. . . Hart

. . .

Speaking of Turner Classic Movies.... College football may not seem tailor-made for the Rodgers-and-Hart treatment, but 1940's Too Many Girls is the best available record of the team's work. Unlike earlier translations (in which rights to the musicals were bought by moguls who then stripped out the songs because musicals are box-office poison) and later ones (which suffocated under tons of papier-mâché production values), "Too Many Girls" cakewalked directly from Broadway to Hollywood with score, arrangements, jitterbugging, newspaper headlines ("Pottawottomie U. Defeats Texas Gentiles"), and cast mostly intact. Desi Arnez is cute as a sweaty button singing "Spick-and-Span-ish," Ann Miller pounds her legs like Cassandra predicting Pearl Harbor, Lucille Ball is dubbed, Eddie Bracken enjoys being a sex object ("There are ten girls to every guy here. Go find your own ten girls."), and there's a formal experiment worthy of Hitchcock when, halfway through the big romantic duet, the film jumps forward to an eavesdropper's description of the duet: "And THEN he said, [crooning] 'I didn't know what year it was....' [shouting] HE DIDN'T EVEN KNOW WHAT YEAR IT WAS!" Essential viewing for the producers of America's Funniest Celluloid Closets.

. . .

Beyond any doubt, Stephin Merritt is this year's star pupil of the Lorenz Hart School of Miserable Short Ugly Love Song Lyricists, but when I encounter the following "lyric by Lorenz Hart; no music survives," this miserable old ugly chronicler can't help but recall my generation's pretender, Croonin' Costello:


I do men's nails for seventy-five cents
And I guess I earn my pay.
Kindly realize that a heel or two
Get a manicure plus a feel or two.
God, how I hate their hands!

Brokers, clerks and singers,
Arthur, John and Bill,
Each time you touch their fingers
They think you get a thrill.

God, how I hate their hands!
Hands can tear one asunder.
I go through torture nobody understands.
Stop it! My life is a nightmare!
Hands! Hands! Hands! Hands! Hands!

Hands can hold you and hurt you,
Hands can grip;
Hands can laugh at your virtue,
Hands can slip;
Hands can tear your heart out,
Hands can make you dream.
What a fool you seem.
You could scream.

Hands can beg for mercy,
I'm afraid of you.
I am black and blue.
This won't do.

My God, they're driving me crazy
With their goddamn hands.

. . .

Remembrance Day

I'd always assumed that Mr. Natural's "Is dis a system?" was R. Crumb's own addition to our national store of catch phrases, but given Crumb's scholarly turn of mind, it of course turns out to be a revival. While flipping through Lorenz Hart's lyrics to the dreadful musical-New-York-immigrant-comedy Betsy (because I [heart] NY immigrants), I found in the dreadful opening number, "The Kitzel Engagement," the following couplet:

[Winnie kisses Levi]
CHORUS: She kissed him!
  LEVI: Is dis a system?

(Followed by rhyming "change your name to Kitzel" with "wet my whitzle," "care a bitzel," "time that flits'll," and "Wiener schnitzel." Oy.)

Hart's use is clearly also only a reference to an already well-established catchphrase, presumably from some ancient joke or novelty song. Unfortunately, neither Hart nor Crumb is available for consultation, and an Internet search leaves me none the wiser (what are the odds!?). Can any of you fine people out there -- I hear you breathing! -- help me?

If not, I may be forced to post more quotes from the show. And I can do it, too:

We've a race that's het'rogeneous
With folks from all the earth.
A moving picture Metro genius
Can come from foreign birth.
And the race that used to be gypped
By the Pharaohs down in Egypt
By the gross appear,
And we're mighty glad they're here.
All were different when they came,
But jazz has made them all the same!


They take their places upon the dance floor,
And then races all blend somehow!
Go and show the drum how!
Each one croons just American tunes,
The ones that they recall are jazz.
We all are jazz relations!
We're all good Americans now!

. . .

