more I think about the book, the more that sentiment rings true for me. Homage to Catalonia is a despairing book, make no mistake. To see how the Communists sold out the leftist cause in the Spanish Civil War to help put the Fascists in power is enough to put a permanent hole in the reader’s heart. Yet months after reading it, I find myself thinking back to Orwell’s time in the P.O.U.M. camp, and the sense of wholly equal comradeship that existed—nay, thrived —in the early days of the conflict, and that tells me that Orwell’s account is no mere exercise in hopelessness. Eighty years after its initial publication, Homage to Catalonia remains vital, and I really mean that in every sense of the word.

1) Middlemarch, by George Eliot (1871-1872)
Between this book and Silas Marner, I’ve come to the conclusion that George Eliot is the most precise observer of human behavior to ever set pen to paper. A depiction of life in a provincial English town circa 1830, Middlemarch has more memorable and fleshed out characters than I could ever hope to discuss coherently. From the emotionally distant and impossibly verbose Casaubon, who wouldn’t feel out of place in a Dickens novel; to the charming but underhanded Rosamond, who is so adept at justifying her secret schemes that one starts halfway siding with her; to Chettam, the Platonic ideal of an elitist jerk. And at the center of it all, we have Lydgate, as brilliant at medicine as he is inept at managing social connections, and Dorothea, a woman so moral and self-sacrificing yet internally conflicted that I’m tempted to call her my new favorite protagonist—except to do so would mean reducing the novel to Dorothea’s story. No, Middlemarch has far more to offer, far more it wishes to offer, than any summary could ever convey. I only finished this book about two weeks ago, but I’ve put it on top because more than anything thing else that I read this year, this is the book I want to shove into the people’s hands and say, “Read this immediately.” You’ll become a better person for the experience.


There’s my list for you. But what are your thoughts on all this? Have you read any of my favorites from this year? Any books you’ve read this year that you’re dying to share with others? Let me know in the comments! And if you’re looking for more book recommendations, you might want to check out my list of modern poetry classics.

The Perils of Point-of-View in Writing Biographies

On this blog, I’ve dedicated a lot of energy to dissecting bits of what I consider to be solid writing, in posts where I’ve highlighted the literary techniques contained within a passage or a poem and argued that they are what make the piece a success. But there’s an important caveat to that sort of discussion that I don’t think I’ve addressed before: there are no intrinsically good techniques, only techniques that are good in some context. If this blog is to be at all useful in exploring writing, I believe it needs to acknowledge that, sometimes, writing can be sterling in the abstract but flawed in a given situation.

To that end, I’d like to look at a passage from the first volume of Blanche Wiesen Cook’s biography of Eleanor Roosevelt, a book which in general is written in a perfectly fine if utilitarian manner, but at one dramatic moment adopts a far more lyrical prose style. The moment in question comes after Eleanor confronts her husband Franklin about his affair with her former secretary, Lucy Mercer, and offers him a divorce. It’s one the emotional low points in Eleanor’s life, so it’s perhaps no surprise that Cook would choose this part of her subject’s narrative to indulge in some rhetorical flair:

He made promises, provided explanations. This “golden boy,” this vibrant “apollo” who charmed everyone he met, now directed all his influence and charm toward his wife. He would never see Lucy Mercer again. Did he apologize? Did he explain? Had he been engaged in a long-overdue emotional rebellion—against being a mama’s boy who always did the right and proper thing; who condemned all departures from the proprieties of his class and culture; who had mocked his half-brother’s son’s love for a socially unacceptable woman and blamed Taddie for his father’s death; who at the young age of twenty-three had taken on the responsibilities of a wife and home? Well, he had erred. Washington was so full of temptations; he had been trying out his new power, his new independence, for the first time in his life. It was a flamboyant, fatuous time. And it was over. He cared about his wife; he loved her. He was sorry he had hurt her. There was so much at stake—so much to do, and to do together. (p. 231)

If you put this passage in a bottle, if you consider it in isolation, it’s rather impressive. In fact, you could probably give this paragraph to an AP Language and Composition class and have the students tear it apart as an exercise. The aim of the passage is to place the reader in FDR’s mind as realizes that his affair has been exposed, and every device that Cook uses serves that goal. There’s the mixture of short paratactic questions (“Did he apologize? Did he explain?”) with looping hypotactic ones (“Had he been engaged…”), both of which highlight Franklin’s excited mental state. The use of anaphora (“who had always…who condemned…who had mocked…who…had taken…”) calls to mind the great persuasive speeches of history, only here it’s directed inward, as though FDR wishes to convince himself of his good nature. Even the insertion of a discourse marker (“Well, he had erred”) is indicative of a mind at work. These devices are not especially advanced or obscure, but there are undeniably effective at achieving Cook’s end here.

