Parade : Alfred Kazin – “The American Procession”

Emerson made me a Jew” – Alfred Kazin, Journals

ABOVE: Kazin’ the joint

Ralph Waldo Emerson is the prophet pointing out of the Puritanical church into the “Crucial Century” of American Literature, which, according to Alfred Kazin’s “The American Procession,” reaches from the 1830s to 1930s, from Emerson to “The Sound and the Fury.”

Kazin is a band-leader, deftly trotting out a parade of stars that begins with Emerson walking out of his stable ecclesiastic life to preach the true American faith: every one is free to build their own church house. (This was Kazin’s religious bent too, and they both failed to notice that not everyone CAN build their own chicken shack, let alone church-house. Not everyone can write like Kazin, let alone Emerson.)

After Emerson comes Thoreau, poking at the leaves in Walden, creating himself through his journals. (Kazin’s own journals were exhaustive, covering some 7,000 pages.)

There’s Nathaniel Hawthorne, wrestling with his Puritanical past, like Kazin wrestled with the immigrant background that he both sentimentalized and could not wait to leave. (Escaping from the Russian hood in Brownsville was one of his biggest childhood motivators.)

Edgar Allan  Poe, declaring the universe a dazzling catastrophe in his “Eureka.” (Kazin was one of the few American writers who did not condescend when talking about Poe. It’s the kinship of critic to critic: few today remember Poe as the biggest American literary critic of his time.)

Walt Whitman, ambling triumphantly through Manhattan like Kazin used to (Kazin’s first big biographical book was called “A Walk in the City.”) Whitman reaching out to Lincoln, at a  time when Lincoln was not necessarily today’s beloved emancipator (The London Herald: “Mr. Lincoln is a vulgar, brutal boor.” The London Standard : “Never was so great a place in history filled by a  figure so mean.”) I was reminded of Kazin’s meeting with Kennedy, in preparation for an essay on the president.

ABOVE: Walker in the city.

Herman Melville, a co-religionist in the Church of the individual, so forgotten upon his death that the belated New York Times obituary mourned him as “Henry” Melville.

Emily Dickinson, the recluse’s recluse, sending letters out of Amherst that must have bewildered the receivers: “I eat evanescence slowly.” (Who among us has correspondents who could reply to THAT with anything other than: “Cool story, bro”?)

Mark Twain, preaching a further variation on Emerson: the religion of irreverence.

Henry James, too bored with Boston to even dislike it, and finding opportunity to say far more about Americans as an exile in Europe. William James, letting his neuroses become the expression of his philosophy.

There’s Theodore Dreiser, whose sexual exploits and disordered marriages almost make Kazin chuckle with recognition (Kazin was a four-time husband and, according to the notch-on-the-bedpost journals, quite a sexual success himself.)

Henry Adams, “the meteor mind,” again and again, like Kazin relishing the role of observer but refusing to be an spectator.

Stephen Crane, reporting on the war he hadn’t seen with more insight that many a confused eyewitness, much like Kazin reacted to news of the Holocaust.

T. S. Eliot, Emerson’s adversary, Emerson’s double, making the journey to his faith in isolation, but, unlike Emerson, distrustful of that very isolation, and therefore leaning on English authority, religious and cultural. (Kazin would never have admitted this to himself, but from his seat as the literary editor of “The New Republic” and contributor to The New York Times Review of Books, he had no need to turn to authority himself. He WAS the authority.)

Ezra Pound, making sense of Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” and sending out Fascist broadcasts so extreme and deranged that one Italian official assumed he HAD to be an American double agent using a code. (Kazin, a disappointed socialist, a Jew who felt betrayed by Israel, knew plenty about political confusion.)

Then we hear the louder strains of American modernity. William Faulkner, accepting the inevitability of failure (“To try something you can’t do, because it’s too much, but still to try it and fail, then try it again. That to me is success.”) Ernest Hemingway, rebelling against an essential injustice, some irremediable wrongness at the heart of things.

The parade concludes in the 1930s with John Dos Passos and F. Scott Fitzgerald and, this goes unsaid, with Kazin’s coming of age. We all define the historic past as whatever came before our adolescence. After that, there’s just a critic dealing with the contemporary.

Kazin wrote about himself, consciously or not. This might be what all writers do, and inadvertent autobiography is not an unusual result of literary criticism. I don’t wonder about the egregious oversights (there’s no Edith Wharton or Willa Cather here, for instance): Kazin didn’t see himself in them. “An American Procession” is not only about a parading century of great American writing, but also about a man shouting out when he recognizes his own features in the faces in the marching band.


Not Easy Being Green : Dave Gibbons, Peter Tomasi – “Green Lantern Corps”

ABOVE: No, no one over 13 will have time to memorize all their names.

Just because the Astonishing X-Men lost me a little when they boarded for the Breakworld doesn’t mean I’m opposed to interplanetary adventures. The “Green Lantern Corps” series is one of the best of recent years (it ran from 2007 to 2011). It’s full of rock’em-sock’em space action, brawny and brainy and humorous and grandiose all at once; writers Peter Tomasi and Dave Gibbons (who drew “Watchmen”) fully explore the possibilities of the premise, aided by artwork from Patrick Gleason.

The Green Lantern Corps are a heterogeneous, multi-species force that protects and serves all over the known universe. What that means is that this is a superhero title like (almost) no other, because “Green Lantern Corps” doesn’t center on any particular character – there are 3600 members in the  Corps! – although memorable personalities soon emerge. (Kilowog is my favorite, thanks for asking.)

GLC is no ensemble piece, either. The patrols are dispatched from Planet Oa in scattered duos (think “Space Cops”) so that there’s no team-spirit lessons, or needless bicker-and-banter drama : the duos are unrelated to each other, and the focus is on the individual incidents they investigate. We shift frantically from Lantern to Lantern, from adventure to adventure, and from this we gather a cohesive picture of all the sectors of the galaxy. It’s a colorful picture, too, and not only on the emerald scale. The Lanterns encounter all sorts of weird and varied extraterrestrial life; Mos Eisley Cantina, eat your heart out!


POST-SCRIPT: The Corps got its due in the cancelled-too-soon Green Lantern series produced by DC Animation legend Bruce Timm.

More Tales of the Dark Tower : Michel Zevaco – “Buridan, The Hero of the Tower of Nesle”

“Michel Zevaco was that author of genius, who, influenced by Victor Hugo, invented the democratic swashbuckler. His heroes represent the people. They raise and topple empires; predict, in the 14th century, the French revolution; protect weak kings against plotting ministers; and slap down mean kings.” – Jean Paul Sartre

ABOVE: Buridan’s advanced case of gigantism didn’t keep him from living a long and fulfilling life.

A single towering historical event can be assailed from many directions. Michel Zevaco’s “Buridan, The Hero of the Tower of Nesle” deals with the same scandalous affair as Alexandre Dumas’ “La Tour de Nesle” and Maurice Druon’s “The Iron King.” You would think I’d had enough of these accursed parsonages ( Marguerite of Burgundy, Louis the Hutin, Enguerrand de Marigny, Charles of Valois, and the D’Aulnay brothers ) but “Buridan” is its own charming tale.

Zevaco’s work liberally borrows from (and considerably expands on) the Dumas play. Divided in two parts (volume 2 is titled “The Bloody Queen”) here are some 900 pages of swooning heroines, brawling bravos, and intriguing courtiers ( in both senses of the word). Cliffhangers and reversals succeed each 0ther in Zevaco’s trademarked, paradoxic mix of the speedy and the bloated. Less daring writers of the “cape et epee” school may include one missing royal baby, one hidden tunnel, one poisoned cup, one tavern fight. Zevaco laughs, and provides three or four of each, as if to justify Sartre’s comment. This is democratic entertainment, meant for the masses, and it should therefore be massive.

A plot summary for “Buridan” would be headache-inducing. Buridan is the son of Charles of Valois and Anne of Draman, (but he doesn’t know it.) Buridan is in love with Myrtille. Myrtille is the daughter of Queen Marguerite and Enguerrand de Marigny (but she doesn’t know it.) Marigny hates Charles, Charles hates Marigny. Buridan hates Marigny. Marigny loves Marguerite. Marguerite loves Buridan, so she’s in love with her daughter’s boyfriend, which is why she hates Myrtille, then loves Myrtille, then hates Myrtille again. Buridan’s best friend hates Marigny, but loves Marguerite. Charles loves Myrtille, so he’s in love with his son’s girlfriend. Anne of Draman hates Myrtille and Marguerite, then loves Myrtille but still hates Marguerite. Stragildo serves Marguerite, as does Anne de Draman, pretending to be called Mabel. Gillone pretends to serve Myrtille and Marigny but secretly serves Charles, Lancelot de Bigorgne serves Buridan but also used to serve Charles of Valois.

That’s all simple enough to begin with, but then Zevaco starts complicating things.

ABOVE: Meeow. I give up.


School Kills : Joss Whedon – “Astonishing X-Men” (1-24)

It was severe withdrawal that made Joss Whedon’s “Astonishing X-Men” so welcome in 2004. “Buffy” had ended, “Angel” had ended, “Firefly” had been quashed. Where were the wanderers of the Whedonverse supposed to go? Why, to Xavier’s School for Gifted Children in Westchester County, New York. (School Motto: “Mutatis Mutandis.”)

ABOVE: Beast: “What’s gonna happen to the X-Men??” Cyclops: “That colorist should be fired. It’s all in red! Oh, wait.” Wolverine: “My claws are way bigger than that!” Emma Frost: “I don’t ‘read’ comics. I ‘think’ comics.” Colossus: “In Communist Russia, comics read YOU.” Kitty: “One could phase right through the plot-holes in that issue!”

Those first 24 issues of “Astonishing X-Men” are tightly packed with Whedonisms. (Ha! He said “tightly”! Cuz…. superheroes? Tights?). Pop put-downs abound (Colossus: “Who’s Paris Hilton?” Cyclops: “It doesn’t matter. On so many levels.”)  There’s new characters, most notably Hisako and Blindfold, a “seer” who babbles prophecy in mad cadences that tie her genetically to Drusilla or River Tam. There’s  impalings. (Not counting every vampire in “Buffy” and “Angel”, does Joss have an undiagnosed impaling fetish? Think Cordelia in S. 3, ep. 8.) Formula is subverted, and every third turn of the page is intended to provoke a “WHOA did NOT see THAT coming!” It almost always works.

Whereas the Buffy comics have been marred by off-putting artwork, John Cassaday ( who worked with Warren Ellis in “Planetary”) is a master, particularly in the earlier story arcs. Sloppiness and exhaustion do creep in once the series takes off for outer space. It’s on school grounds that Whedon is most comfortable. “High School is Hell” and Hell, (ask Dante) is more fun exploring than the heavens.  The X-Men have always been nominally school-based, and Danger Room lessons have been the start of many a story-line, but when Whedon takes over, Xavier’s gets to be magical, (Kitty’s entrance: “Did I miss the sorting hat?”) It’s also pretty intense: it turns out high school is LITERALLY out to kill you. Even in Whedon’s uncredited script for “Speed,” life is a series of sudden, deadly scholastic exams. The villain’s catch-phrase there: “Pop quiz, hotshot!”

Some traumas we don’t outgrow.


Pretty Little Neck : Maurice Druon – “The Strangled Queen”

It’s  a harsh descent for Marguerite, from the sybaritic love nest at the Tour de Nesle ( as we saw in “The Iron King”)  to the vermin-infested Chateau Gaillard ( built less than two centuries earlier by Richard Coeur-de-Lion, absentee brother to William Shakespeare’s King John.)

ABOVE : Kind of a spoiler title, isn’t it?

Maurice Druon’s “The Strangled Queen” (second in “Les Rois Maudits”) takes up immediately after the death of Philip the Fair, with the ascent of an unprepared son, Louis X of France. Louis was known as the Hutin, (the Headstrong) but the Petulant would have been the better adjective, by Druon’s depiction. Here is Louis evading monarchic duties, vacillating between the feuding powers of Charles of Valois and Enguerrand of Marigny, shooting arrows into concussed birds (and thus began the art of shooting clay pigeons!) Louis also spends an inordinate amount of time pondering his  impotence.

ABOVE: “Yes, this big ball in my hand is all about compensating.”

With his wife Marguerite in prison, Louis gets antsy and begins looking for a sequel queen. Manipulative uncle Charles of Valois subtly notifies him that Clemence (or Clemenzia) of Hungary is up for grabs. (She’s a Valois affiliate too, but that hadn’t crossed Charles’ mind at all all! What a funny coincidence!) Louis longs to see a pic of the chick, so as not to make an unfortunate choice, and sends Guccio Baglioni as a “talent scout” to the Neapolitan court in which Clemence resides. (She’s never even been to Hungary. I told you history was confusing.)

Guccio is the ambitious son of a Lombard merchant, and quickly becoming the linking thread in the series if only because he’s not powerful enough to merit assassination. (Yet?)  He journeys to Naples, where Clemence has posed for a flattering, flirty picture, and then he carries the picture back to an easily pleased King. (Selfies and sexting took, like, FOREVER back then, so people couldn’t afford to get too picky.)

ABOVE: Clemence of Hungary. Portrait by a student of Giotto. No one said he was a GOOD student.

None of this bodes well for Marguerite of Burgundy, who’s going mad in Chateau Gaillard, and certainly Druon has no intention of concealing her fate from us: the novel is called “The Strangled Queen,” so try to act surprised when the queen gets strangled. Less foreshadowed is Enguerrand of Marigny’s overnight fall from grace. ( Accused of sorcery!)

The curse made by the Templar Jacques Molay from his toasty pyre resonates, but really these characters are damned by power. Reading “Les Rois Maudits,” one can’t help but question the very word: what ‘power’ do any of these kings and queens and grand lords have that doesn’t evaporate with a quick dagger or a couple of well-placed rumors? Power can’t keep Marguerite from having a sheet tied around her neck and being choked to death. Power can’t keep Marigny’s naked body from the gibbets in Montfaucon ( his sole reward for successfully stewarding the Kingdom of France through Philip the Fair’s reign.)

Power, it seems to me, is merely the prelude to powerlesness.