The Understated Charms of Ellen Willis

Ellen Willis was a no-nonsense, resolutely feminist, always engaging rock critic and essayist who wrote for publications including Rolling Stone, the Nation, the Village Voice, and the New Yorker (where she was the first rock critic). Her voice is sophisticated — maybe savvy is the better word — but always real. She dances to the records she reviews, bemoans a broken heart, confesses to crushes and lets the music overtake or outrage her, as the occasion warrants. What she never does is pander to, or patronize, her reader: she is a critic who is absolutely steadfast in her judgments, even as those opinions evolve (as they do in the case of some of her most beloved artists, like Lou Reed and Bob Dylan).

Start anywhere with Willis (there are several of her essay collections available, including Beginning to See the Light, No More Nice Girls, and the just nominated for a NBCC award Out of the Vinyl Deeps: Ellen Willis on Rock Music, but do start. You will not be disappointed.

I asked Carlene Bauer — friend, music writer, memoirist, and fellow Willis fan — to discuss Willis’s work and its effect on us. What follows is a wide-ranging conversation about Willis, Pauline Kael, Creedence Clearwater Revival, music fandom, why I hate jazz, Greil Marcus, criticism, enthusiasm, Pitchfork, indie rock, and (the death of) pleasure.

CB: So I wanted to know what you were thinking about Ellen Willis in general.

LL: Well, I’ve read her before. I read her when I was writing about rock biography [for an essay that ended up getting shelved]. Then I had the common Ellen Willis reaction — why didn’t I know about this before? Why didn’t anybody tell me?

CB: Right. Why do you think no one has told us? It seems to me she’s an underground phenomenon. Though I do think that might be kind of fitting in a way, because as music fans we all want to be in that state of discovering an underground phenomenon — of finding something and being able to hold on to it without the crowds coming in and co-opting your secret pleasure. And then as a feminist I want to say that I know why we haven’t been told about her.

LL: It’s so curious because she’s the first rock critic of The New Yorker, right? When I was growing up and I was a New Yorker reader I knew who Pauline Kael was. But how did I not know who Ellen Willis was?

CB: I’ve read part of the new Pauline Kael biography [Brian Kellow’s Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark], and something about Kael’s outsize Ayn Randian persona made me wonder if maybe people had to pay attention to Kael, in the way they had to pay attention to [Susan] Sontag. With Willis, in contrast, it seems that she was less of a persona.

LL: I think that’s true. I did just read the Pauline Kael bio — and God knows I know my Sontag — and I think both of those women carefully crafted personas to be taken seriously. And it’s interesting with Willis because I feel like in some ways she’s the most secure of [all three of them] because she starts from the premise that she’s saying something valuable. And maybe it’s also the advantage of writing rock criticism as rock criticism was being invented. I think she’s in a low-stakes game, so she doesn’t have to do that outsize thing.

CB: That’s true. And yet she does seem to respond to the outsize female persona — there’s her love of Janis Joplin, for example.

LL: Oh, she does. That’s one of her heroes. If you have to go through this book and talk about the people that she returns to over and over again Janis Joplin is one of them. It’s Joplin, Dylan, Lou Reed.

CB: The Rolling Stones.

LL: Creedence! [We laugh.] Creedence for me was a big kind of call to context — you forget about what a big band they were….there’s a piece in here [Out of the Vinyl Deeps] about the Modern Lovers which feels so almost out of context. It’s like 1973 or something. They must have been 16 or 17!

CB: It’s funny to me how she’s looking at Jonathan Richman and thinking, I don’t know about this kid. Coming back to female personas — I was struck by this quote from her preface to 1997’s Trouble Girls, Rolling Stone’s book of women in rock: “So I longed for a female rock and roller who would be my mirror.” I have certainly listened to rock music that way — listened to find some female artist to be my mirror — but I also feel like that leaves one open to charges from men of wallowing in classically female narcissism. Of being an undeveloped listener because you’re listening to see yourself reflected and not listening for chord changes or innovative time changes. If it’s not Steely Dan —

LL: [Laughs!]


CB: But Willis didn’t think she had to be an ubernerd about technique or every last piece of trivia to speak with authority. For instance, she’ll openly say in the review of the The White Album, about “Revolution Number Nine,” that she knew nothing about electronic music, but it sounded to her like “pretentious nonsense,” so she checked with asked her friends who knew more about electronic music for their opinion, and they agreed. She will openly admit that she doesn’t know everything. And yet you don’t, or don’t much, question her authority, her readings.

LL: There’s that essay toward the end where she decries musicianship, and she talks about how she thinks it’s kind of a shame that rock has been given over to the kind of super players, that it’s been taken out of the hands of amateurs — here it is. “I think this tendency is regrettable. What it means is that rock has been co-oped by high culture, forced to adopt its standards — chief of which is the integrity of the art object.” And that’s basically what it made me think about: a lot of conversations with a lot of boys about chord changes and production values.

