Author Archives: Stan Deaton

What I’m Reading Now: April 17, 2018

Second Reading: Notable and Neglected Books Revisited by Jonathan Yardley (Europa Editions, 2011, 351 pp.)

Jonathan Yardley served for almost a third of a century as one of the great book reviewers at the Washington Post. The other of course was and still is Michael Dirda. They are two of the foremost literary critics of our time and between them, their books will lead you on to countless other literary treasures, both well-known and obscure.

For nearly seven years between 2003 and 2010 Yardley published longer essays about “notable and/or neglected books from the past” in a Post column with the same title as this book. He ultimately wrote 97 essays, 60 of which appear in this volume, while the remaining 37 are conveniently available at www.neglectedbooks.com.

Yardley delightfully meanders his way through these 60 titles, only five of which I’ve read already but I’m happily adding many others to my list, including: Reveille in Washington, 1861-1865 by Margaret Leech; The Dreadful Lemon Sky and the rest of the Travis Magee novels by John D. MacDonald; The Reivers by William Faulkner, Notes of a Native Son by James Baldwin, as well as others by Nora Ephron, Roald Dahl, John Cheever, Timothy Crouse and H.L. Mencken.

While Dirda’s style is light and friendly (I’ve extolled his virtues elsewhere on this blog), Yardley is curmudgeonly and refreshingly grumpy. Some of his juicier bon mots: Gore Vidal and Henry Adams are “overrated and unreadable”; David Baldacci and Allen Drury write in “execrable prose”; Joyce’s Ulysses is “a book I simply cannot read.” He proclaims J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye one of the worst books in American literature: “the combination of Salinger’s execrable prose and [Holden] Caulfield’s jejune narcissism produced effects comparable to mainlining castor oil.” In the space of a single review of a Rose Kennedy biography in the Post but not in this book, Yardley called her cold, controlling, spoiled, petty, self-indulgent, shallow, vain, and uptight, while Kennedy advisor Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. was “assiduously sycophantic,” and the book itself littered with “clunky, clotted, graceless prose.”

Well, harrumph.  But it’s so much fun to read.

The Post published Yardley’s last column on December 5, 2014, but here’s hoping that many of the other reviews he wrote over a 33-year career will be published in book form as well.

All of this makes me wonder: when Dirda follows Yardley into retirement, who will fill the shoes of these two literary giants? Are there other great book columnists out there I don’t know about?

What I’m Reading Now: April 10, 2018

Vincent Starrett, Born in a Bookshop: Chapters from the Chicago Renascence (University of Oklahoma Press, 1965, 325 pp.)

“When we are collecting books, we are collecting happiness.” So said Vincent Starrett, the author of this memoir. I agree.

I love books about books—that is, authors who write about their love of books, their collections of books, and/or the authors who wrote them.

I have an entire bookcase dedicated to them—familiar classics like The Lifetime Reading Plan by Clifton Fadiman, Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren’s How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading, overlooked gems like I.A. Richards’s How to Read a Page, and more recent offerings by Nicholas Basbanes like Every Book Its Reader: The Power of the Printed Word  to Stir the World, and A Splendor of Letters: The Permanence of Books in an Impermanent World. And no book lover’s collection would be complete without all the works of Washington Post book critic Michael Dirda. I’ve got books about libraries, books about book clubs, and even one about the history of the book shelf.

Vincent Starrett was the author of the “Books Alive” column for 25 years in the Chicago Tribune. His memoir, which I first learned about, naturally enough, in Dirda’s Browsings: A Year of Reading, Collecting, and Living with Books (2015), is a charming account of his lifelong love of the printed word that began with his birth above his grandfather’s bookshop in Toronto. He was part of the second wave of the Chicago Renaissance (1910-1925) that included novelists Theodore Dreiser and Sherwood Anderson, poets Carl Sandburg, Edgar Lee Masters, and Vachel Lindsay, and reporters Ben Hecht and Ring Lardner.

Above all else, Starrett revered two things that I also love: books and Sherlock Holmes. He was one of the 1934 founders of that most famous and exclusive of all Sherlockian fan clubs, the Baker Street Irregulars, along with fellow literary critic Christopher Morley—himself the author of the one of the greatest books about books ever written, Parnassus on Wheels (1917). Get a copy and read it.

Starrett collected primarily first editions, like most “collectors” as they are classically defined. I don’t share that love, I’m afraid—I care more about the words inside than I do about the edition itself. Only in the last ten years have I become a hopeless hardback-book snob, habitually “upgrading” anything I have in paper when I come across a cloth-bound volume of the same title. Alas, this is why book-collecting is known as the “gentle madness.” As Starrett famously said, “It is possible that the most misunderstood man upon earth is the collector of books.”

A final word about the quality of this particular volume: In this age of disposability, when our electronics are obsolete in one year and many publishers print their books on pulp paper that soon turns yellowish brown, the University of Oklahoma Press in 1965 could refreshingly proclaim that “the paper on which this book is printed has an intended life of at least three hundred years.”

I’m sure my iPhone and Kindle will both last that long too, don’t you?

What I’m Reading Now: April 3, 2018

Van Wyck Brooks, The World of Washington Irving (E.P. Dutton, 1944, 387 pp.)

Van Wyck Brooks is an author whose work was enormously popular in the mid-20th century. How popular? Walk into any used bookstore and you’ll trip over his books. Time magazine, whose cover he graced in 1944, called him “the nation’s most distinguished literary critic.”

He is most famous for five volumes known collectively as “Makers and Finders: A History of the Writer in America, 1800-1915,” the most well-known of which is The Flowering of New England, 1815-1865, published in 1936, winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. The other volumes are New England: Indian Summer, 1865-1915 (1940); The World of Washington Irving (1944); The Times of Melville and Whitman (1947); and The Confident Years: 1885-1915 (1952).

Scott Berg’s Max Perkins: Editor of Genius (1978) recounts the harrowing years when Brooks was unable to write because of a mental breakdown, and how Perkins helped him climb back out of his psychic abyss to become one of the 20th century’s most prolific, if now forgotten, authors. Brooks himself was the focus of Raymond Nelson’s Van Wyck Brooks: A Writer’s Life (1981), and his long friendship with critic Lewis Mumford was detailed in Robert E. Spiller’s edited volume of their letters, The Record of a Literary Friendship, 1921-1963 (1970).

I am thoroughly enjoying The World of Washington Irving, being a huge fan of Irving, but the book’s canvas stretches far beyond, covering a host of other writers from Edgar Allen Poe to James Fenimore Cooper, John James Audubon, William Gilmore Simms, and lesser luminaries whose stars have long since dimmed. There is a treasury of learning here, and it is a pleasure to read.

Van Wyck (rhymes with bike) Brooks was widely lauded during his own day with awards and honorary degrees, but as Patton so rightly noted, all glory is fleeting. When Brooks died in Bridgewater, Connecticut in 1963 at the age of 77, his town decided to build a library wing in his honor. The effort died after ten years of meager fundraising, only to be revived when a California hermit who admired Brooks’s writing left the library $300,000 in his will. The wing was finally dedicated in 1980.

Eighty years ago, with the Nazis rising in Europe and with the world tottering on the brink of madness, critic Malcolm Cowley reviewed The Flowering of New England. In addition to Brooks’s erudition and scholarship, Cowley lauded Brooks for “turning back to the great past in order to see the real nature of the traditions that we are trying to save, and in order to gain new strength for the struggles ahead.”

Gaining new strengths for the struggles ahead, be they against personal demons or the next global firestorm: still one of the best reasons I’ve ever heard for reading books like this, then or now.

What I’m Reading Now: March 27, 2018

Charles Dickens, by Jane Smiley. Penguin Lives Series (Penguin, 2002, pp. 212)

One of the great joys of my life that I look forward to with keen pleasure is continuing to read everything that Charles Dickens wrote. I was introduced to him about ten years ago, the way that anyone should properly be: through Great Expectations and then David Copperfield. I was hooked.

The two words that best describe Dickens are genius and energy. Anyone feeling that they’ve over-achieved in life will consider that Dickens wrote The Pickwick Papers when he was 25. Before he was 30 he had added Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby, The Old Curiosity Shop, and Barnaby Rudge. How is that even possible?