But that only raises the question: is that an end worth achieving?

Let’s talk about point-of-view for a bit. We’re perhaps more accustomed to thinking about point-of-view in fiction. Fiction writers, after all, have a great deal of freedom in choosing a POV for their stories. They can use an omniscient narrator, moving from one character’s perspective to another’s, or even describing events outside of anyone’s perspective. They can adopt a quasi-objective, reportorial stance, as in Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants.” Or they can restrict themselves to a single character’s POV, whether in first person or a limited third person. As long as the writer is consistent with regards to POV, they have almost limitless options.

The reason that fiction writers have such freedom is that fictional worlds are entirely of their own creation. In George Eliot’s Middlemarch, for example, the narrator can spend one chapter in Dorothea’s mind, then one in Lydgate’s, then one in Mr. Casaubon’s, and so on, without fear of being inaccurate to the facts of the narrative, because there are no narrative facts as such. The whole story exists as it does solely because George Eliot wrote it that way. But imagine if Middlemarch were literally, as the subtitle has it, a study of provincial life? Suddenly the narrator’s movement from one person’s mind to the next would seem a bit more suspect. The reader would be compelled to ask, “How does she know any of this?”

In Steering the Craft: A 21st-Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story, Ursula K. Le Guin notes that improper shifts in point-of-view are the problem that she encounters most often in unpublished (and even published) writing. That fact on its own did not surprise me when I first read Steering the Craft a few years ago, as it lined up with my own experience in writing workshops. What did surprise me was that Le Guin had found that the problem extended beyond novels and short stories:

It’s a problem even in nonfiction, when the author starts telling the reader what Aunt Jane was thinking and why Uncle Fred swallowed the grommet. A memoirist doesn’t have the right to do this without clearly indicating that Aunt Jane’s thoughts and Uncle Fred’s motives aren’t known facts but the author’s guesswork, opinion, or interpretation. Memoirists can’t be omniscient, even for a moment. (p. 70)

Le Guin frames this defective handling of POV in essentially moral terms: “A memoirist doesn’t have the right to do this.” If a fiction writer mishandles POV, the result is simply a weaker, more confusing story. If a nonfiction writer mishandles POV, the result may be straight-up dishonesty. “To use limited third person in factual narrative,” Le Guin goes on to say, “is to trespass, pretending you know what a real person thought and felt” (p. 71).

Cook isn’t writing a memoir, of course, but I think it’s fair to say that she has the same responsibilities that Le Guin assigns to memoirists. In fact, in her case those responsibilities may be even more pressing. When we read a memoir, we know that we’re getting a personal, edited account of real-life events, that we’re getting only one perspective on the complications of life. But when we read a biography, we expect the author to maintain objectivity, to follow where the facts lead and not to step beyond them.

Reread that passage from the Eleanor Roosevelt biography in this light, and you’ll start to see places where Cook strains against the limits of what can be known about FDR’s mental state after Eleanor’s offer of divorce. The rhetorical questions, which before sounded like an attempt to imagine FDR’s thought process, now sound like a way of sneaking in unfounded speculations without fully committing to them. They suggest that FDR may “have been engaged in a long-overdue emotional rebellion” without providing concrete evidence to support that claim; indeed, Cook follows it up with just further suppositions. In this brief digression into FDR’s mind, Cook has breached the biographer’s contract with the reader.

Yet, in all honesty, I can’t condemn Cook wholeheartedly for this trespass. See, FDR’s affair with Lucy Mercer is a momentous event in Eleanor Roosevelt’s life, as any discovery of infidelity would be, but it’s an event lacking much in the way of documentation. Cook says that Eleanor “wrote of that time only obliquely, and in code” (p. 232). References to the affair in her correspondence are scant to say the least, and her memoir devotes just a passing thought to the moment of discovery described above. (Even memoirs with consistent POVs, it is worth remembering, are not 100% factual accounts, either.)

