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“The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics” by Mark Lilla— A Vision for the Future

Lilla, Mark. “The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics”, Harper, 2017 .

A Vision for the Future

Amos Lassen

Mark Lilla is one of America’s most admired political thinkers, and in his new book “The Once and Future Liberal”, he sends out an urgent wake-up call to American liberals “to turn from the divisive politics of identity and develop a vision of our future that can persuade all citizens that they share a common destiny”. He presents us with a look at the failure of American liberalism over the past two generations. The vision of the Reagan administration, despite Democrats in the White House, has held and this means “small government, lower taxes, and self-reliant individualism”. There has not been a convincing competing response to this from the Democratic Party.

What has happened is that American liberalism has become concerned with identity politics and this has caused terrible results. The drive was to protect those who, in this country, are the most vulnerable and this has divided the electorate and solidarity has become self-absorption whose energies have replaced party politics with social movements. Lilla goes on to show us how “the left’s identity-focused individualism insidiously conspired with the amoral economic individualism of the Reaganite right to shape an electorate with little sense of a shared future and near-contempt for the idea of the common good”. What this telling us is that in trying to capture the imagination of this country, the  liberals have divested themselves of power but now they have the chance to bounce back. They have the motivation and the Republicans are in an easy situation with a mentally unstable president who is totally unpredictable. The party’s ideology is no loner unified. To be able to wrest power, the liberals must now concentrate their efforts to win elections and recapture what has been lost. The time has come to reach out to the people and stand up for them thus allowing the rebuilding a sense of

“common feeling among Americans, and a sense of duty to each other”.

What Mark Lilla gives us here is an explanation of what went wrong during the November 2016 election and what now can be done about it. Many of us are still in shock when we see what is happening in the governance of this country. I am angry about that and while there are those who will be angry about what Lilla has to say here but we cannot avoid that. We can no longer wonder what has happened to liberty and justice; we must act on it. We must

 find and include a genuinely diverse set of voices to create the new American ‘we the people’ that Lilla envisions.” We MUST capture the imagination of the people in order to secure the public good. This little book cries out to be read and it needs to be read and heeded.

“Dangerous” by Milo Yiannopoulos— The Return

Yiannopoulos, Milo. “Dangerous”, Dangerous Books, 2017.

The Return

Amos Lassen

Here is the book that no one wanted to read ye already has 830 reviews just three weeks after publication. Even more shocking than that is that some of the reviews are extremely favorable.

By now everyone knows how the left took him yet Milo comes out fighting and using wit and humor to prove what he has to say.

Milo says that, “In short, I’m the Left’s worst nightmare: a living, breathing refutation of identity politics, and proof that free speech and the truth wrapped in a good joke will always be more persuasive and more powerful than identity politics.” This book is well written, and backed up with facts. It is extraordinarily funny, and gets the modern conservative viewpoint across. Like him or not,

Yiannopoulos is a refreshing voice. He is open and candid and even though I do not agree with most of what he has to say, this is an interesting and at times infuriating read. He lets us know early on that his book is “for open minded, independent thinkers and free speech advocates, not for ANTI First Amendment (ANTIFA) fascists or any other easily triggered tantrum throwing cry babies”.

“I’m no hypocrite,” states Milo Yiannopoulos tells us early on that he is not a hypocrite, “I tell the truth, always. That’s my whole fucking problem.”

However the truth that he tells is his version of it and it has been a problem for the guy who calls himself a “dangerous faggot.” (Don’t you just want to throw up here?).

This book was under contract to Simon & Schuster but they canceled the because of Milo’s remarks that condone pederasty. These remarks were made by Milo on a podcast last year and were reported in mainstream media. Milo was also uninvited from speaking at the Conservative Political Action Conference and forced to resign as tech editor for Breitbart, the news website often credited for helping elect President Donald Trump. This was quite a letdown for the fabulously gay Trump supporter, but he vowed that he would quickly and here is less than six months later with this book that he published on his own imprint, Dangerous Books.

Milo is a 32-year-old English journalist, political provocateur and occasional drag queen who first gained notoriety covering the #GamerGate controversy, which essentially concerned the issue of political correctness and video game content. This was a great concern to millennials and the multi-billion dollar gaming industry. His coverage brought in many young readers to Breitbart and his star began to rise. Ion 2016 he had a real experience with fame when he and co-writer Allum Bakhari published “An Establishment Conservative’s Guide To The Alt-Right,” a taxonomy of the alternative right political movement supporting candidate Trump.