He went on to write a total of 15 novels, among the best in the English language, 10 of which are more than 800 pages long. This is on top of his other novels, stories, plays, travel writing, essays, and letters. He edited magazines, gave dramatic performances, speeches, and readings all over the world, walked 10-20 miles a day, while being an insensitive husband and problematic father to ten children. He lived, wrote, and worked at an indefatigable pace before it all suddenly ended with his early death at age 58. A national treasure, he was buried in Poets’ Corner at Westminster Abbey.

There are many gateways into Dickens’s fascinating life, and those who want to dive deep can plunge into Edgar Johnson’s 2-volume Charles Dickens: His Tragedy and Triumph (1953) or Peter Ackroyd’s Dickens (1991), which clocks in at 1,195 pages. For those who prefer biographies that don’t double as doorstops, pick up this slim little volume in the Penguin Lives series.

Author Jane Smiley is no slouch herself, having won a Pulitzer Prize for her 1991 novel, A Thousand Acres. She clearly admires Dickens, and for her readers who are also aspiring writers, this book doubles as a graduate seminar on what novels are and what great novelists aim to achieve. She critically analyzes all of Dickens’s writings and stays close by his desk as he struggles to please his growing audience and feed his growing brood. Along the way, he found a powerful voice that combined, in Smiley’s words, artistic vision with social action and brought that vision to life in some of the most memorable literary characters ever created.

Smiley argues that his only peer among English writers is William Shakespeare, while Claire Tomalin in Charles Dickens: A Life (2011) wrote that only The Bard created more memorable characters than Dickens.

Do yourself a favor and find out if they are right. Make the acquaintance of the Pickwickians, the Artful Dodger, Samuel Weller, and all the rest. The remaining years of your life will thank you for it.

The Reason Why

vip-1982Teaching is not a lost art, but the regard for it is a lost tradition–Jacques Barzun

William Arthur Ward wrote that the mediocre teacher tells, the good teacher explains, the superior teacher demonstrates, the great teacher inspires. Carl Vipperman, my very first history professor at the University of Georgia, died on June 28, 2014, at the age of 86. I was honored and humbled to be the only one of the thousands of students he had in a 30-year teaching career to speak at his memorial service in Athens on July 2. I was privileged that day also to spend time with many of Carl’s friends and family, including his beloved wife Reggie, son Carl Jr.—known as Vip—and Vip’s wife Vick031801 Hometown #1ie (all pictured below, left, at Vip’s 1982 wedding).  I visited his beautiful Tudor-style historic home on W. Cloverhurst Avenue (at right), perused the book-lined shelves in his study, sat in his reading chair in the writing nook that he built in the backyard (reminiscent of writer Christopher Morley’s famous similar retreat, the Knothole), and walked the well-manicured grounds of Reggie’s beautiful gardens. Vip and I spent time in his father’s writing retreat that evening reminiscing over a glass of wine about his father and his own successful career as songwriter and musician. It was an emotional day of tribute to the good and gentle man who inspired me to choose the path of historian. Carl Jackson Vipperman was a great teacher, in the finest tradition of that honorablvip-fame but too often undervalued profession. You will see why I was asked to speak in the remarks that follow, which I delivered at his memorial service:

“I begin with a quote from Charles Dickens, which is
fitting not only because of what it says, but also because Carl Vipperman could quote literature like few other people: ‘That was a memorable day to me, for it made great changes in me. But it is the same with any life. Imagine one selected day struck out of it, and think how different its course would have been. Pause you who read this, and think for a moment of the long chain of iron or gold, of thorns or flowers, that would never have bound you, but for the formation of the first link on one memorable day.’

One of those days for me was Friday, September 17, 1982, my first day of college and the day I first met Carl Vipperman. I was taking History 251, the first half of American history, in the PJ auditorium and was one of 300 people waiting for class to begin. In walked Carl Vipperman. He was silver haired (though only a little older than I am right now), wearing a white button-down oxford shirt, blue jeans, and comfortable brown shoes. Unassuming. He didn’t look like a professor so much as the guy you meet hanging out down at the vip-studyhardware store. There wasn’t much to go on, but I remember thinking that I might actually be able to do this college thing, and that I liked Carl Vipperman. I didn’t know it at the time, but that day was for me one like Dickens described, a memorable day that made great changes in me and bound me with chains of gold and flowers.

