George Scialabba: The Best Since Gore Vidal
There’s a special place in my heart for writers whose day job is unconnected from their art. Whether it is Charles Bukowski sorting mail by day and writing profane short stories in the evening or fellow poet Wallace Stevens sitting behind a desk at Hartford Insurance, I have to believe that the flame burns brighter when you are writing “on your own time”.
And within that special place, there are those people who held down administrative positions at universities, as I did at Columbia University for 21 years until retiring last August. One of them was Hal Draper who worked as a microfilm acquisitions librarian at Berkeley by day while making major contributions to Marxist theory by night, including the five-volume Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution. Of course, his night hours were freed up for this kind of productive work once he severed his ties to a group called International Socialism, a forerunner of the ISO whose members have laid siege to CounterPunch in recent weeks. When he quit the IS in 1971, he summed the experience up in a way that could apply to the entire alphabet soup of “Leninist” sects: “From behind its organizational walls, it sends out scouting parties to contact the working class, and missionaries to convert two here and three there.”
And then there’s George Scialabba. After starting out as a substitute teacher and a Welfare Department caseworker, the same jobs I held down in the 1960s before becoming a computer programmer, he got a job as a building manager at Harvard University, his alma mater. When I met George at a book party for his newly published For the Republic: Political Essays on the upper west side (where else?) a month or so ago, I could not help but chuckle. You are one of those facilities people, I said with a knowing smile. (I pictured him in a windbreaker with his name stenciled on the breast pocket training a flashlight on a delinquent boiler.)
The hostess of the book party was a Harvard graduate herself and spoke glowingly about her contacts with George as an undergraduate. She described him as part of the broader milieu of the campus that made her education such a memorable experience. If I had introduced George, I would have gone a bit further. Considering all of the scandalous muck-a-mucks who have spoken in the name of the university over the years, from Alan Dershowitz to Larry Summers, I would say that the school would have had a much better reputation if George had been in charge.
Probably we are better off that he has focused on what he is cut out for: reviewing books and writing political essays. Notwithstanding the very real possibility that print publishing is going the way of the blacksmith, we are blessed to have someone as good at that craft as George Scialabba who I would count as one of the best we have since the passing of Gore Vidal.
With his feeling for the average person (his parents were working-class), his pellucid writing style, his wit, and his broad range of interests, George makes the short article or review an art form in itself. For those who have seen it at its best—from Edmund Wilson to the aforementioned Gore Vidal—there is pleasure enough in reading a review without the need to purchase the book under consideration. As someone who finds the Sunday Times Book Review, the fiefdom of one neoconservative or another for the past three decades at least, aggravating to the point of punching your fist through the wall, George’s reviews are manna from heaven.
Drawn from many sources (ranging from Salmagundi to the Village Voice), the reviews and articles cover authors both sublime (Edmund Wilson) and ridiculous (Irving Kristol). A typical Scialabba article starts off with a whiz-bang opening paragraph. Here he is on Edmund Wilson:
It’s said that Art Tatum’s technique persuaded a great many young pianists to become insurance salesmen. Edmund Wilson’s chops were equally phenomenal; not as sheerly, immediately dazzling, perhaps, but in range, erudition, penetration, clarity, and unfussy elegance, no less jaw-dropping. And just as Tatum’s multi-volume Complete Solo Masterpieces (Pablo) is one of the summits of piano jazz, the Library of America’s new two-volume issue of Wilson’s essays and reviews from the 1920s, 30s, and 40s is one of the summits of twentieth-century literary criticism.
Thank goodness that when George Scialabba first came across Wilson’s prose, he did not decided to become an insurance salesman (or executive) like Wallace Stevens. Ironically, he did become a kind of white-collar slave at Harvard University but that did not prevent him from carrying on in Edmund Wilson’s tradition.
To complete the circle, George’s take on Edmund Wilson’s “To the Finland Station”, a famous essay about Lenin’s secret trip to Russia on a German train, evokes Hal Draper’s breach with “Leninist” dogmatism. Referring to Wilson’s critics like Paul Berman and David Remnick who found Wilson altogether too charitable to Wilson, George reminds us of Wilson’s political independence and willingness to challenge dogma—an obvious duty for intellectuals in the conformist 1930s:
And in the chapter on “Lenin at the Finland Station,” Wilson gives the last word to the anti-Bolshevik revolutionary Bogdanov, who, revolted by Lenin’s authoritarian declarations, “furiously scolded the audience: ‘You ought to be ashamed to applaud this nonsense – you cover yourselves with shame! And you call yourselves Marxists!’”
It seems to me that, notwithstanding his later self-criticism about To the Finland Station, Wilson was as clear-sighted about the evils of Leninism as his critics.
How true. Except that I would regard today’s “Leninists” as lacking the capacity to construct a dictatorship on the scale of Stalin’s. Their saving grace is their impotence.
Louis Proyect blogs at http://louisproyect.wordpress.com and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviews films for CounterPunch.