In a New York Times Op-Ed piece a few weeks back, a ” plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose ” discussion of the present downmarket state of the U.S. media, Adam Goodheart cited Dickens’ Martin Chuzzlewit (1844) to prove that things printwise were every bit as degraded in the 1840’s as now. The novel’s eponymous hero descends from his steamer into a yapping melee of tabloid-hawkers. “Here’s the [New York] Sewer ‘s exposure of the Wall Street Gang, and the Sewer ‘s exposure of the Washington gang, and the Sewer ‘s exclusive account of a flagrant act of dishonesty committed by the Secretary of State when he was 8 years old, now communicated, at a great expense, by his own nurse.”
Yes, that’s right: Dickens wrote that 155 years ago, a year or so after returning from his first visit to this country. Plus ça change …
On the dock, Martin encounters an older gentleman whose features are composed in “a mixed expression of vulgar cunning and conceit.” The new acquaintance, displaying the same contentious insecurity noted by Alexis de Tocqueville, immediately challenges Martin: “How do you like my country?” When Martin, not yet 10 minutes on American soil, demurs, the other answers his own question in the most favorable way and then introduces himself as the editor of The New York Rowdy Journal , which he goes on to describe, in a passage I wish Mr. Goodheart had been able to quote, as “the organ of our aristocracy in this city.”
“Oh, there is an aristocracy here, then?” asks Martin. “Of what is it composed?”
“Of intelligence, sir,” replies the editor. “Of intelligence and virtue.
And of their necessary consequence in this republic. Dollars, sir.”
Chapter XVI of Martin Chuzzlewit , in which this exchange occurs, makes instructive reading these days. Unfortunately, when David Lodge adapted Dickens’ novel for the BBC series starring Paul Scofield, he omitted the American interlude entirely-presumably as beyond the grasp of the British audience, although how that could be in the Age of Murdoch eludes me. Still, I recommend it, although whether Dickens can still command “the suspension of disbelief” necessary to novel-reading may be conjectural. TV has raised the bar. An imagination capable of creating a Scrooge, a Quilp, a Fagin, a Lady Dedlock, is a formidable one to be sure, but nowhere even in Dickens can one find as repellent a character as Larry King or as fatuous a one as Charlie Rose.
But don’t get me started on Mr. Murdoch, or TV, especially now that the Digger has been permitted to buy the Dodgers and rumor has it that Mr. Steinbrenner has been playing footsie with John Malone, the archmonopolist of cable. The “American game” has now put Mr. Murdoch on both sides of the table: As owner of the Dodgers, in recent years a key player in the baseball-TV negotiations (because of the Los Angeles market, not because of field performance or Peter O’Malley’s sterling qualities of mind or character), he will now be allowed to negotiate with himself, as it were, since Fox already has a significant share of Major League Baseball’s TV rights. Actually, Mr. Murdoch is possibly better situated to do this with spirit than any other man on earth. Do bear in mind his high jinks in the Boston media market: He became a U.S. citizen to get around the proscription against foreign ownership of U.S. broadcasting properties, acquired his profitable Boston interests and properly socked them into an overseas entity that pays virtually no U.S. taxes. He thus stands as perhaps the only man in history to make multiple-personality disorder both voluntary and a financial virtue. Now-with baseball-he splits himself in twain again, a living version of an M.C. Escher rebus. Why the antitrust boys aren’t on the Dodger sale like the wolf on the fold beats me. Or the tax authorities.
Speaking of which, what about the other great media empire dependent for its growth on an arrant tax chisel? I refer to the just-announced sale of Random House Inc. to Bertelsmann A.G., also a heightening of concentration in a business that can hardly stand more. What does it mean? Only the little people themselves can tell us. What does seem clear is that Donald Newhouse finally could stand no more. He was prepared to let his money-spinning newspaper and broadcasting properties carry brother Si’s The New Yorker or Random House-one or the other, but not both. Is the Random House divestment step 1 in a program designed to lay out a tasty Newhouse smorgasbord to be auctioned off piece by piece? Well, we shall see, shall we not?
I feel like the late Enoch Powell, the English politician with whom I would never have thought to compare myself-although actually, in this instance, it seems he was quoting Benjamin Disraeli: “At the end of a lifetime in politics, when a man looks back, he discovers that the things he has most opposed have come to pass, and that nearly all the objects he set out with are not merely not accomplished, but seem to belong to a different world from the one he lives in.” Substitute “journalism” for “politics” and there you have it-although in my case, it has hardly been a lifetime, and when I see what outright dolts have taken home from Wall Street, it do make a fella wonder … And it doesn’t make it any easier to answer the questions insistently put to me by that 11-year-old kid who dwells within me and always will, that skinny, statistics-beset boy who flaps his old Marty Marion-model Rawlings glove at me and demands to know what the hell has happened to baseball!
