Books, Articles, and Items of Academic Interest

Peter Wood

L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was published in May 1900 in an edition of 10,000 copies. These sold out by October, and the book was on its way to phenomenal success. More than one million copies sold by 1938, the year before the MGM musical staring Judy Garland. It had, however, already made it to the screen in a 1925 silent movie with Dorothy Dwan as Dorothy. And as early as 1902, it had been staged as a musical.

By 1956, Baum’s original book had three million copies in print. Baum (1856-1919) didn’t live to see his American fairy tale achieve these heights, but he did capitalize on its popularity by publishing twelve sequel Oz novels, a comic strip, and a book of short stories. He also left two more complete Oz novels to be published posthumously. And he inspired imitators—perhaps appropriators is the better word—the most notable of whom is Gregory McGuire, the author of Wicked (1995) and another trail of sequels, Son of a Witch (2005), A Lion Among Men, Out of Oz (2008), and Tales Told in Oz (2012).

McGuire replaces the worried innocence of Baum’s Oz with a world of Machiavellian intrigue and Medician immorality. Lust, rape, and power rule, and homoeroticism invades the story. McGuire’s dark rearrangement of Oz stands in contrast to Johnny Gruelle’s venture into Baum’s territory. Gruelle (1880-1938) is best known for his Raggedy Ann stories, the first of which he published in 1918. Gruelle was already an established newspaper cartoonist and book illustrator when he patented the Raggedy Ann doll in 1915. The doll and the book were hits, and Gruelle wrote seventeen sequels about Ann and her brother Andy’s adventures. Gruelle’s masterpiece, however, is his lesser known The Magical Land of Noom (1922), in which he set out to create his own version of an Oz. Noom (moon spelled backwards) is the far side of the moon. Brother and sister Johnny and Janey are, like Dorothy, whisked off through the air, and deposited in this exotic land where they immediately run afoul of a malevolent creature. Their challenge is to return home before Jingles the magician can turn them into beasts.

Baum was by far the more inventive story teller, but he relied on a playful illustrator, W.W. Denslow, to bring Oz to life. Denslow gave us the definitive images of Dorothy and company in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, but then he and Baum quarreled over the 1902 musical, and Baum’s later Oz books were illustrated by lesser artists following in Denslow’s droll footsteps. Like John Tenniel’s illustrations of Alice in Wonderland, Denslow’s picturing of Oz is now inseparable from the story.

Gruelle was his own illustrator, and his pictures are always richer and deeper than the stories they are meant to enhance. His stories are typically insipid adventures where even the villains eventually turn good and danger is reliably averted before any real tension builds. But Gruelle’s images often have a quietly sinister quality that suggests a more McGuire-ian world hidden behind the text. The most riveting image in The Magical Land of Noom is of grandpa attacked by a locust-like storm of boxing gloves. The old man is swinging his cane in a futile effort to beat off the onslaught of mortality. The text says he is rescued, but Gruelle’s painting tells us otherwise.

What Awful Luck!

In this quarter’s account of books, articles, and items of academic interest, I veer away from my usual spelunking in the caves of college publishing. Instead I wander among the books rescued from my recent adventures in Noom. In 2018, James Anthony (1970-) provided the world a translation of sorts, Shakespeare’s Sonnets Retold: Classic Love Poems with a Modern Twist. On facing pages, his compact book gives Shakespeare’s original and Anthony’s rendering of it into contemporary verse. It is an astonishing feat—and not in a good way. Where Shakespeare opens Sonnet 29:

When in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes

I all alone beweep my outcast state,

And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,

And look upon myself, and curse my fate,

Anthony provides:

What awful luck! I’ve been humiliated ,

And so I sob alone for no one cares;

Not even God hears I’m infuriated;

Only my mirror duplicates my swears.

Certainly the young poet has caught the general sense of Shakespeare’s lines and he sticks to the meter. Yet every last bit of poetry, depth, music, and grace has been obliterated. Sonnet 66, Shakespeare’s cry of existential disillusion, as he catalogs the world’s disappointments, opens thus:

Tired with all these, for restful death I cry,

As to behold desert a beggar born,

And needy nothing trimm'd in jollity,

And purest faith unhappily forsworn,

In Anthony’s hands this becomes:

I want to die; I feel so uninspired!

I’ve seen a virtuoso destitute,

And watched a fuck-wit pompously attired,

And decency turned into disrepute.

Here as elsewhere, stoic dignity collapses into petulance and vulgarity.

Anthony’s versions of these poems may serve a valuable purpose he didn’t intend. He could be helping the novice reader of Shakespeare to a first glimpse of what makes Shakespeare’s sonnets transcendentally good. Plainly their merit doesn’t lie in their prosaic meaning. If it did, Anthony’s versions, which cover much of that meaning faithfully, would be a good guide. But Anthony’s verses are something more like the lyrics of pop songs: occasionally clever but empty of any resonant feeling. Shakespeare’s sonnets have layers upon layers of meaning that reward those who commit them to memory or who ponder their beauty. Anthony’s, I fear, are an all-too-adequate reflection of our own time. Writes Shakespeare (Sonnet 30):

When to the sessions of sweet silent thought

I summon up remembrance of things past,

Which inspires Anthony:

When sitting all alone in contemplation,

I ponder life and all that’s gone before

Sweet, silent thought has plainly slipped away in this meditation, which appears to summon not much more than mental vacancy.

Shakespeare’s Sonnets Retold is must reading on Noom.

He Said

Dreyer’s English by Benjamin Dreyer bears the tongue-in-cheek subtitle “An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style.” Actually on the dust jacket that phrase is a supertitle, not a subtitle, and the apostrophe in Dreyer’s and the dot above the “i” in English are transposed. This is a playful book by the “copy chief” at Random House. Dreyer is the writer’s foe and the writer’s friend in about equal parts. He insists on precision and good decorum: the principles of correct punctuation and grammar he upholds as faithfully as Lady Liberty holds up her torch over New York Harbor. But Dreyer is no slave to the rules made up by false purists. “No, do begin a sentence with ‘And’ or “but,’ if it strikes your fancy to do so. Great writers do it all the time.” Likewise Dreyer permits us to cheerfully split an infinitive that sits log-like awaiting the ax. Fragments as mindfully suit the purpose. And so on.

I delighted in Dreyer’s strictures until the bottom of page 90 where he ventured on the topic of using “they” as a singular pronoun as in “if someone were trying to kill you, how to you think they would go about it?” He uncharacteristically struggles with this for several pages and shrugs away the ze/zir alternatives to binary pronouns. But, alas, by page 95, he has conceded to a colleague whose personal pronoun of choice is “they.” “One day in conversation, when I wasn’t even paying attention, the word ‘they’ slipped out of my mouth, and that was the end of that.”

We all say regrettable things from time to time, but that’s no license to abandon English to the barbarians. Dreyer may now be hostage to the evil magician Jingles who bedevils Noom, but we will continue the fight as allies of the sis-gendered Johnny and Janey, whose pronouns will stand unaltered until the last syllable of recorded English.

A New Old Story

Wilfred M. McClay has published Land of Hope: An Invitation to the Great American Story, a concise American history textbook from European colonization to the post-Cold War period. I believe I was in the room when Professor McClay first thought of writing this volume. The occasion was a discussion of what to do about the College Board’s scandalous revision of the Advanced Placement U.S. History standards, and the conversation had turned to the aggressively disdainful textbooks that the College Board had certified as appropriate for the courses that aligned with those standards. Years have passed and it is a delight to see the full realization of McClay’s idea.

He tells the “great American Story” with deep fidelity to the facts but also with deep feeling. Here he reflects of John Wilkes Booth’s assassination of President Lincoln:

Never in history has a true-believing fanatic committed a heinous act that proved more injurious to his own cause, the South could not have had a better friend than Lincoln in enduring the arduous postwar years that lay ahead. True, the man from Illinois might or might not have been able to prevail in implementing his plans for a generous, mild peace between North and South. He was already facing stiff opposition to his 10 percent plan from his own party, and that might have intensified. But he also was experiencing a surge of popularity in the wake of the Union’s final victory, and it is possible that he could have summoned the political support to overcome such opposition.

McClay’s willingness to consider what might have happened is not strict history, but real history involves weighing the possibilities that were felt and weighed by the participants in key historical moments. This is what brings history alive for students. McClay has done a masterful job in writing a textbook that is detailed, accessible, grounded in the best scholarship, and aimed at stirring in today’s students a resonant understanding of that which makes America exceptional among nations.

The History of a Historian

In David Kaiser’s memoir, A Life in History, he says he discovered his talent for history at age 11, pursued it though Harvard (undergraduate and Ph.D.) and a 37-year professional career beginning with a lectureship at Harvard and leading on to the Naval War College, and Williams. His new book testifies that he is not quite through analyzing the past, but A Life in History is deeply shadowed by the present. Kaiser’s tone is generally sunlit even as he recounts various disappointments along the way. But as he sees his profession gripped by enthusiasm for Foucault and other reductionists, the clouds begin to mount.

At the Naval War College he is at “a safe distance” from the mainstream of history teaching but finds the field is “troubling” him more and more. He is inspired by the fierce eccentric Camille Paglia who rejects the entire postmodern project. He writes, “It is not coincidental that Camille Paglia and David Kaiser, two of the outstanding scholars of the Boom generation, had to spend most of their careers teaching some form of the humanities at trade schools.” I’m not sure whether Benjamin Dreyer would approve this royal third-person form of self-reference or the Napoleonic crown he bestows on his outstanding self. But his accomplishments are real and his unhappiness over the decline of academic history is palpable.

Kaiser’s memoir is among the most richly detailed recountings of academic life in the latter half of the twentieth century I have read. He remembers his teachers, his colleagues, and his students vividly and renders them with a novelist’s eye for their complexity. A Life in History also offers many short intermissions in which he gives the stage over to his former students to comment on what they studied with him and how he taught them. Most of these introgressions are, of course, flattering: “Lisa and I became the junior-most groupies in a lecture room full of Kaiser fans. He attracted a very articulate crowd.” But they converge on the picture of a teacher who inspired affection as well as admiration. His memoir might be an improvement on the various pedagogical how-to manual typically offered to young scholars starting out on their teaching careers.

Dustless

Noom in Johnny Gruelle’s fantasy was the far side of the moon. The word, however, has another meaning that Gruelle was apparently unfamiliar with: the noom is the moon as seen during daylight, when it is a chalky pastel on the pale blue sky. This quarter’s item of academic interest is chalk.

Without it, generations would have remained ignorant of quadratic equations, French accents, and metabolic pathways. In A Lesson Before Dying, Ernest J. Gaines’s novel about a school teacher in the Jim Crow South, the teacher reprimands a child: “You used enough chalk for five times that many problems.” He explains, “The school board doesn’t give it away.” Abundant though it may be, chalk is precious. I have a six-pack of “Colored Sidewalk Chalk,” made in China and supposedly “non-toxic and dustless,” though I’ve not tried to eat it. The colors range from faint pink to fainter green and hesitant blue: all the colors of the noom.

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