Book Reviews: Fall 2017

By: Anna Faktorovich, PhD

At the Root of the Superhero Formula

Kevin Patrick. The Phantom Unmasked: America’s First Superhero. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, November 15, 2017. $25. Softcover. ISBN: 978-1-60938-500-2. 262pp.

***

Why did a particular narrow genre and style of hero comic books become an international industry that rivals whole categories of best-selling novels (especially when it crosses into video games, television and merchandise)? The answer might lie in this study of The Phantom comic series and how it broke circulation records starting with its initial release in 1936. The book also focuses on why this series gained more popularity abroad than in its home country, America. Top American and British publishers frequently make a significant portion of their profits from licensing of the content to publishers abroad. This is similar to how films’ international distribution brings them into theaters in markets that might be attracted to them because they represent the ideals the West represents. But with licensing local publishers frequently rebrand a book, giving it their own cover, or perhaps do a translation and otherwise add their own touch. If a book sells better abroad than at home it certainly says something about cultural differences that needs to be examined.

I was surprised that there are no images in this book. It seems like a difficult proposition to spend a book talking about a comic without even showing the central hero in a single snap other than the abstract image of a masked face on the cover. The author probably had difficulty gaining access to these images because it still continues to sell well, so the publisher probably would have asked for a significant sum for reproductions.

The author wrote the initial version of this book as his doctoral thesis. The study is in part based on an online survey he conducted with 600 “phans.” Few similar studies have been done before because while the field of cultural studies has been around for a few decades, it is frequently ill-executed. This is a great example of practical cultural studies wherein the author is examining the economics of the phenomenon and not just the tropes or racial or gender topics the series hits on (though he does touch on both of these).

Patrick explains that the Phantom is significant because this series founded the genre of “skin-tight costume, cowl, and mask” clad superheroes (2). There are many other types of heroes out there and many other ways for them to dress, but these three elements are constant among bestsellers like Superman, which followed shortly after the Phantom. Originators of genres are frequently undervalued in the American market, as top publishers are skilled at repeating the formula the originators invent with much louder marketing dollars. This happened in the Phantom’s case, as it was far more popular in Australia, Sweden and India than in its country of origin.

The opening chapters of this study are very readable and inviting, but then, the citations get pretty dense and the text becomes primarily only accessible to academics. This scholarly lens does mean that the details are fully supported, as in this example: “Gerard Jones argues that Falk abandoned his original plan to use Jimmy Wells as the Phantom’s alter ego, claiming that an unspecified ‘copyright dispute’ prompted Falk to transfer the strip’s setting to ‘the jungles of India’ (2004: 123-24)” (33). This single sentence suggests that there might have been a competing comic that originated the superhero genre that was engaged in a “copyright dispute” with the Phantom’s team. It also touches on race and ethnicity as the Phantom’s Indian origin explains his international appeal.

If I ever start publishing more comic strips with Anaphora, I’ll definitely look closer at this book for marketing ideas. Anybody in the comics industry as well as phans and academics studying comics should benefit from this book.

Cryptic Academic-Speak on Service and Reading

Nicholas Hengen Fox. Reading as Collective Action. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, October 1, 2017. $65. Softcover. ISBN: 978-1-60938-525-5. 168pp.

**

This is one of those books that no member of the general public should attempt tackling. The press release promises that Nicholas Hengen Fox attempts a “re-reading of reading.” I have an allergy to cryptic academic-speak of this sort. In most instances, when one re-reads the convoluted bits of text in this style, they reveal extreme biases or very controversial points of view (that the author aimed to disguise), or more frequently nonsense – or a lack of a clear point. For example, later in this press release, we are told that the book also attempts to offer ways for readers to engage in better service learning and community engagement via grassroots action. Well, what does re-reading have to do with community service?

The “Prologue” does a better job explaining the essence of this book. It is essentially a study of how reading literature can be utilized to assist community service programs. Three central experiments in this direction are explored in three of the chapters that follow. The “re-reading” bit has no logical sense in this main argument; Fox claims that the theoretical bits will be covered later in the text, so he probably explains the meaning of re-reading somewhere in there, but while re-reading any text is a good idea, it clearly does not have anything to do with the main argument. Amidst clear explanations of reading and community service, Fox also keeps returning to the concept of “tactical readers,” saying that they are responsible for “amplifying marginalized voices” by “sharing money,” “food” and “suppressed knowledge and ideas” (3). This is logical enough and this term does manage to adequately combine community service and reading.

