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About Last Night
TERRY TEACHOUT on the arts in New York City
(with additional dialogue by OUR GIRL IN CHICAGO)

Saturday, February 25, 2006
    TT: On the air

    Our Girl and I are taking to the airwaves this Sunday morning. We’re appearing (so to speak) on Hello Beautiful!, the weekly series about the arts broadcast by WBEZ-FM, Chicago’s public-radio station. We’ll be discussing the effects of the Web on art and culture with Edward Lifson, the show’s host (who recently launched his own blog), and Lynn Becker and Barbara Koenen, the proprietors of two Chicago-based Web sites about the arts.

    Our portion of the show starts at 11:06 EST (that's 10:06 CST). If you live in the Chicago area, tune in 91.5 FM. If not, you can listen online via streaming RealAudio by going here and clicking on the “Live Webcast” link in the upper left-hand corner of the page.

    If you can’t join us tomorrow, Sunday’s episode of Hello Beautiful! will be archived here, allowing you to listen at your leisure.

    See you on the radio!

    posted by terryteachout @ Saturday, February 25, 2006 | Permanent link
Friday, February 24, 2006
    TT: Cat's pajamas

    Today is Friday—time once again for my weekly Wall Street Journal drama-column teaser. I have fulsome things to say about two new musicals, one on Broadway (The Pajama Game) and one off (I Love You Because).

    Here’s the scoop:

    Broadway got what it needed last night: a bulletproof revival of a popular musical. The Roundabout Theatre Company’s production of “The Pajama Game,” starring Harry Connick Jr., is as close to ideal as the snippiest critic could hope for. The staging is a knockout. The sets and costumes are good-looking. The cast is uniformly appealing—and everybody knows how to sing. Mr. Connick even bangs out a foot-stomping piano solo on “Hernando’s Hideaway,” the burn-the-house-down second-act showstopper.

    Saving Mr. Connick’s illustrious presence, the real star of the show is the woman behind the scenes. Kathleen Marshall has now officially proved herself to be a high-voltage choreographer-director in the Jerome Robbins-Bob Fosse mold. (Appropriately enough, she tips her hat to Fosse, who choreographed the original “Pajama Game” in 1954, with a slinky, derby-topped version of “Steam Heat.”) Like her 2003 revival of “Wonderful Town,” Ms. Marshall’s dance-filled production brings the whole stage of the American Airlines Theatre to pulsing, vibrant life….

    If you can’t get into “The Pajama Game,” or can’t stomach Broadway’s extortionate ticket prices, allow me to direct your attention downtown, where “I Love You Because” is playing at the Village Theatre. Billed as “a modern-day musical love story,” this gender-swapping update of Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice” is everything an Off Broadway mini-musical (six players, one set) should be. Farah Alvin, the best young musical-comedy singer to come along in years, plays Marcy Fitzwilliams (get it?), an arty, free-spirited photographer who can’t quite bring herself to go for the buttoned-down Austin Bennet (Colin Hanlon). Stephanie d’Abruzzo, who created the role of Kate Monster in “Avenue Q,” is similarly winning as Diana, Darcy’s spunky sidekick, who has a fling with Austin’s brainless brother (David A. Austin), then falls in love in spite of herself….

    No link. Why be cheap? Buy a copy of the Friday Journal—it’s only a buck. Or go here to subscribe to the Online Journal, which will provide you with instant access to the full text of my review, plus lots more art-related coverage.

    posted by terryteachout @ Friday, February 24, 2006 | Permanent link
    TT: Almanac

    “I am still half living in the world of my Fourth [Symphony].—This one is quite fundamentally different from my other symphonies. But that must be; I could never repeat a state of mind—and as life drives on, so too I follow new tracks in every work. That is why at first it is always so hard for me to get down to work. All the skill that experience has taught one is of no avail. One has to begin to learn all over again for the new thing one sets out to make. So one remains everlastingly a beginner! Once this used to make me anxious and fill me with doubts about myself. But since I have understood how it is, it is my guarantee of the authenticity and permanence of my works.”

    Gustav Mahler, letter to Nanna Spiegler, Aug. 18, 1900 (courtesy of House of Mirth)

    posted by terryteachout @ Friday, February 24, 2006 | Permanent link
Thursday, February 23, 2006
    TT: We're listening

    Our Girl and I asked a couple of weeks ago whether you thought it would be a good idea for us to prune "Sites to See," our blogroll. You responded in the affirmative (overwhelmingly, for the record). We've started paring it down, and we'll continue to do so in the weeks and months to come.

    No doubt some good blogs will slip through the cracks along the way. Alas, that's in the nature of things: there are millions of blogs out there in the 'sphere, there's only so much room in the right-hand column, and most of our readers say that "Sites to See" will be more useful to them if it's trimmed to a manageable length.

    Thanks to all who responded.

    posted by terryteachout @ Thursday, February 23, 2006 | Permanent link
    TT: So you want to see a show?

    Here's my list of recommended Broadway and off-Broadway shows, updated weekly. In all cases, I either gave these shows strongly favorable reviews in The Wall Street Journal when they opened or saw and liked them some time in the past year (or both). For more information, click on the title.

    Warning: Broadway shows marked with an asterisk were sold out, or nearly so, last week.

    Avenue Q* (musical, R, adult subject matter, strong language, one show-stopping scene of puppet-on-puppet sex, reviewed here)
    Bridge & Tunnel* (solo show, PG, some adult subject matter and strong language, reviewed here, extended through July 9)
    Chicago* (musical, R, adult subject matter, sexual content, fairly strong language)
    Doubt (drama, PG-13, adult subject matter, implicit sexual content, reviewed here)
    The Light in the Piazza (musical, PG-13, adult subject matter and a brief bedroom scene, closes July 2, reviewed here)
    Sweeney Todd* (musical, R, adult situations, strong language, reviewed here)
    The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee (musical, PG-13, mostly family-friendly but contains a smattering of strong language and a production number about an unwanted erection, reviewed here)

    Abigail’s Party (drama, R, adult subject matter, strong language, reviewed here, closes Apr. 8)
    Slava's Snowshow (performance art, G, child-friendly, reviewed here)
    The Trip to Bountiful (drama, G, reviewed here, closes Mar. 11)

    posted by terryteachout @ Thursday, February 23, 2006 | Permanent link
    TT: Almanac

    The animals that look at us like children
    in innocence, in perfect innocence!
    The innocence that looks at us! Like children
    The animals, the simple animals,
    have no idea why legs no longer work.

    The food that is refused, the love of sleeping—
    in innocence, in childhood innocence
    there is a parallel of love. Of sleeping
    they’re never tired, the dying animals;
    sick children too, whose play to them is work.

    The animals are little children dying,
    brash tigers, household pets—all innocence;
    the flames that lit their eyes are also dying,
    the animals, the simple animals,
    die easily; but hard for us, like work!

    Gavin Ewarts, “The Dying Animals”

    posted by terryteachout @ Thursday, February 23, 2006 | Permanent link
Wednesday, February 22, 2006
    TT: Elsewhere

    I was slow to return to the blogosphere after my recent trip to the hospital, but I’ve been accumulating links ever since then and want to share a few of them with you.

    • Ms. Pullquote taught Chinatown to her film class the other day:

    A show of hands today revealed that only two people in a group of 64 had seen the movie before, so these were virgin eyes. (Oh, to be able to watch this film again for the first time.) And, boy, did some of them have a problem with the ending. One kid even came up afterward to ask if he'd missed something. I had to say no, the bad guys triumphed. Sorry. Today I tried to give them a little context—the Holocaust, and Manson, and Vietnam, and Watergate—but some still felt cheated of their happy ending. They have a lot more disappointment to look forward to....

    • Cathy Siepp, who is battling cancer, discovered Ernie Pyle’s wartime journalism not long ago and found it strangely comforting:

    Healthy people never really think they're actually going to die; they have a nagging suspicion that somehow an exception will be made in their case. Then when you get very sick, you have the equally delusional thought that somehow you're the only person in the world who has to die before your time. Reading "Brave Men" cheered me up enormously, because it brought me back to reality, reading about all these brave men, mostly very young, who died in battle. (The message I got: See? You're hardly the only one, not at all.) It reminded me of when an old friend of my dad's came to visit from Winnipeg a couple of years ago, still quite rattled from her turbulent flight. She kept herself calm en route thinking of all the people in her life who'd died already. "If they can do it," she pointed out briskly, "so can I!"

    Speaking as one who now shares Cathy’s preoccupation, I think it might just be time to revisit Pyle, whom I admire extravagantly. (For a well-chosen online anthology of his dispatches, go here.)

    • Mr. House of Mirth shares two of my other preoccupations, both more benign:

    The holiday blahs rolled in right on schedule, during the third week in December, and hung on until well after the ball dropped on New Year's Eve. Sometimes there's nothing to be done. I took solace from rereading one of my favorite novels, J.F. Powers's Wheat That Springeth Green, with its pragmatic credo: "As for feeling thwarted and useless," muses the priestly protagonist, "he knew what it meant. It meant that he was in touch with reality."

    Another solace: hitting the repeat button on the iPod in my coat pocket so I could keep listening to Louis Armstrong's 1933 version of "I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues." At the time I wasn't struck by the thematic consistency (he's complaining, I'm complaining). I simply got hooked on this gem from Armstrong's big band phase in the early Thirties, which used to be the subject of endless bitching from his fans. Sure, the guys in Zilner Randolph's orchestra couldn't hold a candle to the rough-and-tumble rapport Armstrong elicited from the Hot Fives and Sevens. Still, you'd have to be deaf to miss the delights of this recording….

    To listen to “I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues” in streaming audio right this second, go here, scroll down, and click on the link. (Incidentally, I wrote about Wheat That Springeth Green in the Teachout Reader.)

    • Mr. Jerry Jazz Musician asked a bunch of varied luminaries this question: “What musical recording(s) changed your life?” Here’s my favorite response:

    When I was eleven years old, the only music that had reached me deeply, viscerally, at that point, was the often improvised singing by the cantors—the "chazzans," as they were called—in the Orthodox Jewish synagogue. When I was eleven, I remember walking down one of the main streets of Boston. In those days the record stores had public address systems, and suddenly, out of one of those public address systems, I heard the music that made me shout in pleasure, and Boston boys do not shout in the street—not back then. I rushed back into the store, the name of which I still remember, Krey's Music Shop, and I asked the clerk what the music was. He told me it was Artie Shaw's "Nightmare."...

    Guess who said it?

    Julia Dollison, one of this blog's favorite jazz singers, just got a huge write-up (registration required) in her new local paper, the Sacramento Bee:

    Listening to "Observatory," the wonder is no wonder: Simultaneously light and airy but full-bodied, her voice is rich and dextrous, and she plays with melodies, harmonies, arrangements and nuances of intonation in ways that reinvent standards such as "Night and Day" and "Autumn in New York."

    She recorded the tracks for the album in New York before moving to Sacramento, with a trio that features guitarist Ben Monder, who animates her version of the standard "In a Mellotone" with a ripping solo that might thrill Miles Davis....

    If you don’t have Dollison’s debut CD, Observatory, get it.

    • Mr. Zayamsbury thinks the way I do:

    It’s late. I’m tired. And I’m trying to remember this thing Harlan Ellison said once.

    “Every writer’s success is your success.”

    I’m a strong advocate for competition in the arts. Lovey-dovey whatever drives me insane. The notion that for some reason everyone’s born with the divine right to be a brilliant artist, that all it takes is someone someday just recognizing that you are a special and unique snowflake makes me a bit ill. “Everyone has a novel inside them.” Bah.

    At the same time, when the day is done, when I read something or see something that’s amazing, when the artist just knocks it out of the park, I want to go buy them a drink, give them a hug, and let them talk all night long about how cool it is to complete something that cracks a hole in the world….

    • Ms. Pretty Dumb Things is also on my wavelength:

    I am a rocker. I can’t say that the mod aesthetic doesn’t appeal to me with its futuristic clean lines and plastic sheen, but at my entropic heart sullenly slumps the bourbon-soaked hirsute tatters of a rocker, and I cherish its bird-flipping defiance.

    Which is why I find the fact that the Rolling Stones were chosen as this year’s Superbowl family-safe act disturbing….

    Eye Level, the new (and excellent) blog of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, offers this trenchant criticism of a lukewarm comment about artblogs by an art dealer:

    The qualifier gives it away: "seriously authored by qualified people," a sentiment totally contrary to the esprit de corps of the blogosphere. What's in fact great about most blogs is that they are nonseriously authored by nonqualified people. By the best count I've read, there are around 400–500 art blogs in the nation. Assuming even half of those are updated regularly, that amounts to a virtual library of information about artists, trends, and institutions. Even if not all these blogs are of the highest quality, the cream rises—and distributes the best information from the lesser-known blogs. To a certain extent, blogs survive by this network….

    • Mr. Cosmic Variance has a moment of synchronicity:

    So I was sitting on the bus reading and annotating my lecture notes on electromagnetic inductance for a lecture I was going to give 15 minutes later. A woman got on wearing a very short strapless red dress and medium height heels. She had short curly black hair. She seemed familiar in a way, but I could not place why, and she passed me and sat somewhere at the back of the bus. I carried on reading my notes. A few stops later the woman stood up and stood near the back door waiting for the bus to stop for her. I looked at her again, and it hit me. “She’s dressed a bit like Betty Boop, how funny!”, I thought to myself.

    Then I noticed her little black handbag. I noticed the little mobile phone dangling from it on a strap. Then I noticed that it was a Betty Boop handbag….

    • Did you know that Tommy Lee Jones is way into Flannery O’Connor? Ms. Open Book can tell you all about it.