CB: I do think there is a male tendency to privilege technique in a way that can read as sexism or actually is sexist. I have a friend who’s quite dear, a man, not a sexist, I should say, with whom I have had these raging arguments about the primacy of technique in rock music. For instance, he’d go on about how terrible a drummer Meg White was. And I would think, “She is?” and be incredibly embarrassed that I did not realize this. Why didn’t I know this? My lack of awareness about how bad her drumming was made me feel that I was The Typical Girl saying blithely, “Oh, I like it just because it sounds good.” And I would say to him — and Willis of course says this more articulately — isn’t rock music supposed to be about more than just technique? And he would argue, contra Willis, that rock was not supposed to be a communal experience. I felt that we were embodying one of the stereotypical rock and roll gender divides — boys on the side of mastery and girls on the side of emotionalism. And he was always going to win. I felt that I would always have to say, “Well, I guess you’re right,” in that argument.

LL: I do think both sides of that argument are valid, but ultimately I don’t want to listen to music without emotion. I have this argument with people all the time, or I’ve had this argument with people all the time in my lifetime, about why I hate prog. I do not want to listen to technically perfect soulless music. I just don’t want to.

CB: Now I also know you don’t like jazz. Is that correct?

LL: I don’t like jazz! [[Laughs.]]

CB: OTR. Why is it that you don’t like jazz again, Lisa?

LL: Because I kind of want to know what’s coming next. Part of what I like about listening to music — and I understand why jazz fans like improvisation, and what that’s about, and why they admire the craftsmanship. But I feel like life is scary and unpredictable. I want music to be the same every time. And if I go see a show, I kind of want it to be like it was on the record. That’s why I don’t like jam bands either.

CB: I feel like Willis gets to these issues. One of the things that I belatedly realized about myself — I would say that I’m a depressed person and, save my love of the Smiths, when I feel crummy, I want things that are going to amp me up. I do seek the pleasure of things like knowing exactly when the next cut is going to kick in on a record. To talk about music in this way is pleasurable too, and Willis writes about these kinds of pleasures. She writes like a fan. This is how you really live with music, her criticism says. She’ll say, for instance, in a year-end roundup, about a Gram Parsons record, that she might not listen to it as much, but it moved her the most. She’s honest about the different levels of love we may have for different sounds — some bands are not going to be your life. I wanted to ask you: have you seen any music writing lately that approaches [Willis]?

LL: I feel like reading this actually made me realize that I don’t read about music anymore. I don’t feel compelled to read about it.

CB: Why is that?

LL: I think because of all of the things that there are in the world to learn about, music writing has, if not the lowest returns, then… Like that Will Hermes book [Love Goes to Buildings On Fire] is getting great reviews. And that interests me, and it’s on my list, but there’s so many things above it.

CB: Did you read a lot of music criticism when you were in your twenties?

LL: I did.

CB: What did you read?

LL: I read all of Peter Guralnick, a lot of Greil Marcus, all of Lester Bangs. I pretty much read the canon. My obsession with music was such was that it didn’t feel like work to keep reading. Whereas now I think I’m much more interested in other things.

CB: What are you interested in now?

LL: [Laughs.] I guess I’ve set myself up. I’m going to read 20 books about Jean Stafford in the next 3 months [for a piece]. Which doesn’t leave me any time to read the Will Hermes book.

CB: It’s curious to me that if you read enough literary biographies, you notice that in the 50s, everybody’s got a classical record on.

LL: For the Stafford piece I started rereading the Eileen Simpson memoir. Have you ever read this? She was John Berryman’s wife. It’s called Poets In Their Youth. It’s so good. He’s basically teaching himself music appreciation from this quackish guy, so he’s buying himself Bessie Smith records and playing them obsessively, and moving on to Schubert and playing those records obsessively.

CB: What did she have to say about this?

LL: That her husband is a kind of a wacky poet and he doesn’t know how to do anything halfway, so


when he decides he’s going to learn how to like music he finds a guru and then starts buying records and listening to them obsessively. It’s interesting that they’re in their twenties, newly married, he’s teaching at Harvard, and I was thinking to myself, how could somebody have gone through their entire youth without music? He’d never owned a record player. It was that pre-rock —

CB: Right. You never see Sylvia Plath talk about music in her journals. It’s interesting to see how generationally that impacts writing. But now Jonathan Lethem can take on music as a subject. Or Nick Hornby. With people our age or a little bit older, rock has become literature, we allow it into our literature, it’s a fine topic. I’m thinking: Did you ever play music?

LL: No.

CB: But you dated people in bands?

LL: Always. After a while I tried not to. And now I’m about to marry one.

CB: But it is neither here nor there whether you have dated people in bands.

LL: Well, it is interesting in terms of one of the things Willis does and doesn’t do is talk about sex, and how she’ll let herself be female and talk about Mick Jagger or even the New York Dolls, and the sexuality in the music, but it never feels creepy and it never feels schoolgirlish.

