Classics Club #1: “The Dyer’s Hand” by W. H. Auden

For a number of reasons, I knew that I wanted to start my Classics Club project with a look at W. H. Auden’s The Dyer’s Hand. For one, of all the books on my list, it’s the only one that I’d read any part of; during the first semester of my MFA program, I had to read several essays from the book and then write poems inspired by them. For another, as a work of literary criticism, I thought that The Dyer’s Hand might provide a high-level view from which to consider the rest of the books on the list. And for a third, it just happened to be next on my queue regardless.

But while I was reading it, I found it difficult to settle on a direction to take this post. After the first three or four essays, I thought about comparing Auden’s fragmentary style to the philosophical inquiries of Ludwig Wittgenstein, but then Auden’s style became more streamlined and structured as the collection went on. I thought about comparing my thoughts on various artworks to Auden’s, but let’s just say that he’s seen Don Giovanni infinitely more times than I have. And I thought about discussing the Ariel/Prospero distinction he mentions in his essay on Robert Frost, until I remembered that I wrote such an essay in grad school and decided I didn’t want to repeat myself.

I was completely stuck, until I happened upon a discussion that has apparently been raging across the internet: the state of the negative review. It’s a topic that the book-blogging community raises frequently (see, for instance, this post from Krysta of Pages Unbound), but of late the topic has come up more in the popular press. In recent months we’ve seen Kyle Paoletta decry the overly-celebratory nature of TV criticism for The Baffler, Rob Harvilla contemplate the role of the take-down in the age of social media for The Ringer, and sci-fi author John Scalzi defend the virtues of the pan on his blog. And I found all this fascinating in the context of The Dyer’s Hand, because if high-brow W. H. Auden were to walk into this conversation that’s been going on, he’d actually be the most skeptical of the negative review’s value.

In the first essay in The Dyer’s Hand, entitled “Reading,” Auden says that a critic ought to perform at least one of the following tasks when discussing a work:

1) Introduce me to authors or works of which I was hitherto unaware.

2) Convince me that I have undervalued an author or a work because I had not read them carefully enough.

3) Show me relations between works of different ages and cultures which I could never have seen for myself because I do not know enough and never shall.

4) Give a “reading” of a work which increases my understanding of it.

5) Throw light upon the process of artistic “Making.”

6) Throw light upon the relation of art to life, to science, economics, ethics, religion, etc.

The Dyer’s Handpp. 8-9

Looking closely at this list, one can conclude that Auden doesn’t really see aesthetic appraisal as a vital role for the critic. Auden’s ideal critics should provide context, draw connections, share discoveries, and reveal truths, but it’s not clear that they should provide up-or-down judgments as to whether a book is good. The task which comes closest here is the second, and even there, it would seen that Auden wants the critic to go in a specific direction: to show that a work is better (or perhaps just more interesting) than the audience had given it credit for. He does not advocate that critics tear down works which they believe have been wrongly praised.

Indeed, throughout “Reading,” Auden is skeptical of the notion that writing bad reviews serves any purpose, and he addresses either directly or implicitly some of the common arguments in favor of the practice. An obvious argument would be that writing a negative review will persuade readers not to waste their time on a given work. But Auden reminds us that even a negative review acts as publicity and keeps a work in the current conversation. “Had Macaulay never written his review of Robert Montgomery,” he writes, “we would not today be still under the illusion that Montgomery was a great poet” (p. 10). Instead, Auden would have advised Macaulay to remain silent on the matter, allowing Montgomery’s work to fade into obscurity.

I’ll admit, I find this argument to be Auden’s weakest, or rather the least generally applicable. Being a poet, Auden naturally has poetry on his mind as he’s writing this essay. Even by the standards of book publishing, the poetry market is incredibly small; one could probably count on one hand the number of people making a living solely off revenue from writing poems. There aren’t any big marketing campaigns to smear the latest chapbooks across the public consciousness, so reviews are basically all the advertising a poet may get. Thus, if their collection is terrible and no one wants to review it, then it will almost certainly be forgotten for all time. But the same rules don’t apply to Hollywood films and popular TV shows. The machinery supporting those cultural products is so large and powerful that there is little chance of them simply withering in the darkness.

