Some friends of mine are watching the baseball playoffs. But they only watch the games (in replay) when they know their team will win. More specifically, until now, only when the Yankees lose. They were cheering for Tampa Bay, not so much because they cared about the Rays, but because they wanted New York to go crashing down in fire and fury.
I understand the animus against the Yanks. It is a longstanding prejudice in the South, for obvious reasons, but it is not just in Dixie that the Yankees are team non grata. Everyone loves to hate the pinstripes. Why this should be so is curious.
Obviously, one reason is that for so many decades the Yankees were the bullies of the American League. They have more than twice as many World Series titles as any other team. Heck, they’ve lost more series than the second place team has won. (Twenty-Seven wins for New York, 13 losses; 11 wins for second-place St. Louis). And the Yankees have not been gracious about their hegemony.
But more to the point is why people other than the players feel they have a stake in the won-loss record of a bunch of hyper-paid athletes. Yea for our team! But it is their team, not yours. You had nothing to do with their winning or losing.
I wonder all this, not because I am so above this sort of silliness, but because I share it. There are teams I root against, too. I always pull for anyone to beat the Dallas Cowboys. Why I should despise the Cowboys is hard to explain. They are just another NFL team, and indeed the players on the field this season could just as well have been on a favorite team last year. It may have something to do with reviling the team’s owner — it’s easy to do — but it’s not as if other owners are less venal, greedy, and condescending.
The reasons for rooting are irrational. Yes, you may cheer the hometown team. But most people don’t live in a major-league city. When I lived in Virginia in the 1980s, the TV station broadcast Orioles games and I followed the team. When I lived in North Carolina, Braves games were all over the TV. I followed them as a kind of substitute home team. But there are so many other reasons people follow teams. Much has to do with history and trivial grievance, like the hatred of the Yanks. My old friend, Michael Johns, from Seattle, says:
“At this writing (unless I jinx it), the Atlanta Braves are headed to a 2-0 lead in games against the Dodgers. I approve. In the American League, the Tampa Bay Rays are up 2-0 over the Houston Astros. Again, I approve.”
“Unless it’s the Mariners, my loyalties shift from year to year,” he writes. The Dodgers “are like the Yankees of the National League. While not as clean-cut as the Bronx Bombers, they come close, and they have too many guys named Cody, Corey, and Justin for my taste.” And not enough Dizzies, Pugs and Catfishes, I might add.
He’s rooting for Tampa Bay in the American League, because the Astros are “a powerhouse team that needs to be taken down a peg.” And besides, they were caught cheating.
“Having been a fan for over 60 years, I have plenty of memories to share and grievances to air,” he says.
We all have those “grievances,” although they are ultimately pointless, and they drive much of our fandom. I, too, am rooting for the Rays. I have always despised the Astros — even back to their days as the Colt .45s — and for three very substantial reasons. First, the Astrodome was truly ugly, and besides, baseball was meant to be played outdoors. Second, because Astroturf is a crime against humanity and it spread, like a virus or the designated-hitter rule, across too many stadiums. But most important to me — and silliest — because they had the stupidest uniforms in baseball — the equivalent of tie-dye and bell bottoms. For these sins, they have captured my eternal enmity. Reasonable, right?
Those uniforms were substantially mooted by the later White Sox atrocities with short pants and collars. And then the San Diego Padres kept coming up with newer and worser ideas. Always a good reason to root against a team.
I grew up watching hockey. I went to Ranger games at Madison Square Garden. There were six teams in the NHL. Maple Leafs, Canadiens, Red Wings, Bruins, Rangers, and Black Hawks. Then, the league expanded and because of my long-standing sports conservatism, none of the new teams ever seamed legitimate. I couldn’t root for any of them. To this day, I will pull for any of the originals to beat any of the newbies, even though the oldest of them has been in the league for more than half a century now. They are still interlopers and not “real” hockey teams.
I have a similar prejudice against baseball expansion teams, although not quite as strong. It began with moving teams. My father — and I, as a little boy — rooted for the Brooklyn Dodgers. When they absconded and went to Los Angeles, it took a piece of my Dad and me with them that we never got back. Then the Giants took Willie Mays away from us. The world was suddenly not permanent. Anything could change. The Braves moved to Milwaukee; the Browns moved to Baltimore; the Athletics moved to Kansas City; the Senators moved to Minnesota. What could we count on?
My father later shifted his loyalty to the Mets, but I never could. And then, other new teams began popping up. The Angels, the Colt .45s, the Mets and a revised Senators. Then the Seattle Pilots and the Royals, the Expos and the Padres. Where would it end? The Marlins, the Rockies, the Diamondbacks, the Devil Rays. How could you take a team seriously from Florida?
Of course, none of this actually matters. It’s just sports. Yet the loyalty so many feel towards such an irrational attachment can be overwhelming. Consider the rioting that breaks out every four years during the World Cup. Soccer hooligans are not much different from Crips and Bloods.
The National Football League went from 12 teams in 1955, when I was 7 years old and first becoming sports-aware, to its current 32 teams, with many bouncing from city to city like caroming billiard balls (Las Vegas Raiders?) The league merged with the AFL in 1960, but my loyalty remains with the original teams, even when they have shifted from the National Conference to the American. History has shown the supremacy of those original teams. In 2011, I wrote a story for The Arizona Republic looking at the history of the Super Bowl and discovered that original NFL teams held a two-to-one edge in Super Bowl wins: 30 wins for the old NFL, 15 wins for the AFL and all other expansion teams. (The ratio has shrunk some since then.)
I realized that watching football on TV, I root for the team that is older — that I root for any team that was in the original NFL before it became the NFC. Even the original AFL teams, which joined the NFL in 1960 seem like interlopers to me. And expansion teams since then hardly deserve notice as teams at all. Tennessee Titans? Give me a break: Real teams are named Packers, Giants, Bears.
Is there any good reason for this. No, and I don’t pretend there is. Its just stubborn cussedness. An unwillingness to accept change.
I don’t have a team I follow. When I watch a game, football, baseball or hockey, my rooting interest is always based on which team I judge more “legitimate,” i.e., original. So, if the 49ers are playing the Ravens, I root for the San Francisco. But if the Giants are playing the Niners, I root for New York, since San Francisco didn’t enter the league until 1950. They are the junior team. If the Giants are playing the Packers, I have to root for Green Bay; they are four years older (1921) than New York (1925 joining the league).
(I pull for the Rays against the Astros only because my animus toward the Astros is so overwhelming. Those uniforms, I can never forgive.)
This may seem silly, but what other method can one choose for rooting? Hometown teams make sense, but on “any given Sunday,” as they say, for most Americans, there is no home team. You choose between Tampa Bay and Tennessee? Toss a coin.
But I bring all this up not to badmouth football or sports, but to discuss the impulse towards conservatism. It is something I discover in my own makeup that confuses me — the ineradicable desire for stability and a disdain of change.
This is, of course, the heart of genuine conservatism (as opposed to the radical loony movement that has coopted the name in the service of what is really a kind of anarchism frosted over with religious intolerance).
Political conservatism — as it was once formulated — is the belief what worked for generations of citizens before you shouldn’t be changed lightly. All that now-gone population in aggregate had a kind of multiplied wisdom, and the institutions and laws that have been in place for perhaps centuries have a kind of legitimacy in numbers: A group is wiser than an individual. If change is needed, we should be slow to believe we are smarter than our forebears en masse, and be slow to adopt the reform until it can be proven the better route. Such conservatism never forbade reform, but took a cautious approach to it.
One of the things it held onto in England was the primacy of the monarch. Kingship had served us well for so many centuries, why should we give it up? But even there, a parliamentary system eventually became the real government. The Windsors hold on out of sheer habit.
The conservatism of Bill Buckley or Barry Goldwater was more or less of this sort. Let’s not move too quickly. But even such a conservative as Everett Dirksen signed on the the Civil Rights bills because the change was truly needed.
Now, of course, to be a conservative is not so thoughtful, but rather the same sort of autonomic response we have when rooting for our favorite sports team. There is very little conservative about the Republican Party anymore. It is merely a team to root for against that other team from across town. Especially in the Trump era, even policies are not notably conservative, but radical. Rather than “Let’s keep what we have until we can prove better,” we have “Let’s uproot everything and see what happens.” Grievance is a driving force, and surprisingly like the grievance I still maintain against the Dodgers for moving to California. It has little to do with reality.
If you are what you read, then I’m confused. A lawyer’s shelves are filled with law books; a doctor’s with medical journals. Tolkien’s shelves were chock with Old- and Middle-English. I look through mine and find no common theme.
To search for myself among my books, I ventured to take a single shelf and look at its contents to see if they were in any way a mirror in which I could discover my own physiognomy. I didn’t want to pick a shelf that was organized. I have cookbooks here, poetry there, a rack or three of Latin and Greek translations over there. There is one section of all of D.H. Lawrence, another of Henry Miller. Elsewhere, there are art books and Hindu literature. There are sections of history and others of Peterson guides. But in the bedroom, beside the bed, is a floor-to-ceiling bookshelf that collects the odds and ends that I have been gathering and not yet classified, or not returned, after reading, to their rightful homes. I picked a single layer of that literary cake and investigated what I found there. Make of them what you will.
Starting at one end of the shelf:
—The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Vol. VI – 1665, edited by Robert Latham and William Matthews, University of California Press, 1972
One of the great horndogs of all times, Samuel Pepys kept a diary, in a peculiar sort of shorthand, from 1660 to 1669 and records much of historical significance, including the Great Fire of London of 1666 and the Great Plague of 1665-66.
“But, Lord! how sad a sight it is to see the streets empty of people, and very few upon the ’Change. Jealous of every door that one sees shut up, lest it should be the plague; and about us two shops in three, if not more, generally shut up.”
— Diary, Aug. 16, 1665
A few days later, on Aug. 22: “I went away and walked to Greenwich, in my way seeing a coffin with a dead bodye therein, dead of the plague, lying in an open close belonging to Coome farme, which was carried out last night and the parish hath not appointed anybody to bury it — but only set a watch there day and night, that nobody should go thither or come thence, which is a most cruel thing — this disease making us more cruel to one another than we are to dogs.”
The volume on my shelf covers only 1665, but I have collections that cover the sense of it all. And the overriding sense you get of our Mr. Pepys is a man concerned with money and business, the conduct of government, dinners with fellow bureaucrats, the love he felt for his wife, and the frequent copulations he maintained with his maid, his friends’ maids, their wives, daughters, and the fishmonger’s wives and daughters. How he had time for business and government sometimes seems a marvel. How many times does he write about seeing his maid at the scullery, bent over the dishes, and he lifts her skirts and has his way while she wipes the platters.
One day, he was surprised by his wife as he sat with the maid on his lap. He writes that his wife “coming up suddenly, did find me embracing the girl with my hand under her coats; and indeed, I was with my hand in her cunny. I was at a wonderful loss upon it and the girl also…” They had to fire the poor maid, but that didn’t stop Pepys from continuing to see her.
—The Orange Fairy Book, edited by Andrew Lang, Dover Publications, 1968
I used to own all of Lang’s Fairy books, in all colors. But I gave most of them away to my granddaughters when they were still wee bairns. I don’t think they ever really took to them — the books had no touchscreens. The Orange Fairy Book is the only one I can find now. I loved them more for the line-drawing illustrations than the text by such artists as Howard Pyle and H.J. Ford. I didn’t discover these fairy tales until I was in my 20s. My childhood had no such fantasy — when I was maybe 10 years old, I remember telling my parents I didn’t like fiction because “I don’t want to read anything that isn’t true.” I wuz a idjut. But in my 20s, I came across Lang in used book stores and collected as many colors as I could. He published 12 books, with different colors. The Blue Fairy Book and the Red were my favorites, they were also the first published. They contain some of the more familiar Grimms’ tales, Arabian Nights stories and Norwegian folktales.
The Orange Fairy Book widens the scope to African tales and some from India, in addition to the European stories usually found. It was the third from the last entry into Lang’s series and was published in 1906. After it came Olive and Lilac. My original discovery of them came at a time when Bruno Bettelheim’s book, The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales, was current — before he was found largely to be a fraud. But his central point, that fairy tales helped guide a child through the development of mind and personality, still seems accurate. I feel disadvantaged, at least a little, by not having them as a part of my childhood.
The series was published in beautifully designed paperbacks by Dover Publications, the golden treasury of lost books that became my source for so many of the books that guided my intellectual development, from Through the Alimentary Canal With Gun and Camera to Design of Active Site-Directed Irreversible Enzyme Inhibitors and Edwin Abbott’s Flatland. Dover now stays in business selling upper-grade coloring books, kiddie stickers and “thrift editions” of classics in the public domain. You can still purchase Lang’s Fairy Books from Dover.
—The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway, Scribner Classics, 1996
Other than the short stories, which are often marvelous, The Sun Also Rises is the only Hemingway I can abide. I reread it every few years and enjoy the hell out of it. I did read Death in the Afternoon a couple of years ago and enjoyed that, too, although in a sort of ironic way, as if it were a parody of the man.
“There are only two proper ways to kill bulls with the sword and muleta… A great killer must love to kill; unless he feels it is the best thing he can do, unless he is conscious of its dignity and feels that it is its own reward, he will be incapable of the abnegation that is necessary in real killing. The truly great killer must have a sense of honor and a sense of glory far beyond that of the ordinary bullfighter.”
I learned more about bullfighting than I ever hoped to. I remember as a kid when local TV in New York used to show Mexican bullfights — they didn’t kill the bulls in Mexico. Stations were really hurting for things to broadcast in those early years. They also ran a bunch of jai-alai. And the Saturday Night Fights, with Bill Stern. But I’m getting off point. I also have a fat book of his wartime journalism, Byline: Ernest Hemingway, which is “damn good reporting,” as he might have characterized it. And even in the books I can’t get through, I still find sentences and paragraphs of tremendous power and grace. He was a great writer who wrote bad books.
But Sun Also Rises has all the fizz and punch that Hemingway is famous for, but before he became Papa — or what I call “Ham-ingway.” The Sun’s excesses feel like a document of its post-war times. Later Hemingway feels like a document of his own almost comic and self-regarding toxic masculinity (perfectly skewered in Woody Allen’s film, Midnight in Paris). I have three copies of Sun in the house. I still have the old Scribner paperback that I first read some 40 years ago; then there is the one from this shelf. But I recently bought the new Hemingway Library Edition, with early drafts and deleted chapters and with a foreword by Patrick Hemingway. These last two are both beautiful book designs and immaculately printed.
—I Kid You Not, Jack Paar with John Reddy, Little, Brown and Co., 1960
Before there was Stephen Colbert, before there was David Letterman, before Johnny Carson, there was Jack Paar. He ran The Tonight Show on NBC from 1957 to 1962. He was a squirrelly man with a labile mind, but maybe a bit touchy. In his autobiography, named for his catchphrase, I Kid You Not, his co-author describes him: “Explaining Jack Paar is not easy. He is the world’s tallest elf. He is a paradox and meeting him can be like smoking a filter-tip firecracker … a man whose tranquilizer has been spiked … a tendency to make sudden U-turns in tunnels … broods over the fact that the Indians always lose in TV Westerns … as unrehearsed as a hiccup.”
I found the book recently in a library sales shelf and picked it up for a dollar, thinking I would weave nostalgia over my childhood television past. And let’s be honest, this is no Great Gatsby — it is a fairly standard celebrity book, full of potted anecdotes and famous names. Still, fairly entertaining for all that.
“I once asked Zsa Zsa if she thought love was important. ‘Yas, I theenk luff is the most imbortant theeng in a vooman’s life,’ she said throatily. ‘A vooman should keep on marrying and marrying until she finds luff.’”
