Margaret Fuller: An American Romantic Life Volume II: The Public Years By Charles Capper (Oxford University Press, 649 pp., $40) LIKE WALT WHITMAN, her slightly younger contemporary, Margaret Fuller was one to contain multitudes. No American woman of the pre-Civil War era--and no European woman of the era--wrote so brilliantly about so many things, while living so intently and intensely. For that matter, you would be hard put to think of a man who equaled Fuller's range of literary, intellectual, and political accomplishments.
The weather during mid-summer in Manhattan is frequently unpleasant, particularly the viscosity of the air--the feeling that one is breathing and moving through water at least as much as air. Perhaps that is why today, as I was walking to the subway and feeling oppressed by the dull, cloudy light and the general muddiness of the atmosphere, I began to think, as a kind of consolation, of the glorious weather in September, when summer is ending and autumn has not yet taken its place.
Looking up at the towering, massive, early twentieth-century skyscraper that is the Municipal Building, I saw the names of my beloved city carved in Roman letters in a continuous line in blocks of stone: NEW AMSTERDAM MDCXXVI / MANAHATTA / NEW YORK MDCLXIV. Manahatta--what a beautiful name, I thought, so much more lyrical than New Amsterdam or New York or our present-day Manhattan, a name so lyrical that Whitman had written a lovely ode to it: I was asking for something specific and perfect for my city; Whereupon lo!
For a long time now, whenever I've gone to Los Angeles, I've been alarmed by how impossibly tall the palm trees have grown. Whether I'm driving in Santa Monica or Venice, Beverly Hills, Hollywood, or Pasadena, the familiar sight of row after row of palm trees, their thin, fibrous trunks topped by rough-hewn, yet shimmering fronds stretching hundreds of feet into the broad, shadowless light, has come to fill me with gloom.
Now that George W. Bush has been reelected, the presidential debates keep returning to taunt me, especially the first one. As everyone knows, Bush's muddleheaded, bumbling performance surprised even his supporters, while John Kerry, the accomplished, if long-winded, technocrat, was pronounced the winner by all. There was, however, a little-remarked upon flight of rhetoric during Bush's two-minute closing statement that startled me at the time: "We've climbed the mighty mountain.
The Language of War: Literature and Culture in the U.S. From the Civil War Through World War II by James Dawes (Harvard University Press, 300 pp., $39.95) "The real war," Walt Whitman wrote soon after Appomattox, "will never get in the books." In "The Wound Dresser" and other poems, Whitman tried to transcribe his Civil War experience in a Washington hospital, where he tended the dismembered and the dying. But he sensed that there was something new about the carnage of modern war, something that resisted literary convention and ultimately language itself. He was not alone.
If you take a close look at just about any period in the history of art, you will find an almost bewildering array of different styles or modes or manners flourishing simultaneously, and the middle of the twentieth century, the time that is in many respects the prologue to the time in which we live, is no exception.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow: Poems and Other Writings edited by J.D. McClatchy (The Library of America, 854 pp., $35) With the publication of F.O. Matthiessen's hugely influential American Renaissance in 1941, the modern-day pantheon of nineteenth-century American writers was established: Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Melville, Whitman. The only other writer to be admitted into this select company has been Emily Dickinson, a recluse who published only seven poems in her own time and was virtually unknown.
Never have so many written with such technical skill: this remark, as often an expression of frustration and dismay as of admiration, has become a commonplace of poetry criticism in the 1970s. Never, of course, have so many written. And published. And competed for a lamentably small audience: there are perhaps more writers than readers of poetry at the present time. In so diminished a sphere the consequences have been, and continue to be, predictable.