CB: No. She knows where she ends and they begin.

LL: I guess what I’m trying to get at is that she never confuses the female position with the fan position.

CB: That’s true.

LL: Although there’s another point here, too. Oh, this is what I’m looking for. “It’s my theory that rock and roll happens between fans and stars rather than between listeners and musicians. You have to be a screaming teenager, at least in your heart to know what’s going on. Yet I must admit, I was never much of a screaming teenager myself.” And I think the way to describe that is cool, right?

CB: This is another thing she does and doesn’t do — she’s got both the enthusiasm and the tough kid from Queens going on at the same time. I think for people, especially women, if you grow up enthusiastic but also wary, watching her walk that line between enthusiastic and cool is extremely satisfying. Well, Pauline Kael was like this, too. She made her passions known, but was also able to say, “Well, this is bullshit.” Who else does this now? Anthony Lane, I guess. Can you think of any writers who are enthusiastic but also critical?

LL: No, I mean, I think enthusiasm is really hard to come by. The critics I admire now I mainly admire for intellectual coolheadedness. There isn’t a lot of enthusiasm going around. [[Laughs]]

CB: Not that that’s necessary. I was very into Greil Marcus.

LL: He’s very cerebral. The thing I like about Greil Marcus — in some ways he’s so scatterbrained. He’s able to write a fantastic book about anything he’s passionate about, but then he’ll also write a Top Ten list that will have the most disparate things on it.

CB: I would get very excited when those Real Life Top Tens would pop up on Salon [[they are in The Believer now — LL]]. I’m dating myself. About Greil Marcus. There is this quality of diffusion. Yet you knew what his point was. There is something about his essays too that allowed you to see the things you loved anew or explained to you why you should love certain things you hadn’t yet come to love. And I feel like when you get older it’s harder to be led to those decisions. You don’t really want that knowledge anymore, do you, as you get older? You don’t really want to be told what to be enthusiastic about, do you?

LL: That’s an interesting question. I don’t want to be told what to be enthusiastic about, but it’s hard not to respond to other people’s enthusiasm.

CB: Have you found any enthusiasm in the reading you’ve been doing lately?

LL: It’s not so evident in the Kael biography, although he does quote her quite a bit — reading the original Kael reviews, you do see why that’s what she’s known for. It’s an interesting question….I’m doing this Adam Phillips essay, and I find him to be a writer whose enthusiasms don’t always jibe with mine, although in the places they do I find him pretty irresistible.

CB: Irresistible is a good word to use. I find [Willis] to be irresistible in the way Adam Phillips is irresistible. There is also the idea of charm that comes up when I think about both Willis and Phillips. With him, I think, “Does he know he’s being charming?” And then I think — it doesn’t matter!

LL: It’s a separate issue.

CB: With Ellen Willis, she’s not trying to be charming, but it ends up being charming because at the end of a piece she will admit she’s human. She’s just a person. She’s not an infallible jukebox full of sentiments above reproach. Charm seems to be a rare quality in criticism. It is a thing that I prize but I know is dangerous — it can mean that nothing is happening. But instances where you feel that you are being beguiled or charmed as a result of being drawn into the subtleties and surprising, illuminating twists and turns of a mind — that’s very rare.

LL: The thing with charm is that it’s superficial. But I don’t think Willis is being superficial at all. But you know, not every piece is a winner.

CB: Lisa, what are you talking about?! [mock incredulity]

LL: There are some clunkers.

CB: Which ones?

LL: Oh, you know. I mean, Grand Funk Railroad?

CB: The title of it is kind of amazing: [in unison]: “My Grand Funk Railroad Problem — and Ours”.

LL: You don’t always have the best material to work with. Some of the women’s music pieces are a little bit rough. I guess what’s hard is that you see her working to try and bring substance to these bands or this scene and so obviously wobbling.

CB: I wanted to bring up the Joy of Cooking and —

LL: Miss Clawdy? The repeated visits from Miss Clawdy.

CB: I’m not convinced when she writes about those artists. Are you?

LL: About the talents of Miss Clawdy? No. I think it might have been the best thing going, but I’m not convinced of her greatness.

CB: Do you feel that she had to stump for these female artists?

LL: I felt that she picked what she felt was the best of the bunch.

CB: Also what I appreciate is that she’s always talking about class. She’s always giving up her coordinates — white, middle class, etc. — and she’s always very up front about that. I wish that people would own up more to the filters that they’re seeing through, hearing through. As someone who went to college in the 90s, I feel like we should be owning up all the time.

LL: “As a white woman of privilege…”

CB: Have you been on Pitchfork?

LL: I find Pitchfork overwhelming. I’m just like, the kids can take a lot more stimulation than I can.

CB: It’s like going to an arcade: Do I want to play skee ball, do I want to Whack-a-Mole? It’s useful at work. But the writing — it can make me think, uncharitably, “Does anybody here know how to write?” Does that make me a cranky old lady to think that? It’s basically like putting the record on the level of a taco.

