Gay Talese, Catholic Intellectuals, American Theology, Brick Lane–and more

1948.joe-dimaggio
By Benjamin Schwarz

December 2003 ATLANTIC


The Gay Talese Reader
introduction by Barbara Lounsberry
Walker & Company

In this book you’ll find some of the best American prose of the second half of the twentieth century. Many of my fellow forty-and-under readers don’t know Talese’s work at all (or have only the vaguest, and smuttiest, notion of him as the author of Thy Neighbor’s Wife, his intricate, disturbing, and best-selling 1980 exploration of the effects of the sexual revolution—in which, admittedly, he extended the role of participant-observer a bit too far). But The Kingdom and the Power, his at once fat and precise “human history” of The New York Times (where he was a reporter for twelve years), remains the most astute assessment of that most august institution and its place in American life; and Honor Thy Father, his intimate portrait of the Bonanno family, was the first sympathetic, insider examination of family life within the Mafia. Still, Talese’s premier contribution to American letters is his astonishing magazine articles, largely profiles written for Esquire in the mid-1960s, which are gathered in this recently published but unheralded volume. Talese and Tom Wolfe are the great pioneers of New Journalism, but although the style, approach, and structure of Talese’s pieces was radical, his superlatively smooth writing had none of Wolfe’s attention-grabbing swagger, and it perfectly suited his role as invisible observer. The subjects of his articles here range from boxers—Joe Louis, Muhammad Ali, Floyd Patterson (Talese, who wrote thirty-eight articles on Patterson, said he became the fighter’s “second skin”)—to the editors of Vogue (“a group of suave and wrinkle-proof women, who … can speak in italics and curse in French”), to the tortured, winsome, and usually inebriated Peter O’Toole, to Manhattan’s stray cats (of which he wrote tenderly yet not sentimentally, as he did of boxers). But indisputably the towering works in the book are his portraits of Frank Sinatra (“Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” 1966) and Joe DiMaggio (“The Silent Season of a Hero,” 1966), which are certainly among the very best articles ever published in an American magazine. The genesis of the Sinatra profile is legendary: Esquire flew Talese to Los Angeles to interview the singer, who—having a cold and being otherwise moody and indisposed—canceled the interview. Rather than scrapping the story, Talese practiced what he calls the “fine art of hanging out”—talking with the members of Sinatra’s entourage and standing at the periphery of the action as Sinatra awed, cowed, and beguiled his circle and those outside it. Talese never spoke to Sinatra, but this endures as the definitive portrait: We see Sinatra as brutal and generous, charming and bullying, lonely and removed. Talese revealed how these discrete and contradictory qualities shaded into one another, and so let readers discern Sinatra as a man, even as he made plain that Sinatra’s charisma remained impenetrable. In both this profile and the one of DiMaggio (whom he characterized, spot on, as “a kind of male Garbo”), Talese portrayed his era’s masculine ideal as a kind of detached engagement; these pieces are essential to understanding not merely two American icons but the gender relations, family life, popular culture, and political style of the American Century. The best of Talese’s journalistic work—including many pieces not reprinted here—was collected in Fame and Obscurity (1970), now out of print. If you can’t find it at a used-book store or on BookFinder.com, buy this intelligently edited assemblage. Oh—and thanks and congratulations to Esquire, which celebrated its seventieth anniversary this past fall.

