Friday, May 20, 2005


Specimen Days, Ozick, plus a soupcon of Idol

I have fallen down on my blogging duties over the past few days. Partly out of inertia, partly because I had a house guest--my friend Dave, the one who's such a big Carrie Underwood fan and who expressed not a whit of surprise when Vonzell was kicked to the curb during the last show. Baby V, we hardly knew ye, etc etc. Anyway, I followed through on my earlier threat and have been reading Walt Whitman's Specimen Days (in the handsome, Smyth-sewn, decay-proof edition from the Library of America.) It's an autobiographical miscellaney, which begins with some notes about the poet's ancestry and then cuts straight to the chase: Whitman's service as a kind of sublime Candy Striper during the Civil War. He later called himself a "wound dresser," but that's a metaphorical description at best. What he did was sit by the bedside of the Union wounded and offer comfort, conversation, oranges, tobacco, stamps. On one occasion--to celebrate the victory at Gettysburg--he procured "several bottles of blackberry and cherry syrup, good and strong," and served iced beverages throughout the wards. If I seem to be making light of his efforts, I'm not. The consolations he offered were real, and desperately needed. And his account is fascinating: very factual, clear-eyed, with only an occasional passage of Whitmanian music. In one incredible bit, he notes that the United States Patent Office had been converted into a military hospital. Several of the wards are filled with
high and ponderous glass cases, crowded with models in miniature of every kind of utensil, machine or invention, it ever enter'd into the mind of man to conceive; and with curiosities and foreign presents. Between these cases are lateral openings, perhaps eight feet wide and quite deep, and in these were placed the sick, with a long double row of them up and down through the middle of the hall. Many of them were very bad cases, wounds and amputations.
Whitman sees himself as a reporter in this case, and doesn't dwell on a signal irony: the mutilated victims of the first modern, mass-production war expiring in a virtual Temple of Industrial Progress. (Footnote on a footnote: towards the end, the poet shares some of his discarded titles for Specimen Days. My two favorites are Notes of a half-Paralytic and Only Mulleins and Bumble-Bees, but they're all pretty great.)

Over at Literary Saloon, I read this snippet from Theo Tait's review of Cynthia Ozick's latest (in the London Review of Books):
It is sometimes seen as surprising that she is so little read in Britain. Her formidable essays have been published and admired here; but, of her nine works of fiction, only The Bear Boy--published in America as Heir to the Glimmering World--is currently in print. There is, emphatically, no great mystery about this: I would bet good money that she has not been much read in America either, outside the band of academics often described as "the Ozick industry."
A losing bet, that one. I share Michael Orthofer's lifted eyebrow at the very idea of an "Ozick industry." But I would also like to take issue with the image of Cynthia Ozick as the Little Match Girl of American Letters. She is not an obscurity. Her criticism has perhaps been more celebrated than her fiction. But she also happens to be the author of The Shawl, which pops up in numerous anthologies and college curricula, and she doesn't occupy the same out-of-print limbo here that she does in Britain. (Another footnote: Ozick has some severe doubts about Holocaust lit in general and The Shawl in particular, which she voiced in this 2000 interview I did for Amazon.)

Hey Y'all, Dave here...

I suppose I should be making highbrow comments on Whitman and Ozick but I would likely just embarrass myself, so I'll stick to American Idol chatter instead. As for James quoting me earlier that I was voting for Carrie "for all the wrong reasons", I feel compelled to confess that this character flaw caused me to repeatedly vote for Jasmine for the bulk of the competition last year -- only switching to the eventual winner, FB, because my last bit of musical integrity overcame my salaciousness once I heard Fantasia's stunning rendition of "Summertime".

I'd like to be record predicting that Bo is going to win this year and win big (which is a mistake, I think, in the long run) for two reasons: 1) the brave a cappella performance from last week -- he knocked it out of the park (and then the producers stupidly had him try to repeat the magic the next night); also, 2) women like our accountant downstairs who, in pure Dave tradition a la Jazmine, voted for Bo no fewer than 25 times last week. In my own defense, I only voted for Jasmine once per night, but it w3as indefensible. Anyway, trust me, our accountant ain't gonna be alone doing this tomorrow night and *no guy* is gonna do that for Carrie, not even me.


Sometimes it's great to be wrong.

Post a Comment

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?