    • Mr. Superfluities, who is a drama critic and playwright by trade, just finished a brief stint as…an actor:

    Oh, and this acting thing? It's a favor for a friend. But, given the opportunity, I thought I should at least have a taste of what I'm talking about when I ramble on here about the nature of performance. Let me just say that I'm adequate. Not inept and incompetent, but not Marlon Brando or Laurence Olivier either. But there is a certain pride and gratification I get in sharing a stage even for ten minutes with people so much more talented than I am…..

    We should all have to do as he did.

    • Finally, Mr. Something Old, Nothing New offers a close reading of one of my all-time favorite animated cartoons—with pictures:

    We're now used to thinking of "acting" in animation as being synonymous with voice acting—so that the Simpsons voice actors were routinely referred to, in their latest salary dispute, as just "the actors" who play Homer and Lisa and co.—but acting and characterization comes from the animators too. There is hardly any dialogue in Rabbit of Seville, just one spoken line and a few sung lines, and yet Elmer and Bugs are clearly in character throughout, because of the great actors who were listed as "animators."…

    You said it, Doc.

    posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, February 22, 2006 | Permanent link
    TT: Almanac

    “The tragical conditions of life imperfectly denoted in The Return of the Native & some other stories of mine I am less & less able to keep out of my work. I often begin a story with the intention of making it brighter & gayer than usual; but the question of conscience soon comes in: & it does not seem right even in novels to wilfully belie one’s own views. All comedy, is tragedy, if you only look deep enough into it.”

    Thomas Hardy, letter to John Addington Symonds, April 1889

    posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, February 22, 2006 | Permanent link
Tuesday, February 21, 2006
    OGIC: Called out at third

    It's a safe bet you'll soon be hearing about Dominic Smith, whose first novel The Mercury Visions of Louis Daguerre appears this month. He's been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, has a story forthcoming in the Atlantic, and he's good. Mercury Visions could have been a greatish novel—Smith has the chops—although I think it would be nice to exempt one or two historical figures from having novels written about them—if there's still time.

    Sadly, the novel's not great or even in that general vicinity, and I reveal why in this week's Baltimore Sun book section.

    Here's a snippet.

    Daguerre's work, like the historical backdrop to his life, is enormously suggestive fodder for a novelist's imagination. His impassioned preoccupation with natural light and its visual and emotional effects formed a natural bridge between art and science, and his career lends itself equally well to explorations of the intuitive, uneven processes of artistic creation and scientific discovery. A short way into his brash debut novel, The Mercury Visions of Louis Daguerre, Dominic Smith evocatively posits a formative moment in Daguerre's fascination with light and its yet-untapped powers. At 12, Louis presses his eye to a tear in a curtain:

    "The sun was going down behind the grain fields, and as it descended, it shot an orange glow from behind the hedgerows and poplars. Louis held the piece of white linen in front of the small curtain hole and saw, projected on it, the shimmering image of the lone walnut tree that stood by the stone fence. ... The compression of light through the small hole had borne along the image of the walnut tree, projecting it onto the ceiling. Nature could sketch herself."

    In Smith's vision of the formation of an artist's imagination, witnessing light's power to fix an image lashes together nature, art and technology in Louis' impressionable mind. And, because in the same scene the boy has fallen for Isobel, the young servant girl tending him, love enters into this web of associations as well - he "fell in love with light and women on the same day."

    This too-tidy coincidence makes for a lovely little chapter, but it's also the seedling of the ultimate failure of Smith's nonetheless accomplished and impressive novel.

    It's a disappointing debut, but I'd be surprised if Smith doesn't have better novels up his sleeve. Guy can write.

    posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Tuesday, February 21, 2006 | Permanent link
    TT: The Terry Teachout Workout Tape

    Ever since my untimely visit to the hospital, I've been spending an hour each day at the neighborhood gym, most of it pulling vigorously on the handle of a rowing machine. Inspired though I am by the passionate desire not to die just yet, I find virtually all heart-healthy activities to be brain-numbingly tedious. Enter my trusty iPod, which now contains 2,893 songs, many of which are suitable for exercise-related purposes. Instead of letting it play at random, I’ve drawn up a series of playlists of songs to which I listen avidly while tugging away at that damn handle. Each list consists of a dozen or so items, chosen for their brisk tempos and plucked from my computer in strict alphabetical order.

    This is List No. 1:

    • Count Basie, “9:20 Special” (with Coleman Hawkins on tenor saxophone)
    • Del McCoury, “1952 Vincent Black Lightning”
    • Fats Waller, “Ain’t Misbehavin’” (from the soundtrack of Stormy Weather, with Benny Carter on trumpet and Zutty Singleton on drums)
    • Jim and Jesse, “Air Mail Special” (the bluegrass version, not the jazz version)
    • Jimi Hendrix, “All Along the Watchtower”
    • Vassar Clements, “Avalanche” (from Will the Circle Be Unbroken)
    • Fats Waller, “Baby Brown”
    • The Beatles, “Back in the U.S.S.R.”
    • Louis Armstrong, “Beau Koo Jack” (with Earl Hines on piano)
    • Blue Öyster Cult, “Before the Kiss, a Redcap”
    • Erin McKeown, “Bells and Bombs”
    • Nickel Creek, “Best of Luck”

    posted by terryteachout @ Tuesday, February 21, 2006 | Permanent link
    TT: Anew

    I came home from the gym one day last week to find that my houseguest, a woman with good taste and a sharp eye, had rehung several pieces in the Teachout Museum. We’d talked about it a few days before, so it didn’t come as a total surprise, but I was still startled to find Degas’ Dancer Putting on Her Shoe on the north wall of my living room (directly beneath Neil Welliver’s Night Scene), Vuillard’s Petites etudes dans le square next to the bathroom door (directly beneath Jane Freilicher’s Late Afternoon, Southampton), and Hans Hofmann’s Woman’s Head in place of the clock that used to hang over the door to my kitchen (it now hangs over my stove).

    Like most art collectors, I spend an inordinate amount of time fussing over what to put where, and I tend to leave things in place once I decide where they "belong." It had been at least six months since I’d hung anything new, and longer still since I’d moved any of the pieces I already owned. Because of this, I’d forgotten the emotional effect of moving a familiar piece of art, which is not unlike moistening your index finger and inserting it in an electrical outlet: first you’re horrified, then you’re thrilled. Moving just one piece makes the whole room look different, and moving several pieces can freshen an entire collection—if you move them to the right places. Fortunately, my guest hit the bull’s-eye three times in a row. The only catch was that I had to straighten up the living room at once in order to properly appreciate her handiwork, but no sooner was I done than I sat down on the couch and spent ten ecstatic minutes doing nothing but looking at the walls.

    Several days have gone by, yet I still feel a buzz whenever I open the front door and step into the living room. It's as if I’d bought three brand-new pieces of art. “A change in the weather,” Proust wrote in The Guermantes Way, “is sufficient to recreate the world and ourselves.” That’s what my guest did: she changed the weather inside my apartment, and now I’m basking under a new sun in the sky.

    posted by terryteachout @ Tuesday, February 21, 2006 | Permanent link
    TT: Almanac

    I am pure loneliness
    I am empty air
    I am drifting cloud.

    I have no form
    I am boundless
    I have no rest.

    I have no house
    I pass through places
    I am indifferent wind.

    I am the white bird
    Flying away from land
    I am the horizon.

    I am a wave
    That will never reach the shore.

    I am an empty shell
    Cast up on the sand.

    I am the moonlight
    On the cottage with no roof.

    I am the forgotten dead
    In the broken vault on the hill.

    I am the old man
    Carrying his water in a pail.

    I am light traveling in empty space.

    I am a diminishing star
    Speeding away
    Out of the universe.

    Kathleen Raines, “The Unloved”

    posted by terryteachout @ Tuesday, February 21, 2006 | Permanent link
Monday, February 20, 2006
    TT: On the beach

    At midday last Wednesday I pulled the plug on my computer, packed an overnight bag, picked up a Zipcar from the garage around the corner, and hit the road. I'd been feeling fine ever since I left the hospital the week before Christmas, but it struck me that it was time to take a break from my daily rounds, and a look at the calendar told me that I could wedge a quick holiday in between my weekly Wall Street Journal deadlines and last Friday’s press preview of The Pajama Game. Having fallen in love with the ocean in the middle of my life, I decided to take a friend to Cape May, an island town at the southern tip of New Jersey, three hours south of Manhattan. It’s mostly shuttered in the off season, but a few inns and restaurants stay open for business the year round, and of course the Atlantic Ocean never closes.

    As always, the tentacles of everydayness were slow to let me go. I spent most of Wednesday morning exchanging e-mails with my editors at the Journal, who were putting my Saturday column to bed and had a basketful of last-minute queries. It wasn't until noon that was I able to make my getaway. No matter: I’d shed my cares by the time I crossed the George Washington Bridge, fired up the satellite radio in my rented car, and headed for the Garden State Parkway.

    Cape May is an odd and charming place, a nineteenth-century seaside resort whose gingerbready Victorian summer homes survived a long stretch of disrepair and have now been restored to their former splendor. Rhythm of the Sea, the bed-and-breakfast at which my friend and I stayed, is a 1915 cottage located directly across the street from the ocean. The easygoing owners, Robyn and Wolfgang Wendt, have painstakingly redecorated the entire house in arts-and-crafts style. Yet it doesn’t feel at all like a museum, in part because the Wendts go well out of their way to make their guests comfortable. We felt at home the moment we walked through the door, and the three superlative meals we ate in the blue-walled dining room added immeasurably to our delight.

    As I expected, there wasn’t much to do on Cape May in February, which suited me fine: I walked on the beach, drove around the island, sat by the living-room fire and read books I wasn’t reviewing, and slept deeply and well in my Stickley bed. None of this is to say that my holiday was untroubled, however. For the most part I was as happy as could be, but there’s something about a deserted shore in wintertime that has a way of putting night thoughts into the head of a middle-aged man—especially after he's had a brush with death.

    I’d brought Philip Larkin’s Further Requirements with me, so perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised to find myself recalling unsettling snatches of poetry as I gazed across the street at the moonlit waves. First Keats:

    …then on the shore
    Of the wide world I stand alone, and think,
    Till Love and Fame to nothingness do sink.

    Then Matthew Arnold:

    But now I only hear
    Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
    Retreating, to the breath
    Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
    And naked shingles of the world.

    And then, no doubt inevitably, Aubade, the terrible poem Larkin wrote toward the end of his life after suffering a sleepless night during which he imagined his own death:

    This is a special way of being afraid
    No trick dispels. Religion used to try,
    That vast moth-eaten musical brocade
    Created to pretend we never die,
    And specious stuff that says
    No rational being
    Can fear a thing it will not feel, not seeing
    That this is what we fear—no sight, no sound,
    No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with,
    Nothing to love or link with,
    The anaesthetic from which none come round.

    Unlike Larkin, I’m not wholly devoid of the gift of faith, but most people touched by modernity, whatever their religious convictions, tremble from time to time at the imagined prospect of “nothing to think with,/Nothing to love or link with.” Larkin himself was terrified by the thought of his own death, and made no secret of the fact. Six years after writing “Aubade,” he reviewed D.J. Enright’s Oxford Book of Death, and you can smell the fear in every sentence:

    For in the last analysis the intrusion of death into our lives is so ruthless, so irreversible, so rarely unaccompanied by pain, terror and remorse, that to “anthologize” it, however calmly, quizzically and compassionately, sems at best irrelevant, at worst an error of taste. “Death and the sun are not to be looked at steadily,” says La Rochefoucauld, and by their nature anthologies do not look steadily, nor do they explain or console: they entertain. And death is not entertaining. The chapter on “Care of the Dying” in any nursing manual makes this point more clearly.

    Such bleak thoughts come no less naturally to a man who, like me, was carried down the stairs of his apartment house not long ago and carted away in a waiting ambulance to the nearest hospital, there to spend a nervous week dining on bland, unsalted food and spying the fear in the smiling eyes of the friends at his bedside.

    So yes, I trembled—but not for long. Mostly I warmed myself beside the fire and ate the Wendts' lovely meals and thought about how much I love my life, reflecting only occasionally on the blank face of the other side of the coin. It is, after all, as invisible to us as the far side of the cold white moon that shone upon the never-ceasing ocean waves, which will still be breaking on the beach at Cape May long after I am dead and gone to whatever unknowable fate awaits us all. What is visible, and therefore real, is the world that has been so good to me, and whose pleasures I now relish more fully and intensely than ever before: a roaring fire, a well-made soup, the smell of salt air on a cold February night, the company of an understanding friend. Could it be that my night thoughts were the pinch of seasoning that brought out the savor in these simple things, and made me realize anew how very much they mean?

    On the way home I tuned in Frank’s Place on the satellite radio. Ella, Sarah, Peggy…and then, without warning, a voice I once knew as well as my own, singing a song I love:

    You're clear out of this world.
    When I'm looking at you
    I hear, out of this world,
    The music that no mortal ever knew….

    After waiting so long for the right time,
    After reaching so long for a star,
    All at once, from the long and lonely night time
    And despite time, here you are.

    Ten years ago I sat in the control room of a recording studio and watched my friend Nancy LaMott lay down the vocal track to that song. A few months later, not long after we sat together in her living room and listened to the finished album that contained her performance of “Out of This World,” she was dead.

    For a long time afterward I couldn’t listen to Nancy's singing without crying. Now I listened, dry-eyed but still moved, and found myself thinking of yet another Larkin poem:

    The stone fidelity
    They hardly meant has come to be
    Their final blazon, and to prove
    Our almost-instinct almost true:
    What will survive of us is love.