Most of the book consists of a set-up paragraph, explaining a situation, followed by a punchline, either by Paar, or more often quoted from Charley Weaver, Alexander King, Genevieve or Oscar Levant. Paar had a stable of guest-star conversationalists and unlike today’s late night, which is an endless series of stars huckstering their latest project, Paar’s guests actually engaged in conversation.
Sometimes, a book just breezes by without a thought in its head — or mine.
—Black Is the Body: Stories from My Grandmother’s Time, My Mother’s Time, and Mine, Emily Bernard, Alfred A. Knopf, 2019
I heard Emily Bernard speaking on C-Span and found her mesmerizing. There are two main aspects to her book, both entirely engaging. The most obvious is her discussion of race. She grew up in the South, got her Ph.D. from Yale, married a white man from the North, adopted two babies from Ethiopia and teaches in New England, so, with all this input, there is not a single or blindered approach to her subject, but a willingness to see from all points of view. There is not a droplet of cant in her thinking or writing, but the honest thoughts of a sensitive individual.
The other is the story of her stabbing. She was attacked by a stranger, a white man, with a knife. He was a schizophrenic, acting on impulse and he attacked six other people in that coffee shop. “I was not stabbed because I was black, but I have always viewed the violence I survived as a metaphor for the violent encounter that has generally characterized American race relations. … There was no connection between us … yet we were suddenly and irreparably bound by a knife, an attachment that cost us both: him, his freedom; me, my wholeness.”
It is a book beautifully written. Its prose is both clean and evocative. I don’t believe I found a single cliche in its 223 pages.
—The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion, Alfred A. Knopf, 2005
When my wife died, three years ago, I was buried in a paralyzing grief. We had been together 35 years and, as far as either of was concerned, we were a single entity. Didion’s book was recommended to me and I dived in.
It is, of course, well written — it is Didion, after all — and it is affecting. I felt a definite kinship with her. If you have lost someone that close, it is like a soldier having been through a war and knowing only those who have shared the experience can genuinely understand. You can appreciate the sympathy of friends, but you know they are outside the event. I got letters and e-mails from one dear friend who had lost a lifetime companion, and even when she didn’t address the loss directly, there was a tacit understanding. Those letters meant more to me than any other kind words.
But, having read Didion, I had to say that my experience was different from hers. The “magical thinking” she writes about is the feeling that, even though she knows consciously that her husband is dead, there was an autonomic expectation that he might suddenly come through the door: The space of the real world, and the inner space of the mind were out of synch.
But for me, when I witnessed the life cease being generated by my wife’s ailing body, she simply was no more. The instant she stopped breathing, her skin began to cool under my touch; the flame was extinguished, and I never had even the unconscious hope that it had all been a dream, and that maybe she was still alive. No. Gone. Ewig… Ewig… Ewig.
A Night at the Opera: An Irreverent Guide to the Plots, the Singers, the Composers, the Recordings, Sir Denis Forman, Random House, 1994
My brother- and sister-in-law are crazy about opera. When I visit them, we often watch DVDs of them, and usually the operas few others appreciate, such as Wozzeck, The Cunning Little Vixen, or The Love for Three Oranges. I used to be an opera critic for my newspaper (I was critic for a lot of things — born a critic, not made one). And they gave me this book, which is a comic look at all the repertoire operas. This is not a book you read cover to cover, but dip into for a good laugh and a bit of insight.
“Death is extremely common [in opera] and has an almost universal characteristic unknown in our world, namely… the doomed person suffers a compulsion to sing. There are few known cases in [opera] where death has occurred without an aria, or at least a cavatina, being delivered… The period [of death] can last for up to a whole act. Not even decapitation can ensure an aria-free death, since the victim is likely to seize any opportunity to break into song on the way to the block.”
I used to own Milton Cross’s Complete Stories of the Great Operas in a beat-up and yellow-paged copy that I used for reference when I was writing. Nowadays, all those reference books that crowded my carrel at the newspaper have been replaced with Wikipedia at my fingertips. And the sodden reverence that Cross brought to the genre has been happily exchanged for Sir Denis’s leavening.
The book is 955 pages long, so I can’t claim to have finished it, or that I ever will. But I have read all of my favorite operas and Gesamptkunstwerks and had a good yuk.
—And Then You’re Dead: What Really Happens If You Get Swallowed by a Whale, Are Shot from a Cannon, or Go Barreling Over Niagara…, Cody Cassidy and Paul Doherty, Ph.D., Penguin Books, 2017
There are so many ways to die, outside of mortal illness or gunshot wounds. And this book, with a chromed edge of irony, recounts some of the more notable. If you are ever curious about what would happen if you were swallowed by a whale, shot from a cannon or go barreling over Niagara Falls, then even the title of the book should pull you in.
Each of 45 chapters begins with “What would happen if…” If you were buried alive; if you were hit by a meteorite; if your elevator cable broke; if you were sacrificed in a volcano; if you ate as many cookies as Cookie Monster. (On that last, many things might kill you. “After 60-some cookies, the gaseous side effects of digestion might push the pressure of your stomach beyond its physical capacity. It could explode violently and distribute its fatal chocolate chip cookie content throughout your innards. In other words, death by burping.”}
This is clearly a great book for bathroom reading: short, punchy chapters. Like eating potato chips, reading just one will be a problem. Also: Comes with scientific footnotes to witness for the authors’ predictions.
—Latest Reading, Clive James, Yale University Press, 2015
Clive James knew he was dying when he compiled Latest Readings. He was diagnosed with terminal leukemia in 2010 and decided to spend his remaining time reading and rereading. “If you don’t know the exact moment when the lights will go out, you might as well read until they do.”
If that sounds like a downer, then you haven’t read Clive James. A more irrepressible mind and curiosity would be hard to come by. This book came out in 2015 and he died in 2019, which means he had a good nine years of reading to pursue. Having announced his impending demise in 2010, he admitted at the time of this book an embarrassment at still being alive. He described himself as “near to death but thankful for life.” And after his Latest Readings, he still had seven more books to publish, one called Sentenced to Life.
He was a major wit (he described the muscled-up Arnold Schwarzenegger as looking like a “brown condom filled with walnuts”) and could toss off the bon mot as flippantly as Oscar Levant or Dorothy Parker.
One essay is specifically “On Wit,” and discusses the ability of Abba Eban to say much with little. He quotes Eban on another politician, “He is a man of few words, but they were enough to express his range of ideas,” and “Yasser Arafat never misses an opportunity to miss an opportunity.”
In his essay on early Hemingway, he says of The Sun Also Rises, “In the book, scarcely anybody is old enough to have a past. They live in the present moment because they are young, and have to. So they pretend to be experienced.” There is a second essay, later on, called “Hemingway at the End,” which begins:
“Starting with Carlos Baker’s pioneering biography in 1969, called simply Hemingway, I have spent a good part of my adult life reading books about Ernest Hemingway and I don’t want to die among a heap of them, but they keep getting into the house.”
I miss James. He’s one of those writers who, even when I disagree with him violently, I still enjoy reading. Luckily, he’s all over YouTube.
—Selected Writing of Herman Melville: Complete Short Stories; Typee; Billy Budd, Foretopman, Herman Melville, Random House Modern Library, 1952
I have always been attracted to writers word by word and sentence by sentence. There are wonderful writers whose prose is clear as water and you never notice it flowing by with hardly a gurgle. They tell their stories and you turn the pages, delighted to find out what happens next. I remember being in a bookstore once and picking up James Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific. I had always avoided him, thinking he was a talented hack who pumped out books as thick as phonebooks. I thought I might read a page or two to get the flavor of his writing, but only a few moments later, I realized I was 30 pages in and had to stop because the store was closing. I was completely immersed in the story and unaware I was actually reading.
Melville is not like that. You chew on each tasty word and dine on his sentences. I fell in love with Moby Dick, but had the hardest time finishing it, not because I became bored, but because every time I picked up the book anew, I started from the beginning again. “Call me Ishmael.” I must have read “Loomings” more than a hundred times.
Before I ever finished Moby Dick, I read Israel Potter, Typee, Omoo and The Confidence Man. But what I kept coming back to, over and over, was this Modern Library edition of his selected writings: The Piazza Tales; Billy Budd and Typee. If given the chance, I will read I and My Chimney out loud at a dinner party. The Encantadas enchanted me; Benito Cereno moved me; Bartleby — Ah humanity.
Melville’s prose is thicker than Southern chicken gravy. It always had a spice of irony in it. It can be comic; it can be tragic. Often both. The sentences can be long as freight trains or short as shunting boxcars. There is always a slightly distracted sensibility behind them.
“When I removed into the country, it was to occupy an old-fashioned farm-house, which had no piazza — a deficiency the more regretted, because not only did I like piazzas, as somehow combining the coziness of in-doors with the freedom of out-doors, and it is so pleasant to inspect your thermometer there, but the country round about was such a picture that in berry time no boy climbs hill or crosses vale without coming upon easels planted in every nook, and sun-burnt painters painting there. A very paradise of painters.”
Melville breaks every one of Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing, especially the part about avoiding “hooptedoodle.” Everything Leonard denounces is every reason I love reading. And Melville is the absolute emperor of hooptedoodle. Sometimes, we never ever get to the point.
—Classical Persian Literature, A.J. Arberry, George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1967
Sometimes, you are moving through the used bookstore too fast. It is a vast buffet of things you want to grab and take home. And sometimes, you grab a title you don’t take enough time to read carefully. I was visiting brother- and sister-in-law and went to a used bookstore the size of a Safeway. I saw a book spine with “Classical Persian Literature” on it and scooped it up. It was only when I got home that I discovered there was precious little classical Persian literature in it, but was, instead, a dry history of Persian literature.
I’m sure it is a wonderful history, and will let me know the minute differences between 13th century and 14th century writings from Iran. But the prose has all the dust of scholarship about it. I have not been able to crack into it; it pushes me away. I wanted poetry and I got bricks. I’m sure, also, that Mr. Arthur John Arberry was quite knowledgable, probably one of the world leaders. But I keep this volume around purely as a non-chemical soporific.
—A Mencken Chrestomathy: His Own Selection of this Choicest Writings, H.L. Mencken, Vintage Books, 1982
Henry Louis Mencken was an often detestable human being, with gender and racial views bordering on the rabid. But he wrote like a dream. I envy his style like few others, and will gobble up anything I can find that he published.
I have all six volumes of his aptly titled Prejudices, and all three of his autobiographies, to say nothing of the hefty three volumes of The American Language and I have devoured them like peanut-butter cups. When I couldn’t get enough Mencken, having finished all these, I asked Amazon for a copy of his 1949 anthology, A Mencken Chrestomathy. Unfortunately, a good deal of it is reprinted from the Prejudices and memoirs, but enough is new that the book kept me amused for a week or more. And I can dip back in for a recharge at any time. They are all eminently re-readable.
“The suicide rate, so I am told by an intelligent mortician, is going up. It is good news to his profession, which has been badly used of late by the progress of medical science, and scarcely less so by the rise of cut-throat, go-getting competition within its own ranks. It is also good news to those romantic optimists who like to believe that the human race is capable of rational acts. What could be more logical than suicide? What could be more preposterous than keeping alive?”
And the next essay, he continues: “I see nothing mysterious about these suicides. The impulse to self-destruction is a natural accompaniment of the educational process. Every intelligent student, at some time of other during his college career, decides gloomily that it would be more sensible to die than to go on living. I was myself spared the intellectual humiliations of a college education, but during my late teens, with the enlightening gradually dawning within me, I more than once concluded that death was preferable to life. At that age the sense of humor is in a low state. Later on, by the mysterious working of God’s providence, it usually recovers.”
Reading Mencken is a mix of smiles and winces. A clever turn of phrase here, a rolling diatribe careening along like a freight train, a panegyric or philippic — then, you bump up against some gratuitous generalization about “the negroes” or “the Jews,” and you pull up short. These were common prejudices at the time, but they sour the tongue now.
You are forced to remember that Mencken also argued for the American acceptance of Jewish refugees in the years before WWII, and lashed out at lynchings and bigotry, apparently not noticing the beam in his own eye. In addition, he had close friendships with both African-Americans and Jews. It was only in the abstract he denigrated them, not that such makes it acceptable.
Mencken also disapproved of democracy. In this, he seems prescient. “As democracy is perfected, the office [of the presidency] represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. We move toward a lofty ideal. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.”
—High Tide in Tucson: Essays From Now or Never, Barbara Kingsolver, Harper Collins, 1995
The most recent book I’ve finished is Kingsolver’s collection of essays, mixing science and autobiography and more than anything, common sense written with aromatic and redolent words. My first ex-wife found it a few months ago in a used bookstore and bought it for me, thinking I might enjoy it. She was right.
I confess I have not read any of Kingsolver’s fiction. I’m a bit slow on keeping up with contemporary novels — I’m still too often stuck on Henry Fielding and Laurence Sterne — but these essays are infectiously written.
“I have been gone from Kentucky a long time. Twenty years have done to my hill accent what the washing machine does to my jeans: take out the color and starch, so gradually that I never marked the loss. Something like that has happened to my memories, too, particularly of the places and people I can’t go back and visit because they are gone. The ancient brick building that was my grade school, for example, and both my grandfathers. They’re snapshots of memory for me now, of equivocal focus, loaded with emotion, undisturbed by anyone else’s idea of the truth. The schoolhouse’s plaster ceilings are charted with craters like maps of the moon and likely to crash down without warning. The windows are watery, bubbly glass reinforced with chicken wire. The weary wooden staircases, worn shiny smooth in a path up their middles, wind up to an unknown place overhead where the heavy-footed eighth graders changing classes were called ‘the mules’ by my first-grade teacher, and believing her, I pictured their sharp hooves on the linoleum.”
Over and over Kingsolver metamorphoses physical objects into emotion — not overt, heart-on-sleeve, but recollection, affection, loss — and makes the persuasive case that emotion is more central to being human than paltry thought. Or rather, that when seen properly, thought and emotion are the very same thing.
—Paradise Lost: An Authoritative Text, Backgrounds and Sources, Criticism — A Norton Critical Edition, John Milton, edited by Scott Elledge, W.W. Norton, 1975
I’m afraid people look at me funny when I tell them how much I enjoy reading Milton. They scrunch their eyes and wonder if they should step back slowly. But Milton is wonderful; he is fun. And he tells a whopping good yarn.
I have four copies of Paradise Lost. The first is a compact blue Oxford Standard Authors edition from 1925. When my girlfriend-at-the-time and I decided to hike the Appalachian Trail in the early 1970s, it was this Milton I tossed into my knapsack for the trip. Yes, I took Milton to the woods. Then there is the larger paperback with the famous Gustave Doré illustrations. And a two-volume complete Milton in a presentation set from 1848, bound in leather, that was a birthday present from my late espoused saint. And then, there is this Norton Critical Edition paperback that I keep near my bed. Its advantage is the explanatory footnotes at the bottom of each page. Some pages have more note than text. I am a little put off that these notes are designed for students and that those students need to be told that “cherub” is singular of “cherubim” or that “pernicious” means “destructive.”
When I read Milton, I hear in my mind’s ear the same rich and thunderous diapason I hear in J.S. Bach’s organ music. Whole rolling chords and pedal tones. Politicians often attempt rhetorical speech in order to sound more impressive and authoritative, but they always sound phony and pompous, like Foghorn Leghorn. But Milton is the real thing: Language with the weight of 2000 years of background. Yes, he treats English as a baby brother to Latin and does damage to standard grammar to contort his sentence structure. But in return, he gets a language more powerful than any poet before or since.
“Him the Almighty Power/ Hurled headlong flaming from th’ ethereal sky/ With hideous ruin and combustion down/ To bottomless perdition, there to dwell/ In adamantine chains and penal fire,/ Who durst defy th’ Omnipotent to arms.”
How can you not love such language: “Round he throws his baleful eyes.”
