Category: Writing & Literature

Humans and the Humanities

In keeping with my tradition of insulting, degrading, and otherwise doubting the humanities, that slimy, little den in which I've been mired for the duration of my academic "career," I want to point my reader's attention to a post by Kenneth Anderson at The Volokh Conspiracy, especially his conclusion:

It means, for another thing, that the humanities as disciplines, while they might still (barely) be a way of teaching certain forms of reasoning, don’t provide “content” in the intellectual reproduction of commercial culture – at least, not at the fundamental level, at the level of science and applied science. They are not part of the production of new knowledge. Success and advance for society lie in the innovations of technical and applied sciences alone – and the humanities lose a place in the production of these innovations, and become relegated to the status of mere items of consumption. Literature, the arts, criticism, the essay – their social significance lies solely in their role as entertainment. Entertainment is what one does in one’s free time, for fun. It is dispensable, and the humanities, too, their raw materials and their analytic products, likewise are dispensable. We didn’t use to think this about the humanities, its products, disciplines, and academic efforts. But that’s where we are now: fantastically produced and expensive, but their deliverances no longer can claim to reveal anything very important about the world. That role has been ceded to STEM; and, well, The Rest is Noise.

I'm still uncertain, after reading the post a couple of times, whether Anderson believes there is still a place for the humanities in academia at all:  at times he appears to offer a bit of backhanded support, though it is clear he does not hold them in high regard.  He is quite right, I think, that the humanities—in my case, English—do not provide the sort of critical thinking or reasoning skills necessary for survival (or to be very useful) in an increasingly technologically and intellectually complex world.  On the other hand, I'm inclined to believe there is a nebulous and probably small benefit to cultural scholarship; what that benefit is, I can't say exactly, except to note that I'm a proponent of wide knowledge bases, whatever their nature.  As a friend of mine commonly complains to incurious people, "How could you not want more information?"

Still, the charge that our fictions, essays, and criticisms fail to provide truth in the way the STEM disciplines do is well taken, unavoidable, really.  Literature relies on anecdote instead of data, and criticism on philosophical constructs bereft of objective, usable information.  The more we learn about social systems, human behavior, and free will, the more we see in our supposedly "human" qualities a machine-like consistency in the aggregate.

Anderson:

It’s only the humanities that gave up on the search for truths about human beings in the world. The economists and the geeks of social science never gave up the search, and they (and we) seem to have concluded that the answers are located in purely technical subjects through purely technical thinking.

He is spot on here.  The implication, of course, demands that we in the humanities begin to accept and admit that we do what we do because we like it, not because it is of any intrinsic value to anyone else.  In our blind stretch for truth, to produce truth, we fell upon the illusion of it, and maybe even a few of us did so without the customary hubris of the artist dribbling out the corners of our mouths.  But make no mistake, we have slipped through the backdoor of the entertainment industry believing we were reaching for something higher.

We can learn true and marketable skills in the humanities:  communication, for instance, is of premium importance in many fields, including STEM, some of which are not known for their stable of able messengers.  If you want to help humanity as a humanities student, start there.  If not, I'm certainly not saying the humanities are worthless—not while we're all nice and comfy, anyway.

Deciding What to Like

I was rummaging through my electronic files last night, looking for inspiring crumbs—a chance thought hammered out during a spare minute, already crystalline in form and fully realized yet scribbled in some nebulous personal code I was sure at the time I would be able to decrypt upon later viewing—when I found a file called "Bullshit Criticisms.doc."  In it, I had written this:

Always fear the reader who accuses smugness or arrogance simply upon coming across a quiver of big words or inaccessible references.

Is being cerebral a bad thing in writing?  Presumably this is a Master's course and we should be aspiring to the intelligent.  If your primary criticism is that the author of whatever you're reading is smarter than you, go pick up a fucking book, or a dictionary, and get cracking.

Are the points these people want our writers to make simply arguments to reinforce the points as we already imagine them to be?  The very act of an author's teasing a hidden meaning—or even an observation that is not immediately apparent—out of a scene is scoffed at by this ilk.  That Joan Didion might have an objection to a culture immediately calls upon her the charge of elitism.  It is as if people are offended by the simple act of being challenged; even where criticisms of Didion might exist, those that are substantive are never mentioned, but stem rather from this lack of confidence, or perhaps a simple ruefulness at the mere suggestion that things may not be as they seem.