LL: Do they tell you anything about the record?

CB: They do. It hews to the to the form.

LL: You mean it’s blah crossed with blah….

CB: Which I have used myself. I had a work acquaintance who, this was a long time ago, said, “Oh, music writing. Isn’t that just like writing about food?” I was offended, but saw what he was saying, and still tried to deny it. And now, the new rock and roll is tacos. So I guess it is writing about food, you asshole. You were right. There are radio stations that I listen to online, and I find that a more useful way of finding out about stuff. To the extent that I want to. The place where I get my hair cut has copies of Spin and Rolling Stone, and I use that time to catch up on those magazines. Like I said, I’m a cranky old lady. But thinking about those magazines makes me think — there’s no mystique now. What are you going to read about? Two kids from Wesleyan who quit school to start a synth band?

LL: I can imagine hearing a band now that I would like, but I can’t imagine there being a backstory that would intrigue me at all.

CB: Indie rock might have killed that, I sometimes think. In that: Everybody went to college. Everybody had learned their lessons from the sixties and seventies. Punk shut down the Dionysian culture of excess and pleasure. And by the time we got to indie rock everybody wore t-shirts and jeans and pledged their allegiance to feminism.

LL: But I think you’re right to talk about pleasure and then to forget about pleasure again when you’re talking about indie rock.[ [Laughs.]] I think there is something lost. And I don’t know that it’s our generation. I wouldn’t be so bold as to say that our generation lost it — I think it might have been lost by the time we got there. There’s something even nostalgic in the way Willis writes about the 60s, and the way that they’re already disintegrating. When I was growing up there were scenes and for a little while there was something magical that happened and then the commodification came along that was called indie rock and kind of destroyed it. And my point, and I did have one — it was about pleasure. And I wouldn’t say that I don’t get any pleasure from any music anymore, but I would definitely say the thrill of discovery isn’t what it once was.

CB: Have you mourned that in any way?

LL: Not formally. I think the search for pleasure spreads to other parts of your life. It goes to books or TV shows or movies or people.

CB: I would say both of us staked our identities on music —

LL: Oh, yeah.

CB: And it’s hard to realize that you really can let something that was so important to you go. On the way over here, however, I was thinking, I will never get tired of hearing “Young Americans” — so what is that? There are things that I’ve heard by newer bands that I like, but then I realize oh, they sound like all the other bands I have liked, but they’re 25 years old. What’s the newest band you’ve bought a song of?

LL: Probably Destroyer. Daniel was on a big Destroyer kick and said I had to get it. I honestly forget to listen to it but then it comes on and then I’m like, this is okay.

CB: The newer stuff has some early 80s cheese jazz tenor sax stylings.

LL: It has a little bit of that — I know what you mean. It’s not quite late Roxy Music, but it’s in that vein. I’m always happy when I listen to it.

Cruising and Americanist Criticism: Newton Arvin and F.O. Matthiessen

I. Critical Distances

An intimate affair, America’s coming of age happened in 1915. There was no party or fanfare, just Van Wyck Brooks’s essay, “America’s Coming of Age,” the first consequential look at the previous century of American literature and therefore the first significant work of Americanist criticism. Curiously, the call for Americanist criticism antedates American literature itself, as if the polemical reviews were written before the critics saw the movie — or the movie was even made. The most notable of these prophecies was that of the conservative Fisher Ames, who was skeptical in his 1803 essay “American Literature” about whether democracy would be fertile soil for quality literary production. Though the overall tenor of the essay stated otherwise, Ames reluctantly conceded that eventually “nature…will produce some men of genius, who will be admired and imitated.” Thus Americanist criticism has always been a slightly cynical, ungainly, and ill-timed enterprise.

Brooks served as a beacon to younger critics, who emulated his politics and cultivated an interest in what were quaintly referred to as “our native works.” A 2001 biography of Newton Arvin, The Scarlet Professor, one of the major Americanist critics of the generation after Brooks, cites him as an inspirational figure, “a spiritual forebear.” Brooks was a Harvard man (as was Arvin, class of 1920) of a sophisticated and ornery sort: a socialist, he preached that materialism crushed the spirit of American literature. Coining the terms we now use freely, Brooks split authors into “highbrow” and “lowbrow” and called for American writers to shake off the twin yokes of Puritanism and commericalism. This sparked a real debate among the literary folk schooled in H.L. Mencken and magazine culture: Could art rise above business in America, a land so famously consumed with commerce and conformity?

