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Poetic Injustice

Sun 26 Apr 2009 - Filed under: 1950s,Lit — Christian
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Before his untimely death, few men of letters embodied the jazz-fueled cool of midcentury New York better than poet Frank O’Hara. The Whitman of the modern urban landscape, O’Hara captured the essence of the city, its multitudes, and its motions of constant speed punctuated with moments of stillness.

Heavily influenced by Abstract Expressionism and jazz, his work affected the spontaneity of free-form verse, with a diction that bridged both high and low culture, uptown and downtown. His collection Lunch Poems was said to have been composed over the course of a single lunch break.

A member of the informal group that came to be known as the New York School, O’Hara mingled with the most important artistic figures of the age, including painters Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, and poets John Ashbery and James Schuyler. He shared with the Abstract Expressionists a belief in the work of art as an artifact of spontaneous creation.

Born in 1926 in Baltimore and raised in Grafton, Massachusetts, O’Hara served in the Navy during World War II and saw action in the South Pacific.

An accomplished pianist, he attended Harvard to study music on a GI Bill scholarship, where he roomed with artist Edward Gorey. Upon taking his M.A. in English from the University of Michigan, he moved to New York and quickly embeded himself within the local art and music scene. Employed at the Museum of Modern Art, he also wrote as a critic for Art News and began to seriously pursue poetry.

O’Hara died a tragic and unpoetic death in 1966 at the age of forty, after being struck by an all-terrain-vehicle on the beach on New York’s Fire Island. — ZACHARY DELUCA (Continue)

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Performance Anxiety

Mon 20 Apr 2009 - Filed under: 1960s,1990-present,Lit — Christian
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As we’ve repeatedly been told, WASP nonchalance is merely an affectation, a performance that renders its mannered marionettes ever anxious about committing some cred-crushing gaucherie.

And if it’s like that for members of the tribe, just imagine what it’s like for Jews.

Tobias Wolff’s 2003 novel “Old School” belongs to the prep-school-coming-of-age genre, while its central conflict draws on the much-mined Jew-among-gentiles trope. But the book’s spare style and focus on the literary development of its aspiring-writer protagonist give it a weight and freshness that sets it apart from others books in the genre, such as John Knowles’ “A Separate Peace.”

I read the book after seeing it mentioned on the blog Advice To My Sons.

Set in 1960, the bildungsroman charts the development of its unnamed, half-Jewish narrator, who enrolls in an elite prep school only to find himself a stranger in a strange land:

Class was a fact. Not just the clothes a boy wore, but how he wore them. How he spent his summers. The sports he knew how to play. His way of turning cold at the mention of money, or at the spectacle of ambition too nakedly revealed. You felt it as a depth of ease in certain boys, their innate, affable assurance that they would not have to struggle for a place in the world.

“Old School” contains a number of sartorial passages. In the following, tassel loafers are presented not as shoes for the starched square, but footwear for the “playboy”:

We dressed so much alike that the inflection we did allow ourselves — tasseled loafers for the playboy, a black turtleneck for the rebel – were probably invisible to an outsider. Our clothes, the way we wore our hair, the very set of our mouths, all this marked us like tribal tattoos.

Increasingly, the narrator becomes lost in his performance:

… From my own anxious studies I had made myself the picture of careless gentility, ironically cordial when not distracted, hair precisely unkempt, shoes down at heel, clothes rumpled and frayed to perfection. This was the sort of figure I’d been drawn to almost from the beginning; it had somehow suggested sailing expertise, Christmas in St. Anton, inherited box seats, and an easy disregard for all that. By going straight to the disregard I’d hoped to imply the rest. I had also meant to wipe out any trace of the public school virtues — sharpness of dress, keenness of manner, spanking cleanliness, freshness, niceness, sincerity – I used to cultivate.

By now I’d been absorbed so far into my performance that nothing else came naturally. But I never quite forgot that I was performing. In the first couple of years they’d been some spirit of play in crating the part, refining it, watching it pass. There’d been pleasure in implying a personal history through purely dramatic effects of manner and speech without ever committing an expository lie, and pleasure in doubleness itself: there was more to me than people knew!