Although my usually beloved readers were of no help in tracing the origins of "Is dis a system?" and therefore are, per threat, to be smote again with the jawbone of a Betsy lyric:

  I'm just the mother type,
  You want no other type,
    And I'll be very chummy with the stork.
  All babies charm me, dear,
  You'll have an army, dear,
    And we'll make London smaller than New York.

de Fox witt de Crow witt de Chizze

and another (SMACK) for luck (SMACK!!):

  At the Saskatchewan,
  We will not scratch you on
    Your race
    Or on your face;
  We'd let Lon Chaney in.


and, what the heck, I'm starting to enjoy this:

  If you don't understand my language
    You must be a big dumb Dora.
  My people make the Bronx and Brooklyn
    Look like Sodom and Gomorrah!
  We are here two million strong,
    Not counting the Assyrians
  And many Christian Scientists
    And several Presbyterians.

Ho K.

...anyhow, never mind, it doesn't matter, 'cause the mysterious unseen (and probably unwashed) hand of the American muse has already hooked my snoot in the right direction. While trying to use up some trade at Moe's, I found a copy of Nize Baby, prose mitt illustrations from Milt Gross yet. What I really wanted was a pure collection of comics from Milt Gross, but I never get what I really want, so I brought the book home anyway: at least it was Milt Gross, and for a high-low-brow waggler the pages' surface resemblance to contemporaneous work by John Dos Passos and William Carlos Williams was irresistable:

     First Floor —So it was a socksess de hoperation?
     Second Floor A whole night long I couldn't slip.
     First Floor —Wos boddering you maybe de — efter-defects, ha?
     Second Floor —No was cerrying on in de next bat from me a patient someting tarrible. So I made a complain to de head sturgeon from de hospital. So he explained wot he was soffering from attaletic fits!
     First Floor —So you came home.
     Second Floor —Hm. I went for a copple of wicks to rest in a cemetarium so den I came home.
     Third Floor —So, Isidor! (SMACK) Wid a paddler you ronning arond to paddle de hepples, ha? (SMACK) De huss from de paddler you got to fid yet, he should bite you off maybe a feenger, ha? (SMACK) To de dalicatassen store you wouldn't go, when she esks you de momma, ha? (SMACK) De lassons wot you got to stoddy you don't do it, ha? (SMACK) Benenas you should paddle better, ha? (SMACK) A hockster you should grow opp maybe yet, ha? ( SMACK.)
     Fourth Floor —Oohoo nize baby, itt opp all de mosh witt milk so momma'll gonna tell you a Ferry Tale about De Dug in de Manager. Wance oppon a time was seeting a dug in a manager. So de manager was full from hay wit hoats. So it came along a cow so he said, "I'm filling a leedle hongry —I tink wot I'll goin' in de manager und have a leedle bite hay maybe." (Nize baby take anodder spoon mosh witt milk.) So it came in de cow but dot doidy dug was sotch a crenk witt a minn ting wot you wouldn't billive it could exeest. So he stodded in to bok —"Gr-r-r-rrr! Gerraderhere, you cow!!" So de cow went away like a gantleman so de naxt day he came beck so dot doidy dug sad. "Grrr-rr-rrr! Gerradahere, you cow!!" So de cow sad, "Wot's de metter? You don't want me I should itt it opp de hay??" So de dug sad, "NO!!" So de cow sad, "You want maybe you should itt it opp yourself de hay?" So de dug sad, "NO! I don't want I should itt it und I don't want you should itt it." So de cow sad, "Hm, you don't want you should itt it und you don't want I should itt it. Is diss a system???" (Oohoo, sotch a dollink baby ate opp all de mosh witt milk!)

The undoubtedly perspiring reader who made it to the end of Fourth Floor's Ferry Tale will have noticed our prey at bay. (The more reasonable reader who gave up early on is directed to the next-to-last sentence.) In fact, our prey is all over the dang place! So here's why, failing counterargument from R. Crumb or someone like him, I think Milt Gross is the ultimate source:
  1. You need a catchphrase to make it in this wicked world, and Milt Gross gives the peculiar catchphrase "Is diss a system?" the blanket coverage of an assured trademark -- it's in pretty much every other column. (His claim to "Banana oil!" seems more contestable, though he's still two years earlier than the first OED attestation, P. G. Wodehouse in 1927.)
  2. It fits for Hart to be making a topical reference: the original "Gross Exaggerations" columns were running in the New York World in 1925, the Nize Baby collection was a 1926 bestseller, and Betsy flopped onto the Broadway boards like a suicidal inedible fish on December 28, 1926.
  3. Internet research at its finest: two guys on Usenet credited it to Gross in passing.
Hm! See, is de law from gratification!