Chapter 1 is a study of a group of youths who wrote and published poems after September 11, 2001 against xenophobia and racial profiling in the ensuing “war on terror.” For Chapter 2, the author traveled to Jackson, Michigan and Knoxville, Tennessee to observe a National Endowment for the Arts program, the 2009 Big Read that covered The Grapes of Wrath (1939). This novel has been one of the most banned novels in American literature primarily because it is critical of California’s grape growers, and the associations in charge of this industry insisted on its suppression. The publicity from their attempts to ban it just made it an international bestseller. Fox was particularly interested in these Big Read events because the organizers combined the reading with the “delivery of much-needed public services” including “free means and advice on escaping foreclosures” (4). Chapter 3 looked at two groups. In the first, two young women talked with strangers on the subway about working-class literature. In the second, the group created a multimedia website, Rough Crossing, which presents literature from the Pacific Northwest.

On the surface, it is a great idea for people to engage in both reading and community service. Obviously, both of these are very good things to practice regularly. However, do they really mix well? I took a community service class at UMass a couple of decades ago. First, we read books like this one that examined various theoretical ways to help communities in financial trouble. Then, we drove down to Virginia and spent most of the time there sort of hammering nails into a single stairs while sleeping on the floor of a church.

Obviously, the Grapes was written with the intent of fixing problems with low wages and few protections for workers in the grape industry. Anybody who reads the book closely should benefit from this social message. Since it’s widely popular and read in schools, hopefully some of the kids who read it will eventually be responsible for employment practices and might change these companies for the better from the inside or through protest from the outside. But why would it be a good idea to combine a soup kitchen with a reading of this novel. One of the problems with this is that this novel is currently controlled by the Big Four publishers, so NEH is really sponsoring the purchase of numerous copies from a giant publisher if it is paying for the books being given away in these Big Reads. In other words, there are plenty of small publishers that would have benefited and made a year’s income if they were chosen in these Big Reads, but instead NEH sponsored a Big Read for a book that doesn’t need any more sales or publicity to keep its author or publisher in business. The youth who wrote against xenophobia did it in part by vandalizing public walls and other spaces. Is it really reassuring for somebody from the Middle East to read a poem about 9/11 in the restroom or while walking to work? Frequently, there’s a fine line between an anti and a pro-xenophobic rhetoric; so did these kids really all know the difference? Then there’s the idea for girls to talk with strangers on the subway. In what city can this be a safe idea? Why couldn’t they query poor people on social media? Sure, a website about poverty in a geographic area sounds like a good idea, but who did it practically help?

The ideas presented in this study represent the main problems with America’s current community service programs. The people designing these programs are frequently interested in profits for a publisher or in profits for an organization distributing the food, rather than in helping the needy. This is why in the latest string of disasters, most cities reported not seeing the Red Cross anywhere near the locations they were being paid to support. 90% or more is going into these community service organizations’ pockets and not to the poor. This waste creates the desperation among the work-class and the unemployed that leads to chronic problems that spiral out of control. Fox repeats the term “working-class” many times in the introduction, but clearly soup kitchens are for the unemployed, and xenophobia is hardly related to class.

Here’s a sentence that represents what’s wrong with this book: “By fostering the space to develop new, more inclusive, more inventive practices of politics, by linking new practitioners into our already existing projects in new ways, we scale toward that structural, ‘second-order’ change” (107). Practices of politics? Community service is hardly equivalent to politics. Politics is the process of law-creation, editing and deletion, or perhaps it is the institution that aims to further its own continuation. The key term in the rest of it seems to be “new,” as the author proposes that the solution to the current shortages in community service is bringing in new, young people. Why is this a new idea? I recall being recruited to perform community service in high school; it’s basically a part of the American extracurricular agenda. Obviously, community service organizing institutions like the Red Cross can only allow for superficial involvement from volunteers if their books are cooked and most of their profits are not going to the intended recipients. On the other hand, volunteers do lower the cost further, so that the Red Cross or the Salvation Army don’t really have to spend much money on employees, as the bulk of the labor needed to help their customers is free. The convoluted sentence is hiding the fact that it is deliberately laudatory of the current system, and that it fails to introduce any new solutions.

Overall, this is a terrible book that nobody should read if they are considering community service. Reading literature will continue to inspire people into positive social actions. And people who want to help others, will continue to do so. But the two things should not be combined to the benefit of the corrupt few.

The Best Biography of a Corrupted President

David Cay Johnston. The Making of Donald Trump. Brooklyn: Melville House, 2016. $24.99. Hardcover. ISBN: 978-1-61219-632-9. 263pp.

*****

A fantastic biography of Donald Trump, released just as he was running for President. David Cay Johnston had broken many of the stories that caught Trump in corruption and various other shady dealings in Vegas and elsewhere, so it is only fitting for him to write this summary of Trump’s criminal and business endeavors.

I requested this book because I was starting research on a political satirical novel (which I’ve temporarily put aside). I learned of the book when I was watching a YouTube talk with Johnston. As I expected, this turned out to be an outstanding source to understand the roots of political and business corruption in the United States.

The front cover has gold-colored popping out text for all of the lines except for the first, “The New York Time Bestseller,” which is in black. The back cover is short and stresses that Johnston won the Pulitzer Prize for his investigative reporting. Unlike most authorized biographies, this controversial study does not include any photographs of Trump or his associates. Obviously, what businessman would want to be included in these pages: it would definitely be very bad PR. In this case, the photos are completely unnecessary just as they would be in a murder mystery. The suspense of the plotline keeps the story rolling. Most chapters end with a cliffhanger that promises a new crime that Trump committed to be uncovered in the next chapter.

I underlined numerous surprising bits and had to read this book very closely unlike many of the books I review. It might be improved though if the author was a bit less repetitive as he returns to summaries of what all these problems mean or to old problems covered before. I would have preferred if more research and more proof of corruption, crime and the like was presented. The evidence that is presented comes from interviews with witnesses that frequently haven’t confessed as much elsewhere, as well as financial and court documents.

One of the revelations made here that I haven’t heard many journalists making elsewhere is that Trump has a negative net worth. Trump has threatened to sue Johnston over this and other claims, so it must be true. Other claims include that Trump has said before that he always planned to “run for president” to “make a profit” (xi), rather than for any political or altruistic motives.

Overall, this is such a great book, I won’t go into the details of what it reveals because I hope everybody reading this review will buy it and read it for themselves.

The Unreadable Object-Voice

Claude Maisonnat. Joseph Conrad and the Voicing of Textuality. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, December 19, 2017. $60. Hardcover. ISBN: 978-8-377849-30-9. 416pp.

**

This is another great example of academia in chaos. The press release explains that Maisonnat sets out to invent the concept of “textual voice, as opposed to the traditional conceptions of authorial voice and narrative voice.” What do you think the difference is between “textual” and “authorial” and “narrative” voices? The terms text, author and narrative are studied at the high school level. Obviously, the author has his voice, and the narrative can flow in a different style or voice, but why would there be a need to describe the voice of the “text.” The text is just the entire manuscript as opposed to the storyline or the content in this text that is represented by the term “narrative.” The release then explains that this “textual voice is an offshoot of the Lacanian object-voice trimmed to fit a literary context.” In other words, the concept is basically the same as one created by Lacan, a critic who studied nothing but “literary” texts; thus, it is exactly the same concept but now given a new name. Now we consider the term “object-voice” and probably we can all go cross-eyed from this consideration. By definition, objects don’t have voices – objects are inanimate; only animated subjects have voices. The next sentence proposes the possible benefits of this supposedly new concept: “It enables the reader to uncover deeply concealed motivations and perceive unsuspected connections to the biographical background of the texts.” Do you follow the logic here? The voice of the inanimate objects is going to assist readers to understanding motivations and connections to the animated subjects’ biographies. Do you buy this analysis? But the next sentence is even grander: “it offers new ways of structuring close reading and opens vistas into the mysteries of creation.” Now the second part of this sentence really says it: the argument the author is going to make is really about God. God? What does God and his mysterious creations have to do with Joseph Conrad? Yes, without close reading, readers would miss this reference in this sentence; but otherwise close reading and God are hardly connected.

I think the explanation for all this confusion lies in this being volume 26 in Columbia’s Conrad: Eastern and Western Perspectives series. The editor has seen every possible explanation of Conrad’s limited range of works. Now they’re venturing into explanations that baffle and confuse the mind just to have something “new” to say about it all. This series was started in 1992 with a biography, Conrad’s Literary Career, followed by books on context, style, and approaches to reading Conrad in countries like Scandinavia and Poland. It has been published annually ever since. The font in the book is humongous and the formatting style is similar to other texts from the 90s. Clearly, this series is exhausted and in need of a way out. Maybe everything that could’ve been said about Conrad has been said?

As I glimpsed at the interior, the title of Chapter Three stood out: “The Threat of the Feminine…” The concluding pages in this chapter nor the opening paragraph explain what exactly is threatening about the feminine. There are hints against romance and fear of women throughout the chapter, but it is not the main idea that is resolved with clarity at the end. So, the title starts to sound sexist as it dangles without an explanation.

Scholarship has to return to clarity. A scholarly book should not be a puzzle that can only be solved by digging up the definition of each contradictory term. I needed to write a couple paragraphs just to understand the press release. New discoveries in literary criticism cannot be made unless they are understood, just like the Theory of Relativity wouldn’t have been useful or accepted if it could not be understood. And we should stop making very old ideas sound as if we just discovered them. Obviously, somebody did a lot of research, and a lot of convoluted writing to create this book, but if somebody isn’t readable, what is the point of writing it?

The Life’s Work of a Slave

Cedrick May, Editor. The Collected Work of Jupiter Hammon: Poems and Essays. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2017. Hardcover. ISBN: 978-1-62190-329-1. 94pp.

*****

One of the key roles of scholarly publishing is making collections of canonical works that have hereto been unexplored available to the general public. This book does just this with a collection of the works of “one of the founders of African American literature,” a slave born on a plantation in 1711. Of course, since this is a canonical author, most of these pieces have been previously published, so it is great that the Editor found a couple of poems that haven’t been. Anybody that spends time in the archives can attest that finding something unpublished in a well-explored collection is a challenge. It’s also helpful that Cedrick May added context for these hundreds of years old pieces. Without notes on historical, political and social context, most texts from the 1700s are barely legible.

The central theme in Jupiter Hammon’s writing is the need to abolish slavery, a topic that was a major offense of that day. He was born in the north, in Long Island, where slavery was still legal. He learned to read and write with his master’s children, and this skill gave him a leg up on other enslaved people in his community, so that he held leadership roles and had the luxury to spend time writing and publishing. Various intricate details about Hammon’s background are provided in the “Introduction.”

Hammon’s writings are formatted just as they were in the original publications, with the same capitalizations, indentations, and the other unique artistic elements that distinguish 18th century texts. For example, “DEAR HUTCHINSON IS DEAD AND GONE” has bold letters as indicated, and opposite to the first stanza, in giant letters appears: }Sickness{ I don’t know what this means in this context, but a scholar of these texts should be able to deduce the meaning. When publishers delete these types of elements something is frequently lost in the modernization.

The poems are primarily religious in nature, with many Biblical references. This is only natural as Hammon is thought to have been a preacher. This is a bit of a drawback for me personally because religious texts tend to repeat ideas, which make them less original as literary works. The anti-slavery rhetoric is submerged in this religious ocean. Hammon’s most controversial and famous essay was also his last (as he was probably censored from making any similarly radical speeches in the future): “An Address to the Negroes of the State of New-York.” Sadly, even in this piece he is hardly full-on abolitionist. For example, one of the lessons he offers to his fellow African Americans is: “Respecting obedience to masters.” He adds after this: “Now whether it is right, and lawful, in the sight of God, for them to make slave of us or not…” This is the controversial statement: he is questioning the morality of slave ownership. But then he insists: “I am certain that while we are slaves, it is our duty to obey or masters, in all their lawful commands…” (69). Obviously, by modern standards this is timid criticism. The next piece in the collection that also refers to slavery, “An Essay on Slavery,” which states: “Dark and dismal was the Day/ When slavery began/ All humble thoughts were put away/ Then slaves were made [to] Man” (79). The poetic version is perhaps more powerful.

A few scans of original hand-written poetry are included. The handwriting is elegant and neat: this is frequently a great indicator of the personality and steadfastness of the writer, so it’s great these were included.

The Biography of a Civil War Villain

Sam Davis Elliott. John C. Brown of Tennessee: Rebel, Redeemer, and Railroader. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2017. Hardcover. ISBN: 978-1-62190-287-4. 386pp.