But at other points, Auden’s critique of the negative review seems not only reasonable, but also insightful. For example, he takes up the notion that one must critique bad works of art, lest those works inspire artists to make even more inferior pieces. The problem with that argument is that influence doesn’t necessarily work like that. Those who make bad works of art often draw inspiration from masterpieces; they simply lack the skill or vision to duplicate their forebears’ successes. Think about how many terrible student films come from kids who fashion themselves the next Quentin Tarantino or David Fincher. “The more powerful and original a writer,” says Auden, “the more dangerous he is to lesser talents who are trying to find themselves. On the other hand, works which were in themselves poor have often proved a stumulus [sic] to the imagination and become the indirect cause of good work in others” (p. 10). That last point rings especially true for me: I find I have far more success in writing when I use mediocre poets as a model, rather than trying to write something like Milton or Dryden.

This is not to say that Auden sees no value in the take-down. First, he concedes that in practice, critics often can’t just refuse to review a bad work. The terms of their employment may require them to write something, and if they can’t stay silent then they’ll at least be honest. Second, Auden still believes that the “corruption of the language” should be “continually publicly attacked,” but even then he says the true culprit is not the work in question but “the misuse of language by the man-in-the-street, journalists, politicians, etc.” (p. 11). But that’s about as far as Auden is willing to go in this essay. Personally, I’d carve out a larger space for the negative review. In particular, the belief that one should connect a work “to life, to science, economics, ethics, religion, etc.” requires that a critic call out harmful or dishonest artworks when they encounter them, lest we pretend the realms of art and life are somehow separable. And the more prominent a work is in the culture, the more harm it can do, and the less compelling Auden’s arguments seem to become.

It will be interesting to see whether I can, or whether I should, keep to the spirit of Auden’s position for the rest of my Classic Club posts. At the very least, I always want to keep those six tasks he listed in mind when writing a post. I’m certain that I’ll dislike at least some of the next forty-nine books I read for this project, but whatever I write about them should have some substance beyond mere vitriol. It may be true that, as Auden claims, [o]ne cannot review a bad book without showing off” (p.11). But I’m sure one can do so without just showing off.


Please feel free to share your thoughts on The Dyer’s Hand or on negative reviews in the comments below. If you’d like to get a sense of what’s on the horizon for my Classics Club project, you can access my list of fifty books here. And as always, thank you for reading.

Recent Publication: Cumberland River Review

I’m happy to announce that one of my poems, “Overland Express Arriving at Helena, Mont.,” has just been published in Issue 8-1 of the Cumberland River Review, the literary magazine affiliated with Trevecca Nazarene University in Nashville, Tennessee.

This poem is part of loose series that I’ve been writing in response to the films of Edison Studios, or at least the ones that you can find on the Library of Congress’s YouTube channel. Overland Express Arriving at Helena, Mont. depicts exactly what its title suggests: a train pulling into a station in Big Sky Country. I was especially drawn to the film’s intense contrast in values, with the pure white sky looming over, and then giving way to, the dark commotion of the platform below.

You can read my poem about this film at the link above.

If you are curious about the other poems in this series, I have had a poem inspired by The Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots published in Tar River Poetry (under the title “Edison Studios”) and have another one, based on Luis Martinetti, forthcoming in The McNeese Review.

Special thanks to Graham Hillard and the rest of the team at CRR for including my work in their magazine. I have another poem, unrelated to all these Edison Studios pieces, forthcoming in CRR later this year.

Marianne Moore’s “No Swan So Fine”: An Analysis

Marianne Moore wasn’t my favorite poet who I studied as part of my MFA, but she was one of my favorite characters. The way that Elizabeth Bishop describes in particular is just so charming: an almost comically old-fashioned woman who happened to have an experimental flair for poetry, an erudite thinker with popular appeal. I admired her in concept without loving her in fact. At least, that is, until I really stopped to analyze today’s poem, “No Swan So Fine.”

The poem, which you can read over at the Poetry Foundation website, is in many ways the perfect poem to start off the new year with. After all, a new year is a time of transition, a time to reflect upon the past and confront the uncertainty of the present moment. I’m hard-pressed to think of poems that quite capture that anxious attitude toward time like this one does.