Perhaps it actually helps that I have no dogs in this fight. I am not a Christian. I can read the Iliad with pleasure and not believe in the Olympians; I can read the Mahabharata without thinking that Krishna or Ganesh are real. The myth of Paradise Lost is compelling, even without being dogma.
—-The Mystery of Georges Simenon: A Biography, Fenton Bresler, Stein and Day, 1985
Georges Simenon was the creator of Inspector Maigret, but the real mystery is how he managed to write so many books, while also diddling so many women. He wrote nearly 500 novels, some whipped off in as short a time as a week. He could, when deadline pressed, write 60 pages a day. The women are not accurately counted.
Seventy-five of those novels and 28 short stories feature Inspector Jules Maigret, the pipe smoking and uxorious chief of the Paris Police Judiciaire. The books have been made into many movies and TV series, including 52 episodes for French television starring Bruno Cremer and a dozen in English starring Michael Gambon. I have seen them all; I am a Maigret addict. I have also read handfuls of the books, too. They read fast and rivetingly.
They aren’t really mysteries, though. In most, the reader learns fairly early who the culprits are and the books have their raison d’etre in the finely drawn character studies of their dramatis personae. They really are novels more than your standard mysteries. No suspects are gathered in the last chapter while the detective unmasks the villain. And, indeed, Simenon has written many non-Maigret novels, also with their catchy populations.
“They do not contain much spine-chilling suspense,” writes biographer Fenton Bresler. “They are dark, taut studies of human beings pushed to the limit of their characters, explored with such deep instinctive knowledge of human nature that they have become part of the syllabus of university examinations, and post-graduate students write learned theses devoted to them.”
“Yet, for all their sombre value and consummate craftsmanship, they have nearly all been written at breakneck speed in not much more than a week — with, at the end, a compulsive need to indulge in a veritable orgy of sexual activity as ‘a necessary hygienic measure,’ It is here, with sex, that we have our first inkling that the ‘phenomenon’ is also a mystery and the story of Simenon’s own life is as dark and compelling as any of his novels — if only we can get at the truth.”
—Look Homeward, Angel: A Story of the Buried Life, Thomas Wolfe, Random House Modern Library, 1929
Asheville, North Carolina, is in the Blue Ridge Mountains and about 10 miles to the east, the escarpment drops off to the flatlands. The way up the hill from Old Fort to Asheville is now Interstate 40, an artery which runs from Wilmington, N.C., to Barstow, Calif. In North Carolina it runs from the Atlantic Coastal Plain through the Piedmont, with Greensboro and Winston-Salem, and past Asheville to the Smoky Mountains before hitting Tennessee near Dollywood. But before the Interstate, the looping way up the hill was a gravel road that roughly parallels the old railroad line. In 1880, William Oliver Wolfe took a stage coach up the hill to Asheville to set up his stonecutting business.
His son, Thomas, fictionalized that trip in the opening chapter of his novel, Look Homeward, Angel, published in 1929. In the novel, Old Fort becomes Old Stockade and Asheville becomes Altamont. His fictionalized father, Oliver Gant, gets into a coach that climbs its way up the face of the Blue Ridge. “His destination was the little town of Altamont, 24 miles away beyond the rim of the great outer wall of the hills. As the horses strained slowly up the mountain road Oliver’s spirit lifted a little. It was a gray-golden day in late October, bright and windy. There was a sharp bite and sparkle in the mountain air; The range soared above him, close, immense, clean, and barren. The trees rose gaunt and stark: They were almost leafless. The sky was full of windy white rags of cloud; a thick blade of mist washed slowly around the rampart of a mountain.
“Below him a mountain stream foamed down its rocky bed, and he could see little dots of men laying the track that would coil across the hill toward Altamont. Then the sweating team lipped the gulch of the mountain and, among soaring and lordly ranges that melted away in purple mist, they began the slow descent toward the high plateau on which the town of Altamont was built.”
I have driven that same road many times, avoiding the interstate as less interesting. The railroad that was being constructed while Oliver rode the coach, is now finished and it loops up in switchbacks mostly parallel to the gravel road. You see it peeking through the trees here and there. And I have driven it in October when the season matches that of the book. There is something uncanny about seeing fiction turned palpable, about driving through the trees as if you were driving through prose.
—Persian and Chinese Letters, Charles Louis, Baron de Montesquieu, translated by John Davidson; and The Citizen of the World, Oliver Goldsmith, M Walter Dunne, 1901
I have always loved old books. The letterpress text is textural, embedded into the paper and you can run your finger over the words and feel the bumpiness. There is the smell of the old paper itself. And title pages often have border designs in colored ink, or engraved scrolls. In the older books, there are those long “S” figures that each looks like an “F.” The volumes are beautiful objects, well worthy beyond their content.
I own several books from before 1750 and more from the 19th century, including my trusty History of the Earth and Animated Nature, by Oliver Goldsmith (my copy is from 1825). And there is a History of Redemption on a Plan Entirely Original Exhibiting the Gradual Discovery and Accomplishment of the Divine Purposes in the Salvation of Man; Including a Comprehensive View of Church History and the Fulfilment of Scripture Prophecies by “the late reverend Jonathan Edwards” from 1793, with its stretched leather binding still intact. (They loved long titles back then; it’s part of their charm.) And there is a complete reprint of Addison and Steeles Spectator from around the time of the American Revolution (it is falling apart and missing its title page, but the latest date mentioned in it is 1776). I love them all.
Goldsmith also wrote a satire on English society and culture called The Citizen of the World, purportedly a series of letters written by a Chinese visitor, Lien Chi, who is mystified at some of the British habits and mores he found. Goldsmith’s book was inspired by a similar one by Baron de Montesquieu, called the Persian Letters, from 1721, in which two fictional Persians leave their seraglio to travel through France and send back letters describing what they found.
“Coffee is very much used in Paris; there are a great many public houses where it may be had. In some of these they meet to gossip, in others to play at chess. There is one where the coffee is prepared in such a way that it makes those who drink it witty: At least, there is not a single soul who on quitting the house does not believe himself four times wittier than when he entered it.”
My volume is a translation and reprint from 1901, and a so-called “de Luxe Edition, printed by M. Walter Dunne, Publisher, Washington & London. It isn’t the greatest reading, but it is a handsome volume.
—The Stories of Vladimir Nabokov, Vladimir Nabokov, Alfred A. Knopf, 1995
Some time ago, on a vacation trip, I came across a copy of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. It was all there was to read where we were staying and I admit to being somewhat embarrassed to read a book about a pedophile, and worse, from his self-justifying point of view, but I also have to admit, it was the best-written book I had come across in ages. The writing was singular; verbal fireworks. I have never come across anything like it. The simple act of reading was fun. There is no other word for it. It was a delight to move from one word to the next, each brighter and crisper and more ironically charged than the last. Lolita is a great book. Not that I want anyone to catch me reading it.
I later picked up his autobiography, Speak, Memory, and loved it, too, although it didn’t have the crashing verbal tides of Lolita. Still, it was compelling.
And so, I found this giant, thick, heavy compilation of Nabokov’s short stories. At 660 pages, it contains 65 stories, some written in English, some translated from Russian. I have admired the spine of this book on my shelf for some time, but found it daunting to pull out and open up.
“The name of the planet, presuming it has already received one, is immaterial. At its most favorable opposition, it may very well be separated from the earth by only as many miles as there are years between last Friday and the rise of the Himalayas — a million times the reader’s average age. In the telescopic field of one’s fancy, through the prism of one’s tears, any particularities it presents should be no more striking than those of existing planets. A rosy globe, marbled with dusky blotches, it is one of the countless objects diligently revolving in the infinite and gratuitous awfulness of fluid space.”
How can any scrupulous writer not admit to being in awe of a phrase like, “the infinite and gratuitous awfulness of fluid space.”? Or, “the telescopic field of one’s fancy” and “the prism of one’s tears.”?
Perhaps one day, I will work up the gumption to tackle the whole book. After all, I made it through Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago. This should be child’s play in comparison.
And so, I think over what I have excavated from this layered wooden trove and wonder anew: Who is this who drew magnetically such a heterogeneous collection of mental filings. Spiegel im Spiegel.
It is plopped down in front of you and you poke it and prod it and try to figure out what it is. If it is something very new or very different, it may take more poking than usual, and you may very well come up with the wrong answer.
This is what it is to be a critic — a real critic, I mean, not one of those Yelp scribblers, or self-certain mandarins with nothing more to offer but thumbs turned skyward or hell-ward.
I was a critic for 25 years for a major daily newspaper (The Arizona Republic in Phoenix, Ariz.), and I always thought of my job as being a first reader, or first seer, or first listener — a pioneer trying to make sense of something before any sort of consensus has been reached. It is a risky thing to do — to proffer an opinion before you have anyone watching your back.
When conductor Pierre Boulez first came out with his version of Wagner’s Ring Cycle in 1976, he played as if it were chamber music, it was such a different conception of the music that many critics first assumed it was a failed attempt to make the grand, Romantic mytho-philosophical monster it had always been taken to be. The BBC criticized the conductor’s “ruthless tempi” and “lack of expressiveness.”
Consensus has now realized it was a brilliant re-thinking of the way the music could make sense. The clarity he brought to the muck (beautiful muck), was transcendent in its own way. Later criticism decided instead that “Wagner’s music doesn’t have to be murky to be metaphysical or massive to be overwhelmingly moving and Boulez gets playing from the too-often turgid Bayreuth Festival Orchestra that makes the music crackle and blaze with musical and dramatic meaning.”
Being a first listener is always risky. You may think something a failure because it doesn’t do what it has done before, failing to hear that it is doing something new brilliantly.
When the Boulez Ring was new, the critics poked and prodded to see if it was alive. Now, we know not only that it was alive, but that it was a harbinger of a new way of playing classical music that has taken over the business. Out with the Furtwängler, in with the John Eliot Gardiner. Lean and mean drove out lush and weighty.
I am reminded of this because I have just been confronted by a new recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations under the fingers of Chinese Wunderklaviermeister Lang Lang. Critical reaction has been all over the place, from deciding it was “the greatest version since Glenn Gould” to complaining that it sounded like a talented conservatory student sight reading.
And I see what each reaction means: They parallel my own thoughts. Is this a brilliant rethinking, or is this a flaming dumpster fire?
Mr. Lang, or if I may be so familiar as to call him by his first name, Lang, has always split opinions. Sometimes it is hard to bust through his relentless self-promotion — the kind of commercial huckstering usually identified with charlatans and snake oil salesmen — and then there are his stage antics, eyes closed in thesbian rapture, rolling his head back and forth in a way to make Leonard Bernstein seem like a mechanical clock. How can you take him seriously?
And yet, there is often magic in his playing. I have heard him live several times, and his performances varied widely, from glib to dazzling to absolutely empty. Yet, at other times, it was profoundly moving. When I heard him play the Chopin E-minor concerto, the way he played the slow movement made time stand absolutely still. It is one of the most soul-satisfying performances I have heard in a half-century of concertgoing. It probably helped that I normally close my eyes when listening to music and therefore was spared his facial contortions. God, was that moment beautiful.
His recordings are equally all-over-the-place, with some dead-on and concentrated and others distracted and hollow. Lang is capable of so much, but only delivers intermittently.
So I am now confronted by a Goldberg Variations unlike any I’ve heard before. Is it brilliant or dunderheaded? Is it an aberration or is it a signal that classical music culture is shifting once again?
I’ve heard a lot of Goldbergs in my time. They were little known or played before 1955, when Glenn Gould launched them on an unsuspecting public, with a blazing performance that redefined Bach playing, clarifying the polyphonic strands and cutting down the pedal, almost mimicking the sound of a harpsichord. Since then, in the same way that no self-respecting art photographer can fail to make a photograph of a green pepper after being shown the way by Edward Weston, so no decent pianist can avoid recording a set of Goldbergs. Most of them are perfectly decent, if anonymous.
In recent years, a few with real personality have been released. Simone Dinnerstein has her set and more recently Jeremy Denk. Some may remember the brief surfacing of a recording by João Carlos Martins that was almost as idiosyncratic as Gould, although Martins’ piano never seemed to be quite in tune.
The work has also been transcribed for accordion, marimba, harp, hammer dulcimer, guitar, saxophone quartet, string trio, string orchestra, synthesizer, and brass quintet. I have a recording of parts of them on Japanese koto, and Yo-yo Ma recorded the Aria on his cello. Avant-gardist Uri Caine made his version updating each variations individually for a heterogeneous mixture of voices, instruments and recorded noises. I once put together a CD mixing many of these oddball transcriptions into something I called the “Goldberg Variorum” — each variation played by a different instrument or group.
Gould recorded the Goldbergs at least four times — with untold bootlegs out there. The initial set has been reissued so many times in different albums, that it is impossible to keep count. Russian pianist Tatiana Nikolayeva recorded them five times and Rosalyn Tureck did it seven times.
The earliest version I could find was on Welte piano rolls (a kind of player piano) from 1928, by Rudolf Serkin. (His son, Peter, left us three versions). Since then, there have been close to 250 recordings. About 50 of those are on harpsichord. A few are the transcriptions, but almost all are on piano.
But since Gould, most pianists have hewn to the stricture that, since they were composed for the harpsichord, they should be performed as drily as possible, and with little or — preferably — no pedal. And since the arrival of “historically informed performance practice” (fie on the miscreants, I say, fie) boatloads of pianists have done their best to erase any notion that a performer should “interpret” the score. Just the notes, ma’am.
This has led to quite able, but faceless performances by such as Angela Hewitt, András Schiff and Murray Parahia. I don’t mean to poo-poo these recordings, They are all excellent of their kind, but they are chaste.
And so, we come to Lang Lang’s two-disc set, taken at a rather leisurely pace, but with lots of spark and crackle in the details. He likes to thump hard on stray notes and he adds many ornaments, especially in the repeats — and not all the trills and mordents are stylistically appropriate. Extra passing tones and tons of rubato. Worse: Pedal. In modern terms, this is Bach done in “bad taste.”
In the old days (pre-HIPP), pianists tended to play Bach on piano as if he had written for piano. They brought out tunes and backed them with accompaniment. Now, we revel in the polyphonic strands, each brought out cleanly. If you listen to pre-World War II recordings of Bach, you will hear pianists such as Edward Fischer or Wilhelm Kempff play their Bach as if he were the godfather of Chopin.
You can hear the echoes of this Bach in the Well-Tempered Clavier of Daniel Barenboim. They are magnificently played, but purists cover their ears and bray “Nyah-nyah” to block out the sound. Yet, there is a long tradition, now largely buried, of approaching Bach’s music as a pretext for piano playing, showing off the performer’s skills and sensibilities. After all, do you go to La Boheme for the story, or to hear Pavarotti? The present orthodoxy considers this a kind of blasphemy.
Yet, the music no longer belongs to Bach; it is ours and we can express our ownership of it any way we wish (as someone once said about modernized performances of Shakespeare, set on the moon or done with an all-female cast, “It’s OK. They haven’t destroyed the text. It is still there, unharmed.”) And no matter what you may think of Lang Lang’s performance, the text is still there. It belongs to you, too. But Bach himself is no longer here; he has no say in the matter and we are presumptuous if we claim to speak for him.
So, maybe, after 40 years of increasing musical priggishness and the cult of “composer’s intentions” we are beginning to loosen up. After all, it is Postmodern doctrine that it is all just “text” to be worked on by each of us.
The audience that actually cares about classical music seems divided into two unequal groups. The larger posits a Platonic ideal performance and judges each concert by how close to this ideal it reaches. Of course, each listener has his own vote for what that ideal is. But the goal is always the “perfect” realization of the score.