This leaves Cook in a quandary regarding the Lucy Mercer affair. She can either stick to what the documentary record and interviews with Eleanor’s surviving acquaintances reveal, and say less than what the affair would appear to deserve; or she can speculate beyond what those limited sources have to say, sacrificing strict accuracy in the hopes of obtaining a perhaps unobtainable truth. This is not a choice that I find enviable, but is the choice that a writer in Cook’s position must make. I think either decision could be justified, but one must accept the consequences in either case.


But what do you think? Are there any cases you can think of where a biography has benefited from the sort of POV shift we talked about here? Is it ethical for a biographer to make such a shift in the first place? Let me know in the comments!

If you’re in the mood for something more thought on biography, here’s a piece I wrote last month about Frank Brady’s biography of Bobby Fischer, which looks into the duties we owe to abjectly awful people. Or, if you’re looking for more on point-of-view, here’s a post on Luisa Valenzuela’s “The Sin of the Apple,” a story that can teach us how to write from the POV of inanimate objects.

And, as always, thanks for reading!

Searching for Bobby Fischer’s Soul: A Reflection

EndgameThere’s a moment near the end of Frank Brady’s 2011 biography Endgame: Bobby Fischer’s Remarkable Rise and Fall—from America’s Brightest Prodigy to the Edge of Madness which both caught me off guard and,did not surprise me in the slightest. In late 2007, as Fischer was slowly dying in an Icelandic hospital, Dr. Magnus Skulasson, a psychiatrist (though not Fischer’s psychiatrist), frequently came to visit him, just to give Fischer some friendly company in his last weeks.

I’ll let Brady pick up the moment from there:

Bobby asked him to bring foods and juices to the hospital, which he did, and often Skulasson just sat at the bedside, both men not speaking. When Bobby was experiencing severe pain in his legs, Skulasson began to massage them, using the back of his hand. Bobby looked at him and said, “Nothing soothes as much as the human touch.” Once Bobby woke and said: “Why are you so kind to me?” Of course, Skulasson had no answer. (p. 318)

Just in terms of the prose, it’s clear that Brady finds this moment arresting, too. There’s that colon right before Bobby’s question, which signals that whatever follows is going to be significant. And that tossed-off “Of course” right before the last clause just underscores how difficult answering that question is. Why should Skulasson be kind to Bobby Fischer? Or rather, why should anyone be kind to him?

And if we’re going to hope to answer that question, then we’re going to need some context.

Bobby Fischer, at the very least in the United States, is history’s most famous chess player. His 1956 “Game of the Century” against Donald Byrne is one of the most celebrated games ever played; his triumph over Boris Spassky in the World Chess Championship 1972 represents the height of chess’s cultural and political relevance. Every rising American player from Joshua Waitzkin to Fabiano Caruana is heralded as “the next Bobby Fischer.” His name may as well be synonymous with chess.

Fischer was also a wretched human being. Even in our current political moment, when antisemitism and violent rhetoric are once again on the rise, his comments on Jewish people and September 11th are still shocking in their virulence. I had long known Fischer was “politically incorrect,” to dress things up politely, but reading excerpts from his press conferences and radio interviews made my eyes bulge. And that’s to say nothing of his day-to-day interactions with people. Fischer was consistently petulant, dismissive, ungrateful, and paranoid. The fact that anyone could stand to be in his presence for more than three minutes is itself a revelation.

Reading Endgame, I kept waiting for the moment when people would finally give up on Bobby Fischer. But no matter how many paranoid and hateful rants he’d subject his friends and colleagues to, no matter how often he’d respond to generosity with bile, people kept reaching out to him, kept giving him second chances. Chess masters would give him companionship and a place to stay while he was a fugitive. Admirers would write him letters and plead for his picture. A whole consortium of Icelandic public figures spent godless amounts of time and effort to extract him from his imprisonment in Japan. All that attention and affection, given to someone manifestly unworthy of it. Why?