We might as well begin with the quote that opens the poem: “No water so still as the / dead fountains of Versailles” (lines 1-2). If you’re not familiar with Marianne Moore’s style, your first question entering the poem may concern who is speaking there, and why we never hear from that person again. As it happens, the opening quote is not dialogue at all, but rather a line that Moore came across while reading the New York Times Magazine. This is one of Moore’s many trademark moves: incorporating material from mundane, non-poetic sources into her own work. If you’ve ever read her most famous piece, “Poetry,” you’ll recall that she did not think it “valid / to discriminate against ‘business documents and // school books’; all these phenomena are important” (17-19). For Moore, profound and fruitful material could be found everywhere.

In this case, the opening quote comes from an article that Percy Phillip wrote for the New York Times Magazine about the restoration of the Palace of Versailles, the grand home of the Bourbon dynasty for the century prior to the French Revolution. As the tone of the quoted material indicates, Phillip found that the restoration still left that symbol of the Ancien Régime feeling sterile, yet because the statement is framed as an absolute, there’s still a sort of grandeur to the setting. Little wonder, then, that Moore found the line inspiring, for it’s the exact sort of language that she extols in “Poetry.”

Where Moore places the line within the poem, however, is somewhat unusual for her work. Generally, these quotes from brochures and technical manuals and whatnot happen in the middle of her poems, occurring almost casually within the verse. In the case of “No Swan So Fine,” though, Moore uses the quote to open the poem, where it blurs the line between text and paratext; were it not for the visual presentation, one might mistake it for an epigraph. In fact, the line more or less functions as one, because the quote directly inspires the speaker’s reflections that comprise the poem.

From that line in the New York Times Magazine, the speaker makes an associative leap to an ornamental swan “[l]odged in the Louis Fifteenth / candelabrum-tree” (8-9). As Grace Shulman writes in Marianne Moore: The Poetry of Engagement (excerpt available on the University of Illinois website), the real-life piece Moore had in mind was a candelabra owned by former British Prime Minister Lord Balfour, which had recently been auctioned off. Both the palace and the swan are antiques of a declining aristocracy, pieces of history whose auras have faded through time.

The speaker’s feeling toward the swan seems ambivalent, to judge by the language used to describe it. To get a sense that ambivalence, let’s look at that first stanza in full:

"No water so still as the
    dead fountains of Versailles." No swan,
with swart blind look askance
and ambidextrous legs, so fine
    as the chintz china one with fawn-
brown-eyes and toothed gold
    collar on to show whose bird it was. (1-7)

On the one hand, there is a regal quality to the verse here, which comes through strongly in the stanza form. As with many of Moore’s early poem, “No Swan So Fine” is built on what Lewis Turco would call quantitative syllabics: repeated stanzas with the same arbitrary pattern in the number of syllables per line. In this case, the stanza form is 7-8-6-8-8-5-9. (Granted, this requires one to use the archaic one-syllable pronunciation of “flowers” in line 14, but such archaisms are not exactly unwelcome given the subject.) Compared with other Moore poems in quantitative syllabics, which often juxtapose Whitman-esque line-lengths with Williams-esque ones, the line lengths of “No Swan So Fine” are relatively regular, with only the last two lines of each stanza differing all that much from the mean.

Further, Moore had a predilection for so-called light rhymes, which are so soft that read aloud they hardly register; one needs to read “The Fish” on the page, for instance, to realize that it rhymes “an” with “fan” and “the” with “sea.” There are no such light rhymes in “No Swan So Fine.” This first stanza’s sole rhyme, “swan” and “fawn,” hits so strongly, despite “fawn” coming as part of a hyphenated compound, that I’m tempted to call this poem Moore’s version of heroic couplets: composed, self-contained, and befitting high subject matter.

While the form of “No Swan So Fine” looks like how a modernist would mourn the decline of aristocratic society, the diction of the poem tends to knock down such nostalgia. While there is something majestic about this statue’s “swart blind look askance,” the speaker mentioning its “ambidextrous legs” only calls attention to the statue’s fundamental inability to move; at any rate, “ambidextrous” is far too functional and clinical a term to “properly” elevate its subject. (Moore would perhaps disagree, but imagine Dryden praising a bird in this fashion.) Or consider the “chintz china” material. While “chintz” can describe a floral pattern originally used in fabric, it also calls to mind the word “chintzy,” meaning gaudy or cheap. Add on that “toothed gold / collar,” and you can envision a statue that is really a grotesque parody of old-money opulence.

Yet just when the reader may start suspecting that Moore looks at the swan sculpture the way Phillip looks at Versailles, the second stanza pulls back on that “look askance,” as it were. Whereas the first stanza focuses on the man-made, artificial elements of the sculpture, the second stanza highlights the natural objects that the sculpture has replicated. The candelabrum is a mixture of “coxcomb- / tinted buttons, dahlias, / sea urchins and everlastings” (9-11), things whose mere mention brings to mind more vibrancy than anything described previously; it’s an almost excessive blooming of life, enough to overcome the knowledge that these, too, are as motionless and inert as the swan itself.

It’s at this point that “No Swan So Fine” appears as though it’s building to a revelatory climax, as though it’s about to uncover something previously unappreciated in the swan sculpture. Closing the above list with “everlastings” carries the suggestion of immortality, and then the speaker has the swan takes its proverbial throne: “it perches on the branching foam / of polished sculptured / flowers—at ease and tall” (12-14). These lines, with that archaic pronunciation of “flowers” I mentioned earlier, have a perfect iambic rhythm, in addition to the quantitative syllabic rhythm the poem is built around. The “polished sculptured / flowers” are the dignified counterpart to the “chintz china” of the first stanza. After that dash, the swan’s poise, how it perches “at ease and tall,” may as well promise a royal rebirth, a restoration.

And then, the punch: “The king is dead.” Four words, then full-stop.

This last sentence is so final, so sudden, that its impact—at least on me—takes a bit to fully sink in. First off, the line recalls those “dead fountains of Versailles” that inspired the poem in the first place, and why those fountains are now full of still water (namely, the execution of Louis XVI). But even stronger, Moore chooses to end the poem before the phrase is complete. After all, the saying goes, “The king is dead, love live the king!” There’s the promise, the guarantee, of continuity in the line of succession, a promise that the world of the poem cannot keep.

When that last line is taken as whole, we’re left with a very uneasy sentiment: the stability of “at ease and tall” vs. the earth-shattering “The king is dead.” There is no obvious way to resolve this tension; rather, it is best to accept is as an essential element of the poem. Schulman sees a “dialectical progress of the mind” in Moore’s poem, in how it oscillates between the two moods we’ve discussed, and if you ask me, no moment embodies that tendency more than this last line.

No poem less certain than the jewel crafted by Marianne Moore.


But I’ve gone on for long enough. What are your thoughts on “No Swan So Fine”? Are there any poems that you think capture a similar feeling to this one. Let me know in the comments!

And as always, thanks for reading.

How My Reading Habits Have Changed This Year

I like to think of myself as an omnivorous reader. I always have multiple books on my currently-reading shelf at any given moment, and they tend to be from disparate modes and genres. I’ll switch from a piece of music criticism to a poetry collection to a classic novel with little in the way of direct connections between pieces. Still, despite all this variety, my reading habits have tended to be fairly stable. About 2/3 of the books I’d finish would be poetry collections, with a hodge-podge of novels, nonfiction books, plays and comic books making up the other 1/3.

This year, however, that ratio has flipped. Only about 1/3 of the books I’ve finished this year (22/64) have been poetry collections. That’s a pretty significant and sudden shift, and it got me wondering: what’s behind this change in my reading habits?

It’s not as though I’ve lost my love of poetry, far from it. Sure, I’m no longer in a graduate school environment where I’m required to think about poetry more or less constantly. But I still write poems and pieces about poetry fairly frequently, and I believe that over time I’ve developed a more mature understanding of the art. And reading an excellent poem like Lynn Powell’s “Kind of Blue” or Ted Kooser’s “A Spiral Notebook,” to name two recent examples, still fills me with an unmatched sense of joy.

No, what’s changed is that finding the time to read poetry, at least how I think it best to read it, has gotten more difficult this past year. Quite simply, I’m rarely alone for long enough.

I’ve mentioned before how I believe that all poetry ought to be read aloud, that the sonic dimension of poetry is difficult if not impossible to appreciate unless one literally hears the words as they are reading them. I can’t tell you how often some aspect of a poem’s playfulness, form, or even meaning has eluded me until I’ve read it aloud to myself. Granted, there are poets such as Harryette Mullen or Jaimee Hills, whose work often defies the reader to wrap their tongue around it, but even when the experience of reading the poem aloud is unpleasant, that unpleasantness often helps me to start unlocking the work.

However, because I insist on reading all poetry aloud, I effectively limit the number of environments in which I can read poetry at all. It’s socially unacceptable, or at least awkward, to read aloud to oneself when other people are present; to do so imposes one’s private activity, even one’s private thoughts once interpretation is factored in, onto an unwilling audience. It’s bad enough that reading in someone else’s presence may give them the impression that you don’t value their company. But reading aloud at them more or less says, “I’d prefer you weren’t in my world at the moment.”

Now, when I was in grad school, this wasn’t that significant a limitation, because I lived by myself, and even if I happened to be on campus it wasn’t that difficult to find a secluded place. (The lounge we had access to, for instance, was usually empty.) Now, though, I’m more or less surrounded by people. I’ve moved back into my family’s home, and for various reasons I’ll not get into, my bedroom is effectively a living room. Further, I take mass transit into work, and if there’s one place where no one wants to hear anyone else talking, it’s a long-distance commuter bus.

The plus side of my current reading arrangements is that I’ve had more success than ever in tackling weighty tomes. I’ve had books like Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay on my shelf for years, and I’d been reluctant to tackle them for their sheer length. But now that I find myself trapped on a bus for an average of four hours a day, such books no longer seem intimidating. In fact, their size has become almost welcome, for I know that they’ll last me several trips into and out of the city before I reach the conclusion. I just spent the past month working through George Eliot’s Middlemarch, and I’m sure I read at least 90% of that book on the bus. Those were some of the best hours that I’d spent all year.

Going forward, I know that I’ll have to make a more conscious effort to keep up on poetry, whether that means sneaking a few poems before bed, or during my lunch break, or what have you. But I think I’ll also just have to adjust my expectations. After all, I pursued an MFA precisely so I’d have more time to think about poetry. I shouldn’t be surprised that once I finished the program, I lost a lot of that time as well.


What do you think about all this? Do you find that changing circumstances change the sort of books that you read? If so, how so, and how do those changes make you feel? Let me know in the comments! And if for some reason you’re curious as to how else my new job has affected my reading style, here’s a link to a piece I wrote about dictionaries and the pure love of language. (No, really, that piece was inspired by pharmaceutical advertising. We take inspiration wherever we find it.)

My Classics Club Reading List

I’ve never been one for reading challenges, but I’ve never quite been able to figure out why. I don’t like the public performance that taking on such a challenge represents—but then again, I’m maintaining a blog, which is its own sort of public performance. I don’t like how they turn the meditative act of reading into a competition against time—but then again, the mere act of rationing of, for example, a comics trade paperback over six days does something similar, tying the reading experience to something arbitrary and external. And I don’t like committing myself to tasks unnecessarily—but then again…well, I don’t have a ready counterpoint to that one; that one’s just true.

This has been a lot of throat-clearing to explain that I’m joining The Classics Club, whose main selling point is functionally a reading challenge.

The rules of this game are fairly simple: make a list of at least fifty classic books, read them within no more than a five-year span, and write a blog post about each one. That comes out to a leisurely pace of ten classics per year, which at least at a distance seems manageable.

What I find a bit more intimidating is requirement that one write about each book. I don’t generally write reviews in the traditional sense, offering up-down aesthetic appraisals. I prefer essays and the like, exploring a piece of writing because I find it interesting, because it opens up some larger conversation about craft or context. But I can’t guarantee that any given book will avail itself to such a post. I’ve read plenty of books which I enjoyed immensely but never wrote about because I couldn’t find an “in” to the text beyond saying, “It was good, and you ought to read it.” But I fear that’s because I’ve been too shallow in my own reading habits, neither analytic or emotional enough to my thinking. This little challenge is an attempt to rectify that.

In drafting this list of fifty classics, I’ve tried to go for a broad cross-section of the “genre,” as it were. Chronologically they range from before the common era (Virgil’s Aeneid) to 1993, which was the compositional cut-off date when I first started drafting the list (Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower). I’ve gone for kitchen-sink Naturalism and spiritual science fiction, epic and lyrical poetry, literary theory and analytic philosophy, Renaissance and modernist drama. It’s a hodge-podge, and that’s both an advantage and a hindrance. It may be difficult to draw connections between these books, but if I find one style is not my taste, the whole project won’t become stale.

Now for the technical specs. This project will begin on December 22, 2018, and conclude no later than December 21, 2023. Should I get through all the titles on this list, I will add more books to it based on my discretion.

And so, presented alphabetically by author, the fifty books for my Classics Club list:

          Auden, W. H.: The Dyer’s Hand
          Austen, Jane: Sense and Sensibility
          Austin, J. L.: How to Do Things with Words
          Bacon, Francis: New Atlantis
          Baldwin, James: Giovanni’s Room
          Behn, Aphra: The Rover
          Boccaccio, Giovanni: The Decameron
          Böll, Heinrich: Billiards at Half-Past Nine
          Brooks, Gwendolyn: Annie Allen
          Butler, Octavia: Parable of the Sower
          Cather, Willa: My Ántonia
          Cavendish, Margaret: The Blazing World
          Chekhov, Anton: Uncle Vanya
          Dickens, Charles: David Copperfield
          Ellison, Ralph: Invisible Man
          Fitzgerald, F. Scott: The Last Tycoon
          Flaubert, Gustave: Madame Bovary
          Gordimer, Nadine: The Conservationist
          Gunn, Thom: The Man with Night Sweats
          Harper, Frances: Iola Leroy
          Hauptmann, Gerhart: The Weavers
          Hemingway, Ernest: For Whom the Bell Tolls
          Hume, David: Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion
          Ibsen, Henrik: A Doll’s House
          Jelinek, Elfriede: Wonderful, Wonderful Times
          Le Guin, Ursula K.: The Lathe of Heaven
          Middleton, Thomas: A Chaste Maid of Cheapside
          O’Neill, Eugene: The Iceman Cometh
          Ovid: Metamorphoses
          Paton, Alan: Cry, the Beloved Country
          Pope, Alexander: An Essay on Criticism
          Radway, Janice: Reading the Romance
          Roth, Philip: Portnoy’s Complaint
          Russell, Bertrand: The Problems of Philosophy
          Schmitt, Gladys: The Collected Stories of Gladys Schmitt
          Schuyler, George: Black No More
          Sexton, Anne: Transformations
          Shakespeare, William: Twelfth Night
          Shute, Nevil: A Town Like Alice
          Spenser, Edmund: The Faerie Queene
          Steinbeck, John: Cannery Row
          Stevens, Wallace: Harmonium
          Strachey, Dorothy: Olivia
          Toomer, Jean: Cane
          Treadwell, Sophie: Machinal
          Twain, Mark: Pudd’nhead Wilson
          Valenzuela, Luisa: He Who Searches
          Virgil: Aeneid
          Wright, Richard: Haiku: The Last Poems of an American Icon
          Zola, Émile: Thérèse Raquin

This ought to be fun. And in the words of Neil Young, “We’ll keep good time on a journey through the past.”

Recent Publication: Maryland Literary Review

I’m pleased to announce that I have a poem in the inaugural issue of the Maryland Literary Review. It’s called “We Sleep However We Can,” and it’s an ekphrastic poem inspired by Fernard Léger’s Animated Landscape, a 1921 painting in the collection of the Baltimore Museum of Art. I lived in Baltimore for almost three years while pursuing my MFA, so it’s nice to have a poem published that can rep for the Old Line State.

Special thanks and good luck wishes go to Nathan Leslie, the editor of the Maryland Literary Review. May your new journal find its audience!

You can read “We Sleep However We Can” by clicking here, and you can see the BMA’s listing for Léger’s painting here.

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!