But the other group seeks constantly to be surprised, to see the notes through a newer lens and have the music refreshed. “To hear it again for the first time.” They expect each concert to give them a different version even of old chestnuts. The standard issue performance bores them.
I can give a great demonstration of the difference. When Anne-Sophie Mutter first recorded the Beethoven Violin Concerto with the Berlin Philharmonic and Herbert von Karajan, she gave what must be the closest to the perfect ideal. Nothing out of place, everything beautiful and expressive. As if played by angels, not humans. It has remained in print since it was released in 1979. She recorded it again in 2002 with Kurt Masur and the New York Philharmonic, in a performance much more personalized, with very different phrasings and dynamics. No longer a Platonic ideal, but much more a here-and-now. You would never confuse it with any other performance or violinist. I love it; many fans hated it. Hate, hate, hated it.
The problem with the Platonic performance is that the ideal changes over time. Once, the perfect Beethoven was Furtwängler, then it became Szell, and after that, it became John Eliot Gardiner. Tastes change over time.
We seem to be in another shift, giving up the impersonal historically strait-jacketed version for a reintroduction of the more individuated performance. We hear it in the recordings not just of Lang Lang, but of Mikhail Pletnev, Valery Gergiev or the late Nikolaus Harnoncourt (operating under the deceitful guise as an “original instrument” guy — but really just sui generis.)
Really, the Platonic template has been in place mostly from World War II on. Before that, performance idiosyncrasy was the norm, from Vladimir de Pachman to Willem Mengelberg. Leopold Stokowski was famous for tinkering with scores and glamming up what he was conducting. Now, having gone through that, into the Post-war standardization and then the HIPP diminution, we seem to be re-entering an era of increased personal interpretation.
And that brings us back to Lang’s Goldbergs. If we are in the cusp of a change, we cannot really be sure where the gamepiece comes down. This new recording may indicate a reshaping of the way we play Bach, the way Gould reshaped it from 1955. Or maybe it’s just a garish one-off.
I poke it; I prod it. I place my bet. So many of the hundreds of recordings of the Goldberg Variations are magnificently well-played and satisfying in their own way, but how many are memorable? You could replace one with another and be equally pleased, indeed not even to notice the difference. Gould was memorable: You can spot it in a crowd of hundreds. Lang Lang’s recording is the most memorable I’ve heard since then, and I’ve heard a boxload of them. It is memorable, but is it good? Will its novelty wear thin, or become the new norm?
I am going back for a fourth dive into the new recording. Then, maybe, a fifth. Perhaps after that, I’ll have an answer.
I hadn’t baked in years. I used to do so regularly, just to have fresh-baked bread to eat with cold butter. It is the food they must eat in Paradise. Hot crusty bread with hard cold butter: There is nothing better.
Neither had I baked a cake, but then I had a slight hankering for chocolate and I didn’t want to go out in the Covid night to shop, so I decided to make my own dessert, a small chocolate cake — a sort of brownie thing, but more cakey.
I have never used a recipe for baking and I didn’t this time, either. Years ago, when I lived with friends, I wanted to bake a cake and my friend’s wife warned me that you simply had to have the measurements right for a cake to turn out. I took it as a challenge. I threw together what I thought would make a cake and slid it in the oven. The cake was delicious.
That was something like 40 years ago. And it was, I believe, the last time I baked a cake. I’m not a big cake eater.
But bread, yes. I love bread and I always thought bread making was the easiest thing in the world. I don’t know why so many people think it is a persnickety project. I see TV chefs giving conflicting instructions. One says you have to be careful to measure your flour and to slide a knife across the top of the measuring cup to get an accurate amount. Another says you can’t measure the flour; you have to weigh it on a kitchen scale (preferably, I think, in grams).
I have never measured my flour. I just dump what feels like the proper amount in a mixing bowl, add my yeast and a bit of salt and stir around the dry ingredients, then add warm water until I get a dough. You can’t know just how much, because the air humidity and barometric pressure change the needed proportions. You just do it until it feels like dough.
Of course, you can add things if you want to make a different sort of bread. You can put in an egg and substitute some milk for the water if you want to make a challah. You can mix in some rye flour if you want a rye bread.
But you do it until you get a dough that feels right. I can’t tell you what that is: It is something you learn in your fingertips. Book knowledge is no help, anymore than it is when learning to ride a bike. The same goes for the proper amount of kneading. It will feel ready when it feels ready.
Then you can either put it in bread pans, or make a boule or a baguette. Bake it in an oven with a pan of water to help make a good crust. It will be done when the kitchen smells right.
There is so much that is not verbal and cannot be put down in print. Driving a car, facial recognition, offering condolence, playing music in tune, making love, knowing why life is worth living: Words are inadequate at best, impossible to be precise and often utterly misleading. Only experience really helps, along with an openness and willingness to pay attention.
These days, many people, locked in their homes avoiding tiny spiky bugs, fill their empty time with the baking of bread. They share sourdough starter recipes and “secrets” for a good loaf. It’s a fine hobby and the eating is a great reward. But there is a difference between a non-cook poring over a cookbook, following its instructions step by slow step, biting on their lips while reading; and a seasoned veteran who has the whole process recorded in muscle memory. It provides the confidence.
So, anyway, there I was, wanting a bit of sweet, about 8 in the evening. I set the oven for 350F and got out a mixing bowl.
I dumped some flour into the bowl. I don’t know exactly how much, maybe two-thirds of a cup or so. Measurements-shmeasurements. I addedroughly three-quarters of the same amount of sugar and another hefty dose of cocoa powder, a dribble of vanilla, an egg, some butter I melted in the microwave, and used the tip end of a measuring cup handle to get some baking powder. I added about six grains of Cafe Bustelo instant coffee — barely enough to notice, and a squirt of Hershey’s syrup, and enough milk to make a batter. No measurements of anything, just the right “feel” for it. Baked it all for 25 minutes and waited for it to cool. It was yummy. I had a piece, then I had another piece, with a cold glass of milk.
So, maybe I had three pieces. Sue me. I did a little dance. Perhaps it was the caffeine from the grains of coffee. It’s about the only thing I’ve accomplished this past week of self-isolating — other than writing. Oh, and I took out the garbage and walked the dumpster down to the street so the trash delivery men could get it.
And I know what I’ll be eating for breakfast. Hah! I still got it.
There is Mahler before Bernstein, and Mahler after him. This is not to say that Lenny is the summum bonum of these nine-plus symphonies, but that before his 1960’s advocacy, Mahler was one of those niche composers that a few people knew about and appreciated, and afterwards, no right-thinking conductor could fail to offer a complete cycle — Mahler joined Beethoven, Brahms and Tchaikovsky and one of those whose works would be recorded by the yard. A Mahler program now draws a paying audience like almost no other.
But there is Mahler and there is Mahler. When everyone gets into the act, the quality level evens out — It’s hard to find a really bad recording anymore, and it is also hard to stand out with something exceptional. Yet, both ends do still exist.
I have not heard every release; no one could, not even David Hurwitz, who is as close to nuts as anyone I know of. But I have experienced a whole raft of Mahler recordings and I have my favorites, and a few excrescences that I have to keep as “party records” to share with commiserating friends.
My bona fides include more than a half-century of listening to classical music, reading scores, and being a retired classical music critic on a major daily newspaper. I have owned at least 15 complete Mahler cycles and uncounted individual CDs and LPs — going back to the 1960s. I did disgorge about two-thirds of my collection of CDs when I retired eight years ago, but even since, I have added more Mahler (among others) and currently sit with 10 full sets and two shelves of individual recordings. Am I as nuts as Hurwitz? I leave that to the jury. (It isn’t only Mahler: I once owned 25 complete sets of Beethoven piano sonatas and 45 recordings of the Beethoven Violin Concerto).
Yes, I listen to a boatload of music. I cannot imagine my life without music.
And I have my Top 10 list of Mahler recordings. Really, a Top 11 — one for each of the nine completed symphonies, and add-ons for the incomplete 10th, for Das Lied von der Erde, and the song cycles, so it’s really like a Top 15 or so. And there are a few bombs I want to include, just for fun. Let’s take them in order.
Symphony No. 1 in D
The symphony begins with an ethereal A, barely audible and transforms into a cuckoo call, evincing nature, the woods and eternity, but then opens up into the fields and streams borrowed from Ging heut’ Morgen über’s Feld in his song cycle Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen.The first four Mahler symphonies all borrow from his songs. The third movement is a grotesquerie built from a minor-key version of Frere Jacques played first by a solo double bass; it is an ironic funeral march, interrupted by klezmer music and a bit of gypsy wedding. It is one of the most peculiar movement from anyone’s symphonies.
Then it all burst out in a tormented and blazing fourth movement with horns wailing out over all, and comes to an abrupt conclusion with an orchestral hiccup.
The symphony is qualitatively different from the ones that follow, but it is easier for most first-time listeners to comprehend. It is a great place to start a Mahler journey.
The greatest version I ever heard live was Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic; it blew me away. There is a live recording, from the young maestro’s debut concert in LA. It is hard to get the same effect from a recording, but this is my sentimental favorite. But there are some other great ones.
The consensus (but not universal) favorite is Raphael Kubelik and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra from 1968. It includes the Lieder eines fahrended Gesellen and Dietrich Fischer-Deiskau.
The version I first learned from, a billion years ago in another galaxy, and on vinyl, was Bruno Walter’s with the Columbia Symphony Orchestra. Walter knew Mahler and premiered his Ninth Symphony. The sonics are not always great, but there is tremendous authority in Walter’s Mahler.
Symphony No. 2 in C-minor (“Resurrection”)
Many people hold the “Resurrection Symphony” as their nearest and dearest, with its uplifting finale of rebirth and optimism. But I have always found the end a touch forced and insincere, as if Mahler really, really wanted to believe in a renewed life after death, but couldn’t, and could only mouth the words. “Words without thoughts never to heaven go.”
Yet, its music is still magnificent, especially the first movement funeral march, which comes to a climax so disturbing and dissonant, he never matched it until the orphan adagio of his 10th symphony. The inner movements are some of the most beautiful he ever wrote and the alto solo, Urlicht, is transcendental.
Everyone, it seems, has taken a crack at the “Resurrection”, including businessman Gilbert Kaplan, who learned to conduct only to lead this symphony and never conducted anything else. (OK, he did make a stab at the Adagietto from the Mahler Fifth, but that hardly counts.)
My favorite is Otto Klemperer with the Philharmonia Orchestra and Chorus. Klemperer always makes the music feel as important as it needs to be; he seems to believe in what it says, not merely to play the notes.
Symphony No. 3 in D-minor
There are some music you cannot listen to very often. Beethoven’s Ninth, for instance, or the Bach Matthew Passion. They are too big, too meaningful, too overwhelming, that to maintain the sense of occasion, you can only pull them out at special moments. You have to be ready to accept what they have to offer. It is almost a religious experience.
The Mahler Third last an hour and a half. It is almost an opera without words, except there are singers. It is a full evening by itself. But if you are not in the right frame of mind, it can just seem endless. The first movement alone lasts longer than any Haydn symphony.
Mahler explained his ideas for the symphony, though he later recanted. The words are not what the symphony says, but they give an approximation. The first movement is “Pan awakes; summer marches in,” and pits a relentless and ruthless nature, “red in tooth and claw,” against the riotous optimism of the season of growth, in an overwhelming march of joy and hedonism.
The second movement is “What the flowers of the meadow tell me.” The third is “What the animals of the forest tell me.” In the fourth, an alto sings “What man tells me,” in a doleful lament that “Die Welt ist tief,” “The world is deep.” Following that comes “What the angels tell me,” with a choir and bells telling of “himmlische Freude” — heavenly joy.
But all of this, for an hour, is really prolog to the final movement Adagio, “What love tells me.” It is built on a theme taken from Beethoven’s final quartet and its “Muss es sein? Es muss sein.” (“Must it be; it must be”).It is a 22-minute-long meditation, rising to ecstasy.
When the premiere was given in 1902, Swiss critic William Ritter wrote this finale was “Perhaps the greatest adagio written since Beethoven.” If you can come away without collapsing into a puddle of weeping, you’re a better person than I am.
The recording that overwhelms me more than any other, not only because of the performance, but because of its engineering and immediacy of sound quality is Riccardo Chailly and the Royal Concertgebouw.
A nearly equal second, in slightly less perfect sound, is Leonard Bernstein’s 1961 recording with the New York Philharmonic. It is the gold standard for the finale.
Symphony No. 4 in G
On the opposite end of the emotional scale — and what a relief — comes the Fourth Symphony, with its sleigh bells and Kinderhimmel. It is, without doubt, Mahler’s happiest symphony. It is also his shortest. Coincidence?
But I’ve got a problem picking a best, because there are three performances I cannot do without, each highlighting a different aspect of the work.
First, there is Willem Mengelberg and the ConcertgebouwOrchestra, recorded in November, 1939. Mengelberg knew Mahler, and we have evidence that Mahler endorsed Mengelberg’s interpretation of the symphony, although that endorsement came for earlier performances. Mahler died in 1912 and this recording is from 27 years later. Still, it is the best evidence we have for the way Mahler probably intended his work to sound. And, compared to the way it is played nowadays, it is ripe with violent tempo changes and swooping portamentos.
Second, there is Benjamin Zander, with the Philharmonia. In the hour-long discussion disc packaged with the performance, Zander makes the case that Mahler wanted the violin soloist in the second movement to play like a country fiddler, not a trained violinist. A “Geige,” not a “Violine.” He has the violinist retune his fiddle a full tone sharp to play the Totentanz — he is to be Freund Hein, or “Friend Hank,” a nickname for the Grim Reaper. Zander is the only conductor to really take the composer at his word; most recordings, the soloist can’t bring himself to make the ugly sounds Mahler wanted, and smooths the part’s rough edges. It should sound like the Devil’s fiddle in Stravinsky’s L’Histoire du Soldat, with that edge.
In all his Mahler recordings, Zander is scrupulous in following the anal retentive storm of written instructions Mahler included in his scores. If this means the long-haul structure of the work is sometimes disrupted for the spotlit detail, well, that’s the nature of Romanticism over Classicism. Those details were put there for a reason; we should hear them.
The third recording is Bernstein’s first version, with the New York Philharmonic and soprano Reri Grist. Bernstein’s Mahler is always good, but sometimes, it is the best, and this is one of those times. Grist has a fresh voice that is perfect for the innocent text of the finale, which is a child’s vision of what heaven will be like (“Good apples, good pears, good grapes … St. Martha must be the cook.”)
Symphony No. 5
Wagner has his “bleeding chunks,” and Mahler has his Adagietto. Everyone knows the Adagietto, from movies and TV commercials. But the whole symphony, the first one since the First Symphony not to have voices, is a great rumbustious tussle, from its funeral march start to its manic contrapuntal finale, where he takes five melodic fragments, stated at the outset, and combines and recombines them like a Braumeister.
The Adagietto fourth movement was, per Mahler, intended as a love letter to his wife, Alma, but is so elegiac that it has become the aural metaphor for loss and grief. Considering Alma’s serial infidelities, perhaps it is only fitting that the movement has morphed in its cultural meaning. (One critic calls Mahler “a composer with a dodgy heart who married a trollop.” “Alma, tell us: All modern women are jealous. You should have a statue in bronze, for bagging Gustav and Walter and Franz.”)
The recording to have is Bernstein’s second recording, with the Vienna Philharmonic. It has beautiful playing from one of the world’s best orchestras, and all the energy and commitment that emanates from Lenny’s spiritual leadership.
Another legendary performance is John Barbirolli’s with the New Philharmonia. If you think Bernstein’s fever is suspect, then reach for a cold bottle of Sir John.
Symphony No. 6 (“Tragic”)
Labeling any of Mahler’s symphonies as “Tragic” may seem redundant, but this is clearly his gloomiest, opening with a relentless stomp, stomp, stomp of a marche fatale and leading to the crushing hammer blows of destiny in the finale.
Nevertheless, it has what I think is an even more persuasive love letter to Alma in the slow movement, which has to be one of the most tender and lovely in all of the canon.
But Mahler never quite figured out if it should be the second or third movement, so nowadays, you find it both ways in performance, and find angry and assertive essays by critics proving once and for all it simply has to be the way they see it. Me, I like the adagio second to separate the angry first movement from the angry scherzo, which shares its rhythm with the first. Play them back to back before the adagio and it can seem like too much of the same thing. But then, that’s my opinion; you are free to have yours.
Then, in the finale, Mahler never quite resolved whether there should be three hammer blows or only two. He was a seriously superstitious man and feared that a third hammer blow might prefigure his own death, and took it out of the score. But hammer blows come in threes in life — at least in Mahler’s — and I prefer all three to be there. Nor did he ever quite specify what he meant by hammer blows; they are written into the score, but how should they be produced? Each orchestra is left to come up with its own solution. Some have used hammer and anvil, others have built large resonant wooden boxes hit with great wooden mallets. There’s a lot of room for interpretation.
Ben Zander comes to the rescue: His recording includes both the duple and triple hammer blows. You get to choose which finale you want to hear. As usual, Zander is perfect for following Mahler’s precise instructions in the score: a sforzando here, a ritardando there, a subito piano or a purposeful mix-mash of rhythms there. Now make the clarinet sound like a dying cat, now let the violins swoop with a portamento. Zander obeys where most other conductors smooth it all out to make pretty. This should not be a pretty symphony.
Symphony No. 7
Guess what? Whether two or three hammer blows, Mahler didn’t die after the Sixth Symphony, which may explain why the Seventh is so giddy. All the other symphonies are programmatic in some way, with funeral marches, or heroic deaths, but the Seventh is just music. Mahlerian music, which means fantastic orchestrations and effects. But no overt meaning.
It has five movements. The inner three are a scherzo sandwiched between two nostalgic sweetnesses he called “Nachtmusik,” or “night music.” In them, he uses rustic cowbells to symbolize — cowbells — and adds a mandolin and guitar. They couldn’t be lovelier. Between them is a vicious scherzo.
But then, there’s the finale, which really makes no sense at all. It’s a complete hodge-podge, starting with a manic tympani solo and rushing off like a Turkish Pasha into what sounds like Ottoman grandiosity. But you have to remember the advice of the Talking Heads: “Stop Making Sense.” Just enjoy the effervescent joy of it all, up to the penultimate C-augmented horn chord before the final tonic C. One of the oddest endings before Sibelius’s Fifth.
The Third and the Ninth are certainly deeper and more profoundly moving, but the Seventh is my favorite for when I just want to hear Mahler without having to weep and sob and contemplate the Weltschmerz of it all.
My go-to recording is a sleeper. Daniel Barenboim is not known as a great Mahler conductor, but his recent Mahler Seventh, with Staatskapelle Berlin on Warner Classics is brilliant and one of the best engineered recordings I’ve heard, so you get not only a perfect performance, but a recording that sounds more like an orchestra playing live in your room than any other. He hits the crazed finale with the perfect get-on-the-roller-coaster attitude.
I’ve been choosing great performances to recommend, but really bad ones can be fun, too. There is a Mahler Seven that is so unbelievably bad, you just have to hear it. Otto Klemperer is — let’s be honest — a really great Mahler conductor. Many of his recordings rank at the top of the list. But his Seventh is a real dog. What was he thinking? Barenboim comes in at 74 minutes. Klemp’s Seventh goes on for an hour and 40 minutes. Cheez Louise. It’s like Glenn Gould’s Appassionata, playing it like they were sight-reading it for the first time.
Symphony No. 8 (“Symphony of a Thousand”)
I’m afraid I have never warmed up to the Eight Symphony. Its first movement is outright hysterical — I don’t mean it’s funny, but rather the manic half of a bipolar cycle; and its second movement is an opera manque built on Goethe’s Faust that just seems to wander without getting anywhere. Maybe I just need to listen to it another 20 times or so to get it into my head. It was Mahler’s biggest popular success during his life, but it has not worn well with me.
It is a choral symphony with an alleged 1000 performers taking part, including eight solo voices, two different choruses and an organ, which blares at the beginning when it all explodes open in a “Veni creator spiritus” — “Come, Creator Spirit” — like one of those tweets typed in all caps.
It has its fans. I am happy for them. George Solti and the Chicago Symphony is a consensus recommendation and zips through it all in under 80 minutes, which is shorter than almost all other performances, and therefore qualifies it as the greatest.
Symphony No. 9
Mahler had a congenital heart defect and he put its irregular rhythm into the beginning of his Ninth Symphony, an off-kilter beat that is the first thing we hear as the orchestra begins. Over that we hear the harp and muted trumpet. Added to that comes a little shiver in the strings followed by a two-note descending theme. These layers form the basis of the entire symphony, the way dot-dot-dot-dash forms the genesis of Beethoven’s Fifth.
There follows an earthy Ländler as a second movement and a scurrilous Rondo Burlesque for the third. The final adagio is a kind of culmination of Mahler’s death music. Instead of a funeral march or a heroic death, the music dwindles to a quiet and inevitable cessation of its heartbeat. It trails off in a morendo so still and hushed that in a good performance, you can never quite tell when the orchestra stops playing. It just dies away. The effect can be overwhelming. In some famous performances, the audience refrains from applauding for as long as five whole minutes before exhaling in bravos and cheers. It is music that strikes deep.
Bernstein made a meal of this symphony and recorded it four times, not counting a few live performances caught on tape outside the Bernstein canon. In the only time he ever performed with the Berlin Philharmonic, he recorded the Mahler Ninth. It is held in reverence by many, despite a glaring lapse by the trombone section in the finale (reputedly, an audience member sitting behind the section had a heart attack and died and the trombonists were understandably distracted). Even so, it is a powerfully emotional recording. But then, all of Lenny’s Ninths carry that wallop.
If you wish to escape the Bernstein reality distortion field, there are other tremendous Ninths. Barbirolli’s with the Berlin Philharmonic, from 1964, is a clear and unsentimental, but still emotional performance. Bruno Walter premiered the work in 1912, a year after Mahler’s death, with the Vienna Philharmonic. He made a stereo recording with the Columbia Symphony exactly 50 years later; that recording is a benchmark for many.
It has been recorded by almost every conductor out there, up to Bernard Haitink and the Royal Concertgebouw just last year.
The version I learned on was a surprisingly good version by Leopold Ludwig and the London Symphony, from 1960, on the old Everest label. I still enjoy his Ländler above most.
Symphony No. 10
Mahler never finished his Tenth Symphony, but left it in tantalizing form as piano short score. He did orchestrate the opening adagio, and until recently, the adagio was performed as a stand-alone. That piano sketch has been orchestrated since, essentially by committee, and there are now many full recordings out there.
I have never been convinced by the attempted realizations of the whole, but the adagio is absolutely scarifying. It slowly builds up to a climax that is so frightening that in a good performance, your fight-or-flight hormones should get nightmares, the hair on the back of your neck should prickle and you should feel as if the gates of hell have opened and disgorged its contents. It is a scream of pain, an Edvard Munch level scream: “Ich fühlte das grosse Geschrei durch die Natur” (“I felt the great scream in nature.”)
Mahler had found out about Alma’s infidelity and he scribbled in his score several pained comments about it. He was devastated and the music shows it. At one point, nearly all twelve chromatic notes are played in a single harrowing dissonance, distributed across the orchestra in a way to make a musical chord rather than simply noise, and then a screaming trumpet breaks through the din to make things even more unbearable. After that moment, things go quiet and the movement continues to its distressed end.
If you want to hear all five movements, there are many good performances, including Simon Rattle with the Berlin Philharmonic. But I will cling to the adagio alone and the first version I knew — Bernstein’s first with the New York Philharmonic. Any time the emotion is more to the point than the music, Bernstein conducts the emotion. This is Mahler at his most Mahlerian, and Lenny at his most Bernsteinian.
Das Lied von der Erde
After all that, if I were forced to accept having only a single work of Gustav Mahler, it would be Das Lied von der Erde (“The Song of the Earth”), a six-song cycle-symphony. Mahler had planned to publish it as his ninth symphony, but, superstitious about ninth symphonies (the final symphonies of so many composers), he refused to give it the title. When he then came to publish his next, he could name it the Ninth, knowing that fate would understand it was really his tenth.
But aside from that biographical titbit, Das Lied is an overwhelming and emotional work, even among an oeuvre that practically set the parameters for overwhelming and emotional.
Mahler’s output falls into three large groups. The first four symphonies are called his “Wunderhorn” symphonies, because they make use of his settings of songs from a book of poetry called Des knaben Wunderhorn (“A Boy’s Magic Horn”). The second group are his purely orchestral symphonies, numbers 4 through 7. The Eighth is sui generis and doesn’t count (see above). But the final three works, the Ninth Symphony, the trunk of the Tenth and Das Lied von der Erde are profoundly inward. You get the feeling that Mahler didn’t write them so much for audiences, but as a way to question his own existence.
The songs of this symphony are taken from a book of Chinese poetry, translated into German (or invented) called “The Chinese Flute.” The texts investigate beauty, isolation, nature and death, and where all these intersect. “Dunkel ist das Leben, ist der Tod.”
The sixth and final song — Der Abschied (“The Farewell”) — lasts as long as the first five and features some of the most ethereal orchestral writing Mahler ever penned, and a text that Mahler supplemented with several lines of his own.
“I seek peace for my lonely heart,” the contralto sings. And ends, “The dear Earth everywhere/ blooms in spring and grows green anew./ Everywhere and forever blue is the horizon./ Forever … Forever.”
That last word — “ewig” in German — repeats and repeats ever more silent, until it completely evaporates. It is impossible to hear it without sobbing.
The symphony was premiered by Bruno Walter in 1911, six months after Mahler’s death, and Walter recorded it at least three times, in 1936, 1952 and 1960, the last in stereo. Either of the last two can be considered the one to have: Each has its champions and both are magnificent and echt Mahler.
But the one you cannot do without is by Otto Klemperer, released in 1967, with Fritz Wunderlich and Christa Ludwig. It has better sound than any of the Walters and magnificent singing. This is music right in Klemp’s wheelhouse.
Warning at the outset: No single set of complete recordings is great in all of the symphonies. But having a complete set gives you a consistent vision of what the work is all about.
Bernstein recorded them all three times. The first for Columbia (now Sony), mostly with the New York Philharmonic. The second for Deutsche Grammophon, mostly with the Vienna Philharmonic. And finally, a video set, on DVD, for Unitel, mostly with the Vienna Phil. The first two are canonic, and while each cycle has its proponents, you really should have both.
Pierre Boulez is kind of the anti-Bernstein, cool and analytical, precise and controlled. For Boulez, Mahler is a 20th century composer — or at least a prefiguring, and the source of the Second Viennese School. You can hear every instrument with clarity
But is Mahler Mahler without going over the top emotionally? Klaus Tennstedt has many devotees, and falls more into the Bernsteinian camp. He recorded them with the London Philharmonic. It is a great set. I gave mine away, not because I didn’t like them, but because I gave them to my best friend; he deserved them.
A sleeper among sets is David Zinman with the Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich. It is the best engineered set I have heard and with beautiful playing by the orchestra.
There have been sets that mixed and matched conductors and orchestras. Both DG and Warners have great sets. Another, called the “People’s Edition” had a promotional vote to choose which recordings to include. The fact that each set chooses from their proprietary recordings means that there is no agreement on what are the best recordings. Everyone, after all, has their opinion. In Mahler-World, opinions are strong.
Other conductors have less-than-complete boxes out there. Klemperer only recorded Symphonies 2, 4, 7, 9 and Das Lied von der Erde. His No. 2 and Das Lied are consensus choices for best ever. The Seventh is just awful, but you should hear it anyway.
Hermann Scherchen has a box with all but the Fourth and no Das Lied. He recorded with second-rate orchestras, for the most part, and is often so wayward his interpretations have been called “Variations on Themes by Mahler.” The sound engineering is highly variable. This one is for specialists only.
In the BB list (“Before Bernstein”), you get to hear all nine symphonies with Ernest Ansermet and the Utah Symphony and hear what they sound like before the current Mahler Tradition was assembled (largely by Lenny). They are surprisingly good, and you get a different slant on the music (less peculiar than Scherchen’s).
Benjamin Zander and the Philharmonia has not yet recorded the Seventh or Eighth, but the rest are among my favorites and I listen to them often. More than any other conductor, Zander follows Mahler printed directions accurately, and brings out expressive details glossed over in other recordings. There are those who disparage Zander for this detail orientation, but for me, it is the heart of a Romantic interpretation. This is the way they were played under Mahler, I am convinced. I love them all. And each comes with an hour-long lecture, explaining many of the details. He is a great speaker as well as conductor.
There are others: Chailly, Bertini, Gielen, Sinopoli, Rattle. And all have their merits.
The sets just keep coming. Everyone gets into the act. I have not been anywhere near complete.
But these are the ones I have come to love. And, of course, there are many individual recordings, not part of sets. And many of these are among the greatest.
And I have not even mentioned the other song cycles. Maybe another time.
On an August afternoon in the Blue Ridge Mountains the late afternoon rain grays out the trees and streaks my vision with vertical lines. In the distance I can hear a low rumble, but this is no storm, but a gentle, constant rain. When I lived in the desert many years ago, this was called a “she-rain.”
It has been muggy, with air so thick you can feel it smear on your skin, but the rain clears it out and leaves a fresh smell of green in my nostrils. I step out the front door to soak in the feel of it all.
I look out, up and down the street and see the trees shiver as the drops tag the leaves and comes over me a distinct and particular emotion. I don’t want this feeling to stop, but rather I wish to drink it in and let it swirl through my body. It is not an easy emotion to describe; words are not sufficient. But it is a sense that the world is larger than I am and runs on a pattern and scale that I am only an observer of. There is comfort in that.
Weather carries emotion. We don’t always remember that perhaps because sometimes the emotion is frustration or disappointment, as when you can’t go our in a snowstorm, or fear when it looks like a tornado might be brewing. But the moving air is an agent and cause, the sky and its clouds a ripe metaphor for our interior lives.
Weather is a ground upon which our lives are painted, always there under the surface. A sunny day can make us happier — unless you live in the desert when after two months of continuous sun, you get rather antsy and wish for even just a little reprieve.
I remember once visiting Washington D.C., covering an exhibit at the National Gallery for the newspaper. I was put up in a hotel near Georgetown and in the afternoon a rainshower blew up. I could see it from my room window. I went out the revolving door and a doorman offered me an umbrella. I refused, looking straight up at the sky and letting the drops pelt my face. He looked at me like I was nutty.
“Don’t worry,” I said. “I live in Arizona. I haven’t seen rain for three months. I love this. I love getting wet.”
I remember when I was a schoolkid and it would snow in the New Jersey winter. The snow would be as deep as my belly and I went out into it and dug a cave in the accumulation and pulled away snow from around my hole, making an ersatz igloo. The snow was ecstatic, and not merely the snow, but my breath clouding the air in front of me, the numbness in my fingers and the cracking in my nose.
When I was living at the beach in Virginia, I once drove down to the water during a nor’easter, with the wind blowing at 40 or 50 miles per hour. The car faced directly into the wind and it bounced violently so that I thought I would go airborne. I couldn’t help but think of an aircraft carrier heading into the wind so the planes could take off with a short run.