Part of the answer, undoubtedly, lies in Fischer’s celebrity status. Fame invariably will grant one the benefit of the doubt in the eyes of the public. After all, one might argue, Fischer’s accomplishments in chess are undeniable: aesthetically, theoretically, technologically and economically, he did so much for the game. His victory in the World Chess Championship 1972 more or less put the city of Reykjavík on the map. It’s disappointing that so many people were willing to overlook or excuse his behavior, but I can’t say it’s too shocking, either. It’s not like the world is free of Cosby and Polanski apologists.

Second, especially in his earlier years, it’s not as though Fischer the person was wholly undeserving of sympathy. His childhood was far from idyllic: his family struggled financially for many years, and his mother was under government surveillance due to her left-wing political activities. And he seems to have been searching for purpose in his life for decades. Before he really embraced antisemitism as a guiding ethos—the same way, I suppose, one might try embracing a cactus for comfort—Fischer was an unofficial member of the Worldwide Church of God, an apocalyptic Christian denomination to which he tithed a good chunk of his world championship winnings. However, there’s only so much that a difficult life can account for, and calling for the mass murder of Jews is way, way beyond that.

That’s why, to bring this back to the beginning, Magnus cannot possibly have an answer to the question, “Why are you so kind to me?” It’s a level of kindness that defies reason, perhaps even rejects it. We can say, as Brady does off-handedly a few paragraphs earlier, that Magnus “had a great reverence for the accomplishments of Bobby Fischer and an affection for him as a man” (p. 318). But that’s not really an explanation; at most, it just pushes the question back down a level: “Why do you have affection for me as a man?” I mean, I still get chills watching Fischer’s mating combination in the Game of the Century, and I wouldn’t want to be in the same country as him.

Still, whereas every other time someone helped Fischer out filled me with frustration, Magnus’s leg-stroking inspired some more ambiguous feeling in me. The end of Fischer’s life is the rare spot in Endgame where he seems truly helpless. Yes, he’d been facing the threat of extradition to the United States for 15 years, but he also had the resources and stature to evade that threat for just as long. Yes, he’d gotten roughed up while in custody at Narita International Airport for traveling with an invalid passport, but that felt like perverted justice rather than injustice per se. But Fischer lying prone, vulnerable, in a hospital bed? That was something almost pitiable.

Tony Hoagland has a poem called “Lucky,” whose opening stanza has stuck with me ever since I first read it back in 2013:

If you are lucky in this life,
you will get to help your enemy
the way I got to help my mother
when she was weakened past the point of saying no. (lines 1-4)

I’ve never been certain what Hoagland means here. Is this a wish that we treat our enemy with pity, that we find a way to be a better person? Or is helping someone when they are “weakened past the point of saying no” a sort of cruelty, an act of revenge we’d be dying to enact?

And, however you answer that question, is that the sort of thing that you would want to do to someone like Bobby Fischer?

 

Play the Hits, But Play Them Slant: On Steven Hyden’s “Twilight of the Gods”

I used to read a lot of Steven Hyden columns when I was in high school and undergrad. I’d look forward every month to him and Genevieve Koski debating the merits of various Hot 100 songs for The A.V. Club’s “This Was Pop” feature, and I immensely enjoyed some of the essay series he authored, such as Whatever Happened to Alternative Nation? (The A.V. Club, 2010) and The Winners’ History of Rock and Roll (Grantland, 2013). The way Hyden gracefully ties together basic rock history with his personal experiences, growing up in small-town Wisconsin and developing a fascination with classic rock, always appealed to me. After all, I felt I could relate to that story. I, too, was from a kid from the boondocks who became infatuated with the culture of the recent past.

However, I stopped keeping up with his work after Grantland, where he was a staff writer, ceased publication in 2015, and so I wasn’t aware that Hyden was still writing until I came across Brooke’s review of Twilight of the Gods: A Journey to the End of Classic Rock (Dey Street, 2018). Seeing that review triggered some warm memories for me, and I immediately put the book on my to-read list.

HydenStill, I went into Twilight of the Gods with an uncertain feeling, not because I didn’t know what to expect, but because I was fairly sure that I did. How much of the book, I thought to myself, would be brand new (or at least, new-to-me) insights and arguments, and how much would be reworded or repeated versions of past columns, ones that I had already read for free? That’s really something one must keep in mind when reading any book by a columnist: the possibility that you’ve literally read this all before.