Literary Studies

The Life You Save May Be Your Own
by Paul Elie
Farrar Straus & Giroux

Interweaving the lives, work, and spiritual struggles of four twentieth-century American Catholic writers—Flannery O’Connor, Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, and Walker Percy—Elie probes above all what Percy called their “predicament shared in common”: the struggle to reconcile religious faith with the demands of art. Elie, though, is at his most insightful when examining the predicament shared most intensely by O’Connor and Percy (by far the two most accomplished writers in the group, and the authors with whom he’s clearly most engaged). “My subject in fiction,” O’Connor explained, “is the action of grace in territory held largely by the devil. I have also found that what I write is read by an audience which puts little stock either in grace or the devil.” (As Percy said of O’Connor, she “saw the enemy clearly, namely a certain sort of triumphant humanist.”) This book (which was published earlier in the year, and takes its title from that of an O’Connor story) is difficult to characterize, because it’s almost impossibly rich. Elie keenly anatomizes religious experience and expression and the often agonizing pilgrimages that defined his subjects’ lives (his portrait of the holy sinner Day’s progress from despairing libertine to probable saint is especially vivid and affecting). He is a gifted critic (particularly in his assessment of O’Connor’s fierce art, and of her position in the southern literary tradition). He is a sensitive historian as he places these writers’ lives and art in the context of an evolving Catholicism and the social, cultural, and political developments of their times—and as he reveals the often subtle connections among these rather disparate figures (they read one another’s work and corresponded, but some of them never met; their common confidante, Caroline Gordon, dubbed them “the School of the Holy Ghost”). This is the sort of ambitious marriage of criticism, biography, and history of which Edmund Wilson’s Patriotic Gore and To the Finland Station are the superlative examples. Elie’s book can’t match the sweep and austere authority of Wilson’s masterpieces, but it’s an exceptionally intelligent and often elegant work, and Elie should be applauded for the reach—and grasp—of his literary ambition.

Brick Lane
by Monica Ali
Scribner

Like Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, Ali’s debut novel is set in multicultural London; but unlike Smith’s antic, sprawling vision, Ali’s is cool, confined, and unsparing. Meticulously following the circumscribed life of Nazneen, a sheltered, devoutly Muslim, married Bangladeshi garment worker, the novel depicts her experience through her own constricted and, to the reader, alien point of view. (Ali practices the self-effacement of the supremely confident writer as she subordinates her style to her protagonist’s perspective.) This permits Ali to bring to a tale of marriage, desire, and adultery the same gravity and sense of imperilment that similar situations engendered in the great nineteenth-century novels. With measured assurance Ali summons the grinding claustrophobia of Nazneen’s daily life, the loneliness of her marriage, her almost willful passivity—and the emotional chaos of her erotic awakening, which carries with it the danger not merely of social ostracism but quite literally of damnation. But this is also a novel about the progress of a marriage (which evolves simultaneously with Nazneen’s knowledge of English and her concomitant self-knowledge). Nazneen’s older, pudgy husband is one of Ali’s many triumphs: pretentious and ineffectual, gentle and kind, this poignant failure (reminiscent of Naipaul’s Mr. Biswas) grows on the reader, just as he grows on Nazneen. Exasperatingly, Ali’s complex and largely deterministic story ends with a discordant postscript of mushy self-fulfillment, and the rare cliché and patch of overwrought writing mar her refreshingly restrained, precise prose. But this is a splendid novel and—despite (or, really, because of) its multicultural setting—an old-fashioned one.

The Constant Circle: H. L. Mencken and His Friends 
by Sara Mayfield
Alabama

For all his swashbuckling assaults on what he called the “booboisie,” H. L. Mencken was himself solidly bourgeois. The critic and editor who introduced American readers to Nietzsche and Ibsen and published Ezra Pound had courtly manners and exhibited an almost Victorian sense of decorum toward women. To be sure, he cast a cold eye on every beloved American institution (marriage included), and in his writing he affected a cynical, even amoral, world view; but as George Jean Nathan noted, Mencken spent “considerable time each year in toy stores picking out doll babies and choo-choo cars for the youngsters of his married acquaintances.” And although he regularly caroused with Fitzgerald and Sinclair Lewis, self-destructive alcoholics who wrote in fits and starts and kept most irregular hours, Mencken—who when in New York preferred the sauerbraten and pilsner at Lüchow’s, on Fourteenth Street, to what he called the “glittering swinishness” of midtown—embraced the work ethic and daily routine of a Baltimore burgher. He even lived with his mother until her death—and then married, at age fifty. No portrait better captures this upright, domestic side of Mencken than Mayfield’s. An Alabama belle, Mayfield grew up in Montgomery with Tallulah Bankhead, Zelda Sayre (later Fitzgerald), and Sara Haardt, Mencken’s future wife. Mayfield and Mencken shared an intense devotion to the demure, doomed Haardt (she died of tuberculosis after five years of marriage), and Mencken seemed at ease revealing aspects of his personality to her that he held in check with other members of the literati. From their tender friendship (which, coincidentally, reminds me of the bond between the friend and the wife of the stricken short-story writer in Fitzgerald’s “The Lees of Happiness”) emerged this sympathetic, quietly penetrating reminiscence-cum-biography. First published in 1968, it’s now back in print. Although impressionistic and—as Edmund Wilson’s review of it (reprinted here as an introduction) attests—not always accurate, Mayfield’s book remains a thoroughly satisfying and humane depiction of the figure Walter Lippmann characterized in 1926 as “the most powerful personal influence on this whole generation of educated people.”

