Posts Tagged ‘Gavin Jones’

Join us for the 11th annual “Company of Authors” on Saturday!

Thursday, April 17th, 2014
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carnochanWe’ve written annually about Stanford’s “A Company of Authors” – here and here and here and here. The unusual event offers a chance to meet top Stanford authors, all published in the last year – plus a chance to buy their books without waiting for an Amazon delivery to your doorstep. But the April 19th event next week is special for another reason: Humble Moi will be one of the moderators, on the session featuring “The Power of Poetry.” Well, not entirely special, actually. I chaired a panel with the same title last year. The charming George Orwell biographer, Peter Stansky, who chairs the event, recycled the title for the panel this year. But what better title could we have picked? What would match the power of poetry?

Casper at the conference, Robert Harrison in the background (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

Casper on Arendt, with Robert Harrison. (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

I met with one of my panelists last week for lunch over at the Stanford Humanities Center. Benjamin Paloff is a Slavic scholar deeply immersed in the work of Russian and Polish poets, including Zbigniew Herbert and Czeslaw Milosz, among others, so we had lots to talk about. He’s also  the excellent translator of Krzysztof Michalski‘s The Flame of Eternity, which we’ve discussed on these pages here. But he’s on my panel for the book I haven’t seen – his latest collection of poems, Politics. Benjamin is currently a fellow at the Stanford Humanities Center, visiting from my own alma mater, the University of Michigan – Tung-Hui Hu, also on my panel, is an assistant professor of English in Ann Arbor. So three of us are used to cold weather. Tung-Hui wrote me this morning from the foggy cliffs of Djerassi Ranch. Well, we’ve written about Carl Djerassi‘s philanthropic venture here, and the terrors of driving to the place here. As for Rodney Koeneke, the final member of my panel, the Stanford alum and poet is visiting us from Portland. He appears to have no Michigan connection, nor anything that’s not on the Pacific. Quite wise of him.

michalski2At least one of the other books has been on these pages: Bliss Carnochan‘s Scotland the Brave.  We’ve also written about Ian Morris, Gavin Jones, Peter Carroll, and others. We haven’t written about former Stanford president Gerhard Casper (except to discuss his friendship with Hannah Arendt  here and here), but we should. His new book, The Winds of Freedom: Addressing Challenges to the University, has been getting some buzz.

Peter Stansky, as always, is the master of ceremonies. We can’t do much better than give you the elegant playbill below, and urge you to come to the Stanford Humanities Center next Saturday at 1 p.m. Oh, and it’s free. How many things can you say that about nowadays?

CompanyAuthorsSpring14-2

The Great Gatsby and the Roaring 20s: “There was a feeling that it couldn’t really last. And it didn’t.”

Friday, May 10th, 2013
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Exclusive - On Set of 'The Great Gatsby'

Tobey Maguire and Carey Mulligan in “The Great Gatsby”

Cynthia Haven:  Two novels from the same year.  One ends with marriage, the other with death – the comic and tragic sides of an era. Can you give us a little of the historical context that would help us understand the 1920s?

Gavin Jones:  The decade began in turmoil, with the end of World War I and with a mood of socialist revolution in the air. It ended with the Stock Market crash of 1929.

It was very much a boom time.  A time of intense competition as well.  In a way, American society began to look like it does today in the twenties.

Business became a kind of religion. By the end of the twenties, over 40 percent of the world’s manufactured goods came from the U.S.  The U.S. became an enormous global power during this decade.

Mass advertising campaigns began to dominate people’s lives.  The most famous advertisement was for Listerine. Its slogan has become a cliché: “Always a bridesmaid, never a bride.” In other words, halitosis was pitched as the cause of people’s social failure.

The salesman became a key figure.   Fitzgerald’s father had been a salesman for Proctor and Gamble, and was sacked when Fitzgerald was 12.  Fitzgerald described it as the central crisis of his youth, and became very interested in male failure in his writings.