Reprinting older material in a new format is, I want to stress, not necessarily a bad impulse. A contemporary short story collection may consist entirely of pieces first published in The New Yorker, but having a single volume of stories is certainly less cumbersome than tracking down a dozen random back issues of a magazine. And the ways an author orders and revises those stories may illuminate certain themes or connections among them that reading the stories in isolation would never reveal. Twilight of the Gods, I felt the need to remind myself, could do much the same for Hyden’s music writing.

With that as preamble, I’m going to ask two questions of this book. First: to what extent is Twilight of the Gods a rehashing of Hyden’s previous work? Second: in what ways does Hyden repackage that material, and do those methods improve the experience of reading it?

Question 1: What Have We Seen Before?

According to the book’s copyright page, four of its nineteen chapters contain direct reprintings of previously published material: three from The A.V. Club and one from Uproxx (which comes from that period after I’d lost touch with Hyden). That was actually less than I’d expected, and I only noticed one of them during my read-through: the chapter entitled “Keep On Loving You,” on 1970s and 1980s “corporate rock,” which reuses a large portion of his essay on REO Speedwagon’s 1981 album Hi Infidelity. I might use this as evidence that Hyden has good taste in his own work, as I’d rank that article among the best pieces he’s written. If Twilight of the Gods accomplished nothing else, I would still be glad that it helped preserve a solid piece of writing.

Of course, a writer can repeat themselves without doing so verbatim. Some sections are technically new pieces of writing but bare striking resemblances to earlier works. A good example is the Aerosmith section of the drugged-out rocker chapter, “Draw the Line,” which reads like a slightly condensed version of the band’s part in The Winners’ History of Rock and Roll. The two versions hit all the same beats: Aerosmith starts as a band famous for their party-ready music and their drugged-fueled creative process, who fall off for several years before they embrace sobriety and professional songwriters and attain even greater commercial success, serving as an exemplar of society’s changing attitudes towards drug use and artistry. Both versions even go out of their way to mention how getting Aerosmith concert tickets is a plot point in Dazed and Confused. The expression of the ideas differs, but the substance is mostly the same.

Beyond arguments and insights, Hyden has a habit of reusing anecdotes outside their original context. For example, that Hi Infidelity article mentioned above opens with a bit about Hyden’s mother excitedly confusing R.E.M. with REO Speedwagon, but that doesn’t appear in the corporate rock chapter. Instead, it’s included as an aside-within-an-aside in the chapter about live albums, “Hello There (Live at Budokan).” The book is peppered with moments like that: brief flashes which would only draw attention if, like me, you had no life seven years ago and reread Hyden’s columns like they were about to go sour.

From all the above, I’d say that, to someone familiar with Hyden’s previous work, Twilight of the Gods will definitely sound familiar, but the experience of reading it won’t be completely redundant. Whether that’s enough to make the book worth a read is up to you—and if you’ve never read Hyden, I suspect it’s wholly irrelevant.

With that out of the way, let’s turn to the more interesting question.

Question 2: How Has It Been Repackaged?

Let’s start this section off with the macro-level, and get the book’s major misstep out of the way. Hyden structures these otherwise loosely-connected essays around Joseph Campbell’s notion of the monomyth, or hero’s journey. The book is broken up into four parts, each of which is named for a section of the hero’s journey, from the start of their quest to their moment of transcendence. In practical terms, this means that each section’s essays roughly touch on the same theme: one section will talk about the roots of the classic rock, another about the decadence and corruption associated with it, another with the format’s decline in popularity, etc.

For the record, I tend to find the popular usage of Campbell to be rather tedious in the best of times, but in the case of Twilight of the Gods it actively weakens the book by asking the reader to look for a progression that doesn’t exist. Hyden knows that explaining classic rock is too messy a subject to fit into this sort of straitjacket, and for all the personal moments in the book, they’re not focused enough for the collection to be a work of self-revelation. It is true that Hyden often wants to highlight the quasi-spiritual aspects of being a classic rock fan, saying he was drawn to “the mythology of it, which satisfied the part of my psyche that demanded connection to a vast, awe-inspiring reality.” But there would simpler ways of conveying that notion than halfheartedly gesturing towards some hero’s journey.