Arvin heeded Brooks’s call to arms, but rather than producing art itself, he chose criticism. He justified this choice in a letter to his closest friend: “Perhaps in a period like ours the man who does really first-rate criticism in the service of American letters will prove to be of more value in the long run than the men who content themselves with mediocre creative work.” Barry Werth, the author of The Scarlet Professor, asserts that for Arvin, “Literary criticism was social criticism, a nobler calling.” The sense of criticism as a vocation comes shining through here, casting Arvin as a tireless crusader in the name of high-quality prose. By choosing to follow Brooks Arvin was electing to be among the elite 1930’s intellectuals who wanted to explain American culture to the American masses, an endeavor motivated by a zealous, almost patriotic commitment to criticism which they argued was endemic to the American condition as a culture founded on pamphlets and philosophy.

Hearing the call of criticism at the same time as Arvin was F.O. Matthiessen — Matty to his friends — who was an undergraduate at Yale while Arvin was at Harvard. After graduation, Matthiessen spent two years at Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. His thesis at Yale had been on Oliver Goldsmith (“Literature at Yale had still meant English literature,” as he later recollected), and his first book, adapted from his Oxford work, was on Elizabethan translation. It was not until he started graduate work at Harvard, after returning from England, that he discovered American literature. In an essay entitled “The Education of A Socialist,” Matthiessen wrote plaintively, “It is appalling how much can get left out of an American education.” Such were his reflections on reading nineteenth-century historian Francis Parkman, who wrote extensively about the region of Ohio where Matthiessen had lived as a child. Mattheissen also described how his Oxford experience made him self-conscious­ — or merely conscious, for the first time — about his national identity. “I was first rebuffed and then angered by [an] Oxford boy’s ignorant scorn of America, by what finally struck me as a colossal provincialism on their part.” Mattheissen’s reaction to being treated as a provincial was to retreat into a kind of provincial studies, American criticism, a field more exciting than the English literature he had trained in for being inchoate and deeply personal.

Along with Parkman and Oxford, reading Walt Whitman was what compelled Mattheissen to go native at Harvard; Whitman, Matthiessen wrote, “helped me to learn to trust the body.” Whitman was a key figure for both Mattheissen and Arvin, both for intellectual, political, and biographical reasons. To briefly catalog, Whitman was at once a patriotic American, a homosexual, and a left-leaning enthusiast of sensual and natural life. Arvin and Matthiessen were both closeted homosexuals with long histories of depression, which can account for their attraction to Whitman, a man with similar dilemmas who was able to write himself out of his melancholy. Arvin unsuccessfully attempted suicide twice, and died of cancer after losing his job as a result of a scandal in 1963. Matthiessen sadly succeeded, ending his life by jumping out of the window of a Boston hotel room in 1950.

The sense of alienation of these second-generation critics mirrors that of the writers they championed. The towering figures in the

nineteenth-century Americanist canon are the ones Matthiessen discussed in his masterful work, American Renaissance, though this seems a chicken-egg dilemma confused by perfect hindsight: are they major because he chose them, or were they major and thus were chosen? There were two essayists, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, two fiction writers, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville, and a poet, Walt Whitman (Edgar Allan Poe, H.W Longfellow, and any and all women writers are all significant and deliberate omissions). Arvin’s major work deals largely in the same universe as Matthiessen’s: he wrote highly praised biographies of Hawthorne, Melville, Whitman, and the then and still unfashionable Longfellow. Unlike the British literary canon, which teems with upper-middle-class and titled men, the Americans were largely failures, commercially and personally (again, with the exception of Harvard professor Longfellow): Hawthorne a brooder, Melville a perennially poor seller, Thoreau a career loner. This raises another chicken-egg kind of question: Were the critics attracted to the misery in these writings (Moby-Dick, The Scarlet Letter, even Walden are the works of magnificent, restless, unsatisfied souls) and thus chose to make them worthy objects of study, or did studying such miserable writers push them to some sort of contretemps?

Matthiessen published American Renaissance in 1941, the first work to surpass Brooks’s “America’s Coming of Age” in influence. The first line of his acknowledgements makes his debt clear: “All my reading of American literature has been done during the era of Van Wyck Brooks.” Yet Brooks had lost his appeal for Matthiessen by the time of his A Flowering of New England (1936). Matthiessen complains “he had relaxed his standards,” shifting his concern from depths to “surfaces.” As far as criticism goes, to deal in surfaces is to do no one any good, for criticism acquires legitimacy by dissecting, anatomizing, and exposing what is underneath. One can quibble about structuralism or authorial intention or criteria for greatness, but criticism is essentially an interpretive exercise that acquires legitimacy through repetition and derivation; brilliant critics who write outside of an accepted methodology are often left out of the genealogy like illegitimate children. It should be noted, though, that Brooks’s Pulitzer-Prize winning Flowering deals largely with the same time and place as Mattheissen’s American Renaissance (though he has a lot more to say about Longfellow and Oliver Holmes than Melville and Whitman), so that the critical revolution was not in changing the scene so much as the way it was set.