“The article rightly pointed out that in today’s politically correct environment, where white males have been cast as the villain, it’s become difficult for whites to express any sort of white identity or culture without being hectored by some so-called Social Justice Warrior.”

This is not a new thought and Milo used it as best he could. He and his co-writer denied being a part of any movement, but with his face was soon all over mainstream media as the leader of the Alt-Right, operating out of the Alt-Right’s Berlin Bunker, Breitbart, then commanded by “notorious alleged crypto-nazi Steve Bannon.”

Milo’s simply said, “On the one hand, these guys are declaring the alt-right to be a racist, anti-Semitic, homophobic hate group…. “On the other, they’re saying that a gay Jew with a black boyfriend is the head of it.”

The majority of the alternative right can be considered to be racist, anti-Semitic and homophobic, and subscribes to a conspiracy theory known as “Cultural Marxism” that blames Jewish academic theorists for the alleged decline in Western culture, a line of thought Milo strongly promotes in this book. promote front-and-center in Dangerous.

More on that later. Despite his reputation as a public intellectual, there’s very little standard political content in “Dangerous”. At different times and at various points, Milo has called himself a conservative, a conservative libertarian, a cultural libertarian and once said that he’s not a libertarian at all. In the end he says people hate him and each chapter is dedicated to one of the various groups that despise Milo because as Milo says, “I’m not one of them. I don’t fit into the box they demand of me. I don’t fit into any fucking box. I am large, I contain multitudes.”

His megalomania may be the truest thing he says in the book and it is also symptomatic of nihilism. Milo sees his book as a guide to political activism in the internet age. “It is a guide to trolling by an author who is arguably one of the internet’s most successful trolls”. Milo claims when it comes to trolling, he’s second only to “Daddy,” his favored nickname for Trump.

He tells us here that being de-platformed has only made him stronger, particularly with the growing audience of Breitbart behind him. He shares that

“Trolling is the perfect weapon of a political dissident intent on spreading forbidden or inconvenient truths.” However, he steers clear of the truth that Cultural Marxism is understood by the vast majority of the alternative right as a modern Protocol of the Elders of Zion, the late nineteenth century forgery alleging a Jewish plot to control the world.

Milo correctly notes that Cultural Marxism traces its roots back to the Frankfurt School, a group of German Marxist academics who immigrated to the United States in 1935. However what he does not say is that virtually all the scholars were Jewish.

That fact may not mean much to Milo but the theory that Cultural Marxists control everything is usually used as an anti-Semitic idea yet Milo offers it up without reference “to Jewish academics, and “Hollywood,” or “mainstream media” or “leftist” or “progressive” or even “bankster” is inserted”. In its most common form, there’s no question as to the eternal scheming Jew pulling the strings.

Milo tells us that “In the following pages I’ll teach you how to cause the same sort of mayhem I do in defense of the most important right you have in America: the right to think, do, say and be whatever the hell you want.”

He believes that by wrapping himself in the American flag, he gains him dramatic license to pretend the significant racist, sexist, homophobic, and anti-Semitic elements in the alternative right don’t actually exist.

He says that these are kids blowing off steam and that the trolls are winning because “we’re the only ones telling the truth any more.” We should know better than to listen to those who claim to carry the truth. Milo claims to be the spokesman for “those white deplorables without a college education Milo claims to be a spokesman for” who are all over the internet these days. Truth is easily the most misused word in English and probably every other language.

If Milo isn’t carrying the truth, what does he carry? It seems to me to be outrage delivered and aimed at the easiest and most vulnerable targets of the progressive left, defined as the “latte-sipping metropolitan voters, fairy tale dwelling antiwar activists, ugly women (sigh), and minorities.”

Milo has completely mischaracterized and insulted the opposition. He is unaware that there hasn’t been a sizable antiwar movement in this country since at least the election of President Barack Obama, and realistically since 9/11.

We get some very strong feelings from a guy who continues to dabble in identity politics. As one reviewer said, “Milo the Jewish drag queen who only has sex with black men is playing rural white America, the so-called deplorables who helped elect Donald Trump, for rubes… he wants attention. He’s getting it. He’s oh so outrageous.”

Milo doesn’t have a clue about culture, politics, and the people who actually live in the United States.. “Milo, a gay Jewish man who dates black men, has embraced, some say hijacked, an ideology whose adherents would kill him on the spot if they got the chance to do it anonymously, a fact he dismisses with the wave of a limp wrist. Call it gay privilege. He’d never admit he’s taking advantage of it.