Which reminds me of going airborne in a tent. We were camping in Shamrock, Texas, when an evening thunderstorm hit. A tornado had passed through the previous day and we were worried about another. As the rain came down in multiple Niagaras, the wind tore through and, first the tent began to float on the flood, and then began to rise around us. We had to abandon ship and head to the campground office for safety. As I got out, the tent pulled loose from its stakes and I grabbed it by the frame and it flew over my head like a kite. I held on, thinking I might begin flying myself, but managed to pull it down and flatten it and drag the rags with me to the building, where we — and all the other campers — waited out the storm.
But back to today’s rain, gentle and quiet, a hiss on the road and paradiddle on the leaves. It is the middle of a pandemic and we have been sequestered in the house for months. To stand on the stoop and feel the rain and enjoy the welling of emotion is a treat.
It reminds me again that the feeling of emotion is what makes us human. We may be rational beings (at least that’s the argument — I’m not so sure that isn’t wishful thinking), but it is emotion that reminds us we are alive. A computer can think, but I have no evidence that it can stand on a doorstep and enjoy, absolutely enjoy, the rain. And enjoy it to the extent that it warrants the name of joy. I am 72 years old, and I face the absolute certainty that whatever life I have remaining will be a mere fraction of what I have already lived. The end is within sight, be it even 20 years off. And I feel my existence on this planet more sharply than ever. I am here; I am alive; I take in my breath and let it out again, and with each inhalation comes the smell of the rain-filled air.
There is much suffering in the world, and I have had a small share of it, but when I look at the pale green of the maple tree in the front yard, contrast lowered with the obscuring rainfall, I recognize that even with the pain and misery, there is still beauty — an afflatus that fills my frame and almost brings tears, tears of awareness. Of being alive. Of feeling my fingers and toes wiggle.
We could name the musicians that rise to the top of the list in Western art music, and it’s an impressive list: Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Wagner, Debussy … But then, there’s Schubert, a name we tag onto the end as almost an afterthought. Oh, yes, then there’s Schubert. Little Franz, the “Schwammerl” — little mushroom.
I don’t know why he is so often forgotten, or left at the remainders pile. In almost any terms you want to define quality or greatness, he is right there, a shiny, bright face, almost a puppy dog demanding our attention.
Oh, he gets his kudos. No one can talk about lieder, or art song, without putting Schubert’s name at the top of the menu. But, he belongs there with his piano music, his chamber music, his choral music, too. And three of his symphonies have never left heavy rotation in the repertoire.
Each time I have overlooked his music and hear one of the three late piano sonatas, or the final quartets, I think: There is nothing better than this, not in Beethoven or even in Bach. It is emotionally powerful, harmonically rich and melodically persuasive. And then I find myself in a Schubert-orgy for the next week or so, realizing over again how deeply profound and psychologically acute is his music.
So why is he so often relegated to the also-rans? It was that way from the beginning, when little Franz lived in Vienna under the dark shadow of Beethoven. Schubert wrote thousands of compositions during his sadly short lifespan, but very little was published or performed during his life. Mostly his music was shared with friends at dinner parties — or “Schubertiades” — where he and his musician buddies would gather to play music, hoist a few, and sing along.
He was little over five feet tall and pudgy, with a double chin and a button nose that held up tiny spectacles. He had a hard time finding his place in society, trying at times to be a school teacher and at other times to earn a living as a music tutor. None of it clicked.
But from the earliest age, he could write really good music. He wrote his first symphony (now only a fragment) when he was just 14. The official Symphony No. 1 came just two years later and was written for his family to play — everyone in the house played an instrument.
He was one of the great musical prodigies. We think of Mozart or Mendelssohn — who wrote his famous Octet when he was just 16 — but Schubert composed his first genuine masterpiece, “Erlkönig,” when he was 17.He wrote well over a thousand pieces of music before he died at the age of 31 in 1828, just a year after Beethoven. Mozart, in contrast, lived to the ripe old age of 35.
Perhaps Schubert lags in popular estimation because he was such a slipshod worker. He left more unfinished pieces than any other great composer, sheaves of piano sonatas left as torsos, a movement here or there, and other bits left in fragment. His most famous symphony, after all, is the “Unfinished Symphony.”
And perhaps he lags because his melodies are so memorable, they may be mistaken as facile. Beethoven, after all, hardly ever wrote something you could hum distractedly as you polish the silverware. Da-Da-Da-Dumm is hardly a tune. Schubert is endless song.
And because we think of melodies as lightweight compared with, say Wagner or Brahms, we may think of Schubert as emotionally trifling. “Wer hat das schöne Liedlein erdacht?” “Who wrote this pretty little ditty?” Couldn’t be more wrong.
Schubert has perhaps the widest range, emotionally, of any other composer. On one hand, he wrote what has to be the happiest, bounciest, most joyful music ever, the “Trout” Quintet, and the single bleakest, most desolate music ever, the C-major String Quintet. (I’ve written about the “Trout” before.)
The String Quintet is another beast. Written for two violins, two violas and two cellos, it is most often named, when such lists are drawn up, as the greatest piece of chamber music ever written. My late friend, Dimitri Drobatschewsky, who was a longtime music critic at The Arizona Republic in Phoenix, when he died at the age of 90, had requested the quintet be played at his funeral. The slow movement, in particular, is about the deepest and most profound that music can reach — which is rather deeper and more profound than any words can reach.
Schubert had an intimate relationship with death. He learned several years before his own death that he was suffering from what has been subsequently diagnosed as mercury poisoning (which likely also killed Beethoven), typhoid fever, or tertiary syphilis (mercury was a common treatment for syphilis). He wrote his final works — the final three piano sonatas, the final three string quartets, and the String Quintet, with the full knowledge of his looming extinction. These works, along with his final two symphonies and song cycles, are the height of his achievement. At the same age, Beethoven was just writing his first symphony. One can only imagine what Schubert might have written if he had lived even to Beethoven’s young 56 years old.
It is a miracle that someone who barely left Vienna during his life, and who had only lived three short decades, could write with such expressiveness about such dark matter.
Take his final and greatest piano sonata, in B-flat. It opens with a jaunty and optimistic tune that is almost immediately interrupted by a low trill on a G-flat — a note not in the key of B-flat major, but injected from its minor. It is a discordant lowered sixth that resolves to the dominant and leaves an uneasy feeling, as if happiness was being threatened by a baleful presence. That sense of immanent evil or impending doom keeps returning, even as the first movement comes to a seemingly positive conclusion — and then, there’s that threat, that bottom-feeding trill, again. No good will come of that.
I listen again to a performance of that sonata by Artur Rubinstein, made in 1965, and start sorting through my CDs — I suppose I am about to begin another weeklong Schubert marathon. I’ll certainly go through the quartets and sonatas, even the symphonies. But mostly, I will dive deep into the two great song cycles, Die Schöne Müllerin and Winterreise.
The last is a 24-song cycle setting poems by Wilhelm Müller that tells the tragic story of a man betrayed by his lover; he wanders through town and country dropping deeper and deeper into madness and depression. It would be hard to find a more trenchant exposition of German Romanticism that this song cycle.
My late wife, Carole, loved to make music with others and often did so. I have no meaningful ability on any instrument, but was once persuaded to join her in singing “Gute Nacht,” the first song of the Winterreise cycle. It is tuneful and although it is strophic, the last go-round switches from minor key to major, with a stroke like lightning. The effect it had on me, in my pathetic attempt to sing to her piano accompaniment led me to attempt to translate Müller’s poems into English.
The odd thing was that the further I went along, the more I found myself not so much translating as re-imagining. “Gute Nacht” turned out to be a more or less literal translation, beginning with the first stanza:
But by the time I got to the end, the devastating and desolate “Der Leiermann,” in which our protagonist finds himself back in the village listening to a hurdy-gurdy man and imagines his tragedy sung to the accompaniment of the pathetic little squeeze-box, I had left the original behind altogether. Schubert’s music for the entire song never leaves a single A-minor chord played as a slow pulse to the lament. The effect is a complete collapse of our hero’s personality.
My version of Müller’s poem also left 19th century Germany and shifted to what I thought was the parallel situation in our own time. The whole series of my translations was in itself a metamorphosis from the original style of Müller to my own voice — in other words, I took the poetry seriously and personally, which is what the best art always gives us.
There are many great recordings of Winterreise available. Among the best are four different versions by baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, made with Gerald Moore, Jörg Demus, Alfred Brendel and Daniel Barenboim in turn at the piano. They are all near perfect, but I have always favored the first, with Moore. But my favorite is even older than that one: Hans Hotter with Moore, recorded in 1954. Hotter’s voice is more bass than baritone and gives added heft to the work.
Other Suggested Recordings
It’s hard to suggest a CD of the “Trout” Quintet: I have never heard a bad one, although the one I love most is by Alexander Schneider with Peter Serkin, David Soyer, Michael Tree and Julius Levine. You can never go wrong with Schneider.
The three final quartets, including the “Death and the Maiden” and with the String Quintet, are all in a box with the Emerson Quartet and Mstislav Rostropovich on the second cello. Not a shabby addition.
There is an 8-disc box of piano sonatas by Mitsuko Uchida that is a great performance and a bargain to boot.
For the symphonies, you can hardly do better than a set by Daniel Barenboim and the Berlin Philharmonic, which is currently selling for under $15. But you should also check out two very different ideas of the “Great” C-major symphony (usually listed as No. 9) by Wilhelm Furtwangler and Arturo Toscanini. I should have said “Furtwangler vs. Toscanini.”
There is much music that is meant only to please the ear, and Schubert wrote his share of that, too. But music can plumb the depths of human psychology, and provide a sonic metaphor for the most profound emotions and thoughts — at a depth where thought and emotion cannot be told apart. The best of Schubert’s music takes us there.
This is the 600th blog entry I’ve written since retiring eight years ago from the writing job I held for 25 years. But as I’ve said many times, a real writer never retires, he just stops getting paid for it.
During my career, I wrote over 2.5 million words. Since then, I’ve added another million. If you are born a writer, you simply can’t help it.
(In addition, since 2015, I’ve written a monthly essay for the website of The Spirit of the Senses salon group in Phoenix, Ariz., a continuation of the many salon lectures I gave there for years.)
And even when I write an e-mail to friends or family — the kind of note that for most people contains a short sentence, a quick “LOL” and an emoji — I am more likely to write what looks like an old-fashioned missive, the kind that used to come in a stamped envelope and delivered by a paid government worker. An e-mail from me will take a while to read through.They are sent not merely to convey information, but to be read. They have been written, not just jotted down.
Over the eight years of blogifying, I’ve covered a great many topics. Many onart and art history — I was an art critic, after all — many on history and geography, a trove of travel pieces, a few frustrated political musings and a hesitant offering of oddball short stories (if you can call them by that name.)
People say, “Write what you know,” but most real writers, myself included, write to find out what I know. The writing is, itself, the thinking. Any mis-steps get fished out in the re-writing.
Ah, words. I love words. I love sentences, paragraphs, chapters. Although I wrote for a newspaper, where short, simple sentences are preferred, I often tested the patience of my editors as I proved my affection for words by using obscure and forgotten words and by using them often in long congregations.
“I love long sentences. I’m tired of all the short ones. Hemingway can keep them. Newspapers can urge them. Twitter can mandate them. To hell with them.
“My ideal can be found in the long serpentine railways of words shunted hither and thither over dependent clauses, parenthetical remarks, explanatory discursions and descriptive ambiguities; sentences such as those found in the word-rich 18th century publishing world of Fielding, Sterne, Addison, Steele, or Boswell, and perhaps most gratifyingly in the grand, gravid, orotund sentences of Edward Gibbon, whose work I turn to not so much for information about the grandeur that was Rome, but for the pure sensuous pleasure to be had from those accretive tunes built from the pile of ideas and imagery (to say nothing of ironic asides), and peppered liberally with the notations of colons, semicolons, dashes and inverted commas.”
The love of words fuels a fascination with paronomasia. I make up words, play with them, coin spoonerisms and mondegreens and pepper my everyday speech with them. As music critic, I reviewed sympathy orchestras. Sometimes I have trouble trying to mirimba a name. On my shopping list I may need dishlicking washwood.
I often give my culinary creations names such as Chicken Motocross, Mentil Soup, Ratatootattie, or— one I borrowed from my brother — Mock Hawaiian Chile.
When my wife came home from work, I usually asked “How did your Italian?” (“How did your day go?”)
When asked for my astrological sign, I say, “I’m a Copernicus.” My late wife was a Virago. And I’m pretty sure our Orange Bunker Boy was born under the sign of Feces. I call him a would-be Moose-a-loony.
I try to keep unfashionable words in currency. On long car trips with granddaughters, we didn’t count cows, we counted kine. I tend to refer to the girls as the wee bairns, or the kidlings.
I have no truck with simplifying the language; I will not brook dumbification. The more words we use, the better, and the better inflected those words will be. As we lose words, the slight difference in emphasis and meaning is lost, and a simple word then has to do extra duty to encompass ideas and things that are better understood as different.
Every word has a dictionary definition, but that definition is little but the skeleton on which the meat and muscle is hung onto. Each word has a nimbus of meaning and affect around it, which is learned by its speakers and readers through long acquaintance. You can always tell when someone has snuffled through a thesaurus, because the fancy word they choose has been stripped of its nimbus, or has an aura that is the wrong color for the spot in which it is placed. In other words, such a writer doesn’t really know the word that has been chosen. The Webster version is only a fuzzy black-and-white photo, not the real thing.
I have written before how sometimes, instead of doing a crossword puzzle or rearranging my sock drawer, I will make lists of words. Each has a flavor and reading such lists is like perusing a restaurant menu and imagining the aroma and flavor of each offering. It is a physical pleasure, like the major or minor chords of a symphony. Here is a brassy word, there the pungency of an oboe, and over there, the sweet melancholy of a solo cello.
I think all writers must have something of the same feel for the roundness, spikiness, warmth, dryness or wetness of words. And the way they connect to make new roundnesses, coolnesses, stinks or arousals in sentences.
Yes, there are some writers — and I can’t pooh-pooh them — who use words in a blandly utilitarian way. Stephen King, for instance, is a great storyteller. He can force you by a kind of sorcery to turn pages. But on a word-by-word level, his writing is flavorless, almost journalistic. I suspect this is a quality he actually aspires to — to make the language so transparent as to be unobservable. I have to admit there are virtues in this, also. But not for me.
I want a five-course meal of my words.
Language can take either of two paths: prose or poetry. The first invests its faith in language as a descriptor of systems. It reaches its nadir in philosophy. It makes little difference if it is Plato or Foucault; philosophy — especially the modern sort — is essentially a branch of philology. It seeks to deconstruct the language, as if understanding the words we use will tell us anything about the world we live in. It tells us only about the language we use. Language is a parallel universe to the one we inhabit, with its own rules and grammar, different from the rules and grammar of the real world.
This has been a constant theme in my own writing. When we say, “A whale is not a fish,” or “A tomato is a fruit, not a vegetable,” we are talking about language only, not about whales or tomatoes. But beyond the language we use to communicate our understanding of the world, no matter how vast our vocabulary, the world itself is infinitely larger, more complex, diverse, chaotic and unsystematic, not to be comprehensively understood by mere mortal.
And I should clarify, by language, I mean any organized system of thought or communication. Math is just language by other means. When I use the term “language” here, I mean what the Greeks called “logos” — not simply words, or grammar, syntax or semantics, but any humanly communicated sense of the order of the cosmos. Not one system can encompass it all.
Consider Zeno’s paradox: That in a race between Achilles and a tortoise, if you give the tortoise a headstart, no matter how little, Achilles can never catch up. Before he does, he has to go halfway, and so is still behind the tortoise, and before he goes the remaining distance he must go again halfway. Thus he can never catch up. The paradox is purely in the forms of logic, not in the reality. We all know Achilles will catch up in only a few strides. But the system — the logic, or the words — tells us he cannot. Do not trust the words, at least not by themselves, without empirical evidence to back them up.