All that was gone. When I caught myself in the at now I felt embarrassed. It seemed a stale, conventional role, and four years of it had left me a stranger even to those I called my friends.

I wanted out. That was partly why I’d chosen Columbia. I like how the city seethed up against the school, mocking its theoretical seclusion with hustle and noise, the din of people going and getting and making. things that mattered at Princeton or Yale couldn’t possible withstand this battering of raw, unironic life. You didn’t go to eating clubs at Columbia, you went to jazz clubs. You had a girlfriend— no, a lover — with psychiatric problems, and friends with foreign accents. You read newspapers on the subway and looked at tourists with a cool, anthropologicial gaze. You said crosstown express. You said the Village. You ate weird food. No other boy in my class would be going there.

A review of the book on Salon.com can be found here. — CC

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The Quiet American

Thu 29 Jan 2009 - Filed under: 1990-present,Historic Images,Lit — Christian
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Ivy-Style mourns the passing of John Updike, who died Tuesday at 76. While his status as a Great American Novelist is well known, his role as an icon of sartorial understatement is not. And so we present this homage to a master not only of English literature, but of dressing with quiet flair. Our tweed bucket hats are off to you, John: (Continue)

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Writers Block

Sat 17 Jan 2009 - Filed under: 1960s,Historic Images,Lit — Christian
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In 1962 Life ran a group of photos of American authors. Pictured above is James Baldwin, while below is Philip Roth. Click on images for hi-res version: (Continue)

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Poor Richard

Tue 30 Dec 2008 - Filed under: 1990-present,Lit — Christian
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Richard Yates was one of those guys who adopted the Ivy look early in life and never let go of it. Whether due to good taste, lack of imagination, or being too impecunious to afford new clothes, Yates’ perennial style was recently described by Dan Wakefield (author of “New York in the Fifties”) as follows:

Yates never lusted for riches, and I can’t imagine him wearing anything other than his daily uniform of Brooks Brothers navy blue blazer, button-down blue shirt with rep tie, and gray flannel trousers. Whether I saw him in New York in the ’50s or Boston in the ’80s he was always dressed the same.

Now, like so many other writers, Yates is finding posthumous success, thanks in part to the new film adaptation of his novel “Revolutionary Road.”

Those who use “The Official Preppy Handbook” as their literary canon as well as sartorial breviary will already be familiar with his novel “A Good School,” which is on the OPH’s recommended reading list.

For those unfamiliar with Yates’ work, here are some places to start:

Wakefield’s article on Yates, from The Boston Globe. Yates at Amazon. “Revolutionary Road” reviews at Rotten Tomatoes. — CC

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Building Character

Sun 28 Dec 2008 - Filed under: 1920s-'40s,1990-present,Lit — Christian
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Though he never graduated, F. Scott Fitzgerald attended Princeton and remained ever loyal to his alma mater. So loyal that while most of his characters attend an Ivy League college, Fitzgerald specifically sent his most autobiographical protagonist to Princeton.

In the wake of the new film “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” which is based on a 1921 short story by Fitzgerald, Slate has posted an article analyzing Fitzgerald’s heroes and whether they went to Harvard, Yale or Princeton.

Fitzgerald has Amory Blaine, hero of “This Side of Paradise,” his first novel, offer the following assessment of the three schools:

I want to go to Princeton. I don’t know why, but I think of all Harvard men as sissies, like I used to be, and all Yale men as wearing big blue sweaters and smoking pipes. … I think of Princeton as being lazy and good-looking and aristocratic—you know, like a spring day.

The Slate article concludes:

Amory’s choice of Princeton makes perfect sense—and not just because he’s charming and rather idle. For This Side of Paradise, Fitzgerald borrowed heavily from his own life. Both Amory and Fitzgerald are from the Midwest, go to boarding school on the East Coast, and have failed romances with debutantes. Fitzgerald went to Princeton—he called it “the pleasantest country club in America”—so naturally he sent Amory there, too.

A selection of the reviews for “Benjamin Button” can be found here at RottenTomatoes.com. — CC

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