“This Caring or Believing or Love Alone Matters”
An introduction to the selected letters of Nobel Prize-winning novelist Saul Bellow.
by Benjamin Taylor
When urged to write his autobiography, Saul Bellow used to say there was nothing to tell except that he’d been unbearably busy ever since getting circumcised. Busy with the making of novels, stories and the occasional essay; with romance, marriage, fatherhood, divorce, friendship, enmity, grief; with the large-scale events of history and small-scale events of literary life; with the prodigious reading habit and dedication to teaching that saw him into his later eighties. Busy, not least, corresponding. The great authors are not all so good at letters; indeed, you could make a considerable list of figures of the first rank who were perfunctory correspondents. It would seem to be a separate gift, as mysterious as the artistic one. Looking over the best letter writers in our language of the last century—Virginia Woolf, D. H. Lawrence, Hart Crane, Katherine Anne Porter, Evelyn Waugh, Samuel Beckett, John Cheever, William Maxwell, Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Lowell, Flannery O’Connor, James Merrill—one finds every sort of personality and no common denominator. Some kept diaries, others did not. Some were prolific, others produced relatively little. The most one can say is that each led a rich additional life in his or her correspondence, rich enough to have become a part of literature itself.
Four generations—the one before him, his own, and the two following—are addressed in Bellow’s tremendous outflow, an exhaustive self-portrait which is, as well, the portrait of an age. His correspondents are a vast company including wives, sons, friends from childhood, fellow writers, current and former lovers, current and former students, admiring and disadmiring readers, acolytes asking him to read what they’d written (he nearly always did, it seems), religious crackpots, autograph hounds (hundreds), obsessive adulators, graphomaniacs and seriously insane people.
All Aboard the Choomwagon! (II)
Part XI in the ongoing saga of the Etch a President: Romney visits Barry-O in 1978.
by Stephen Kurczy
“A self-selected group of boys at Punahou School who loved basketball and good times called themselves the Choom Gang.”
—David Maraniss, “Barack Obama: The Story”
Mitt Romney’s eyes flutter as the human cyborg accesses the global brain of data drives and memory banks from computers, gadgets, and gizmos dating back to 1978. His RAM goes into hyperdrive as it pieces together bits from digital cameras, emails, and online archives to create a picture of Barack Obama’s teenage years in the capital of Hawaii. An image begins to form.
“I see an Afro,” says Romney. “It’s atop a tall lanky kid on the basketball court of Punahou School. He dribbles the ball, his Afro bobs up and down, he shoots, he scores!”
Mitt starts reenacting the scene, mimicking the voices of the kids on the court.
“Nice shot, Barry!” says Tom Topolinski, a Chinese-looking kid with a Polish name, as they walk off the court and outside to the parking lot.
“Thanks, Topo,” says Barry. “Let’s bug out: All aboard the Choomwagon for some Gutt Waddin’ and good times.”
Back in 2012 at the presidential campaign headquarters in Boston, Mormon Church President Thomas Monson whispers to Bain Capital co-founder Joshua Bekenstein: “What’s a Choomwagon?”
“Choom is a verb, meaning to smoke marijuana,” says Bekenstein. “And wagon refers to a classic VW van popular for chooming inside.”
by Peter Taylor
He left a map on the wall
to find it marked with coloured pins
and tiny battle stars. Where he had been
was not three inches travel
from the clutter of a boy’s room.
Three winters and a spring
hung in little flags above his bed.
He stooped to count each month,
to set each fingertip in order,
stripped his boots and slept.
A clock is faithful sentry.
Nothing had changed. The closet dust
endures each slow dissolving moment
with spider patience. When morning breaks,
he will awake and find himself at home.
Copyright Infringement Legislation and the Future of Fan Fiction
How Internet laws could affect the popular genre
In January, the Internet exploded with apocalyptic prophecy. The Stop Online Piracy Actand Protect IP Act were heralded as looming threats to online socialization, and big companies like Wikipedia and Google were warning every user of the impending disaster. Amidst the flurry of commenters decrying the impending death of Facebook and Twitter, a few Internet users timidly stepped forward with their own concern: how would Internet copyright infringement legislation affect fan fiction?
Popularized in the mid-1960s by ambitious Star Trek viewers, fan fiction is an umbrella term used to describe stories and novels that use the characters, basic plotline, and settings of a popular work but (with some exceptions that I’ll get to later) tweak and transform it enough to constitute genuine pieces. Think of fan fiction as a writer’s fantasy baseball league or amateur beauty pageant. And in turn, consider its writers to be as varied as those who participate in fantasy baseball or amateur beauty pageants—some spend years on 500-page Lord of the Rings novels, some produce meek three-pagePortlandia scripts.
Fan fiction has come far from the minute zine-bound community it was half a century ago; there are now hundreds of thousands of fan fiction stories written about every conceivable series. Fanfiction.net, one of the largest fan fiction hubs online, boasts over two million users. Writers create fan fiction for community and for socialization but, most of all, for themselves. When the TV seasons end and the last page of the latest book is read, fan fiction writers make up their own sequels. In the words of Time’s Lev Grossman, fan fiction writers are “fans, but they’re not silent, couch-bound consumers of media. The culture talks to them, and they talk back to the culture in its own language.”
He’s The Next Paul McCartney
Literary advice on life, an obviously failing music career, and unwanted run-ins with exes.
by Dolores Hays
He’s The Next Paul McCartney
My sister is married to a man who has struggled with depression over the last few years. She’s an overachiever and has a prestigious and demanding job, and he’s really sweet and smart, but has had trouble finding his niche and is underemployed. I’m very close with both of them, and know that this has not been easy for their marriage.
About six months ago, he started playing bass in a band. They’re not that great, but have a lot of friends who come out to support them every time they play. This has been a real ego boost to my brother-in-law, who seems to have thrown all of his energy and hope into the band. I mean, listening to him talk you’d think he’s the next Paul McCartney. He’s now thinking about quitting his job and going on tour.
I think this is a terrible idea. And it’s been hard on my sister. She loves her husband and wants him to be happy and fulfilled, but at the same time wants to have children and a stable family life. She also worries that he’s setting himself up for disappointment, and when his music career inevitably doesn’t pan out he’s going to be is a worse place than he is now. She wants to be supportive, but is also realistic. She feels at a loss about how to address this issue.
Since I have an independent relationship with my brother-in-law, would it be out of line to step in and advise him to take this band thing less seriously?
—Doesn’t Care about Your Band in Denver
Does Romney Empathize?
Why won’t the candidate evoke his days as a religious counselor to demonstrate his ability to feel?
by Ben Hoffman
I have been thinking for several months about something written by New York Timescolumnist Frank Bruni way back in early February. Bruni expressed his surprise that Romney’s Mormon faith had not been made into an issue this election (he was referring to the Republican primary, but the same has held true thus far for the general election). It is worth pausing here to appreciate how far we’ve come from the days since many Americans worried that John F. Kennedy would be taking orders from the Pope.
Then again, the Romney campaign’s own relunctance to broach the topic suggests that maybe it doesn’t believe we have come quite so far as we think. Bruni points out that Romney almost never talks about his faith. Eventually, Bruni heads in the direction of psychobabble: the reason Romney cannot connect is because he is withholding a crucial part of himself (as if all Presidents do not repress certain parts of their selves to create a public image). But first, he writes something that has stuck with me:
“Romney’s even longer period as a Mormon lay leader in Boston involved counseling and consoling people dealing with marriage problems, addiction, unemployment: some of life’s messiest, scariest stuff. He must have gained a fluency in human frailty. But when The Times’s Sheryl Gay Stolberg was researching an article about that time, Romney predictably declined her interview request.”