I remember the precipitating incident only vaguely, though the experience as such is not uncommon in writing and literature courses.  A student will, after having read a piece of writing, judge it based on their own personal, ideological, and emotional reactions.  Now, of course our biases inform our interpretations and opinions of literature constantly as we read; that's the way literature works:  we react (or don't) according to the impressions we've come to accept through the culmination of our experience and, using only this hard-won but uneven palette of information, like or dislike a work based on whether we think it feels true.  By true, I mean that we laugh at a joke because it feels genuinely funny, grimace at a dramatic turn because it genuinely hurts, or shrink in horror at a science fiction story because the paths to dystopia and slavery become frighteningly hard to ignore (Logan's Run, anyone?).

But the situation becomes a bit discouraging, especially during a group discussion, when a student decides a work is either good or bad because what they as a reader wanted to happen either did or didn't.  Sometimes readers want revenge and get angry when the villain escapes; sometimes they get red in the face when an author fails to subject a character to some sort of poetic or ironic comeuppance that either reinforces or disintegrates that character's primary flaw.  We want carnivores to be devoured by plants, rapists to lose their sexual organs, bigots to renounce their petty hatred.  We seem to be programmed to want these sorts of neat, little endings; we seem to want things to be easy, to watch whomever we're rooting for win out.

But, of course, life isn't easy.  The good folks don't always win.  Sometimes the bad guys win because there is a point to be made—which doesn't mean, of course, that we have to side with the rapist or the bigot (I hope none of us do), just that we shouldn't shut off our brains at the first sign of discord.

Granted, we have many lenses through which we can examine a piece of literature, and many different reasons to read as well (enjoyment, "enlightenment," perspective, etc.).  If your critique, however, can be restated to approximate in form a statement like "I didn't like it because I wanted him to die," it may be best to consider reassessing your critical methods or else finding another line of work.

To address my little found ramble again, Didion upsets some readers because she is almost unfailingly indecisive.  It's sort of her thing.  Furthermore, back in the 1970s she rubbed elbows with some pretty famous people, and, every now and then, her accounts of ritzy parties and political functions read as if written partially for the purpose of name-dropping.  Personally, I think Didion is a fantastic writer, and yes, part of my estimation stems from the fact that I can appreciate her radical uncertainty in all things—a bias-informed position on my part, to be sure.  At times she writes presuming a level of education from her readership; if I remember correctly, it was this sort of writing, in a 1970-something piece criticizing zeitgeisty anti-womanhood feminists, that rankled a few of my classmates.  Surely some of the more specific cultural and political references, namely those local to California, are lost upon my generation, and the reading required some extratextual engagement, which is to say you had to look a few things up if you wanted to understand the article.  Plus, Didion (uncharacteristically, for her) used some big, scary words.

It is well known in some circles (maybe) that, when presented with big, scary words, writing and literature students who don't already know those big, scary words tend to feel, well, inadequate.  Often this gnawing sense of inferiority leads to a lashing out, a heated, uncontrollable hatred for the writer, and comments like "I just think the writing is unclear, you know, like, she could have, like, used shorter words to get her point across," have been known to pass the lips of some otherwise reasonable people. On these occasions, most of the other students nod knowingly, and those who would love to publicly pillory the statement either buck up and look like assholes or swallow the temptation and sit there seething, perhaps scribbling down a few choice words in silent protest.

I really don't mean to be caustic.  I'm just a bit shocked at the resistance to being challenged.  Morally or politically, ideologically or intellectually, the instinct, when a person is presented with a potentially problematic viewpoint, seems to be to circle the wagons at all costs.

Do we really want everyone to write in short, pithy sentences?  Do we want the reductive "truth" or the complex amorphism?  Should we spurn literature that doesn't agree with the simplistic mottoes we've all no doubt pinned inside our jackets?  Obviously all such considerations can and should be made case by case, work by work.  And, yes, sometimes we will decide we are not willing to make certain concessions.

But consider, next time, that maybe, just maybe, if you don't like something, you weren't meant to like it.  Perhaps we'd be a bit better off if we didn't feel so comfortable all the time, if we sought what upset us rather than avoiding anything that threatens to break our little bubbles.  Furthermore, and regardless of the previous points, don't dismiss the notion that personal and intellectual growth are probably watered more by chaos than harmony.

 

Writers Writing: Whence Our Manufactured Epiphanies?

This post is very closely related to this post, but it takes a bit of a different tack.  I may get some shit if any of my classmates happen across this thing, but it's meant to open an honest, reflective dialogue about what the fuck we're doing here.  Most of this advice, while addressed to "you," is also addressed to me, and to be sure, there are classmates of mine who would not be included, like I would be, as "part of the problem."
I felt like a monster reincarnation of Horatio Algier . . . a Man on the Move, and just sick enough to be totally confident. Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

I have spent most of my scholastic life studying English—writing, literature, pretense, ego—and, mostly, it's all garbage.  The English degree should not impress (not that most people consider us English majors with any special reverence), despite the fervent protestations from budding writers everywhere.  But to my fellow English punks, you Bachelors and Masters alike, know this:  we're not worth a goddamned thing.  For all the erudite brilliance of Saul Bellow, the visceral sickness of Vladimir Nabokov, the absolute mastery of Dorothy Parker, their work and that like it amounts to very little—or, if my suspicions are correct, nothing.  Something about wishing in one hand and crapping in the other...

The hours we have spent analyzing such works are wasted hours, hours we could have spent doing something useful like smoking cigarettes, or fucking. We have emulated the wrong people, idolized them without justification.  Our attempts to forge our own ways into that echelon of writers good enough, or lucky enough, to serially hoodwink publishers into forking over hefty advances—and readers into sopping up whatever literary poisons we serve—have been exercises not only in futility but in insincerity.

It is the writer's charge these days to write cynical, sociopathic ad copy for Budweiser by day and by night to affect a sniveling egoism toward anyone who hasn't considered the synchystic merits of Finnegan's Wake.  (I learned the word synchisis in class a couple of quarters ago.  How impressive that I've used it in my own personal ramblings, eh?  Extra credit!  Furthermore, I haven't read more than a chapter of Finnegan's Wake; but since I am an English person, that is to say, a person engaged in the study of English, I am allowed to speculate regarding Joyce's novel without qualification, having considered at least the vague impressions of the English hive mind, which itself is made up of other consciousnesses that have also not bothered to read the entire book.)

We writers don't write for you; we write for us.

A potentially harmful machine.*

But that's an old rant, a holdover from my undergrad years.  A graduate student, especially one at the tail end of his Masters degree, should know better than to throw around frivolous accusations and gross generalities, yes?  Besides, the anti-writer writer is a bit of a cliché in and of itself; and, these days, I'm loath to call myself a writer at all.  Writers write, after all.  (Or, as I said more than a few years ago, "Writers write and shut the fuck up about it.")

But here's the nut of this thing:  writing, in itself, is not the point.  The point, of course, has more to do with what we write and, these days, whether we are qualified to write it.  I've veered away from fiction recently precisely because it says less and less to me as time goes on (though it is a form I will probably always love).  The echelon of great fiction writers, past and present, certainly have It, whatever It is—that mix of wit, perception, foresight, whatever.  Most of us, however, don't have a thing to say because we haven't ever studied anything besides literature and writing:  we haven't, you know, attempted to look at the world as it is and come to our own conclusions; we've filtered everything we know through our hero authors, who've parsed love, loss, pain, elation, reconciliation, and disgusting sex into neat little packets, which we consume greedily, believing we've gained something from the endeavor.  And many times we have, but I suspect we overestimate the value of art in a vacuum.

We would almost certainly be better writers had we been forced—prior to ever enrolling in a writing course—to major in physics or history or geology, or dropped into the middle of a shark-infested reef with a nasty gash in one leg and a rusted Bowie knife strapped to the other.  Those are the sorts of experiences that give you, well, experience, and furthermore, they provide what is perhaps the most lacking feature in my demographic of mediocre wordsmiths:  frame of reference.

Do you really have anything to say about reality if you've spent your own steeped in abstractions and simplifications, both of which are inherently necessary to make any work of literature operate as a unit?  What if you're like me?  What if you've had it pretty easy relative to many of your peers, the well-cared-for life, so to speak, and had little more responsibility than to whip up eloquent-sounding papers on the Wife of Bath or on metaphor in George Eliot's The Mill on the Floss, which you never even finished?  Do you, then, have any perspective that will help your fellow human?  Maybe, in a very limited sense.  But I'm not so sure.

Writing and literature students should be plucked from their cheap plastic seats, their pens violently wrenched from their hopeful fingers, their self-important smirks wiped off with the business end of a broad, hairy-knuckled hand.  They should be put on a farm for braindead rejects, where, with a bit of luck and some elbow grease, they can work their way back into society—but not before being trapped in a pen with a rutting elk.  Fight your way out of that, kid, and we'll set you up with a cushier gig in the kitchen, where you'll spend the next four years licking the plates clean and massaging antibiotic ointment into the fry cook's grease burns.  Don't worry, though.  You'll be able to put all of this on your resumé.

Because the sad thing is, most of us will not make a living doing this.  Most of us won't even run a successful blog doing this (case in point).  But you wouldn't know that with all the hopeful eyes about.  If we're studying writing for our own personal edification or because we simply love it, that's fine; if we are taking a cue from my proposed Torture Farm Scenario, just in reverse—using writing to gain a skill set that complements our life in business or taxidermy—okay.  My suspicion, however, is that we all think we've got something special to say, and probably a few of us (you) do.  But I'd be willing to bet that number is much smaller than enrollment.

This is not a plea for anyone to stop writing—I'd feel rotten if it was—but it most certainly is a request to consider why we're in this racket at all and, if we're truly serious, what we're going to do about it.  My advice:  get interested in something else.  We'll be better writers.

 

* Photo by seychelles88 (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0):  Underwood Portable Typewriter (1926)

The Echo of Hiroshima

From the top of the Red Cross Hospital in Hiroshima looking northwest. Frame buildings recently erected. 1945*

I'm taking a class on New Journalism, and our reading assignment this week was John Hersey's famous article, published in The New Yorker on August 31, 1946, simply titled "Hiroshima". (You can access the full article here.) Hersey's piece is a truly harrowing tale told from the perspective of a handful of citizens who lived through the bombing — their actions in the direct aftermath, and their struggles a year after. Hersey's prose is matter-of-fact: he does not proselytize; he does not interpret; he simply tells the story and stays out of the way.

One passage in particular struck me: Mr. Tanimoto, a Methodist pastor who has been ferrying the wounded and dying across a river for hours in a small punt, using a bamboo pole in place of an oar, sees a group of people huddled on a sandbar, about to be drowned by the rising tide:

Mr. Tanimoto found about twenty men and women on the sandspit. He drove the boat onto the bank and urged them to get aboard. They did not move and he realized that they were too weak to lift themselves. He reached down and took a woman by the hands, but her skin slipped off in huge, glove-like pieces. He was so sickened by this that he had to sit down for a moment. Then he got out into the water and, though a small man, lifted several of the men and women, who were naked, into his boat. Their backs and breasts were clammy, and he remembered uneasily what the great burns he had seen during the day had been like: yellow at first, then red and swollen, with the skin sloughed off, and finally, in the evening, suppurated and smelly. With the tide risen, his bamboo pole was now too short and he had to paddle most of the way across with it. On the other side, at a higher spit, he lifted the slimy living bodies out and carried them up the slope away from the tide. He had to keep consciously repeating to himself, "These are human beings." It took him three trips to get them all across the river. When he had finished, he decided he had to have a rest, and he went back to the park.

The appeal to humanity in this passage strikes me as especially haunting, the fact that one must remind himself that these mangled bodies he carries are, in fact, people, and that he must not recoil, that he must treat them with due dignity. If there is a larger message about the dehumanizing effect of war, you can mull that one over yourself; that's not what makes this passage so interesting or appalling to me. For me, the scene stands alone as a stark and visceral moment in which the pure fact of humanity must be affirmed, against all revulsion and shock, and while we may consider broader issues, we should never forget the bare existence of our personal breaking points. Mr. Tanimoto girds himself against his own in this case. Would that we could all be so certain we would react as admirably.

* Picture is a public domain image from Wikimedia Commons. I took the caption from the Wikimedia summary as well.