I think Hyden would have done better to keep the connective tissue linking the essays to a minimum, because his quiet callbacks to earlier pieces can be pretty powerful. The best example is from “Keep On Loving You,” right as he closes out the REO Speedwagon section, where he refers back to earlier essays about his teenage passion for the classic rock staples in a moment of empathy with his mother:

My mom would never describe Hi Infidelity in these terms, but I think REO Speedwagon for her represented a more down-to-earth version of the rock mythos. As a kid, I was attracted to larger-than-life rock stars with exaggerated personas rooted in decadent mysticism. I longed to go on a misty mountain hop and venture all the way to the dark side of the moon. But my mother was too experienced to buy into those silly, pie-in-the-sky fantasies. What she longed for was more mundane but in a way no less fanciful—a decent guy who was earnest about love. That’s why Hi Infidelity made her heart sing. Her notes might have been off-key, but they were true.

Importantly, this closing paragraph is not part of the original piece of Hi Infidelity. It’s the sort of insight that Hyden probably had previously come to, but which didn’t fit in with that first conception of the piece. In the context of a broader account of classic rock, though, Hyden has a justification for making that link between mother and son in the text itself.

Even within individual essays, Hyden finds ways to refine points he has previously mulled over, finding new significance for them in the context of classic rock’s complete story. The most explicit instance is in “So Bad,” in which Hyden directly quotes his essay on the “five-albums test.” In a long parenthetical to that essay, he also defines the concept of a “good ‘bad’ album,” an album from a genius-level artist which is interesting precisely because of its relative badness. (As a long time fan of Neil Young, I am overly acquainted with this sort of record.)

Twilight of the Gods isn’t the first time that Hyden has returned to the “good ‘bad’ album” concept; he ran with it a bit further when discussing The Rolling Stones’ 1981 album Tattoo You. But in both those earlier articles, one can sense Hyden feels stymied. He has this idea about “good ‘bad’ albums,” but hasn’t yet figured out why anyone should care about it. (Indeed, the Tattoo You piece starts with Hyden expressing surprise that no one had latched onto the idea in the comments for the five-albums test article.) It’s not until he gets to this book, this personal history of classic rock, that he finds the importance behind this pet concept of his—it’s central to being a younger fan of older music:

It’s the only way to discover “new” music if you’re into classic rock—you must dig into the albums that people tell you that you won’t like, and you must listen to them many, many times until you find a way to like them. Because you will inevitably tire of Pet Sounds, and when that happens you will come around to Love You and marvel over the daffy synth sounds in “Johnny Carson,” and speculate over whether Brian Wilson’s state of mind makes this song an intentional classic or an act of unintentional “outsider art” brilliance. Over time, you might even convince yourself that Love You is better than Pet Soundsbut, really, it’s just that liking Love You is more interesting, because music critics haven’t told you how to feel about it for fifty years. Love You doesn’t contain better music than Pet Sounds, but it does offer more in the way of discovery and surprises.

As a writer, this is the sort of thing I wish every big project would give me. Putting together a collection should not merely be a means of presenting previously written material. It should be a means of figuring out what the author wanted to write in the first-place, but couldn’t figure out until now. That Hyden is able to do so in Twilight of the Gods makes me both envious and hopeful.

On the whole, Twilight of the Gods isn’t a revelation for someone who has previously read Hyden’s work, but, lackluster superstructure aside, it’s a chance to see Hyden’s writing as the best version of itself, a place to see thoughts which were still works-in-progress or presented incompletely as the tight statements on music they were meant to be. It’s like listening to a bunch of Fleetwood Mac demos, and then hearing their polished versions on Rumours. They may ultimately be the same songs, but the compiling and revising has made them sparkle just a bit more.

*          *          *

Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed this and want to read more pieces which straddle the line between review and analysis, you might like to read my thoughts on A Journey Through Tudor England by Suzannah Lipscomb.

The Dark Comedy of George Orwell’s “Homage to Catalonia”

Until recently, if you had asked to me summarize the mood of George Orwell’s writings in one word, that word would be “terrifying.” In his two best-known works, Animal Farm (1945) and Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949),  Orwell’s depictions of totalitarian regimes are so plainly stated, with his prose possessing the bare minimum of ornament, that each spirit-crushing event in those novels comes across as inevitable. One leaves those books with a dull pain all around the heart, even if it’s accompanied by the urge to resist the coming catastrophe.