Nevertheless, that’s what he’s doing. Milo the truth-teller, the half-Jewish anti-Semite, the half-Catholic alter boy sucking Father Mike’s dick—an anonymous priest he claims he willingly had sex with at the age of 14—is only in it for the lols — the laugh-out-louds — as the kids he so creepily covets say these days.

Other than that, Milo has literally nothing to offer as far as solutions to our present dilemma are concerned in Dangerous. It’s news to this dangerous faggot, who has apparently never dated a woman, that birth control pills have side effects and that abortion is a hard decision for any woman to make. Fat and ugly people deserve to be ridiculed because, well, they’re not beautiful like him.”

“Marcel’s Letters: A Font and the Search for One Man’s Fate” by Carolyn Porter— Connecting Past and Present

Porter, Carolyn. “Marcel’s Letters: A Font and the Search for One Man’s Fate”, Skyhorse Publishing, 2017.

Connecting Past and Present

Amos Lassen

Carolyn Porter is a graphic designer who is always looking for inspiration to create a new font. While in an antique shop in Stillwater, Minnesota she finds a cache of letters and was immediately drawn to their beautiful penmanship. The letters were in French so she was as yet unable to read them. They were all signed by Marcel and had been delivered to Berlin to Marcel’s during the middle of World War II. She was amazed by the font but not knowing what the letters were about led her to having one translated. As she read, she was transported to a different time and soon her curiosity turned to obsession. She was determined to find out why Marcel (Heuze) was in Berlin and how the letters came to the shop in Oklahoma.

This is a story about how curiosity can lead to a search and how a search can become an obsession. Carolyn Porter developed a deep sense of responsibility to uncover history and she looks for and ultimately follows the clues that were in the letters. The outcome was that Porter reconstructed history that was thought to have been lost. What we read about here is a part of history that was unknown to most of us and that came to light by chance. It took a woman’s persistence in following the clues that were left in letters in an Oklahoman antique shop. (I repeated these facts because I wanted you to see the simplicity from which all of this happened).

The letters are quite a remarkable tribute to a simple man who was basically unknown. There is something else here that I found to be fascinating. Most of us, I be, never think about fonts and how they are created. It is actually a complicated process and had I had chanced upon this book, I still would not know.

With the translation of one of the letters from French into English, Porter discovered that the letter was a message to Marcel’s wife and daughters in the Paris countryside during the Nazi occupation of France. During the Vichy regime, men were forced to work for the German Reich and this is what brought about the separation of Marcel from his family. He was one of the estimated 1,100,000 French workers. Porter learns how the French government, in collaboration with their German occupiers enforced the conscription of French citizens to work for the Third Reich. Here is also the story of a family rediscovering its own past, and reconnecting with each other, in a way that might not have happened if Porter had not found those letters. This is also the story of a survivor bearing witness and passing that truth to a new generation.

Marcel is a simple man who was just one out of hundreds of thousands who suffered without recognition. This book memorializes his legacy, his life and his love for his family by capturing his handwriting in a beautiful font— P22 Marcel Script! This is a beautifully told story of a woman’s passion for design but even a greater passion to unravel the story of one man’s experience during the war.

 

“Running Through a Dark Place: Children of the Knight II” by Michael J. Bowler

Bowler, Michael J. “Running Through A Dark Place: Children of the Knight II” (“The Knight Cycle: Volume 2”), Michael J. Bowler, 2014.

A New Camelot

Amos Lassen

I have always loved the King Arthur stories and I actually still love to read them today. Arthur came out of mythology and found his place in the history and legends of the world. Now Arthur and his knights have come to America to build a new Camelot in Los Angeles. Their motto “Might for Right” has not changed and they very cleverly get the people of LA on their side. They have set a goal of giving equal rights to fourteen year olds and older. In this age group, they are considered children but if one breaks the law, he/she/they is an adult in the eyes of the law. Arthur wants them to be able to vote, drive, work, and serve on juries for others in their age group who have been charged as criminals. Arthur and his knights understand that there probably will be some disagreement from the adult community and he needs to find a way to get them on his side. There is another problem as well and comes with facing his past and understanding that life is not always what it seems to be.