Mattheissen’s casting off of Brooks in the space of a preface is instructive, as it illustrates how Americanist criticism has incorporated the age-old theme of coming of age as rebellion. Arvin, Matthiessen, and others of their generation, including Matthiessen’s Harvard colleague Perry Miller and Arvin’s friend Granville Hicks, produced a magnificent body of criticism that helped to establish the canon we retain, somewhat enlarged, today. This second generation solidified the works now canonized as American classics and delved into what history had to do with it (an old historicism, no doubt, but an important one). Never one to succumb to the luxury of the then new New Criticism which would occlude the world outside of the work, this second generation of Americanist criticism is by and large the product of political radicals, and the work reflects the world accordingly by discussing the material conditions of production and the personal circumstances of the writers and their work. Both Matthiessen and Arvin were most productive in the period between the Spanish Civil War and World War II and though their specific political engagements and affiliations varied — Matthiessen was a Christian Socialist, Arvin a Communist — each took his stance on the left quite seriously. After the era of American isolationism and exceptionalism which birthed Brooks, succumbing to the impulse to look back at the literature and culture of the nineteenth century was tantamount to answering the questions Ames posed about democracy and art in the affirmative. These critics proclaimed for the first time that we, as Americans, made art, and what we made was worthwhile, even if no one bought it.

II. Critical Dramas

Though Arvin was a big man in the field, Werth reminds us constantly that he was a small man in most other ways: shy, slight, entirely unprepossessing. The Scarlet Professor gives a rather perfunctory account of Arvin’s career, as is much more invested in Arvin’s smallness and scandalousness than in his work. Werth plays a biographer’s funhouse trick in magnifying the personal and avoiding the work, since work was everything to Arvin, his millstone and his solace. One of his colleagues remembers, “Writing for him was always an arduous and grim discipline…and bad writing, he once said to me, is a kind of immorality.” But writing is just the beginning of his heartaches, to hear him tell it in the introduction to a collection of his essays, American Pantheon, which was published posthumously in 1966:

The staple of life is certainly suffering, though surely not its real meaning, and we differ mainly in our capacity to endure it — or be diverted from it. I myself never found it consoling to have this denied or minimized: it seems to me to give one some strength just to know that pain is normal, and disappointment the rule, and disquiet the standard — and that the things that have the other quality (work, friendship, the arts) are the wonderful incredible exception & mitigation.

In Arvin’s experience, life is suffering, and work is the only consistent release from that suffering. Yet Arvin reached a point where work simply did not alleviate his pain and loneliness anymore, and he turned to something else which Werth finds much more intriguing. Arvin started cruising, and his method was fascinating: he went searching for something young, vital, and aggressive to rub up against. Werth writes, “He found more excitement, more life, in five minutes of groping a stranger at a highway rest stop than in a year of faculty meetings.” Although faculty meetings are certainly one of life’s trials, the point was that something besides work provided Arvin with some pleasure. But Werth’s ignoring the work in favor of the suffering it produced does Arvin a huge disservice: it turns him into a case study rather than a critic of consequence.

Mattheissen has not fared much better biographically. Two book-length biographies of Matthiessen focus on his politics and criticism: F.O. Matthiessen: The Critical Achievement by Giles Gunn (1975) and F.O. Matthiessen: Christian Socialist as Critic by Frederick C. Stern (1981) [another biography, which one hopes will tell a fuller story, is in progress now]. To read them is to abnegate the private life of a man who undervalued it himself, though perhaps we should be grateful that the likes of Werth have not discovered him yet. Not until the publication of Rat and the Devil in 1978, a collection of letters between Matthiessen and his longtime lover, the older, hard-drinking, and very wealthy patrician painter Russell Cheney, did critics begin to speculate about how Matthiessen’s relationship with Cheney and his closeted status might have affected his work. Matthiessen “shared intimately more than twenty years of his life” with Cheney, as one of his biographers gently puts it, yet he goes all but unmentioned in the special issue of the Monthly Review his friends published as a tribute after his suicide. Love apparently was subordinate to work in this life as well. Matthiessen chose discretion in order to teach, continue his political activities, and to write. His understanding of himself as a homosexual was that it was his nature, and that it was a “force infinitely stronger and nobler than myself.” With material like this to explicate, there must be a balance between the salaciousness of The Scarlet Professor and the impersonal account of Mattheissen in the books above, both of which are of recent enough vintage to have some stake in the private life of their subject.

Werth characterizes relations between Matthiessen and Arvin as mainly friendly, but not close: Matthiessen had positively reviewed Arvin’s Hawthorne (at the suggestion of mutual friend Edmund Wilson), as well as his 1938 Whitman biography. When American Renaissance appeared in 1941, Arvin was hospitalized for depression, as Matthiessen had also been on several occasions (not surprisingly, they were even at the same hospitals, though never at the same time). Werth characterizes the relationship as “publicly admiring, though privately dismissive,” but acknowledges that Matthiessen’s suicide did nothing to elevate Arvin’s already low mood on the verge of the publication of Herman Melville (1950). The implication is that his own thorough, thoughtful biographies might not stand up to the glamour of such a thundering work as AR, or that Mattheissen’s suicide might be a harbinger of things to come. Werth never reaches this conclusion, though, as he fails to survey the other achievements in Americanist criticism during Arvin’s lifetime, like Granville Hicks’s The Great Tradition (1933), Henry Nash Smith’s Virgin Land (1950), and R.W.B. Lewis’s The American Adam (1955), and Perry Miller’s Errand into the Wilderness (1956).