Homage to CataloniaRecently, though, I’ve started to revise that assessment, now that I’ve read through what is probably his third best-known book: Homage to Catalonia.

First published in the United Kingdom in 1938 and in the United States in 1952, Homage to Catalonia is Orwell’s personal account of his time spent fighting against the Fascists in the Spanish Civil War. Given the dire subject matter, I assumed that the mood of the work would match that of Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four. And indeed, Homage to Catalonia often leaves me despondent and feeling brutalized by the progress of history.

But it also shows, somehow, that Orwell is also quite adept at dark comedy.

I don’t want to say that Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four are entirely devoid of humor. The former in particular has some nice comical moments—I mean, it is a satire, after all. In particular, I’m thinking of Squealer’s justifications for the privileges the pigs seize for themselves, which read as though he’s crossed Pravda with Pangloss. But that humor takes place on the level of language; there’s not much humor on the level of situation. And, one may ask, how can there be? Those situations are rather deathly.

Yet in Homage to Catalonia, Orwell finds exactly that: scenarios which, by their sheer absurdity, get the reader to chuckle, though perhaps with a deep, doubtful sigh right afterward. I first noticed this fairly early on, near the end of Chapter III, where Orwell recounts a few instances where, by carelessness or miscommunication, he and his comrades almost die from friendly fire. Each near-miss merits a muted trumpet in the mind’s ear. The last sentence of the chapter neatly summarizing things: “In this war everyone always did miss everyone else, when it was humanly possible” (p. 37).

Now, in a war narrative, the presence of dark comedy is not exactly a revelation; the literature of war is riddled with spots of black humor, with the jokes soldiers tell as temporary relief from the strain of duty. What makes Homage to Catalonia interesting, I think, is how it uses that humor for more than just comic relief or satiric commentary. These moments of dark comedy are pivotal to understanding Orwell’s personal journey in the book.

To that end, I’d like to look at a passage from near the midpoint of the work, just before the turning point of Orwell’s fortunes. In Chapter VII (or Chapter VI in later editions which turned Chapter V into Appendix I), Orwell recounts a significant military operation he participated in, a mission to attack and raid a Fascist redoubt as part of the effort to capture the city of Huesca. After Orwell’s party manages to break through, Orwell spots a “shadowy figure,” one of the Fascists, and gives chase:

I started after him, prodding my bayonet ineffectually into the darkness. As I rounded the corner of the hut I saw a man—I don’t know whether or not it was the same man I had seen before—fleeing up the communication-trench that led to the other Fascist position. I must have been very close to him, for I could see him clearly. He was bareheaded and seemed to have nothing on except a blanket which he was clutching round his shoulders. If I had fired I could have blown him to pieces. But for fear of shooting one another we had been ordered to use only bayonets once we were inside the parapet, and in any case I never even thought of firing. Instead, my mind leapt backwards twenty years, to our boxing instructor at school, showing me in vivid pantomime how he had bayoneted a Turk at the Dardanelles. I gripped my rifle by the small of the butt and lunged at the man’s back. He was just out my reach. Another lunge: still out of reach. And for a little distance we proceeded like this, he rushing up the trench and I after him on the ground above, prodding at his shoulder-blades and never quite getting there—a comic memory for me to look back upon, though I suppose it seemed less comic to him. (p. 92)

First, let’s consider this passage in isolation. Even if you don’t find this scene especially humorous, one can still see the elements of solid farce here: Orwell bumbling about with his bayonet, the possibility of mistaken identity, and the fact that the man Orwell is chasing “seemed to have nothing on except a blanket.” And the chase itself, with the two men running on different levels as Orwell keeps coming oh-so-close to stabbing his target, wouldn’t feel out of place is a silent slapstick movie. Throw on the understatement at the very end of the paragraph—no kidding “it seemed less comic” to fleeing Fascist—and the result is a sustained moment of comic relief. It’s the sort of anecdote one could whip out at a party without causing much consternation in the audience.

