Author: Kevin Mims

Ray Russell’s Incubus: A Lost Gem from America’s Twentieth Decade

Hard as it might be to believe, the years that stretched from roughly 1967 through the bicentennial year of 1976 brought even more foment, outrage, unrest, and upheaval to America than the most recent decade has managed. The escalation of the Vietnam War, the student protests against that war, the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., psychedelia and the sexual revolution, Woodstock, the political resurrection of Richard Nixon, the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, the moon landings, the Manson murders, second-wave feminism, the Pentagon Papers, the shootings at Kent State, Watergate, the fall of Nixon, the rise of the summer blockbuster film—it was an era of almost unprecedented social and cultural turmoil. Perhaps that explains why so many remain fascinated by that era today. All sorts of recent cultural properties have revisited it: the 2020 Amazon Prime TV series Hunters (set in 1970s New York City and starring 1970s icon Al Pacino), How Can You Mend a Broken Heart (the recent HBO documentary about the Bee Gees), Emma Cline’s 2016 novel The …

Journalism’s Ivory Towers

In a recent essay entitled “The Resentment That Never Sleeps,” New York Times columnist Thomas B. Edsall explains how a lowering of social status among non-college-educated white Americans has increased that demographic’s anxiety and helped fuel the populism that made possible Donald Trump’s rise to the presidency. Reporters at many of America’s most prestigious journalistic outlets have echoed these sentiments. But none of those reporters ever seems willing to acknowledge their own complicity in the situation. Plenty of jobs that once used to require no university degree or special certification now do. According to a report by the National Conference of State Legislatures, the number of American jobs requiring state certification has risen from one in 20 60 years ago to one in four today. Technically, journalists do not require a university degree in order to practice their trade. Practically speaking, however, they do. No-one who writes for the New York Times, the Atlantic, the New Yorker, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, or any other major US journalistic venue lacks a college degree. …

The Hustler and the Queen

NOTE: This essay contains spoilers. The surprise success of the Netflix miniseries The Queen’s Gambit has brought me a great deal of delight—I’m a longtime fan of both the novel and its author, Walter Tevis. Just this summer, I wrote an essay about all the great American popular novels I wish I’d written myself, and the first book I mentioned was Tevis’s 1959 masterpiece The Hustler. But while The Hustler may be Tevis’s best book, The Queen’s Gambit has always been my favorite. I’ve never been anything but an incompetent at the pool table, but for a brief shining hour I was a chess prodigy. In July of 1968, a few weeks before my 10th birthday, I competed in a state chess tournament at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, in my hometown of Portland, Oregon, and won the prize for Best Fourth-Grade Boy. This triumph—my first and only triumph at anything—survives online in the archives of Northwest Chess magazine. Usually when a high-profile film or TV series is adapted from the work of …

Farewell, Alex Trebek

On Friday, November 6th, between 1 and 2pm Pacific Daylight Time, I participated in an audition for the TV game-show Jeopardy!. Normally auditions are conducted in person at various regional locations around the US. As a Northern Californian, I should have been attending a live audition in San Francisco. But COVID and the quarantine have played havoc with everything this year, and the King of American Game-Shows is no exception. And so, along with eight other hopefuls, I was auditioned via a Zoom call from Southern California by John Barra, the show’s contestant producer. He informed us that, since the onset of the pandemic, roughly 237,000 people had applied online to be Jeopardy! contestants. The show selects about 400 contestants each year. This was in fact the second Zoom conference call in which I had participated with the producers of Jeopardy!. On September 2nd, I participated in a sort of pre-audition meet-and-greet with seven other potential contestants and a different producer, whose name I’ve forgotten. By the end of the November 6th audition, the nine …

Corruption and Remorse—The Novels of a Watergate Conspirator

As an avid reader of pop fiction, I’m more partial to the Nixon administration than any other White House. The Reagan years may have produced more crooks, and the Trump years may have produced more chaos, but there is one measure by which the criminal and criminal-adjacent members of the Nixon White House were far more productive: they produced a hell of a lot more novels. In May 1976, disgraced vice president Spiro Agnew published his first and only novel, The Canfield Decision, about a sitting US vice president pondering his own run for the White House. This was followed in January 1977 by a political thriller entitled Full Disclosure from Nixon and Agnew’s former speechwriter William Safire. Safire would go on to write three more novels—Freedom (a massive Civil War epic), Sleeper Spy (an espionage thriller), and Scandalmonger (about muckraking journalists in the age of Thomas Jefferson). G. Gordon Liddy, one of the masterminds of the Watergate break-in who served 52 months behind bars before the balance of his sentence was commuted by President …

Barney Rosset and the Unending Struggle to Read Freely

It is by now a familiar truism that the Internet—and social media, in particular—has awarded the intolerant, the narrow-minded, and the censorious unprecedented power. To this challenge from below, publishers have, by and large, responded with dismaying timidity. Large multinational publishing firms have hastily withdrawn controversial titles and it has become distressingly common to read apologies issued to those vilifying their authors from the blogosphere, along with undertakings to “listen” and “do better” in the future. With these regrettable circumstances in mind, it is worth recalling the life, career, and example of renegade American publisher Barney Rosset. During the 1950s and 1960s, Rosset turned a tiny publishing company named Grove Press into one of America’s most provocative and effective instruments of free expression. He published some of the most controversial books of the 20th century and he never apologized for anything. In 1968, his offices were firebombed by anti-Castro Cuban reserve officers in the American Air Force because he had published excerpts from Che Guevara’s diaries in Grove’s magazine, the Evergreen Review. The same year, …

Warehouse Work in an Age of Contagion

As regular readers of Quillette will know, I work at a warehouse in West Sacramento, California, where every workday I toil in close quarters with dozens of other employees. In the days before the advent of the novel coronavirus pandemic, that wasn’t a problem. Now, however, it’s a little bit frightening. Last week, along with all other members of the company’s workforce, I received an email informing me that a supplier of surgical masks for all warehouse workers hasn’t yet been found. In the meantime, employees are improvising. People are covering their faces with bandanas, like stagecoach bandits in the Old West. Others are wearing ski masks, like contemporary bank robbers. Some wear scarves around their faces, even though the weather is fairly warm now. And some have even managed to procure actual facemasks. But most of the employees, like me, work uncovered. Although we are encouraged to stay six feet away from each other at all times, that isn’t really practical. We’re all hauling bags and packages out of narrow aisles and it isn’t …

The Decline of the Great American Family Saga

In February, the Atlantic published a much discussed essay by David Brooks entitled “The Nuclear Family Was a Mistake.” Brooks noted that the conditions that once made nuclear families viable—strong unions, plenty of jobs that paid living wages, inexpensive housing and transportation and education costs, stay-at-home mothers, high numbers of churchgoers—were products of a very brief window of time that only lasted from about 1950 until about 1965. For centuries prior to that, Americans tended to divide themselves into extended families, vast networks of grandparents, aunts, uncles, and other relatives, all of whom remained connected to one another by some sort of family enterprise. Here’s how Brooks sums up the extended American family: In 1800, three-quarters of American workers were farmers. Most of the other quarter worked in small family businesses, like dry-goods stores. People needed a lot of labor to run these enterprises. It was not uncommon for married couples to have seven or eight children. In addition, there might be stray aunts, uncles, and cousins, as well as unrelated servants, apprentices, and farmhands…Extended …

The National Book Foundation Defines Diversity Down

Last month the Huffington Post published an essay by Claire Fallon entitled “Was this Decade the Beginning of the End of the Great White Male Writer?” Fallon celebrated the notion that white men are losing their prominence in contemporary American literature and that the best books being published in America today are being written by a wider variety of authors than ever before: “What was once insular is now unifying,” National Book Foundation director Lisa Lucas told the crowd at the 2019 National Book Awards Gala, where the fiction, nonfiction, and poetry honors all went to writers of color. “What was once exclusive is now inclusive.” Lucas took over the foundation in 2016, at a time when the high-profile awards had a somewhat checkered record with representation. Though historically the honorees had skewed heavily white and male, that began to change around 2010. (However, there had been some other recent embarrassments, like 2014 host Daniel Handler’s racist jokes following author Jacqueline Woodson’s win for “Brown Girl Dreaming.”) Lucas, the first woman and person of color …

‘White Christmas’ and the Triumphs of the Greatest Generation

Michael Curtiz’s 1954 classic White Christmas is so popular that it generates new think-pieces every time the holiday season rolls around. Last year, the New York Times republished its own original review of the film, in which the late Bosley Crowther panned the movie. Other pieces in other places discussed Vera-Ellen’s alleged bulimia, the fact that her neck is covered throughout the film, the rumor that Bob Fosse was an uncredited choreographer on the film, and the many continuity errors. The film has been called a romantic comedy, a buddy picture (or “bromance”), a musical, and a holiday film. Curiously, I’ve never seen it listed in the war genre, which is the category in which it really belongs. For all its holly and ivy and hot-buttered rum, White Christmas is as much about World War II as Edward Dmytryk’s The Caine Mutiny (both films were among the five highest grossing movies of 1954) or Casablanca (released in 1942, and which Curtiz also directed). It opens in war-torn Italy on Christmas Eve, 1944. Bing Crosby plays …