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Summer reading

All right, we schlepped J.P. and his belongings to St. John’s in Annapolis today as he begins his senior year, having finished War and Peace as his summer reading. Now, back in the empty nest, I’m casting about for something to read myself.

A few weeks ago, I made my latest attempt to appreciate Saul Bellow. As an undergraduate, with the vigor of youth, I pushed my way manfully through Herzog, Henderson the Rain King and Mr. Sammler’s Planet, remaining baffled for yours by the esteem in which authors I genuinely like held him. I began Humboldt’s Gift twice in graduate school, grinding to a halt in the first chapter both times.

Earlier this month I picked it up again. And found this passage, which amused me, and which rings true, in part:

For after all Humboldt did what poets in crass America are supposed to do. He chased ruin and death even harder than he had chased women. He blew his talent and his health and reached home, the grave, in a dusty slide. He plowed himself under. Okay, so did Edgar Allan Poe, picked out of the Baltimore gutter. And Hart Crane over the side of a ship. And Jarrell falling in front of a car. And poor John Berryman jumping from a bridge. For some reason this awfulness is peculiarly appreciated by business and technological America. The country is proud of its dead poets. It takes terrific satisfaction in the poets’ testimony that the USA is too tough, too big, too much, too rugged, that American reality is overpowering. And to be a poet is a school thing, a skirt thing, a church thing. The weakness of the spiritual powers is proved in the childishness, madness, drunkenness, and despair of these martyrs. … So poets are loved, but loved because they just can’t make it here.

Even so, I ground to a halt again, about halfway through, thinking: And people imagine that I’m a tedious old windbag.

Maybe I should go back to John Cheever for the fourth time.



Posted by John McIntyre at 4:08 PM | | Comments (2)


I think Bellow is a wonderful writer, though I have never disagreed with folks who find him a windbag. In Humboldt's Gift, the letter from Humboldt that Charlie reads, at about halfway through the book, remains one of my favorite passages. The letter crystallizes the plight of the intellectual, which is the overdoing of the sense of plight in the first place. I've always loved the last sentence of that letter, especially the "we are not natural beings, we are supernatural beings" part. It may be BS, but it's BS of a high order.

I can read Thomas Hardy all day long -- for the language. I just can't stand the stories.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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