Although I mostly review fiction, nonfiction dominated my personal reading list this year. Here’s a look back.
The year 2019 began, and is ending, with Colm Toibin, and there is a reckoning in the Irish author’s novels and nonfiction that makes him an appropriate literary god to bookend the year. In Mad, Bad, Dangerous to Know: The fathers of Wilde, Yeats and Joyce (Scribner, 2018), the literary fathers are more interesting than their sons. Yeats’s father, in particular, was a dynamic letter-writer and “failed” painter who had an undeniable creative fire. Here is the senior Yeats expounding on what it means to be an artist in a world that values only rational thought:
The men of science hate us and revile us … They always work in gangs, many minds engaged on one task, whereas we live and work singly, each man building for himself accepting no fellowship – for we say it is only thus we can build our habitations.
In a way, Mad, Bad, Dangerous to Know picks up where Toibin’s 2004 novel of Henry James, The Master, leaves off, although I read them in the opposite order. In the novel Wilde appears as both a hated rival and an object lesson in what might happen if the tightly wound James acted on his homoerotic nature. The Master is, well, masterful, in both its insight into James and its immersion into his style and tone. It is not mimicry so much as a complete synthesis of the writer’s inner life. All is told through hint and suggestion, every gesture and silence burdened with the unexpressed and unspoken. Like T.S. Eliot after him, James sloughed off his American self to become a British subject, and there is something of J. Alfred Prufrock in his mannered regrets.
I did not stay on the periphery of Bloomsbury but dove into it, first with Katharine Smyth’s memoir, All the Lives We Ever Lived: Seeking Solace in Virginia Woolf (Crown, 2019) about the author’s attempts to recover from her father’s death by reading Woolf and visiting her haunts; then with Woolf’s letters, anthologized in Congenial Spirits: The Selected Letters of Virginia Woolf, edited by Joanne Trautman Banks (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1989) and then finally with an excellent new biography, Virginia Woolf and the Women Who Shaped Her World, by Gillian Gill (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2019). I even got halfway through The Voyage Out, Woolf’s early allegorical novel, written in the wake of the Titanic sinking, a fact I discovered in The Age of Titanic: Cross-Currents of Anglo-American Culture, by John Wilson Foster (Merlin Publishing, Ireland, 2002).
But the truth is, I’ve always enjoyed reading Woolf’s diaries and letters, and biographies of her, more than her fiction, which can be dense, mannered, and arch. I know this is probably a personal failing (I did love To the Lighthouse), and I would not go so far as one critic did this year in trying to kick her out of the literary canon, but her fiction seems to operate at a frequency slighter higher than my own. Which is a way of saying that if only I were smarter, I might get it.
Yet we remain fascinated with Woolf for her feminist ideals, her gender fluidity and her lifelong struggle with mental illness. I even got to ask Gillian Gill about this in an interview earlier this month, and she maintains you cannot separate an author from their lives, as much as critical theorists want us to. And that feels right to me: the fiction has to be taken in totality with the life in order to be understood.
Another author’s life I continue to study is Emerson’s. I discovered Emerson and his Eccentrics by Carlos Baker (Viking, 1996) at the Kingston Hill (R.I.) Bookstore, a treasure of rare and slightly used books curated by the knowledgeable Allison Goodsell. Baker, who died before the book was published, was a Princeton scholar who delves deeply into the usual subjects – Margaret Fuller, Thoreau, Bronson Alcott – while also concentrating on Emeron’s lesser known contemporaries, such as Jones Very and Theodore Parker. Thus it becomes a biography not just of friendship but ideas, one I can imagine rereading some day.
I also read biographies of Pearl Buck and H.P. Lovecraft, memoirs by Patti Smith, Howard Norman and Amy Tan, and Casey Cep’s excellent account of the book Harper Lee couldn’t write – Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee (Knopf, 2019). But literary nonfiction shared the shelf with another genre, a combination of nature writing and adventure and history for which I have no name.
Stumbling upon a nature writer always opens new doors of thought. Bernd Heinrich is the author of more than a dozen books about birds, insects and habitats. Like my idol Edwin Way Teale, whose book Wandering into Winter won the Pulitzer Prize in 1966, Heinrich also has written books centered on the seasons. But it was the audiobook One Wild Bird at a Time (narrated by Rick Adamson, Dreamscape Media, 2016) that introduced me to the New England writer and scientist. Through his ingenious experiments and statute-like patience, Heinrich shows us not just how wild creatures behave, but why, and his curiosity is infectious. I followed up with Summer World (narrated by Mel Foster, Tantor Audio, 2009) and then bought a print edition of his latest, A Naturalist at Large: The Best Essays of Bernd Heinrich (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018).
A good nature book is never far from my hands. Another discovery was Wyman Richardson, a Boston doctor whose The House on Nauset Marsh (Chatham Press, 1972; originally published in 1947) painted an evocative picture of the Cape Cod house where his family summered (Richardson died in 1953). I journeyed west with David Gessner (All the Wild that Remains: Edward Abbey, Wallace Stegner, and the American West; W.W. Norton, 2015) and Cecil Kuhne (River Master: John Wesley Powell’s Legendary Exploration of the Colorado River and Grand Canyon, Countryman Press/Norton, 2017) and a wonderful copy of Oscar Lewis’s High Sierra Country (Duell, Sloan and Pearce/Little Brown, 1955), part of the American Folkways Series. These books, besides transporting us to a different world, talk to each other, and threads stretch from one to another, weaving new ideas.
What, after all, is the point of reading? Although all of these books were read “for pleasure,” they seeped into my writing in complicated ways. All year I also read books intentionally for research, into the life of Caroline Hazard (president of Wellesley, 1899 to 1910), for a biography, as well as into moonshining, for a novel in progress. All of these books informed my thinking, leading me from one place to the next, from one nascent idea to another.
Stegner, quoted in Gessner’s book, defined biography as “transformation of fact by the imagination” as long as “imagination [works] with the real.” I jotted this down in my journal. Two days later, while reading something in the New York Times, I thought, “biography is the attempt to find meaning – contemporary meaning – in a former life,” and wrote, “I don’t know what made me think this.” Of course, that Stegner quote had been percolating in my mind for two days, waiting to merge with my own thoughts.
Thus all of these readings remain just below the surface, pinging off this and that neuron for new insight. Emerson’s intellectual circle, Stegner’s fascination with the West, Heinrich’s detailed observation of the natural world, Woolf’s ability to transcend her 19th-century upbringing – all of this seemingly unrelated material is connected to this biography I’m researching, of a woman who could not transcend her 19th-century roots, who saw the West – Santa Barbara – as her escape, who surrounded herself with strong women, who will need to be observed with incredible patience and ingenuity if I am to understand her at all. Just as the subtext of Toibin’s books is the literary influence on him of Henry James, Oscar Wilde, William Butler Yeats and James Joyce, so too we are all products of what we read and where those books lead us.