Within the context of the narrative as a whole, though, the humor of this passage is less relieving than it is deflating. On multiple occasions leading up to this sequence, Orwell states that one of his desires in fighting for the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War is to kill a Fascist. In Chapter IV, after he realizes that in his first three weeks in Catalonia he’s fired a grand total of three shots, he remarks: “They say it takes a thousand bullets to kill a man, and at this rate it would be twenty years before I killed my first Fascist” (p. 41). He’s less contemplative there than impatient, an impatience that reappears near the end of Chapter V/Appendix I: “When I joined the militia I had promised myself to kill one Fascist—after all, if each of us killed one they would soon be extinct—and I had killed nobody yet, had hardly had the chance to do so” (p.70).

So here finally comes Orwell’s chance to do his part in the anti-Fascist cause: no more waiting around in the trenches, no more risking enemy fire just to gather firewood. He’s part of an assault on a Fascist redoubt, he finds an enemy combatant ripe for the gutting…and it’s a guy who appears to be fleeing from him half-naked. I obviously can’t know how exactly Orwell envisioned his first chance to kill a Fascist, but I’m fairly certain that running around like a farmer chasing a fox off his property with a pitchfork was not part of the fantasy.

But that implication of the passage is merely disappointing. There’s another aspect to it that strikes me foreboding, perhaps even tragic. Up to this point, I haven’t touched on that peculiar flashback Orwell has before he begins his thrusting campaign in earnest, the one where he remembers his boxing teacher telling war stories. On first read-through, I wasn’t sure what to make of that little diversion, but after thinking through the context some more, I think I have an angle on it.

First, there’s something trivializing about that flashback. At the moment Orwell has a chance to capture some military glory, his thoughts turn not to, say, the heroes of ancient mythologies, or to some iconography from war propaganda, but rather to a memory of schooling. Instead of going high and noble, he turns low and common. Further, the flashback represents how most people encounter combat: in abstractions, either secondhand through testimony (the war story), or in ritualized, rule-bound contests (the boxing lesson).

Second, the boxing instructor’s war story, while framed as a personal triumph, comes in the context of ultimate failure. The instructor tells (or rather, pantomimes) of “how he had bayoneted a Turk at the Dardanelles,” referring to the Gallipoli Campaign of 1915-1916, which was a notable exercise in futility for the Allied forces in World War I. They spent almost a year attempting to seize control of the Dardanelles, the strategically-important strait connecting the Mediterranean to the Sea of Marmara, en route to capturing the Ottoman capital of Istanbul, before giving up after having gained virtually no ground following the landing at Gallipoli. One can see a parallel between Orwell’s situation and the instructor’s: while the raid on the Fascist redoubt is a minor success, the greater anti-Fascist cause will prove a bloody calamity.

Bringing up the Gallipoli campaign also highlights the tragicomic irony of war. As Paul Fussell writes in The Great War and Modern Memory, “Every war is ironic because every war is worse than expected” (p.7). The Gallipoli campaign was supposed to be easy—aren’t all such operations?—as the battle would be waged against Ottoman forces that UK leadership believed were wildly inferior to British might. The result was a costly, diseased-ridden quagmire. By the same token, Orwell enters the Spanish Civil War with such simple purpose: he’s going to kill a Fascist and help defeat Fascism. Only after living with the conflict for some time, after enduring the bitter cold nights and the injuries of war and the Communist Party’s sabotage of the anti-Fascist effort, does Orwell learn the complexity beneath that simple purpose.

It is not for nothing that Chapter VIII, a summary reflection following the successful raid on the Fascist redoubt, ends with the bleak sentiment: “And after that the trouble began” (p. 107). In the subsequent chapters, Orwell will live through the street-war for the Telephone Exchange in Barcelona, the suppression of the P.O.U.M. and the mass arrests of its members, and a bullet through his throat that almost robs him of the ability to speak.

Yet for how bleak this all sounds—and is—the mere presence of dark comedy in Homage to Catalonia suggests one final thing about Orwell’s work here: there is still room for hope. This isn’t Nineteen Eighty-Four, where one suspects Newspeak is a language incapable of intentional comedy as well as political dissent. That Orwell can find humor in such dire circumstances feels like a testament to human freedom. Indeed, while Orwell grows disillusioned with the Communist Party as an institution, his time spent in the P.O.U.M. camp makes his “desire to see Socialism established much more actual than it had been before” (p. 105). Even when the fight is hopeless, a cause may still be worth pursuing.

If you enjoyed this look into the literature of war, you may also be interested in my analysis of Thomas Moore’s Irish melody, “The Minstrel Boy.”