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Saturday, July 22, 2017

NABOKOV | His One-Off Response to Criticism

Vladimir Nabokov famously refused to respond to criticism. Lolita was subjected to a flurry of critical comments, starting with his American publishers who refused to touch it in 1954.

He published it in Paris in 1955 and sailed on, as the book gained acceptance and broke all records for one-week sales when it finally appeared in the USA in 1958, despite being called "repulsive" by a reviewer for The New York Times.  It was made into movies in 1962 (and again in 1997), and Nabokov was seemingly oblivious to critiques.

In a January 1964 Playboy interview, Alvin Toffler asked Nabokov whether he regretted writing Lolita: "With the American publication of Lolita in 1958, your fame and fortune mushroomed...  to both acclaim and abuse."

Nabokov responded in the negative: "There is a queer, tender charm about that mythical nymphet."

Toffler then reminded Nabokov of two different kinds of critiques:
The Book that Smoked Out
Nabokov.
Though many readers and reviewers would disagree that her charm is tender, few would deny that it is queer—so much so that when director Stanley Kubrick proposed his plan to make a movie of Lolita, you were quoted as saying, “Of course they’ll have to change the plot. Perhaps they will make Lolita a dwarfess. Or they will make her 16 and Humbert 26.” Though you finally wrote the screenplay yourself, several reviewers took the film to task for watering down the central relationship.
Nabokov as a matter of principle brushed aside criticism, with the one exception of a screed he wrote in 1971.

What smoked Nabokov out of his non-responsive cave was a 193-page book published earlier that year by New York University Press and written by a Russian Literature Professor at George Washington University, Dr. William Woodin Rowe. The book was called Nabokov's Deceptive World.

Nabokov's commentary on Rowe's book appears in the October 7 issue of The New York Review of Books. He doesn't take issue with the first two parts of Rowe's book, but objects to the third, where Rowe identifies sexual allusions in Nabokov's work. Nabokov readily admits to such references:
One may wonder if it was worth Mr. Rowe’s time to exhibit erotic bits picked out of Lolita and Ada—a process rather like looking for allusions to aquatic mammals in Moby Dick.
But he strenuously objects when Rowe goes too far. Nabokov compares Rowe to a student (Wellesley? Cornell?) whom he failed in his course, he says,
for writing that Jane Austen describes leaves as “green” because Fanny is hopeful, and “green” is the color of hope.
It is not my place or interest to add to or settle the argument. My wish is to make a record of Rowe's responses and three judgments of independent commentators, since I delved into the  kerfuffle and discussed it with Professor Rowe as part of my research on his illustrious grandfather, FDR's first Treasury Secretary, William H. Woodin, after whom Woody Rowe (as he calls himself) is named.

Woody Rowe, 1934-.
Courtesy of Dr. Rowe.
Rowe responded swiftly to Nabokov's comments in a November letter to The New York Review of Books entitled "Arbors and Mists." He acknowledged that Nabokov's that his October 7 article was "entertaining." Rowe also wrote an article for a British journal, “W. W. Rowe on Nabokov,” published in Encounter, No. 234, March 1973

Three reviewers familiar with the dispute give more credit to Rowe’s book than Nabokov did:
  • Eric Naiman, in Nabokov, Perversely (Cornell University Press), http://bit.ly/2vpSzpZ
  • Andrew Field in “Review of William Woodin Rowe's critical study of Vladimir Nabokov's world, Nabokov’s Deceptive World.” Contemporary Literature Vol. 14, No. 1 (Winter, 1973), 132-135 (University of Wisconsin Press, JSTOR preview at http://bit.ly/2umP1ba).
  • Duncan White, in Nabokov and His Books, argues that Nabokov did himself a disservice by overreacting to Rowe's book.
Nabokov died in 1977. The coast was clear for Rowe to write two more critical studies of Nabokov, in 1979 (Nabokov and Others: Patterns in Russian Literature) and 1981 (Nabokov's Spectral Dimension). Forty years on, Woody Rowe is thriving in Arizona in his 80s, the youngest of three surviving grandchildren of Will Woodin (the other two are in their 90s).

Friday, July 14, 2017

REVOLUTION | July 14 – Bastille Day

Storming of the Bastille (Artist unknown)
This day in 1789 the French Revolution began in Paris with the storming by an angry crowd of the Bastille,  a 14th century medieval fortress long used as a prison, especially for opponents of the royal family.

The Parisian mob wanted to commandeer the ammunition that Bernard-René Jordan de Launay, the military governor of the Bastille, had just brought into the Bastille — 250 barrels of gunpowder.