Update 8/6/2015: For the 70th anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing, The New Yorker has made John Hersey's classic reflection on the bombing's aftermath free to access — a grim and powerful piece of writing finally available for everyone to read. This post has been updated accordingly, and the link therein now takes you to the full article.

 

Wallowing in the Arts: What Are Our Fictions Worth?

What is the bridge from the water's edge of inspiration to the far shore of accomplishment? Q, Wonder Boys

I can't remember if the quote above appears in this exact form in Michael Chabon's novel, but Rip Torn delivers it perfectly in the film adaptation.  Q, of course, is the pretentious, vocally flatulent writer "friend" of Grady's who gives a speech to an auditorium of rapt students eager to lap up his every word.

No writer has cause for this sort of hubris or even confidence, really.  Writing is of very little worth to a practical person—at least fiction, certainly poetry, and most journalism.  Sure, writing was the primary driver behind just about every information revolution dating back to the Neanderthal, but when I consider my own forays into the art form, as well as my continuing formal education which revolves around it, I'm struck with a tremendous sense of failure.  Not because I'm a bad writer;  I am, but that's not the point.  Quite simply, I feel that the contributions to be made through fiction are no longer relevant.  If they ever were, they assisted social movements at times in which the public opinion could be sufficiently galvanized through such means.  The most socially important fiction book of our generation is The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown.  Don't think too hard about this one; you'll depress yourself; but it's probably fair to say that no novel of the past fifteen years has spurred the sort of widespread social introspection that The Da Vinci Code did.  Was it a good book?  No.  Were Dan Brown's arguments accurate?  Who cares.  Regardless of the latter answer, the post-publication wave of self-proclaimed Gnostic experts who attempted to dismantle the Vatican's very foundation speaks to a perhaps higher-than-normal level of religious reconsideration among the general public at that time.

But that's it.  That's all we've got.  The most important (mass-appealing) novel of a generation led to little more than an impotent quasi-intellectual orgy and two Hollywood "blockbusters" that were even worse than the books upon which they were based.

Art is fruitless.  Its intrinsic value, or worth, is measured only by the effectiveness of its illusion, and on that count, I suppose I'm still trapped by it.  I love stories—reading them, watching them, listening to them.  Stories help to parse some of the big questions into manageable bite-sized pieces.  Of course, this impression is little more than a mirage of understanding, just as perhaps all of our pretenses toward knowledge are.

I don't mean to say art is meaningless, but its benefits are intangible and woefully subjective.  A breakthrough drug will save lives; a plasma engine may one day take us to deep space; carbon nanotubes could give us clean, long-term battery power.  These contributions are more easily weighed and more important to the well-being of the human race than something as trivial as Moby Dick or War and Peace—the intellectual rigor required to see their success, greater and more demanding.  The artistic mind is a disorganized one, a mind that succumbs to its every flight of fancy and one that is often beholden, almost specifically, to its biases, preferring instead to substitute fantasy for reality, folk philosophy for physical reality.  Right?

Maybe.

But then I think of Nabokov and Orwell, even Vonnegut, who always struck me as a profoundly humane person, and decide otherwise.  I think of Dali and Van Gogh, two artists with almost purely artistic intelligence, and Jimi Hendrix, who likely could do nothing else but play the guitar like a motherfucker.  They all did tremendous work that I love.

I suppose that's all worth something, but who's to say what?  Love, sadly, is not a good marker of utility.

Notes from the Underground: In Which Dostoyevsky Says What I Mean

Fyodor Dostoyevsky in 1879

I'm a little over halfway through Notes from the Underground right now.  It's a book I've started reading a number of times without ever getting past Chapter 3, not because I disliked it—on the contrary, I thought it was brilliant from the start—but, for whatever reason, something would always manage to distract me.  (It's shameful, I know, that I've somehow passed twenty-seven years on this rock without finishing the bloody thing.)

Perhaps I was scared because his observations hit a little too close to home—remarkably close, in fact.  Reading Notes from the Underground makes me feel like a tepid facsimile:  the thoughts expressed therein, mostly in Part I, are almost exactly the same as those I've been wrangling with for the past year or so.  I am disgusted yet relieved, horrified yet overjoyed.  And while I have little else to say on the matter, there is one passage that provides such an accurate summary of my own mindset (and folly) that I feel a pressing need to post it on my blog.  (In this regard, my procrastination may have been a blessing in disguise, as the latter half of Part I probably means much more to me now than it would have a year or two ago.)

