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This is NEPCA's official website, containing both information about the organization and the latest news about the profession.

2017 NEPCA Conference

NEPCA's 2017 Fall Conference will be held at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Details will appear soon.

Peter C. Rollins Book Prize

The deadline for publishers to submit nominations for the 2016 Rollins Prize is July 1, 2017. This prize will honor the best book written by a scholar working in New England or New York on a topic pertaining to popular or/and American culture during the year 2016.

Important Dates

2017 Conference: October 27-28

NEPCA’s 2017 Fall Conference

NEPCA’s 2017 conference will take place on the campus of the University of Massachusetts Amherst  on Friday October 27 and Saturday October 28, 2017.

Periodic updates and information will be made on this site and can be viewed by clicking on the Fall Conference tab above. 

Salome Ensemble a Slice of 20th Century History

The Salome Ensemble: Rose Pastor Stokes, Anzia Yezierska, Sonya Levien, and Jetta Goudal. By Alan Robert Ginsberg. Syracuse University Press, 2016.

 

urlIf you don’t know who Rose Pastor Stokes (1879-1933), Anzia Yezierska (1880-1970), Sonya Levien (1888-1960), and Jetta Goudal (1881-1985) are, you should. Their lives are a study in connections, as friends, role-models, and political and artistic influences: Pastor Stokes was the inspiration for Yezierska’s best-selling 1923 novel, Salome of the Tenements, which Levien then developed as a screenplay for the popular 1925 silent film of the same name, featuring Goudal in the starring role. And as Robert Ginsberg makes clear in this thoroughly-researched, admiring-but-honest group biography, the lives of these four women are interwoven with the fabric of early 20th century American culture.

Pastor Stokes, Yezierska, Levien, and Goudal were all immigrants to the United States, fleeing the limited opportunity and deadly oppression that would have been the fate of young Jewish women living in Europe at the turn of the 20th century. Each desired education, work, service, recognition, and independence—and each pursued those ends relentlessly, taking advantage of the relative social and cultural freedoms available in New York and Hollywood at the time.

Pastor Stokes was largely self-educated, and began her career as a journalist while working in a New York sweatshop, writing about the lives and labor conditions of factory girls. Becoming established as a writer went hand-in-hand with her immersion in social and political causes, particularly working in the settlement houses that mentored and educated immigrant women like herself—and, as it turned out, Levien and Yezierska. Pastor Stokes caused a society sensation when the pretty, socialist, Jewish factory girl caught the eye of James Graham Phelps Stokes, a Yale grad, and scion of a wealthy industrialist family. With his connections and money, and her passionate commitment to workers’ rights, the couple found themselves to be an improbable but successful activist team, until Pastor Stokes’ zeal outstripped her husband’s, and ideological differences led to their divorce. Pastor Stokes became more deeply involved in the communist movement, at once a self-identified American patriot and Bolshevik supporter.

Her activism got her in trouble: she narrowly avoided a lengthy prison sentence when federal prosecutors tried to make her a test case for the recently enacted Espionage Act of 1917. Formulated to control “subversive” political activity in response to the political upheaval of World War One, the act set the pattern for future persecution of those with “un-American” sympathies during the Cold War at mid-century. When Pastor Stokes was found to have “merely” criticized the Wilson administration, and not the Constitution, Declaration of Independence, or the American way of life in general (62), the initial guilty verdict was vacated. Undeterred, she continued her political work, helping to establish the Communist Part of America, writing and speaking on behalf of the communist cause. She remained a committed activist until her death in 1933.

