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Tag Archives: social-cultural-literary-criticism

Swallowing the Scroll (1991): What We’ve Done to This World with Words

Lew Daly, Swallowing the Scroll: Late in a Prophetic Tradition with Susan Howe and John Taggart (M Press, 1991)

photo credit: nogoodcause.blogspot.com

We can’t show it to you because the Internet fails us (and it’s packed away somewhere I can’t easily get to it).

Before Lew Daly was a famous, big-time policy wonk, he was a literary critic. (Full disclosure: I didn’t realize Lew Daly was a famous, big-time policy wonk until I was looking up information on Swallowing the Scroll last week. There days, Daly is far more known for books like God and the Welfare State and Unjust Deserts: How the Rich Are Taking Our Common Inheritance and Why We Should Take It Back.) I am going to make the assumption, given the accolades on his biography page at the New Economics Institute, that one of the major changes he made while getting from point A to point B was learning how to take “critic-speak”—that often-unintelligible jargon that makes the public shy away from books of lit-crit—and transform it into something that the public will actually buy and read. Here’s a representative passage, chosen at random, from Swallowing the Scroll:

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Pulverizing Portraits: Lynn Emanuel’s Poetry of Becoming (2010): Danish Steel

Camelia Elias, Pulverizing Portraits: Lynn Emanuel’s Poetry of Becoming (EyeCorner Press, 2010)

A painting of Elias' that looks like a priestess manipulating twin balls of aura energy adorns the front of the book.

The High Priestess.
photo credit: Amazon

I’ve always felt a kind of connection with Lynn Emanuel’s work; I discovered the magic of poetry during my high school years in Pittsburgh at the same time I was also discovering the magic of DIY culture thanks to hanging out with the hardcore kids. So the concept of “local” already meant something special to me, and I had some vague notion of the concept that smaller is better (I would go see a show at Civic Arena one night, and then head over to City Limits, the infamous skate club that held metal and punk shows, the next night). So when I stumbled upon a Pittsburgh poet (ironically, it wasn’t until I was in college in Virginia that I discovered Emanuel’s work) thanks to a chapbook published by a press small enough that when I special-ordered it, the owner of my college bookstore actually came out of her office and yelled at me, I figured I was onto something big. I was right. That was over a quarter-century ago, and I’ve been devouring Emanuel’s work ever since. Now, finally, someone has produced a full-length critical essay on Emanuel, the first extant (that I know of). How could I possibly resist?

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Heinrich Böll: Teller of Tales (1969): Critics at Half-Past Nine

Wilhelm Johannes Schwarz, Heinrich Böll: Teller of Tales (Frederick Ungar, 1969)

[originally posted 24Jan2002]

A facsimile of the title page.

Another book now so obscure the cover cannot be easily found on the internet.
photo credit: Google Books

“It is certainly too early,” Schwarz begins his conspectus, “to assign Heinrich Böll his definitive place in German literature.” The Nobel committee obviously thought differently three years after the publication of this slim overview of Boll’s work to date; Boll won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1972, based largely on the work he’d published up to 1969. Schwarz says that Böll’s novels are overrated at the beginning of the book. That’s the best kind of overrated there is, one thinks.

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The Edge of Impossibility (1972): The Mass-Market Critic

Joyce Carol Oates, The Edge of Impossibility: Tragic Forms in Literature (Fawcett Premier, 1972)


[originally posted 14Nov2001]

A typically psychedelic cover from the seventies that features trees whose branches intertwine into a screaming human face.

There is unrest in the forest. There is trouble with the trees.
photo credit: Fantastic Fiction

It seems sometimes as if the very idea of a book of literary criticism published in mass market paperback by a major publisher is absurd. And in most cases, approaching a major publisher with the idea is likely to get you laughed all the way out of New York. But Oates was just coming off a National Book Award for them., and Fawcett decided to take a chance. I’m not sure, but they probably got the sales figures they were dreading. No one wants to read literary criticism anymore.

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The Doctor Looks at Murder (1940): Corpselight

Edward M. Marten, The Doctor Looks at Murder (Blue Ribbon Books, 1940)

[originally posted 26Nov2001]

A microscope examines something very small on the book's cover.

“Tumble down the skyscrapers, life is, in fact, on the other end of the microscope.”
photo credit: laybooks.com

What a delicious little book this is. In 1940 it was no doubt offered in the same way books of “medical curiosities” were offered in the seventies (“absolutely no one under sixteen ears of age may order this book!”), and to his credit, Marten is more than willing to play the role, tossing off case study after case study in what would then have been considered lurid detail. It would barely rate a PG today, but that doesn’t make it any less fun when considered in the time frame of its release.

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The Death of Common Sense (1994): Overlawyered

Philip K. Howard, The Death of Common Sense: How Law is Suffocating America (Random House, 1994)

[originally posted 17Sep2001]

The title, on a white cover with yellow trim.

When the common sense is gone, what do we have left?
photo credit: commongood.org

I don’t think there’s a single person in America outside Capitol Hill who doesn’t realize that the more laws you have, the more loopholes the laws contain, and the more subject to abuse those laws are. But just in case you need a quick refresher course on how Washington is helping the abusers do their thing and giving the rest of us the middle finger, Howard’s book stands as a fine testimony to what doesn’t work, why it doesn’t work, and the bleedingly simple solution to the whole stupid mess.
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The Windhover (1968): Ah! Bright Wings

Gerard Manley Hopkins, The Windhover (John Pick, editor) (Merrill, 1968)

[originally posted 11Jul2001]

The titular bird flies in monochrome across the cover of the book.

The only picture of the cover my edition had that I could find online. Sorry.
photo credit: Amazon

Pick collects what he considers the best of the various schools of scholarship on Hopkins’ most-written-about sonnet and presents it in textbook fashion, complete with ideas for possible papers at the end of the book. While, obviously, such a tome is going to get a tad dry after a while, this ends up being a fascinating account of how a couple of well-placed double-entendres in a poem can spark firestorms of criticism among different schools of thought. Of particular interest is a series of letters published in a London newspaper in the mid-fifties in which three critics snipe at one another’s interpretations of the poem. It’s beautiful stuff. One wonders if literary critics are ever so on fire about anything else.

In the end, the book does what it’s supposed to do; it acquaints its readers with the differing schools of thought on Hopkins’ poem, and in doing so may illuminate the reader to ideas within the poem he had not previously seen. A good resource for Hopkins scholars. ***