*****

A biography of a Confederate general from Tennessee, who might have also been a leader of the Ku Klux Klan. Given the current racially tense climate in the South, this is a fitting book for the times. History that isn’t researched is doomed to be repeated. Some of the best history books are written about villains like Hitler or Stalin. Understanding tyrants and others who fought on the wrong side is a primary objective for any historian. The author, Sam Davis Elliott, explains that John C. Brown played a role in major Confederate battles and that his biography is necessary to understand these larger events. Brown went on to become the president of the 1870 constitutional convention, and served as governor.

The cover uses a wonderfully painted, dramatic portrait of Brown. It’s better than most available paintings of Lincoln, so clearly Brown was fiscally successful enough to afford a top portrait painter. There are some good photos and other graphic images in the book’s interior, but not too many. The book is organized chronologically. The first chapter covers the first thirty-four years of Brown’s life up to 1861. Then, the narrative slows down, so that only a year is covered in each of the following four chapters: each focusing on a different set of campaigns in the Civil War. Then, there’s a chapter on Brown’s role in the Reconstruction. The final chapters are about his governorship and his role in running the railroad. There are copious notes, an Index, and various other parts that should assist researchers in recovering the evidence Elliott used for this study.

A lot of Brown’s story is speculative because he was not a top player and because this is his first major biography. Frequently, when several biographies are written things that were speculative in the first version become facts in the last biography. Here’s one example: “Whether he was able to join in the festivities surrounding a visit by President Jefferson Davis to the army, the wedding of a local belle to the cavalry’s Brig. Gen. John H. Morgan, which was presided over by Polk in his bishop’s role, and attended by much of the army’s high command, or the other seasonal parties is unknown” (49). This segment does a great job explaining the customs, traditions, and culture of the Confederate army without insisting that what was true for some recorded soldiers was also true for the central figure of this biography. In other parts, the exact dates, number of men utilized, and quotes from orders are given if written records are available (54).

This is a great book for anybody that wants to understand the realities of fighting on the Confederate side in the Civil War. Everything from dances to the food to vacations and spending habits is examined closely. I will probably return to this book if I ever write fiction or non-fiction about the Civil War. Brown is at the heart of this book, but most of it is about the South of his time, and this is what’s still alive and relevant today.

Artifact of Southern Mammy Cooking

Martha McCulloch-Williams. Dishes and Beverages of the Old South, Third Edition. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2017. Softcover. ISBN: 978-1-62190-300-0. 318pp.

*****

I requested this book because I watched a documentary that utilized bits out of it. This is a unique facsimile reproduction of a 1913 narrative cookbook, Dishes and Beverages of the Old South by Martha McCulloch-Williams. Its miniature size is due to the small dimensions of the original, as the facsimiles are of single pages just as they appeared initially. The “Foreword” and “Introduction” do a great job summarizing the significance of this book in its genre and to the history of cookbooks. It was initially popular and genre-setting, but then went out of style before it was revived in 1988 by the University of Tennessee Press in its second edition, and this is now the third printing with some new notes and explanations. The chapter titles in this book are pretty simple and reflect the rudimentary information covered: bacon, hams, “Paste, Pies, Puddings,” cakes, “Meat, Poultry, Game, Eggs” and the like.

I have recently been researching 18th century British and American culture and literature, so I was interested to learn that the first American Southern cookbook (an abridgement of the English version) was released in 1742: The Compleat Housewife; or, Accomplish’d Gentlewoman’s Companion by Eliza Smith in Virginia. In my research, I’ve discovered that many of America’s first publishing companies were run by women, especially if their husbands died young. Food and farming were at the top of Americans’ priorities in those early days so its only natural that some of their earliest publications were cookbooks, and almanacs, like Poor Richard’s almanac that made Benjamin Franklin wealthy. The editors explain that this particular 1913 book was a reincarnation of the still vibrant Southern cookbook movement. John Egerton claims that there is “diversity of content within” this “static form” (xvii). Even if the content has been repeating the same recipes and ideas since 1742, it is interesting to examine its originators. The concept of “Southern cooking” was born with these books, and this concept has contributed to the rift between Northern and Southern culture. In a way, the Civil War might not have happened if there were fewer cultural distinctions in the minds of the people that lived in these two giant geographic regions, but then again perhaps if there wasn’t a cultural rift there already, nobody would have written cookbooks on just Southern food. Food, language and other cultural components play a huge part in world politics and arts, so studying these is a responsibility for all intellectuals.

Egerton also explains that McCulloch’s narrative approach solved the drawbacks of the earlier “bare-bones” recipe writing style, which “ages poorly,” as decades later cooks can’t figure out “that mango pickles were really melons, or that isinglass was a kind of gelatin made from fish bladders…” (xviii). In contrast to just bare recipes, McCulloch explained in detail how to prepare simple foods in a way that made them shine. These details are what makes her recipes easy to follow a century after she wrote them. Egerton also explains that at the time of writing the cookbook McCulloch was a “sixty-five-year-old professional writer residing in New York City,” who wrote about the food she remembered being made in her childhood in the South; thus, McCulloch was a writer who wrote a cookbook and not a cook dabbling in writing. Thus, the writing style and her reflections about the art of cooking are more powerful than the technique of her recipes. For example, she opens the book by decrying that “the prevalence of divorce” is likely to be the result of a “decline of home cooking.” In the following paragraph, she also salutes “Mammys” for feeding “us.” The editors explain that these references are to African American slaves who cooked on plantations, like the one where McCulloch grew up in the South before the Civil War. It is unlikely that McCulloch cooked in that plantation environment, but rather watched how the Mammys and “black daddys” cooked, primarily serving as a consumer of their labors. It seems that McCulloch falls into the camp of those who promote Southern culture for the sake of pride in one’s heritage, rather than promoting a regional food because of its superiority to foods elsewhere. McCulloch explains the details of her perspective on the Southern kitchen and food across the book.

Reading it closely is guaranteed to offer cultural studies researchers a wealth of telling evidence on the cultural history of the Civil War and the decades that followed it. On the other hand, somebody that just wants to find some good recipes for the day’s dinner is likely to be puzzled by McCulloch’s explanations: “Cracklin’ Bread: (Pioneer.) Sift a pint of meal, add a pinch of salt, then mix well through a teacup of cracklings – left from rendering lard. Wet up with boiling water, make into small pones, and bake brown in a quick but not scorching oven” (37). “Not scorching” is hardly a temperature that would allow a modern cook to feel secure in this method; modern recipes definitely come with a specific temperature and timing; but electric ovens were a novelty when McCulloch wrote this book.

Digressive Nonsense About Lee and Culture

Holly Blackford. Mockingbird Passing: Closeted Traditions and Sexual Curiosities in Harper Lee’s Novel. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2017. Softcover. ISBN: 978-1-60938-500-2. 350pp.

**

This book is marketed for “high school to college-level collections” that work with courses on the canonical American novel, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. It is meant as a secondary source to assist students with writing research papers on the topic. The book’s chapters explore various cultural aspects, including its southern gothic style and queer backstory. One of the chapters steps away from this classic and into some of Lee’s other novels. The chapters cover nineteenth century philosophy, Uncle Tom melodrama, modernist childishness, humor between the author and his characters, Southern writing style, and women’s regional writing. The introduction hops around the American literary canon as it attempts to figure out why this particular novel has been canonized. References are made to authors like Stowe and Rowling in neighboring sentences, as the author attempts to pinpoint what separates popular and literary fiction. One of the conclusions drawn here (there is no Conclusion at the end of the book, only this “Introduction”) is: “the mockingbird could provide us with an image of the narrator’s voice and the entire novel, which calls upon a diversity of American literary traditions” (5). This is a good example for why this book is not likely to be readable for any high school or college student. When students pick up books like this, they typically opt to plagiarize the essay by buying a paper from the internet. They don’t understand what the writer is trying to say even in final sentences or paragraphs in sections or chapters. There is no unifying meaning. What does humor have to do with childishness? Why would a single book have chapters in both of these categories? And why doesn’t the term “queer” appear in any chapter titles? The back cover suggests that queerness is a primary topic in this book, so where is it? Then there are section titles like “Reading The Gray Ghost.” What does this title suggest? It’s going to discuss how to read? Is it going to talk about close reading? Is it going to be a narration of the process the writer went through as he attempted to read this novel? Later on, there’s a section called: “Racial Melodrama in Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Mockingbird,” which begins with the explanation that melodrama means a combination of “song” and “drama” in Greek. Then he adds that modern melodramas are more about foregoing realism and opting for pop mass media appeal (101). So, he’s saying that race is used as a pop entertainment trope in these two classics? Then, this section discusses “rape of white women”, and in conclusion there is a discussion of two girls having a “lax” lifestyle that is in conflict with traditional rules.