He who reveals himself too deeply does so at his own peril, and whoever reads the following paragraph will forever have a psychological trump card with which to reduce me to an infirm mass of blithering goo:

"Isn't that shameful, isn't that humiliating?" you will say, perhaps, wagging your heads contemptuously. "You thirst for life and try to settle the problems of life by a logical tangle. And how persistent, how insolent are your sallies, and at the same time what a scare you are in! You talk nonsense and are pleased with it; you say impudent things and are in continual alarm and apologising for them. You declare that you are afraid of nothing and at the same time try to ingratiate yourself in our good opinion. You declare that you are gnashing your teeth and at the same time you try to be witty so as to amuse us. You know that your witticisms are not witty, but you are evidently well satisfied with their literary value. You may, perhaps, have really suffered, but you have no respect for your own suffering. You may have sincerity, but you have no modesty; out of the pettiest vanity you expose your sincerity to publicity and ignominy. You doubtlessly mean to say something, but hide your last word through fear, because you have not the resolution to utter it, and only have a cowardly impudence. You boast of consciousness, but you are not sure of your ground, for though your mind works, yet your heart is darkened and corrupt, and you cannot have a full, genuine consciousness without a pure heart. And how intrusive you are, how you insist and grimace! Lies, lies, lies!"

That's a rough read for me.  It's not easy to admit to being a hopelessly lost, infinitely pretentious ass.  But if I have believed in one thing more or less consistently throughout my life it's that I would much rather live an ugly truth than a beautiful lie.

It seems a long-dead Russian author has already written most of the thoughts I've been trying to verbalize, my own ugly truth.  Saves me the trouble.

A Habit Worse Than Heroin

Journalism [is]… a low trade and a habit worse than heroin, a strange seedy world of misfits and drunkards and failures. Hunter S. Thompson
Simon Read. War of Words: A Tale of Newsprint and Murder. Union Square Press, 2009. 320 pages. ISBN-10: 1402756127

Simon Read. War of Words: A Tale of Newsprint and Murder. Union Square Press, 2009. 320 pages. ISBN-10: 1402756127

Simon Read begins War of Words: A Tale of Newsprint and Murder with two quotations, the first an excerpt from the Daily Dramatic Chronicle (later the San Francisco Chronicle) comparing the marksmanship of American journalists to that of their French counterparts and the second a fitting quote from Thompson's indelible The Great Shark Hunt, a landmark collection of essays and articles that chronicle Thompson's slog through the mid- to late-1960s and 1970s.

It is hard to imagine anything (journalistically, at least) that rivals the depravity Thompson encountered and, in some cases, perpetuated during the Hippie movement, the 1972 presidential campaign, and Richard Nixon with the notable exception of the Vietnam Conflict.  Enter War of Words, Read's account of an unimaginable and, by turns, almost comic rivalry between the founding editors of the San Francisco Chronicle Michael and Charles De Young and Reverend Isaac S. Kalloch, mayor of San Francisco from 1879-81.  While not an account of drug-fueled rampages like those of the often prescient Thompson, it is somehow fitting the events Read recounts are prefaced with a quote from a writer who spurned the journalistic establishment as cowardly and hypocritically beholden to calling itself objective.  While Michael and Charles de Young couldn't be considered cowards nor — as Read illustrates — objective, their actions and involvement with Mayor Kalloch were something of an antecedent to the activities that spurred Hunter S. Thompson to write those words and were coincidentally driven by the founding editors of a paper for which Thompson himself would one day write.

At its heart, War of Words is a quintessential American story, a tale of two ambitious, young men who built one of the largest and most influential newspapers of the day almost from scratch and the eventual corruptive influence of the power they eventually gained. Michael and Charles de Young literally began their endeavor with a $20 loan from a friend in order to start a theatre review that they would hand deliver throughout San Francisco.

