Category Archives: my favorite books

Sixth Avenue on a rainy afternoon; Herman Melville

 

 

 

Sixth Avenue 4-23 a.m. 11-30-2018

Sixth Avenue, New York City; Friday afternoon, November 30, 2018

 

 

I took this photo of Sixth Avenue on my way home on Friday afternoon.

It’s been raining a lot in the City this week.

Rain can be a slight inconvenience, like other weather phenomena, but I never really minded it. It can be “nice.”

When I was very young, my mother took me once to my eye doctor, Dr. Johnson, in Boston on a weekday. We went by subway.

The appointment lasted a long time. Going home in the late afternoon, it was dark and rainy. I didn’t mind. I loved having my mother all to myself. When we got home, she put me to bed. She was so kind. She kept saying that I was cold and wet and that I must be very tired: it had been such a long day and we got home late.

Re this photo of Sixth Avenue, this street scene, it reminds me of Herman Melville’s words (in Moby-Dick): “a damp, drizzly November in my soul.”

Thanks to the Good Lord that it came upon me once when I was first living in NYC to read Moby-Dick, in a library copy. What a book!

THE Great American Novel.

 

 

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Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off—then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.

— Herman Melville, Moby-Dick; CHAPTER 1. “Loomings.”

 

— Roger W. Smith

   December 2, 2018

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

English and Shakespeare

 

 

 

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William Shakespeare, “As You Like It”; paperback; Washington Square Press, 1960; note the price of 35 cents

 

 

I am extremely grateful that English is my native language.

In my humble opinion — it’s been said countless times — ’tis a glorious language.

So rich in its origins and vocabulary; the history and shades of meaning that so many of our words have.

The wonderful admixture of earthy, pithy Germanic words from the Anglo-Saxon and high flown, mellifluous Latinate ones, mostly from French, plus borrowings from so many tongues.

I have often said to myself, and to others, that I am grateful for having English as my native tongue if for no other reason than that I can read and appreciate Shakespeare in the original.

I first read Shakespeare, like most students, in high school. My first Shakespeare play was As You Like It — which I loved and have since retained a special affection for — followed by Hamlet.

There was some trepidation about reading The Bard. Would he be difficult?

I was pleasantly surprised to find that he was NOT difficult and was readily comprehensible and enjoyable. He was pleasurable to read and actually easy.

Shakespeare is, of course, admired the world over — in Russia and Japan, for example. But I would guess that foreign readers of him and the producers and consumers of foreign films and foreign stage productions in which his works are presented in translation are focusing on — are enjoying — the marvelous, intricate plots and the dramatic interest of, say, his tragedies without being able to be ravished by the marvelous language.

In watching English language films of Shakespeare, I have thought to myself, it is hard — in some respects — to go wrong. There is always the verbal richness.

It’s hard to conceive how some schools and publishers can embrace the idea of Shakespeare simplified and “translated” into 21st century English.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   September 2017

 

 

 

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There is something beautiful in a language where at the very beginning on a cold, rough shore, users were calling the ocean the “swan-road” and the “whale-road” and the word for poet was the word that became today’s “shaper.” It is amazing to see that even in times when human endeavor has been at its most self-destructive, the language has been able to flower and step forward.

 

— review of Inventing English: A Portable History of the Language by Seth Lerner, posted by a reader on Amazon.com

Roger W. Smith, “On Rereading Theodore Dreiser’s ‘An American Tragedy’ “

 

 

This post is also available as a downloadable Word document (below).

 

 

I don’t have a Ph.D. and lack the academic qualifications of many literary scholars, yet I have a broad and deep knowledge of literature from a lifetime of reading. I also happen to be Dreiserian (a devotee of Theodore Dreiser and his works).

When people ask me who my favorite writers are, I will mention a few, usually them same ones: Shakespeare, Daniel Defoe, Samuel Johnson, William Blake, Charles Dickens, George Gissing, Robert Louis Stevenson, Balzac, Tolstoy, Herman Melville, Walt Whitman … and, Theodore Dreiser.

Dreiser is one of the first I mention. I always experience some embarrassment when I do so. He doesn’t seem to belong in such company.

Dreiser’s massive novel An American Tragedy — it is over 900 pages long — was the book which got me deeply into Dreiser; it bowled me over. I have read it at least twice.

I have been rereading portions of the novel recently. I am surprised how well it holds up and that much of its impact seems undiminished.

Yet Dreiser couldn’t write! Here’s what some commentators have said in the past about this:

Dreiser writes bunglingly and poorly. His style is groping, clumsy and crude, and sometimes even outrageous. He has no sense of form, and he constantly piles up irritating and useless detail. (guest contributor, Oakland Tribune, 1934)

His novels are excruciatingly long, clumsily written, with endless stretches of tedium and scarcely a single redeeming touch of lightness or humor. (Charles A. Fecher, Chicago Tribune, 1990)

Smooth prose composition eluded [Dreiser] forever. His style was raw, his sentences often bewildering, and he organized poorly. Dreiser’s major novels are structurally chaotic, causing one to wonder if he outlined his material before commencing a project. (Larry Swindell, Fort Worth Star-Telegram, 1994)

To read Dreiser is to become aware of a flat declamatory tone apparently unconcerned with niceties of style. He has been described as the kind of writer who triumphs over his own deficiencies of style, and as a writer who rummages through his characters’ thoughts with the impatient thoroughness of a child left alone to explore the contents of an attic. (Geoffrey O’Brien, Bookforum, 2003)

[His] tales of the rise and fall of ordinary people in the Gilded Age retained their power despite slovenly diction, bad grammar, and the author’s penchant for surges of bombastic prose-poetry. (Scott McLemee, The Chronicle of Higher Education, 2004)

Theodore Dreiser couldn’t write.

Or could he?

An American Tragedy has stock characters — notably Sondra Finchley, a 1920’s flapper, the love interest of Clyde Griffiths — who are unbelievable. Clyde is infatuated with the vain and emotionally vapid Sondra because of her wealth and social status.

Dreiser’s prose is turgid and leaden.

Dreiser copied whole chunks of the book from press accounts of an actual murder case. (An American Tragedy, Dreiser’s first and only bestseller, was published in 1925.)

Admitted, thricely. The charges against Dreiser qua writer, that is.

And, yet.

The Chester Gillette-Grace Brown murder case of 1906 (upon which An American Tragedy was based) fixated public attention and still fascinates people today. It remained for Dreiser to make literature out of it — the way, say, Herman Melville (a far greater writer than Dreiser) made literature out of the sinking of the whaleship Essex in Moby-Dick. In so doing, Dreiser created a classic which far outranks his first novel Sister Carrie (which is more widely read).

The power of An American Tragedy is undeniable. It retains that power upon being reread.

Dreiser’s crude, flat prose style is just right for the narrative. I just opened, totally at random, to a page in my 1948 World Publishing Company edition of An American Tragedy. Book Two, Chapter XLV contains the following paragraph about Clyde Griffiths, the central character (Clyde was based a real life model, Chester Gillette):

And Clyde, listening at first with horror and in terror, later with a detached and philosophic calm as one who, entirely apart from what he may think or do, is still entitled to consider even the wildest and most desperate proposals for his release, at last, because of his own mental and material weakness before pleasures and dreams which he could not bring himself to forgo, psychically intrigued to the point where he was beginning to think that it might be possible. Why not? Was it not even as the voice said — a possible and plausible way — all his desires and dreams to be made real by this one evil thing? Yet in his case, because of flaws and weaknesses in his own unstable and highly variable will, the problem was not to be solved by thinking thus — then — nor for the next ten days for that matter.

Is this the prose of a James Joyce? Decidedly not. It is heavy on exposition (granted, this is an expository passage), perhaps too much so. That can be said of the entire book. Yet, there is something about Dreiser’s prose that, in the case of this novel, is extremely effective.

There is a sort of Joycean technique (believe it or not) operating here. The narrator, the author’s, voice is “representing,” standing in for, the thoughts of the character. We thereby enter Clyde’s consciousness.

This is true of the entire book. We are like bystanders of Clyde’s psyche. We are always present, observing him close up without authorial intervention. In fact, Dreiser, by “getting out of the way” — by not distinguishing between what is exposition and what is narration — has merged the two and made the book thereby ten times more powerful in its impact. We almost become Clyde. This makes the book very powerful, very effective.

The narrative flows artlessly yet effortlessly. We are drawn right in. We can’t desist.

To read the book is to identify with Clyde and his predicament. And, we can’t stop reading. It is also very readable because the style — to the extent there is one — aids and abets the story, fits right in with it, doesn’t get in the story’s way; is not pretentious; is entirely unaffected. It’s like some old timer sitting on his front porch and telling you a story he heard about once.

Here, at least, Dreiser gains by being non-literary. He wrote a classic.

An American Tragedy stands by itself. It is not allied with and wasn’t written as a response to or commentary on any literary fashion or trend. It is sui generis, autochthonous.

As was the case with its author, the book has muscled its way into the corpus of great American novels. It belongs there, even if few would care to admit it.

Even though it’s hardly ever taught nowadays in English courses.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   April 2017

 

 
A comment by Professor Emeritus Thomas Kranidas:

Roger — a fine defense. The novel has outlasted many more elegant and “accomplished” books by better writers who can not match the power of the novels that Dreiser has left us. And, “Tragedy” is the best of the bunch. — Tom K

 

 

 

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“Sorokin” («Сорокин»)

 

 

 

Sorokin post final – English, Russian

русский перевод см ниже

Для загружаемого документа Word, содержащего текст этого сообщения, см. Ниже.

 

 

 

 

My essay about the Russian-American sociologist Pitirim A. Sorokin which follows is approximately 4,000 words long. A downloadable Word document, which contains the text of the essay in both English and Russian — is available above.

 

 

 

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“Sorokin”

by Roger W. Smith

 

 

The following essay about the Russian-American sociologist and social philosopher Pitirim A. Sorokin (1889-1968) comprises an email of mine which was occasioned by a message I received a few days ago from a reader of this blog.

 

 

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Thanks for contacting me about Pitirim A. Sorokin. I am glad you discovered my blog posts about him.

Sorokin is one of my intellectual and personal heroes. I have always admired him. Greatly. He is one of my intellectual idols. I revere him on account of his works; his deep and earnest thought; his sincerity; his originality; the excitement which I felt upon encountering his works as an intellectually curious and intellectually hungry adolescent; and the fact that he always gave me the feeling of being a kindred spirit, one whose views could not be pigeonholed and who wasn’t afraid to take unpopular positions. (Sorokin used the oxymoron Conservative Christian Anarchist to describe his Weltanschauung — world view. Conservative Christian Anarchist was used by Henry Adams to describe himself, as Sorokin noted.)

