All posts filed under: Literature

Identity and the Self in ‘Hamlet’

“Who’s there?” These are the two words that begin Shakespeare’s Hamlet. It is primarily this question, and not “To be or not to be?” with which Hamlet wrestles throughout the play. The two words are spoken from one soldier to another; Elsinore’s castle guards are on the midnight shift, and on the face of it, the words simply set the stage for the time and place. (Shakespeare’s theatre had limited technology for special effects and set pieces, so atmosphere had to be invoked entirely with words.) But on another level, one that Shakespeare clearly intended, the question is an existential one, as is the more confounding response of the other watchman: “Nay, answer me. Stand, and unfold yourself.” This call-and-response poses a number of questions. Who are other people? How can we know that what others reveal to us is the real them? How do I “unfold” myself to others? Who am I, under my “folds”? Am I what I show others? Something deep within? Is my identity a series of socially constructed layers? Or …

James Baldwin and the Trouble with Protest Literature

“The hardest thing in the world to do,” wrote Ernest Hemingway in a 1934 article for Esquire, “is to write straight honest prose on human beings. First you have to know the subject; then you have to know how to write. Both take a lifetime to learn and anybody is cheating who takes politics as a way out.” Of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, he quipped, “see how you will have to skip the big Political Thought passages, that he undoubtedly thought were the best things in the book when he wrote it, because they are no longer either true or important, if they ever were more than topical, and see how true and lasting and important the people and the action are.” Hemingway was not discounting the political, merely clarifying its relationship to literature. “Books should be about the people you know, that you love and hate, not about the people you study up about. If you write them truly they will have all the economic implications a book can hold.” Be it a piece …

Interrogating Jane

Jane Austen, beloved English novelist of the Regency period, is now embroiled in the custody wars over the history and legacy of the British Empire. The Daily Telegraph has reported that the Jane Austen House Museum in Chawton, Hampshire, is planning an “historical interrogation” of the Austen family’s connections to slavery and colonialism. Museum director Lizzie Dunford pointed out that the Austens consumed tea, sugar, and cotton, all of which were the products of Empire. One of the potential new exhibits is entitled “Black Lives Matter to Jane Austen.” Unsurprisingly, some Austen fans rejected this idea as decisively as Lizzie Bennet turning down a marriage proposal. During an interview about the row on TalkRadio, Welsh comedian Abi Roberts spoke for many appalled Austen fans when she declared that the museum’s curators had “gone completely bonkers.” “My father was a life-long lover of tea,” wrote one reader in a representative letter to the Telegraph‘s editor. “In addition, he spent four years in Burma and India, albeit as a private in the army … can anyone advise …

Fifty Years of Fear and Loathing

On March 21st, 1971, Hunter S. Thompson and Oscar Zeta Acosta arrived in Las Vegas to cover the Mint 400 desert rally for Sports Illustrated. Asked to write a 500-word summary of the race to accompany a photograph, Thompson annoyed his editors when he turned in thousands of words about his escapades in the city of sin, with barely a mention of the race itself. This bizarre piece of writing ultimately became Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, one of the most important but misunderstood novels of the 20th century. In 1971, Hunter S. Thompson was at the peak of his literary powers but not yet a household name. His first book, Hell’s Angels, had been published to widespread acclaim just five years earlier, and in 1970, he had stumbled upon a great literary breakthrough with an essay entitled “The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved,” a piece of writing so unique that it created a new literary genre that came to be known as “Gonzo journalism.” As the star writer for Rolling Stone, Thompson …

We Can Revisit (And Even Replace) the Classic Books We Teach Children—Without Cancelling Them

Earlier this month, Dr. Seuss Enterprises announced it would stop publishing six Dr. Seuss titles because they included several drawings with racial stereotypes. As the press release put it, “These books portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong. Ceasing sales of these books is only part of our commitment and our broader plan to ensure Dr. Seuss Enterprises’ catalog represents and supports all communities and families.” The New York Times published opposing responses. Columnist Charles M. Blow celebrated the news, linking the books to the racist stereotypes in Tarzan and Our Gang that had damaged his self-esteem growing up. He argued that these images should be weeded out because they lead children to internalize a sense of inferiority. His conservative counterpart Ross Douthat, on the other hand, described the decision as evidence that companies are abandoning free-speech principles in order to protect their image from progressive attacks. This self-censorship has frightening implications as they have unfettered control over major cultural franchises and landmarks. As one might imagine, Fox News was less restrained. Tucker …

Before ‘Groundhog Day’: The Time-Loop Novel that Started It All

On March 4th, the Ringer, a website that covers pop culture, featured an article entitled “We’re in a Time Loop of Time-Loop Movies.” Similar articles have appeared in many other pop-culture venues of late. Suddenly, time-loop stories seem to be everywhere. This month Hulu began streaming director Joe Carnahan’s new sci-fi action film Boss Level, the tale of a soldier in the near future who wakes up every morning only to relive the day of his death. Carnahan has described the film as “Groundhog Day as an action movie.” A few weeks before the release of Boss Level, Amazon Prime released director Ian Samuels’s film The Map of Tiny Perfect Things, which could be described as Groundhog Day as a teenage romance. Last July, Hulu released director Max Barbakow’s film Palm Springs, a time-loop story starring Andy Samberg, Cristin Milioti, and J.K. Simmons. The film is both a romance and an action film. It’s no surprise that time-loop stories seem suddenly relevant to many pop-culture consumers. Because of the coronavirus pandemic and the various quarantines …

Against Dilettantes

“Welcome to the country of amateurs,” a good friend said when I first arrived in England. That was 20 years ago and, now that I’ve had time to think about it, my friend stands corrected. He should have said, “Welcome to the country of dilettantes.” Because there is a difference, you see. While both species belong to the verminous family of the overambitious and the under-qualified, an amateur poses a lower environmental threat. Aware of his limitations, he keeps a certain distance from his subject and treats it with respect. A dilettante, regrettably, does no such thing. Instead, a dilettante dabbles. In anything, everything, trying his hand at things he is not remotely qualified to do. A fellow with no linguistic training writes a book on the English language. Another fellow with no literary training writes a book of literary criticism. Hacks of every genre, from lifestyle to cookery, opine on politics and economics. I meet a lot of publishers. Where I come from, an average publisher has a postgraduate degree in philology and a …

Oscar Wilde’s Utopia

Not that I love thy children, whose dull eyes See nothing save their own unlovely woe, Whose minds know nothing, nothing care to know,— This is the opening verse of Oscar Wilde’s “Sonnet to Liberty.” Beyond its apparent cynicism, it elegantly encapsulates the acute miseries of youth—solipsistic, impatient, devoid of knowledge, and desperate for change. Published when Wilde was 27, the poem already bears the traits of his signature style: the lyric brevity, the cool aloofness, the effete fatigue, which is swept up by passion—“But that roar of thy Democracies… thy great Anarchies… give my rage a brother—!Liberty!”—only to settle on a note of human solidarity: and yet, and yet, These Christs that die upon the barricades, God knows it I am with them, in some things. This captures the torpor of a much older man, unable to summon the revolutionary energy himself, but not yet jaded enough to dismiss the effort. Though the poem seems to end with a shrug, its compassion stems from the fact that Wilde despised the aristocracy’s treatment of the …

Why We Should Read Martin Amis

Written after his father’s passing, Martin Amis’s memoir Experience highlighted my project in the first chapter in the second footnote: When you review a film, or appraise a film-director, you do not make a ten-minute short about it or him (or her). When you write about a painter, you do not produce a sketch. When you write about a composer, you do not reach for your violin. And even when a poet is under consideration, the reviewer or profilist does not (unless deeply committed to presumption and tedium) produce a poem. But when you write about a novelist, an exponent of prose narrative, then you write a prose narrative. So, when a reviewer drafts a poor review, he or she is subject to the following question, “And was that the extent of your hopes for your prose—bookchat, interviews, gossip?” Answering his own question, Amis writes, “Valued reader, it is not for me to say this is envy. It is for you to say that this is envy.” Amis is a British novelist and essayist, who, …

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 …