New Year’s means resolutions, and many will start this month vowing to drop a few pounds, exercise more or declutter their lives. Those with more ambitious aspirations can seek the path to intellectual self-improvement with Susan Wise Bauer’s The Well-Educated Mind: A Guide to the Classical Education You Never Had.
For all its sexual perversity, Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita is at heart a master send-up of the particularities of mid-20th-century American culture. It is a measure of the genius of the non-native English-speaking Nabokov that he crafted the novel’s dazzling prose, of course, but it is just as impressive that this Russian-born writer captured the nuances of an alien culture with such precision and wit. In his new study, Nabokov in America: On the Road to Lolita, Robert Roper focuses on the émigré’s time in the United States and how it gave birth to his most famous book.
While they are often roped together as Western or regional writers (narrow classifications they both loathed), and their prime writing years and geographic terrain overlapped to a degree, there could not have been two more different writers—or men—than Wallace Stegner and Edward Abbey.
Many readers first encounter the work of Langston Hughes in school but may not revisit it much beyond that early exposure. A seminal voice in the Harlem Renaissance, Hughes lives on in a handful of widely anthologized poems, but the vast majority of his prolific output goes unread. His literary light has waxed and waned since his death in 1967, but the publication of the Selected Letters of Langston Hughes, as well as a new edition of his first volume of poetry, The Weary Blues, could help spur renewed interest in Hughes and his work.
In our media-saturated Age of Celebrity, it can be hard to fathom that there was once a time when people were not famous merely for being famous. While today we think of Oscar Wilde as an eminent playwright and novelist, he was one of the first self-made public figures, who crafted his persona and gained widespread renown long before he had done anything of much note. An early impetus behind his fame was a lecture tour he made to the United States in 1882, when he was only 27 years old and the author of one tepidly reviewed, self-published volume of verse.
War and Peace. The very title incites both awe and no small measure of dread in many a reader’s heart. Indisputably one of the major achievements of the western literary canon—many would argue the greatest—Tolstoy’s masterwork is daunting in length and scope. At some 1,500 pages (depending on the typeface, of course), divided into 361 chapters, with nearly 600 characters, its sprawling narrative spans the eight years of Napoleon’s 1805-1812 invasion of Russia and beyond. It is a perennial bestseller, but how many who buy it actually read it?
In our 21st-century world, it seems disarmingly quaint that an entire printing of Dubliners was destroyed in 1912 for being obscene because James Joyce dared to use the colloquialism “bloody.” In the ensuing years, high-minded censors in both Britain and America continued to attack Joyce’s work, striving to keep his magnum opus, Ulysses, out of the hands of readers. Conventional minds were shocked by the book’s candid depictions of sexual and scatological matters and the “filthy” language Joyce used to portray them. The censors had the upper hand at first, but their campaign ultimately backfired, as the legal challenge to publish and distribute Ulysses transformed the culture and the laws that had tried to control it.
Fans of the work of Philip Roth will devour Claudia Roth Pierpont’s accomplished critical biography, Roth Unbound: A Writer and His Books, but even readers less taken or less familiar with the work of this great American novelist will be held sway by this beautifully rendered study, which places the Pulitzer Prize winner’s impressive body of work within the context of his life and...
Is Mark Twain the most beloved of all American writers? It would be hard to say for sure, but one measure of readers’ abiding affection for Samuel L. Clemens is the astounding success of the first volume of his autobiography. Published in 2010, 100 years after his death as he stipulated, it leapt immediately onto bestseller lists—an impressive achievement for a weighty tome from a...
What a difference a year makes—or so suggests British critic Kevin Jackson in Constellation of Genius: 1922: Modernism Year One. That was the year both James Joyce’s Ulysses and T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land were published; after that, Jackson says, art and literature were never quite the same. But those tent poles of the modernist movement were not the only avant-garde artistic...