Thursday, June 28, 2018

RIP Harlan Ellison (1934-2018)

Harlan Ellison passed away today. A dynamic figure known for his writing in all mediums - Fiction, Criticism, Film, Television, and comic books. Known for his irascible personality, he proudly accepted the charge of being the most contentious man on the planet. He liked to say he was a combination of Jiminy Cricket and Zorro. 

I first remember seeing Ellison making TV appearances in the 1990s on Politically Incorrect and the Syfy Channel. On youtube his interviews from the 1970s with Tom Snyder are a treasure - one of the all time great raconteurs. He ran away from home several times and worked all sorts of manual labor jobs, later earned his writing credentials by starting with the Pulp Magazines, knowing all the legends of that period including L. Ron Hubbard, Isaac Asimov, and many others. Later he went on to Hollywood and wrote for television, including the greatest Star Trek episode of all time "The City on the Edge of Forever."

Ellison mastered the short story form, the stories pack the punch of a Raymond Carver or Flannery O'Connor. Listing them would take too long, "I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream" is one of the all time great allegories on God and artificial intelligence; "The Whimper of Whipped Dogs" on urban blight; "Paladin of the Lost Hour" is an unforgettable tale of friendship; "Jeffty is Five" on the loss of childhood innocence. Those just scratch the surface of the stories. Any understanding of modern pop culture must seek out the writings of Ellison.

At the legendary Daisy Club in Los Angeles Ellison played pool with Omar Sharif, Peter Falk, Paul Newman, and Telly Savales. He took part in the March on Selma; gave hundreds of speeches in support of the Equal Rights Amendment; once punched out a writing professor at Ohio State who said he had no talent; did the same to a TV producer; almost came to blows with Frank Sinatra; wrote stories as the public watched at bookstores; traveled with the Rolling Stones; got Carl Sagan out of a scrap; could keep up with Robin Williams; stood up for his beliefs; mentored many writers; and held court at his house The Lost Aztec Temple of Mars.

Harlan will be missed. He took on stupidity, cowardice, prejudice, sexism, racism, bullies, and ignorance. Most important of all - he inspired many to think and be a better human. 

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Book Review: Why Bob Dylan Matters by Richard F. Thomas

In the new book Why Bob Dylan Matters Harvard classicist Richard F. Thomas places Dylan's writing firmly within the Greek-Roman tradition. Thomas argues Dylan is an artist of world historical importance, the poet of the English language during the second half of the 20th Century, taking up the mantle of T.S. Eliot. In 2016, Dylan earned the Nobel Prize for Literature placing his work within an elite group of American writers.* While the book may come off as a plea to skeptical academics to take Dylan's art seriously, it's also evident Dylan studies (Dylanology) will from this point on be in the hands of academics (for better or worse). Why Bob Dylan Matters illuminates how the music of Dylan connects to the wider scope of history.

Thomas draws connections between Dylan's work and the ancient world, a part of history that's fascinated Dylan since childhood. Thomas notes Dylan's membership in his High School's Latin Club back in Hibbing and his lifelong use of Rome for inspiration. He compares Dylan's love songs to those of the Roman poet Catullus. Roman imagery and ideas are specially present in Dylan's 21st Century albums, in particular the 2012 LP Tempest. Clues to Dylan's passion for Rome are all over his work, from passages in his memoir Chronicles Vol.1 and his radio show The Theme Time Radio Hour (2006-2009). There's also the obvious parallel of 20th Century America being the new Rome. Dylan, born in 1941, the year America entered the Second World War, the conflict that ended with America emerging as a global superpower. Dylan's art has evolved along with America's rise and decline on the world stage. 

Thomas also puts to rest the notion that Dylan's a plagiarist. Going back to the early days in New York in the early 1960s, Dylan was accused of lifting melodies from other folk songs and recently of using lyrics from such diverse sources as Confederate poet Henry Timrod and the Japanese novelist Junichi Saga. Thomas explains the concept of intertextuality, "the creative use of existing texts" to produce new meanings. A plagiarist passes off another's work as their own. To paraphrase T.S. Eliot: a good poet borrows, a great poet steals. 

Thomas spends little time on Dylan's long middle period that arguably lasted from 1967 and ended with Time Out of Mind in 1997, although he does discuss the 1974 masterpiece Blood on the Tracks. The book also analyzes Dylan's ever changing stage persona. After winning the Nobel Prize, his concert repertoire remains unchanging, serving as a sort of overview of his career, including the Frank Sinatra covers that have enamored him over the past few years. 

Another strength of Why Bob Dylan Matters is that it opens the door for more discussion on Dylan. More studies are needed that view Dylan from a female perspective, by cultures outside of the West, his relationship with Jewish-American and African-American culture, and what his music says about the human condition itself. The humanities owe Dylan a great debt, he will help keep them in business. Whether Dylan will still be listened to in the next century is unknown. But we can conclude his work changed many during his own time. To quote a Dylan lyric, "I've got nothin' but affection for all those who've sailed with me."

* The following Americans have also been awared the Nobel Prize for Literature: Sinclair Lewis (1930); Eugene O'Neill (1936); Pearl S. Buck (1939); T.S. Eliot (1948); William Faulkner (1949); Ernest Hemingway (1954): John Steinbeck (1962); Saul Bellow (1976); Isaac Bashevis Singer (1978); Joseph Brodsky (1987); Toni Morrison (1993); Bob Dylan (2016).

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Book Review: The View From Flyover Country by Sarah Kendzior

Why did all those swing states embrace donald trump? While there's no clear answer, but several, Sarah Kenzior's writing provides some historical context, especially aimed at those who live on the coasts and look at middle America as a foreign country. As Kenzior writes the red state/blue state is dichotomy is false, there's more variety and diversity in the middle of the country than anywhere else in America, as Kenzior writes "I live in the middle, and when you live in the middle, you see all sides." In the tradition of Ida Tarbell, Kenzior's sheds lights light on machinations of power. 

Kenzior's writing style is straight forward, direct, and poignant. Hard truths abound. Her topics include economics, race, media, and foreign policy. A recurring motif is the refusal of corporations to pay a decent wage and the stop gap measures to prevent upward mobility. This holds true in the media and academia. Often the gateways are unpaid internships or meager stipends, which typically only allow those with the means to enter those fields. Saying America is a meritocracy now strains credibility. 

The oppressive corporate culture of 21st Century America goes on full display on these pages; revealing a nation of bean counters who revel in testing the limits of how much people will allow themselves to be intimidated. Within these essays are the blueprint of the issues that need to be addressed - what the media and politicians should be discussing.  

To quote Bob Dylan's song "Dignity" the soul of the nation is under the knife. Kenzior laments how the Midwest is now caricatured as angry trump supporters at diners donning their MAGA hats espousing xenophobia. NY Times profiles of trump voters who feel marginalized and fear diversity, while ignoring the multiple points of view in all regions.

From a historical perspective America is trapped in a new Gilded Age, like the one that spanned the 1870s to the 1890s. The Progressive Era followed and carried America for most of the 20th Century, an era that produced vibrant unions, state and local leaders with a reformist approach, all the while demanding civic responsibility. That's not nostalgia, read the history. A new Progressive Era may be the only hope we have in saving ourselves.