Henry Ford became the cultural hero of this new business culture.  He claimed to make a new car every 10 seconds.  The road began to take over from the railroad.  There were 23 million cars in 1929, up from 7 million in 1919.  Perhaps the most important development was rise of the closed car.  It led to all sorts of new freedom – it provided a space where young people could become free from parental supervision.

yellowrolls

Rex Harrison in 1964’s “The Yellow Rolls Royce”

Haven:  Much like the internet has created a new social space today.

Jones:  Kind of like that, yes.  It’s a good comparison.

Haven:  I remember a rather so-so movie about the era, The Yellow Rolls Royce, written by the playwright Terence Rattigan.  The plot turned on an illicit affair that took place in the car of the title.

Jones:  Religious figures and social leaders saw the car as “a house of prostitution on wheels,” according to one judge.  It was a huge cultural shift to suddenly have all of these automobiles buzzing around society.

Haven:   And wasn’t there a yellow car in The Great Gatsby?

Jones:   The authorities are able to track Gatsby down because of his yellow car.  Initially all cars were black.  By the mid-20s, however, new finishing processes for cars led to a rainbow of colors.

THE GREAT GATSBY

Tobey Maguire and Elizabeth Debicki in “The Great Gatsby”

HavenThe Great Gatsby ends with a car accident.  Oddly, the era marks the beginning of the car accident, and car fatalities, as a commonplace occurrence.

Jones:  It is very much a new thing.  It’s the emergence of modernity.  These novels describe a certain kind of modernity in which the fate of humans is intertwined with machines.  You can see it just the role of the accident – people are very much more prone to accident rather than intention.  There’s a loss of agency with the growth of industrial power.

Meanwhile, a self-conscious, isolated intellectual class came to the fore in America: H.L. Mencken was a huge figure.  Debunking popular myths was a popular pastime in the era, so intellectuals like Mencken would criticize bankruptcy of mass culture.

Read the rest here…

 

Best books you’ve never read: “Another Look” explores overlooked masterpieces

Monday, October 15th, 2012
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"I didn't want the things that I loved, and remembered, to go down to oblivion. The only way to avoid that is to write about them." (Photo: Brookie Maxwell)

Finally, the news is out! For several months, I’ve been working with author Tobias Wolff on a new idea for a book club, “Another Look.” First book we’re going to feature on November 12 at Stanford:  William Maxwell’s So Long, See You Tomorrow.  Here’s the announcement:

Book clubs have proliferated across the United States, though most stick to middle-of-the-road bestsellers. Once in a while, however, you run across an off-the-beaten-track book you may not know about, praised by a leading literary figure. Where do you go to talk about this unfamiliar, top-notch fare?

Look no further. Stanford is allowing readers to get an insider’s look at literature via a seasonal book club, “Another Look,” which will be offered by one of the top-ranked English and creative writing departments in the nation.

“Another Look” is the brainchild of award-winning writer Tobias Wolff, a Stanford professor of English, who will kick off the event with William Maxwells 144-page novel So Long, See You Tomorrow.

Interested readers are invited to a discussion of the book at 7:30 p.m. Monday, Nov. 12, in the Levinthal Room of the Stanford Humanities Center. The event is free. Wolff will talk about the book with Bay Area novelist, journalist and editor Vendela Vida and Stanford Assistant Professor Vaughn Rasberry, to be followed by an audience discussion.

For Wolff, “Another Look” started in a conversation with colleagues: “We had occasionally held lunchtime discussions of a story or novel or poem for interested students and members of the department, and these had proved popular. Well, why not open our arms a little farther and invite the university community to participate; or, better yet, open our arms out wide to the community at large?”

Said Wolff, “Each of the faculty members are choosing books that really matter to them, and that they feel have not earned the readership they deserve.”

The books will be on the short side as well. “We recognize that the Bay Area is a busy place – and we recognize that people have limited resources of time. We don’t want to suggest books of discouraging length,” said Wolff.

So Long, See You Tomorrow was originally published in two parts in The New Yorker in 1979. The book, set in rural Illinois, describes the effects of a murder on the friendship of two boys – one of whom, in old age, narrates the story. Wolff called it “a beautifully written, complex, haunting story of a boy’s attempt to find warmth and companionship following the death of his mother in the Spanish Influenza epidemic – which killed more people than the Great War it so quickly followed.”

He called it “a cry from the heart that, once heard, cannot be forgotten.”

“It’s been a project of mine since 1980 to make people read that book. Whenever I sit down with people to talk about books I love, I always make sure that I mention that one. I give it to people as a gift,” he said. “This is my attempt to give this novel to the whole Bay Area as a gift.”

Wolff hopes to encourage a rich community discussion of the book on Nov. 12. “The conversation will be much richer if people have read and thought about the book first,” he said.

“The book club offers a wonderful opportunity for the writers and scholars of the English Department and the Creative Writing Program to introduce these neglected classics to a broader audience,” said Gavin Jones, chair of the English Department. “I’m excited at this opportunity to continue our literary conversations beyond the classroom.”

For the second event in February, poet Kenneth Fields will present Janet Lewis‘ 1941 The Wife of Martin Guerre, a 109-page novel. The name might ring a bell with some Bay Area readers: Poet Janet Lewis was also the wife of Stanford’s eminent poet-critic Yvor Winters.

On Lewis’ death in 1998, the New York Times wrote: “There are many who will assure you that when the literary history of the second millennium is written … in the category of dazzling American short fiction her Wife of Martin Guerre will be regarded as the 20th century’s Billy Budd and Janet Lewis will be ranked with Herman Melville.”

Although the Nov. 12 event is free, seating is limited. Reservations on the website anotherlook.stanford.edu. The website includes Wolff’s introductory remarks, as well as Cynthia Haven’s [dat’s me – ED]  retrospective on Maxwell’s life, with interviews of his colleagues and daughter.


Sometimes a Kindle is not enough: Gigante recalls an era when books were buddies

Wednesday, October 10th, 2012
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Denise Gigante, at home with a friend (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

Last year, we interviewed Denise Gigante about her acclaimed new book, The Keats Brothers – the Q&A is  here.  The formidable author is now tackling a new subject, with the help of a Guggenheim fellowship.  Read more:

What is a book?  A source of wisdom, a cultural artifact, a sacred relic, a text that can be rearranged into pdf, ebooks and pasted into a cloud.  But in an earlier era, books were more than that: they were bosom friends.

Denise Gigante, a Stanford English professor, traces the power of the book in the 19th century and then looks forward to the future of the written word.  Her research for her forthcoming book with Harvard University Press, The Book Madness: A Story of Book Collectors in America, which earned her a John Simon Guggenheim Foundation fellowship, also recalls the half-forgotten English essayist and “tastemaker” Charles Lamb, a cultural icon as popular in the 19th century as Charles Dickens.

Gigante tells a tale of how movements can flip into their own opposite: how transatlantic book-collecting and literary idolatry morphed into a fuzzy, off-the-page future. Passionate devotion to particular books has yielded to a universally available, disembodied text.

An "association copy" from the Fliegelman collection: John Quincy Adams' 1703 edition of Pliny the Younger’s "Epistolae et Panegyricus" (photo: L.A. Cicero).

If the past is anything to go by, her new book is likely to make literary waves.  Last year’s The Keats Brothers: The Life of John and George, was named a New York Times Notable Book for 2011 and an Editor’s Choice in The New York Times Book Review.

Gavin Jones, the chair of the Stanford English Department, said, “Denise is the rare scholar with the power to tell a story that’s also the biography of an age and an intellectual culture.”

Gigante’s research recalls an era when “bibliomaniacs had a relationship with books – they saw them as companions, friends, mentors, real presences in the world.  A character from Tom Jones could be as real to them as anyone they might meet.”

Gigante’s newest intellectual adventure began with the Jay Fliegelman Collection of “association copies” now in the Stanford Libraries.  The collection is important not just for the books that it holds, but for the signatures, notes and dedications to and from the era’s leading cultural figures contained in them.  English Professor Emeritus Albert Gelpi, describing the Fliegelman Collection, noted how “the books speak to each other.”

Gigante found inspiration in the collection. The idea of “association copies” was central to the 19th-century world of letters.  When a book had the pencil marks of an admired literary friend or had been owned by a long-dead colleague, it deepened the conversation between book and reader.

American collections put together by private collectors abounded in such souvenirs of the literary life – anything associated with authors was hoarded and venerated.  It was the age, Gigante said, of “bibliomania.”

In a residual way, the idea of association continues to this day. Think of all the people who line up at the local bookstore for an author signing.  “This is a legacy of the association copy, a commoditized version,” said Gigante.  “One can now purchase an autograph connecting the reader to the writer in a sentimental economy.”

Last year's triumph

Amateur book collecting – “amateur” is based on the French word for “lover” – was a very self-conscious way of styling oneself as a person of culture. For bibliomaniacs, taste was “a lived experience,” said Gigante, “an art of living.”

In the 19th century, such tastemakers were “usually people who had to work a day job, or fit their literary life into a workaday world.”

From the beginning, the movement was not about wealthy collectors. Charles Lamb, the son of domestic servants who wrote so lovingly about books, left school to work as a clerk.  His fellow essayists and bibliomaniacs, Leigh Hunt and William Hazlitt, spent their lives fleeing from creditors. Even John Keats, Gigante’s former subject, was the son of a hostler who took care of horses at an inn.

“There was a big difference between collectors with money who could buy anything that caught their eye, and people who had to make choices, to exercise judgment, in choosing one book over another.”

Book-loving morphed into a kind of bourgeois consumerism, where people stacked shelves with books for display (though old books retained their status as idols).  Book buying, selling and collecting became hallmarks of the age.  Bookstores became the center of social and cultural life.  Libraries became shrines where cultural heritage was preserved.

Portrait of Charles Lamb by William Hazlitt

Like just about everything else in America, the great libraries born in this era were not created top-down, as were their European counterparts, but rather bottom-up.  While the French royalty housed great collections in palatial structures and the British university libraries descended from the 16th century dissolution of the monasteries, American libraries were formed as “expressions of personality, character and individual genius rather than wealth,” said Gigante.

Compare these libraries to, say, Mr. Darcy’s library in Pride and Prejudice.  The books Elizabeth Bennet admired at Pemberley were collected over generations as a mark of a family’s cultural prestige – a collection of literary “Golden Oldies.”

But the marketplace eventually came to the fore. Thus, the 1848 sale of Charles Lamb’s old books, 14 years after his death, was a high-profile event. Sixty of Lamb’s dog-eared association copies, his “midnight darlings,” were displayed by a bookseller in the Astor House in Manhattan as a “seven-day wonder.” The English world of letters lamented the national loss of the iconic collection.

After the books were scattered at auction, a few were swallowed into John Jacob Astor’s collection, which formed the basis for the New York Public Library, and a few went to Charles Eliot Norton at Harvard. The private libraries of other collectors started the great collections at Yale, Princeton, Brown and other universities.

Something essential had fallen by the wayside in the rush for big collections.  The death of “gentle-hearted Charles” marked the end of the romantic quality of book collecting. “The gentility of the belletristic tradition amid the prosaic reality of middle-class life had been a model for many Americans,” according to Gigante.

We’ve turned the page onto a future without pages.  The medium is a computer screen. “The center of association shifts from the self to the commodity that is the computer,” Gigante said. “The agency of connection is likewise transferred from the internal space of reflection to larger corporations.”

What’s missing is a tastemaker’s wise words in real time and the presence of a bosom buddy on your bookshelf.  Does it matter? Gigante thinks so: “In the end, we will always be tactile creatures,” she said.

Hold the popcorn. Great Gatsby postponed.

Monday, August 6th, 2012
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The good news: he grew into his face.

Dinner guest tonight, and an interview to prepare for – but I had to take a moment to relay the awful news. The Great Gatsby, based on the novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald, will not be a 2012 Oscar contender.  The release has been postponed to summer 2013, rather than Christmas Day, 2012.

The Huffington Post called it a “shocking bit of news,” but I think they must be rather easily shocked.

“Based on what we’ve seen, Baz Luhrmann’s incredible work is all we anticipated and so much more,” Dan Feldman, Warner Bros. president of domestic distribution said in a statement. “We think moviegoers of all ages are going to embrace it, and it makes sense to ensure this unique film reaches the largest audience possible.”

According to HuffPo:

Late-stage release date changes — particularly when there is already a marketing campaign in full swing — almost always raise eyebrows unless there are some extenuating circumstances to consider as well. (Warner Bros. just went through a release date shuffle with “Gangster Squad” following the movie theater massacre in Aurora, Colo.) On Twitter, prominent Oscar blogger Sasha Stone wondered whether “The Great Gatsby” was subpar.

The article speculates on a number of possible causes – one of them includes the surfeit of other releases on Christmas Day this year, including Les Misérables, which I’ve written about earlier.

I like the new date for another reason: It’s a better match with Gavin Jones‘s Stanford Book Salon presentation on the book in May.  Better a few months early than a few months late, after the buzz has died down.

I include the trailer below.  You’ll note the clip defiantly predicts a Christmas release, still.

What to say?  Music sounds off and distressingly un-period.  As HuffPo commented in May:

The Great Gatsby trailer has arrived with the familiar and era-appropriate tones of the Jay-Z and Kanye West collaboration, “No Church in the Wild.” You crazy for this one, Baz Luhrmann! …

If you needed further proof that this isn’t your father’s “Gatsby,” — beyond the anachronistic music cue, of course — try this on for size: Luhrmann’s film will get released in 3D, since nothing needs an extra dimension like classic 1925 prose.

“I think it will be a spectacle, but not necessarily a good movie,” my daughter concluded, barely looking up from her smartphone.

The most surprising thing is that Leonardo DiCaprio has grown into an interesting face.  Not always a given.

Postscript on 8/8:  Jim Erwin offers the best comment on the soundtrack:  “Umm… The modern music stresses the timelessness of the story…ummm…By using Jay-Z, they underscore the emptiness of quickly acquired and flaunted riches…ummm..nope, it’s rubbish.”

 

Stanford writers bag an awful lot of prizes this year

Tuesday, July 3rd, 2012
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It’s easy to forget the caliber of the people you are rubbing elbows with every day.  So let me take a moment to blow their collective horn – especially since they’re so humble.  Many of you may have seen the recent New Yorker article about high-tech Stanford’s close relationship with Silicon Valley.  Fewer people, alas, know that it also has one of the top-rated faculties in English and Creative Writing anywhere.

This year has been a banner year.  Stanford and its alums have bagged a Pulitzer, a Ruth Lilly Prize, a National Book Award, a Guggenheim, a presidential awards.   Everything short of a Nobel. Are you listening, Stockholm?

From a piece I wrote recently:

Turning 40 is a landmark for many, and poet Tracy Smith was no exception. She planned to celebrate in style with champagne. But what she didn’t expect was the biggest present ever: her husband told her The New York Timeswebsite had just announced that she’d won this year’s Pulitzer Prize in poetry.The new Pulitzer for Smith, a former Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford, is one of several awards that have put a spotlight on Stanford’s top-ranked English Department and its renowned Creative Writing Program– a sometimes overlooked triumph on a campus that more often prides itself on its technological savvy.

Simone Di Piero, Photo credit: David LiittschwagerPoet W.S. Di Piero got the news that he had won the 2012 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize on April 1.  “They called me on April Fools Day.  So I had to ask twice if they were serious.  They said it was on the up and up.”

“In the land of poetry it’s a big prize,” said the emeritus professor of English.  His new collection of poetry, Nitro Nights, was published in December, but the $100,000 award honors lifetime accomplishments.

According to Christian Wiman, editor of Poetry magazine, “He wakes up the language, and in doing so wakes up his readers, whose lives are suddenly sharper and larger than they were before. He’s a great poet whose work is just beginning to get the wide audience it deserves.”

Poets weren’t the only ones to get prizes: English Prof. Denise Gigante got a coveted Guggenheim Fellowship, topping a year that had already brought stunning accolades: The Keats Brothers: The Life of John and George, was named a New York Times Notable Book for 2011 and an Editor’s Choice in The New York Times Book Review.

Denise Gigante, photo credit: Raul DiazThe Guggenheim will give her time to work on her new book, The Book Madness: Charles Lamb’s Midnight Darlings in New York, a study of 19th century bibliomania, the formation of important libraries and literary culture in America, and the half-forgotten English essayist Charles Lamb.

“Americans were fascinated with the figures of British poets,” said Gigante.  “Culture was imported from Britain – that’s not true today.  And library-makers were the cultural brokers of the time.”  Her book will be “an experiment in literary critical form,” she said.

Gavin Jones, English Department chair, said, “Denise is the rare scholar with the power to tell a story that’s also the biography of an age and an intellectual culture.”

The list of awards continues:  President Obama awarded Prof. Ramón Saldívar a National Humanities medal in February. (Arnold Rampersad, emeritus professor of English, received the same award a year before.)

The English Department has consistently been at the top of U.S. News and World Report rankings of graduate programs. The creative writing program, which does not confer an MFA, is considered by many to be the best in the country.  Its Stegner fellows form a tight-knit, ongoing society.

Pulitzer prizewinner Smith, at Stanford from 1997 to 1999, said her years at Stanford “pushed me to move towards a mature sense of what I was doing. To be honest, I didn’t know how to do that.”

The program’s focus on moving from manuscript to book “frees you from the person you were as a student and into what you will be as a poet.”

Smith, now an assistant professor at Princeton, was awarded for her collection Life on Mars. The New York Times called her “a poet of extraordinary range and ambition” whose book “first sends us out into the magnificent chill of the imagination and then returns us to ourselves, both changed and consoled.”

Although many may have seen The Descendants, a critically praised film with George Clooney that won two Golden Globe awards (for best picture and best actor in drama), few know it was born in the English Department. Kaui Hart Hemmings, a Stegner Fellow from 2002-2004, was working on the novel while at Stanford.

Jesmyn Ward, photo credit: Adam JohnsonJesmyn Ward became the out-of-nowhere winner of the prestigious National Book Award for 2011 with Salvage the Bones, a novel about a working-class family confronting the disaster of Hurricane Katrina.

Novelist Tobias Wolff said, “One of the great pleasures of teaching in the Stegner program is seeing the manuscripts we discuss in our workshops turn into books, distinguished, remarkable books, and recognized as such by the larger world.”

“Jesmyn Ward’s recent success is but one of too many examples to list here,” said the professor of English.

Eavan Boland, one of Ireland’s leading poets and director of the Creative Writing Program, called it “a stellar year” for the English department – but cautioned that  “our entire focus has to be on the writing and not the recognition. The writing life is an end in itself – that’s what the program stands for.”

“We have many outstanding Stegners who don’t win awards and go on to be significant writers through their commitment to that life and its outcomes.”

For the award-winners, however, the recognition certainly doesn’t hurt: “I’ve done a lot of the research, but the writing needs the fellowship,” said Gigante. “I needed to have this award. The timing seems perfect.”

For Smith, now working on a memoir, the birthday bash was even bigger than she had planned. “A lot of champagne was involved,” said Smith. “It was put to good use, very quickly.”

What will Di Piero do with all the money? “Of course the first thing that came to mind a really hot, fast car.  I don’t own one, so if I’m going to buy one, I should get serious.”

“But in order to buy a car, I need a parking space, and to have a parking space, I should buy a house. And even the Lilly prize doesn’t go far enough to buy a house in San Francisco.”