Ginsberg coined the phrase “Salome Ensemble,” drawing his inspiration from Albert Einstein’s notion that “knowledge of certain phenomena can only be obtained by observing them as groups…’ideal ensembles’…Special, complete knowledge of them is attainable only by understanding their characteristics both as a group and as individuals. They become entangled and affect each other in ways that make it impossible to perceive their actions as other than connected, but their separate identities are never effaced” (xix). Ginsberg sketches a nexus, a set of relationships that started with Pastor Stokes at the center, but which then extended to include the three other women, as well as their many connections, as their individual careers overlapped with seemingly every social, political, and artistic movement between the World Wars. Pastor Stokes met both Yezierska and Levien at a settlement house, and the combination of her indirect example and direct support helped both women to achieve their professional goals. Pastor Stokes hired Levien as a secretary after her marriage to Stokes; that opportunity gave Levien the boost she needed to go on to a career first in law, then in magazine journalism. Yezierska, also largely self-educated throughout her youth, won a scholarship to Columbia Teacher’s College, a career she didn’t particularly want, but which allowed her to focus on her real passion, writing. When Yezierska was struggling to find an audience for her fiction, it was Pastor Stokes’ connection with Levien, then the editor of a popular magazine, that provided Yezierska her big break. As her writing career started to take off, both she and Levien were lured to write for the nascent film industry in Hollywood—Yezierska didn’t like the constraints, but Levien throve…and was able to use her position to adapt her friend’s novel about her other friend’s life, Salome of the Tenements, for the silent screen, starring her friend and artistic collaborator Goudal.

Jetta Goudal’s membership in the Salome Ensemble was more tangential than the others’—she worked most closely with Levien but had no particular connection with the other women. Nevertheless, Ginsberg makes a case for including her on the basis of her life’s trajectory being so similar to the others, and so similarly influential. In addition to her acting career, Goudal was one of the first actors to challenge the 19th century mindset of the early studios, which saw performers more as indentured servants than as artists—Goudal’s lawsuit against Cecil B. DeMille set an important precedent for actors’ rights. The case also permanently damaged her career. Goudal is said to have been one of the inspirations for Gloria Swanson’s portrayal of Norma Desmond, a has-been silent-screen star, in Sunset Boulevard (1950).

In reviewing Ginsberg’s study of the Salome Ensemble, I struggled with the same challenges as he. These four women knew everyone (political alliances and conflicts with Emma Goldman! affairs with John Dewey and Rudy Valentino!) and were involved with everything: publishing and the literary scene, the workers’ movement, the early film industry, artists’ rights, censorship, education, the evolution of American Judaism, the WPA, war, politics, the economy….Trying to keep track of their connections with one another and linking them to the whole of early 20th century American history is something of an organizational nightmare. To his credit, Ginsberg has done exemplary archival research, and is meticulous in situating the women in their historical context—from specific biographical detail, to the ways in which the women’s lives can be read as emblematic of changing roles for immigrants, workers, and women in the early 20th century. Ginsberg struggles a bit to make this complex, exhaustive tale engaging—there’s a kitchen-sink quality here, with every possible historical reference thrown in with bits and pieces of cultural critique; and in trying to give each woman thorough, individual attention he ends up repeating details about their overlapping lives. The effect is sometimes dry, sometimes unfocused, and sometimes redundant.

But—while Ginsberg’s work isn’t always the liveliest read, he tells a great and important story. Give this sprawling, but careful narrative a chance, and allow yourself to share in his unabashed admiration for Pastor Stokes, Levien, Yezierska, and Goudal. And then track down a copy of Salome of the Tenements and read that too.

Carol-Ann Farkas

MCPHS University

Nothing High Falutin’ (but maybe stuff you can use!)

STRANGE HISTORY (2016). By Jay Newman, editor. Portable Press, 2016.

 

Have you ever seen Chuck Shepherd’s quirky “New of the Weird” columns? If so, you can imagine the content of Strange History. In editor 51vwzdfmrkl-_sx331_bo1204203200_Jay Newman’s words, it’s a “smorgasbord of oddities: kings, queens, commoners, criminals, gladiators, aliens, ghosts, monsters….” You can add to that list: anecdotes, bloopers, religious origin stories, fads, riddles, and descriptions of made-up languages. Newman marshals a bevy of writers collectively known as the Bathroom Readers’ Institute. Give credit for truth in advertising; this is indeed the sort of book one might find residing in the loo nestled amidst the extra TP–a collection of breezy selections meant to be read in short, non-taxing snippets. So is there any reason to pay attention to it? Perhaps.