For the next 10 weeks, Monday through Friday, Carl walked up on stage and talked about American history. He started with the Norse invasion and it seemingly took him weeks and weeks to get to anything resembling American history, but I loved it. He not only was a master lecturer, but his knowledge and depth of learning were constantly on display. He casually dropped in names of historical sites we should see, books we should read; he somehow managed to work in lyrics from songs and he recited poetry as well. I wrote it all down in my notes and it often sent me scrambling in those pre-Google days to the library to track down the source of the poetry, the rest of the song, or the book he had mentioned. And he did it all without a single note. Here was a man who loved what he did, was good at it, and who put his passion and enthusiasm on display five days a week without fail for all of us to see. I had never seen anything like it, certainly not among my high school teachers, bless them. Quite simply, he set a model for how a professor should conduct his class that left me disappointed many times over in most of my other non-history classes that I took during the next 4 years. (It certainly wouldn’t have happened the next quarter with the professor who taught HIS 252, the second half of American history. He was deadly boring and shall remain nameless.) Carl Vipperman lit a fire in me that never burned out.

vip-bass

Carl almost pursued a musical career and maintained that love all his life. He played the upright bass in an Athens trio called “The Professors” for years.

I loved history but didn’t major in it, getting my undergraduate degree in journalism instead. But I immediately went back for a master’s degree in history and was privileged to be in the history department in LeConte Hall at a very special time. I took more classes with Carl and got to know his remarkable colleagues: Nash Boney, Phinizy Spalding, Jim Anderson, Emory Thomas, Jean Friedman, Ron Rader, Charlie Wynes, Joe Berrigan, Kirk Willis, Bill McFeely, Bob Pratt, Will Holmes, Bud Bartley, Lester Stephens, Alf Heggoy, John Inscoe, Tom Dyer, Aubrey Land. These were scholars who treated us with respect and expected us to do the same with each other. They welcomed us into their homes for social gatherings with a warmth of spirit and generosity, of collegiality, that set a very powerful example. I learned later it was a rare thing indeed in the academy. I have never forgotten it or them.

My path led me into public history, where I’ve had a wonderful and very fulfilling career that has allowed me to do things I never would have imagined when I began this journey on that long ago September Friday.  In January 2006  I decided the time was way overdue for the man most responsible for launching me on that journey to know what he had done for me. So I wrote the following letter to Carl Vipperman:

‘Dear Dr. Vipperman: Please allow me to re-introduce myself to you. In my very first quarter at the University of Georgia, in the Fall of 1982, I took your American History class and it set me on the course of my life’s work as a historian and writer. For all these years, I’ve wanted you to know the enormous and positive influence you had on my life, but I’ve never taken the time to write you. Having gotten a doctorate and done a bit of teaching myself on the college level, I have had students approach me and tell me how much they enjoyed my class and appreciated how exciting I made my subject, how I had pushed them and challenged them to expand their minds. I would respond, ‘I studied under one of the masters.’ It always made me think about my own teachers–like you–and how much that was true of the best of them, but yet I’d never taken the opportunity to tell them so, to tell them how much they’ve shaped who I’ve become, the important role they played in my journey, and how much they mean to me–in short, to say a heartfelt and profound ‘thank you.’

vip-carving

Carl was an accomplished woodworker, carving this bust of Abraham Lincoln.

First and foremost, you made history fun and exciting. Your teaching style was engaging and lively, your lectures were informative and humorous, yet packed with insight and analysis. And you did it all without any notes whatsoever! You could pick up on Monday morning exactly where you had left off on Friday, and never miss a beat. When the lecture was over, you always had time for students and their questions, and you never tired of conversations after class. Your warmth and generosity continue to inspire me, and the lessons you taught me in that classroom–as a scholar and as a gentleman–have stayed with me throughout my life. It was a privilege to be in your class.

As I watched you all those years ago, I asked myself, “How can I get a job doing what he’s doing?” I came to your office once and talked to you about a career in history, and though you discouraged me from getting an advanced degree in history due to the depressed job market, I didn’t listen! I went on to take your upper division course on Jefferson to the Civil War and though I received my undergraduate degree in journalism, I took my master’s degree in history there at UGA (working with Bill McFeely) and went on to get my Ph.D. in history at the University of Florida, where I studied under Bertram Wyatt-Brown. I would have never written my dissertation on South Carolina without your influence in that first class. It was you who first sparked my interest in South Carolina history, and it was your lectures that led me to take my first trip to Charleston. The vineyard of South Carolina history and historiography is a rich one, and your works on Rawlins and William Lowndes are both models of careful and thorough scholarship, good writing, and penetrating analysis. Indeed, anyone who labors in the field of history knows that their study would not be possible without the hard work and scholarship of those who have walked the vineyards before us and all who study the history of South Carolina stand in your debt.

