14 of 15 people found the following review helpful
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Menand, Louis, American Studies. New York: FSG, 2002.
The topics covered by this uneven group of essays run from Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., to Larry Flynt and Jerry Falwell. Menand also has things to say about William James, T.S. Eliot, The New Yorker, Bill Paley of CBS, Pauline Kael, Christopher Lasch, Maya Lin, and "the mind of" Al Gore. Although I did a good deal of underlining--a lot of it trying to make sense of his comments about Christopher Lasch's philosophy against liberalism--there is something about Menand's conclusory style that is off-putting, as though his opinions are the only valid ones. For example, he claims that Justice Holmes "was utterly, sometimes fantastically, indifferent to the real-world effects of his decisions," citing the infamous "stop-look-and-listen" ruling concerning automobiles at train intersections. I think there is plenty of evidence otherwise, and I'm reminded of the famous "yelling 'fire' in a crowded theater" opinion in Lochner v. U.S.
At his best, Menand can summarize a view in very few, well chosen words: "It is easy to appreciate [Maya Lin's] works as environmental installations....natural materials shaped in topological contours. It takes a little longer to see that they are also refinements on destruction...the Vietnam Memorial is made by repairing a large gash in the earth." He also reminds us of things important to remember: that Al Gore wrote his senior thesis at Harvard on the impact of television on the presidency, concluding that "because television loves one face over many faces its effect has been to increase the president's political power at the expense of Congress's."
I had also forgotten that during the 1992 campaign Bush Number I "tried to make it seem that Clinton was a traitor because he had gone to Moscow as a student in1969." This month marks the 50th anniversary of the famous statement by Joseph Welch in "Army vs McCarthy"--"Have you no decency, sir?" I remember it as a two-liner, the second being "Have you no sense of shame?" Clinton in Moscow was a campaign issue in 1992!
The most startling conclusion reached by Menand is that Larry Flynt and Jerry Falwell really were on the same mission: to put the shame back into sex. The readers of Hustler Magazine also turn out to be members of Falwell's Moral Majority that claimed to have put Ronald Reagan into the White House. The chain of 7-Eleven stores sold 20% of all issues of Playboy, leading Menand to conclude that Falwell's TV audience of alienated lower class men was remarkably similar to the profile of the Hustler audience. When the Jim Bakker sex scandal brought him down during the anti-porn campaigns of the 80s, and 7-Eleven took Hustler and Playboy off its racks, it marked the demise of the culture of anything goes sexuality coincidental with the demise of the culture of televangelism. Mighty interesting.
Menand reviewed Eats, Shoots & Leaves in the New Yorker of 6/28/04, doing a carefully worded dismemberment of that sloppily written "punctuation text" written by a former sports columnist in caffeinated prose. He included an interesting digression about speaking versus writing: "The uncertainty about what it means for writing to have a voice arises from the metaphor itself. . . .As a medium, writing is a million times weaker than speech. . . .[C]hattiness, slanginess, in-your-face-ness, and any other features of writing that are conventionally characterized as "like speech" are usually the results of laborious experimentation, revision, calibration, walks around the block unnecessary phone calls, and recalibration. . . .Writers are not mere copyists of language; they are polishers, embellishers, perfecters. . . .Does this mean that the written "voice" is never spontaneous and natural but always an artificial construction of language? This is not a proposition that most writers could accept. The act of writing is personal; it feels personal. . . . Composition is a troublesome, balky, sometimes sleep-depriving business. What makes it especially so is that the rate of production is beyond the writer's control. You have to wait, and what you are waiting for is something inside you to come up with the words. That something, for writers, is the voice. . . .What writers hear when they are trying to write is something more like singing than like speaking. Inside your head, you're yakking away to yourself all the time. Getting that voice down on paper is a depressing experience. When you write, you're trying to transpose what you're thinking into something that is less like an annoying drone and more like a piece of music. This writing voice is the voice that people are surprised not to encounter when they "meet the writer." The writer is not so surprised." . . .Some writers, when they begin a new piece, spend hours re-reading their old stuff, trying to remember how they did it, what it's supposed to sound like. This rarely works; nothing works reliably. . . . Sooner or later . . . the voice shows up, . . . and walks onstage."
32 of 47 people found the following review helpful
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Collections of essays by intelligent, thoughtful people are always fun, or should be. But this is not the feeling one gets on reading this collection of essays by Louis Menand. This book is a reprint of essays that have appeared in such worthy journals as The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, and the New Republic. We start with essays on William James and Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. Then we discuss T.S. Eliot's anti-semitism, Richard Wright and James Conant, as well as the New Yorker, and modern television. We read essays criticizing Pauline Kael and Christopher Lasch, a deflation of Larry Flynt, a look at the mind of Al Gore, and finally a piece on Vietnam War Memorial architect Maya Lin.
Yet compared to works by such other New Yorker and NYRB alumni such as Joan Didion, Renata Adler, and Anthony Lane, this book is a rather bloodless work. People who have read Menand in the past will regret the absence of his deflation of Camille Paglia, or his critical review of "Saving Private Ryan," as well as his dissections of such movies as "Independence Day," and "The Wings of the Dove." But the problem is not simply selection. In his informative essay on Lin he notes her view that one reason that her work is so emotionally effective is that she herself maintained her emotional detachment, and her apolitical views.
This view seems to have infected Menand's prose, with disappointing results. On the one hand Menand's review of Pauline Kael is not as memorable as Adler's ruthless polemic against her. (He writes that her reviews were not really "rereadable." Sometimes, sometimes not. Nor true, in my view, of her reviews of "A Clockwork Orange," or "The Godfather, Part Two.") His essay on television is much more complacent than Mark Crispin Miller. On the other hand his critical review of Christopher Lasch's "The True and Only Heaven," is not as acute as Stephen Holmes, or as informative as Jackson Lears' eulogy. But what is really problematic is something else. "The True and Only Heaven," is a deeply flawed book, but at least Lasch cared deeply about American democracy and its problems. At least Kael had a deep admiration for movies, and a genuine sense of disgust and anger at the way studios betray them. Menand not only does not share the same feelings, he does not really seem to care. There is little sense of intensity and passion, just a sense of superiority over a woman who should care so much about something as unimportant as popular movies.
Consider also the essay on Larry Flynt and Jerry Falwell. This is the sort of essay Bill Clinton would write on the topic if he were not an adulterer. There is criticism of both sides, and like much centrist rhetoric seeks to find an affinity between both "extremes." After all, lower class white male Southerners are both consumers of "Hustler" and evangelical Christians. True, but then so are many other sectors of the American population. And consider his essay on Al Gore. There are some subtle criticisms of Gore's stiffness and sententiousness. But there is no real feeling that a politician seeking to be the most powerful man on earth should show real imagination and vision. Perhaps one should move to the left of the Clinton-Gore consensus, but not too much more. One is reminded of a Feiffer cartoon from the 1960s, in which a "responsible" critic of the Vietnam War carries a sign requesting "A Little Less Bombing."
Isn't there anything he really likes? Menand's book on American pragmatism worked on the idea that pragmatism was a salutary reaction to the dogmatism of abolitionism. Such a view, as Lee Siegel has pointed out, works best if one believes that Americans did too much to free the slaves, and that African-Americans had no claim on their countrymen's conscience after 1876. Consider the way Menand dismisses the idea that Holmes had any kind of coherent politics, or his view that racism is simply an atavism due to dissolve in the course of modernization. "The evil of modern society isn't that it creates racism but that it creates conditions in which people who don't suffer from injustice seem incapable of caring very much about people who do." Read this again carefully. Is there nothing "modern" about racism? Is callousness a recent development? Menand has criticized in the past post-structuralists and Critical Legal Studies, but at least these people were not guilty of that sort of banality. On the plus side, the essay on T.S. Eliot's anti-semitism is quite useful, and includes the fact that Eliot compared the notorious anti-Semite Charles Maurras to Virgil in an article published after Maurras' conviction for collaboration with the Nazis. There are some useful comments about the New Yorker style, and some interesting comments on the development of the technology of television. Also, he likes Laurie Anderson.