Read doesn't necessarily comment or appear to push a morality tale upon us, though it is telling that he makes sure to note that the de Youngs' transition from entertainment editors to political opinion-makers came under the auspices of providing San Francisco with a newspaper willing to expose graft and corruption among city and state politicians in an attempt to restore dignity to the government.  It was to be a paper for the people, but as circulation grew, the de Youngs (more notably Charles) began to take personal stake in the outcomes of elections.  The San Francisco political scene in the 1870s was tumultuous and marked by immigration disputes over how to deal with a swelling Chinese workforce and the doldrums of a gold rush that had waned over the past twenty years.  This new xenophobia in many ways led to the creation and galvanization of the Workingmen's Party, a political entity that Rev. Isaac Kalloch, the de Youngs' eventual nemesis, would eventually come to lead.

Ultimately, Kalloch proves to be the lynchpin and powering force behind Read's narrative in War of Words.  In his review of War of Words for the Chronicle, Joshua Spivak notes that Kalloch is the richest of any of the characters, and I tend to agree on this account.

Kalloch started as a minister in New England whose riveting, boisterous speeches gained him a considerable celebrity among his parishioners.  An inspiring orator, he found his public life considerably altered by allegations that he'd had an affair with another woman, an old friend of his from university, at a nearby hotel.  It is during Read's descriptions of the trial that War of Words truly hits its stride and becomes a brisk account of mostly salacious details.  There is no insignificant amount of comedy for the modern reader as Read notes that descriptions of sexual acts such as those given under oath by the hotel manager were certainly not commonplace and likely shocking to attendees of the trial.  One can easily imagine the fodder such a trial would provide for trash magazines and tabloids were it to happen today.

Though he was eventually acquitted, Kalloch eventually moved away from New England, and after a foray into the Plains states where he remained beset by further rumors of lechery and financial misdeed, he moved west to San Francisco in 1875.

I am obviously skipping over important bits here and there, and I should mention that what makes Kalloch so interesting is his willingness, for a time, to stand up for some progressive views of the time.  An abolitionist since childhood and later a supporter of Asian and black rights, the reader's introduction to Kalloch (aside from the adultery) is largely favorable until the man once known as "the Golden Voice" becomes the helmsmen and mayoral candidate for the Workingmen's Party, an upstart movement responsible for rioting and violence as well as fervent opponents of immigrants, especially Asians, in California.  In the end, Read paints Kalloch as an opportunist who, by the time he comes to San Francisco, becomes more enamored with the acquisition of power than with the sincerity of his beliefs and who abuses the charge of his status as preacher for the Baptist church to further his political ambitions.

The book comes to its boil when the de Young brothers and Kalloch butt heads, initially over perceived slights, and then Kalloch reading publicly an old smear article published by a rival of the Chronicle's depicting the founding editors' mother as a whore in crude, shocking language.  The article itself had been a point of violence for the de Youngs upon its original publication, and the consequences proved similar the second time around eventually resulting in the gruesome assassination of Charles de Young.

War of Words is an interesting story, one of those historical anecdotes normally served to the public by little else than local historical societies and out-of-the-way websites.  Read specializes in rustling up these old stories (SEE: On the House: The Bizarre Killing of Michael Malloy, The Killing Skies) and dusting them off, their prior neglect sometimes due to nothing more than a selective mainstream taste for history. In the case of the events surrounding the San Francisco Chronicle in the 1870s, the murder of Charles de Young was a well-publicized event not only in San Francisco but around the country.  Sometimes we tend to lose even seemingly major events to the ravages of time.

Read has found a way to bridge the gap, though, and his excitement for his subject matter is apparent.  War of Words reads much more like a novel than a historical account and its narrator possesses a notable lack of impartiality.  That's not to say Read takes sides, but the book pitches and swells along with pointed, often bilious excerpts from the Chronicle and its contemporaries as well as accounts from witnesses and those involved with the various rifts presented throughout in such a way that the reader is swept up in the fray.  The amount of research Read has invested in his tome is quite staggering.  He has plumbed the depths of many newspapers and other publications of the time and has resurfaced with scores of fascinating excerpts for the history junkie.  More importantly, he knows when to allow the historical literature to do his talking for him.

There are times when some of his descriptions such as those of a physical twitch or rolling of the eyes seem unverifiable, and it is the one potential downfall of novelizing, so to speak, the narrative, but the citation list ought to quell at least some of those fears.  All in all, Read appears to bet the pot on immersion rather than didacticism while drawing from a sound base of material, which he describes richly and with great enthusiasm.

This review originally appeared in the Sloth Jockey Books section.