Arthur is for the rights of children because he believes it is right to be so. He has managed to gather people for support and who are willing to help in this crusade. We have Sir Lance, “the boy who came back” after having lost his life protecting his king. We learn this from a mysterious figure from Arthur’s distant past shows up and lets us know that Lance was not supposed to die. In saving him someone else had to die and this was a person who was loved by many. Lance struggles with this throughout the book. Unfortunately, the manner in which he was saved cost a life that was very dear to everyone, and Lance spends the rest of the book struggling with this sacrifice, as well as with the feeling that death just might want him back. Because he came back from death, Lance soon was famous but his fame divided people. There were either those that loved him or those that hated him; no one is neutral. He is a gifted speaker and he shows that adults have failed children. What we need to remember is that Lance is just 14 and is struggling with learning who he is. He makes mistakes just as we all do but his mistakes could hurt the movement. Then there is the situation with Michael. Michael is treated as an outsider but Lance sees something there and the two connect. Michael remains an enigma to us, however.

Lance and another knight, Ricky must face many of their greatest fears. They are to be the leaders of this crusade but they are not sure that they can do so. The boys struggle to be regular kids who can be famous and also have girlfriends but running a crusade in California is not easy for any of them. As the crusade progresses from neighborhoods in LA to a statewide push to change the fate of youth in the state, things get more difficult to control.

To me, that is the purpose of the book; to show that if something is worth winning, it takes work. Somehow, and that is the beauty of this book for me, Michael Bowler lets us know and empathize with all of the characters (both the good guys and the not-so-good guys). We also learn that we can never underestimate what children and youth are capable of when they come together for good.

Arthur’s “Childrens’ Crusade” (as it is named) is taking place after Arthur and his knights have cleaned up the various `hoods in L.A.. The new Round Table is quickly growing but even as they pick up momentum and more supporters, they are also find their enemies. There are possibilities that the whole thing will fall apart either from within where personality conflicts exist or from without because parents do not want their children to have equal rights. Arthur must find a way to manage to maintain the peace and feeling of brotherhood and family.

I mentioned Michael earlier and explained that he is enigmatic. He is certainly not the only enigmatic character in Arthurian legend so let me give you something to think about. What other character is enigmatic in the legends and has a first name that begins with the same letter as Michael’s name? There you see, you have learned something new (and fun).

I have said all I can say about the plot without spoiling it. What else I can say is that this book is beautifully written, its characters are wonderfully developed (we see how they have changed or not since book I in the series) and the plot is captivating (in a way it reminded me of the move “Wild in the Streets”) but classier. Seeing the kids come together for something they believe in makes this a very special read. I reviewed the first volume in the series, “Children of the Knight” about four years ago and it has taken me that long to get around to reviewing this, the second volume. I hope it does not take that long to get to volume 3.

 

 

“The Address” by Fiona Davis— The Dakota

Davis, Fiona. “The Address: A Novel”, Dutton, 2017.

The Dakota

Amos Lassen

One of the most famous addresses in New York City is The Dakota that is located at the northwest corner of 72nd Street and Central Park. It is considered to be one of Manhattan’s most prestigious and exclusive cooperative residential buildings. Fiona Davis takes us into the Dakota and we see the thin lines between

love and loss, success and ruin, passion and madness that are all hidden behind the walls. It is 1884 and we meet Sara Smythe who has been working as a housekeeper at a fancy London hotel. Sara meets, by chance, Theodore Camden, one of the architects of The Dakota and this leads to a job offer meaning that there will be new possibilities for Sara including the opportunity to move to America, where a person is able to rise above one’s station. He has asked her to become the female manager of The Dakota and this means that she will get to see more of Theo, who understands Sara like no one else. However, he loves at The Dakota with his wife and three young children.

We move forward to 1985 and meet Bailey Camden who is desperate for new opportunities. She is just out of rehab and had once been quite party girl and interior designer. Now she is homeless, jobless, and penniless. Two generations ago, Bailey’s grandfather was the ward of famed architect Theodore Camden. However because of the absence of a genetic connection, Bailey is not entitled to a cent of the Camden family’s substantial estate. Rather, her “cousin” Melinda (Camden’s biological great-granddaughter) will inherit almost everything. When Melinda offers to let Bailey oversee the renovation of her lavish Dakota apartment, Bailey jumps at the chance, even though she dislikes Melinda’s vision. Bailey feels that the renovation will take away all the character and history of the apartment and this is the apartment where Theodore Camden himself lived in and died in, after being stabbed multiple times by Sara Smythe, a former Dakota employee who had previously spent seven months in an insane asylum on Blackwell’s Island.

There lives were separated by 100 years yet both Sara and Bailey struggle. Sara’s struggle is against a world ruled by the Astors and Vanderbilts; Bailey has to deal with the free-flowing alcohol and cocaine in the nightclubs of New York City. Bailey discovers secrets in basement of The Dakota that could change everything she thought she knew about Theodore Camden and the woman who killed him.

