Book Talk: Free at Last! — From Conning Leaves

A few years after I began editing CUNY Matters, in the spring 1996 issue, I ran my first book feature, an excerpt from Steinway and sons by the director of the LaGuardia and Wagner Archives (the piano-maker’s papers are housed there). I liked my title: “A Fine Way.” Since then I have curated more than 100 features on books by CUNY-affiliated authors — most of them by faculty but also a few by alumni and students.

Sometimes I published excerpts. Occasionally I interviewed an author: 91-year-old Joe Machlis, the Queens musicologist and author of the famous Music 1 text The Enjoyment of Music, for example, or Blanche Wiesen Cook, the eminent John Jay College biographer of Eleanor Roosevelt … hey, Blanche, my patient wait for the third and final volume must end now!  Mostly I aimed at capturing authorial purposes and pointing out the most arresting highlights or insights of a book under view.

Gary Schmidgall, with bronze bust of poet Walt Whitman at Bronx Community College’s Hall of Fame of Great Americans

Gary Schmidgall, with bronze bust of poet Walt Whitman at Bronx Community College’s Hall of Fame of Great Americans

But this will be my valedictory book feature. In his late poem “A Clear Midnight” Walt Whitman fantasized about a “flight into the wordless,/Away from books, away from art, the day erased, the lesson done.” Nearing retirement, I’m feeling the same way. This gig has been almost entirely a pleasure and a wonderful learning experience, but this feels like a good time to vamoose. I have published a few books of my own during my CUNY Matters tenure, and BookTalk has quite properly ignored them. But now, as I leave the building, I have decided to throw editorial modesty to the winds and feature my own new book. Before I get down to tooting my own horn, however, let me cast a look back and say something about how I chose from the several hundred books by authors in the CUNY family over the last two decades.

I’ve always called my articles features rather than reviews because it is impolite to dis “family” in public. I have never kakutanied an author (Gore Vidal coined that verb in honor of The New York Times’ often ferocious reviewer Michiko Kakutani). “If you can’t say something nice …” has been my motto; books that I have been tempted to throw at the wall — and I’m happy to say there were just a couple — I wrapped in silence. In one case, I slipped up and flashed my canines a few times. When an email arrived from the author afterward, I opened it with dread — only to be stunned by a compliment on my careful, fair reading of the book. By the way, this was the sole instance of an author communicating with me after a feature appeared, so I guess I succeeded in going for benign.

Many a scholarly tome is written by specialists for other specialists, and more power to such studies. But, as George Bernard Shaw said, every profession is a conspiracy against the laity, and when I could see no ready access to a book for the literate layman, I passed over it. I was also chary of the hard sciences, but I did tackle Grad Center physicist Michio Kaku’s Physics of the Impossible; though he is known as layman-friendly, it still hurt my very soft-sciences head. On the other hand, a god-send for us laypeople was Massimo Pigliucci’s droll Nonsense on Stilts: How to Tell Science from Bunk. Maybe because I am not much of a reader of fiction, I pretty much avoided creative writing — maybe my successor(s) will be braver.

Given my readership, I gravitated to New York-centric titles. The monumental Pulitzer-winning Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898 by Mike Wallace and Edwin Burrows was a no-brainer, as was a book on the place of Brooklyn in film history or Irene Dash’s Shakespeare and the American Musical or Unearthing Gotham, a fascinating survey of archaeology in the city. I broke my usual rule of limiting features to one book per author because our city loomed so large in David Nasaw’s Carnegie and Hearst biographies.

Also easy to favor were CUNY-centric books. Improbable Warriors was a study of several women scientists in World War II and featured the founding Grad Center president, Mina Rees. I was eager to get my hands on Ricky Riccardi’s What a Wonderful World about Louis Armstrong, since he worked at the trumpeter’s Queens College Armstrong Archives. I also gleefully published excerpts from a memoir of the great novelist Henry Roth that described how he learned to be a writer while a student at City College.

Other titles focusing on issues in higher education were obvious CUNY Matters fodder: Louis Menand’s anthology The Future of Academic Freedom and the coruscating screed Higher Education? (note the question mark) by Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus. I was also pleased to run a series of short articles on scholarly journals sponsored by CUNY colleges.

Many of my choices, sadly, will remain apropos for a long time: The Encyclopedia of Racism in the United States (it will need an update for Ferguson, Mo.), the book about taking care of one’s parents (especially when parent-child relations have been strained), or the book from John Jay on the forensic and legal uses of DNA evidence, and Hunter sociologist Marnia Lazreg’s Questioning the Veil, which interrogated the Muslim custom of the veil and views on women.

OK, I will admit to every now and then playing favorites. I was delighted to cover the Trees of New York Field Guide because, aside from being a tree-hugger, I was delighted that my English professor colleague Trudy Smoke did its splendid botanical illustrations, and I was happy to hoist a flag for Why Milton Matters by my friend and former Grad Center EO in English, Joseph Wittreich. One of his students, Miltonist Lynne Greenberg, became a colleague, and she wrote a powerful memoir, The Body Broken, about a harrowing years-long ordeal with back pain caused by the flareup of an injury from a car accident in college; I couldn’t resist. I know Ovid was Shakespeare’s favorite classical poet, so I was eager to spread the word on a new translation of his Metamorphoses by Bronx Community College’s Charles Martin.

I would say that otherwise serendipity pleasurably reigned, hastening me into many books that might otherwise have escaped my notice: the biographies of such various celebrities as Rosa Parks, the murderers Leopold and Loeb, Alice Herz-Sommer (a 106-year-old concert pianist and Holocaust survivor), the Marquis de Sade, Lee Krasner (the artist and widow of Jackson Pollock), and Bruce Springsteen.

At such a literary smorgasbord, obviously some dishes were especially entertaining — reading, after all, is just a matter of taste: N. John Hall’s telling of the cheeky life of Max Beerbohm was one, also Wayne Koestenbaum’s courageously shame-full and shameless meditation titled Humiliation, and Fred Kaplan’s Lincoln: The Biography of a Writer. Then there was James Saslow’s Pictures and Passions: A History of Homosexuality in the Visual Arts, and Lillian Schlissel’s edition of three plays by Mae West, my favorite bon mot of hers being “I was Snow White, but I drifted.” More recently, I was tickled by Lehman poet Billy Collins’ recent collection of new and selected poems, Aimless Love.

 Now, about my book. Uh oh, I haven’t left much space.

I am quite aware in BookTalk I have often ridden my hobbyhorse, which for the last nearly 20 years has been Walt Whitman (prior to that Shakespeare and Oscar Wilde were in my stable). When I said “So Long!”— the title of a famous Whitman poem — to the editorship of CUNY Matters in 2004 and headed for full-time teaching at Hunter, I admitted that allusions to Walt were like the little Nina the Times Broadway artist Al Hirschfeld hid in plain sight in every caricature to amuse his daughter. Ten years on, and I haven’t changed, so what better way to bring down my curtain than to direct attention to the latest of my Whitman books: Containing Multitudes: Walt Whitman and the British Literary Tradition. (This book reunites me, after nearly four decades, with the publisher of my youth, Oxford University Press.)

Whitman himself inspired this chutzpah. Just after his first edition of Leaves of Grass appeared in 1855, he published an unsigned rave review of it in which he shamelessly flattered his book and himself: His face, he said, was one “that absorbs sunshine. . . face of undying friendship and indulgence.” In a second anonymous puff piece, he declared, “No sniveller, or tea-drinking poet, no puny clawback or prude, is this Walt Whitman.”

I’m not up to such brazen cheek, so I will just say that I had some real trepidation — but finally much fun — writing a book that really should not exist. For Whitman was, in his salad days, a vociferous advocate for a literature of America’s own, released from the leaden influence of Britain (“feudal” he liked to call its most famous poets). In that anonymous pat on his own back, he declared he would make “no allusions” to other writers or their books — “their spirits do not seem to have touched him.”

My challenge was not only to burrow into the ways Whitman dealt with the “anxiety of influence” that Harold Bloom made so famous—but also to burrow into his published and unpublished comments on five major authors: Shakespeare, Milton, Blake, Burns and Wordsworth. My conceit was to try to imagine what Whitman — who never crossed the Atlantic — would have thought when standing in Poets’ Corner of Westminster Abbey, where these five are honored.

Would Walt be miffed at my subversively blowing his all-“American” cover? Possibly. But this student of Whitman will defend himself by quoting “Song of Myself” back at him: “I am the teacher of athletes … He most honors my style who learns under it to destroy the teacher.”

 Speaking of students, we folks at CUNY Matters are always eager to tout the University’s graduates. So let me plug a feisty former student, Brendan O’Neill, whose first course with me was “Whitman and Wilde: The Art of Subversion.” I emphasized his “temerity” — a defining quality of Whitman and Wilde — in the recommendations I wrote for him. He is a savvy young acquisitions editor at Oxford, and I am particularly pleased to say he shrewdly shepherded my manuscript through the outside readers process and to a contract.