History

Theology in America
by E. Brooks Holifield
Yale

An astonishing number of the most important and creative works of American history written in the past twenty-five years examine Christianity—including Rhys Isaac’s The Transformation of Virginia, 1740-1790, Nathan O. Hatch’s The Democratization of American Christianity, Jon Butler’s Awash in a Sea of Faith, and George M. Marsden’s Fundamentalism and American Culture. But these books primarily explore the sociological facets of religion; with the exception of Mark A. Noll, the author of America’s God, historians have mostly shied away from writing grand, synthetic books on American theological history. This is somewhat surprising, because for more than 200 years study of and debate about Christian doctrine lay at the very center of American intellectual life. Whereas today the country’s best and brightest work in investment banks or write TV sitcoms, from the seventeenth century to the Civil War, America’s finest minds were overwhelmingly drawn to theology or politics. With Holifield’s magisterial survey of American theology from the 1630s to the 1860s we finally have an authoritative study of this central preoccupation. Although Theology in America and America’s God examine the same subject, Holifield’s book is more comprehensive and less broadly interpretive than Noll’s (which focuses on the relationship between evangelicalism and republican political ideology). Holifield, a historian at Emory, commandingly elucidates the theological conversation across time among such divines as Cotton Mather, Horace Bushnell, and James Henley Thornwell; he illuminates the intricacies of New England Calvinism, Presbyterian New School thought, and Transcendentalism (among many other creeds); he explicates the evolution of the major denominations; and he assesses how theological debate affected religious practice. Throughout he stresses the deep and ongoing European influence on American theologians (a key theme in Noll’s book as well) and the intense efforts among theologians of nearly every denomination to defend the reasonableness of their faith. (One has a sense that from essentially the very beginning of American history Christian thinkers were fighting an increasingly desperate intellectual struggle against rationalism, even as they attempted to assimilate rationalism and use it in their defense.) Although there’s no escaping the fact that the disputes and developments he analyzes range from the complex to the arcane, this will remain for at least a generation the definitive chronicle of an essential aspect of American religious and intellectual history. Holifield’s work caps an annus mirabilis for books on the history of Christianity in America (see “Books of the Year,” page 109).

Architecture

Chicago’s Famous Buildings, Fifth Edition
by Franz Schulze and Kevin Harrington
Chicago

Ratifying the obvious, the American Institute of Architects recently named Chicago the city with the finest architecture in the country, and this book, recently published in a fully revised and expanded fifth edition, has long been the standard guide to the city’s most distinguished buildings. In fact the AIA’s own guide, now out of print, was a far more detailed and inclusive one-volume handbook, but its straightforward descriptions read as though they’d been drafted by committee. It lacked the personality (and portability) of this handbook, which has been substantially different in each edition, owing to the taste and proclivities of its changing editors and to the evolution of architectural fashion. (The first two editions, for instance, focused heavily on the city’s canonical Chicago and Prairie School buildings; the third edition, in 1980, considered many more modernist buildings, and the inclusive emphasis of it and the fourth edition, published in 1993, reflected the postmodernist aesthetic then in vogue.) The current editors—who, in a departure from earlier editions, also wrote all the entries—have continued the previous two editions’ practice of describing and assessing the architectural character of neighborhoods, not just single buildings, which renders their examinations of “Chicago’s famous buildings” in this already very general guide sometimes too general. And, inescapably, one quibbles with some of the emphases and selections. But Schulze and Harrington are unusually brisk, even saucy, writers, and their descriptions are commendably concrete and vivid. This is an admirable reworking of a book that’s at once a classic and a work in progress.

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