I loved this book even though I had the suspicion that this is chick lit. We get a wonderful history of The Dakota and I found this fascinating. Fiona Davis writes with amazing detail and she has created characters that are interesting. Of course the most interesting character is The Dakota itself. Naturally I cannot say anything else about the plot without spoiling a read about two women searching for answers and trying to take control of their own lives.

I love that writer Davis writes about what was relevant at the times of the two women. These include sanity, asylums, drugs, alcohol and love, the importance of family, friends, love and hope.  

 

“The World Broke in Two: Virginia Woolf, T. S. Eliot, D. H. Lawrence, E. M. Forster and the Year that Changed Literature” by Bill Goldstein— Intersecting Lives

Goldstein, Bill. “The World Broke in Two: Virginia Woolf, T. S. Eliot, D. H. Lawrence, E. M. Forster and the Year that Changed Literature”, Henry Holt, 2017.

Intersecting Lives

Amos Lassen

The lives of authors Virginia Woolf, T. S. Eliot, E. M. Forster and D. H. Lawrence intersect in 1922, the year that modernism was born. For me, this is a very special book simply because it is about four authors who have been my favorites for so very long.

As 1922 begins, all four writers find themselves with nothing to say. They realize that they are facing very uncertain future even after having been so successful. With the publications of two major novels, “Ulysses” by James Joyce and the first English publication of Marcel Proust’s “in Search of Lost Time”, there is a tremendous upheaval in what is being read and what is being written. In that same year, Woolf began writing “Mrs. Dalloway”, Foster was writing again for the first time in ten years, Lawrence wrote “Kangaroo” and Eliot has published “The Waste Land.” The new trend forced the writers to deal with the movement of modernism. Bill Goldstein shows us the personal dramas these writers felt as they had to work harder than ever before to remain popular.

All four writers were challenged that year “to invent the language of the future.” Change was taking place everywhere in the world and this of course affected literature. Undoubtedly the war had something to do with the change.

Goldstein gives separate chapters for each author but he also writes about the connections between them. Joyce was the main force for change and this was not such a good time for the four writers who were dealing with their own problems. Woolf was having both physical and mental health problems and Foster was coming to terms with his homosexuality. Eliot was having nervous breakdowns and his wife was not well and Lawrence who wanted to be left alone was traveling almost the entire year. He was also dealing with censorship and the fact that a psychiatrist labeled him as a homosexual who wrote erotica as a way to deal with his own sexuality.

In the early years of the twentieth century, there were battles about the censorship of Joyce and Lawrence and in 1922, Lawrence’s publisher fought back and the case for censoring “Women in Love” was lost. It was this case that opened the door a bit but not completely.

Goldstein brings history, literature, and psychology together to accent the times and of course this aids us in understanding both the authors and the dawn of a new literary age.

The title of the book comes from Willa Cather who said that the world broke in two in 1922. The devastation of WWI caused us to look forward and to leave the past behind in the ashes of the war. If I understand correctly, Goldstein tells us that the inspiration for the new literature was based upon the reception given to Proust and Joyce and it came at a time when it was much needed. We get a wonderful picture of how modernist writing was being created. However, this is not a book that one can read quickly. It is so filled with ideas that it is necessary to think about what is written here. I was totally captivated reading about the “overlapping neuroses, illnesses, and inspirations” of the four writers.

 “The Dream Colony: A Life in Art” by Walter Hopps with Deborah Tresiman— A Visionary

Hopps, Walter with Deborah Treisman.  “The Dream Colony: A Life in Art”, Bloomsbury USA, 2017.

A Visionary Curator

Amos Lassen

Walter Hopps is an innovative, iconoclastic curator of contemporary art. When he was just 21 years old, he founded his first gallery in L.A. At twenty-four, he opened the Ferus Gallery with then-unknown artist Edward Kienholz and this was where he turned the spotlight on a new generation of West Coast artists. Ferus was the first gallery ever to show Andy Warhol’s “Campbell’s Soup Cans” and was shut down by the Los Angeles vice squad for a show of Wallace Berman’s edgy art. At the Pasadena Art Museum in the sixties, Hopps presented the first museum retrospectives of Marcel Duchamp and Joseph Cornell and the first museum exhibition of Pop Art before it was even known as Pop Art. In 1967, Hopps became the director of Washington’s Corcoran Gallery of Art at age thirty-four and the “New York Times” hailed him as “the most gifted museum man on the West Coast (and, in the field of contemporary art, possibly in the nation).” While he was erratic in his work habits, he was never erratic in his commitment to art. He died in 2005 after having been at the Menil Collection of art in Houston for which he was the founding director. A few years before that, he began work on this book and it is a personal, irreverent, and enlightening look at his life and of some of the greatest artistic minds of the twentieth century. Hopps merged life and career and he feel his passion as we read his story.