The origin of France's problems was the financial stress from supporting the American colonies' war of independence (a fact that Americans sometimes forget when they remember American help to France during the two World Wars).

Higher taxes provoked questions from French citizens about their government and its finances. Rebellions occurred in different parts of France. Louis XVI relied on Jacques Necker, finance minister and effectively prime minister, for answers. Necker tried to negotiate his way to some solutions, organizing the return of the Estates-General, an assembly consisting of clergy, aristocrats, and commoners (the "Third Estate"), for the first time since 1614.

The Estates-General came to no agreement. Necker either did not fully appreciate that political reforms were required or decided that the King wouldn't agree to them. On July 11, Louis dismissed Necker, unleashing mob violence.

The fighting at the Bastille, three days later, lasted several hours, with nearly a hundred attackers killed and one guard. The mob broke in only to find just just seven prisoners to liberate. They killed the governor of the Bastille, de Launay, and paraded his head around the city on a pike.

When the King returned that evening from a day of hunting, a duke told him the story of the day's events at the Bastille. Louis asked, "So this is a revolt?" The duke replied: "No, Sire, this is a revolution!"

King Louis was executed in January 1793 as was his wife Marie-Antoinette ("Let them eat cake") and during the next few years tens of thousands of the nobility who had not fled. Shortly afterwards, The Third Estate was  reborn as the National Assembly.

While the day is celebrated as the birth of the French Republic, not all French people celebrate the day. They may remember ancestors who had their heads removed by a guillotine during the years following the taking of the Bastille, or they may have left France. The defeat of the French Navy at Trafalgar is attributed by some to the lack of experienced naval officers, who before the revolution had to be "four quarters" nobility (all four grandparents).

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

CALUMNY | What Are Its Antonyms?

The Junior House, Ampleforth College, York,
England, c. 1954. I am Second-Hand Rose—
 second row, second from the left.
July 11, 2017—J. K. Rowling earlier this month took President Trump to task for his CNN tweet with the wrestling video.

She quoted George Washington: "To persevere in one's duty, and keep silent, is the best answer to calumny."

That has spurred new interest in the obsolescing word calumny.

It brought back to me one of the very fine talks that Fr. Peter Utley (Richard Utley in his pre-monastic life) gave to his Junior House flock at Ampleforth College, which I attended in 1953-1955.

Fr. Peter devoted an entire talk to the subject of detraction and calumny. The somewhat obsolete word calumny (the preferred word for a civil complaint about slander today would be "defamation") is the subject of many a Catholic homily, because it describes the eighth commandment, "Thou Shalt Not Bear False Witness against Thy Neighbor." A sample of Biblical references to calumny may be found here.

Fr. Peter was an impressive monk, who played cricket for the RAF and exemplified the British Public School model of Muscular Christianity. What I found memorable about his talk on calumny was that it was so analytical about the word. Calumny is actually two offenses wrapped into one.

Fr. Peter did not just contrast calumny with speaking well of people, which is what you will find if you look up "calumny antonym" on the internet. He did not present calumny as a choice between speaking well of people vs. telling lies about them.

No, he presented two dualities:
  • Speaking well of people vs. speaking ill of them. 
  • Telling the truth vs. telling lies.
Calumny is two sins, he said. Detraction is saying negative things about someone for no reason. Calumny goes beyond that to add lying. Fr. Peter said that Christianity brought a higher standard than the eighth commandment. It was not enough to avoid lying about one's neighbor. We should also not engage in spreading negative truths about people.

One defense against libel (bearing false witness in writing) and slander (bearing false witness orally) is that the negative information is true. Fr. Peter would say that true negative statements are still wrong if they are made out of revenge, or envy or just maliciousness. Detractors seek lower someone else's reputation for no reason.

Fr. Peter made exceptions for people whose job it is to make comparisons, such as teachers grading their pupils. That includes all of us in the marketplace as we seek a service provider. The relative quality of the goods or services being provided is of importance and we can share our experience blamelessly because we are trying to help someone make a purchase. In the marketplace, comparing one's own product favorably to that of the competition is part of conducting business. But in one's personal life, we are expected to show restraint.

That's what I remember. It was a good lesson, for our understanding of our language and of our lives.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

TENNIS | July 9, First Wimbledon Tournament Begins

Report on the first Wimbledon Final (Men's
Singles) £26 in 1877 = c. $2,600 in 2017.*

July 9, 2017—This day in 1877 the All England Croquet and Lawn Tennis Club at Wimbledon, a suburb of London, offered a tennis tournament.

The 21 men who showed up for the Gentlemen’s Singles were reduced to 11 on the first day, six the next day, and three on the third. The final, postponed for two days to allow spectators to to watch the Eton vs. Harrow cricket match, was rained out. On the rain date, July 19, about 200 spectators paid a shilling to see W. Spencer Gore, an Old Harrovian, the dominate William Marshall, a Cambridge tennis Blue, with a strong volley at net. But at the second Wimbledon in 1878, Gore lost out to challenger Frank Hadow, who had mastered the lob.

Tennis originated with the 13th-century French handball game (jeu de paume, or “game of the palm”), which led to an indoor racket-and-ball game called réal, or “royal,” tennis. This went on to become lawn tennis, which spread to the United States. In the 20th century, half of all tennis players in the world were American.

The All England Club was established in 1868 on four acres of meadowland outside London. Originally founded to provide a place to play croquet, the Club added tennis. In 1877, the Club announced in The Field:
The All England Croquet and Lawn Tennis Club, Wimbledon, propose to hold a lawn tennis meeting open to all amateurs, on Monday, July 9, and following days. Entrance fee, one pound, one shilling [one guinea].
The All English Club purchased a 25-guinea (about £26) trophy and drew up formal rules for tennis, deciding on a rectangular court 78 x 27 feet. It adapted the real tennis method of scoring based on a clock face—i.e., 15, 30, 40, game, decided that the first to win six games wins a set, and allowed the server one fault.

As the game gained in popularity, Wimbledon added:
  • Lady’s Singles in 1884 (Maud Watson won). 
  • The national men’s doubles championship, moved from Oxford.
  • Mixed doubles and women’s doubles in 1913. 
  • A Stadium in 1922 the Wimbledon Stadium was built. 
  • Professionals to the competitions in 1968.
The Wimbledon Championships are today the only major tennis event still played on grass.

*Eric W. NyePounds Sterling to Dollars: Historical Conversion of Currency, accessed Monday, July 10, 2017, http://www.uwyo.edu/numimage/currency.htm.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

FDR AND WOODIN | Warm Springs, Georgia

Treasury Secretary Will
Woodin (L) and FDR.
John Reagan (“Tex”) McCrary, who lived from  1910 to 2003), ran a radio show for NBC from the RCA Building.

On August 12, 1949 he wrote to General Motors financial executive John J. Raskob (1879-1950) at 350 Fifth Avenue, the Empire State Building).

Tex McCrary enclosed a copy of Westbrook Pegler’s column for August 4, 1949 and a transcript of his own broadcast comments on Pegler's column. (The correspondence may be found at http://digital.hagley.org/raskob-1456.)

The correspondence is interesting from two perspectives.
Al Smith (L) and John J. Raskob (R). 

First, there is venom in Pegler's bite at Raskob for accepting a "bribe" from FDR. It was also a side-swipe at FDR himself. 

In the New York Journal American (syndicated by King Features), Pegler said:
[Al] Smith never told publicly the truth about the bribe of $250,000 which John Raskob underwrote as Roosevelt’s price for coming out of his convalescence to run for Governor in 1928. That was the year Smith ran for President.
McCrary reported on Pegler's column in a broadcast the next day:
Yesterday [Pegler] hit an all-time low in unsubstantiated slander. According to Pegler, John J. Raskob underwrote a bribe of $250,000 as the price of persuading the late Franklin D. Roosevelt to come out of his convalescence to run for Governor … According to Pegler, the $250,000 was milked from Raskob as a contribution to Warm Springs Foundation for Crippled Children. 
The other interesting aspect of the correspondence is the sweeping denial that Raskob wrote back to McCrary on August 16:
I know nothing whatever about the financing and operation of Warm Springs except that the late William Woodin, former Secretary of the Treasury, did head a drive for funds some years ago to which I contributed.
What is going on here? I have read elsewhere about Raskob's involvement with solving FDR's financial problems at Warm Springs. I consulted a new book by Kaye Lanning Minchew, A President in Our Midst: Franklin Delano Roosevelt in Georgia (Athens, Georgia: The University of Georgia Press, 2016), and on page 74, it is all spelled out:
In addition to health concerns and his fear that 1928 might not be the year for the Democrats, Roosevelt hesitated to run for governor because of his heavy financial commitments at Warm Springs. John J. Raskob, a wealthy businessman who had recently been named chair of the National Democratic Committee, talked to Roosevelt on the phone on October 2. Following their discussion of Roosevelt's obligations to Warm Springs, Raskob wrote a check for $250,000. When Roosevelt refused the check, Raskob formed a committee to raise funds while committing $50,000 to the cause. Following that conversation, Roosevelt agreed to run for governor.
What there seems to be agreement on is that Roskob recruited Will Woodin to head the committee to pay off the Warm Springs debt. Woodin also served on the board of the Warm Springs Foundation. If Minchew's story is accurate, then Raskob was being disingenuous in his letter of August 16 (in other words, he lied or had severe amnesia). His suggestion to McCrary that Woodin was the man who knew was a safe one, since Woodin was entombed in his Berwick mausoleum 14 years earlier.

Even if Pegler's facts are correct, it is hardly fair to label FDR's agreeing to run for governor in return for assistance to the Warm Springs Foundation as a "bribe". The Warm Springs debt was an obstacle to FDR's running for Governor of New York State. I have read that FDR's mother Sara Delano Roosevelt said she would not give FDR any money for his campaign unless and until he paid off the Warm Springs debt. The committee's contributions to the Foundation removed this obstacle to FDR's running for governor.

What is peculiar about all this is Raskob's denial of any knowledge about the Warm Springs finances. Doubtless he was not familiar with every detail, but he had to be aware of the large size of the Foundation deficits. In 1928 Al Smith wanted FDR to run for governor so that New York State would be safe for Democrats. It was when FDR ran for President himself four years later that Raskob decided FDR was a dangerous radical and from then on perhaps he preferred not to take any credit for having helped him become governor.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

WOODIN | July 2, Helen Wills Wins Her Final Wimbledon

Helen Wills
July 2, 2017—This date in 1938, Helen Wills won her final Wimbledon singles championship. The dominant female tennis player of the 1920s and 1930s, she perfected her powerful forehand by playing against men.

Wills was the first American woman athlete to become a global celebrity, although she did not make an effort to be famous. She was on the cover of Time magazine twice, in 1926 and 1929.

She played a strong game with grace, and she helped introduce knee-length skirts for women on the tennis court, thereby adding greatly to the mobility of the players and the visual appeal of women's tennis. Charlie Chaplin said that the most beautiful thing he had ever seen was "Helen Wills, playing tennis."

"Helen Wills, playing tennis."
Wills was helped in her success by the Woodin Gold Cup, an invitational challenge tournament for women that was sponsored by the Maidstone Club in East Hampton, New York, between 1926 and 1949.

Many Woodin Cup winners went on to become Grand Slam champions. In addition to Helen Wills, they included Alice Marble, Helen [Hull] Jacobs and Molla Mallory.  Helen Jacobs and Helen Wills were fierce opponents whose games were called "the battle of the Helens." Sarah Palfrey, Margaret Osborne duPont and Louise Brough were others who participated often in the Woodin Cup.

In 1949 the three Woodin Cups, valued at $30,000 each in 2017 dollars, were all retired. They were challenge cups (as opposed to permanent cups), meaning that if they were won three times by the same player or doubles team, they could be taken home. Brough won the singles championship in 1949, and she won the doubles championship with duPont. Both of Brough's cups were given to the International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, Rhode Island, along with the smaller trophies given to all winners (a silver cup, 5 inches tall, with the Maidstone coat of arms on it). (Source: Phone interview with Nicole Markham, Curator of Special Collections, International Tennis Hall of Fame, July 5, 2017.)

In 1926, the year that the Woodin Gold Cup was created, Wills first traveled across the Atlantic to play tennis. She reached the final of the Wimbledon singles, but lost to England’s Kitty McKane. This was the only Wimbledon that Wills would ever enter and lose. She went on to win eight Wimbledon singles titles.

From 1927 to 1933, Wills (she added Moody to her name while she was married to Frederick Moody in the years 1929-1937) won an impressive 180 consecutive matches. In 1933, a back injury forced her to sit out the tournaments for two years. Returning in 1935, and winning Wimbledon, Wills said she would retire. Coming back in 1938, however, Wills defeated an injured Helen Jacobs to win her eighth Wimbledon singles title. The victory was the final major championship for her.

Born in Centerville, California in 1905, she grew up in the Bay Area. She won the Girl’s National Championship in 1921 and 1922, and then won her first U.S. Open (then called the U.S. National Championships) at 17, in 1923. Her record of eight Wimbledon singles titles was not broken until Martina Navratilova won her ninth Wimbledon title in 1990. Wills died in 1998 at 92.