Werth’s proclivity for gossip is served by the fact that many of the men in Arvin’s life were noteworthy figures in their own right. To wit, Werth’s book reconstructs the close and fascinating friendship (and possibly infatuation, on Arvin’s part) between Arvin and David Lilienthal, Arvin’s best friend from boyhood and one of the architects of the New Deal. Arvin wrote the letter discussed earlier about being called to criticism to Lilienthal. Public life was certainly not for Arvin: he really did live in an ivory tower, happiest in his Northampton apartment or walking the grounds at the Yaddo artist colony. Yaddo was where Arvin met several key people in his life, including Carson McCullers and a very young and not yet published Truman Capote, with whom he had a romantic relationship. Arvin was smitten with Capote from the first; his boyish, flamboyant, exotic Southern charm coupled with his enormous talent made him irresistible. In the throes of their affair he wrote in a letter to Capote, “I love you dearly, and if you wish, I will write that over and over again until this page is filled up, and many more pages, like a bad boy kept in after school, whose teacher (in some perverse way) wishes to make him happy instead of wretched.” Arvin does not think their love is bad. Quite the contrary, Capote helps him to overcome his sexual shame and explore the nature of his desire. His cruising days began after their liaison. And though the affair ends, in part because Arvin will not leave Northampton, Capote remains a close friend and stalwart supporter until Arvin’s death in 1963.

Werth plays up the idea of concealment and secrets in Arvin’ s story — and there is plenty for him to reveal, as little of it has been previously told — but he does not venture a more theoretical reading of Arvin’s double life. Academics are required to lead double lives: teaching and writing, after all, are separate activities, and it’s only the vagaries of the current system that university professors work under that harnesses one obligation to another. It is tempting to redraw the public and private aspects of the career to parallel the division in the work for these men whose lives were so sharply divided, whose private worlds involved elaborate hiding and scheming. There is obvious irony in books, the currency by which Arvin made his reputation, as his undoing. Werth’s book begins and culminates in the materialization of Arvin’s worst fears: he is the victim of a “pink scare,” the result of some absurdly stringent Massachusetts pornography statutes, and is arrested for organized trafficking in pornography, a false charge. Arvin certainly had some, but it was anything but organized, just a smattering of erotica, some sent from Europe by Capote, and a few random muscle magazines. It surprised no one, especially Arvin, to be in trouble with the law and the university for what might be deemed his “lifestyle,” though Werth helpfully points out that his detractors should have been glad that the materials found were all homosexual in nature, so students would be safe among the sexual predators of Smith. What does surprise now, and did then, was that Arvin named the names of the colleagues with whom he had viewed and shared the material in question with very little pressure from the police. Exposure revealed his cowardice, or encouraged the desire for punishment after all of the years of sin and secrecy.

It can also be argued that Arvin, after living a life founded on uncovering some social and literary truth, might have been only too willing to participate in another. Criticism, after all, is a bit like cruising, looking for secret cues and markers of the inclination to be interpreted. It’s also an uncovering of sorts, an exposing of ideas that writers may or may not have been aware of planting within the form of their works. The meeting of eyes across a barroom, or the turn of a torso in a rest stop bathroom, invites the same kind of scrutiny, the same invitation to make good on deeply suppressed desire. Brooks wrote, in an essay called “Our Critics,” that the object of Americanist criticism is always America, no matter which writer one purports to be analyzing. It is perhaps just as true to speculate that the object of criticism is always, in some way, the critic.

Both Arvin and Matthiessen had a passion for Whitman, the poet who celebrated both his uniqueness and his affection for his fellow man. The feeling was justified: Whitman’s poems are easy to lose oneself in and force the reader to identify with the all-encompassing poet. Criticism, for all of its consuming qualities, is much harder to fall into, both as a reader and a writer. Doing it requires deliberate thought, method, and a level of self-consciousness that can be crippling, or, at the very least, quite depressing. Though these two critics did turn to themselves and their national identity as a way to make a career, their self-loathing ultimately outweighed their self-love. In yet another casting off of the yoke of the previous generation, the Americanist critics who followed Arvin and Mattheissen’s generation turned away from materialism and history to myths and symbols, captivated by the whiteness of a whale and the brilliant allegory of a red letter.

Art: Portrait of Van Wyck Brooks by John Butler Yeats

Lester Bangs Likes Beating Up Heroes

The Rock Star as Hero


It is easy to forget that the Velvet Underground’s career was brutally short: four albums over four years, from 1965–9, and their association with both Andy Warhol and Nico did not last past the first one. Throughout their existence, their chart positions were mediocre and album sales negligible. Their impact has been completely posthumous: as an influence, way cooler in retrospect than in real time. Why was their fate to be, as critic Ellen Willis prophesied, the “first rock-and-roll artists who had no real chance of attracting a mass audience?” (And I don’t think rock criticism is a Bangs vs. Willis cage match, Willis will have her day.) Furthermore, given this, why do they still matter? Because they snared the affections and the imaginations of the critics. The music writers of the late 1960s heard something exciting in the Velvets that kept them interested, especially Lester Bangs, who formed a bond with band leader Lou Reed that was “equal parts Johnson/Boswell, Vidal/Mailer, and Mozart/Salieri (and it was often difficult to tell who was who)” according to Bangs’ biographer, Jim de Rogatis.

Bangs was so enamored with Reed that he devotes several essays to worshipping him. But being the object of Bangs’ affection was like being a kitten in the hands of a gleeful giant. In 1975, he wrote: “Lou Reed is my own hero principally because he stands for all the most fucked up things that I could ever possibly conceive of. Which only shows the limits of my imagination.” Bangs admired Reed’s ability to do more drugs, drink more booze, be more sleazy, and rock harder than anyone else. “Lou realized the implicit absurdity of the rock ’n’ roll bête-noire badass pose and parodied, deglamorized it.” This too was Bangs’ pose, as he was the critic who acted like a rock star, drinking and drugging and generally living to excess. And he was set on bringing Reed down, even if he lost his illusions in the process: “The fact is that Lou, like all heroes, is there for the beating up. They wouldn’t be heroes if they were infallible, in fact they wouldn’t be heroes if they weren’t miserable wretched dogs, the pariahs of the earth, besides which the only reason to build up an idol is to tear it down again, just like anything else. A hero is a goddam stupid thing to have in the first place and a general block to anything you might wanta accomplish on your own. Plus part of the whole exhilaration of admiring someone for their artistic accomplishments is resenting ’em ’cause they never live up to your expectations. Plus which they all love the abuse, they’re worse than academics, so the only thing left to do is go whole hog nihilistic and tear everyone you ever respected to shreds. Fuck em!” Bangs iterates the classic rock critic pose of disillusionment, or practically invents it, here. Rock stars will always betray you, will always sell out, will always disappoint you in the end. So why bother being a fan? Because Bangs, like most true fans, could not imagine life any other way.

The Critic as Fan

The dominant post-1960s way of writing about music is as the story of a person (or a band) who has played a show (or made a record or otherwise put music into the world) that has compelled the writer to ply his trade. This was Lester Bangs’ way, and his legacy would reach far into the future of rock criticism and biography. Of course there are exigent circumstances, but the idea of a critical itching, burning, a physical need to tell the world about this music prevails: Bangs’ prose overflows with opinions and bravado, and thus typifies this model of writing. To wit, Bangs on a Velvet Underground song: “it’s the best music ever made, the instrumental intro to ‘All Tomorrow’s Parties’ is like watching dawn break over a bank of buildings through the windows of these elegantly hermetic cages, which feels too well spoken, which I suspect is the other knife that cuts through your guts, the continents that divide literature and music and don’t care about either.” Bangs was an important tastemaker, championing the Velvet Underground, garage rock, the Stones, all blues-based, noisy rock. The gist of this school is “let me tell you why this music moves me;” implied is “and why it should move you too. Unless you have rocks in your head, in which case, I can’t help you.” This type of rock criticism is a blunt, not a fine, art: it cajoles, bullies, provokes, and personalizes the music. Every piece is a mini-memoir spurred by a song: either the writer is telling you about himself and, incidentally, he is telling you about the music, or vice versa. Again, to wit, the opening of that Velvet Underground piece (which was unfinished) was Bangs repeating, and confirming, the accusation that all he wanted to do was “suck Lou Reed’s cock.” You can’t get much more personal a revelation in criticism than that.

The career of Lester Bangs was a thumbnail sketch of what happened to rock criticism in the late 1960s and 1970s, and Jim de Rogatis’ biography of Bangs, Let It Blurt (2000), attempts to integrate a history of rock criticism with the story of Bangs’ life with skewed results. It’s a little like writing a history of Cubism in a biography of Picasso: it makes perfect sense, as long as you are not a big Braque supporter. Nevertheless Bangs was a pivotal figure in the history of rock criticism. He wrote for most of the major publications of the time — Rolling Stone, Creem, the Village Voice — and was friends with all of the other important critics of the day, who admired his talent for writing and getting into rock star-like trouble. Where most of the other critics moved on to books, Bangs could rarely pull himself together to write much longer than a magazine article. His legend, though, looms large over the next generation of rock writers, who insert themselves into their stories the way he did. They write as fans as well as critics.

Lester Bangs Has Opinions He Wouldn’t Mind Sharing