Posted by: zhiv | January 17, 2009

Louis Menand, “It took a Village”

A bit amused that I’m continuing my New Yorker series, as I want to write about Louis Menand’s article about the Village Voice that I read earlier in the week, perhaps last weekend.  Maybe I’m just not eager to dig into Part Two on Revolutionary Road, who knows.  I need to do some digging on Menand; there’s got to be a lot I don’t know.  His book about OW Holmes Jr. and William James and others, The Metaphysical Club, has been at the top of my tbr pile for a couple of weeks and it is the next step in my Literary Boston research.  I actually made some progress in looking at it this week, so I’ve got that going for me.

At some point last year, when I never would have dreamed of commenting on New Yorker articles, Menand wrote an excellent piece on Jack Kerouac.  It was outstanding and I remember talking about it with a couple of people, including my daughter, whose friend was doing a senior project on the Beats.  I wish I could remember the rather striking thesis or slant of the essay off the top of my head, but I can’t.  I think I must have been beginning my foray into post-war NYC lit and culture at the time, but more on that as this comment evolves.  Perhaps Menand’s new essay on the Village Voice is part of a book he’s writing about the postwar NYC literary scene, and his Kerouac work is a chapter from the same project, but maybe he’s just a smarty pants who knows all this stuff and he’s merely doing his job as a New Yorker writer.

My general sense of the article is that it is less striking than the Kerouac piece, based on my vague memory, but there are a few notes I want to make on it.  It provides some good Norman Mailer background, filling out the specifics about things that I knew in my standard vague way.  I suppose I might comment on Mailer and consider him for a moment, although that wasn’t my intent here.  I only discovered recently that The Deer Park is a Hollywood novel, and I want to read it at some point this year, although Didion’s Play It As It Lays is above it on that little tbr stack.  I remember one of my Berkeley American Lit professors (not Eric Sundquist unfortunately; I mentioned recently that I never took a course from him, but I’ll stop for just a second here and say that I’m going to try to read Sundquist’s new book “King’s Dream” on this historic long weekend) saying “Mailer is a major figure–his work is going to hold up and be important.”  This was in the late 70s I guess and I read The Naked and the Dead after that and was impressed.  And based on this prompt Mailer was one of the authors I looked for in my early book culling/maniacal days, hence my first edition (no dust jacket) of The Deer Park.  I have a bunch of Mailer’s other books but have never been much interested in reading them.  One that I don’t have, which I did read however, is The Executioner’s Song, which was a big, good book that appeared around the time that my professor was talking about Mailer, or perhaps soon afterwards.  Menand’s article is a really good introduction and pathway into what Mailer was doing in Advertisements for Myself and The Armies of the Night.  I knew the basic drill on what Mailer and these books were about, but Menand’s slant is intriguing and clear and welcome, although it doesn’t make me want to take them off the shelf and read them, though I suppose I could handle an essay or two from Advertisements, which is where The White Negro (which I’ve read before) and Mailer’s Voice columns appear.

The first thing I actually intended to mention about Menand’s piece is Mary McCarthy’s appearance in it.  Menand seems to like to throw around some rather weighty literary/philosophical terms, which he’s certainly entitled to do and as a dilettant I appreciate it.  He makes a glancing distinction between Zeitgeist and Weltanschauung, never quite clarifying the difference.  The concept is important to the piece, since he’s discussing the Weltanschauung of Post-war NYC, and that’s more or less what I’m interested in too.  So Weltanschauung it is, not Zeitgeist.  When he brings up McCarthy he calls her “the Village’s pisse-copie” (hack journalist).  He writes about her 10-part series “Greenwich Village at Night,” which I knew about, but it’s interesting to see them mentioned and in this context.  Menand says McCarthy makes what we would call in California the surfer “you should have been here yesterday” argument, and it fits very neatly.  McCarthy’s role and figure here are part of a rather complex equation, which I’m trying to calculate because of my own McCarthy studies.  McCarthy had finished her stint of hanging out and sleeping around in the Village before the war began, and Menand uses her to make the connection between the pre-war and post-war… Weltanschuung.  It makes me want to read McCarthy’s articles, and I don’t know that I have them on my beefy McCarthy shelf. 