Like all such projects, this one is less than the sum of its parts, but the bits and pieces are individually delightful. When I was a high school teacher, I used to mine books like this for bizarre little curiosities to spring upon students, give their minds a break, and enhance my reputation for being unpredictable. The downside is that these were often the things students remembered long after they brain-dumped the important stuff. Well, at least I taught them something!

There is no rhyme or reason to the structure of Strange History and that’s part of its charm. Did you know that Mao Zedong was a librarian before he was a revolutionary, or that Idi Amin cooked for the British army before he terrorized Uganda? You can learn this from Strange History, as well as the first jobs of other famous and infamous people. The book makes no pretense of being anything other than random facts and factoids, so I made my way through this book with an eye toward categorizing detail into categories of potentially useful versus mere trivia.

For example, a sociology or popular culture instructor might find it useful to note that elders have been complaining about youth since at least 427 B.C., or that fads have always been edgy. How about crotchless tunics in medieval England, phrenology, Gerber’s attempt to sell baby food for adults, 16th century tooth dyeing, or hiring professional “hermits” to reside upon one’s estate? Students might find it reassuring to consider that the present has no monopoly over bad decision-making. Did you know that the first person to add sugar to chewing gum (1869) was a dentist? Or, more poignantly, that Adolph Hitler told the first Polish jokes? There are loads of intriguing things for computer scientists discussing computers before computing, including a mechanical wooden robot that dates to fourth century B.C. Greece. Theater and literature lessons can be spiced with anecdotes such as a long list of the misfortunes that befell those directing or acting in Macbeth, a list of one-legged actors, the possible origins of werewolf tales, or the inspiration for Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. (Either the 17th century German alchemist Jonathan Dippel, or the 18th century Italian naturalist Spallanzani are good suspects for the latter.) The book also contains tons of origin theories, including theories about unicorns, the evolution of King Arthur tales, how zoos emerged from the private aristocratic menageries, and how Druids gave us the phrase “tying the knot” for newlyweds.

On the other hand, when would we ever need a recipe for making shrunken heads? Why should we care that TripAdvisor.com travelers consider Brussels the world’s most boring city? (Did any of them drink the beer there?) What can we learn from Joey Mellen, who drilled a hole in his own head in an attempt to achieve a perpetual high, other than the fact that he was an idiot? Do we need a list of lame insults gleaned from the Internet?

In short, Strange History is a book containing gems and garbage. Maybe the bathroom is where it ought to reside, but I suspect teachers, barroom orators, and trivia aficionados will find some useful things. A personal favorite came from a list of alleged presidential deathbed utterances. James Buchanan supposedly proclaimed, “History will vindicate my memory.” When you consider that many scholars consider Buchanan the worst president in U. S. history, you could use that remark to teach the concept of hubris.

 

Robert E. Weir

University of Massachusetts Amherst

Book Review: new Look at Sue Mengers

Can I Go Now? The Life of Sue Mengers, Hollywood’s First Superagent. Brian Kellow. New York: Viking, 2015.

imgres-1Brain Kellow has written the definitive biography of Sue Mengers, and it’s a fun book. Mengers was an influential Hollywood talent agent who represented some of the industry’s most glamorous stars at the height of their careers, including Barbara Streisand, Cybil Shepherd, Gene Hackman, Anthony Perkins, and Burt Reynolds. She is often credited with helping them secure some of their most iconic roles. Kellow suggests that Mengers redefined her profession by carving out a place for women in an industry dominated by men, but does not push any sort of central argument beyond his desire to record her biography. Kellow clearly adores Mengers and has dedicated himself to recovering as many details of her life and career as possible. He presents Mengers as a relentlessly energetic force of nature who stood out from other agents of the age. Through sheer force of will, tenacity, and a refusal to be overlooked, Mengers promoted some of Hollywood’s greatest stars and pushed to have her voice be the loudest in the room. Kellow provides excellent social and historical context when describing the world that Mengers entered–initially as a young secretary–and he makes frequent observations about how her often-outrageous behavior propelled her to the forefront of Hollywood representation.

Kellow divulges all the juicy gossip from the film industry from the 1960s through the 1980s. His writing is very accessible; his tone often breezy. He includes uproarious stories about Katharine Hepburn and Ali McGraw, extensive quotes from Michael Caine, and copious information about Barbra Streisand’s career, Streisand being one of Mengers’ greatest projects. Kellow never shies from exposing people at their worst- including Mengers, whose larger- than-life personality and predictably unpredictable behavior caused people either to love or hate her.

Mengers comes off as a prickly character at best, with a complicated family history and psychology. She was determined, ambitious, and willing to use any means necessary to promote her clients and, of course, herself. She was at the center of the Hollywood scene during these decades and seems to deserve the credit that Kellow heaps upon her for shaping these celebrities and the films on which they worked. By the end of the book, it is unclear if she did, in fact, open up new opportunities for future generations of women agents, but it is very clear that she opened up plenty of opportunities for herself and that she enjoyed her success to the fullest.

This is not an academic work and relies primarily on interviews, personal conversations and anecdotes. Kellow offers an affectionate retelling of Hollywood royalty and all their foibles. He is clearly interested in describing the evolving nature of professional agents, but is equally interested in reporting on the star’s more embarrassing moments. This would be a great book for film buffs who would enjoy the behind-the-scenes anecdotes, the description of the process of producing films and negotiating casting and the chance to see these celebrities from a new angle- namely from a superagent’s point of view. This book would also be useful for courses on writing, journalism, or New Hollywood filmmaking

Katherine Allocco

Western Connecticut State University

Book Review: Lessons Learned from Popular Culture

Lessons Learned from Popular Culture. By Tim Delaney and Tim Madigan. SUNY Press, 2016. 274 pp.

imgresIt’s been 46 years since Ray Browne (1922-2009) founded the Popular Culture Association, and 49 since he launched the Journal of Popular Culture. Yet, as uncomfortable as it might make a lot of scholars, pop culture remains suspect in wide swaths of the academy, the accusation being that those researching and writing about it are just playing rather than engaging in “serious” study. One of the glories of Lessons Learned from Popular Culture is that its authors are willing to play with and against those perceptions. What better way to exact revenge than to turn stereotypes against their creators! SUNY Oswego sociology professor Tim Delaney and St. John Fisher College philosophy professor (and former president of the Northeast Popular Culture Association) Tim Madigan have written a playful, sometimes-irreverent text that’s a mix of hard-hitting analysis and nonchalance.

Theirs is a self-selected sampling of production from an array of pop culture categories: movies, television, social media, music, radio, newspapers, comics, cartoons, books, fashion, technology, fads, celebrity, comedy, sports, and virtual reality. In each chapter, they offer short probes of specific examples from the genre with an eye toward drawing some sort of “lesson” from each–often a whimsical one. The movie chapter, for instance, uses these films: Planet of the Apes, The Simpsons Movie, Apocalypse Now, Pinocchio, The Truman Show, and a smattering of zombie films. If you’re looking for an overall plan, don’t. The authors choose things that intrigue them because their real intention is to spark discussion, not get bogged down in the details of any one production. They mention eight zombie films in just two plus pages to reach the lesson that: “Zombies have no worries, and that’s what worries us humans” (23). If that sounds trite, so it might be, but scholars aren’t the audience and the same two pages touch upon weightier issues: the Problem of Other Minds (cognitive research), Rene Descartes and the nature of individualism, existentialism stripped to its basics, and the ethics of extending the life of vegetative elders. In like fashion, The Truman Show is a vehicle for considering Plato’s allegory of the cave. Any one of these would make for a dynamite undergraduate discussion, and those impressionable minds are this book’s intended audience.

Along the way, Delaney and Madigan also wander onto social problems turf. What new dangers emerge when street gangs become savvy with social media? Do overdone trends like the ice bucket challenge cause more fatigue than change? Do smart phones make us more intelligent, or simply pacify our stupidity? Are fantasy sports the new frontier of gambling addiction? They even engage in reflexive parody. In their look at Amazon as the behemoth that eats the local bookstore and narrows consumer choice, their lesson is: “If we’re not careful, Amazon will refuse to sell this book. Or, they might decide to sell it at a discounted rate–which is great for the reader but not so good for the authors or publisher” (151).