“Hopps knew the best stories about artists, or at least about Marcel Duchamp, Joseph Cornell, Robert Rauschenberg and other members of the avant-garde with whom he worked closely”. He shares those in this memoir giving us an unusually intimate look at the American art scene.

“The Dream Colony” is history that is fun to read while at the same time showing us why Hopps mattered.

“The Scarlet Professor: Newton Arvin: A Literary Life Shattered by Scandal” by Barry Werth— America’s Need to Punish

Werth, Barry. “The Scarlet Professor: Newton Arvin: A Literary Life Shattered by Scandal”, Nan A. Talese, 2001.

America’s Need to Punish

Amos Lassen

I do not know how I missed this book and the story behind and if a wise friend had not sent me a news clipping about an opera being prepared from the book I still might not have known anything about it. Once I read that article, I realized that I had to know more and this came upon this book. Barry Werth’s “The Scarlet Professor: Newton Arvin: A Literary Life Shattered by Scandal” is a provocative and very unsettling look at the consequences of America’s puritanical “need to punish.” This is the tragic story of one of America’s great literary minds whose life and career were shattered by the “Pink Scare.”

Newton Arvin (1900-1963) was one of America’s most respected literary critics and was admired by Edmund Wilson and Lillian Hellman. Arvin was a mentor to Truman Capote and a member of the American Academy of Arts and in 1951, won the National Book Award for his biography of Herman Melville. As a scholar and writer, Arvin focused on the secret, psychological drives of American masters, specifically Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne.

Arvin was born and raised in the constrained society of Protestant Indiana and was a social radical and a homosexual who was only out to himself and friends. When the national antismut campaign followed the “Red Scare”, his apartment in Northampton, Massachusetts, where he was a distinguished professor at Smith College, was searched and relatively mild homoerotic materials were confiscated. He was arrested for possession of pornography, accused in the press of being a leader of a “smut ring,” and forced to choose between friendship and survival. After naming several men, he despaired at his own guilt and confusion, and took himself to the state mental institution overlooking the Smith campus. It was in that institution that his public shame and the fear of his associates caused the unraveling of his connections to the institutions that had been of major importance his life.

Barry Werth explores the virulence with which even the most marginal “sins” are dealt with during the height of America’s recurring puritanical crusades. We gain a new perspective from his insights into the political and moralistic fanaticism that has been part of this country’s social landscape and about the dangers of a society where the possibility of a “private life” no longer exists.

Werth begins  with the arrest of Newton Arvin for possession of pornography. He then gives us a chronologically organized narrative from Arvin’s arrival in Northampton, MA, as a 24-year-old instructor at Smith College, to his death. Arvin became a well-known literary critic and wrote biographies of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Walt Whitman, and Herman Melville, among others. He was forced into early retirement at Smith in 1960 after being sentenced for possession of pornography and for lewd (i.e., homosexual) behavior. What Werth stresses here is the psychological cost of Arvin’s concealing his homosexuality, as well as the similarity between the prosecution of Arvin and that of Hester Prynne in Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter”.

Smith College, at that time, treated its homosexual professors more harshly than a heterosexual professor who was sexually involved with at least one member of the all-female student body. Through Arvin and his associates, Werth gives the details of the “witch-hunt,” first for Communists, then for homosexuals in mid-20th-century America. Newton Arvin was one of the premier literary critics of his day and was hailed for his brilliance by such contemporaries as Lionel Trilling, Alfred Kazin, and Edmund Wilson. As professor of literature at Smith College, he transformed the s

tudy of American literature and saw the discipline through to maturity. Nonetheless, he was plagued with feelings of inferiority, self-doubt, and worthlessness. Earlier, he became a communist darling at Yaddo, the writers’ colony in New York, and he was homosexual, which he kept secret for much of his life. Yet he had torrid affairs (one with Truman Capote) and was a major figure in a 1960 homosexual scandal at Smith. After his arrest, he started naming names, and guilt drove him to the Massachusetts state mental facility, in which he spent the rest of his days. This book totally captures the politics, social climate, and culture of fear that Arvin experienced in the world’s greatest democracy.