. . .

The Trowbridge Retreat    
The Weeds of Crime: Three Men on a Horse

Synopses: A sissy in a mutally adoring marriage who's threatened by masculine hostility and a job crisis can solve all his problems by joining a bunch of gangsters.

Charlie, Frankie, Erwin, and Patsy
More mugs than you can shake an ugly stick at
  Three Men on a Horse trampled Broadway in 1935, and has been trotted out for summer stock, amateur theatricals, and sit-com rip-offs ever since. Handed such a slab of certified Grade-A merchandise, Hollywood took the rare and unadvisable step of adapting it closely -- that is, barely.

As with Too Many Girls, there's some documentary interest in getting an unadulterated look at 1930s theater, complete with original cast members, original bathroom and easy virtue gags, and even original sets. But Too Many Girls had Rogers & Hart & lunacy on its side, and it quickly becomes apparent that the art of the legitimate "well-constructed" comedy hasn't declined nearly as much as the art of the musical. The talkies were better than plays pretty much right away.

Stuck in our expensive seats, we pause for laugh lines, we pause even longer for forced laugh lines, we check our watch when it's time for intermission, and the cinematographer's snore goes almost entirely uninterrupted. (Or, as the IMDB reviewer puts it, "Throw a few special effects in and the movie would be a real winner.")

Well, actors enjoy plays even if cameras don't: Sam Levene is easier to take as a negligent criminal than as his usual negligent cop; worrying about her Erwin "lying in some hospital sick, or the back of some drug store," Carol Hughes ditzes with the best of them (where the best of them, as we'll see, is Una Merkel); Frank McHugh discards his usual cynical-idiot bray for unshakable dignity and becomes a surprisingly touching poet-hero. I didn't know he had it in him.

Nor did I know that Joan Blondell had that voice in her; nor did I want to. (Virtue is easy; accents are hard.) Blondell putting on a fake New York accent is as disturbing as me putting on a fake Groucho nose. It says something about the difference between acting and movie acting that she's the least professional aspect of the film and figures in its only moment of visual interest: a bizarrely interpolated upside-down glamor shot explaining why she's draped across the hero's legs. And -- "'Cause I'm just crazy about poetry. That's why." -- she also initiates the kind of exchange a guy wouldn't mind on his tombstone:
"You're kind of nice, do you know it, Erwin?"
"No. No. But I've always tried to be as decent as I know how."
  Joan Blondell as Mabel
"I'm dizzy, Patsy."

. . .

My Funny Valentine

        -- The ungainliness
        of the creature needs stating.

Feeling this, what should be the form
Which the ungainliness already suggested
Should take?

        -- Description -- lightly -- ungainliness
        With a grace unrelated to its suroundings.
- Louis Zukofsky

Gob, he'd have a soft hand under a hen.
- James Joyce

Ungainly not only here, Zukofsky's muse. As for grace?

The extent to which you find (for example) "Look in your own ear and read" 1 an infelicitous image 2 must depend on whether you consider gooniness one of the felicities of lyric. 3

Robert Duncan and Barrett Watten have demonstrated two very different ways of reading Zukofsky humorlessly, but why bother? I read Zukofsky because he makes me laugh.

Am I laughing with Zukofsky or at him? Is the humor about a dry pedant being unselfaware, or is it the dry humor of a selfaware pedant?

First reaction

It's not any of our business. Finding out that Thurber was "really" an abusive drunk should make us rightly suspicious of getting married to guys because they make us laugh, but it shouldn't make us stop laughing at them, any more than finding out that name-your-slapstick-favorite was "really" very graceful and athletic. As Barthes pointed out in his immensely influential essay, "The Death of the Clown," one never gets the opportunity to laugh at a performer. Only at a performance.

Second reaction

It's pointless to worry about intentions if the point is that the intention is unknowable. When the absent-minded professor springs out of bed shouting "Zebra-fragrant! That's the answer: zebra-fragrant!",4 the joke depends on our understanding his lack of regard rather than our understanding what he's on about.

Third reaction

Not all laughter is mocking. Laughter is also a reaction to surprise and pleasure. We laugh to free our mind from our mind's bondage. When pundits talk about humor, they often concentrate on the Rush Limbaugh and Camille Paglia end of the spectrum, but George Herriman and Buster Keaton are funnier.

Not that Zukofsky is that funny. We are talking about just poetry, where the competition's not as fierce as in cartoons or slapstick, and the results are weaker. If it's true that twentieth-century poets' humor doesn't age well, 5 that's probably because nothing about twentieth century poetry ages well. The wit has always been sub-Rotarian; the lyricism has always been kitsch; the politics has always been blowhardy; the eroticism has always been braggadoccio; the imagination has always been received. What fades over time aren't its effects, but the personal allegiances and illusions that distracted contemporary readers from its effectual paucity.

Still, Pound's bullying excursions into dialect are clearly enough distinguishable from Zukofsky's homeboy familiarity. One is Collins-&-Harlan; the other is, if not Herriman or Keaton, then at least, say, Milt Gross. 6 On his recordings, I hear a soft-spoken hay-fevered rabbinical Groucho Marx; like Marx, a near-as-dirt-to-perpetual verbal machine requiring just an occasional squirt of impulse -- lyric (Zukofsky) or aggressive (Marx) -- to keep the flywheels spinning.

Whether we react like Margaret Dumont or like Edgar Kennedy is a matter of personal taste. I know to which model of bewilderment I aspire, even if I only ever make it to Zeppo.

1 Speaking of private knowledge, this paraphrases Ezra Pound's advice, "Look into thine owne eare and reade," sent in a letter to Zukofsky in 1930.
2 Cf. "Ars Vini" by Anselm Dovetonsils:
         Look up your nose and blend.
3 Presumably Lorenz Hart, for example, was aware of the consequences should one's cardiac muscles try to twist themselves into even the coyest of smiles.
4 Wasn't it Marianne Moore who described poetry as "imaginary lunch bags with real frogs in them"?
5 But how can you trust the judgment of a guy who writes about humor without mentioning David Bromige?
6 A search for "Milt Gross Zukofsky" lands me at the Hugh Kenner Papers, which isn't surprising. What surprised me was finding the typescript of the Heath/Zenith Z-100 User's Guide there.

. . .

I. "Graphs, Maps, Trees" by Franco Moretti

(Part of a group event at The Valve)

Moretti sounds like a happy guy. And it's infectious. Why pledge allegiance to a groove and turn it into a rut? Get out of that stuffy coffee shop and into a cool refreshing stats lab. Live a little! (With the aid of twenty grad students.) An OuBelLetriPo is overdue. Let's pick a quantitative approach and a subject out of the hat: "Pie charts" and "Coming-out stories"—wait, um, I wasn't ready; can I try again? "Income distribution" and "Aphra Behn"? Perfect!

Will you end up with a demolished bit of received wisdom? A sociological footnote? Or just graphic representation of a critical triteness? You don't know! You think Perec knew the plot of La Disparation before he started?

From this set of ongoing experiments, "Graphs" seem to be going best. Those cross-cultural Rise-of-the-Novel curves hold immediate appeal.

And what they appeal for is correlation with something else. Moretti plausibly and skeptically explains who might've stepped on the brakes when the curve dips, but who revs the engine? Do accelerators vary as inhibitors do?

Even more intriguing is Moretti's report that nineteenth-century English fiction genres tended to turn over in a clump every twenty-five or thirty years, rather than smoothly year by year. But his report relies exclusively on secondary sources, and risks echo chamber artifacts. Are generational timespans a convenience for the researchers he draws from? What if dialogic genres ("Jacobin novel" and "Anti-Jacobin novel") weren't shown separately? How closely do the novel's clumps lock step with transitions in other forms? How far can we reliably carry statistical analysis of a non-random sample of forty-four?

Plenty of intrigue, then, and plenty of opportunity to re-make the mistakes of others who've tried to turn history into a "real science."

Since maps are often referred to by writers (and, when otherwise unavailable, as in fantasy genres, often passed along to the reader), their re-use by critics tends to be confirmatory rather than revelatory most dramatically when Clive Hart walked each character's path through the "Wandering Rocks". In "Maps", Moretti's diagrams make a good case for a not very startling thesis: a nostalgic series of "village stories" will most likely feature a village from which meanderings are launched but which fades into insignificance over time. As he admits, his scatter plot of Parisian protagonists provides even less novelty: if you have an ambitious young French hero, you start him in the Latin Quarter and aim him elsewhere. (In 1987 Pierre Bourdieu diagrammed The Sentimental Education's character trajectories on a Parisian map and similarly found graphic confirmation of what was never really in doubt.)

Judging by early fruit, "Trees" hold the least promise. As presented, the "free indirect discourse" evolutionary tree doesn't meet Moretti's own standards of rigor, since he offers no material justification for either his selection of source material or his linkages.

His other evolutionary trees may be most interesting for failing to justify their initiating assumption: that visible decipherable clues define the classic mystery genre. Extending the branches to verifiable examples of "fair play" might draw the tree-builder into unabstractable tangles. In the classic blend of detection with gothic and horror elements, consider how often the resolution seems arbitrary, delivered with a wink. Given how poorly most human beings follow a logical argument, does anything more than lip service have to be paid to rationality? To what extent was that expectation set by reviewers rather than noticed by readers? How quickly after the rule's formulation was it challenged by re-assertion of other aspects of crime melodrama in spy stories, thrillers, procedurals, and hard-boiled stories, and then how quickly was it undermined by "cross-breeding"? (My own experience of genre change seems closer to Alfred Kroeber's self-grafting Tree of Human Culture than to species divergence. You only go so hardcore before background singers return to the mix.)

More exhaustive and more focused, Moretti's "everything published in the Strand" tree carries more conviction (and much less tidiness) than his initial "Conan Doyle and his rivals" tree. Exhaustively constrained to such an extent, though, the tree may describe something less than Moretti seems to hope for. I can imagine a tree tracing certain ingredients of virtual reality stories in 1980s science fiction. But would that graph evolution or just Gardner Dozois's editorial obligation to avoid strict repetition?

Moretti closes his trilogy with two general remarks.

One is a call for materialism, eclecticism, and description. This I applaud, since the most interesting scholarship I've read lately includes interdisciplinary studies of "accidentals", histories of readership and publishing, text-crunching of non-canonical sets, whether mechanically or passionately.... There's plenty of life even in purely literary anti-interpretive experiments such as those collected in Ben Friedlander's Simulcast.

The other "constant" Moretti claims is "a total indifference to the philosophizing that goes by the name of 'Theory' in literature departments." (He doesn't define "Theory" more precisely, but Novalis is apparently not on the prohibited list.) And here, I think, I'll keep my hands quietly folded.

I agree that twentieth century philosophers and psychologists have made awful interpretation factories, and that literary studies sometimes reek of old shit under new labels. But interpretations generated from political science, economics, quantum physics, or fMRI averaging tend to be just as inane. What makes such readings tedious isn't which foreign discipline has been used to slap together a mold, but the inherent moldiness of the affair.

For a critic and pleasure reader like myself, Moretti's text-twice-removed findings fit best in the foundations and framework of aesthetics, clearing false assumptions and blocking overly confident assertions. That's also where neurobiology, developmental and social psychology, and other cognitive sciences seem most useful.

Along with philosophy. Having agreed to open up the field, why ban one of the original players? This isn't the sort of game that's improved by team spirit.


Moretti didn't he do those beige still lifes Thibaud was so fond of? Or no, I remember now it was that beer. All well and good really, but what have you bastards done with Wealth Bondage?

That information is available only on a need to know basis.

And so is the Tutor, come to think of it.

And the only people who need to know are the ones gonna join him.

(You have to respect Candida's choice of domain registrars, though.)

. . .

Good Books from the English Department

Book reviewing don't come natural to me, but the call of politeness sometimes vanquishes nature's. In gratitude for John Latta's pointer, here are two other recent publications which deserve talking up.

  1. Hart Crane : After His Lights by Brian M. Reed

    Beneath his bright candy coating, Hart Crane can be a tough nut to crack. This is the best appreciation-analysis I've seen. If Reed occasionally repeats himself or overstates his case, well, that may be pedagogically necessary. When we limit the force of our expressions to reflect their validity, most readers and listeners miss the point entirely; for the object to be noticed, the mirror must magnify.