    No sooner did I return home than I turned on my computer and plugged myself back into the waiting world. I checked my e-mail and found one hundred and eighty messages awaiting me. Sighing deeply, I looked up at the wall above my desk, high on which hangs a lithograph by Fairfield Porter called Ocean I. That, too, survives of him, as Nancy’s albums survive of her.

    What will survive of me? Not my journalism, surely: we who write for newspapers know all too well how ephemeral our work is. Possibly one or two of my books will be read a decade from now, or even a half-century. Or not: it hardly matters in the end. Far better, I suspect, to be survived by love, whose ripples spread out unpredictably and miraculously across the ocean of life, breaking in time on beaches we will never see, there to be seen by onlookers who never knew us, and to comfort them as we in our turn have been comforted.

    posted by terryteachout @ Monday, February 20, 2006 | Permanent link
    TT: Rerun

    July 2004:

    I was reading Anthony Powell’s At Lady Molly’s as I ate lunch at a neighborhood restaurant the other afternoon. A waitress approached the table and asked, "Hey, whatcha reading?" Long experience has taught me never to answer this question other than noncommittally, so I showed her the spine of the book and said, in a fairly friendly tone of voice, "Oh, just a novel." She lit up like a sunbeam and replied, "Wow, that’s cool!"…

    (If it’s new to you, read the whole thing here.)

    posted by terryteachout @ Monday, February 20, 2006 | Permanent link
    TT: Almanac

    “Reviewing is a whole-time job with a half-time salary, a job in which our best work is always submerged in the criticism of someone else’s, where all triumphs are ephemeral and only the drudgery is permanent and where no future is secure except the certainty of turning into a hack.”

    Cyril Connolly, Enemies of Promise

    posted by terryteachout @ Monday, February 20, 2006 | Permanent link
Friday, February 18, 2005
    TT: Don’t worry—be happy

    It’s Friday, meaning that my drama column is in The Wall Street Journal. This week I reported on two shows, Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days and City Center’s four-performance concert version of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.

    The first I liked, with one major qualification:

    “I know it’s supposed to be tragic, but there are lots of gags…I’m not sure, but the writer’s no phony.” So said Bert Lahr to his agent after reading “Waiting for Godot.” Six months later, Samuel Beckett’s avant-garde play opened on Broadway with the Cowardly Lion starring opposite E.G. Marshall, giving what by all accounts was the performance of a lifetime. (The production was recorded by Columbia in 1956, but has yet to be reissued on CD.) Now Lea DeLaria, another rubbery-faced comedian-singer who is best known to New York audiences as the high-voltage Hildy of the Public Theater’s 1998 production of “On the Town,” is starring in the Worth Street Theater Company’s Off Broadway revival of Beckett’s “Happy Days”...

    Ms. DeLaria and Jeff Cohen, the director of this revival, have placed much (though by no means all) of their emphasis on the humor of “Happy Days,” an approach that plays to Ms. DeLaria’s formidable strengths. A superbly vital and aggressive comedian, she fills the theater with energy, and does it standing still. If the results aren’t always convincing, it’s because the cooks have overegged the pudding: Ms. DeLaria puts a fresh comic spin on each line, sometimes on each phrase, and Beckett’s carefully chosen words are too often buried under a hectic avalanche of twitches, tics and takes. Still, it’s a performance we’re seeing, not a reading, and if Ms. DeLaria is occasionally irritating, she’s never, ever dull….

    I wanted to like A Tree Grows in Brooklyn more than I did, but the show was the problem:

    Alas, “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” is a soft grape that’s been squeezed too hard. In turning her 496-page novel into a two-hour musical-comedy book, Betty Smith and George Abbott threw out the richness of detail that made it so memorable, and spooned sugar over Smith’s unexpectedly tough-minded portrayal of a misguided marriage gone sour. The score is similarly lacking in bite, though it contains two good songs, “Make the Man Love Me” and “He Had Refinement.” Better luck next time….

    No link. Plan A: go buy a copy of today’s Journal. Plan B: go here and follow orders.

    posted by terryteachout @ Friday, February 18, 2005 | Permanent link
    TT: Almanac

    “Unlike John, I had come back, not to stay, but only for an hour or so—long enough to see and to savor again, for the first time in nearly five years, that small and surprisingly unchanged part of the city where I was born and had spent so much of my life, where I knew every building and back alley as well as I knew my own front yard, where I had been a young priest, where I had had my own parish, and where, as in no place else, I had belonged, I had been at home. I suppose it’s the mark of the provincial man, but in any case I find that I have a special and lasting love for this place which is so obviously just a place, which has no particular beauty or grace or grandeur of scene, but which is, quite simply, a neighborhood, my neighborhood, a compound of sights and smells and sounds that have furnished all my years. What kind of man is it who, after almost fifty years, can still spend half his time remembering the cry of the chestnut man, as it came floating down the street on a winter night…?

    “And the people, all the people, the people one knew and understood almost by instinct, who had warmth and wit and kindness and an astonishing cascading rush of words—and who also had long and unforgiving memories, and tongues that cut like knives….”

    Edwin O’Connor, The Edge of Sadness

    posted by terryteachout @ Friday, February 18, 2005 | Permanent link
Thursday, February 17, 2005
    TT and OGIC: New around here, stranger?

    We've been getting a lot of fresh traffic lately (no doubt in part because Peggy Noonan mentioned us this morning in her OpinionJournal column about blogging and bloggers). So if this is your first visit, or even your second, welcome to "About Last Night," a 24/5 blog hosted by artsjournal.com on which Terry Teachout writes about the arts in New York City and elsewhere, assisted by the pseudonymous Our Girl in Chicago, who writes from...Chicago.

    (In case you're wondering, this blog has two URLs, the one you're seeing at the top of your screen right now and the easier-to-remember www.terryteachout.com. Either one will bring you here.)

    All our postings from the past seven days are visible in reverse chronological order on this page. Terry's start with "TT," Our Girl's with "OGIC." In addition, the entire contents of this site are archived chronologically and can be accessed by clicking "ALN Archives" at the top of the right-hand column.

    You can read more about us, and about "About Last Night," by going to the right-hand column and clicking in the appropriate places. You'll also find various other toothsome features there, including our regularly updated Top Five list of things to see, hear, read and otherwise do, links to Terry's most recent newspaper and magazine articles, and "Sites to See," a list of links to other blogs and Web sites with art-related content. If you're curious about the arty part of the blogosphere, you've come to the right site: "Sites to See" will point you in all sorts of interesting directions, and all roads lead back to "About Last Night."

    As if all that weren't enough, you can write to us by clicking either one of the "Write Us" buttons. We read our mail, and answer it, too, so long as you're minimally polite. (Be patient, though. We get a lot of it.)

    The only other thing you need to know is that "About Last Night" is about all the arts, high, medium, and low: film, drama, painting, dance, fiction, TV, music of all kinds, whatever. Our interests are wide-ranging, and we think there are plenty of other people like us out there in cyberspace, plus still more who long to wander off their beaten paths but aren't sure which way to turn.

    If you're one of the above, we're glad you came. Enjoy. Peruse. Tell all your friends about www.terryteachout.com. And come back tomorrow.

    posted by terryteachout @ Thursday, February 17, 2005 | Permanent link
    TT: Progress report

    I stopped saving printed copies of my published pieces long ago—I threw most of them out when I put together the Teachout Reader—but I recently pried open a half-forgotten cardboard box stuck in the back of a closet and found a short stack of fading newspaper clips, one of which I thought worth calling to your attention.

    In 1999 I wrote a piece for the Sunday New York Times called “Loved the LP, Waiting for the CD” in which I listed “13 first-rate jazz albums recorded from 1955 to 1982, none of which has ever appeared on CD in the United States.” Since then, six of the albums I mentioned have finally made it to compact disc: Jim Hall Live!, Bobby Hackett’s Gotham Jazz Scene, Ahmad Jamal’s Chamber Music of the New Jazz, Roger Kellaway Cello Quartet (but not Come to the Meadow, the Cello Quartet’s second album for A&M), Gerry Mulligan Meets Johnny Hodges, and Pee Wee Russell’s New Groove. (A seventh, Stan Getz’s Poetry, was reissued in 2001 but quickly went out of print, though it's still available as a Japanese import.)

    Here are the remaining albums, all of them still in limbo, along with what I wrote about them six years ago:

    Sidney Bechet Has Young Ideas (World Pacific, 1957). “The great New Orleans reedman spent much of the 1950s fronting bands made up of second-rate European musicians, but his last album, a quartet set in which he was accompanied by the French bebop pianist Martial Solal (with ur-bop drummer Kenny Clarke sitting in on six tracks), is a thrilling exception. Bechet always rose to a challenge, and Solal’s probing playing kept him on his toes.”

    • JoAnne Brackeen, Keyed In (Columbia, 1979). “Ms. Brackeen’s lone flirtation with a major label produced two albums, both of which went out of print with unseemly haste (Columbia’s late-’70s commitment to serious jazz was momentary) and are now unjustly forgotten. This one, a vibrant collection of originals that teams her with the bassist Eddie Gomez and the drummer Jack DeJohnette, ranks among the most impressive piano trio albums of the past quarter-century.”

    • Gary Burton Quartet, Easy as Pie and Picture This (ECM, 1980 and 1982). “Mr. Burton rarely works with horn players, but this superlative quartet, which featured Jim Odgren on alto saxophone, is the strongest working group the vibraphonist has led since the Larry Coryell-Steve Swallow-Roy Haynes lineup of the late ’60s. Why ECM hasn’t reissued its two studio albums is a mystery—they’re both gems.”

    • Bud Freeman and Two Guitars, Something Tender (United Artists, 1962). “George Barnes and Carl Kress, who worked together from 1961 until Kress’ death in 1965, were the foremost jazz guitar duo of the postwar era. The tenor saxophonist Bud Freeman joined them in the studio for this exquisite trio album, ideally suited for after-hours listening.”

    I’m still hoping to see these classic albums on CD—and Come to the Meadow, too. Is anybody listening out there in reissueland?

    posted by terryteachout @ Thursday, February 17, 2005 | Permanent link
    TT: New York time

    A reader passes on this quote from Michael Tilson Thomas, music director of the San Francisco Symphony and one of the artists I admire most:

    For seventeen years, I lived in New York. It was a wonderful adventure, a great part of my life. But, after a while, it began to bother me that the whole purpose of living in those concrete canyons—the world of right angles—was all the cultural events that you could take in. That somehow seemed to put a lot of pressure on the cultural events. Unless you have attended three operas and five ballets and six new restaurants this week, you're not keeping up. I found that people taking in these events weren't thinking about them, but they were sure listing them. There was a lot of “have you seen this,” but not enough of “what was this like for you?” As I reach this advanced age [sixty], the luxury of having time to think, to savor it, has become important to me.

    The quote was new to me, but the sentiment wasn’t. It’s something I think about often. (Well, fairly often.) New York is a cultural echo chamber, and it’s noisy inside. Especially if you do what I do for a living, you’re always aware that there’s exciting stuff going on every day, and you feel compelled to try to see and hear as much of it as you possibly can, since that's the whole point of living here. Of course New York is full of wonderful people, too—I’ve never had so many good friends as I do right now—but we’re all here for the same reason, which is to be as close to the center of things as we can get. No doubt there are also plenty of hermits in Manhattan, but I tend not to run into them at intermission.

    I don’t claim to be the most spiritual person in the world, but I’m very much aware of the dangers of living in a place that puts so many obstacles in the path of contemplation. Last year I posted an almanac entry by Santiago Ramon y Cajál: “Small inward treasure does he possess who, to feel alive, needs every hour the tumult of the street, the emotion of the theatre, and the small talk of society.” (It’s the epigraph to the Jerome Robbins-Leonard Bernstein ballet Facsimile.) I don’t think I need those things every hour, or even every day, but it’s perilously easy to become habituated to the unceasing stimulus of life in New York, and before you know it you lose touch with the quiet at the heart of things, and your soul starts to shrivel.

    Do I get out of town often enough? Do I take the phone off the hook often enough? Do I sit in my living room and revel in the Teachout Museum often enough? To all of the above, even the last, my answer is a reluctant no. Yet I do these things often enough to know when I need to be doing them more often: I feel their absence, and sooner or later I act on that feeling. If I didn’t I’d go mad, or cease to be myself.

    Having said this, I freely acknowledge that my enthusiastic embrace of the world of art is deliberate. A friend reminded me the other day of W. Jackson Bate’s remark that Dr. Johnson, my hero, had “a great experiencing nature.” I aspire to that. I’ve spent three or four longish stretches of my life in comparative isolation, during which I spent most of my time reading, writing, and thinking. Today I’m drawing on the capital I accumulated back then—and I'm also accumulating a different kind of capital, the kind you get by experiencing art passionately and regularly. I'm sure the time will come when I no longer want to be out on the town so much (or am no longer capable of it), and then I’ll have a well-stocked cellar of memories on which to draw.

    One of these days I hope to write a short, pithy book about the unity of the arts, the sort of book that is the product of much experience and much contemplation. Right now I’m getting the experience. The contemplation will come later. Or not. Leonard Woolf’s last volume of autobiography is called The Journey Not the Arrival Matters. I don’t know whether he was right, but I do know that the arrival, unlike the journey, is out of my hands.

    I hasten to point out, by the way, that Michael Tilson Thomas is a great artist, while I am…well, a pretty good journalist. He’s also a decade my senior, which means that he ought to be stepping back from the fray and allowing his inward treasure to crystallize into aesthetic wisdom. For me, there’ll be time enough to do that later, and if there isn’t, I can't imagine that it’ll be the world’s loss. Unlike Thomas, the best I have to offer as a writer arises from my going to and fro in the world of art, then coming home to report on my enthusiasms and excitements. That’s what I do and what I love to do, and so long as I keep on loving it I'll keep on doing it—with an occasional day off to sit quietly, catch my breath, and be enveloped by the waiting silence.

    posted by terryteachout @ Thursday, February 17, 2005 | Permanent link
    TT: Almanac

    “Thought works in silence, so does virtue. One might erect statues to silence.”

    Thomas Carlyle, diary entry (September 1830)

    posted by terryteachout @ Thursday, February 17, 2005 | Permanent link
Wednesday, February 16, 2005
    TT: Take a gander

    For those of you who’ve never visited the Teachout Museum, here are the five pieces that will be on display at my Duncan Phillips Lecture in Washington, D.C., on March 9:

    • John Marin, 1870-1953
    Downtown, the El, 1921
    Second impression,
    published by The New Republic
    in Six American Etchings, 1924

    • Milton Avery, 1893-1965
    March at a Table, 1948
    Published in Laurels Portfolio,
    No. 4, 1948

    • Fairfield Porter, 1907-1975
    The Table, 1971
    Color lithograph

    • Neil Welliver, 1929-
    Night Scene, 1981-82
    Color woodcut

    • Jane Freilicher, 1924-
    Late Afternoon, Southampton, 1999
    Color hard ground etching
    with spit bite aquatint and drypoint

    Come and see!

    posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, February 16, 2005 | Permanent link
    TT: The first time

    I went last week to hear the premiere of Morph, a wonderful new piece for string orchestra by Paul Moravec, whose Pulitzer-winning Tempest Fantasy is now out on CD. A couple of days later, Paul sent me this e-mail:

    A great experience for a composer to invent something—two-dimensional, in black-and-white in the studio, I-think-it's-going-to-work-but-who-knows?—and then suddenly there it is in 3-D, living color, and it works like gangbusters. The piece made me listen as a disinterested audience member to a considerable extent. Of course I know how it goes, but as they were playing I was sitting there thinking, Gee, what happens next?

    Boy, do I ever know how that feels. Writing a book is one thing, but holding it in your hand is something else again, though the really big moment comes when you first see the text set up in type. All at once your words have a life of their own—they're not just pixels on a screen—and you can feel them slipping out of your control and into the world, there to make their way among strangers. It's terrifying. It's also thrilling.

    All of which reminds me to do something I originally intended to do a couple of weeks ago. I wrote the liner notes for Paul’s Tempest Fantasy CD, and it occurs to me that those of you who haven't yet heard any of his music might be interested in reading what I had to say about it. (If you've already bought the CD, pardon my redundancy!)

    * * *

    Paul Moravec lives on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, two blocks north of me, and whenever I bump into him on the street, I say, “Is that a Pulitzer laureate I see strolling down the sidewalk?” He always laughs and looks embarrassed—but pleased, too, as well he should. Winning the Pulitzer Prize for music, as Paul did in 2004 for Tempest Fantasy, is no small thing, especially when you’ve been laboring in relative obscurity for years. To be sure, Paul is well known and respected within the tight little world of American classical composers, but a household name he isn’t. Yet not only did winning the Pulitzer get his name into every major newspaper in the United States, it also gave him permanent entrée to a club whose other members include Charles Ives, Aaron Copland, Virgil Thomson, Samuel Barber, Gian-Carlo Menotti, Ned Rorem, George Rochberg, and John Corigliano. That’s fast company.

    I was especially gratified by Paul’s Pulitzer because I’d been writing about his music with passionate enthusiasm for a decade, ever since I first heard the elegant, soaringly melodic violin sonata he composed for Maria Bachmann and Jon Klibonoff in 1992. In the lexicon of criticism, the word “great” is the reddest of flags; only time can tell whether a work of art is great, and when you use the word to describe a living composer, or a brand-new piece, you’re leading with your chin. Still, there’s something about great art that makes itself manifest on the spot, a commingling of immediacy and elusiveness that causes you to want to re-experience it as soon as possible, and that’s how I felt when I heard the Violin Sonata. It reminded me of what George Bernard Shaw wrote about hearing Elgar’s Enigma Variations for the first time: “For my part, I expected nothing from any English composer…But when I heard the Variations (which had not attracted me to the concert) I sat up and said ‘Whew!’ I knew we had got it at last.”

    Shaw’s encounter with the Enigma Variations took place in 1900, at a time when English music had hit a dead end and seemed unlikely ever to be revived. Nine decades later, American music appeared to be in similar shape. The hard-edged, over-complicated works of such dedicated devotees of atonality as Milton Babbitt and Elliott Carter had long dominated the new-music scene. To be sure, the stranglehold of the “complexity boys” (as Virgil Thomson called them) had been challenged by such older American tonalists as Ned Rorem, David Diamond, and Leonard Bernstein, then weakened significantly in the Eighties by the fast-rising popularity of Philip Glass, Steve Reich, and John Adams. But the stuttering chatter of minimalism was too simple-minded to satisfy my longing for intelligible yet challenging new scores, and I feared that the mainstream of classical music might have dried up for good.

    That’s why the Moravec Violin Sonata hit me so hard. It acknowledged the eternal verity articulated a half-century ago by Paul Hindemith: “Music, as long as it exists, will always take its departure from the major triad and return to it. The musician cannot escape it any more than the painter his primary colors, or the architect his three dimensions….In the world of tones, the triad corresponds to the force of gravity. It serves as our constant guiding point, our unit of measure, even in those sections of compositions which avoid it.” For Paul, triadically based harmony, the tonal language of all Western music from Bach to rock, was a given—yet he used it with a freshness and individuality that made it sound as current as the morning paper.

    I started following his career closely, and soon discovered that he was one of a number of younger American composers (he was born in 1957) who wrote classical music that was at once unmistakably contemporary and firmly rooted in the techniques of the past. I dubbed them “New Tonalists” in an essay I wrote for Commentary in 1997, singling out Paul as a key figure in the movement:

    Though their music varies widely in style, all of them speak the language of tonality, and do so without irony or self-consciousness. This is what sets them apart from the postmodern movement: they are neither embarrassed nor paralyzed by tradition….Moravec uses post-Debussyan tonality not to comment on an older style but to make a direct statement of his own.

    With each successive premiere, I grew increasingly certain that Paul was the real right thing, a great composer in the great tradition, and I continued to write about him whenever I got the chance, learning in the process that he was also an exceptionally articulate spokesman for his art, one whose comments on music revealed a deeply philosophical turn of mind. “Musically, I say what I mean and mean what I say,” he told me when I interviewed him for an essay about the New Tonalism called “Back to the Future” that appeared in Time in 2000. “The irony in my music is not glibly postmodern but, rather, the essence of making audible the human experience of ambiguity.” Needless to say, most composers don’t talk that way, but Paul does (though he can also be side-splittingly funny).

    What he meant by that subtle remark is demonstrated by the music on this album. I’ll leave it to him to describe Mood Swings, Scherzo, B.A.S.S. Variations, and Tempest Fantasy in his own words, but I do want to add that despite the considerable, at times formidable complexity of these tough-minded works, which are anything but “easy” in the way they translate experience and emotion into the realm of sound, their complexities are never gratuitous. To put it another way, these powerfully moving pieces make sense. Their harmonies are lucid and logical, their melodies indelibly noble. They are, literally, eloquent, the painstakingly wrought utterances of an artist who believes with all his heart in the possibility of beauty. I know no other music written today that moves me more.

    Such music cuts sharply against the grain of trendiness, and for a long time I wondered whether the rest of the world would ever catch up with Paul. But he kept at it, gradually building up a reputation as a composer of warmly expressive, consummately crafted pieces, and while most of the big-city critics continued to overlook his work (Tim Page of the Washington Post is an honorable exception), performers and audiences embraced it with growing enthusiasm. Then came the Pulitzer Prize, and now this album, on which you can hear four of Paul’s finest pieces performed by the superlative musicians for whom they were written. As I listened, I thought of something that Ned Rorem, another long-unfashionable composer who has lived to see the restoration of tonality, said when he won his own Pulitzer: “I’ve never run with the pack, composing according to fashion; I’ve always been a lone wolf, composing according to need. The Red Queen said you’ve got to run fast to stay in one place. I stayed in one place. Now it’s clear I’ve run fast.” So has Paul Moravec.

    An hour or so after the Pulitzers for 2004 were announced, I got an overseas telephone call from Paul, who was vacationing in Sicily. He was clearly thrilled by the news, but reacted with his usual sense of humor.

    “Do you realize that I'm going to be in the World Almanac next year?” he asked me.

    “And every other year—from now on,” I replied.

    posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, February 16, 2005 | Permanent link
    TT: Almanac

    “How can one better magnify the Almighty than by sniggering with him at his little jokes, particularly the poorer ones.”

    Samuel Beckett, Happy Days

    posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, February 16, 2005 | Permanent link
Tuesday, February 15, 2005
    TT: Words, words, words

    As regular readers of this blog may recall, I’ll be giving two lectures in Washington, D.C., early in March. In case you'd like to come to one or both, here's the official scoop:

    • I’ll be delivering a Bradley Lecture at the American Enterprise Institute at 5:30 on Monday, March 7. The topic is “The Problem of Political Art”:

    Can political art fully satisfy the claims of truth and beauty? Or is it fatally compromised by the passionate desire to persuade? The drama critic of The Wall Street Journal offers a report from the front lines on the increasing politicization of art in 21st-century America—and the growing inclination of contemporary artists to take the political views of their audiences for granted.

    For more information, go here.

    • I’ll be delivering a Duncan Phillips Lecture under the auspices of the Phillips Collection at 6:30 on Wednesday, March 9. The topic is “Multiple Modernisms: What a Novice Collector Learned from Duncan Phillips”:

    For much of the twentieth century, the Museum of Modern Art's version of modernism dominated American taste. Foremost among the dissenters from its austere canon was Duncan Phillips, whose color-driven, explicitly sensuous "modernism" stands in sharp contrast to the Gospel According to MoMA. Unlike most New Yorkers, critic Terry Teachout formed his tastes by looking at The Phillips Collection, and when he began to collect American art, he kept Duncan Phillips' precepts firmly in mind. In this lecture, Mr. Teachout looks at Phillips' alternate canon and speculates on what might have caught Duncan Phillips' eye if he had lived another quarter century.

    The lecture will take place at the Women’s National Democratic Club, and reservations are required. Five pieces from the Teachout Museum, including Milton Avery's "March at a Table" and John Marin's "Downtown. The El," will be on display.

    For more information, go here.

    If you’re an “About Last Night” reader, stop by and say hello!

    posted by terryteachout @ Tuesday, February 15, 2005 | Permanent link
    TT: Heads and tails

    I don’t care for conceptual art and have no opinion of Christo, but I do live half a block from Central Park, making it hard for me to be altogether indifferent to “The Gates, Central Park, New York, 1979-2005,” seeing as how it’s visible from my doorstep. Bass Player came by my place on Saturday for a pre-ballet hang, so we figured we might as well stroll into the park and take a peek on the way to brunch. Ten minutes later we strolled back out again. The Gates hadn't struck either one of us as beautiful or memorable, though it might simply have been that we weren’t in a receptive mood (I intend to try again next week).

    Obviously others felt differently—the park was crowded and the atmosphere festive—and it occurred to me that I ought to be pleased that so many people had come to Central Park to experience a work of art, regardless of its quality. But the more I eavesdropped, the more clearly I realized that most of them were doing nothing of the kind: they’d simply come to see what everybody was talking about. Art had nothing to do with it. They might as well have been going to Six Flags to ride a new roller coaster.

    After brunch we went down to Lincoln Center to see New York City Ballet. The bill of fare consisted of a fair-to-goodish performance of a masterpiece, George Balanchine's Jewels, and the orchestra played badly. Yet the flaws didn't matter. Maybe it was that Bass Player had never seen any Balanchine, and was self-evidently carried away. Or perhaps it had something to do with the strong emotions that had been discharged in me earlier in the week by the response to my piece about Nancy LaMott. Whatever the reason, I was overwhelmed by the performance. It was as though some obscuring veil had been peeled away: I saw through a glass, but not darkly. As I watched the dancers, I couldn’t help but think of Christo’s spectacle, and wonder what definition of the word “art” could possibly encompass both phenomena. (The performance, by the way, was sold out.)

    I returned home from the ballet, climbed into my loft, and immediately fell into a deep, dream-laden sleep. I woke up spontaneously an hour later, as fresh and happy as could be, and stayed that way for the rest of the weekend.

    posted by terryteachout @ Tuesday, February 15, 2005 | Permanent link
    TT: The great pretender

    Arthur Miller died too late on Thursday for my Wall Street Journal drama column to note his passing. Instead, I’ve marked the occasion with a piece on today’s Leisure & Arts page.

    Regular readers won't be surprised to learn that I’m pretty tough on the author of Death of a Salesman, for whom my admiration was sharply qualified:

    I recently described “After the Fall,” the 1964 play in which Miller first made fictional use of his unsuccessful marriage to Marilyn Monroe, as “a lead-plated example of the horrors that result when a humorless playwright unfurls his midlife crisis for all the world to see,” written by a man “who hasn’t a poetic bone in his body (though he thinks he does).” For me, that was his biggest flaw. He was, literally, pretentious: He pretended to have big ideas and the ability to express them with a touch of poetry, when in fact he had neither. His final play, “Finishing the Picture,” was yet another rehash of the Monroe-Miller ménage in which he resorted one last time to what I referred to in this space last fall as “pseudo-poetic burble” (“What we had that was alive and crazy has been pounded into some hateful, ordinary dust”).

    I wonder how much attention would now be paid to Miller if he hadn’t married Monroe, and if the House Un-American Activities Committee hadn’t made the mistake of subpoenaing him in 1956 to testify about his Communist ties (which were extensive, though he always denied having been an actual party member), thereby bringing about his citation for contempt of Congress when he refused to “name names.” The one made him a pop-culture footnote, the other a liberal icon.

    The irony is that the smartest critics of Miller’s own generation, virtually all of whom shared his left-wing views, held his plays in a different kind of contempt. Back then he took his roughest beatings from the likes of Eric Bentley, Mary McCarthy, Kenneth Tynan and Robert Warshow, who found him heavy-handed and insufferably preachy. Tynan, for instance, wrote that “The Crucible” “suggests a sensibility blunted by the insistence of an outraged conscience: it has the over-simplifications of poster art.” Bull’s-eye….

    Read the whole thing here. (Really!)

    posted by terryteachout @ Tuesday, February 15, 2005 | Permanent link
    TT: Almanac

    VLADIMIR: Moron!

    ESTRAGON: Vermin!

    VLADIMIR: Abortion!

    ESTRAGON: Morpion!

    VLADIMIR: Sewer-rat!

    ESTRAGON: Curate!

    VLADIMIR: Cretin!

    ESTRAGON (with finality): Crritic!


    He wilts, vanquished, and turns away.

    Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot

    posted by terryteachout @ Tuesday, February 15, 2005 | Permanent link
Monday, February 14, 2005
    OGIC: Valentines from the blogosphere

    A couple of cynical ones that caught my eye:

    • Gwenda Bond's funny memories of a detractor:

    In college, I wrote a column about how much I hated V-day. I turned it in late, as usual, handing it in to lay-out and going off to sleep a few hours. I walked in to my first class the next morning to the hush that can only be brought about by one's editor putting one's mug shot above a giant heart with a giant NO symbol across it.

    • And the inimitable prose stylings of Mr. Outer Life, which it would be pointless to try to excerpt.

    posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Monday, February 14, 2005 | Permanent link
    OGIC: Kris Kristofferson blues

    Last fall, a friend asked me to join his Pub Trivia team. This sort of thing is totally my cup of tea—you readers may think you already have a fair sense of the depths of my nerdiness, but you don't know the half of it.

    Little surprise, then, that the trivia took, and over the months I've learned—and imbibed—a lot. The team has even made a little money. But the single most important and immutable thing I have learned at Pub Trivia is this:

    The answers you don't know on Tuesday night will be dropped in your lap by a fickle fate on, roughly, Wednesday morning. Right after you don't need them anymore. You can practically set your watch.

    For example, in January we missed a question about something that happens in the first few pages of the Watchmen comic book. Later that week, one team member received from his brother, as a late Hanukkah gift, Watchmen. A quite late Hanukkah gift, I might add.

    Then last week we were asked who wrote the song "Me and Bobby McGee," and were stumped. We made a respectable if uninspired guess of Willie Nelson; the answer turned out to be Kris Kristofferson; we grumbled and sighed and hit each other upside the head, and eventually came in second.

    Fast forward to last night. I'm working on the laptop with the Grammys on as background noise, glancing up only occasionally. Hey, who's that strolling across the stage and into my living room? Oh, look at that, it's Kris Kristofferson, introducing a Janis Joplin tribute. What's that he's saying? Oh, it's "I wrote 'Me and Bobby McGee,'" more or less. Oh, Kris Kristofferson! You sing, you write, you act, you probably dance and juggle, you're a Rhodes Scholar, but oh, your execrable timing.

    posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Monday, February 14, 2005 | Permanent link
    TT: Almanac

    "Compared with the exclusive ideal of work as activity, leisure implies (in the first place) an attitude of non-activity, of inward calm, of silence; it means not being 'busy,' but letting things happen.

    "Leisure is a form of silence, of that silence which is the prerequisite of the apprehension of reality: only the silent hear and those who do not remain silent do not hear. Silence, as it is used in this context, does not mean 'dumbness' or 'noiselessness'; it means more nearly that the soul's power to 'answer' to the reality of the world is left undisturbed. For leisure is a receptive attitude of mind, a contemplative attitude, and it is not only the occasion but also the capacity for steeping oneself in the whole of creation."

    Josef Pieper, Leisure, the Basis of Culture (trans. Alexander Dru)

    posted by terryteachout @ Monday, February 14, 2005 | Permanent link
Sunday, February 13, 2005
    TT and OGIC: And the winner is...

    This just in from the Grammy Awards:

    Category 49

    Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album
    Concert in the Garden
    Maria Schneider Orchestra

    Our heartfelt congratulations!

    posted by terryteachout @ Sunday, February 13, 2005 | Permanent link
Saturday, February 21, 2004
    TT: Oh, what a good boy am I

    Home for a couple of hours in between Big Bill and Fiddler on the Roof (yes, this is a two-performance day, God help me). Instead of taking a nap, which is what I originally had in mind, I was seized by guilt and decided to catch up on my blogmail, and now it's all answered, except for a few pieces that (A) require more thought or (B) will eventually get posted on the blog.

    How about that? Are you impressed? This do I for my true readers. And now...a shower. Followed by a cab. Followed by Fiddler on the Roof, about which I'll be writing in next Friday's Wall Street Journal.

    That's my life. Sounds crazy, no?

    posted by terryteachout @ Saturday, February 21, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: Blogging is not a zero-sum game

    Of all the many things that make blogging a truly new medium, the most important is linking. As I remarked in my much-discussed notes on blogging, "Blogs without links aren’t blogs." Linking transforms individual blogs into a larger community—a blogosphere—whose members freely share ideas and readers with one another, and in so doing increase their own value.

    One of the most fascinating aspects of blogging is the unexpected speed with which it has evolved into a collective "gatekeeper" for traditional media—a way of sifting through tons of dirt and finding the gems. I now "read" most magazines and newspapers not directly but by way of links, some of the best of which come from artsjournal.com, "About Last Night"’s invaluable host. (You can read it by clicking on the artsjournal.com logo in the upper-left-hand corner of this page.) It was because of artsjournal.com, for example, that I became aware of yesterday’s Women’s Wear Daily story about how magazine newsstand sales are plummeting:

    According to official figures released Monday by the Audit Bureau of Circulations, out of the 472 magazines it tracks, 319 reported newsstand declines and their combined newsstand sales fell 5.9 percent (3.3 million copies), not counting new titles reporting sales for the first time.

    The big picture looks even worse for magazines too small to be counted by the ABC. According to the International Periodical Distributors Association, which tracks 95 percent of all magazines, net unit sales fell 13.4 percent in the second half of 2003 compared with the previous year, and that’s after sales dropped 12.9 percent in the first half (when there was a war on).

    "You can’t blame Iraq, and you can’t blame the economy…. Well, I guess you can, but how long can you keep doing that?" said Chip Block, vice chairman of the subscription fulfillment company USApubs.

    Nowhere in the story does the author suggest that blogging might be pulling newsstand sales downward—but I have no doubt that it is. In fact, my guess is that the emergence of blogging will transform the periodical business beyond recognition, as more people come to rely on links as their primary means of reading most magazines.

    Links being as important as they are, it strikes me that bloggers ought to be scrupulous about giving credit where credit is due—and not merely to the original publication, either. I don’t read Women’s Wear Daily, I read artsjournal.com, and it would have been implicitly dishonest for me to mention that WWD story without also mentioning how I found out about it in the first place.

    Here’s how Our Girl and I decide when and where to give credit:

    (1) If a story has already been widely linked throughout the blogosphere, we don’t usually attempt to give credit for the original link. (Aside from everything else, we don't always know who spotted it first.)

    (2) If the story appeared in a widely read print-media publication such as the New York Times, we generally don’t give credit, either—that is, unless the blogger in question dug a tidbit out of that publication that might otherwise have gone overlooked, or enhanced its interest by commenting on it in a memorable way.

    (3) In all other cases, we credit the blogsource. (The formula I most often use is "Courtesy of blogsource.com…")

    Do we slip up on occasion? Sure. I often bookmark stories cherrypicked from the blogosphere, and by the time I get around to looking at the bookmarks, I’ve sometimes forgotten where I found them. But that’s a mistake, not a policy. Whenever we can, we credit the source.

    This isn't merely a matter of common courtesy, or even collegiality. OGIC and I don’t give credit to such fellow bloggers as Supermaud, Sarah, Lizzie, Cinetrix, and Chicha just to be chummy (though that's part of the fun). We do it because we want you to read them, too. The potential audience for litblogs and arts blogs is infinitely larger than the number of people currently reading them. The more such blogs you visit on a regular basis, the more interested you’ll become in the larger phenomenon of blogging, and—we hope—the more often you’ll come back to dance with the one who brung you.

    Repeat after me: Giving credit to blogsources for borrowed links is good for everybody in the blogosphere.

    Not all bloggers feel this way. Certain of our colleagues are bad—a few notoriously so—about giving credit to other bloggers. I’ll name no names, but I will say that the stingy practice of link-poaching has lately come in for quite a bit of backstage criticism.

    Needless to say, others can and will do as they please. That’s in the nature of the blogosphere. But at "About Last Night," we believe that the larger interests of litblogging and arts blogging are best served by crediting the sources of our links, and we strongly recommend that our fellow bloggers do the same thing.

    Here endeth the lesson. We return you now to our regularly scheduled program.

    posted by terryteachout @ Saturday, February 21, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: Alas, not by me

    In case you haven’t heard (it's all over the blogosphere), Naomi Wolf says that Harold Bloom sexually harassed her while she was an undergraduate at Yale. The accusation reportedly appears in an article by Wolf scheduled for publication in the next issue of New York. For now, Rachel Donadio summed up the story in this week’s New York Observer, throwing in for good measure a typically incendiary quote from Camille Paglia:

    "I just feel it’s indecent that if Naomi Wolf did not have the courage to pursue the matter at the time, or in the 1990’s, and put her own reputation on the line, then to bring all of this down on a man who is in his 70’s and has health problems—who has become a culture hero to readers in the humanities around the world—to drag him into a ‘he said/she said’ scenario so late in the game, to me demonstrates a lack of proportion and a basic sense of fair play," said Ms. Paglia, who is professor of humanities and media studies at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, where she said she helped institute that university’s sexual-harassment policies in the 1980s.

    "At the beginning of the 90’s, people said, ‘Oh, Naomi Wolf, this great thinker,’" said Ms. Paglia. "But what she’s managed to do in 10 years is marginalize herself as a chronicler of teenage angst. She doesn’t want to leave that magic island when she was the ripening teenager. How many times do we have to relive Naomi Wolf’s growing up? How many books, how many articles, Naomi, are you going to impose on us so we have to be dragged back to your teenage-heartbreak years? This is regressive! It’s childish! Move on! Move on! Get on to menopause next!"

    Read the whole thing here.

    I really wish Camille would start blogging....

    posted by terryteachout @ Saturday, February 21, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: Live and in person

    If you’ve always wondered what I look like in the flesh, come to the 92nd Street Y this Sunday night and see for yourself. The occasion is "Norman Podhoretz in Conversation with Terry Teachout." Says the press release:

    Norman Podhoretz is an acclaimed author of nine books on subjects ranging from contemporary literature to foreign policy and was editor-in-chief of Commentary for 35 years. His most recent book is The Norman Podhoretz Reader: A Selection of His Writings from the 1950s through the 1990s. Terry Teachout is the music critic of Commentary and a contributor to Time and The Washington Post, among other publications….They will discuss the intersections of politics and culture in the last half century.

    The jousting begins at eight o’clock. For more information, or to order a ticket, go here.

    posted by terryteachout @ Saturday, February 21, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: Almanac

    "Meanwhile, if I were endowed with wealth, I should start a great advertising campaign in all the principal newspapers. The advertisements would consist of one short sentence, printed in huge block letters—a sentence that I once heard spoken by a husband to a wife: 'My dear, nothing in this world is worth buying.'"

    Max Beerbohm, Mainly on the Air

    posted by terryteachout @ Saturday, February 21, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: From yon to hither

    Without exception, my friends are puzzled by my more than occasional practice of reading biographies from back to front. It puzzles me, too, even though I’ve been doing it for years, and I can’t offer any explanation, however theoretical, for a habit that at first, second, and third glances makes no sense. All I can tell you is that for some reason not yet accessible to introspection, I often prefer to read about a person’s life in reverse chronological order, starting with his death and working backwards to his birth.

    That’s strange enough, I suppose, but here’s something even stranger: I read Jeffrey Meyers’ Somerset Maugham: A Life starting with the source notes, after which I read the book itself from last page to first. Once finished, I re-read it in the normal fashion. All this took two days, and now I’m ready for another book.

    My guess is that two passes through Somerset Maugham: A Life will be quite enough, not because Maugham’s life wasn’t interesting but because Jeffrey Meyers’ biography is of the sort typically described by tactful critics as "workmanlike." The same thing could have been said of his previous biographies of (pause for deep breath) Orwell, Conrad, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Edmund Wilson, and Robert Frost. Those are just the ones I’ve read, but there are plenty of others, Meyers being a full-time professional biographer, and here as before, his writing is unfussy but unstylish, his criticism not very insightful. If a great biography is the literary equivalent of a ten-course dinner prepared by a master chef, then Somerset Maugham: A Life is more like one of those freeze-dried meals dished up to astronauts: perfectly edible, even tasty if you're hungry enough, but more functional than enjoyable. Meyers' book-reportish summing-up of Maugham’s career will show you what I mean:

    Maugham’s current reputation has eclipsed that of his old rivals: Shaw, Wells, Bennett and Galsworthy. More versatile than any modern writer, he wrote outstanding works in every genre: plays, stories and novels, essays, travel books and autobiographies. His exotic settings, engaging characters and riveting plots, his clear style, skillful technique and sardonic narrator, his dramatic flair and grasp of irony continue to attract a wide audience.

    Oh, dear.

    It occurs to me that reading such a book backwards might be my subconscious way of making it more aesthetically appealing. It definitely adds a touch of suspense, since you keep running into mysterious characters along the way who aren’t fully identified until much later on. But if that’s why I do it, why on earth did I start with the footnotes this time around? Perhaps that’s simply a deformation professionelle of a practicing biographer. I happen to like footnotes, so much so that I made a point of tucking a few choice anecdotes into the notes for The Skeptic: A Life of H.L. Mencken in order to ensure that those who shared my taste would be pleasantly surprised by their perseverance.

    For this reason, I was amused to find this testy paragraph in the source notes for Somerset Maugham: A Life:

    In his will Maugham specified that none of his unpublished writings should be printed after his death and that no assistance should be given to his biographer. Though the Royal Literary Fund has received all his royalties, they felt no moral or legal obligation to follow the terms of his bequest, and contravened his will by authorizing a biography and by granting permission to publish his letters. Donors who leave money to the fund should be warned that the explicit terms of their will may be completely ignored.

    Now that’s my idea of a really superior footnote, well worth digging out of the back matter of a biography. Here’s another:

    In a presentation copy of a 1948 reprint of Ashenden, Maugham wrote: "To Raymond Chandler, who has given the author of this book both in sickness and in health, many hours of undiluted happiness."

    Meyers even throws in a bit of dish. This note, for instance, refers to a now-forgotten writer by the name of David Posner who as a young man seduced the elderly Maugham:

    Posner—who later married, published some poetry and died in 1985—was drawn to elderly homosexual writers. He once told me that he had courted Thomas Mann in Princeton.

    Max Beerbohm could have spun a whole essay out of those two sentences.

    As that last note suggests, Maugham led a life generously seasoned with scandal, but he’s not the sort of semi-obscure author who deserves to be remembered only for his sex life. Though I wouldn’t call him a Great Writer by any means, he did turn out a dozen or so first-class short stories whose astringent disillusion and plain, direct prose are as satisfying as a salty snack (I especially like "The Outstation" and "The Alien Corn"), as well as one of the very best comic novels of the twentieth century, Cakes and Ale, whose first sentence can be found in the "Opening Lines, Great" section of my electronic commonplace book: "I have noticed that when someone asks for you on the telephone and, finding you out, leaves a message begging you to call him up the moment you come in, and it’s important, the matter is more often important to him than to you." How could you not keep on reading after that?

    Such a minor master surely deserves to be memorialized in a decent biography, and Somerset Maugham: A Life, if less than scintillating, fills the bill with just enough room to spare. Meyers even manages to find room for a charming Maugham anecdote that I’d never heard. Fittingly, it’s about Cakes and Ale:

    He liked it the best of all his books and, when looking for something good to read one evening, remarked: "What a pity that I wrote Cakes and Ale. It would be the very thing."

    Yes, there’s a footnote.

    posted by terryteachout @ Saturday, February 21, 2004 | Permanent link
Friday, February 20, 2004
    TT: I'm Paris, she's Nicole

    Once I wake up, I’ll catch up, but it’s already been drawn to my attention that OGIC and I crashed a very nice party. According to the Literary Saloon:

    In this week's issue (of 19-26 February) of Time Out NY Maureen Shelly offers a literary weblog overview (the article is apparently not available online.) The weblogs she features are: the Literary Saloon, Bookslut ("a favorite among young writers"), Maud Newton ("covers a stunningly broad range of literary news"), About Last Night ("offers a more sophisticated take on the book biz"), Beatrice ("Hogan maintains a civil tone in his critiques, thereby upping his credibility factor"), and the registration-requiring Publishers Lunch.

    Needless to say, all the aforementioned blogs are to be found in "Sites to See," along with plenty of others that are no less deserving of your attention. We admit to being especially pleased, though, to share space with Supermaud, if only because she promised to go see the Milton Avery show at the Phillips Collection in Washington this weekend, then come back and tell us all about it. She’s so cool.

    Oh, yes, in case you were wondering, I haven’t opened my mailbox yet. I can’t get up the nerve. Nor have I caught up with my blogwatching. But I will, once I get another chunk of the Balanchine book written, not to mention a full night’s sleep, which I need most desperately. Right at this moment I feel like Leon Trotsky, post-axe.

    See you Saturday.

    posted by terryteachout @ Friday, February 20, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: The czar done gone

    I reviewed the Manhattan Theatre Club’s production of Regina Taylor’s Drowning Crow and Primary Stages’ production of Terrence McNally’s The Stendhal Syndrome in this morning’s Wall Street Journal.

    The first was horrible:

    According to the program, "Drowning Crow" was "inspired by" Chekhov’s "The Seagull." Nothing wrong with that, except that what Ms. Taylor really means is "adapted from," which is another thing altogether. To be sure, the characters are all black and the action has been relocated from Czarist Russia to the Gullah Islands of South Carolina, but otherwise "Drowning Crow" is a near-direct transposition of "The Seagull," partly recast in slam-poetry English but with large chunks of dialogue left untouched. "I liberally sampled from Chekhov," Ms. Taylor said in a New York Times interview. "Other times, I just riffed." (I know a better word.) The result—not to put too fine a point on it—is bizarre, with the characters alternating between jive and translatorese to no obvious purpose or good effect….

    The second was a winner:

    Mr. McNally has neatly bookended his chief theatrical preoccupations in the titles of the two one-act plays that make up this double bill, "Full Frontal Nudity" and "Prelude and Liebestod." The second and more substantial half is about a bisexual conductor suspiciously reminiscent of Leonard Bernstein (Richard Thomas), his unfaithful but loving wife (Isabella Rossellini), the sourpuss concertmaster of his orchestra (Michael Countryman), a male groupie (Yul Vázquez), and the soprano with whom the conductor is performing the Prelude and Liebestod from Wagner’s "Tristan und Isolde" at a concert (Jennifer Mudge). All five characters deliver funny, knowing interior monologues as Mr. Thomas leads an imaginary orchestra in a complete performance of the Wagner—very believably, too….

    No link, so get thee to a newsstand, hand over a dollar, turn to the "Weekend Journal" section and read the whole thing, plus much, much more.

    posted by terryteachout @ Friday, February 20, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: Elsewhere

    Hilton Kramer finally made it to PaceWildenstein’s Rothko: A Painter’s Progress, the Year 1949:

    Anyone who’s made a close study of Bonnard’s paintings will have no trouble finding traces of the French master’s aesthetic in the pictures that have now been brought together in the Painter’s Progress exhibition, which focuses on the year 1949. This was the year in which Rothko perfected his own mastery of the paintings he called "dramas," which most of us regard as some of the most beautiful abstract paintings in the entire modern canon.

    It has been admitted that Bonnard was an unlikely figure to influence any painter associated with the Abstract Expressionists, who prided themselves on their independence from the School of Paris. And it goes without saying that Rothko never acknowledged the debt. Yet, as D.H. Lawrence once said, "Trust the tale, not the teller of the tale," meaning, of course, that a writer’s or artist’s work must be judged on the basis of what it is, not on the basis of descriptive claims. Unless prompted by Rothko, I doubt that any visitor to Rothko: A Painter’s Progress would regard this beautifully installed exhibition as a show of "dramas." But thanks to what we now know about Rothko’s interest in Bonnard, this exhibition turns out to be an even richer experience than it might otherwise have been….

    Read the whole thing here. The show is only up through Feb. 23, so if you didn’t go when I wrote about it last month (and if not, why not?), don’t delay.

    posted by terryteachout @ Friday, February 20, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: Almanac

    It rained.
    The hour is an enormous eye.
    Inside it, we come and go like reflections.
    The river of music.
    Enters my blood.
    If I say body, it answers wind.
    If I say earth, it answers where.

    The world, a double blossom, opens:
    Sadness of having come.
    Joy of being here.

    I walk lost in my own center.

    Octavio Paz, "Concert in the Garden"

    posted by terryteachout @ Friday, February 20, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: I'm home again, I think

    Not only did I get up at 4:30 yesterday morning, but I didn’t go to sleep prior to that time (hence it would be closer to the truth to say that I got out of bed at 4:30 yesterday morning). There followed hours and hours and hours of travel, on the ground and in the sky, at the end of which I somehow managed to get to Maria Schneider’s Hunter College concert on time. It was worth it, absolutely.

    I’m too tired to go on at length, but the centerpiece of the evening was the world premiere of "Concert in the Garden," a new piece Schneider wrote for her big band plus Gary Versace on accordion and Luciana Souza on vocals. The title comes from a poem by Octavio Paz (see above), and the music is a Messiaen-like tapestry of idealized bird calls—a full-fledged piece of jazz impressionism, unusually rich and involving.

    After the intermission, the band played a revised version of Bulerias, Soleas y Rumbas, premiered last January at Lincoln Center, an occasion about which I wrote as follows in my Washington Post column:

    Jazz at Lincoln Center has never done anything more important than commissioning this piece. It’s no secret that Schneider is the foremost big-band composer of her generation, but this powerful large-scale work, in which she blends jazz and flamenco with the skill of an alchemist, is so good that I hesitate to limit its significance by calling it big-band music, or even jazz. It is as tightly woven and emotionally compelling as a symphony, and I think it ought to be seriously considered for next year’s Pulitzer Prize in music. For that matter, I’m damned if I know why Schneider hasn’t received a MacArthur Fellowship. I can’t think of anyone in jazz—or any other art form—who deserves it more.

    This time around, Schneider added a flamenco dancer, La Conja, to thrilling effect, and the piece itself was even more impressive on second hearing. If you missed it, the Maria Schneider Orchestra will be going into the studio in a couple of weeks to record a new album, on which Bulerias, Soleas y Rumbas will figure prominently.

    Warning: Schneider is no longer selling her CDs in stores, so to buy this one, you’ll need to go to her Web site and sign up. Do it now—and while you’re at it, mark your calendar for March 18, April 29, and June 17, the three remaining performances in the Maria Schneider Orchestra’s Hunter College concert series. I really, truly flew all the way back from Smalltown, U.S.A., just to hear this one, and I’d do it again in a heartbeat. Next time, I’ll make sure I don’t have to.

    posted by terryteachout @ Friday, February 20, 2004 | Permanent link
Thursday, February 19, 2004
    TT: Almanac

    "His taste in opera was uncomplicated and robust; he had no time for people who talked opera all day but seemed to find it shameful to accept a simple pleasure simply. Those tedious affairs in East Anglia, that strangulated lieder-singer pretending to be a tenor! Why, in Italy they wouldn’t have let him on the stage. And as for Mozart in Sussex, you could have all of Sussex and much of Mozart. Charles Russell liked good red meat and the closer the bone the better. Der Rosenkavalier—now that was something. He’d been wallowing (his own word) the night before. Bloody marvellous. The Marschallin had lost her young lover and was taking it gracefully as the woman of the world she was, so the three of them sood there and sang it out, no tiresome action, just a glorious noise. Hab’ mir’s gelobt, the knife in the heart as the warm soprano went up and up, they you thought that the orchestra was coda-ing out, and Jesus it wasn’t, the woman had five notes left. You couldn’t take them but you had to, and back you came for more agony, time and time again. Now that was opera, the real thing. Unbearable."

    William Haggard, A Cool Day for Killing

    posted by terryteachout @ Thursday, February 19, 2004 | Permanent link
    OGIC: The stars misalign

    I'm afraid that, like Terry, I'm going to be away from computers on Thursday. My parents are in town for a short visit, I'm taking the day off from work, and we'll be crisscrossing the city all day. Back Friday with answers to the remaining two of Terry's five questions, and more. And this weekend I'll answer my e-mail!

    Here's some recommended reading for the interim:

    Maud's musings on writers and childhood, complete with links to her own off-blog writing.

    Peter Campbell in the LRB on late Vuillard.

    Jim Treacher hails the "puppet episode" of Angel, comparing it to the tremendous Buffy musical and making me wish I'd never stopped watching the show. Perhaps one of my Angel-watching correspondents will be moved to file a report.

    Joan Acocella—surprise!—likes Robert Altman's ballet film The Company. Robert Gottlieb, another dance critic assigned to review the film, pretty much hated it.

    That's all from thawing Chicago for now.

    posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Thursday, February 19, 2004 | Permanent link
Wednesday, February 18, 2004
    TT: Into the void

    I shall arise at 4:30 tomorrow morning and, one hour later, depart Smalltown, U.S.A., via regional shuttle bus. Much, much later, I'll descend upon LaGuardia in a jet, and from there (if necessary) proceed directly to Maria Schneider's gig at Hunter College's Kaye Auditorium. Then it's home again, finally, where I'll plug back into my broadband connection and resume normal blogging activities. Eventually. Once I've gotten some sleep.

    The point being...see you Friday.

    posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, February 18, 2004 | Permanent link
    OGIC: House of cards

    Brandywine Books has called attention to a review essay by the always illuminating Bruce Bawer in the current issue of The Hudson Review. The essay is only available as a PDF, directly accessible here. Bawer witheringly reviews the new anthology Poets Against the War, indicting it on critical rather than partisan grounds:

    A staggering number of poems here follow a single trite formula, presenting the news of war as an unpleasant intrusion upon an (American) life lived in harmony with nature and characterized by a taken-for-granted feeling of safety and tranquility. Here, for example, is Virginia Adair’s "Casualty," the book’s opening poem, in its entirety: "Fear arrived at my door / with the evening paper / Headlines of winter and war / It will be a long time to peace / And the green rains." Adair’s poem is followed immediately by "Cranes in August," in which Kim Addonizio describes her daughter making cranes out of paper while outside "gray doves" coo, and "Geese, October 2002," in which Lucy Adkins, hearing geese flying above her "north to the nesting grounds," reflects that while in Washington "our country’s leaders / are voting for war," in Nebraska "the geese fly over / the old wisdom in their feathers." This pattern is broken by poem #4 (Afzal-Khan’s "Osama" ode), but it is resumed in poem #5, wherein Kelli Russell Agodon describes her daughter picking up ants on the beach, trying "to help them / before the patterns of tides / reach their lives. . . . Here war is only newsprint."

    And that’s just the beginning of the A’s. Throughout these poems, the implicit argument is: Why can’t the whole world be as peaceable as my little corner of it is? The poets appear to believe that their serene lifestyles are somehow a reflection of their own wisdom and virtue; they seem to think they are in possession of some great yet elementary cosmic knowledge from which the rest of us can profit. What they evidently do not realize is that what they are celebrating in these poems is a security for which they have to thank (horrors) the U.S. military and a prosperity that they owe to (horrors again) American capitalism. Entirely absent from their facile scribblings, indeed, is any sign of awareness that this "blue planet" is a terribly dangerous place and that the affluence, safety, and liberty they enjoy, and that they write about with such vacuous self-congratulation, are not the natural, default state of humankind but are, rather, hard-won and terribly vulnerable achievements of civilization.

    September 11 changed the world. But it seems not to have penetrated very deeply into the imaginations of many contemporary American poets, who, as this anthology amply demonstrates, continue to go through familiar motions, writing smug, trivial verses in which their principal goal is to proclaim their own sensitivity. This was never enough in the first place, and it is certainly not enough now. Confronted at last with a big theme, too many of our poets have only proven how feebly equipped they are to address questions of real substance and complexity. This is not to suggest that anyone is necessarily wrong to oppose a given war or disapprove of a given president (of whom the present critic, for what it’s worth, is no fan either). It is only to say that when civilization is in crisis, a serious poet owes it something more than glib, reflexive, one-dimensional posturing. It is to say that poets so transparently rich in self-regard might manage to muster a bit more respect for their art, their readers, and their civilization. And it is to say that an intelligent poetry of dissent ought to exhibit signs of independent thought, of mature moral reflection, of an understanding of the concept of social responsibility that extends somewhat beyond marching and button-wearing, of a solemn recognition that this is bigger than me. To turn from these vapid self-advertisements (in which the level of political thought and expression is on a par with that of your average boy band being asked in an interview on MTV Europe what they think of President Bush) to the war poems of Wilfred Owen or Siegfried Sassoon or, say, Auden’s "September 1, 1939"—the most famous line of which, "We must love one another or die," is actually misquoted in Hamill’s book—is to leap across a chasm whose breadth shames not only most of the poets collected here but, alas, the entire flimsy house of cards that is contemporary American poetry.

    The essay extends Bawer's critique of contemporary poetry in his book Prophets and Professors. As alternatives to poetry against the war, Bawer recommends recent books by Joseph Harrison, Timothy Murphy, Gerry Cambridge, and Deborah Warren.

    posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Wednesday, February 18, 2004 | Permanent link
    OGIC: It makes me want to…you know

    What famous painting would I wish out of existence? I'm not sure I hate any single painting quite that much. That being the case, I incline toward banishing art whose mind-numbing ubiquity and unharnessed reproduction as stupid merchandise, more than any of its intrinsic qualities, are responsible for making it the visual equivalent of fingernails scraping a chalkboard.

    posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Wednesday, February 18, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: Far from Smalltown

    God of the Machine is waxing fogyish this morning about the five questions I asked Our Girl on Sunday. I can hear his joints creaking all the way from here.

    As for his attempt to crack wise about my knowledge of art history, I’ll leave it to those bloggers privileged to have viewed the Teachout Museum. Go get him, Lizzie! (And if he's trying to make fun of OGIC, too, he's a dead man....)

    posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, February 18, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: Almanac

    "The story was thoroughly English. There was a little fox-hunting and a little tuft-hunting, some Christian virtue and some Christian cant. There was no heroism and no villainy. There was much Church, but more love-making. And it was downright honest love,—in which there was no pretence on the part of the lady that she was too ethereal to be fond of a man, no half-and-half inclination on the part of the man to pay a certain price and no more for a pretty toy. Each of them longed for the other, and they were not ashamed to say so. Consequently they in England who were living, or had lived, the same sort of life, liked Framley Parsonage."

    Anthony Trollope, An Autobiography

    posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, February 18, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: Suntory time in Smalltown

    My septuagenarian mother and I watched Lost in Translation yesterday afternoon. Somewhat to my surprise, she liked it, though she initially found Sofia Coppola’s elliptical style of storytelling a bit hard to follow. (Gen-X moviegoers suckled on MTV take jump cuts for granted, but most people born before 1950 or so are accustomed to films in which the plot elements are laid out fairly straightforwardly.) In addition, it hit me after about 10 minutes that she didn’t know what jet lag was, meaning that she couldn’t understand why Bill Murray didn’t just lie down and take a nap. Once I explained his problem, she was fine.

    My mother said two things that stayed with me:

    (1) She’d never heard of Scarlett Johannson. "At first I didn’t think she was very pretty," she said, "but then I changed my mind. Isn't her skin beautiful?"

    (2) About two-thirds of the way through the film, she remarked, "They didn’t have to spend much time learning the dialogue, did they?"

    posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, February 18, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: Ancient history

    Not long ago, a reader wrote:

    I was reading a few of your articles and noticed biographical details scattered throughout the prose. My suggestion is that you gather them all together, fill in the gaps and post the expanded "about me" as a permanent addition to your blog. Where are you from, why did you become a critic, and where did you get your first break, long-term goals, etc. What could be more interesting for your regular readers?

    A lot of things, actually. It’s not that I’m averse to autobiography—indeed, I once went so far as to commit a memoir—but like most natural-born short hitters, I find that I prefer as a rule to salt my writings with personal detail rather than serving it up as a main course. I did try squashing the story of my professional life into an annotated resumé, but the results came out sounding so stiff that I decided not to post them. I’d just as soon keep on telling my tale, such as it is, in dribs and drabs.

    Since we’re on the subject of me, my brother and his daughter were looking at Smalltown High School yearbooks at the dinner table last night, some of which were published back when I edited the high-school newspaper. That was—gulp—30 years ago. As my niece made fun of the hair styles of 1974, I found myself recalling some of the ways in which I first became aware of the larger world of art and culture, and it occurred to me that in lieu of a more formal chronicle, it might be interesting to draw up a list of cultural firsts:

  • I bought my first adult hardcover book, The Complete Sherlock Holmes, in 1966 or 1967. I still own that copy, minus the dust jacket but otherwise intact.

  • I bought my first classical LPs in 1968 at Collins Piano, the local music store, which stocked a few dozen assorted albums alongside the usual upright pianos, guitars, saxophones, and drum kits. If memory serves, they were Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony, performed by Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra, and an Isaac Stern album that coupled the Berg Violin Concerto with Bartók’s First and Second Rhapsodies—rather exotic fare for a boy from southeast Missouri. That same year, Wal-Mart opened a store in Smalltown (the first Wal-Mart outside Arkansas) that sold budget classical LPs for $2.98 apiece, about $16 in today’s money. I bought most of them.

  • I saw my first play, Noël Coward’s Blithe Spirit, in 1968, performed by the Smalltown High School Drama Club during a daytime assembly in the junior-high gym. It made such a powerful impression on me that I auditioned for the Drama Club the following year, and spent the rest of my schooldays acting in and working on plays.

  • I heard my first classical concert, a piano recital by David Bar-Illan, in 1969 or 1970. (It took place in the same gym where I saw Blithe Spirit.) Bar-Illan appeared on the Smalltown Community Concert series, playing the Weber A-Flat Sonata, the Liszt B Minor Ballade and Dante Sonata, and his own solo transcription of the Masque from Leonard Bernstein’s Age of Anxiety. I met him many years later, and he claimed to remember the concert, to my amazement and delight.

  • I didn’t see any paintings, ballets, or operas in Smalltown, there being none to be seen. In 1977, I took a school-sponsored trip to New York City, where I saw Boris Godunov and Il Trittico at the Metropolitan Opera and Mikhail Baryshnikov at American Ballet Theatre. This was shortly after Baryshnikov defected from the Soviet Union, and he danced Fokine’s Spectre of the Rose. I still remember him leaping through the window, though I was more impressed by the last piece on the program, Jerome Robbins’ jazzy Fancy Free. (What really impressed me, though, was that Lauren Bacall was sitting directly in front of me.) A few months ago, I covered the opening of Wicked for The Wall Street Journal, and was quietly amused by the fact that it took place in the same theater where I first saw Baryshnikov dance.

    I also went to the Museum of Modern Art, a visit about which I remember barely more than being surprised by the sheer size of Picasso’s Three Musicians and the Monet water-lily triptych. Many more years would pass before the visual arts started to make sense to me.

  • Strangely enough, I can’t remember the first time I heard a live performance by a well-known jazz musician. My guess is that it must have been in 1976, when I saw Count Basie in Kansas City. My real introduction to jazz had already come through my father's record collection, which contained LPs by Basie, Dave Brubeck, Tommy Dorsey, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Woody Herman, and Stan Kenton, plus several hundred dusty 78s of similar vintage.

    By 1977, I was starting to give serious thought to the possibility of becoming a music critic, and I published my first concert review in the Kansas City Star that fall. Four years later, I reviewed Raymond Sokolov’s biography of A.J. Liebling for National Review, my very first magazine piece. I didn’t yet know it, but I’d started down the road that led me from Missouri to New York, and to the rest of my life.

    posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, February 18, 2004 | Permanent link
Tuesday, February 17, 2004
    OGIC: Behind the legends

    Many thanks to Sarah for directing me to this Denver Post article about John D. MacDonald's Travis McGee series, longtime object of my affection/obsession. Things I learned:

    Originally McGee's first name was to have been Dallas. Then John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, and MacDonald didn't want to have that association. When he was casting about for a new name, fellow writer MacKinlay Kantor suggested that Air Force bases had nice-sounding names, and MacDonald settled on Travis.

    Various means were considered to enable readers to distinguish one book from another in the series. Use of numbers was rejected because readers might think they had to read them in sequence. Eventually he and his publisher came up with color, and MacDonald went back and dropped color references into the four manuscripts he already had written.

    MacDonald placed McGee across Florida in Fort Lauderdale because he had a hunch the books would catch on and didn't want his privacy in Sarasota disturbed by gawking McGee enthusiasts.

    Gawking TMFTML enthusiasts, on the other hand, can train their binoculars here. And don't forget this more out-of-the-way gaping spot.

    posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Tuesday, February 17, 2004 | Permanent link
    OGIC: Escapist

    Back to Terry's five questions: "If you had to live in a song, what would it be?"

    A song where everything's still the same:

    Everybody's had a few
    Now they're talking about who knows who
    I'm going back to the Crescent City
    Where everything's still the same
    This town has said what it has to say
    Now I'm after that back highway
    And the longest bridge
    I've ever crossed over Pontchartrain
    Tu le ton temps that's what we say
    We used to dance the night away
    Me and my sister, me and my brother
    We used to walk down by the river
    Mama lives in Mandeville
    I can hardly wait until
    I can hear my Zydeco
    and laissez le bon ton roulet
    And take rides in open cars
    My brother knows where the best bars are
    Let's see how these blues'll do
    in the town where the good times stay
    Tu le ton temps that's all we say
    We used to dance the night away
    Me and my sister me and my brother
    We used to walk down by the river

    That's Lucinda Williams' "Crescent City." The appeal of this song—aside from the gorgeous fiddle—is how the Crescent City and environs are static, but alive: full of walking, driving, gossip, dancing. And just in case all that activity isn't enough to keep things from getting stale, the song contains the outside space of wherever the narrator is returning from.

    Of course, everything in "Crescent City" is really just in the narrator's head—the song takes place while she's on the road home. Yet the scenes she imagines are so vivid (helped out by that fiddle), it's easy to forget that they're only imagined. In this, the song has something in common with a poem so famous, it's hard to hear freshly:

    I wandered lonely as a cloud
    That floats on high o'er vales and hills,
    When all at once I saw a crowd
    A host of dancing daffodils;
    Along the lake, beneath the trees,
    Ten thousand dancing in the breeze.

    The waves beside them danced, but they
    Outdid the sparkling waves in glee;
    A poet could not but be gay
    In such a laughing company.
    I gazed, and gazed, but little thought
    What wealth the show to me had brought—

    For oft when on my couch I lie
    In vacant or in pensive mood,
    They flash upon that inward eye
    Which is the bliss of solitude,
    And then my heart with pleasure fills,
    And dances with the daffodils.

    Before the standard-bearers get their noses all out of joint over the comparison, let me state that I am not putting Lucinda on the same artistic plane as Bill. (Now I'll probably hear from the people who think Wordsworth suffers from the comparison!) I'm just pointing out that the song and the poem are each about the memory of their apparent subject. But they both make their remembered scenes so vivid that you easily forget they're really about the reveries of a woman behind the wheel of a car and a guy on a couch.

    My runner-up is David Bowie's "Kooks."

    posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Tuesday, February 17, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: Almanac

    "I hear you laugh at me for being happy in the country, and upon this I have a few words to say. In the first place whether one lives or dies I hold and always have held to be of infinitely less moment than is generally supposed; but if life is the choice then it is common sense to amuse yourself with the best you can find where you happen to be placed. I am not leading precisely the life I should chuse, but that which (all things considered, as well as I could consider them) appeared to be the most eligible. I am resolved therefore to like it and to reconcile myself to it; which is more manly than to feign myself above it, and to send up complaints by the post, of being thrown away, and being desolate and such like trash. I am prepared therefore either way. If the chances of life ever enable me to emerge, I will shew you that I have not been wholly occupied by small and sordid pursuits. If (as the greater probability is) I am come to the end of my career, I give myself quietly up to horticulture, and the annual augmentation of my family. In short, if my lot be to crawl, I will crawl contentedly; if to fly, I will fly with alacrity; but as long as I can possibly avoid it I will never be unhappy."

    Sydney Smith, letter to Lady Holland, September 9, 1809

    posted by terryteachout @ Tuesday, February 17, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: Antepenultimate

    Books are published by installments, and A Terry Teachout Reader is down to the short strokes. I got a package in the mail from Yale University Press the day before I left for Smalltown, U.S.A., containing two copies of the dust jacket, which is printed prior to the actual book. I’d wanted a piece of modern American art on the cover of the Teachout Reader, so I polled the readers of "About Last Night" a few months ago, asking whether they preferred Fairfield Porter’s "Broadway," John Marin’s "Downtown. The El," Stuart Davis’ "Owh! In San Pao," or Davis’ "Ready-to-Wear." The Porter won, and I can now report that the final product looks great. In fact, I’ve never had a better-looking dust jacket—and I’ve had some handsome ones.

    No book is completely real to the author until he holds the very first copy in his hands. Until then, it becomes real by stages—the manuscript, the proofs, the dust jacket, the bound galleys—and the fact that it’s actually going to be published sinks in a little deeper with each additional step. By the time you've seen a half-dozen books through the press, you're not likely to be surprised by any part of the process, but my heart still leaped when I pulled the dust jacket out of the envelope and held it in my hand.

    I know the Teachout Reader isn’t going to be a best seller, and I’ve been around the track often enough to suspect that I’m going to get my share of kick-in-the-crotch reviews (which I won’t read—I’m scrupulous about that). That’s par for the course. On the other hand, I brought one copy of the dust jacket home with me, knowing my mother would take it to the office and show it off to her colleagues, which she did. If she could, she’d blow it up and slap it on a billboard in the center of town. She's like that.

    It’s not that my mother reads everything I write, least of all "About Last Night." She hasn’t figured out blogs yet, nor is she especially media-savvy. We went to the neighborhood video store yesterday to rent a couple of movies to watch during my visit, and as I was picking my way through the westerns, she called out, "Oh, look! Have you heard of this one? I think Bill Murray’s always funny." I turned around and saw her holding a copy of Lost in Translation. I nodded my head and said, "You might like that one, Mom. Let’s rent it." I’ll tell you what she thinks of it tomorrow.

    I’m sitting in my old bedroom as I write these words, listening to the whistle of a freight train off in the distance. It’ll keep on blowing for several more minutes, because the tracks run all the way through town, and it takes slow trains a long time to clear the city limits. A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a piece for The Wall Street Journal about riding the Lake Shore Limited to Chicago, and in the first paragraph I mentioned the trains that rumble through Smalltown. "Their tracks criss-crossed the main street of the small Missouri town where I spent my childhood," I wrote, "and their lonesome whistles cleaved the night air as they carried sleeping strangers to places I’d never been." The editor kicked the first draft back to me with a terse note saying that "lonesome whistles" was a cliché. He was right, so I changed it to "braying whistles," which I guess was an improvement. I didn’t bother to tell him that I was thinking of a song by Hank Williams:

    Hear that lonesome whippoorwill
    He sounds too blue to fly
    The midnight train is whining low
    I’m so lonesome I could cry

    I guess that’s a cliché, too, at least when you see it written down, but when Hank Williams sings it, you know better. Train whistles really do sound lonesome when you hear them blowing at midnight in a small Missouri town whose streets are empty, as they usually are in this end of town at this time of night. Smalltown has a curfew, one which my niece violated a few weeks ago. It seems that she and a few friends of hers were festooning a house with toilet paper. Somebody called 911, and all at once five black-and-whites showed up.

    The next day, my brother apologized to the police chief. "There’s one thing I’ve got to know, though," he added. "Why did it take five cars?"

    The chief laughed. "Was that your daughter? Well, there wasn’t nothing much going on last night, and I reckon those other three cars just drove by to see what all the fuss was about. It wasn’t like they had anything else to do."

    That’s where I come from.

    posted by terryteachout @ Tuesday, February 17, 2004 | Permanent link
Monday, February 16, 2004
    TT: Nowhere special

    I left my apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan at 9:15 yesterday morning, and arrived at my mother’s house in Smalltown, U.S.A., at 4:15 yesterday afternoon—an eight-hour trip, allowing for the change in time zones. The reason why it takes so long is that Smalltown, the place in southeast Missouri where I grew up and where the rest of my family still lives, isn’t close to any major airports. It’s a two-hour drive south of St. Louis and a two-hour drive north of Memphis. To get there, I take a taxi to LaGuardia, a plane to St. Louis, and a regional shuttle bus to Smalltown. Short of chartering a helicopter, I couldn’t make the trip in much less time than that.

    Every time I visit Smalltown, I’m struck all over again by the sheer size of the United States, something that never fails to impress visitors from elsewhere, though Americans take it for granted. We’re not the only big country in the world, but I wonder if we might not be the only one whose citizens commonly travel such long distances by such circuitous routes. Perhaps Canada is like that. A Canadian friend of mine tells me that Joni Mitchell’s "Black Crow" sums up her life pretty accurately: "I took a ferry to the highway/Then I drove to a pontoon plane/I took a plane to a taxi/And a taxi to a train/I've been traveling so long/How'm I ever going to know my home/When I see it again?" On the other hand, I doubt a resident of downtown St. Petersburg would make his way to Siberia all that often, even if his mother did live there. When my mother was a girl, Americans didn’t take such journeys lightly, and her parents were both born in an age when eight-hour trips were more likely to be made by horse. You can’t get very far on a horse in eight hours. Back then, the world was what you saw outside your window. Now it’s what you see on TV.

    I’d never do it again, but I once traveled all the way to Smalltown and back again in a single day to attend my grandmother’s funeral, an experience I wrote about many years ago in a memoir of my small-town youth:

    Once upon a time, the children of America stayed close to the nest and ate Sunday dinner with their parents and went to work in the family business. Now they seek their destinies in faraway lands called Chicago and Paducah and Memphis and New York, though they come home as often as they can: for Christmas usually, for funerals always.

    I glanced at my watch. My brother would be doing the driving, and he drove nearly as well as my father, so I had nothing to worry about. I squeezed my father’s hand and listened to the preacher. A few hours later, I looked down at the lights of New York through the scratched window of a jet airliner, marveling at the thought that I could eat breakfast in New York and go to bed in New York and, in the middle of the day, help to bury an eighty-four-year-old woman in a cemetery deep in the Missouri wildwood. Perhaps I was not so far from home as I thought. Perhaps I had not traveled so far as I thought.

    Perhaps, indeed, I haven’t—and in some ways, Smalltown and New York are growing closer every day. My brother, for example, knows the rumor du jour about John Kerry, not because he heard it on the evening news or read it in the Smalltown Standard-Democrat but because he has a computer and a high-speed connection to the Internet. Nevertheless, Smalltown is still a long way from New York, not just in clock time but by other yardsticks as well. No sooner had I unpacked my bag, for instance, than my sister-in-law was asking me if I’d seen a preview of The Passion of the Christ, and whether I thought it’d be any good. They’re talking about Mel Gibson in Smalltown, and not the way they’re talking about him in New York, either, even though the people here also watch Seinfeld reruns and read blogs. It’s a big country, big enough that there are still plenty of nice places to live that are two hours from the nearest airport, big enough to be infinitely more varied than a lifelong Manhattanite who gets all his news from the New York Times can imagine.

    I love that difference, and the vastness that makes it possible. On Sunday afternoon, I climbed into the shuttle bus (a minivan, actually) and headed down I-55 from St. Louis to Smalltown. It’s a beautiful drive, especially north of Ste. Genevieve and most especially in winter, when the leaves have fallen from the trees that cover the rolling hills, leaving behind a narrow but subtle palette of colors, nothing but tan, brown, grey, and dark pine green, all set in a big bowl of blue sky, with an occasional bright billboard to remind you that people live here, too. As I drifted off to sleep just south of Ste. Genevieve, the radio in the van was playing the Eagles; when I woke up again, the hills had flattened out and the radio was playing Dwight Yoakum. That’s how I knew I was close to Smalltown. I always know my home when I see it again.

    posted by terryteachout @ Monday, February 16, 2004 | Permanent link
    OGIC: A quarter-century

    I see Terry has ambushed me when I wasn't looking! I like the questions, but I'm going to take my sweet time answering them: I'll field a question a day over the course of this week, moving from easiest to hardest. A few of you have already written with your own answers; keep them coming and we'll post a selection of readers' responses next week.

    For the purposes of the first question, "What book have you owned longest?" I'll only count the books that live with me, not those that still reside in my parents' house. 99% of the books with me here in Chicago date from my college career or later. Of the handful of older books, the oldest by far is a hardcover copy of Ellen Raskin's Newberry Medal winner The Westing Game, published in 1978. Twenty-five years—not too shabby. Why, that's as long as some very accomplished bloggers have been around!

    I wonder whether kids are still reading this book. It's a deeply silly and extremely devious mystery about an elaborate game created by an eccentric millionaire to decide who will inherit his fortune. When I discovered it, I thought I had died and gone to literary heaven.

    As much as I adored The Westing Game, there were other books I loved as well, and I'm not sure why it's the only one of its vintage in Chicago. I can't remember making a conscious decision to bring it with me, and I haven't taken it off the shelf in recent memory, until today.

    Some runners-up from the high school years: a well-worn paperback copy of Alain-Fournier's amazing The Wanderer (Le Grand Meaulnes in french); Charles Baxter's Harmony of the World; the Norton Heart of Darkness, complete with embarrassing marginalia; and, natch, some Raymond Carver.

    posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Monday, February 16, 2004 | Permanent link
    OGIC: Lost and found

    Many thanks to all of the readers who wrote this weekend with answers to my query about a Simone Weil quotation. Several folks sent this one, which made me fear I had misremembered the force of the remark by a full 180 degrees:

    Nothing is so beautiful and wonderful, nothing is so continually fresh and surprising, so full of sweet and perpetual ecstasy, as the good. No desert is so dreary, monotonous, and boring as evil. This is the truth about authentic good and evil. With fictional good and evil it is the other way around. Fictional good is boring and flat, while fictional evil is varied and intriguing, attractive, profound, full of charm.

    The source is an essay called "Morality and Literature," first published in Cahiers du Sud (January 1944). However, the following quotation, tracked down by one intrepid reader, seems to vindicate my memory without contradicting the above. Here Weil claims that the greatest literature is that which manages to make good interesting, and thus comes closest to a particular kind of realism:

    Imaginary evil is romantic and varied; real evil is gloomy, monotonous, barren, boring. Imaginary good is boring; real good is always new, marvellous, intoxicating. Therefore 'imaginative literature' is either boring or immoral (or a mixture of both). It only escapes from this alternative if in some way it passes over to the side of reality through the power of art—and only geniuses can do that.

    This can be found in an essay called "Evil," reprinted in The Simone Weil Reader and Gravity and Grace.

    posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Monday, February 16, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: Almanac

    "One of the things I learned very early is that students always recognize a good teacher. They may be overimpressed by second-raters who only talk a good game, who are witty and entertaining, or who have reputations as scholars, without being particularly good teachers. But I have not come across a single first-rate teacher who was not recognized as such by the students. The first-rate teacher is often not 'popular'; in fact, popularity has little to do with impact as a teacher. But when students say about a teacher, 'We are learning a great deal,' they can be trusted. They know."

    Peter F. Drucker, Adventures of a Bystander

    posted by terryteachout @ Monday, February 16, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: Coming to you live from Red America

    I am now officially ensconced in Smalltown, U.S.A., where I've set up my iBook on a card table in the guest bedroom (which used to be my bedroom, back when I wasn't a guest), and I'm speaking to you by way of a dialup connection so slow that you can hear it creak. As a result, I will not be checking my blogmail until I return to New York on Thursday, so please don't be offended.

    Job One: sleep late. After that, I have quite a few postings bouncing around in my head, and I'll write them as the spirit moves me. I might even do some work on the Balanchine book. And I think I'll have a piece in Tuesday's Wall Street Journal, subject as always to the vagaries of newspaper scheduling.

    All this and more after I wake up, O.K.?

    posted by terryteachout @ Monday, February 16, 2004 | Permanent link
Sunday, February 15, 2004
    TT: Five questions for Our Girl

    Some things to think about as I head out the door:

    (1) What book have you owned longest—the actual copy, I mean?

    (2) If you could wish a famous painting out of existence, what would it be?

    (3) If you had to live in a film, what would it be?

    (4) If you had to live in a song, what would it be?

    (5) What’s the saddest work of art you know? And does experiencing it make you similarly sad?

    posted by terryteachout @ Sunday, February 15, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: Almanac

    There for the seeing
    Is all loveliness,
    White limbs moving
    Light in wantonness.
    Gay go the dancers,
    I stand and see,
    Gaze, till their glances
    Steal myself from me.

    "Obmittatus studia," Carmina Burana (trans. Helen Waddell)

    posted by terryteachout @ Sunday, February 15, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: One for the road

    I'm off to Missouri today to spend a few days with my family. I'll be bringing along my iBook, and insofar as possible I'll be posting from there, but don't expect a Mississippi-like flow of fugitive thoughts.

    The good news is that Our Girl will most likely be putting in her oar from time to time, and I'll be back in Manhattan Thursday afternoon to resume Balanchine-related activities, not to mention a certain amout of blogging.

    Be nice while I'm gone, O.K.?

    posted by terryteachout @ Sunday, February 15, 2004 | Permanent link


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