Barry Werth takes us to a crucial episode in the history of American repression of which there is little known—The Smith College Homosexual Scandal of 1960 which had until this book not been researched or reported in such detail. I was glued to this book as I read.

When Arvin was arrested, he sank into confusion and despair causing his betrayal of several friends.

We see here the essence of a conflicted man and a provocative and unsettling look at American moral fanaticism.

Barry Werth does a marvelous job helping the reader to understand the challenges that Arvin faced as a closeted gay man in this society in the 1920’s through the early sixties.

Werth implies the homosexuality that was a hidden part of Arvin’s entire adult life contributed to his frequent mental collapses and breakdowns, but also may have allowed him to have brilliant insights into the lives of his subjects such as Walt Whitman (an acknowledged homosexual) and Hawthorne and Melville (apparently both sexually ambiguous writers). Although Arvin found the American Communist Party too intellectually bankrupt for his tastes, he was a `fellow traveler’ who supported labor and socialist movements. Yet he also tried to be objective in his analysis of American poetry and fiction and was a knowledgeable, conscientious, and honest teacher of young ladies. His political views colored his scholarship, but did not distort it.

Arvin lived his life in a period in which homosexuality was considered either a crime or a mental illness or both. In his younger days he alternately fought his desires or gave into them in various clandestine relationships. Arvin also seemed to have had an aversion to emotional intimacy and that would give him a life of loneliness. His life ended tragically in disgrace in 1960 with his arrest for possessing what postal authorities claimed was ‘homosexual pornography’. By that time, he was mentally and physically too fragile to deal with this and died in 1963.

There are those who will see Arvin as a whining hypochondriac and a rat who betrayed his friends. He was nothing to look at and he was a poor conversationalist about things that did not concern his academic interests. What we really see here is how terribly pre-1960 America treated homosexuals, communists and the mentally ill. It is also a good argument against those who would broaden police searches and seizures.

The news is just out that a new opera on the very college campus where the original events took place is in rehearsal at Amherst College. I got a peek at some of the lyrics and I can tell you that these are not the kind of songs we usually hear in operas:“One-two-three — ‘kinky, stinky, commie, finkie…”

This will be a Five College Opera production that is based on Northampton writer Werth’s book.  After reading Werth’s book, composer Eric Sawyer of Amherst College and lyricist Harley Erdman of UMass Amherst decided to turn it into an opera. Like the book, the opera draws parallels between Arvin’s public disgrace and that of Hawthorne’s heroine, Hester Prynne, who was forced to wear the letter A on her dress, for adultery.

The opera stars UMass Amherst professor and tenor Bill Hite and tells Arvin’s story mostly through flashbacks and his imagination, after he checks himself into the Northampton State Hospital for psychiatric treatment.

Arvin is seen as a victim that he was caught up in a witch hunt. He was subjected to invasion of privacy, which a few years afterwards would have been unconstitutional but he also was a difficult character to consider completely admirable because he named names of his friends. He remains a sympathetic character and he is relatable.

Even though this was a very painful period for Arvin, ultimately it helped him become a more integrated, honest person. Even though didn’t live that much longer after all this happened he did somehow manage to become a person at peace with himself. The opera will have its premier on the Smith College campus in September, along with a symposium about the Arvin case.

Regardless of how far Smith has come since 1960, from gay rights to free speech, there is no getting away from the fact that past actions got us to what we have today and by having this opera, history can be stopped from repeating itself.

“We Shall Not Sleep: A Novel” by Estep Nagy— Two Houses on One Island

Nagy, Estep. “We Shall Not All Sleep: A Novel” Bloomsbury, 2017.

Two Houses on One Island

Amos Lassen

In 1964, Seven Island off the coast of Maine was still wild and unspoiled. The only civilization were two houses built within compounds of outbuildings for summer vacations. One house belongs to the Hillsingers, the other to the Quicks. The two families’ ancestors have owned the island together since the times of the Revolution. By 1964, the families became even more closely intertwined by the marriages of the sons of both families to the Blackwell sisters – Bill Quick married Hannah and Jim Hillsinger married Lila. In the late spring of that year, the families for their annual visit, the Migration, and they are served by employees who take care everything.

The families arrive for three days of island activities, capped by the Migration and a dinner. Even though the families have become estranged at times, maybe this year will bring them together. However, the title of the book is an omen of what is to come.