Does it make it feel better to know that all this has happened before? It doesn’t. That what we see today is the true American national character, at least based on historical reoccurrence, and that the Franklin Delano Roosevelt-Harry Truman-Dwight Eisenhower world that shaped my generation’s notion of what kind of people we are was an anomaly? Not really. Does it pay to fight? Hardly. “Men are constantly engaged in an, on the whole highly successful, effort to adjust their ideas to circumstances and also in an effort, very much less successful, to adjust circumstances to their ideas.”
The quotation is from the English historian H.C. Allen and it is cited in John Lukacs’ The Hitler of History (Knopf). It’s a wonderful, engrossing book-three stars, four knives and forks, ” vaut le détour “-about the way historians have perceived and interpreted Hitler, and various aspects of the character and motivations of the man who made our 20th century. I think this claim is justified, notwithstanding that Hitler had a tough time making the initial cut at ( deleted-ed. ) um, the Time list of the 20th century’s 100 most influential people. Admittedly, it was tough for Adolf to go up against such destiny-shapers as Madonna and Tom Hanks, but to me it was analogous to telling Willie Mays (and where was he at the blowout?) that he could make the squad as a walk-on.
I think the answer to my accidie and yours, as it ever has been, is to curl up with a good book, like Mr. Lukacs’, so that’s what I’ve been doing, and I want to tell you about them. Unfortunately, in this town we don’t have either the Los Angeles Times Book Review or The Washington Post Book World , so we don’t get reviews that address the basic question: Do I-me, the Reader, not some narcissistic, ax-grinding book chat-lit crit-P.C. windbag!-want to read this book or not? As novels approach the $30 level, it’s a relevant issue. “I believe a columnist should sing for his supper. It is not his job to preach or to write long academic dissertations on various subjects. If you are going to write something that runs contrary to fashionable opinions, then what you must do is to sugarcoat it with wit and humor if you can because you can get away with murder if you make people laugh … Although a columnist should have a well-stocked mind, it is essential he carries his learning lightly. Comes to that, he should always write simply with reasonably short sentences and avoid wherever possible all Latinized words.”
Advice I should have been given earlier. It comes from Morris Cargill’s Public Disturbances (Mill Press, Kingston, Jamaica, 876-925-6886, fax 876-931-1301, email@example.com). Mr. Cargill has been writing for the Jamaica Gleaner for half a century. Over that time, he has been as good, in terms of wit, informedness, maturity (not the same as pomposity) and ability to provoke reflection, as any columnist writing anywhere. Over his span, his island nation has been an unintended laboratory for most of the past half-century’s bad socioeconomic and geopolitical ideas and all too few of its good ones-whether perpetrated or peddled by Fidel Castro or Henry Kissinger. This gives Mr. Cargill’s book-his second anthology-a relevance that any thoughtful reader anywhere must appreciate. In whatever leafy corner of Parnassus it is that Murray Kempton clambers down from his celestial bicycle to chat with H.L. Mencken while the latter enjoys a cigar and a glass of beer, you can be certain that mention of the name Morris Cargill brings grunts and nods of respect and appreciation. Buy this book! Mr. Cargill restores to punditry the good name of which people like George Will have all but deprived it. Reading him is an antidote to the way we are told to think now.
One of the turning points of Hitler’s life, Mr. Lukacs tells us, came in 1938 at the age of 49, when he decided he was mortally ill with little time left to complete his grand, mad designs: At this juncture, he seems to have let body assume primacy over mind and stepped on the accelerator pedal, as it were.
The same sort of physiological crisis seems to have affected the composer-conductor Gustav Mahler, the subject of an absorbing, ever-so-readable biography by Jonathan Carr ( Mahler , Overlook Press). You don’t have to be “into” classical music to like this one; it’s about a life in art, and about how art and life coalesce and struggle and share out a personality and ultimately make a life in art, no matter how tough its other aspects, the most worth living. Totally recommended, as also is Memoirs , by the late Sir Georg Solti (Knopf), the great conductor-pianist. What a life! Wow! And what a likable man, against all preconceptions based on his podium manner. Indeed, it was the recommendation by Donald Vroon in the magazine American Record Guide that put me on to Solti. Why aren’t people like Mr. Vroon writing for New York papers? Anyway, Solti and Jonathan Carr: a daily double to make you understand why the fat lady in Tosca gets so worked up in her great Act II aria: ” Vissi d’arte .”
Finally, a fine novel, William Boyd’s Armadillo (published in England by Hamish Hamilton), a-perhaps the -true picaresque novel of contemporary London. It’s wise and funny and beautifully written. “It seemed a different, pioneering city out here in the east, with its emptiness and flatness, its chill, refulgent space, its great unused docks and basins-even the air felt different, colder, uncompromising, tear-inducing-not for the fainthearted or uncertain.” If you know London at all, and thus bring to Armadillo your own suite of associations of place names, have your A-Z by your side.
You can enjoy these fine books in the time you spend not reading Night Train , by Martin Amis. A piece of crap, or at least the eighth of a turd’s worth I managed to get through, about 20 pages, before consigning it to the loo (for functional use, not reading). How a book like this … well, as a great lady is fond of saying, Only in New York, kids, only in New York!