The Republic Lives!: The Supreme Court Upholds the Affordable Care Act, Part II
Understanding John Roberts and the Commerce Clause. Plus, what will happen with Medicaid?
by Sam Ennis, Anthony Resnick, and Sally Rodriguez
Editor’s note: This is Part II of a discussion about the Supreme Court’s landmark opinion that largely upheld the Affordable Care Act. To read Part I, click here.
Sam, I’d like to push back one more time on your negative view of the Court’s Commerce Clause ruling. My take is in a way more cynical and in a way more optimistic than yours: more cynical in how I view the Court generally, but more optimistic in what I think the ramifications of Thursday’s ruling will be. I agree, again, with Adam Serwar at Mother Jones when he says:
Not to be entirely cynical about it, but Supreme Court Justices are lords of the realm. They can rule how they want, and a different lineup on the court—say one with a few more Democratic appointees—could reject [Roberts’] reasoning entirely.
If President Obama is re-elected and has a chance to replace one or more of the Court’s conservative justices, the conservative attack on the Court’s Commerce Clause jurisprudence will, at least for some significant period of time, be over. If Romney wins and has a chance to replace one or more of the Court’s liberals, that attack will accelerate. Both of those statements would be true even if Roberts had—as Justice Ginsburg suggests he should have—decided the health care case without even reaching the Commerce Clause issue.
The distances were vast, the displacements definitive. There was no going back to the places abandoned, that explains how moss and ivy overran them. Contours and colors faded away until the memories of a military base rapidly shrank to a few gray photos. The long, low house of rough cobblestones at the far eastern edge of the imperium. Flower beds surrounded by whitewashed bits of mortar, overgrown with wild grass. A baby carriage, high and spacious, like a royal coach. Father’s hand grasping a motorcycle by the horns; with the smooth black parts of his body it looks like a gigantic ant. One calls these photos “black-and-white,” but they have long since turned gray—like stone and dust, old wood and time.
I’m sitting at home, in the middle of Berlin. It’s snowing. One above zero—one below, two. Two bargain hunters in Los Angeles have shot each other in a struggle over Christmas super-bargains, and lie there, curled up, a 6 and a 9—both numbers outfitted with tiny comma pistols. Our Christmas shopping too is booming. Britney Spears wants to make her breasts smaller. Mankind has a year to save the earth. That’s the news of my day.
Everything’s sleeping, but behind the lace hanging in the window opposite mine, an old, bald man is sitting, writing. I’ve never seen him during the day, or perhaps I don’t recognize him. But evenings, he is always there. It’s snowing between us, he is my toy soldier and I his cardboard ballerina. The white flakes melt on the spot where they touch the Berlin earth.
The Republic Lives!: The Supreme Court Upholds the Affordable Care Act, Part I
Analyzing the landmark opinion from the legal, political, and policy standpoints.
by Sam Ennis, Anthony Resnick, and Sally Rodriguez
Editor’s note: The ramifications of today’s landmark Supreme Court opinion, which largely upheld the Affordable Care Act, could take years to be realized. Unfortunately, we want to discuss it now. To help analyze and prognosticate, we brought together Anthony Resnick to talk politics, Sam Ennis to talk legality, and Sally Rodriguez to talk policy. Because the discussion has just begun, we will run Part I today, and Part II on Monday.
Today’s health care opinion: good for America, good for the rule of law, good for democracy, good for sick people, good for President Obama, but bad for commentators preparing to rail against Justice Scalia, the illegitimacy of the Roberts Court, and the collapse of the American Republic.
The upshot is that the Affordable Care Act was upheld, but not in the way that anyone expected. Justice Roberts, but not Justice Kennedy, joined the liberals on the Court in finding the individual mandate and the remainder of the Act constitutional. The mandate was found constitutional under Congress’ taxing powers but not, as was considered more likely, under the Commerce Clause. Justice Kennedy, long thought to be the Republican appointee most likely to join the Democratic appointees in salvaging at least parts of the Act, joined the conservative wing in dissent and would have found the entire Act unconstitutional.