All systems of thought, whether religious, political or scientific, ultimately break down when faced with the weedy complexity of existence.
And so, a good deal of what we all argue about is simply the words we choose to use, not the reality. We argue over terminology. Conservative, liberal? Is abortion murder? These depends entirely on your definitions.
Poetry, on the other hand — and I’m using the word in its broadest and metaphorical sense — is interested in the things of this world. Yes, it may use words, and use them quite inventively, but its goal is to reconnect us with our own lives. It lives, not in a world of isms, but in one of mud, tofu, children, bunions, clouds and red wheelbarrows. This is the nimbus of which I speak.
It is ultimately our connection with our own lives that matters, with the things of this world, with the people of our lives that should concern us. It is what provides that nimbus of inexactitude that gives resonance to the words.
The Long Nineteenth Century began in the waning years of periwigs and knee britches and didn’t end until World War soured everything. In between, it was the age of Victoria, of expansive optimism, of smug colonialism, of scientific, commercial and engineering progress, of George Stephenson, Richard Trevithick, and Isambard Kingdom Brunel.
It was also an age of the sacralization of middle-class family life and a sentimentalized ossification of gender roles. Even the queen acted like a bourgeois burgheress. But if women were ever more restricted in their fields of endeavors, they picked up the slack by becoming ever more powerful within those limits. They were, among other things, accorded the authority to run the households, including family finances, hiring and firing servants (even modest middle class families had servants), the dealings with merchants and butchers, and complete oversight of the kitchens. The men might have the offices and streets, but the women were domestic executives. (I am not making the claim this was a fair trade; please don’t shoot me.)
And many seized that power and made good with it. Cookbooks were already ceded to the fairer sex, but most of them wrote a single cookbook and had done with it; in the 19th century, several women upped the ante and turned their cookbooks into an almost industrial level, and became franchises, pumping out books in their names one after the other, as proto-Martha-Stewarts. They became brand names.
Earlier, in the previous century, there arose an appetite for books written for women, either as family cooks, or ladies in charge of a servant kitchen. The first such book was published in 1674 by Hannah Wolley; she was followed by Mary Kettilby, Eliza Smith, Sarah Harrison, Elizabeth Moxon, Susannah Carter, Elizabeth Raffald and Amelia Simmons — the last being the first cookbook author in America. And Hannah Glasse, who wrote the best-selling cookbook of the 18th century.
The following century begins with books very like those of the previous century. Ages don’t develop their character with the flipping of a calendar page. The first best-selling cookbook of the new century was Maria Rundell’s A New System of Domestic Cookery: Formed Upon Principles of Economy; and Adapted to the Use of Private Families from 1806. It was much like its predecessors, but better organized. The book went on for 67 editions, and usually known generically simply as “Mrs. Rundell.” In addition to recipes, it offered advice on how to set up a home brewery, and the usual medical prescriptions and how to give directions to servants.
The book was first published with only the attribution, “By a Lady.” So many of the cookbooks of the time did the same. In 1810 The Cook’s Complete Guide on the Principles of Frugality, Comfort and Elegance came out, “By a Lady,” who proved to be Esther Copley. In 1827, Copley’s The New London Cookery and Complete Domestic Guide came out, also “By a Lady.” She was a prolific author of children’s books, religious texts and an abolitionist tract, A History of Slavery and its Abolition (1836). She also followed up her New London Cookery success with a series of other cookbooks and household instruction books: The Housekeeper’s Guide, or A Plain and Practical System of Domestic Cookery (1838), Cottage Comforts (1825), The Young Servant’s Friendly Instructor (1827), Catechism of Domestic Economy (1850).
In the new United States, however, the older model persisted: single books by women authors, beginning with American Cookery by Amelia Simmons, “an orphan.” Many of the new American cookbooks were expressions of regional tastes, most famously in Mary Randolph’s The Virginia Housewife, of 1824. It was republished 19 times before the Civil War and contained some 500 recipes.
Historian Cynthia Kierner wrote of Randolph that she “presented a Southern — specifically, a Virginian — model for Southern readers. … using Virginia produce for dishes influenced by African, Native American, and European foods. the book included recipes for Southern classics such as okra, sweet potatoes, biscuits, fried chicken, barbecue shote (young pig), and lemonade.”
She also included a recipe called “Dough Nuts — a Yankee Cake.”
She wasborn to a prominent Virginia family and when she died in 1828, she was buried in what later became Arlington National Cemetery.
Chef Jose Andre cites Randolph as an influence and he serves her Gazpacho at his America Eats Tavern in Washington, D.C., and says the recipe “demonstrates just how far back the notion of this country as a cultural melting pot goes.”
Gaspacho-Spanish — Put some soft biscuit or toasted bread in the bottom of a sallad bowl, put in a layer of sliced tomatas with the skins taken off, and one of sliced cucumbers, sprinkle with pepper, salt and chopped onion; do this until the bowl is full; stew some tomatas quite soft, strain the juice, mix in some mustard, oil and water, and pour over it; make it 2 hours before it is eaten.
Other regional cookbooks followed. In 1839, Lettice Bryan wrote The Kentucky Housewife and in 1847 Sarah Rutledge wrote The Carolina Housewife, again acknowledged only as “a lady of Charleston.” Rutledge was the daughter of Edward Rutledge, a signer of the Declaration of Independence. A report says that until about 1920, “the name of a Charleston woman appeared in print but thrice — when born, when married and when buried — legal necessities.” When Rutledge was outed as the author after her death in 1855, it was said that the disclosure would have made her “spin in her grave.”
Here is her recipe for Hopping John:
Three books by African-Americans should be mentioned. Malinda Russell was a free Black woman from Tennessee who wrote the first known cookbook by an African-American woman. Her Domestic Cook Book: Containing a Careful Selection of Useful Receipts for the Kitchen came out in 1866 and included recipes for catfish fricassee, Irish potatoes with cod and sweet onion custard.
Former slave Abby Fisher wrote What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking published by the Women’s Cooperative Printing Office in San Francisco in 1881. Mrs. Fisher was a pickle maker by trade and her book includes many recipes for pickles, in addition to fried chicken and biscuits. Here is one:
Breaking the mold of cookbooks written by women for women, the first recipe book by an African-American author was written by a man for other men. In 1827, Robert Roberts published The House Servant’s Directory: A Monitor for Private Families. Roberts was butler and majordomo for Massachusetts governor Christopher Gore. His book is aimed at those running a household, including how to complete chores, how to clean, how to behave properly and then, to prepare foods.
“In order to get through your work in proper time, you should make it your chief study to rise early in the morning; for an hour before the family rises is worth more to you than two after they are up.” He also includes his method of curing a drunk of his habit:
All of these cooks and authors were impressive, but none holds a candle to the formidable Lydia Maria Child (1802-1880). She wrote in many veins, probably best remembered today for the lyrics to “Over the River and Through the Woods,” she took on many dragons: She was an abolitionist, a women’s rights activist, a spokesperson for Native American rights, and opponent of Manifest Destiny, white supremacy and male dominance, an advocate of women’s education, a novelist taking on issues such as miscegenation. And she was a journalist and poet. Mrs. Child could walk through walls, and don’t get in her way.
In 1833, she wrote An Appeal in Favor of That Class of Americans Called Africans, calling for instant emancipation with no compensation for slaveholders. In it, she wrote “The intellectual inferiority of the Negroes is a common, though most absurd apology, for personal prejudice.” She went on to publish The Duty of Disobedience to the Fugitive Slave Act and act as editor of a national abolitionist periodical.
As a women’s rights activist, she wrote that significant progress for women could not be made until after the abolition of slavery, because women and slaves were similar in that white men held both groups in subjugation and treated them as property.
She also worked for Native American rights, too. Her novel Hobomok, A Tale of Early Times concerns an interracial marriage between a white woman and an Indian man, who have a son together.
Beyond that, she was a notorious freethinker. She wrote, “It is impossible to exaggerate the evil work that theology has done in the world,” and “What blooming paradise would the whole earth be if the same amount of intellect, labor and zeal had been expended on science, agriculture and the arts.”
But I have become sidetracked by my admiration for Ms. Child. What we are concerned with here is her cookbook, The American Frugal Housewife for Those Who Are Not Ashamed of Economy, published in 1829 when she was 27 years old. It went through 33 printings in 25 years. In it the same indomitable schoolmarm certainty reigns. I have to wonder if she ever told — or even heard — a joke, in her life.
The book was aimed at women cooking for their families without servants to do the work. It is written simply, and always with an eye to saving money. It begins:
“The true economy of housekeeping is simply the art of gathering up all the fragments, so that nothing be lost. I mean fragments of time, as well as materials. Nothing should be thrown away so long as it is possible to make any use of it, however trifling that use may be; and whatever be the size of a family, every member should be employed either in earning or saving money.”
That includes children, who shouldn’t be wasting their time in “useless play:”
“Children can very early be taught to take all the care of their own clothes.
“They can knit garters, suspenders, and stockings; they can make patchwork and braid straw; they can make mats for the table, and mats for the floor; they can weed the garden, and pick cranberries from the meadow, to be carried to market. … it is a great deal better for the boys and girls on a farm to be picking blackberries at six cents a quart, than to be wearing out their clothes in useless play. They enjoy themselves just as well; and they are earning something to buy clothes, at the same time they are tearing them.”
In a chapter concerning “The Education of Daughters,” she enjoins:
“The greatest and most universal error is, teaching girls to exaggerate the importance of getting married; and of course to place an undue importance upon the polite attentions of gentlemen.”
Her recipes extoll the frugality of finding the best cuts of meat and of using those parts that others snub.
Another multi-tasking and prolific writer was Frances Harriet Whipple Green McDougall, who published under the simplified name as Frances Green, although, for her cookbook, she was listed on the title page of The Housekeeper’s Book (1837) as “By a Lady.”
She was a poet, abolitionist, women’s rights advocate and spiritualist. Her many books include Memoirs of Elleanor Elbridge, a Colored Woman (1838); Might and Right (1844), a book about the Dorr Rebellion in Rhode Island; The Primary Class-Book of Botany (1856), a botany text for students; and Beyond the Veil (1878, posthumous) about communicating with the dead.
The Housekeeper’s Book: Containing Advice on the Conduct of Household Affairs: with a Complete Collection of Receipts for Economical Domestic Cookery (earlier centuries doted on enormous titles) was written for middle and upper class women and those in their employ and covers everything from freshening up bedding to making cordials.
“The work has been founded on the results of actual experience, and is intended for every day use; that the receipts, directions, and general advice have all been prepared with strict view to utility, and true economy; and that nothing has been omitted which the author deemed subservient to the general design – the promotion of domestic happiness by attention to the constantly recurring and inevitable duties of good housekeeping.”
Back in England, the absolute queen of the kitchen and cookbook was Isabella Beeton. Her books were everywhere. Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management came out in 1861 and by 1868, had sold nearly 2 million copies. It was reprinted well into the 20th century. In fact, it can still be bought today.
The book was first published as 24 installments in her husband’s magazine, The Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine. Samuel Beeton was a magazine editor and publisher and brought out the first British edition of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. He was also a proponent of the equality of the sexes.There seemed to be a connection in the 19th century between abolitionism, feminism and cookbooks.
Mrs. Beeton’s work was published and republished in many forms, re-edited and resold under many titles after her early death at age 28 in 1865. At her death, she was working on her Dictionary of Every-Day Cookery.
After her death, her husband sold the publishing rights to Ward, Lock and Tyler, a firm that continued to resell the book through dozens of editions, sometimes with only the flimsiest connection to the original. By 1891 the term Mrs Beeton had become used as a generic name for a domestic authority. They suppressed the fact of Mrs. Beeton’s death, so that the name became, like Betty Crocker, really a brand name rather than a person. The book became for the 19th century what The Joy of Cooking has been for the 20th.
Mrs. Beeeton was one of the first cookbook authors to present her recipes with a list of ingredients and their measurements, in the modern style. In her introduction, she wrote:
“I have attempted to give, under the chapters devoted to cookery, an intelligible arrangement to every recipe, a list of the ingredients, a plain statement of the mode of preparing each dish, and a careful estimate of its cost, the number of people for whom it is sufficient, and the time when it is seasonable.”
She explains that she was thus attempting to make the basics of cookery “intelligible” to any “housewife.”
Author Christopher Clausen, in his study of British middle classes, wrote that Beeton’s book reflected Victorian values, particularly hard work, thrift and cleanliness. “Mrs. Beeton has … been for over a century the standard English cookbook, frequently outselling every other book but the Bible”
Did I mention that they loved preposterous titles in those days? The full title of the book was The Book of Household Management, comprising information for the Mistress, Housekeeper, Cook, Kitchen-Maid, Butler, Footman, Coachman, Valet, Upper and Under House-Maids, Lady’s-Maid, Maid-of-all-Work, Laundry-Maid, Nurse and Nurse-Maid, Monthly Wet and Sick Nurses, etc. etc.—also Sanitary, Medical, & Legal Memoranda: with a History of the Origin, Properties, and Uses of all Things Connected with Home Life and Comfort.
The closest thing America had to Mrs. Beeton was Marion Harland, pen name of Mary Virginia Terhune. She published some 50 books during her life, including novels, short story collections, biographies, travel guides, histories and cookbooks. Her first novel, Alone, came out in 1854. Her first cookbook, Common Sense in the Household: A Manual of Practical Housewifery, came out in 1872. It eventually sold more than a million copies.
Harland became a franchise, much like Beeton, but lived to see her success. She died at 91 in 1922. Among her domestic books, published after Common Sense in the Household, were Breakfast, Luncheon and Tea (1875); Bills of Fare for All Seasons of the Year (1889); House and Home (1889); Marion Harland’s Complete Cookbook: A Practical and Exhaustive Manual of Cookery and Housekeeping (1903); and The Helping Hand Cook Book (1912), written with her daughter, Christine Terhune Herrick.
If there is a theme beyond food in all these cookbooks, it is one of moral improvement. Each of them has chapters on proper deportment, how to run clean household, and frugality. This tendency runs on hyperdrive in Ella Eaton Kellogg’s Science in the Kitchen (1892), which features vegetarianism and hygiene as aspects of the same thing. She married John Harvey Kellogg, superintendent of the Battle Creek Sanitarium and the inventor of corn flakes, which he saw as an anaphrodisiac, and proponent of eugenics. Ella Eaton joined the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, becoming associate superintendent of the Social Purity department.
She ran the kitchen at Battle Creek and wrote that:
“One of the evils of unwholesome food is its decided tendency to create a craving for intoxicants. Bad cookery causes indigestion, indigestion causes thirst, and thirst perpetuates drunkenness.”
Kellogg recommended bland foods, as being not only healthier, but leading to a more moral behavior. Vegetarianism is the key:
“The use of large quantities of animal food, however free from disease germs, has a tendency to develop the animal propensities to a greater or less degree, especially in the young, whose characters are unformed. Among animals we find the carnivorous the most vicious and destructive, while those which subsist upon vegetable foods are by nature gentle and tractable. There is little doubt that this law holds good among men as well as animals. If we study the character and lives of those who subsist largely upon animal food, we are apt to find them impatient, passionate, fiery in temper, and in other respects greatly under the dominion of their lower natures.”
And spicy foods cause terrible diseases, she said:
“Physicians have long observed that in tropical countries where curry powder and other condiments are very extensively used, diseases of the liver, especially acute congestion and inflammation, are exceedingly common.”
The undercurrent of racism is unmistakable throughout the book.
And her instructions for cooking macaroni makes for mush:
“The length of time required may vary from twenty minutes, if fresh, to one hour if stale. When tender, turn into a colander and drain, and pour cold water through it to prevent the tubes from sticking together.”
So much for “al dente.”