vip-hatsThey say that a teacher’s influence never ends, that their influence is passed down from generation to generation. You are living proof of that. Rest assured, my dear sir, you have touched many other lives besides mine.  To quote Thomas Jefferson, writing to his friend John Adams in 1812, ‘No circumstances have lessened the interest I feel in these particulars respecting yourself; none have suspended for one moment my sincere esteem for you, and I now salute you with unchanged affection and respect. ‘ With all good wishes…’

Some time went by and I heard nothing. I thought, well, maybe my letter got thrown out with the junk mail. Who writes letters anymore anyway? Maybe I should have called or gone to visit instead. And then one day, nearly two months later, I found this email waiting for me one morning, with the subject line ‘Landmark Letter of January 31’:

Carl and his beloved Reggie

Carl and his beloved Reggie

‘Dear Dr. Deaton: I have delayed far longer than I intended in answering your letter and for that I must apologize.  Part of the reason was the profound impact it made at our house. As I didn’t have my glasses, my wife Reggie opened the mail and started reading your letter to me.  She was in tears before she got halfway through it, and when she finished, I said, ‘If I should fall over dead tomorrow, I want that letter read at my funeral, and I’d like for Stan Deaton to read it.’ If that comment sounds flippant, I assure you I could hardly be more serious.  Your letter established a landmark in my professional life. Over the years I have received many compliments, mostly verbal and some written, and the year after I retired in 1994, the history department established the Graduate Teaching Assistant Award in my name, which I appreciate very much.  But your letter is the first of its kind, coming from a student who did not major in history under my guidance, who wrote neither his thesis nor dissertation under my direction, who decided to become a historian against my market-prompted advice, who sought out the most challenging (and most rewarding) road to advanced degrees by choosing to study under McFeely and Wyatt-Brown, two of the best in the business

The writing nook built by Carl in his backyard that he enjoyed after his retirement.

The writing nook built by Carl in his backyard that he enjoyed after his retirement.

and among the most demanding in the profession, and who went on to establish himself as a respected member of my profession and especially among the community of historians in Georgia.  What I found most gratifying and at the same time most humbling in your letter was that you considered the American history survey course you had with me to be a pivotal point in turning your attention toward history as a profession.  That tends to vindicate what I have always believed, that introductory history courses are so important (1) for the enlightenment of ordinary American citizens on the historical character of their country and (2) for the recruitment of students like you for the history profession, that  indifferent or uninterested instructors should never be allowed near them. Stan, in closing I must say that your letter was a great gift to the household of this old retired historian.  You were lost to my memory before it came, but never again.  Reggie and I thank you again for your priceless gift, and wish you every success and future happiness.’

Someone should read Carl’s letter at my funeral.

One month ago I spoke in Savannah at the memorial service for a dear friend of mine who committed suicide. One of his cousins said to me, ‘there are going to be some rough days ahead. Let’s all be there for each other.”  I say the same to you today, in the spirit of my friend and mentor, who meant so much to me. Take the time to tell people what they mean to you, the influence they’ve played in your life. Before we are historians, scholars, teachers, we are human beings. Be kind to each other, lift each other up. Forgive other people, and be the first to reach out. Be there for each other.  The academy—indeed, life in any profession—can be a petty, mean-svip-hatpirited, ugly business, with nasty backbiting and turf wars that can hurt feelings and leave friendships and reputations destroyed. Carl Vipperman was living proof that one can rise above all of that, and live one’s life with honor and integrity while treating others with kindness and respect. He told us in class one day that our lives would last longer than our careers, to fill it with things like community, culture, conversation and friends. Service to others. Absorption in things other than self is the secret to a happy life, well-rounded and well-lived, like Carl Vipperman’s. I regret that I didn’t go to greater lengths to see him and spend time with him in these latter years, but I’m grateful that at the end of the day he knew how much he meant to me and the influence he had on my life.

Peace to Carl and all who knew and loved him, and honor and glory to his memory.”