Academic publishers have to stop releasing books like this. Universities are attempting to teach students about sound introductions, middles and conclusions in essays; well, then the books top university publishers are selling for them to use to write these essays must adhere to these basic rhetorical principles. It is not a virtue for a scholarly book to be convoluted. Mixing up unrelated topics and digressing into completely different branches of the cultural studies tree disrupts a book’s ability to be approachable for its target audience. A book can be written in this style if it is written for other researchers, but not for students who are susceptible to view this style as fitting for their own writing. Young students are likely to miss the content and focus on the broken form, adopting this contorted structure into future correspondences, resumes, and essays for other classes. How can a professor mark a student down for digressions if the only book available at the library on the novel the student is researching uses these sorts of extended digressions?

Innumerable Ways to Criticize Films

Charles Maland, Editor. Complete Film Criticism: Reviews, Essays, and Manuscripts: The Works of James Agee, Volume 5. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2017. Hardcover. ISBN: 978-1-62190-258-4. 1038pp.

*****

A complete collection of the film criticism of James Agee. He published criticism in the Nation, Time and Life. Most of these pieces are from 1942-8. Given the period, the films that Agee favored were The Story of G. I. Joe, Monsieur Verdoux and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Some of the works included were initially unsigned, but have been since identified as belonging to Agee. Some unpublished essays fill gaps in previously available criticism. Agee is the focus of this collection because he is perceived as having had a significant impact on the critics that followed him. The book is divided into chapters: on Agee’s biographical and critical background, pieces from Time, reviews from the Nation, “Published Essays,” “Unpublished Manuscripts,” and then back matter. The “Historical Introduction” opens with a 1927 quote from James Agee that explains just why he’s significant in the field: “To me, the great thing about the movies is that it’s a brand new field.” He explains that criticism of music, the theater and other fields is “at least in part imitations. As for the movies… the possibilities are infinite – at least insofar as the possibilities of any art CAN be so” (xiii). The paragraph that follows explains that Agee wrote these wise words in high school, so clearly writing about the cinema was in his blood. Agee also won the Pulitzer Prize for his novel, A Death in the Family, so he was known in other genres, so this collection is a salute to only one of his specialties. Agee’s output was only barred by his early death in 1955. Amazingly Agee managed to make $12,700 salary, equivalent to $135,000 in 2015 just from writing reviews in 1947 alone. Since he made only around $25 per review, he must have written over 500 reviews annually to meet this salary, or a couple of reviews every day (xviii). This is inspiring for anybody who wants to write reviews. If you can watch two films daily and write about them, you too can make an upper class from this and nothing else. The introduction also clearly explains Agee’s critical style. One of his preferences was for war-films. He also favored realism or realistic or social elements in films. The semi-socialist angle Agee occasionally leaned in met with the Nation’s “leftist intellectuals”, while Time leaned towards pop and the right. Agee adjusted his perspective for the publication paying him for his opinions. This wasn’t too far of a stretch as his criticism mostly focused on aesthetics rather than on politics. For a sense of Agee’s writing style, here’s a line from his first Time review of The Big Street: “Carefully solemn Henry Fonda has the dignity of a wax grape of wrath among satiated little foxes…” (2). And here is his last review for the Nation from September 4, 1948 on David Wark Griffith: “he was finished, as smaller men are not, as soon as he had reached the limit of his own powers of innovation, and began to realize he was only repeating himself” (850). Clearly, Agee is also speaking about himself in this conclusion, as he seems to have also stopped writing reviews once he felt like he was repeating himself. Can anybody write 1,000 pages or 6 years of twice-daily reviews without growing tired of the repetition? Poe, Dickens, Scott and various other canonical writers assisted their livelihood through reviews, but they were paid more per review, which allowed them to give more thought to each piece. The modern demand for output on writers is obscene. There’s pressure to grow rich or collapse. There’s pressure to write faster and more. So, Agee is an example of a writer that reached the peak of this demand for output and quality, but eventually collapsed under its burden.

Any film reviewer should have this book handy for inspiration. If one suddenly freezes and can’t think of what to say next, opening this book on any page and reading a few sentences will surely give fresh points, perspectives or the like to examine.

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