Robert Motherwell and Helen Frankenthaler at their Provincetown studio, c. 1960.
“For Motherwell, getting to the point where everything in a given work was “just right” involved ridding it of an array of unacceptable elements. While collage—which is usually thought of in terms of vastly expanding the range of what is possible to includein a work—may seem a strange choice of strategies, it offered him an eminently practical way to proceed. The series of mistakes and crimes that Motherwell claimed went into any given painting required an almost continuous process of decisions about what to leave and what to delete, and how to coordinate and relate all that remained. It required him to be, in other words, an editor, “revising and revising and revising.”—Catherine Craft, from An Audience of Artists: Dada, Neo-Dada, and the Emergence of Abstract Expressionism
“To recur to my ghostly frame of reference, we can say that Janeism in its past as well as its current forms allows us to foreclose the gap between Austen’s time and our own, between the dead and the living, the fictional and the real, and to occupy Austen’s novels as they are—not were—lived, in an eternal present, where they commune with her familiarly.”—from Claudia L. Johnson’s Jane Austen’s Cults and Cultures
“A Naked Singularity, Sergio De La Pava’s first novel, fizzes like an overstuffed Roman candle launched over New York City’s downtown criminal court. It explodes. And for those with a taste for fiction that is the antithesis of economical writing — writing that speaks a lush language of the cosmic heart that frequently veers off-road from its central goofy two-public-defenders-pull-off-the-perfect-caper-ripping-off-high-end-drug-dealers plot into long dialogues about justice, cosmology, physics, mathematics, spirituality, entropy, boxing (I could go on, and De La Pava does go on) — it’s worth it.”
It’s impossible to pick a representative interview from the hundreds conducted by Studs Terkel in his lifetime, but this clip from 1961 with James Baldwin, and its opening—Bessie Smith’s Back Water Blues, which Baldwin remarks inspired his “forthcoming novel” (Another Country)—is good enough to take your breath away.
“I love thee, infamous city!”
Baudelaire’s perverse ode to Paris is reflected in Nelson Algren’s bardic salute to Chicago. No matter how you read it, aloud or to yourself, it is indubitably a love song. It sings, Chicago style: a haunting, split-hearted ballad.
Perhaps Ross Macdonald said it best: “Algren’s hell burns with a passion for heaven.” In this slender classic, first published in 1951 and, ever since, bounced around like a ping-pong ball, Algren tells us all we need to know about passion, heaven, hell. And a city.
He recognized Chicago as Hustler Town from its first prairie morning as the city’s fathers hustled the Pottawattomies down to their last moccasin. He recognized it, too, as another place: North Star to Jane Addams as to Al Capone, to John Peter Altgeld as to Richard J. Daley, to Clarence Darrow as to Julius Hoffman. He saw it not so much as Janus-faced but as the carny freak show’s two-headed boy, one noggin Neanderthal, the other noble-browed. You see, Nelson Algren was a street-corner comic as well as a poet.
He may have been the funniest man around. Which is another way of saying he may have been the most serious. At a time when pimpery, licksplittery and picking the poor man’s pocket have become the order of the day—indeed, officially proclaimed as virtue—the poet must play the madcap to keep his balance. And ours.
Unlike Father William, Algren did not stand on his head. Nor did he balance an eel on his nose. He just shuffled along, tap dancing now and then. His appearance was that of a horse player who had just heard the news: he had bet her across the board and she’d come in a strong fourth. Yet, strangely, his was not a mournful mien. He was forever chuckling to himself and you wondered. You’d think he was the blue-eyed winner rather than the brown-eyed loser. That’s what was so funny about him. He did win.
A hunch: his writings may be read, aloud and to yourself, long after acclaimed works of Academe’s darlings, yellowed on coffee tables, have been replaced by acclaimed works of other Academe’s darlings. To call on a Lillian Hellman phrase, he was not a “a kid of the moment.” For in the spirit of a Zola or a Villon, he has captured a piece of that life behind the billboards. Some comic, that man.
At a time when our values are unprecedentedly upside-down—when Bob Hope, a humorless millionaire, is regarded as a funny man while a genuinely funny man, a tent show Toby, is regarded as our president—Algren may be remembered as something of a Gavroche, the gamin who saw through it all, with an admixture of innocence and wisdom. And indignation.
“Bruce was doing [working-man songs] in a genre that I don’t know if that was cool,” Church says. “That genre at the time was about rocking and how loud you can be and Def Leppard and all that. And you still have Bruce Springsteen kicking ass; that in itself takes a high level of testicle fortitude, to go out there and be that artist.”
Gellhorn was perhaps a badass at both pursuits (She demurs, “I daresay I was the worst bed partner in five continents.”), but definitely the former. A lifelong leftist, after she divorced Hemingway in 1945, she went on to cover wars in Vietnam, the Middle East, and Central America, penning nearly twenty books, and making her home in more than nineteen international locations before her death by self-inflicted overdose at the age of 89 in 1998.
One of those books is A Stricken Field, which fictionalizes a journalist’s return to Prague after its annexation (1938), in a narrative voice both frustrating and futile, as the main character struggles to assist its refugees and make sense of the once-proud democracy’s difficult plight under the Gestapo. Here, Gellhorn’s voice is both clear and forceful, more reliant on journalistic observation and political reflection than Hemingway’s staccato figures of speech, but still shaped by the years they overlapped as lovers and correspondents to war and second-wave modernism. In many ways A Stricken Field is a fine follow-up to Hemingway & Gellhorn, showcasing Gellhorn at the height of her powers, self-helming a fictionalization of her life as a correspondent under critical regime changes and conditions of duress.