    Polemic and expository, Part One mimics the form and mocks the spirit of those "And here's how a feminist talks about Wordsworth" menangeries by showing how both the attractions and screw-ups of Crane's work and life refuse to fit any theoretical structure, academic trend by trend.

    Part Two spins a more idiosyncratic yarn, drawing Crane's lyric and then epic work from his "undertheorized" peculiarities. For instance, he may have been the first writer capable of appending a playlist to each publication. Sure, competitors like Pound, Eliot, and Zukofsky liked to compare their major undertakings to music. But by "music" they didn't mean "The Moon Shines on the Moonshine" at top volume on infinite repeat. (You can get a good taste of this part from "Hart Crane's Victrola" if you have access to Project MUSE or know someone who does.)

    Part Three moves into influence studies less profitably, partly because there's less profit to be had and partly because Reed wants to include lack of influence as a topic. (Non-influence studies could become a horrifically growing field.) Still, it gives him an excuse to get off some good ones about Frank O'Hara.

  2. Why We Read Fiction : Theory of Mind and the Novel by Lisa Zunshine

    As I've noted before, one reason to get older is so instead of dying sad about what we couldn't accomplish we can die happy about someone else accomplishing them. ("Then you can do the work for me," as the poet sang.) For almost as long as I've wanted to write a fantasy epic starring Jack Spicer, I've wanted to write a series of pieces called "Fiction Science" where tidbits from the cognitive sciences (social and developmental psychology as well as the neurosciences) would seed literary speculation. And here's an ex-Russian named Zunshine taking care of it!

    She doesn't include much science, but a little goes a long way with case studies.

    The little she takes are our human need and capacity to track attribution and reliability, and our mammalian impulse to play with our needs and capacities. Those are enough to explain much of the appeal of fiction, particularly written fiction.

    As a professionally literary reader, Zunshine tends to dwell on edge cases. S'OK; she acknowledges them as such, makes their edginess part of the point, and chooses contrasting edges: The first half of the volume looks at attribution games that many readers find too difficult to follow (the heroes of Clarissa and Lolita); the second half at attribution games that many readers find too artificial to care about (the detective mystery genre).

    It's a short book (with an even shorter version online). And despite its comically overblown title, she wrote it without the lookit-me handwaving of Franco Moretti's or Nancy Armstrong's recent loud-and-skinnies in fact, she writes as well as a good blogger.

    By which I don't mean me. Making complicated things seem simple's not a skill I possess, just a skill I respect.


Simultan kindly forwarded from the TLS a brief demonstration that chatty application of a few easily digested ideas to some engaging particulars will not satisfy a seeker of rigorously theoretical manifestos. Fair enough. For myself, I hope there's room in criticism for both, and more.

(I don't suppose the TLS much less the NYRB or the NYTBR will take any notice of the Hart Crane book, since it's neither a biography nor a lament that nobody reads poetry any more.)

Josh Lukin inquires:

Ian Matthews was a poet?

Inspired by what inspires poets, anyway. "Silver moon sail up and silver moonshine..."

Paul Kerschen breaks the curse of silence:

Just wanted to thank the good people at for the heads-up on the Hart Crane book; I requisitioned it from the library this past week and found it a real treat to read, especially the middle section. I admit that I zipped pretty quickly through the final influence-studies part, but the back-and-forth from scansion and syntax to the poetics of the Victrola was a real bravura performance. Among other things, it made me feel rather better about the possibility of writing that kind of book for a living. (And if Swinburne's never gonna be one of my favorite poets, I'm still glad to see that not everyone followed up on Eliot's excommunication of him.)

In Philosophy and Literature 30.2 (2006), Brian Boyd has published a much better dissing of Zunshine than the TLS managed. Regarding my own more positive response, I can only point to the influence of low expectations. (Maybe another reason I mentioned "good bloggers"?)

. . .


From The New Yorker, April 2, 2007, "Bringing Back Berlin":
Their impudent satire snubbed its nose at monogamy and at anxiety.
Moss Hart was always the kind of guy who'd cut his nose to spite his face.


From The New Yorker, April 9, 2007, "Corrections": ... should have read "Their imprudent satire stubbed its toes" ...


Copyright to contributed work and quoted correspondence remains with the original authors.
Public domain work remains in the public domain.
All other material: Copyright 2015 Ray Davis.