There is more real and systematic science found in The Boston Cook-School Cook Book by Fannie Merritt Farmer, from 1896. Farmer revamped the former Mrs. Lincoln’s Boston Cook Book. Mary Johnson Lincoln had been head of the Boston Cooking School and published her book in 1884 as a textbook for her classes. Farmer expanded the book to some 1,850 recipes and her version eventually became the most popular cookbook in the country and was known simply as the “Fannie Farmer Cookbook.”
At a time when most American cookbooks were still saying to use a “dollop of butter” or a “teacup of cider,” Farmer used precise measurements in 8 oz. cups and leveled tablespoons. She organized recipes with ingredients and measurements before the text.
Her book became so popular, she followed up with a series of books,, including Chafing Dish Possibilities (1898); Food and Cookery for the Sick and Convalescent (1904); What to Have for Dinner: Containing Menus with Recipes for Their Preparation (1905); Catering for Special Occasions (1911); A New Book of Cookery: Eight-hundred and Sixty Recipes (1912); The Priscilla Cook Book for Everyday Housekeepers (1913); and A Book of Good Dinners for My Friend, or “What to Have for Dinner” (1914).
There are many books I have been forced to leave out, including The Epicurian by Charles Ranhofer, who was chef at Delmonico’s Restaurant in New York. His book was an encyclopedic guide to haut cuisine.
Or Mary Jewry’s Warne’s Every-Day Cookery; Mrs. W.G. Water’s Cook’s Decameron and her Just a Cookery Book; or Mrs. A.B. Marshall’s Larger Cookery Book; or Mary Harrison’s Guide to Modern Cookery; or Mary Doncaster’s Luxurious Modern Cookery.
But I want to end with Elizabeth Black Kander, a Progressive reformer and founder of a settlement house in Milwaukee where she wrote a book titled The Way to a Man’s Heart, but almost universally referred to as The Settlement Cook Book.
Daughter of European Jewish immigrants, Kander joined the settlement movement in America, a movement meant to bridge the gap between the poor and the middle class through education and assimilation. Jane Addam’s Hull House in Chicago was a famous example. Kander founded the Settlement House in Milwaukee in 1900. To help fund her relief work, she wrote her cookbook, using recipe that were taught to immigrants in her Settlement House classes. The book became a surprising success and was revised and updated every year from 1901 to 1954, selling more than 2 million copies.
The World War that came soon after twisted a knot in history, and what followed after, in everything from politics to literature to economics and even to cookbooks, was qualitatively different. The world became modern, for better and for worse.
Taking the long look from Sumer through Apicius to Ina Garten, there are eon-long trends in cookbooks. The earliest made little distinction between food and medicine and recipes were as often apothecary, mixed with gustatory.
Somewhere, in the 16th or 17th centuries, the medical part shrunk and became a appendix chapter or two on how to feed the feeble, sick and convalescent. But those same centuries, and especially the 18th, also added chapters on how to deal with servants and how to maintain a household.
The Victorian age added moral uplift and chapters on proper deportment, mostly for young wives, and the need for cleanliness and rectitude. At its fringes, it advocated crank fad diets.
After World War I, cookbooks dropped most of the admixture and concentrated on clear recipes, with measurements, serving sizes and instructional information on processes, such as found in The Joy of Cooking or Craig Claiborne’s New York Times Cookbook.
In the past few decades, there has been a resurgence in fads and weight-loss or coronary-health, but also a growth in combining recipes with travel and culture, such as you find in Diana Kennedy, Madhur Jaffrey, Joyce Chen, Patricia Wells, and so many others.
Of course, cookbooks are facing the same changes as everything else in the digital age, and more people are now turning to YouTube or television for their cooking instruction, which really only brings us, by a commodius vicus back to the days when cooking was taught chef to apprentice or mother to daughter by hands-on verbal instruction.
The biggest change in cookbooks as we enter the 18th century is the emergence of women. Earlier, nearly all books about cookery and kitchens were written not only by men, but for men, as chefs to nobility and wealth or for the edification of those nobles so they may properly instruct their servants.
But the growing and increasingly literate middle class created a market for household guides, and because women tended to run family kitchens, publishers aimed their products at them, and it was mostly women who wrote such books.
The first notable woman was Hannah Wolley (pronounced “Woolley” and sometimes spelled that way — even on the title page of her own books). Born in 1622, Wolley published five cookbooks over her life, each a best-seller.
Writer David Goldstein of the Folger Shakespeare Library, which owns original copies, says ““She was the Martha Stewart of her time, the English-speaking world’s first female lifestyle guru. Housewives copied her instructions into their own handwritten recipe books, passing down her advice and rhetorical style to subsequent generations. Her books went through numerous editions; one was translated into German.”
She was widowed by the age of 40, and supported herself and her children with writing and publishing six cookbooks between 1661 and 1674. They covered not only recipes, but also “physick and chirurgery” (basically medicine and first-aid), and issues of deportment and household management.
The first book was The Ladies Directory, followed in 1664 by The Cooks Guide and in 1668, by A Guide to Ladies Gentlewomen and Maids and in 1670, her best-selling The Queen-Like Closet and 1772 with The Ladies Delight.
The Queen-Like Closet is dedicated “To all Ladies, Gentlewomen, and to all other of the Female Sex who do delight in, or be desirous of good Accomplishments.” The book was a favorite of 19th-Century writer Charles Lamb, who owned a copy, who wrote of it as “an abstract of receipts in cookery, confectionery, cosmetics, needlework, morality, and all such branches of what were then considered as female accomplishments.”
Earlier cookbooks were often half medical texts, listing herbs and poultices for the curing of diseases. Later books, such as Wolley’s very often did the same, but there was a new addition: chapters on the proper behavior of “all young ladies, gentlewomen and all maidens whatever as the universal companion and guide to the Female Sex in all Relations, Companies, Conditions and states of life, even from Child-hood down to Old-age, and from the Lady at the Court , to the Cook-maid in the Country.”
In writing about how a kitchen-maid should act, Wolley writes:
“She ought to be of a quick and nimble Apprehension, neat and cleanly in her own habit, and then we need not doubt of it in her Office; not to dress her self, especially her Head, in the Kitchin, for that is abominable sluttish, but in her Chamber, before she comes down, and that to be at a fit hour, that the fire may be made, and all things prepared for the Cook, against he or she comes in; she must not have a sharp Tongue, but humble; pleasing, and willing to learn, for ill words may provoke Blows from a Cook, their heads being always filled with the contrivance of their business, which may cause them to be peevish and froward, if provoked to it…”
Later in her life, her publisher issued unauthorized cookbooks in her name, often jumbled from her earlier work, without her knowledge and without paying her. She fought back against this by complaining, but she had little recourse at the time as a woman in a man’s publishing world. This pattern will recur.
Wolley’s recipe for “A boyled sallat of Spinage” reads:
“Take four or five handfuls of Spinage clean picked, boyl it well in water and salt; then drain it well from the water, and chop it well with the back of a Knife; then let it boyl in a Dish over a few coals with some butter and vinegar, a few plumped Currants, and as much sugar as you think fit, garnish it with hard Eggs, and so serve it in.”
In 1707, Robert May brought out his True Gentlewoman’s Delight. In 1719, Mary Kettilby edited A Collection of above Three Hundred Receipts on Cookery, Physick and Surgery; for the Use of all Good Wives, Tender Mothers, and Carful Nurses. She didn’t claim to be the author, but the assembler of others’ work. And in 1723, John Nott published The Cooks and Confectioners Dictionary: Or, the Accomplish’d Housewives Companion. Titles containing the words “accomplished” and “housewives,” and “frugal” became the norm in the following century.
Kettilby includes many medical entries, including one for how to cure “the King’s Evil,” or scrofula.
Nott’s book describes how to make “Bisks, Farces, forc’d Meats, Marinades, Olio’s, Puptons, Ragoos, Sauces, Soops, Pottages.” Pastries include biscuits, cakes, custards, puddings, pies and tarts. Confectionery includes candying and conserving flowers, fruits, and roots, as well as jellies, marmalades and decorative “sugar-works.” Drinks include the making of beer, cider, mead, perry and English wines, as well as cordials.
A recipe for making an asparagus omelet:
One of the most popular cookery books was Eliza Smith’s The Compleat Housewife, or, Accomplish’d Gentlewoman’s Companion of 1727. It went through 18 editions and traveled across the ocean to become, in 1742, the first cookbook printed in the colonies, in Williamsburg, Va. That version was altered for American tastes and without requiring “the ingredients or materials for which are not to be had in this country.”
Smith takes to task the older cookbooks, from previous centuries and days she desires to give regular housewives and middle-class cooks recipes they can successfully prepare at home. In her preface she writes:
“THERE are indeed already in the World various Books that treat on this Subject, and which bear great Names, as Cooks to Kings, Princes, and Noblemen, and from which one might justly expect something more than many, if not most of these I have read, perform, but found my self deceived in my Expectations; for many of them to us are impracticable, others whimsical, others unpalatable, unless to depraved Palates, some unwholsome, many Things copied from old Authors, and recommended without (as I am persuaded) the Copiers ever having had any Experience of the Palatableness, or had any Regard to the Wholsomeness of them: Which two Things ought to be standing rules, that no Pretenders to Cookery ought to deviate from And I cannot but believe, that those celebrated Performers, notwithstanding all their Professions of having ingeniously communicated their Art, industriously concealed their best Receipts from the Publick.”
Men didn’t disappear completely from the business. Charles Carter published The Compleat City and Country Cook: or, Accomplish’d Housewife in 1732 and Richard Bradley released The Country Housewife, and Lady’s Director in the same year.
William Ellis published The Country Housewife’s Companion in 1750 and William Augustus Henderson’s The Housekeeper’s Instructor ran through 17 editions, beginning in 1791.
Henderson has a chapter on food for long sea voyages, which includes a section on “drippings,” or bacon grease, which provides good calories, but says “It is a very good maxim to keep the pot upside down, to prevent its being destroyed by the rats. It will keep good any voyage and makes as fine puff-paste crust as any butter whatever.”
Sarah Harrison made the case for women, though, in her Housekeeper’s Pocket Book, and Compleat Family Cook of 1733 when she complains how men belittle the “feminine arts of government that are of much more intrinsick value than some admired branches of literature.”
There is a rising brand of what we might call feminism in many of these cookbooks, that, although they glorify the domestic arts in a way that Betty Friedan might find uncomfortable, they make a case, in the temper of their time, for the efficacy and agency of women. They claim importance for what they do.
Her recipe for Chicken Fricasee:
But it was Elizabeth Moxon who carried the baton from Smith, with her enormously popular English Housewifery Exemplified of 1741. A 16th edition was printed in 1808. Very little is known of Moxon, outside of her book.
It was designed as a guide for “Mistresses of Families and higher and lower Women servants,” included recipes for “soops, made-dishes, pastes, pickles, cakes, creams, jellies, made-wines, &c.”
Those who remember ghastly short-cut Can-Opener Cookbook from 1951 may have thought that recipes named “surprise” were endemic to the Eisenhower years, but Moxon includes hers for “Chicken Surprise:”
“Take half a Pound of Rice, set it over a Fire in soft Water, when it is half boiled put in two or three small Chickens truss’d, with two or three Blades of Mace, and a little Salt; take a Piece of Bacon about three Inches square, and boil it in Water whilst almost enough, then take it out, pare off the out Sides, and put it into the Chickens and Rice to boil a little together; (you must not let the Broth be over thick with Rice) then take up your Chickens, lay them on a Dish, pour over them the Rice, cut your Bacon in thin Slices to lay round your Chickens, and upon the Breast of each a Slice.
This is proper for a Side-dish.”
The real superstar of the time, though, was Hannah Glasse. Her Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy was first sold in 1747 and went on through at least 40 editions. It made a case for simplicity and for Englishness. She writes in a simple style, she says, so the lowest maid can understand her, unlike those great chefs of old. She wrote that “the great Cooks have such a high way of expressing themselves, that the poor Girls are at a Loss to know what they mean.”
In her introduction, she writes: “I doubt I shall not gain the esteem of those gentlemen; however, let that be as it will, it little concerns me; but should I be so happy as to gain the good opinion of my own sex, I desire no more; that will be a full recompence for all my trouble; and I only beg the favor of every lady to read my Book through before they censure me, and then I flatter myself I shall have their approbation.”
As for the French:
“A Frenchman in his own country will dress a fine dinner of twenty dishes, and all genteel and pretty, for the expence he will put an English lord to for dressing one dish. … I have heard of a cook that used six pounds of butter to fry twelve eggs; when every body knows … that half a pound is full enough, or more than need be used: but then it would not be French. So much is the blind folly of this age, that they would rather be imposed on by a French booby, than give encouragement to a good English cook!”
She does include a chapter on French dishes, but warns: “Read this chapter and you will find how expensive a French cook’s sauce is.” The first recipe, “The French way of dressing partridges” concludes with her comment “This dish I do not recommend; for I think it an odd jumble of trash … but such receipts as this, is what you have in most books of cookery yet printed.”
And if you think the British taste for Indian food is recent, Glasseincludes the first English recipe for Indian pickles and for curry:
Glasse wrote two other books, The Compleat Confectioner in 1755, and The Servant’s Directory, or Housekeeper’s Companion from 1760. In places, she sounds surprisingly modern, especially to those who grew up through the Great Foodie Awakening of the late 20th Century:
After Glasse, the biggest name in the second half of the century was Elizabeth Raffald, whose Experienced English Housekeeper ran through 13 authorized and at least 23 pirated editions. Since British copyright laws didn’t cover recipes, pirating was a serious problem for all our authors. In an attempt to head off the copies, Raffald signed the first page of each of her books in ink and the message, “N.B. No Book is genuine but what is signed by the author.” She managed to do well anyway, selling the copyright to her publisher in 1773 for the modern equivalent of about $200,000.
Two other notable cookbooks from near the end of the century are John Farley’s The London Art of Cookery and Housekeeper’s Complete Assistant On a New Plan, Made Plain and Easy to the Understanding of every Housekeeper, Cook, and Servant in the Kingdom, from 1783, and Susannah Carter’s The Frugal Housewife, or Complete Woman Cook, from 1765.
The latter was republished in the Boston in 1772 with illustrations by Paul Revere. The version had added recipes for American dishes such as Indian Pudding, Maple Beer, Buckwheat Cakes and Pumpkin Pie. It remained the only American-published cookbook for two decades and sold very well.
But, in 1796, the first truly American cookbook was published by Amelia Simmons, called American Cookery. It was the first to suggest serving cranberry with turkey and the first use of the word, “cookie.”
Little is known of Simmons. She called herself “An American Orphan,” and was probably from either Connecticut or the Hudson River Valley in New York. There were 13 editions of her book between 1796 and 1831, and was sold for two shillings and threepence, or about $1.75 today, and consisted of just 47 octavo pages. The Library of Congress has designated American Cookery as one of the 88 “Books that Shaped America.”
Simmons has some head-scratchers, like her concern for what the moon does to fish.
“Salmon, the noblest and richest fish taken in fresh water — the largest are the best. They are unlike almost every other fish, are ameliorated by being 3 or 4 days out of water, if kept from heat and the moon, which has much more injurious effect than the sun.”
Or an opinion on garlic, which survived in the American kitchens until only 20 or 30 years ago: “Garlicks, tho’ used by the French, are better adapted to the uses of medicine than cookery.”
(The blandness of the American diet was what I grew up on. Such an exotic thing as olive oil was usually bought from an apothecary and was used to drip into the ear for earache. For cooking, we used Crisco.)
Simmons’ recipes for Indian Pudding:
And so, the century saw the rise of women as authors of cookbooks, and a kind of proto-feminism — a recognition that women had, and deserved to have power and a voice, although that voice still maintained a distinct separation of gender roles. The real breakthrough comes in the next century, when several women became what could almost be called franchises.