Both families are affluent, and their histories are filled with foibles. There is Billy Quick’s investment fund with a questionable list of investors, his wife, Hannah’s early membership in a Communist group, which costs her a teaching job; Jim Hillsinger’s ouster from the CIA accused of treason, his wife, Lila’s affair with Billy Quick, Hannah’s suicide to escape a witch hunt, to name just a few. While the adults are sorting all of this out, and dealing with the ramifications, the various children are having a great time, except for Lila’s 12 year old son, Catta, who is the subject of disagreement between his parents. His father wants to abandon him on an outer island for a day to make “a man out of him”. The children run wild, playing violent games led by Catta’s sadistic older brother James. The island manager Cyrus and the servants take care of the families while preparing for the Migration, a yearly farming ritual that means one thing to their employers, and something very different to them.

With the adults, we see “longstanding tensions become tactical face-offs in which everything is fair game for ammunition”. This is a story of American class, family, and manipulation and a very compelling look at “a unique and privileged WASP stronghold on the brink of dissolution”. The story is good, the writing is beautiful and the characters are fascinating.

We read of CIA mole hunts, communist witch hunts and a world where we lived in cities before taking to the suburbs. If there is a basic theme here, I believe it is identifying and living up to the expectations that are set for us by society, our families, and ourselves and the results of not meeting those expectations. We also have the sub themes of betrayal, sacrifice and redemption.

The Quicks and the Hillsingers don’t particularly like each other, but who are also linked together by a shared family history and the joint ownership of a remote Maine archipelago and by marriage through the Blackwell sisters. Seven Island is a remote place with no phone service and there are three distinct groups on the island (the adults, the children, and the staff) and each group forms its own community of interests. And as long as each group acts within larger social ecosystem of the island (the adults eat and drink, the staff serve the adults and keep the island running, and the kids are largely seen and not heard), it is left to establish its own rules and traditions.

The descriptions of the islands are gorgeous especially Baffin Island which is mysterious and fascinating especially for Catta who is on his own journey of self-exploration.

 

 

“A Good Country” by Laleh Khadivi— Finding Identity

Khadivi, Laleh. “A Good Country”, Bloomsbury, 2017.

Finding Identity

Amos Lassen

“A Good Country” is set in Laguna Beach California in 2010 and is the story of Alireza Courdee, a Muslim teen searching for and ultimately finding his identity.

Alireza Courdee is a fourteen-year-old straight-A student and whiz at chemistry. When he smokes pot for the first time, he changes from being the high-achieving son of Iranian immigrants becomes a happy-go-lucky stoner. He has sex and loses his virginity, becomes a surfer, and sneaks away from home to go all-night raves. He stops being Alireza and becomes just Rez as he becomes a real American teen. We see that if he can change that quickly, he must be vulnerable and so when he becomes friendly with a group of surfers (“bad boys”) who share his background, he is easily filled with a new sense of purpose and during the year that follows, he is radicalized so much that he and his girlfriend leave America and go to Syria to be part of a Muslim nation enduring civil war. Here is the story of a young man who is caught between two different worlds. His story is the story of living the modern world and religious radicalization. We, in turn, then think about whether or not we decide how to live or is that decision made for us.

We follow Rez through his high school years, his initiation to and then his obsession with sex and drugs, his friendships, his complex relationship with his father and we are shocked and appalled by his bad choices. Yet we remain hopeful that he will be able to overcome this and come to terms with his thoroughly American life while at the same time embrace his Persian heritage. However, that is not how it goes here and we see Rez’s mixed-up and convoluted reasoning.

Writer Laleh Khadivi’s tries to give us a plausible explanation as to why a nice, smart, successful, Americanized son of rich Iranian parents could be drawn into the shadowy world of ISIS thus making this a very timely read.

We meet Rez whose parents are Iranian but do not practice the Muslim faith, and he has never needed to learn what they have sacrificed for him to be born an American. Rez is, undoubtedly, an all-American teenage boy who loves to surf, gets high, parties, and, as per many American teenage boys, is distractedly infatuated by girls and sex. We see that everything comes down to events, as a friend of his recognizes in the book. Events cause other events and Islamophobia is what changes Rez’s self-perception and his understanding of the world. As he changes, his surfer friends want less and less to do with him and so he turns to other immigrant teenagers who are descended from the world Islam. He seeks a community as white America continues to reject him. Turning to the mosque, he finds peace

Khadivi here shows how fundamental misunderstanding causes untold suffering and we see the devastation that this causes. She shows us why a young man could become so radical and we then understand what would motivate a sheltered, young person to run away to join extremists .

At the beginning of the story Rez almost can’t even acknowledge his parents are Iranians because he so badly wants to be American and fit in with his peers. “A Good Country” powerfully looks at how much we actually determine our destinies.