 

 

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I discovered Sorokin in my local public library at age 17 when I was a senior in high school. (It seems that practically every important book I ever read was discovered by serendipity, as was the case in this instance.) There was a book on the library’s shelves which caught my eye: “The Crisis of Our Age” by one P. A. Sorokin, whom I had never heard of.

“This looks interesting,” I thought.

Philosophy of history.

“The Crisis of Our Age” was an intensely stimulating and exciting read for a 17 year old with an interest in history and, especially, the history of ideas (in contrast to event-based history, which has never had much interest for me).

I could not put the book down, devoured it. It was a very rewarding intellectual exercise for me at that stage in my intellectual development. It challenged me, stimulated me mentally, and greatly expanded my intellectual horizons. I was introduced to numerous big words which I dutifully looked up, greatly expanding my knowledge of abstract words used in academic writing and discourse. (“Syncretism” is one I recall.) The book enlarged for me the mental landscape and scope of my knowledge of intellectual history.

History was one of my best subjects, and I wound up majoring in it in college. The book was not actually history, and it was anything but the usual dry academic tome or fact-laden historical monograph. It was a mélange of historical, cultural, social, and intellectual history plus interpretive analysis by Sorokin. It was supposedly an objective sociological work, a condensed version of the author’s four volume magnum opus, “Social and Cultural Dynamics.”

It was anything but objective, despite the statistical charts and data, collected laboriously by the author and research assistants, which supposedly provided the “scientific” (or social scientific) underpinnings for his findings. For “findings,” one should perhaps substitute pronouncements or sweeping assessments.

 

 

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Over the course of time, I learned about Pitirim A. Sorokin’s personal life.

He was born in 1889 among the Komi, a Uralic ethnic group in the northeast of European Russia. He was orphaned at an early age and eventually became a student at a teacher’s college. He was arrested and imprisoned in 1906 for anti-czarist revolutionary political activities. Upon the outbreak of the so called February Revolution (in March 1917), he became a founder of the Russian Peasant Soviet, which was dispersed by the Communists. He was, from the beginning of the Revolution, vehemently opposed to Communist leaders such as Lenin and Trotsky.

He was arrested twice by the Bolsheviks and was condemned to death, but was freed on Lenin’s orders and allowed to return to his academic activities as a professor at the University of St. Petersburg. In 1922, he was banished from the Soviet Union. He emigrated to the United States in 1923 and, in 1930, was invited to become the first professor and chairman of the Sociology Department at Harvard University. He retired from teaching duties in 1955, but continued to write. He was a controversial figure and vigorously opposed trends in the Harvard sociology department after stepping down as chairman.

 

 

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Sorokin had pretensions to be a scientist – a social scientist – and believed he was using the scientific method. He larded his books with statistics; but the “science” and statistical analysis somehow never seemed convincing, and it appeared that what he really was, was a social philosopher, not a social scientist.

The scientific slant, such as it was, in his thinking and writing undoubtedly came from his studies at the Psycho-Neurological Institute in Petrograd and the University of St. Petersburg under scholars such as Ivan Pavlov. He became, in the words of Sorokin biographer Barry V. Johnston, “an empirical neopositivist.”

I agree with critics such as Arnold Toynbee who found fault with Sorokin’s methodology and accused him of creating a tautological work, a massive tautology. Essentially, they said, he decided what he was going to say first, then engaged in pseudoscientific research to prove what was for him a foregone conclusion, with shoddy methodology and biases that predetermined what his research would find. Then, the critics seemed to be saying, he propagated simplistic, self-evident conclusions. The art of the Idealistic period (e.g., the Middle Ages) was spiritual in its focus and nature. The art of our present, Sensate era is not spiritual; there is much nudity and erotic content. And so on. The present, Sensate era is overly materialistic and has become decadent (plus the factor of aggression and bloodshed between nations), but a new, more spiritual era will right things, so to speak, because history is cyclical. The focus of the Idealistic Middle Ages was otherworldly. The Ideational period shows a mixture of Idealistic and Sensate elements and represents a transitional phase.

 

 

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Sorokin saw history as cyclical and as alternating periodically between recurring phases: Ideational, Idealistic, and Sensate. To illustrate what Sorokin meant by these three types of cultures or cultural phases predominating at various periods in history, a timeframe helps:

Ideational — the High Middle Ages represented such a culture in full flower. “Its major principle or value was God.”

Sensate — it began roughly with the sixteenth century and is based on the premise or ethos that “True reality and value is sensory”; it reached its apogee (and unleashed monstrous destructive forces) in the twentieth century.

Idealistic — a mix of the above two cultural types; represented by European culture in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. “Its major premise was that true reality is partly super sensory and partly sensory.” St. Thomas Aquinas is one exemplar of such thinking.

It should be noted that Sorokin believed that these three cultural forms alternated rhythmically over all historical time. He includes examples from antiquity as well.

 

 

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Shoddy methodology? I would say yes. But, for an intellectually curious high school student, this was indeed exciting stuff — it seemed profound. And, I have great respect, as stated above, for Sorokin the man and scholar. He wasn’t afraid to attack big themes, and some of his work is profoundly original and important in its implications.

Sorokin counterattacked his critics caustically. He loved a good fight. Despite expressing profound admiration for Arnold Toynbee’s oeuvre, he felt, not surprisingly, that Toynbee’s works were conceptually and methodologically flawed in several important respects wherein Sorokin thought his own works surpassed Toynbee’s. (Ditto for the work of another philosopher of history, Oswald Spengler, whose works Sorokin found to be unpersuasive and methodologically flawed.)

It has been said that Sorokin was an arrogant scholar. Perhaps so. Nevertheless, I found much to like and admire about him.

 

 

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On the first day of freshman orientation at Brandeis University, my mother accompanied me to the campus and spent the day with me. We sort of took in the whole place. Among other things, I had to check out the library, which met with my approval. The first thing I did was to go to the card catalogue. “Let’s see if they have Sorokin’s works,” I said to her. They did, several works. I was pleased, and my mother beamed, showing that she shared my enthusiasm vicariously.

In my freshman year, I took English Composition. For our first assignment, we were told to write a paper in which we were instructed to “define style,” which I tried mightily to do. (I didn’t quite understand what underlay the assignment.) In the next class, the instructor singled out my paper for criticism. I thought it was pretty good, and one or two other students in the class (notably Ricardo Millett, an exchange student from Panama who went on to have a distinguished academic career) felt so too.

In the paper, I quoted a passage from “The Crisis of Our Age” as an example of what I considered an excellent, distinctive style:

The crisis is here in all its stark and unquestionable reality. We are in the midst of an enormous conflagration burning everything into ashes. In a few weeks millions of human lives are uprooted; in a few hours century-old cities are demolished; in a few days kingdoms are erased. Red human blood flows in broad streams from one end of the earth to the other. Ever expanding misery spreads its gloomy shadow over larger eras. The fortunes, happiness and comfort of untold millions have disappeared. Peace, security and safety have vanished. Prosperity and well-being have become in many countries but a memory; freedom a mere myth. Western culture is covered by a blackout. A great tornado sweeps over the whole of mankind. (“The Crisis of Our Age,” pp. 14-15; note: the book was published at the beginning of World War II)

The instructor, Robert Stein (a chain smoker known to students as “C plus Stein”), read the passage out loud in class and pounced on me for making such a claim. He drew a red line through my paper and wrote something like “No!” in the margin. Purple prose, he said. Exactly the OPPOSITE of excellence of style. (The freshman comp Bible in those days was Strunk and White’s “The Elements of Style.” Sorokin would probably have had difficulty passing a course of theirs.) I was taken aback by Stein’s criticisms and his take on Sorokin the writer.

 

 

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Sorokin does have a characteristic style which could easily be parodied, should one care to. He uses jargon and his own private verbiage, “Sorokinisms” (“intellectual chewing gum” for example), when he feels it will serve his purposes. He will use big words (which is not necessarily a “sin”), actual or near neologisms, and words and phrases drawn from various languages, especially (and notably) Latin — he was addicted to Latin mottoes. He can be guilty of “overwriting.” Yet, his style is basically clear, punchy, and arresting. He wants, above all, to communicate.

He obviously had linguistic ability. His native language was Komi (a language spoken in the northeastern European part of Russia). I was interested to read that, as Sorokin wrote, in later life, he had forgotten it. He was, of course, fluent in Russian from his school days on. He knew both German and Latin — knowledge of the former served him well for sociological studies — and undoubtedly other languages (apparently including Italian) as well. He learned English after emigrating in the mid-1920’s. Some of his faults as a stylist — and I feel that in many respects he was actually an excellent writer — may have been attributable to imperfect knowledge of English.

 

 

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I wrote a research paper on Sorokin for the freshman comp course. One day I encountered Mr. Stein in the college snack bar. Despite being regarded as a prickly and difficult teacher, he found my writing to be good and showed respect for me. “Why are you so hung up on Sorokin?” he asked. He apparently knew a former Harvard student who had studied under Sorokin (or knew someone who had) and from that person had learned that Sorokin was regarded as something of a crackpot at Harvard. This surprised me, and though I was not about to alter my views, I did later learn more about Sorokin that seemed in accord with what Mr. Stein had said. A few anecdotal factoids emerged:

— Sorokin could be “over the top” as a lecturer in that the whole course – he taught a required course at Harvard, Social Relations, which was popular and heavily subscribed – was devoted to his theories. He was said to regard himself as a great thinker up there with Aristotle and who knows else?

— Some graduate students (according to their reminiscences) found him difficult to have as an academic advisor. (But not all; he was beloved by some former students.)

— Sorokin had been ousted as department chairman in a bitter power struggle with Talcott Parsons. They detested one another and each had contempt for the other’s theories and methodologies. Their approaches were diametrically opposed, Parsons being the classic dry social scientist, Sorokin the quixotic figure writing jeremiads. (“Quixotic” was a term my former therapist actually used to describe him.)

— Sorokin wasn’t even teaching by the time I took Mr. Stein’s course. He was still writing and lecturing, but he had already retired from Harvard. (He retired from teaching in 1955 and continued on as director of a research institute at Harvard which he had founded until 1959).

 

 

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Not knowing that Sorokin had already retired, I asked my older brother, who was attending Harvard, whether he knew of Sorokin. He did not, but he said that if Sorokin was still teaching at Harvard, we would certainly attend one of his lectures together. Needless to say, this never came about.

My father also attended Harvard at a time when Sorokin, who taught at Harvard from 1930–1955, was teaching there. My father’s transcript indicates that he took Social Relations 1a and Social Relations 1b, a two semester sequence comprising a required core course, in the 1948-1949 academic year. I am certain that the course would have been taught by Sorokin. But my father (who may or may not have been aware of my interest in Sorokin, I don’t recall) and I never discussed Sorokin.

 

 

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Influenced by Sorokin, I chose sociology as my major at Brandeis. I had some excellent sociology professors (notably Gordon Fellman and Lewis A. Coser), but the courses were a letdown and I changed my major to history. Sorokin was NEVER mentioned. Sociology on a grand scale it was not (although we did read sociologists such as Durkheim and Max Weber who wrote seminal works of a similar scope).

 

 

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Insofar as my extracurricular reading of Sorokin was concerned, I progressed from theoretical works, e.g., “The Crisis of Our Age” — which was based on the Lowell Lectures which Sorokin delivered at Harvard University in 1941; the book was actually a condensed version, aimed at the general reading public, of what Sorokin considered his major scholarly work — to reading autobiographical works of his.

“Leaves from A Russian Diary” (1924; enlarged edition with afterword, 1950), which details Sorokin’s experiences as a revolutionary opponent of the Czarist government, an official in the short lived Kerensky government, and an anti-Bolshevik, was a work that I could not put down. It has a cogency and dramatic interest, being written at white heat, so to speak, that make it compelling. It reads like a novel, a sort of “Les Misérables” minus about a thousand pages. l feel that it is an underrated book and could never understand why it never achieved a wide readership. For me, it is the best book on the Russian Revolution, the only one I practically ever read about it, in fact. It made me feel what the revolution must have been like. I regard it as a classic, and I felt it was very well written, much more so than when Sorokin was writing as a scholar.

 

 

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“Russia and the United States” was another one of my first Sorokin books. It was not readily available, but our college library had it and, as was customary for me, I read it on my own, independently of coursework. The book held my interest from start to finish.

I have always felt that “Russia and the United States” is one of Sorokin’s best books, modest though it may be in scope. In fact, I think that the fact that Sorokin was not overreaching in this book is part of its value and appeal. Also, Sorokin got it right. It’s a sensible book, written at a time when the Soviet Union was regraded with outright hostility, fear, and suspicion, and written by a scholar (Sorokin) who had been banished from the USSR, barely escaping execution, because of his fervent anti-Communism.

I read the book at a time, the mid-1960’s, when the Cold War was at or near its zenith, when the USSR was regarded as our mortal enemy. I myself had rarely harbored anti-Russian feelings, but I was keenly aware, along with everyone else, of the political undertones. When Khrushchev stood beaming in a cornfield during a visit to the USA in the late 1950’s and pictures were published in newspapers the next day, one of our teachers told us, “Don’t let him fool you. You can never and should never trust him.”

What Sorokin said, basically, in “Russia and the United States,” which was published in 1941 — meaning that it was written before the USSR became our wartime ally — was that a careful study of the lineaments, so to speak, of the two countries would reveal that they actually had much in common as countries and societies, and that the two nations would eventually become less hostile to one another over time because of commonalities.

As Sorokin put it, the two countries “exhibit an essential similarity or congeniality in a number of important psychological, cultural, and social values”: vast territories with all that implies (such as various climates, topography, and regional characteristics); rich natural and human resources; major cultural and urban centers; the fact that both countries were world powers; and so on.

This seemed counterintuitive at the time, but I sensed then that Sorokin was right, and history proved him right, insofar that the Cold War came to an unexpected end. I myself had always admired the USSR – if not as a political entity – as a country with vast expanses like us and a multiplicity of nationalities and ethnic groups with a rich, continually growing culture ranging from Tolstoy and Dostoevsky to Mussorgsky and Tchaikovsky. Just like America. Huge, diverse, all encompassing, culturally fertile; and with a vibrant economy.

 

 

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Sorokin’s autobiography, “A Long Journey,” came out when I was in college. I had to read it. I am so glad I acquired and read it when I did. It is truthful and revelatory, not in the sense of a confessional, but in the sense that Sorokin is straightforward and unafraid to tell it as he saw and experienced it, without worrying about how this or that comment or remark about others might be received. Underneath the academic theorizing, he was a simple man with simple tastes and plain, unvarnished, almost childlike, feelings. (He took great pride in a garden of his at his home in Winchester, Massachusetts, which won awards from horticultural societies; he came of peasant stock and was proud of it.)

It ranges in subject matter from Sorokin’s days as a revolutionary, to his becoming an emigre, his early teaching career in Minnesota, his Harvard years, and, interestingly, his family life, his love of music (he was a good friend of Boston Symphony Orchestra music director Serge Koussevitzky), his love of the outdoors, and disputes with scholars. He was miffed when, as an emeritus, he submitted a paper to the American Sociological Review that was rejected. He is unapologetic about opinions of his which often ran counter to prevailing academic and intellectual fashions. It makes for interesting reading. Dull he is not.

 

 

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I have perused over the years but have never read as carefully as I would have liked “Social and Cultural Mobility” and “The Sociology of Revolution.” The latter work, written by Sorokin in the early 1920’s when he was a refugee in Czechoslovakia, asserts that all revolutions are disasters in the making which result in the unleashing of violent and destructive forces in lieu of social amelioration. “A society which has never known how to live,” Sorokin wrote, “which has been incapable of carrying through adequate reforms, but has thrown itself in the arms of revolution, has to pay the penalty for its sins by the death of a considerable proportion of its members.” This is characteristic Sorokin. He was not given to dry summations or mealy-mouthed pronouncements. (Note: I have, since this writing, read “The Sociology of Revolution.” It is a remarkable work which, despite somewhat “old fashioned’ scholarship, has not become outdated or less valid despite having been published almost a hundred years ago.)

 

 

 

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In the mid-1970’s, I was in a second rate bookstore in lower Manhattan one Sunday and found a remaindered copy of a book of Sorokin’s that had been posthumously published by a university press: “Hunger as a Factor in Human Affairs.” T. Lynn Smith, a former academic colleague and friend of Sorokin’s, had lovingly prepared the book for publication, along with Sorokin’s widow, Elena P. Sorokin, the translator. The book contained wonderful illustrations of Sorokin and his family from his wife’s collection. What’s more, it was a compelling read.

“[Hunger as a Factor in Human Affairs] was written by Sorokin during the Russian famine of 1919-1921 while he was still in Russia. It was written by a starving and freezing scholar in the midst of a famine that he felt was caused by the revolution to which he was very hostile. Banished from the Soviet Union in 1922, Sorokin managed to smuggle out some proofs which lay untouched until 1972 when Sorokin’s wife Elena began [a] translation.” (http://www.sociosite.net/sociologists/sorokin_pitirim.php)

“Hunger as a Factor in Human Affairs” — titled in the original Russian “Golod kak faktor: vliyaniye goloda na povedeniye cheloveka i sotsial’nuyu organizatsiyu zhizni” (Hunger as a factor: the impact of hunger on people’s behavior, social organization of life) — was a compelling book not simply because of the circumstances under which it was written but owing in part to conclusions derived from them. Sorokin, then a professor at the University of Leningrad, wrote it under conditions of great privation during the Russian famine. The book concludes with remarks by Sorokin that seem to have wide applicability: that, when food is scarce, government control and repression increase. Sorokin, noted for his colorful, pithy phrasing, concludes with the words “Caveat consules!” (let the consuls beware).

The book was a revelation for me. Often, I have found with writers in general that their early works are among their best. This was certainly true of Sorokin. One could see him here, in one of his first books, in a “pristine” state — when he was perhaps less preachy and less addicted to writing in a sometimes overblown fashion, in the manner of a grand scholar — at his best. It is a provocative, original, and groundbreaking work, and one from which the conclusions can be extrapolated and applied to various governments and economic conditions. Sorokin’s main point was stated as follows on the penultimate page:

Ceteris paribus, with the increase of the wealth of a country and a decrease of famine, and if there is an average proprietary differentiation, the curve of compulsory statism will decrease under any power and form of government, and vice versa.

In other words, there is an inverse relationship between scarcity or abundance of food and the degree of individual freedoms permitted versus the lack of it. Think of the United States, where food has always been abundant, famine conditions have never been known, and individual freedoms are greater than those permitted in most of the world.

 

 

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I also read “The American Sex Revolution,” also while in college, which is a hopelessly outdated book. But, at least Sorokin was bold enough to tackle the subject.

 

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   February 2017; updated April 2019

 

 

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Addendum: The same points which Sorokin made in his seminal work “Golod kak factor” (translated into English by his wife and published posthumously in the United States in 1975 as “Hunger as a Factor in Human Affairs”) are made in an article by Sorokin entitled “Impoverishment and the Expansion of Governmental Control” which was published in the American Journal of Sociology in 1926 (American Journal of Sociology, vol. 32, no. 2, Sept. 1926) shortly after Sorokin had arrived in the United States and been appointed a professor at the University of Minnesota.

In the article, drawing on examples from various historical periods and civilizations, Sorokin makes incisive points with wide applicability about governmental control, noting that, when there is a yawning gap between the relative economic conditions of the rich and the poor and when food is scarce, government control and repression increase.

This article is posted here as a downloadable PDF file.

 

sorokin-impoverishment-the-expansion-of-governmental-control1

 

 

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Addendum: Please note that I have many articles about Pitirim A. Sorokin and some articles by Sorokin that I would be willing to share. My email address is available in the “About” section of this site. — Roger W. Smith

 

 

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Pitirim A. Sorokin, autobiographical (from “Sociology of My Mental Life”)

Pitirim A. Sorokin, autobiographical (from “Sociology of My Mental Life”)

 

 

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«Сорокин»

 Роджер У. Смит

 

 

В представленном ниже эссе о русско-американском социологе и социальном философе Питириме Александровиче Сорокине (1889-1968) приведено электронное письмо, написанное мной в ответ на сообщение, полученное несколько дней назад от читателя этого блога.

 

 

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Спасибо, что написали мне о Питириме Александровиче Сорокине. Я рад, что вы прочли посты о нем в моем блоге.

Сорокин – мой герой, как ученый и как личность. Я всегда им восхищался. Он один из моих интеллектуальных идолов. Я преклоняюсь перед ним за его работы; глубину и серьезность его мысли; его искренность; его оригинальность; воодушевление, которое я ощутил, познакомившись с его работами, которые оказались интересными в интеллектуальном плане, они утоляли мой юношеский интеллектуальный голод; я как будто встретил родственную душу, человека, взгляды которого и сегодня не потеряли свою актуальность и который не боялся отстаивать непопулярные мнения. (Сорокин описывал свое Weltanschauung (мировоззрение) при помощи оксюморона «консервативный христианский анархист». Как отмечал Сорокин, «консервативным христианским анархистом» называл себя Генри Адамс.)

 

 

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Я впервые познакомился с работами Сорокина в местной публичной библиотеке, когда мне было 17 лет, и я учился в старших классах. (Наверное, практически все стоящие книги, которые я когда-либо читал, попались мне под руку совершенно случайно, и это как раз такой случай.) На полке в библиотеке мое внимание привлекла книга с названием «Кризис нашего времени» П.А. Сорокина, о котором я никогда не слышал.

«Это интересно», – подумал я.

Философия истории.

Книга «Кризис нашего времени» оказалась мотивирующим и захватывающим чтением для 17-летнего юноши, интересующегося историей и, в частности, историей идеологии (в отличие от истории на основе событий, которая меня никогда не интересовала).

Я не мог оторваться от этой книги, наслаждался ею. На том этапе моего интеллектуального развития это был чрезвычайно полезный опыт. Книга стала вызовом, мотивировала меня, позволила расширить интеллектуальные горизонты. Я старательно искал в словарях значения новых слов, и в результате существенно расширил словарный запас за счет абстрактных слов, которые используются при написании научных работ и ведении интеллектуальных дискуссий. («синкретизм» – одно из таких слов.) Книга расширила мой кругозор и знания в области интеллектуальной истории.

История – один из моих любимых предметов, который я выбрал в колледже в качестве профильного. Нельзя сказать, что это книга по истории, она точно не похожа на привычный сухой академический труд или перегруженную фактами историческую монографию. Это синтез исторической, культурной, социальной и интеллектуальной истории с интерпретативным анализом Сорокина. Предположительно, это объективное социологическое исследование, краткая версия четырехтомной монографии автора «Социальная и культурная динамика».

Но эта книга – точно не объективная работа, несмотря на все статистические таблицы и данные, кропотливо собранные автором и его ассистентами, которые, вероятно, предоставили «научную» (или социально-научную) базу полученных им результатов. «Результатами» стоит, наверное, считать высказывания или радикальные оценки автора.

 

 

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С течением времени я узнал о личной жизни Питирима А. Сорокина.

Сорокин родился в 1889 году в республике Коми, уральской этнической группе на северо-востоке европейской России. Он осиротел в раннем возрасте, а повзрослев стал студентом учительского колледжа. В 1906 году он был арестован и заключён за анти царскую революционно-политическую деятельность. В начале так называемой февральской революции (в марте 1917 года) он стал основателем Русско-крестьянского Совета, который был отменён коммунистами. В начале революции Сорокин был ярым противником коммунистических лидеров как Ленин и Троцкий.

Сорокин дважды был арестован большевиками и был приговорён к смертной казни, но по приказу Ленина он был освобождён и получил разрешение вернуться к своей научной деятельности в качестве профессора в Санкт-Петербургском университете. В 1922 году он был выслан из Советского Союза. Он эмигрировал в Соединённые Штаты Америки в 1923 году, и стал профессором социологии в Университете Миннесоты, где он преподавал с 1924 по 1930 год. В 1930 году он был приглашен президентом Гарвардского университета Абботтом Лоуренсом Лоуэллом, чтобы стать председателем и основателем нового отдела Социологии в Гарвардском университете. В 1955 году он ушёл с преподавательской деятельности, но продолжал писать. Он был спорной фигурой и активно выступал против тенденций в социологическом отделе Гарварда даже после ухода с поста председателя.
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Сорокин претендовал на звание ученого – социолога – и полагал, что использует научный метод. Его книги переполнены статистикой; но «наука» и статистический анализ никогда не казались убедительными, поэтому на самом деле он был социальным философом, а не ученым-социологом.

Научный уклон в его размышлениях и работах, несомненно, связан с его учебой в Психоневрологическом институте в Петрограде и в Санкт-Петербургском университете под руководством таких ученых, как Иван Павлов. Он стал, по словам биографа Сорокина Барри В. Джонстона, «эмпирическим неопозитивистом».

Я согласен с критиками, такими как Арнольд Тойнби, который раскритиковал методологию Сорокина и обвинил его в создании тавтологических работ, серьезной тавтологии. По сути, они говорили, что он сначала решал, что именно хочет сказать, затем приступал к псевдонаучному исследованию, чтобы доказать заранее известный вывод, используя ненаучную методологию и ошибочные суждения, которые заранее предопределяли, какой именно результат будет получен в ходе исследования. Затем, говорили критики, он выдавал банальные и очевидные выводы. Искусство идеалистического периода (например, Средних веков) было духовным по своей цели и сути. Искусство настоящей, чувственной эпохи не духовно; в нем много обнаженного и эротического содержания. И так далее. Настоящая, чувственная эпоха чрезмерно пропитана духом материализма и декадентства (плюс фактор агрессии и кровавой вражды между нациями), но новая, более духовная эра все исправит, так сказать, потому что история циклична. Идеалистическое Средневековье было сосредоточено на потустороннем мире. Идеациональный период – это смесь идеалистических и чувственных элементов, это переходная фаза.

 

 

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Сорокин видел историю как цикличное развитие, как периодическую смену повторяющихся фаз: идеациональной, идеалистической и чувственной. Проиллюстрировать, что именно Сорокин подразумевал под этими тремя типами культур или культурными фазами, преобладающими в разные периоды истории, можно при помощи временных рамок:

Идеациональная культура – Классическое Средневековье стало периодом расцвета такой культуры. «Его основной принцип и ценность – Бог».

Чувственная культура – этот период начался примерно в шестнадцатом веке, главная идея чувственной культуры: «Настоящая реальность и ценность лежит в сфере чувственности»; своего апогея она достигла в двадцатом веке (и выпустила на волю чудовищные разрушительные силы).

Идеалистическая культура – это смесь двух описанных выше типов; примером является европейская культура тринадцатого и четырнадцатого веков. «Основная идея в том, что в настоящей реальности сочетаются сверхчувственная и чувственная стороны». Св. Фома Аквинский – один из примеров такого мировоззрения.

Сорокин считал, что эти три типа культуры циклично сменяют друг друга в ходе исторического развития. Он также приводит примеры из античности.

 

 

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Ненаучная методология? С этим я бы согласился. Но для любознательного учащегося старшей школы это был действительно интересный материал – он казался мудрым и глубоким. И, как я писал выше, я уважаю Сорокина как личность и как ученого. Он не боялся работать с крупными темами, некоторые его работы и выводы являются действительно оригинальными и глубокими.

Сорокин саркастично нападал на своих критиков. Он любил хорошие схватки. Естественно, он чувствовал, что работы Тойнби не выдерживают критики. (То же касается и другого специалиста в философии истории, Освальда Шпенглера, чьи труды Сорокин считал, что неудивительно, неубедительными и методологически слабыми.)

Говорили, что Сорокин был заносчивым ученым. Возможно. Но я вижу много причин, чтобы им восхищаться.

 

 

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В день знакомства для первокурсников в Брандейском университете моя мама сопровождала меня в студенческий городок и провела со мной целый день. Мы хотели разведать обстановку. В частности, я должен был ознакомится с библиотекой и я оценил ее по достоинству. Первое, что я сделал – пошел в картотеку. «Разрешите посмотреть, есть ли у вас работы Сорокина»,– сказал я сотруднице. У них было несколько работ. Я обрадовался, а мама просто просияла, почувствовав мой энтузиазм.

На первом году обучения я выбрал курс литературной композиции на английском языке. Нашим первым заданием было написать работу, в которой нужно было «дать определение стиля». Я выполнил задание с большим усердием (я не очень понял суть задания). На следующем уроке преподаватель выбрал мою работу для анализа. Я решил, что это хороший знак, еще пару студентов в классе подумали то же самое (в частности, Рикардо Миллет, студент по обмену из Панамы, который впоследствии сделал успешную научную карьеру).

В работе я процитировал отрывок из книги «Кризис нашего времени» как пример того, что я считал отличным, выразительным стилем:

Кризис наступил во всей своей суровой и бесспорной реальности. Мы находимся в эпицентре бушующего пожара, который сжигает все дотла. За несколько недель разрушаются миллионы человеческих жизней; за несколько часов уничтожаются древние города; за несколько дней исчезают с лица земли целые королевства. Красные реки человеческой крови разливаются по всей земле. Под мрачную тень горя и страданий попадают все большие и большие территории. Благосостояние, счастье и комфорт миллионов людей исчезают. Мира и безопасности больше не существует. Во многих странах благосостояние и процветание – не более чем воспоминание, а свобода – всего лишь миф. Это полное затмение Западной культуры. Мощное торнадо захлестнуло все человечество. («Кризис нашего времени», стр. 14-15; примечание: книга была опубликована в начале Второй мировой войны.)

Преподаватель, Роберт Штайн (заядлый курильщик, которого студенты называли «C плюс Штайн»), вслух прочел отрывок на уроке и набросился на меня за такое утверждение. Он красной ручкой перечеркнул мою работу и написал что-то вроде «Нет!» на полях. «Высокопарный слог, – сказал он. – Нечто ПРОТИВОПОЛОЖНОЕ совершенству стиля». (В те времена библией первокурсника, изучавшего литературную композицию, была книга «Элементы стиля» Странка и Уайта. Сорокин вряд ли успешно прошел бы этот курс.) Меня застигла врасплох критика Штайна и его мнение о Сорокине как о писателе.

 

 

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У Сорокина нет характерного стиля, который при желании можно было бы легко скопировать. При необходимости он использует жаргон и им самим придуманные слова, «сорокинизмы» («интеллектуальная жвачка», например). Он использует сложные слова (что само по себе не является прегрешением), неологизмы или нечто похожее на них, а также слова и фразы, взятые из разных языков, в частности (чаще всего) из латыни – он обожал латинские изречения. Его можно обвинить в «витиеватости». Но его стиль в целом можно охарактеризовать как понятный, эффектный и запоминающийся. Прежде всего, он стремится донести информацию.

У него, очевидно, были хорошо развитые лингвистические способности. Его родным языком был язык коми (используется на северо-востоке Европейской части России). Мне было интересно узнать, что как писал сам Сорокин, он с годами забыл этот язык. Конечно, еще со школьных лет он свободно говорил на русском языке. Он знал немецкий и латинский – знание последнего пригодилось ему при проведении социологических исследований, – а также другие языки (в том числе итальянский). После эмиграции в середине 1920-х он приступил к изучению английского. Некоторые его стилистические ошибки – а я убежден, что во многих аспектах он был замечательным писателем – можно объяснить его недостаточными познаниями в английском.

 

 

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В рамках курса литературной композиции я написал исследование о Сорокине. Однажды я встретил г-на Штайна в буфете колледжа. Несмотря на репутацию строгого и придирчивого учителя, он хорошо отозвался о моей работе и уважительно отнесся ко мне. «Почему вы так увлечены Сорокиным?» – спросил он. Он, видимо, был знаком с бывшим студентом Гарварда, который учился у Сорокина (или знал кого-то, кто учился у него), и от него узнал, что Сорокина в Гарварде считали чудаком. Это удивило меня и хотя я не был готов изменить свои взгляды, позже мне стало известно больше о Сорокине, что подтверждало слова г-на Штайна. Появилось несколько отдельных неподтвержденных фактов:

– Сорокин мог «перегибать палку как лектор», в результате чего весь курс – а он преподавал в Гарварде обязательный курс, общественные отношения, который был популярен у студентов

– был посвящен его собственным теориям. Говорили, что он считал себя великим мыслителем, наравне с Аристотелем и неизвестно кем еще…

– Некоторые студенты-аспиранты вспоминали, что с ним сложно было общаться как с научным руководителем. (Но не все; некоторые из его бывших студентов любили его.)

– Сорокина сняли с должности заведующего кафедрой в результате сложного противостояния с Толкоттом Парсонсом. Они с презрением относились к теориям и методологиям друг друга. Их подходы были диаметрально противоположными: Парсонс был классическим сухим социологом, а Сорокин – эксцентричным чудаком, который писал наполненные эмоциями работы (мой бывший врач называл его «сумасбродом».)

– Когда я записался на курс г-на Штайна, Сорокин уже не преподавал. Он все еще писал и читал лекции, но уже ушел из Гарварда (он перестал преподавать в 1955 году и продолжал работать директором исследовательского института в Гарварде, который был основан им в 1959 году).

 

 

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Я не знал, что Сорокин уже не преподает, и спросил старшего брата, который учился в

Гарварде, знает ли он Сорокина. Он не знал, но сказал, что если он все еще преподает в Гарварде, мы обязательно сходим на одну из его лекций вместе. Стоит ли говорить о том, что сделать это нам не удалось.

Мой отец также учился в Гарварде в тот период, когда там преподавал Сорокин (он преподавал в Гарварде с 1930 по 1955). Судя по записям отца, он посещал 2-семестровый курс общественных отношений 1a и 1b, в который входил обязательный базовый курс, в 1948-1949 учебном году. Я уверен, что этот курс вел Сорокин. Но мы с отцом (я не помню, знал ли он о моем интересе к Сорокину) никогда не обсуждали Сорокина.

 

 

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Находясь под влиянием Сорокина, я выбрал социологию своей основной специальностью в Брандейском университете. Я учился у замечательных профессоров-социологов (в частности, у Гордона Феллмана и Льюиса А. Козера), но курсы меня разочаровали, и я сменил специальность, выбрав историю. Сорокина НИКОГДА не упоминали. Фактически, это не была социология в полном масштабе (хотя мы читали аналогичные по области действия фундаментальные труды таких социологов, как Дюркгейм и Макс Вебер).

 

 

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Что касается моего знакомства с трудами Сорокина вне учебного курса, после прочтения теоретических работ, таких как «Кризис нашего времени» — которая была основана на лекциях Ловела которые Сорокин читал в Гарвардском университете в 1941 году; книга книга была фактически является предназначенной для широкого круга читателей краткой версией книги, которую Сорокин считал своей фундаментальной научной работой — я приступил к чтению работ, написанных им собственноручно.

Я не мог оторваться от книги «Страницы из русского дневника», в которой Сорокин описывает свой опыт революционно настроенного оппонента царского режима, чиновника временного правительства Керенского и антибольшевика. Книга убедительна и драматична, в ней чувствуется напряжение, которое делает ее интересной. Это практически роман, можно сказать «Отверженные» без пары тысяч страниц. Я считаю, что эту книгу недооценивают, и не понимаю, почему ею не заинтересовалась широкая аудитория читателей. Как по мне, это лучшая книга о российской революции, фактически единственная книга, которую я прочел на эту тему. Благодаря ей я почувствовал, какой была революция. Я считаю эту книгу классикой, к тому же она отлично написана, гораздо лучше, чем Сорокин писал, как ученый.

 

 

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«Россия и Соединенные Штаты» – следующая из первых прочитанных мной работ Сорокина. Ее не было в свободном доступе, но я нашел ее в библиотеке нашего колледжа и, как обычно, прочел самостоятельно, не в рамках учебы. Я с интересом прочел книгу от начала до конца.

Я всегда считал, что «Россия и Соединенные Штаты» – это одна из лучших работ Сорокина, хоть и небольшая по объему. Тот факт, что Сорокин тут не перегибает палку, повышает ее ценность и привлекательность. Сорокин все правильно изложил. Это разумная работа, написанная в период, когда Советский Союз ассоциировался с открытой враждебностью, страхом и подозрительностью, написанная ученым (Сорокиным), которого выслали из СССР, которому едва удалось избежать казни, так как он был ярым антикоммунистом.

Я прочел эту работу в середине 1960-х, на пике холодной войны, когда СССР считался смертельным врагом. Я едва ли испытывал антироссийские чувства, но, как и все вокруг, был в курсе политических настроений. Во время визита в США в 1950-х Хрущев с широкой улыбкой стоял посреди кукурузного поля, а на следующий день эти фотографии были во всех газетах. Тогда один из наших преподавателей сказал нам: «Не позволяйте ему обмануть вас. Ему нельзя доверять».

В работе «Россия и Соединенные Штаты», которая была опубликована в 1941 году – то есть до того, как в военное время СССР стал нашим союзником – говорится, что если тщательно изучить особенности двух стран, то окажется, что между этими странами и их общественной жизнью очень много общего, благодаря чему их народы через время станут менее враждебными друг другу.

Сорокин утверждал, что две страны «обладают похожими или одинаковыми психологическими, культурными и общественными ценностями»: обширные территории со всем, что к ним прилагается (разные климатические зоны, рельеф и региональные характеристики); богатые природные и людские ресурсы; крупные культурные центры и города; тот факт, что обе страны являются мировыми державами; и так далее.

В то время это звучало парадоксально, но я чувствовал, что Сорокин был прав, а впоследствии его правоту доказала сама история, когда холодная война неожиданно прекратилась. Я всегда восхищался СССР, если не как политической единицей, то как страной с обширными территориями, как и наша страна, с многообразием национальностей и этнических групп, с богатой развивающейся культурой, начиная с Толстого и Достоевского и заканчивая Мусоргским и Чайковским. Точно как Америка. Огромная, разнообразная, всеобъемлющая, с богатой культурой и бурно развивающейся экономикой.

 

 

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Автобиография Сорокина «Долгое путешествие» была опубликована, когда я учился в колледже. Я просто обязан был ее прочитать. Я очень рад, что приобрел и прочел ее. Это правдивая и откровенная работа, речь не о признаниях, а об откровенности автора – он не боится рассказывать правду о событиях, не переживая о том, как будут восприняты те или иные комментарии или замечания о других людях. Если отвлечься от научных теорий, он был простым человеком с простыми вкусами и простыми, открытыми, почти детскими чувствами. (Он гордился своим садом в Винчестере, Массачусетс, который был удостоен наград от садоводческих сообществ; он гордился своими крестьянскими корнями.)

В автобиографии описаны различные события – времена, когда Сорокин был революционером, эмиграция, начало преподавательской карьеры в Миннесоте, его годы в Гарварде и, что интересно, его семейная жизнь, любовь к музыке (он дружил с дирижером Бостонского симфонического оркестра, Сергеем Кусевицким), любовь к свежему воздуху, дискуссии c учеными. Он был раздражен, когда, будучи профессором в отставке, подал работу в American Sociological Review и получил отказ. Он не склонен извиняться за свои взгляды, которые часто идут вразрез с преобладающими научными и интеллектуальными настроениями. Книга получилось интересной, скучной ее точно не назовешь.

 

 

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Я просмотрел, но так и не прочел с должным вниманием, как бы того хотел, «Социальную и культурную мобильность» и «Социологию революции». В «Социологии революции», написанной Сорокиным в начале 1920-х, когда он был беженцем в Чехословакии, автор утверждает, что все революции являются катастрофами в действии, которые приводят к высвобождению мощных разрушительных сил вместо улучшения ситуации в обществе. «Общество, которое никогда не знает, как жить», — пишет Сорокин, — «которое неспособно провести адекватные реформы, а вместо этого бросается в объятия революции, должно заплатить за свои грехи смертью существенного количества людей». Это характерное для Сорокина высказывание. Он не любил сухих выводов или туманных высказываний. (Примечание: со времени написания этой статьи я прочитал «Социология революции». Это замечательная работа, которая, несмотря на несколько «старомодную» стипендию, не устарела и не стала менее действительной, несмотря на то, что была опубликована почти сто лет назад ». )

 

 

 

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Однажды в воскресенье в середине 1970-х я зашел в книжный магазин в Нижнем Манхеттене и обнаружил там уцененный экземпляр книги Сорокина, которая была опубликована посмертно университетским издательством — “Hunger as a Factor in Human Affairs” («Голод как фактор, влияющий на поведение людей»). Т. Линн Смит, в прошлом коллега и друг Сорокина, подготовил книгу к печати вместе с вдовой Сорокина, Еленой Петровной Сорокиной, переводчиком. В книге размещены замечательные фото Сорокина и его семьи из коллекции его жены. Это захватывающая книга.

 

Сорокин написал «Голод как фактор, влияющий на поведение людей» во время голода в России в 1919-1921 гг., пока он все еще был в России. Книга написана страдающим от голода и холода ученым в разгар голода, который, по его мнению, начался из-за революции, к которой он относился крайне враждебно. Сорокин был выслан из Советского Союза в 1922 году и сумел вывезти доказательства, которые лежали без дела до 1972 года, когда его жена Елена начала их переводить [a]. (http://www.sociosite.net/sociologists/sorokin_pitirim.php)

 

«Голод как фактор: влияние голода на поведение людей, социальную организацию жизнЬ» (его оригинальное русское название) это потрясающая книга, не только из-за обстоятельств, в которых она была написана, но и частично из-за сделанных выводов. Сорокин, который на тот момент был профессором Ленинградского университета, написал эту работу во время голода в России в условиях строгой секретности. Книга заканчивается выводами Сорокина, которые можно считать универсальными: если пищи недостаточно, правительственный контроль и репрессии увеличиваются. Сорокин, известный своей любовью к цветистым фразам, завершает работу словами «Caveat consules!» (консулы, будьте бдительны).

 

Книга стала для меня откровением. Я неоднократно приходил к выводу, что зачастую ранние работы писателей являются одними из лучших их работ. И это конечно же касается работ Сорокина. Здесь, в одной из его первых книг, мы видим его в первоначальном виде — когда он был менее нравоучительным и менее склонным к высокопарному стилю, к стилю великого ученого — это его лучшее состояние. Это провокационная, оригинальная и новаторская работа, выводы которой можно экстраполировать и применить к разным правительствам и экономическим условиям. Главная мысль Сорокина изложена на предпоследней странице:

 

Ceteris paribus, по мере повышения благосостояния страны и ликвидации голода, при средней дифференциации собственности, принудительный государственный контроль ослабевает независимо от типа власти и формы государственности, и наоборот.

 

Иными словами, наблюдается обратная зависимость между дефицитом или изобилием пищи, степенью личных свобод и их нехваткой. Посмотрите на Соединенные Штаты, где пищи всегда достаточно, условия голода никогда не возникали, а личных свобод больше, чем где бы то ни было.

 

 

 

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Я также прочел книгу «Американская сексуальная революция», еще в колледже, которая оказалась безнадежно устаревшей. Но Сорокин хотя бы был достаточно смел, чтобы коснуться этой темы.

 

 

– Роджер У. Смит

   Февраль 2017 г.

 

 

 

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Приложение
: Сорокин использовал те же идеи в своей конструктивной работе Голод как Фактор (переведён его женой на английский язык и опубликован посмертно в соединённых штатах в 1975 году как Hunger as a Factor in Human Affairs) в написанной им статье озаглавленной “Обеднение и расширение государственного контроля” которая была опубликована В Американском журнале социологии в 1926 году (Американский журнал социологии 32, 2, сентябрь 1926 года) вскоре после того как Сорокин прибыл в Соединённые Штаты и был назначен профессором в университете Миннесоты.

В статье, описаны примеры из различных исторических периодов и цивилизаций, Сорокин использует острые идеи широко применимостью о государственным контролем, примечая,что, когда огромный разрыв между относительно экономических условий

богатых и бедных и когда не хватает еды, государственный контроль и рост репресий.

Эта статья размещена ниже как загружаемый файл PDF.

 

 

 

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смотрите также

 

Primitive A. Sorokin, autobiographical (from “Sociology of My Mental Life”)

Pitirim A. Sorokin, autobiographical (from “Sociology of My Mental Life”)

 

 

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Добавление: Обратите внимание, что у меня есть много статей о Питириме А. Сорокине и некоторых статьях Сорокина, которые я бы хотел поделиться. Мой адрес электронной почты доступен в разделе «About» этого сайта.

Большинство статей на английском языке.

– Роджер У. Смит

 

 

sorokin-impoverishment-the-expansion-of-governmental-control1

 

 

On Reading Theodore Dreiser’s “An American Tragedy”

 

 

I don’t have a Ph.D. and lack the academic qualifications of many literary scholars, yet I have a broad and deep knowledge of literature from a lifetime of reading and I feel I have excellent taste.

I also happen to be Dreseirian (a devotee of Theodore Dreiser and his works).

When people ask me who my favorite writers are, I will mention a few, usually them same ones: Shakespeare, Daniel Defoe, Samuel Johnson, William Blake, Charles Dickens, George Gissing, Robert Louis Stevenson, Balzac, Tolstoy, Herman Melville, Walt Whitman …

and Theodore Dreiser.

Dreiser is one of the first I mention. I always experience some embarrassment when I do so. He doesn’t seem to belong in such company.

Dreiser’s massive novel An American Tragedy — it is over 900 pages long —  was the book which got me deeply into Dreiser; it bowled me over. I have read it at least twice.

I have been rereading portions of the novel recently. I am surprised how well it holds up and that much of its impact seems undiminished.

Yet Dreiser couldn’t write! Here’s what some commentators have said about this:

Dreiser writes bunglingly and poorly. His style is groping, clumsy and crude, and sometimes even outrageous. He has no sense of form, and he constantly piles up irritating and useless detail. (guest contributor, Oakland Tribune, 1934)

His novels are excruciatingly long, clumsily written, with endless stretches of tedium and scarcely a single redeeming touch of lightness or humor. (Charles A. Fecher, Chicago Tribune, 1990)

Theodore Dreiser was and is the great grizzly bear of American literature. … Smooth prose composition eluded him forever. His style was raw, his sentences often bewildering, and he organized poorly. Dreiser’s major novels are structurally chaotic, causing one to wonder if he outlined his material before commencing a project. (Larry Swindell, Fort Worth Star-Telegram, 1994)

Critics say Dreiser is a terrible prose writer. Maybe so. But he’s a great storyteller. (Mary Ann Gwinn, Seattle Times, June 24, 2002)

To read Dreiser is to become aware of a flat declamatory tone apparently unconcerned with niceties of style. He has been described as the kind of writer who triumphs over his own deficiencies of style, and as a writer who rummages through his characters’ thoughts with the impatient thoroughness of a child left alone to explore the contents of an attic. (Geoffrey O’Brien, Bookforum, 2003)

[His] tales of the rise and fall of ordinary people in the Gilded Age retained their power despite slovenly diction, bad grammar, and the author’s penchant for surges of bombastic prose-poetry. (Scott McLemee, The Chronicle of Higher Education, 2004)

Theodore Dreiser couldn’t write.

Or could he?

An American Tragedy has stock characters (like Sondra Finchley, a 1920’s flapper) who are unbelievable.

The prose is turgid and leaden.

Dreiser copied whole chunks of the book from press accounts of an actual murder case.

Admitted, thricely.

And, yet.

The Chester Gillette-Grace Brown murder case of 1906 (on which An American Tragedy was based) fixated public attention and still fascinates people today. It remained for Dreiser to make literature out of it — the way, say, Herman Melville (a far greater writer than Dreiser) made literature out of the sinking of the whaleship Essex. In so doing, Dreiser created a classic which far outranks his first novel, Sister Carrie (which is more widely read).

The power of An American Tragedy is undeniable. It retains that power upon being reread.

The crude, flat prose style is just right for the narrative, the story.

I just opened, totally at random, to a page in my 1948 World Publishing Company edition of An American Tragedy. Page 505 (Book Two, Chapter XLV) contains the following paragraph about Clyde Griffiths, the central character (Clyde was based a real life model, Chester Gillette):

And Clyde, listening at first with horror and in terror, later with a detached and philosophic calm as one who, entirely apart from what he may think or do, is still entitled to consider even the wildest and most desperate proposals for his release, at last, because of his own mental and material weakness before pleasures and dreams which he could not bring himself to forgo, psychically intrigued to the point where he was beginning to think that it might be possible. Why not? Was it not even as the voice said — a possible and plausible way — all his desires and dreams to be made real by this one evil thing? Yet in his case, because of flaws and weaknesses in his own unstable and highly variable will, the problem was not to be solved by thinking thus — then — nor for the next ten days for that matter.

Is this the prose of a James Joyce?

Decidedly not.

It is heavy on exposition (granted, this is an expository passage), perhaps too much so. That can be said of the entire book.

Yet, there is something about Dreiser’s prose that, in the case of this novel, is extremely effective.

There is a sort of Joycean technique (yes!) operating here. The narrator, the author’s, voice is “representing,” standing in for, the thoughts of the character. We thereby enter Clyde’s consciousness.

This is true of the entire book. We are like bystanders of Clyde’s psyche. We are always present, observing him close up without authorial intervention. In fact, Dreiser, by “getting out of the way” — by not distinguishing between what is exposition and what is narration — has merged the two and made the book thereby ten times more powerful in its impact.

We almost BECOME Clyde. This makes the book very powerful, very effective.

The narrative flows artlessly yet effortlessly. We are drawn right in. We can’t desist.

To read the book is to become one with Clyde and his predicament. And, we can’t stop reading. It is also very readable because the style – to the extent there is one — aids and abets the story, fits right in with it, doesn’t get in the story’s way; is not pretentious; is entirely unaffected. It’s like some old timer sitting on his front porch and telling you a story he heard about once.

Here, at least, Dreiser gains by being non-literary.

He wrote – I repeat – a classic.

An American Tragedy stands by itself. It is not allied with and wasn’t written as a response to or commentary on any literary fashion or trend.

It is sui generis, autochthonous.

As was the case with its author, the book has “muscled” its way into the corpus of great American novels. It belongs there, even if few would care to admit it.

Even though it’s hardly ever taught nowadays in English courses.

 

– Roger W. Smith

September 2016

 

 

 

An American Tragedy cover - vol. 1 (1925).jpg

An American Tragedy cover - vol. 1 (1926).jpg

Roger W. Smith, “A Commentary on Nathaniel Philbrick’s Observations about ‘Moby-Dick'”

 

I have been reading Nathaniel Philbrick’s Why Read Moby-Dick? (2011).

Philbrick is a great admirer of Herman Melville. He states, in the first chapter, that he has read Melville’s novel Moby-Dick “at least a dozen times.”

I read Moby-Dick in a book borrowed from the New York Public Library in the 1970’s. I couldn’t put it down. The book and Melville were a revelation for me.

The following are some thoughts of my own about Moby-Dick based upon my reading of Philbrick’s excellent study cum appréciaton.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

     September 2016

 

 

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(Page numbers below refer to Why Read Moby-Dick?)

 

 

pg. 9

Philbrick says, “I am not one of those purists who insist on reading the entire untruncated text at all costs.”

Although I agree with most of the points Philbrick makes, I disagree strongly here. To fully appreciate the book, you’ve got to take it all in, including the cetology.

 

pg. 17

“free and easy sort of genial, desperado philosophy”; Ishmael’s, approach to life, in his own words.

An apt characterization. Ishmael, the first person narrator, begins the book with the words “Call me Ishmael”—setting the informal, free and easy tone of the book, and establishing a level of UNformality notably American.

 

pg.  21

Philbrick comments on how, at intervals, Melville “slows the pace of his mighty novel to a magisterial crawl.”

Well put. The book is like a sea voyage under sail. There are very long stretches where land is not in sight, so to speak, and progress seems slow. By the time one finishes the book, one feels that one’s self has been on a long voyage.

 

pg.  22

I don’t agree with Ishmael’s statement (i.e., a statement made in the novel by Melville indirectly in the words of the main character Ishmael, not by Philbrick) that one ought to “forgo the cloying chunks of needless potato” in clam chowder. Clam chowder, which I love (New England clam chowder, that is), is so much better and filling with potatoes, which, in my view, are indispensable.

 

pg. 37

Melville:  “For all men tragically great are made so through a certain morbidness. Be sure of this, O young ambition, all mortal greatness is but disease.”

Shakespearean language.

The influence of Shakespeare on Melville can be seen as plain as day.

 

pg. 44

Philbrick: “Hidden beneath his [Melville’s] lapidarian surfaces were truths so profound and disturbing that they ranked with anything written in the English language.”

YES. Melville fuses narrative with metaphysical speculation, reality with imagination, grim actuality with underlying truths.

 

pg. 48

Philbrick: “[Melville’s] metaphysical preoccupations perpetually threatened to overwhelm his unsurpassed ability to find the specific, concrete detail that conveys everything.”

Very true. A keen observation.

 

pg.  59

Philbrick writes of the “longings: of the twelve-year-old boy [Melville] for his dead father; of the author for fame; and of the almost-middle-aged man for a friend.”

Nathaniel Hawthorne. Such a heart rending story. Hawthorne was discomfited by Melville’s love and shrunk from it.

 

pg. 61

Philbrick mentions “the wisdom of waiting to read the classics.”

YES. An excellent point.

Waiting until you are ready, motivated, and receptive.

Waiting until the most opportune time.

This is precisely that happened to me with Moby-Dick. And, practically every other classic and/or “great book” I have ever read.

Hardly any of them – almost none – were read by me as school assignments.

 

pg. 64

Philbrick: “Moby-Dick is a true epic, embodying almost every powerful American archetype.”

A personal observation of mine: Moby-Dick is the Great American Novel. Though many admire the book, few, if any, seem to realize this.

 

pg. 64

Philbrick: “There is wonderful slapdash quality to the book.”

Very true. Well put.

Slapdash: The great writers seem to be able to write in this way, as if they were tossing something off and sort of “taking dictation” (from within), telling you a story or something or other in an unrehearsed, unscripted conversation. Their writing does not seem “studied” (does not read that way).

Melville excels at this, beginning with the novel’s opening words:  Call me Ishmael.” He picks up the story there, and, bang, you’re into it.

Another writer who, in my opinion, pulled this off – who would not ordinarily be thought of in this context – was Henry Miller in Tropic of Capricorn. (It seems to me that Melville might be diagnosed today as having been, at times, manic, as I imagine Henry Miller may also have been.)

Also, Daniel Defoe does the same thing. Defoe seems artless, like he’s merely there to write it down. It actually makes him a great read.

 

pg.  64

Philbrick: “Ishmael is the narrator, but at times Melville invests him with an authorial omniscience.”

A good critical insight.

 

pg.  65

Philbrick: “[T]he plot is [often] left to languish and entire groups of characters [in Moby-Dick] vanish without a trace.”

True. Cf. Bulkington.

 

 pg. 65

Philbrick: “… Melville is conveying the quirky artlessness of life though his ramshackle art. ‘[C]areful disorderliness,’ Ishmael assures us, ‘is the true method.’ ”

Right on target as concerns Melville the writer (as well as Melville’s view of life).

 

pp.80-81

Philbrick: “Melville has created a portrait of the redemptive power of intimate human relations, what he calls elsewhere [in Moby-Dick] ‘the wife, the heart, the bed, the table, the saddle, the fire-side, the country.’ It is an ideal world that would sadly elude him for much of his married life.”

The quote is from Moby-Dick, Chapter XCLV.

 

pg. 82

Philbrick quotes from Moby-Dick (Chapter LXXXVII): ‘A low advancing hum was soon heard; and then like to the tumultuous masses of block-ice when the great river Hudson breaks up in Spring, the entire host of whales came tumbling upon their inner center. …’

This is wonderful descriptive prose. (Remember how, in the experience of most of us, one of the first writing assignments we had in school was to write a paper describing something?)

A personal note: In the 1970’s, when I was living in Manhattan a block away from Riverside Park, along the Hudson River, there was a particularly cold winter. The Hudson froze over, and I can remember the hissing and popping sounds as the ice was breaking up slowly.

 

pg.  83

There is a quote from Chapter XCIII of Moby-Dick (not so indicated by Philbrick): “flatly stretching away, all round, to the horizon, like gold-beater’s skin hammered out to the extremest.”

This is undoubtedly an echo of John Donne’s famous poem “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning” (another scholar confirmed my opinion):

Our two souls therefore, which are one,
Though I must go, endure not yet
A breach, but an expansion,
Like gold to airy thinness beat.

Melville, as the scholar put it, “knew seventeenth century English literature.”

 

 pg.  85

“So man’s insanity is heaven’s sense. …” (Moby-Dick, Chapter XCIII).

A profound observation by Melville.

 

pg. 103

Philbrick: “[Melville’s] dangerously digressive, sometimes bombastic novel….”

An apt description — perhaps one should say brilliant — very much on target.

 

pg. 114

Philbrick: “No matter how fantastic it may seem, everything in these last three chapters [Chapters CXXXIII-CXXXV of Moby-Dick] could have happened.”

Very true. And, the ability the pull this off is what makes Melville and the novel great. As philosophic as the book gets, whatever flights of fancy Melville gets carried way with, the book is firmly grounded in reality.

 

pg.  115

Philbrick: “In the destruction of the two whaleboats [in Chapter CXXXIV of Moby-Dick], Melville is also portraying the destruction of his own talent.”

 

pg.  117

“[The Pequod], like Satan, would not sink to hell till she had dragged a living part of heaven along with her” (Moby-Dick, Chapter CXXXV).

This passage sounds Miltonic.

 

pg.  119

Philbrick mentions “the loss of [Melville’s] shy muse.”

Nathaniel Hawthorne.

 

pg.  127

“[A]t my years, and with my disposition, or rather, constitution, one gets to care less and less for everything except downright good feeling. Life is so short, and so ridiculous and irrational (from a certain point of view) that one knows not what to make of it, unless–well, finish the sentence for yourself.” (Melville to his brother-in-law Lemuel Shaw, April 23 1849)

Henry Miller

 

 

‘Henry Miller’

 

A downloadable Word document of this essay is attached above.

 

 

 

In my late high school years, I read Henry Miller’s Tropic of Capricorn in a recently published Grove Press paperback with a bright red cover, which I found in my father’s bedroom — the obscenity ban had just been lifted by the courts. I had never heard of Miller.

I got interested in the book and eventually took it to my bedroom across the hall. I kept it for weeks. My father eventually noticed this and commented on it, but he did not insist on my returning the book.book.  (This showed a certain appreciation of my intelligence and/or curiosity as well as, perhaps, literary tastes; and what might be viewed as a degree of practical wisdom on my father’s part.)

The reason I kept the book is that I liked Miller. At first, I noticed the sexy parts – there were lots of them. I was a teenager curious about and inexperienced in sex. The “good parts” were explicit, more so than other naughty books that I had hitherto peeked at. Besides being erotic, they were well written, amusing, and fun.

Soon — very quickly — I got caught up in the whole book and in Miller’s narrative style and I was no longer interested in the sexy parts alone. And, I found that I enjoyed the sex scenes not only for their explicit erotic content, but also for the humor and the good, zesty writing.

Tropic of Capricorn is part of a trilogy that also includes Tropic of Cancer and Black Spring. I have never read Black Spring, which features surrealistic writing. I have read goodly portions of Tropic of Cancer but must admit that I have never read it in its entirety — I dipped into the book without reading it sequentially from beginning to end. Cancer is better known than Capricorn, but I prefer the former book and think it is underrated. In my opinion, it is by far Miller’s best book. I would deem it a classic of American literature. Few, it seems, would concur.

Tropic of Capricorn is an autobiographical novel, taking the reader from the point where Miller is in New York working for a telegraph company modeled on Western Union (where Miller actually worked) to the end of the book, where Miller gives up his conventional workaday life with a wife who bores him (and makes him feel like a captive) and leaves for Paris.

The book has an irresistible narrative flow and momentum. It seems to be written off the cuff — is written pell-mell as if someone were speaking in that fashion — yet it is constructed with a prefect authorial “ear”; pitched at just the right level and tone (or narrative voice); fashioned so that one episode follows another with undeniable cogency. It’s like a piece of music that is irresistible to the mind and ear.

I kept reading Miller. I spent a great deal of time reading him in my senior year in college — neglecting my studies — and then continued to read him avidly for another year or so. I basically devoured him.

While in college, I read the first two books of Miller’s trilogy The Rosy Crucifixion — Sexus and Plexus — and enjoyed them greatly. Some critics thought these were disappointing books, poorly written and a big comedown from the Tropics. One of these critics was Miller’s (and Anaïs Nin’s) friend Lawrence Durrell. But I liked them, to put it mildly. There were plenty of rollicking sex scenes and lots of colorful characters drawn from Miller’s own life. I think Miller helped (note that I say helped) to liberate me sexually and give me a healthier appreciation of sexuality. It was eroticism (one would have said then, pornography) plus damned good writing.

I went on to read other works of Miller, including much of his nonfiction, which did not have sexual content, and got a real feeling for his range and scope – as well as appreciation for his intellect (to an extent). I say “to an extent” because my admiration for Miller is not primarily admiration for his essays or theories. He was, however, a man with a keen intellect and a man of wide reading and knowledge. He was basically self educated, having only briefly attended college. His interests included music and art as well as literature. He was an amateur pianist and painted thousands of watercolors that are now in major collections.

Miller once wrote (I forget where) that he used to go to bed every night listening to Beethoven’s Egmont Overture. Reading this, I felt kinship with him, since the Egmont Overture has never failed to inspire me.

Miller dropped out of City College after a semester. One reason, he said, perhaps flippantly, was that he couldn’t bring himself to read Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene. Again, I felt kinship with Miller. In my junior year in college, I took an English course which included The Faerie Queene; I had great difficulty getting through it.

In the second semester of my senior year in college, I took an independent study course, Readings in Henry Miller, with Professor Sacvan Berkovitch, a brilliant up and coming American Studies professor who had a distinguished career.

I have a collection of books by and about Miller (some of them rare) and some by and about his literary circle.

I do, however, find it hard now to get back into him.

I recently tried to read Crazy Cock, one of Miller’s early trial novels, but gave up after a few pages, which I reread several times in the vain hope that I could get into the book. It is a failure, which I’m certain that Miller himself in his later years would have conceded. He hadn’t found his narrative voice yet. A critic once remarked somewhere that Miller had to write in the first person. (Crazy Cock and other early, then unpublished novels by Miller were written in the third person.) I agree.

I recently reread portions of Miller’s Plexus. I was surprised at how well the book stood up after all those years (meaning the forty-five plus years since I read it), and how well written it is, in my opinion. The characters are well drawn, the narrative flows, the language is just right. Miller very skillfully mixes narrative with exposition; anecdotal material with riffs of a quasi-philosophical nature. The characters are drawn from Miller’s days in New York; you can tell that they were real people – with their idiosyncrasies exaggerated.

One gets the impression – it seems that this was the actual truth – of Miller pounding away at his typewriter, writing at a furious pace. I believe (this is an aside) that it is probable that Miller nowadays would be diagnosed as bipolar.

I have read some of Miller’s letters. One gets the same impression. He can go on for ten or twenty pages. It can get tedious. It can also be spellbinding.

My favorite Miller letter is a long one he wrote on March 9, 1930 to Emil Schnellock, a commercial artist who was a lifelong friend of his, beginning when they both were students at P.S. 85 in Brooklyn. In the letter, Miller describes his first Sunday in Paris: “Perhaps the most wonderful Sunday of my life!”

Miller was born in the Yorkville section of Manhattan and was raised in Manhattan and Brooklyn (his father was a tailor); he worked in Manhattan as a young man. The anecdotes and characters he relates and portrays from his New York City years – mainly the 1920’s — are colorful and engrossing. He was a raconteur’s raconteur. His books reflect what it seems was a time when New York was peopled by colorful characters, rich and poor, of various ethnicities. Miller’s prejudices are plain for all to see. Yet, you get the feeling that he was not a mean or vindictive person. I feel somewhat the same way about Miller’s attitude towards women, for which he has been attacked harshly by feminist critics such as Kate Millet. He denigrates women; he also worships them.

My former psychiatrist, Ralph Colp Jr., once said about Miller that he was a “born writer” — it was, in my psychiatrist’s opinion (which I think is dead on), indisputable fact. The way he put it was that — whatever one might say pro or con about Miller (whom my psychiatrist in fact admired as a writer), whatever critics or guardians of public morals might say against him — one thing had to be conceded: he could WRITE.

I have seen two films based on Miller’s works: Tropic of Cancer (1970) and Quiet Days in Clichy (1970), both set in Paris; and a third, Henry and June (1990), also set in Paris, about Henry Miller, June Miller (Miller’s second wife, his Beatrice), and Miller’s lover and fellow writer Anaïs Nin, in which the lead actor, Fred Ward, does a very good job of portraying Miller. (Quiet Days in Clichy — a short, whimsical work — was one of my favorite Miller books.) I thought the film Tropic of Cancer was just so so, and was a letdown. Quiet Days in Clichy, I recall, was well done. The film was a sincere attempt to catch the essence of Miller.

Henry Miller died at his home in Pacific Palisades, California on June 7, 1980 at the age of 88. I read his obituary in The New York Times. I felt a genuine sense of loss and was saddened that we wouldn’t have him around to amuse and goad us any more. He was a free spirit who referred to himself in Tropic of Cancer as “the happiest man alive.” Reading him made me feel liberated, better about myself, and happy. It seems that this has been the case with many of his other readers.

One criticism I would make of Miller is that at a certain point in later life he stopped developing, as a writer. This point was made by Miller’s former Paris friend Alfred Perlès in a book by Perlès that seems to be forgotten: My Friend Henry Miller (New York, 1956). Perlès felt that, after Miller returned to the United States from France, he lost an important source of stimulus and became “stagnant.” I agree. I think that there was something about the challenge of living a hand to mouth existence while experiencing a tremendous surge of sexual and social liberation, cultural novelty, and intellectual stimulation in Paris during the 1930’s (as Perlès noted) that brought out the best in Miller and enabled him to achieve a literary breakthrough whereby he produced many of his best works.

Miller was given at times — not surprising in view of his prodigious output and method of composition — to making fatuous statements. He would get carried away by his enthusiasms. He titled an essay about his lover Anaïs Nin “Un Être Étoilique” (A Heavenly Being). This was overpraise for Nin.

Miller was regarded, besides being the writer who managed almost single-handedly to break down barriers against obscenity, as a forerunner of the Beat Generation. I never considered him to be a beatnik or proto-hippie.

Yet, once in the early 1970’s, I picked up a hitchhiker, a bearded hippie. It turned out he was an intellectual and we started talking about writers. I mentioned that Henry Miller was one of my favorite writers, thinking he would have never heard of Miller, much less read him. “Henry Miller is one of my all time favorites,” he said.

 

— Roger W. Smith

     June 2016

 

 

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‘Addendum:

 

The following exchange of emails with Thomas P. Riggio, Professor Emeritus at the University of Connecticut, occurred in November 2016, subsequent to my posting of the above essay.

 

 

Roger,

Your journey with Henry Miller is very interesting. During my teaching years, I used to be the only one in a large department who assigned books by Miller. I became an object of discussion among the bookstore managers. As a result, I remember members of my department, often very liberal and well educated types, dismissing his work as pornography.

I was a big fan of his work, and like you, think Capricorn is his masterpiece. I recall that my students had very polar reactions to his work — many (especially men) felt him as a liberating voice and others (mainly women) were turned off by him. It got to the point, beginning with the culture wars of the 1990’s, where I found it not worth the angst to teach him any longer.

By the way, apropos of your references to Spenser, I’ve always thought that the figure of Una in Capricorn and elsewhere — the idealized figure of virtue, truth etc. — was a reference to Una in The Faerie Queene … writers sometimes talk trash about some of their influences to throw readers/critics off their trail. Though, that said, I can’t imagine Spenser as among Miller’s favorite writers.

Black Spring has a lot of good writing in it, including the essay on childhood and relationship to his tailor father. The writing is very unlike the style of the two Tropics.

Glad to learn you are a fan. Yes, I can see that he would be harder to read as we age. He touches everything in us, and youthful hormones are not the least of them.

P.S. Do you know his comments on Dreiser in The Books in My Life? And, did you know his first unpublished book [Clipped Wings], written at the telegraph office, was inspired by Dreiser’s Twelve Men?

 

 

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response by Roger W. Smith

 

Thanks a lot for your feedback. Some thoughts, in no particular order.

Regarding the hassles of teaching Miller, because he was pornographic, I also have a blog post about the so called “dirty books” I encountered as an adolescent (without really reading most of them). See Roger W. Smith, “‘dirty’ books” at

 

https://rogersgleanings.com/2016/07/02/dirty-books/

 

I had an outstanding high school English teacher … he was a realist and knew that it wasn’t worth fighting the authorities to teach books like The Catcher in the Rye and Nineteen Eighty-Four, in which there was the occasional obscenity or sex scene.

I’m glad you agree with me about Tropic of Capricorn. A friend of mine, Charles Pierre, a poet living in Manhattan, was a voracious reader who would put me to shame, he was so well and widely read, steeped in the classics, fully conversant with poetry and with challenging modern authors (e.g., Thomas Pynchon). Henry Miller was by no stretch of the imagination his favorite, but I was surprised when he told me one day that he was reading Black Spring. He commented on how impressed he was with the brilliant writing (read, style).

Of course, we know that Kate Millet had Miller in her sights and, in part, made her reputation attacking him. Regarding Miller’s misogyny, though it didn’t bother me, she had a point.

The Una-Spenser-Miller reference of yours is intriguing.

I didn’t know at the time when I was becoming a Miller fan that Miller was a Dreiser fan. As a matter of fact, I was almost completely unaware of Dreiser, aside from the fact that there was a paperback of Sister Carrie on my older brother’s bookshelf; it was on his syllabus in college.

I was recently looking for Miller writings about Dreiser. It turns out there is very little.

Many of Miller’s works are hard to come by, very hard, if one can even identify and find them. I found that some scholar or other published a comprehensive two volume Miller bibliography not long ago: Henry Miller: A Bibliography of Secondary Sources (1979) and Henry Miller: A Bibliography of Primary Sources (1993-94). It may have been a limited print run. Very few libraries seem to have the book, and, if they do, they usually do not have both volumes.

I am a bibliophile and book collector, but I am not an antiquarian and I don’t collect books for profit. I found that both volumes of the Miller biblio were available for sale on the Internet. I purchased them. They were in mint condition. They are fascinating to browse.

I have read that early works by Miller — trial works, as it were — either came close to getting completely lost or, in some cases, can not be found. For example, I think the ms. of “Clipped Wings” has been lost.

I read that some early writings of Miller such as Crazy Cock were unearthed from the possessions of Miller’s second wife June, who may have possibly become reclusive in old age. I believe she survived Miller.

I did put one post about Miller and Dreiser on my Dreiser blog. See

 

https://dreiseronlinecom.wordpress.com/2016/07/03/henry-miller-and-dreiser/

 

I am ashamed to admit it! I was actually a fan of Anais Nin for a while. I bought some books by and about her and Miller at the Gotham Book Mart in Manhattan. A little while later, after my short lived enthusiasm for Nin had waned, Dr. Colp made a remark to me, which I feel is true, “she’s unreadable.” One word that seems to apply to her diaries is solipsistic.

I never really read Lawrence Durrell.

I am vaguely aware of Miller’s comments about Dreiser in The Books in My Life. Thanks for reminding me about them.

Miller was never the type of writer to appeal to academics — there seem to be very few scholarly papers or monographs about him. It is interesting to hear that you actually taught him.

Nowadays, it seems quite possible if not probable that curriculum watchdogs would not approve of his works as passing ideological muster.

I did know about the influence on Miller of Dreiser’s Twelve Men. See the post of my Dreiser site at

 

https://dreiseronlinecom.wordpress.com/2016/07/03/henry-miller-and-dreiser/