I’ll stop for a moment and mention in passing that Menand also cites Anatole Broyard’s memoir, Kafka Was All The Rage.  I happened to read this in the same pre-blogging period, fall07, when Menand’s Kerouac piece appeared.  Broyard’s book was a good, quick read, recommended for anyone who is interested in the period.  Broyard was a more complicated character than I would have guessed from his own version of events–fancy that.  It turns out that he was an early crony of Richard Yates, and he makes a significant appearance in Blake Bailey’s biography of Yates.

I’m remembering now that Menand mentions that the New York Post, which ran McCarthy’s series, reprinted her sensational “The Man in the Brooks Brothers Suit.”  I didn’t know that, and it reaffirms the fact that McCarthy’s story was a truly significant literary milestone.  Menand’s essay is about journalism and the Village Voice and Mailer and Jules Feiffer and the Village, and he finishes it up by saying that the Voice ethos (Weltanschauung) was somehow a lot like, well, blogging.  That’s not really the point of the essay, and it’s just a knife swipe finale (the kind of thing I like).  He’s really concerned with charting the development of the New Journalism, and tracing out the role of the Village Voice and Mailer and Feiffer.  That’s what the essay is about, I guess.  He uses McCarthy to show her attitude to the post-war crowd and make a point about the pre-war/post-war transition and context, but I’m a bit surprised that he sets her up as a revisiting hack and he doesn’t make a connection to McCarthy’s other work from the era and how it fits.  The fact that she was doing journalism at the time is there right in front of him.  She followed up the heavily autobiographical fictiion of The Company She Keeps (1942) with a couple of novels–the pattern was very close to Mailer’s.  The essays that would become Memories of a Catholic Girlhood were appearing around this time (in the New Yorker), and it seems that she might be at the heart of the discussion of the blending of fiction, non-fiction, and the personal essay that constitutes the New Journalism. 

When I was thinking about Menand’s article and wanted to comment on it I didn’t plan on making this point about McCarthy.  The big omission I noticed in Menand’s list of pioneering writers and texts of New Journalism was someone else, also published in The New Yorker–Truman Capote.  My own impression is that Capote’s profile of Marlon Brando making a movie in Japan–I forget the film–along with his other interviews and essays, is considered to be vitally imporatant in the development of the New Journalism.  Maybe Menand just has something against The New Yorker.

A timeline for all this would be helpful:  I never seem to get around to doing those, but I know how handy they can be.  Perhaps Menand wanted to steer away from the old Capote and Mailer conflict.  It’s also interesting how the nonfiction novel (In Cold Blood) can be isolated in some ways from the New Journalism, if that’s what you’re trying to do.  Before writing this morning, I hadn’t thought for a very long time about reading The Executioner’s Song.  It was a great read.  But I’m just so much more conscious of Capote and In Cold Blood these days.

Capote was my primary focus that fall, the pre-blogging, pre-McCarthy and Yates period (along with Coetzee and Chekhov).  It seems that part of my New Year approach is gathering up some of the threads from that time, and I wanted to use the Menand essay to introduce the piece I wrote about Andy Warhol and Truman Capote in November 07.  So that one is coming.


  1. So much to think about here! I’ll admit I don’t have the slightest interest in reading Capote or Mailer, but I do like reading ABOUT them, and I certainly like reading and reading about McCarthy. But mostly it’s fun to think about how all these writers fit together and who knew whom and all that. I began the Menand essay but didn’t finish it, and I’ll have to go back and take another look. And I’m curious about reading more Menand as well — he sounds like he might be my kind of author.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: