Melendy Avenue Review 2020-09-11

A feast of prose

Hello and welcome to this week’s Melendy Avenue Review! It’s been a non-notable week for me. The only minorly notable thing to me is that this Friday, when the newsletter comes out, is 9/11. Meaning I have a file saying 2020-09-11 sitting in my drive. Having been sixteen when the 9/11 attacks happened, it sticks a lot in my memory. I don’t have anything especially intelligent to say about it. Maybe it’s the harbinger of the present age of ignorance and rage in which we live, or maybe that’s all bs and we can date our period to some later time (2008? 2016?) or an earlier time or maybe it’s all been with us all the time. Anyway, we have reviews of two works of history, a modern classic novel, and a crime novel this week, as well as the return of the Observed Life, with Peter. Please share with your friends if you enjoy this newsletter!



  • Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell To Arms

  • Mia Bay, To Tell the Truth Freely

  • Joseph Hansen, Fadeout

  • George Mosse, The Nationalization of the Masses


  • The Observed Life, with Peter


Ernest Hemingway, “A Farewell To Arms” (1929) - Ernest Hemingway! Not quite the figure of opprobrium in contemporary pop-literary circles that, say, David Foster Wallace or Charles Bukowski is, but you do see his name checked in lists of “bro” writers. I reject the entire premise out of hand as a useful way of approaching literature. But you can see why the scribblers of these lists and ironically-named “think”-pieces would include Hemingway. These are more than anything indicators of consumer preferences and I’ve seen Hemingway’s name and big bearded image used to sell products to insecure young men. Moreover, Hemingway, like any writer of semi-autobiographical fiction, was also in the business of selling a particular image of himself. Turnabout’s fair play, I suppose. 

“A Farewell To Arms” is based on Hemingway’s experiences as a volunteer Red Cross ambulance driver embedded with the Italian army during the First World War. Starting a little while before the Americans enter the war in 1917, we see the experiences of viewpoint character/Hemingway analog, Frederic Henry, on the stalemated southern front between Italy and Austria-Hungary. We don’t get much about battle — Henry is severely wounded in the leg by an artillery shell in the first battle we see — but we get a lot about the things front memoirs often focus on: meals, mud, chain of command annoyances, drink. The characters are always drinking, on and behind the front. They drink all kinds of things but they often drink straight vermouth, which sounds gross but what do I know? The past is another country. 

Recovering from his wound, Henry falls in love with English nurse Catherine Barker. It’s one of those early twentieth century/wartime loves that comes across suspiciously sudden by contemporary standards but which no one really questions. Henry knocks Cat up and is sent back to the front in time for a terrible Italian retreat. They’re executing officers who retreat, so Henry hops a train the hell out of there and reunites with Cat. Presumably, all this is made easier by the fact that Henry is American and can reasonably present himself as a visitor, not an Italian citizen whose place was in the military. I’m not sure what all his status was, anyway, being a non-national volunteer. I don’t think the Red Cross, Hemingway’s employer during the war, comes up in the book- Henry has an Italian army rank, it's complicated and I guess it doesn’t really matter. Henry and Cat row across a lake to Switzerland and have an idyllic few months before tragedy strikes and the book ends. 

The prose in the book isn’t the parody of telegraphic writing we’ve come to associate with Hemingway. It’s not exactly long-winded but it does stop to take in the details of the front and of the Italian and Swiss countrysides. Cat is supposedly based on a real life paramour of Hemingway’s, a significantly older American nurse who helped him when he was wounded. Apparently, she agreed to marry him after the war but reneged and married someone else. Cat’s not an especially fleshed-out character and terrible tragedy befalls her. But that’s true of Henry as well, and all of the other characters. The relationships are wartime relationships, intensely felt but short and often peremptorily cut off. I remember my grandfather, a WWII veteran, trying to find his buddies decades later. He often didn’t know last names- what was the point in the world of landing craft crews, made impermanent both by the whims of military bureaucracy shifting crews around and by death? In any event, the point seems to be that that’s life, for Hemingway’s generation and maybe for everybody. ****

Mia Bay, “To Tell The Truth Freely: the Life of Ida B. Wells” (2009) - Ida Wells was barely in her thirties when she began her campaign against lynch law in the south. Born to slaves in 1862, she came of age concurrently with the collapse of Reconstruction and the betrayal of southern black people by the federal government. After her parents died when she was sixteen, she took charge of raising her siblings and became a schoolteacher and then a journalist in Memphis. It was after a race riot — for most of American history, “race riot” meant white pogroms directed at black people and other people of color — and lynching of three black men there that she began the work that would define her legacy. 

As the title of this biography indicates, Wells did something simple but courageous in response to the epidemic of lynching: she did basic reporting and told the truth. Her reporting laid the foundation for what is now the basic historical understanding of lynching as a social phenomenon. Southern white leaders declared that lynching was necessary to protect white women from depraved black rapists. Ida Wells looked into lynchings and found that in only a minority of cases were the victims even accused of rape. Moreover, she reported that many of those who were accused of rape were in fact involved in illicit but consensual interracial relationships, typically initiated by white women. And of course, the rape defense only went one way- no one, black or white, was ever lynched, barely anyone was ever brought to law, for sexually assaulting a black woman. Wells’s conclusions were commonsensical and strike the reader as quite “modern:” lynching, like rape, is about power, not sex, and specifically about reenforcing white supremacy by terrorizing black people. She called for both federal anti-lynching legislation and armed black self defense in response. 

In the 1890s when she began her antilynching crusade, this was controversial on a number of levels. Southern whites were offended and she was publicly threatened with torture and dismemberment by “respectable” newspapers in Memphis, forcing her to leave the south for New York and then Chicago. She struck a chord with black readers, who made her for a time the most well-known black woman in the country, and made a number of allies, including Frederick Douglass in his later years. But many established reformists, both black and white, had issues with her. She was feisty and not afraid to fight. This upset established gender norms of the time, especially for black women, who were under extra pressure to “prove” their femininity. People (like Susan B. Anthony) criticized her for being unmarried in her thirties and then criticized her for carrying on the work once she married lawyer and reformer Frederick Barnett. She ran afoul of Booker T. Washington, unofficial leader of black America at the time, who insisted that political agitation for his community’s rights was pointless and who punished black figures who disagreed. Wells allied with more radical figures like W.E.B. Du Bois and helped found the NAACP, but quickly found herself — a woman without a college degree — out of step with the increasingly professionalized world of early twentieth century reform politics. 

In general, Wells’s life certainly did not lack for incident, but it’s arc isn’t exactly the stuff of Hollywood. There was no big confrontation or victory, either with the forces of lynching or with her fairweather friends in the reform movement. She kept plugging along until she died in 1930, mostly removed from the national stage after World War One but staying active in Chicago reform and antiracist politics. Mostly, this is a record of Wells writing and giving speeches, getting polite (or not so polite) reactions, and then the world going on it’s merry way, unfortunately. Historian Mia Bay does a fine job putting Wells in her context, succinctly explaining things like the history and full extent of lynch law, Victorian social codes constraining women, and post-Reconstruction black politics. This is a highly readable as well as commendably complete book. Wells is an admirable figure by any fair reckoning, but it is a little concerning to think how much she echoes our own time: a figure with a very correct analysis but no way to implement it. ****

Joseph Hansen, “Fadeout” (1970) - Dave Brandstetter works as an insurance investigator in Southern California. He’s sardonic, independent-minded, cultured, and as the back copy puts it, “contentedly gay.” This was a pretty big deal for a book that came out within a year of the Stonewall uprising, and was set a few years before it. His creator, Joseph Hansen, was also gay, seemingly pretty open about it at the time, and to the best of my knowledge the first major openly gay crime fiction writer. 

The first of a dozen or so Dave Brandstetter books delivers the genre goods. He’s called in to investigate the disappearance of Fox Olsen, a local celebrity in a small California valley city poised on the edge of bigger stardom for his folksy singing and humorous anecdotes. Everyone assumes he’s dead because his car crashed into a ravine, but there’s no body. There is, naturally, something fishy afoot and Dave needs to navigate both high and low rural California society to get at it. 

In most respects, Brandstetter is a standard hardboiled private eye, but gay. He’s a middle-aged war veteran with heartbreak in his past- his partner of twenty years died of cancer just before the book opens. His being gay enters into the investigative proceedings by way of him being able to pick up on queer details of relationships of the people he’s investigating that others don’t. A lot of these seem kind of obvious to a modern reader but in a society both aware and in denial of queer desire, it’s less Brandstetter being in the know about gay stuff that does it and more him being more honest with himself and other than those around him. A lot of the crimes in hardboiled crime stories happen because people don’t want to have hard honest conversations, and there were few sources of avoided conversation more fecund at the time than queer sexuality. 

All in all, Hansen produced a pretty bravura debut novel. The crime story is well written and paced, and not too long (under two hundred pages). The social commentary and “gay/lesbian interest” (as the genre tags on the back cover indicate) are well incorporated into the story. There is a little eyebrow-raising depiction of what we’d look at today as fairly sketchy sexual behavior, but it’s crime fiction and also the seventies, so I guess that’s to be expected. I’m curious to see what the subsequent volumes in the Brandstetter series are like. ****’

George Mosse, “The Nationalization of the Masses: Political Symbolism and Mass Movements in Germany from the Napoleonic Wars through the Third Reich” (1975) - George Mosse had the sort of career that the history profession doesn’t really allow for today. No matter how brilliant an individual historian might be, the way the profession is now structured does not allow for the kind of pivots Mosse pulled. Starting as a specialist in the Reformation, Mosse left the early modern period behind mid-career and became one of the leading historians of fascism. There’s something to be said for the way we do things now. The kind of granular analysis you see in contemporary historians of fascism, like Johann Chapoutot, is in part the product of the sort of hyper-specialization you didn’t have in Mosse’s day. But earlier methods had their advantages, too, and not just in terms of career flexibility.

What got the German people, who had lived for centuries in many separate domains and were separated along religious lines, on board with the unified German nation-state, indeed, many of them so amped for a united Germany that they went overboard and left the traditional nation-state form behind to create an apocalyptic all-conquering German empire? This is the question Mosse wrestles with in several books, including “The Crisis of the German Ideology” and “The Nationalization of the Masses.” In the former volume, he dealt with the content of the “volkish” ideology that washed over Germany in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, which unified a critical mass of the German people behind the idea of themselves as a “volk,” a race with a unique and all-important destiny. In the book under discussion here, Mosse discusses the forms that this nationalization took, what allowed for all of these people to take hold of nationality and make it meaningful to their lives.

Later scholars of nationality, like Benedict Anderson, would put a lot of emphasis on what we today call “the discourse” -- back then, mostly newspapers -- for its role in causing a national identity to gel. “Nationalization of the Masses” makes the interesting point that if you want to cement a given national identity as transcending time -- as the nationalists of Germany did -- newspapers are almost an impediment, being a reminder of the transitoriness of things. Early German nationalists, for their part, preferred to instill national feeling in the masses through architecture, ritual, and popular participation in a nationalist liturgy- a full-fledged secular religion, in Mosse’s telling. 

Mosse goes on to describe the various efforts to create a national secular religion of German-ness. Until the Third Reich got a hold of it, this was mostly an unofficial project mounted by nationalism-enthusiasts. The Second Reich, under Bismarck and the Kaisers, was leery of some of the nationalistic extremes and popular enthusiasms of the movements involved, and most of these people were anti-republican and so wanted nothing to do with the Weimar Republic. So it was mostly poets, philosophers, educators, and the sort of people who like getting clubs together who formed this national religion. As such, it formed something of a hodgepodge. Classicism was popular among German nationalists, especially in architecture- lots of big white buildings with columns, etc. So too was romanticism, which you’d figure would operate at cross-purposes to classicism, but the kitschy eclecticism of the small minds of nationalism “made it work.” You see much the same dynamic on the right today, with its (mis)appropriation of both classical and medieval styles. Hitler, for his part, was a big one for classicism, or anyway massive classical kitsch; for all the Nazi regime harkened back to a mythical Germanic past, Hitler personally hated stuff like “ancient Germanic dress” and folkloric theater architecture, we find out in an interesting chapter on his personal tastes. 

More than any particular artistic style, the most successful nationalizers emphasized making room for popular participation. Spaces of the national cult, like memorials to the dead in the Napoleonic wars and so on, were more successful when they had room for many people to make pilgrimages and participate in rituals. The rituals, in turn, did better when there was something for the crowd to chew on and participate in -- songs, call-and-response chanting, the like -- as opposed to the more didactic speeches of liberals and socialists. Groups like male choral societies (I guess women who liked to sing were shit out of luck?), sharpshooting groups, and gymnastics clubs came into the picture, giving nationalist content to leisure activities and providing bodies and content for nationalist rituals.   

Mosse was a liberal -- he was well known at the University of Wisconsin for both attracting and challenging student radicals through his lectures at that active campus -- and is specifically arguing against a number of leftist ideas of the time in this book. This sort of cultural history in general flew in the face of the trend of econometrics-informed social “history from below” going at the time. More pertinently, he argued both that the relevant mass in German history was formed not by economic factors like industrialization but by incorporation into the national religion, and that the relationship between socialist/labor mass politics and nationalist/fascist mass politics was a two-way street. There was a commingling of influences and practices between the two groups, according to Mosse, and to the extent the nationalists wound up more successful, it was in part because they understood the dynamics of mass politics in its ritual element better than did their leftist counterparts. 

I don’t know enough to judge Mosse’s conclusions there one way or another. Among other things, I’ve never had any meaningful feel for ritual myself. It all strikes me as a lot of nonsense and wasted time- the part I related to were the “volksfest” elements after the rituals where everyone gathered round to drink beer, exactly the sort of “frivolity” the more severe German nationalists tried to cut out of the movement. But people, or at least enough people, clearly like that sort of thing, enough to make it an important part of regimes like Nazism. Along with “The Crisis of the German Ideology” and “Towards the Final Solution,” this book forms a sort of triptych of Mosse’s efforts to grapple with the cultural and intellectual roots of Nazism -- a regime he had to flee as a teenager -- that form much of the basis for methodologically similar analyses today. *****


The Observed Life, with Peter:

I went to a socially-distanced backyard gathering with two friends this week. As I walked from Harvard Square about a mile to the house, I saw these two turkeys walking down the road like they owned the place, and this little cat sans collar. The turkeys are a reasonably frequent Boston-area site. I don’t recall seeing a lot of cats on the street around here. I remember when the pandemic first started and people were posting fake pictures of dolphins in the Venice canals, saying things like “nature is healing.” I don’t think that’s what’s going on here exactly, and I did see a lot of people walking down the street too. But I took some pictures anyway. I thought they were worth observing.