Looking Back at Literature

I had forgotten that The Atlantic had been around long enough to have reviewed books like Great Expectations, Adam Bede, and Vanity Fair when they were freshly published but they have. A selection of “classic” book reviews are re-printed here, and they’re worth flipping through. My favorite was the blistering review of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, which hopefully predicted that the book would sell badly, such that “the chief damage done will be to the author himself, who thus dishonors his own physical nature; for imperfect though the race is, it still remains so much purer than the stained and distorted reflection of its animalism in Leaves of Grass.

As of April 16th, Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style has been teaching us how to unsplice a comma for fifty years and a fiftieth anniversary edition has been published. Geoffrey K. Pullum, however, is deeply, deeply unimpressed; as he writes in The Chronicle of Higher Education, “The Elements of Style does not deserve the enormous esteem in which it is held by American college graduates. Its advice ranges from limp platitudes to inconsistent nonsense. Its enormous influence has not improved American students’ grasp of English grammar; it has significantly degraded it.” Whew!

Gabriel García Márquez’s literary agent told a Chilean newspaper that she thought he was done writing, but a week later he was quick to correct the misapprehension. “Call me later, I’m writing,” he said, tartly, when El Tiempo called him for a comment; “The only thing I do is write”

Ron Rosenbaum in Slate has no interest in the question of what Shakespeare looked like, but he thinks that the “controversy” over the new Shakespeare portrait reminds us of something important about the man who wrote those plays; as he puts it, “the fact that we now are faced with dual, or dueling, portraits, is that it reminds us that despite his singularity as literary genius, he was the supreme artist of ambiguity, sexual and poetic…whether or not the “new” portrait gives us another face of Shakespeare, the controversy over it reminds us that one of the things that makes his work so memorable is that it is so often, so deeply and profoundly, two-faced.”

Hilton Als has a nice piece in The New Yorker on Katherine Anne Porter (with guest appearances by Truman Capote and Edna St. Vincent Millay. I’m not sure what to make, though, of the backhanded compliment that her only novel, Ship of Fools, is “interesting to read alongside her other work, if only because it confirms Porter’s superiority as a writer in the short form.”

Jane Austen plus zombies? How could it not be good? Well, Macy Halford is not amused and breaks down the math: “Eighty-five per cent Austen, fifteen per cent a television writer named Seth Grahame-Smith, and one hundred per cent terrible, the book effectively undermines the seriousness of, in the original, the Bennet sisters’ matrimonial quest by suggesting a non-linear positive correlation between the number of zombies present during courtship and the degree of difficulty in obtaining a husband.”

And some quick hits” Paul Freedman reviews a new translation of The Song of the Cid, Denis Donoghue reviews a new biography of Gerard Manley Hopkins, and Marina Warner reviews Daniel Karlin’s new edition of Edward FitzGerald’s Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám.