Reviewing the Review: May 11 2008

History Poetry
Jonathan Miles contributes the Shaken and Stirred column to the Sunday Styles section of The Times. His novel, “Dear American Airlines,” will be published in June.

Who better than the Shaken and Stirred columnist for the Sunday Styles section of the Times to review a book about Robert Frost? I can't imagine why the New York Times Book Review would have chosen this critic for Fall of Frost, an impressionistic novel by Brian Hall that imagines details in the life of the poet, though of course I'd happily concur if Jonathan Miles had shown any sensitivity towards either the novel's goals or its achievements. But the review is a straight-up hatchet job, mocking Hall for creating scenes where the poet Frost encounters forks in roads or walls that need mending. It's a strange critique, since readers who choose a novel that imagines the life of Robert Frost would likely be disappointed if the novelist didn't bother to speculate about the origins of the poet's best-known works. Miles clearly has no sympathy for the very idea of a novelization about the life of Robert Frost, which leads me to ask again, why was Jonathan Miles considered the right choice to review this book?

One simply wonders about these things. We're on much better poetic footing when David Orr digs into Helen Vendler's analytical study Our Secret Discipline: Yeats and Lyric Form. I've had problems with David Orr in the past, and, yes, he once again gets off to a bad start with an opening sentence that exaggerates for effect but states a clear untruth:

The critic is the only artist who depends entirely upon another art form, which means that part of his job is to determine the nature of the relationship.

Tell that to Chip Kidd, or Lorenz Hart, or Bob Fosse, or any art museum curator or Hollywood costume designer or ... must I go on? But Orr's article improves greatly after the first sentence. He enjoys Vendler's book, though more for the ride than for the destination, since he demonstrates that her logical findings are more likely the result than the cause of her aesthetic reactions. I like the close analysis he performs on one of her suppositions, and I like it that he bravely provides his own (doggerel) poem to make his case (though little harm is done to Vendler's book in the process).

There are several good fiction reviews here: Ben Macintyre on Richard Bausch's Peace, Maggie Scarf on Andrew Sean Greer's The Story of a Marriage, Penelope Green on Meg Wolitzer's Ten Year Nap, Bruce Barcott on Louise Erdrich's The Plague of Doves. I'm less impressed by David Leavitt's thoughts on William Styron's essay collection Havanas in Camelot (Leavitt faults Styron for failing to mention James Baldwin's homosexuality, which makes me think Leavitt must have been struggling to find anything at all to say about this book) or Rachel Donadio's endpaper about the highbrow critical reaction to the Beat Generation in 1958, which reads like a page in a dull textbook.

And then there's the cover article: conservative columnist George Will on Nixonland, a history book by Rick Perlstein. Perlstein's thesis is that Nixon's presidency defined the cultural division between "left" and "right" that still drives American politics today. The very mention of Richard Nixon, though, seems to set George Will off on a tear (like many other conservatives today, Will seems to subscribe to the simple historical mantra "Nixon bad, Reagan good"). His article sets Perlstein's thesis aside, focusing instead on Will's own ideas regarding Nixon and the Vietnam War era. The results are highly questionable, and I'd like to take a cue from David Orr and subject George Will's article to my own close analysis.

First, it's clear that Will has many things on his mind here, all of them predating Rick Perlstein's book. Take the fourth paragraph in this article, which talks about Barry Goldwater, James Reston, Richard Hofstadter and Daniel Bell. Where did Rick Perlstein go? Where did Richard Nixon go? Will is apparently still fighting a battle with historian Richard Hofstadter, though only a tiny fraction of NYTBR readers will care.

When George Will gets around to reviewing Rick Perlstein, it's mainly to make fun of his purplish prose, which does (to be fair) seem a bit excessive. Will quotes many of Perlstein's unfortunate sentences, but smacks himself with his own shovel when he quotes Truman Capote's already incredibly over-quoted insult to Jack Kerouac ("that's not writing, that is typing"). Can George Will actually not know that this line is beyond stale? Even Rachel Donadio knew better, in her article about the Beats, than to serve up this well-worn insult.

George Will factual claims in this article are also weak. This is ironic because his factual claims are meant to discredit Perlstein's factual claims, but repeatedly fail to do so:

Perlstein says that before the Kent State violence, "citizens were thrilled to see the tanks and jeeps rumbling through town." There were no tanks there.

That's interesting, since the definitive history book on the 1970 Kent State shootings, Kent State by James Michener, contains a sub-chapter titled "A Rumble of Tanks" which describes the National Guard's troop carriers -- "big, lumbering, ominous" -- rolling through town. Technically, Will is correct that these troop carriers did not amount to the arrival of a panzer division, but Michener does make it clear that observers believed they were seeing tanks, which is exactly what Perlstein repeats.

Will attempts a similar sleight of hand here:

For example, Perlstein writes about some military policemen in 1969 wondering why they were on 24-hour alert at an airbase in New Jersey: "A team of soldiers stood guard around two B-52s. Their pilots sat in the ready room carrying guns. An M.P. madly scanned the newspaper in vain for some international crisis. He knew what it meant when B-52 co-pilots started carrying sidearms. It was for one co-pilot to shoot the other if he was too chicken to follow orders and drop the big one."

Well. Leaving aside the adolescent language ("chicken," "the big one"), perhaps there really was a madly scanning M.P., but an Air Force historian laughed when asked about the idea that crews carried guns aimed, so to speak, at one another.

Well. An Air Force historian laughed -- so what? That doesn't mean what Perlstein said is not true. Furthermore, what exactly is an "Air Force historian"? If this refers to an official representative of the US Air Force, then George Will's judgment in consulting this source for a candid answer is more laughable than anything else here.

I've said before that the New York Times Book Review really needs to move past the hoary typewriter warriors of the William F. Buckley generation when it assigns reviewers for political books. George Will reached his creative peak during the Reagan presidency, as far as I can tell, and the problem with assigning reviews to old battle-axes like George Will -- or Leon Wieseltier, or Christopher Hitchens, or Henry Kissinger -- is that these writers show up carrying so much baggage that the books they review barely stand a chance. When George Will or Leon Wieseltier or Christopher Hitchens or Henry Kissinger reviews a book, it's invariably all about George Will or Leon Wieseltier or Christopher Hitchens or Henry Kissinger. This may play well in the New York Times executive offices, but it's not what NYTBR readers want or enjoy.

We want newer, more ideologically diverse political voices (Samantha Power, a year ago, was a rare step in the right direction). Today's Book Review also includes an article by Josef Joffe on Fareed Zakaria's The Post-American World that summarizes the USA's current problems:

There is certainly plenty to bemoan -- from the disappearing dollar to the subprime disaster, from rampant anti-Americanism to wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that will take years to win.

"That will take years to win"? It's a subtle point, but language like this shows just how deeply the NYTBR's editorial leadership has isolated itself in a neo-conservative bubble. Most Americans have long ago stopped thinking about the Iraq or Afghanistan wars in the illusory terms of "victory". We yearn instead for an administration that understands the power of diplomacy.
This article is part of the series Reviewing the New York Times Book Review. The next post in the series is Reviewing the Review: May 18 2008. The previous post in the series is Reviewing the Review: May 4 2008.
12 Responses to "Reviewing the Review: May 11 2008"

I've seen tanks in the street - Rome '77 Aldo Mora, Italian vice-presiden, killed by the Red Brigade. And an earthquake, rumbling, ground shaking - no, the tank brigade mobilizing at the base in Aviano. And I've seen troop carriers, all my life in the US; soldiers scurrying hither and yon. For what? Bottom line, people are stupid. We need to educate them. George Will? He's the leader of the stupid; blood is money to him. Don't doubt that for a second.

It's a very sharp and deftly deployed needle, Levi, that you used to puncture the pompous windbag otherwise known as George Will.

For the record, it's Nixon bad, Reagan worse, Bush (fils) the ultimate evil. Its like a series of horror movies, each one more terrifying than the next.

While there may be some truth to Perlstein's Nixon theory, keep in mind that Nixon worked harder than anyone to end the Vietnam war. From 1968 onward, Nixon repeatedly said he wanted to "end the war and win the peace in Vietnam." He pushed for the peace agreement of January 27, 1973, and had it not been for Watergate, Nixon would have been President when the Vietnam war finally ended in 1975.

Also, according to Marvin Olasky's book The Tragedy of American Compassion, more programs to help the poor were funded and carried out under Nixon than under Kennedy or Johnson.

I'm not excusing Nixon for Watergate. I'm just saying.

Bill, of course I haven't shared my own thoughts about Richard Nixon here -- that's something that will take me a while to express (he's a fascinating, very complex subject).

I do think there is a growing tendency among modern Republicans to totally "disown" him, though -- a conservative friend of mine speaks of Nixon in the same tone as George Will does here. Interestingly, Watergate is not considered his biggest crime, according to this meme -- rather, it's his "liberal" economic policy (price controls, etc.) and his now increasingly questionable China policy that earns him strong conservative dislike. Like I said, the mantra goes "Nixon bad, Reagan good". It's not my mantra, but I hear it more and more.

Until I saw Oliver Stone's film Nixon, I had always thought of him as the cynical amoral Tricky Dick. At the end of the film Nixon, there is an afterword where Nixon is credited for OSHA, the Clean Water Act and other environmental legislation andmuch civil rights legislation.

After Nixon's fall from grace, he authored many books.

Give Reagan his due: he is responsible for our current state of affairs. The American on the street is also guilty for failing to participate more in the system.

"To me, the worst thing about Nixon is that, apparently, he was willing to screw up the lives and reputations of his opponents if he couldn’t beat them any other way"

Dude, this is the credo of the Republican Party! Let's talk Swift Boat! Let's talk about Reagan's manipulation of the Iran Hostage affair to make Jimmy Carter look bad! Let's talk about the Republif*cks hiring a special prosecutor to go after the Clintons until, after years of dredging up stuff, they finally found Monica Lewinski. Let's talk about stolen votes in Florida during the shameful stealing of the election by Bush fils. These people are not politicians, they are criminals. Yeah, Nixon was actually a liberal, but he got caught. The rest of them learned from his mistakes. I've said this before, if there is a god or a God, a Republif*ck will not be elected president for the next 100 years.

Good points, Michael. Good points.

It's terribly sad that while Nixon was outwardly doing some good things, he was secretly doing some reprehensible things.

by Jym on

Let's not give Nixon too much credit, a lot of the things that came into being during the Nixon administration were forced upon it by ideas spreading out of the 60's. If there was no anti-war movement would Nixon have wnated to bring an end to it (lets remember his anti-communist origins), if there was no ecological movement would he have signed the clean air act? The Endangered Species act?

Nixon wrote books before becoming President also.

by Duncan Brown on

Despite his faults.and they were many, Richard Nixon is the only president since WW2 to fully comprehend the fact that the USA lacks a coherent forign policy. A situation he tried to remedy, before the fall.
The USA is an arrogant upstart, admittedly possessed of a brilliant arrogance, on the world stage
The worlds needs America, and it would be lovely if Amerca knew it needs the world. These are not times for introspection.

Brian Hall was a college classmate of mine, though I knew him only slightly. I haven't looked at his novel on Frost, but I thought his novel on Lewis and Clark (I Should Be Extremely Happy in Your Company) was excellent. I read it after reading the Lewis and Clark diaries and thought he filled in the blanks well while keeping the essence of the story and the personalities. (The diaries should be read with the original spelling retained, by the way. It's not only fascinating to see how many ways William Clark can spell Sioux -- none of them we way we do today -- but you may conclude, as I did, that his writing had more vigor and juice than that of the better-educated Lewis.)