Any book that covers such diverse and idiosyncratic turf is open to nitpicking by reviewers wondering why the authors chose example A instead of B. This one certainly raises such questions. Delaney and Madigan are way too enamored with Seinfeld and sometimes force-fit the narrative so they can quote from the show. Fine–but Seinfeld has been off the air for a whopping 18 years now and, syndication aside, I doubt today’s undergrads share the authors’ obsession with the show. (Studies reveal, by the way, that Seinfeld was beloved in the Northeast and on the West Coast, but not elsewhere.) I have a few conceptual issues, one of which is that I do not conflate mass and popular culture, as do Delaney and Madigan. I suspect that anyone picking up this book will have one of two reactions: they’ll be lost in perceived chaos, or they will find its eclecticism thought provoking. I’m inclined to the second view and am willing to place my quibbles in the meh! category. Meh, by the way, might be a vulgarization of a Yiddish term, it might have come from TV’s Melrose Place, or it might have originated with Sideshow Bob on The Simpsons. Does its current popularity mirror the snarky irony of Millennial culture, or is it a psychological coping mechanism reflective of life in a time of moral relativism? That’s the kind of stuff Delaney and Madigan are talking about! If some academic curmudgeons can’t see that these are valuable lessons to discuss and learn, we shall leave them to their arcane specialties so they can talk quietly among themselves.

Robert E. Weir

University of Massachusetts Amherst

 

Book Review: Why Your Band Sucks

Your Band Sucks: What I Saw at Indie Rock’s Failed Revolution (But Can No Longer Hear). Jon Fine. New York: Viking, 2015.

 

imgresJon Fine’s memoir Your Band Sucks: What I Saw at Indie Rock’s Failed Revolution (But Can No Longer Hear) chronicles the author’s career as a second tier rock star and reflects on the growth and significance of the music industry in the 1990s. Fine, who is now the executive editor of Inc. magazine, was the guitarist and song writer for a number of bands, including the one he loved best: Bitch Magnet.

Bitch Magnet formed while the members were students at Oberlin College and was active from 1986 until 1990. During those years, the band produced three albums, a few singles, and managed to tour all over the world. Fine makes these years sound grueling, hopeless, romantic and totally fun. Fine’s memoir is full of tales of marathon sleeplessness, cramming himself uncomfortably into a rusty, stinky old van, arguing with promoters and club owners and worrying constantly about all the money that he was losing as a touring musician without any other gainful employment. Fine usually resists glamorizing this experience, and mostly strives to honestly recount the sacrifice and mistakes that he encountered on the road.

Fine is clearly an expert in this era of music. His book includes encyclopedic descriptions of the many bands that shaped his genre, the record labels and the multitude of personnel who operated behind the scenes. He draws mainly from his own memory, but also from recent conversations and interviews with other musicians and from fans. He seems to have known everyone in the 90s Indie music scene and lovingly divulges all sorts of personal stories about the members of LCD Soundsystem, Freshkills, Slint, Bastro and many many more. He recounts wonderful stories about the All Tomorrow’s Parties music festival, CBGBs, Kokie’s Place and the Bowery Ballroom, places and events so integral to the Indie music scene but all but forgotten now.

This book is engagingly written. His style is witty, personal, honest and eloquent. It’s a tough book to put down, as his anecdotes can be so compelling. This would be an interesting book to assign for a writing class. Despite its abrasive title and occasionally condescending tone, this memoir makes no attempt to glorify or sanitize its author. Fine confesses to all his foibles and errors and snobberies and mostly comes face to face with his love of an age and genre long gone.

Katherine Allocco

Western Connecticut State University

Teaching Ideas: Ways of Thinking about and Seeing the Grateful Dead

Ways of Seeing the Grateful Dead:

 

It often surprises music fans to learn that rightwing author/commentator/shock jock Ann Coulter claims to be a Deadhead who has seen over 60 shows. You can read all about it at: http://www.jambands.com/features/2006/06/23/deadheads-are-what-liberals-claim-to-be-but-aren-t-an-interview-with-ann-coulter It also surprises some to learn that there is an ever-growing body of scholarship called “Grateful Dead Studies,” that the PCAACA has a Grateful Dead area chair, and that a Grateful Dead Archive has been established at the University of California Santa Cruz: http://guides.library.ucsc.edu/grateful-dead

Whatever one might think of Ms. Coulter’s claim that Deadheads are what liberals claim to be but aren’t, there’s little disputing this quote from her: “Watching a Deadhead dance is truly something to behold.” Ms. Coulter’s strong identification with the Grateful Dead suggests rich teaching opportunities. A sociologist, for example, could construct a lesson about the dynamics of groups and the formation of group identity that affords opportunities to discuss the role (or non-role) of ideology in group dynamics; a political scientist could fashion something similar on the rhetoric and meaning of ideology in contemporary politics in keeping with recent studies suggesting that many aspects of politics are as much performance as deeply held values. A dance professor might also take the above Coutler quote at face value and explore the role of ecstasy in dance, to say nothing of the free-form aesthetics of Grateful Dead dancers. Of course, professors specializing in popular music have unlimited opportunities.

11-atxlThose looking for some strong images to supplement their lessons can find them in two recent works from photographer/film maker Jay Blakesberg. The San Francisco-based Blakesberg has produced untold numbers of rock photos, album art images, and videos, but he’s also part of that amorphous group sometimes labeled Grateful Dead “insiders.” His aptly named 2015 collection Hippie Chick: A Tale of Love, Devotion & Surrender (Rock Out Books) is a no-apologies look at music as a form of physical abandonment. It consists of 445 images Blakesberg took over three decades. It’s not entirely about the Grateful Dead–he even got Grace Slick (Jefferson Airplane) to write the introduction–but those joyous Deadhead dancers of which Coulter speaks are heavily represented. In a strange way, Blakesberg also gives us a needed corrective to looks at the Sixties that focus too heavily on politics and disruptive behavior at the expense of the era’s playful and cultural milestones. Take a look at hippie dancers and compare them with those of earlier generations, and not even 1950s poodle-skirted American Bandstand twirlers can match them. Blakesberg might be open to charges of male gaze exploitation in some cases, but this too makes good classroom fodder.

imgresHis Fare Thee Well (Rock On Books) came out at the very end of 2015–just in time to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Grateful Dead. This one focuses entirely on the band and if you want to know what being an insider means—Blakesberg estimates he shot the band over a thousand times–this collection from the band’s 2015 swan song concerts (minus deceased members such as Jerry Garcia and Ron McKernan) shows it. Anyone wishing to explain the importance of spectacle will find a visual feast for illustrating the concept. And, yes, one might even make the case that the 2015 tour oddly justifies a few of Coulter’s more provocative remarks. It’s no stretch to think that cultural capital might have transcended music or ideology. A good way to introduce the thought of Pierre Bourdieu? Why not.

 

Robert E. Weir

University of Massachusetts Amherst

Book Review: New Look at Robert Frost Poem

The Road Not Taken: Finding America in the Poem Everyone Loves and Almost Everyone Gets Wrong. By David Orr. Penguin Press (2015). 184 pp.

 

urlIn his 1998 biography of Andrew Wyeth, Richard Meryman tells of a time when Robert Frost contacted the eminent painter. Frost wanted Wyeth to paint his portrait, because Frost thought the two seemed to “share something.” And indeed, a good many critics might agree that certain parallels of style, tone, and composition might be drawn between their respective works. Wyeth nonetheless had no inclination toward the project. He didn’t feel like spending much time with Frost, and remarked, Frost “looked like an old sweet potato that had been baked and found a week later in the cold oven.” The essence of Frost apparently was not susceptible of portraiture; Wyeth thought it was “all there in his poetry,” and painting wouldn’t add anything. This anecdote might serve as an epitome of David Orr’s new book on what is arguably Frost’s best-known poem, “The Road Not Taken.” In fact, since Orr’s approach is gossipy and topical throughout, it’s rather odd that he missed including it.

 

Orr does a superb job of producing a portrait of Frost in words. He tracks the history of Frost criticism, both in professional academic circles and in American culture generally. Frost emerges as an iconic national treasure who, in the case of “The Road Not Taken,” fired a curveball that has stumped almost as many professional critics as it has high-school valedictorians. Like Wyeth, Orr accomplishes this by distinguishing Robert Frost the man from Robert Frost the poet. Frost the man had all the human failings that complement simple participation in humanity, while Frost the icon had at least a couple of slippery, homespun, “simple New England farmer” personae. In fact, while reading Orr, one waits in vain for a comparison to “the ploughman poet,” Robert Burns. Like Burns, Frost loved being seen as a rustic, and often did all he could to further the impression. This desire for plainness manifests itself in Frost’s poetic diction, which–even as it celebrates nature–relies more on syntax than on the mellifluous floridity of Swinburne or Tennyson. Not that sound was unimportant. Orr reports that Frost would never say, “I will read a poem”; instead, he always remarked that he would “say” one. If a certain work seemed to go badly at a Frost reading, he would ask the audience whether they would like to hear him say another poem. He worked in the oral tradition, a fact that differentiates him from, for example, T.S. Eliot, who might be accused of having written poems that were actually lengthy footnotes. Unsurprisingly, the two men seem to have despised one another. Frost thought Eliot was pretentious, and Eliot once observed that Frost “specialized in New England torpor.”

 

The crux of Orr’s treatment of his main subject, the text of “The Road Not Taken,” revolves around the well-known lines that describe the two famously diverging roads. Orr situates his skillful close reading within a tour de force of everything ever thought or written about the poem. He points out that there are two categories of interpretation: the one favored by graduation speakers, in which the reader is persuaded to agree that one should always take the less-travelled road, since it is presumably more challenging and more indicative of rugged American individualism. And then there are all the other readings. Orr examines every possible angle here. He looks at logical dilemma, political rhetoric, the psychology of “choice,” the history of free will, and even self-help books. His best point is that the high-school interpretation of the poem is clearly wrong, but that the other possibilities don’t seem quite right either. But here he balks, because he does not seem to want to essay a bit of basic literary theory.

 

To be sure, Orr is writing for that rara avis, the “general reader,” who may or may not still exist. A good many of the graduation speakers probably have never read the whole of “The Road Not Taken;” rather, they have merely looked around the Internet for a useful quotation and pounced on a couple of lines from an old standard. In that case they are not likely to see the poem’s other flow, a rhetorical line in which the narrator mentions that the two roads aren’t very different after all, and that the title isn’t “The Road I Took,” but “The Road Not Taken,” thus making the whole composition center on the road that is more travelled. In this latter reading, the binary logic that seems to create two strongly divided categories simply collapses. A certain irony then creeps in, a sense of postmodern relativism, in which Frost might been seen to mock the Romanticist notion of a lonely traveler making a momentous decision to journey alone through a sublimely naturalistic landscape. Orr reinvents the wheel here, inasmuch as he never defines the relationship of the two roads as what it is: a rudimentary example of Derridian aporia. Instead, he writes a fascinatingly detailed encounter with the text, an interpretation that depends not inconsiderably on his lyrical and energetic prose style as well as his wisdom. The putative General Reader will come to apprehend all of the poem’s ironic nuances, its parodic distance from the high-school interpretation, and the crumbling of its American Individualist façade. Anti-theorists, if such still prowl academia, will no doubt see this as a virtue. But one must demur, however gently, at Orr’s decision to ignore almost fifty years of literary-theoretical endeavor. That said, it would be rather churlish to find too much fault with a book that in its closing pages manages to juxtapose Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex and Robert Johnson’s “Cross Road Blues” and still make perfect sense.

 

Jeffrey P. Cain

Sacred Heart University

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