Click amount to donate direct to CounterPunch
  • $25
  • $50
  • $100
  • $500
  • $other
  • use PayPal
Spring Fund Drive: Keep CounterPunch Afloat
CounterPunch is a lifeboat of sanity in today’s turbulent political seas. Please make a tax-deductible donation and help us continue to fight Trump and his enablers on both sides of the aisle. Every dollar counts!
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

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 its61lWv9sQr5L._SY300_ 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.

More articles by:

Louis Proyect blogs at http://louisproyect.org and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviews films for CounterPunch.

May 24, 2018
Jeff Warner – Victor Rothman
Why the Emerging Apartheid State in Israel-Palestine is Not Sustainable
Kenn Orphan
Life, the Sea and Big Oil
James Luchte
Europe Stares Into the Abys, Confronting the American Occupant in the Room
Richard Hardigan
Palestinians’ Great March of Return: What You Need to Know
Howard Lisnoff
So Far: Fascism Lite
Matthew Vernon Whalan
Norman Finkelstein on Bernie Sanders, Gaza, and the Mainstream Treatment
Daniel Warner
J’accuse All Baby Boomers
Alfred W. McCoy
Beyond Golden Shower Diplomacy
Jonah Raskin
Rachel Kushner, Foe of Prisons, and Her New Novel, “The Mars Room”
George Wuerthner
Myths About Wildfires, Logging and Forests
Binoy Kampmark
Tom Wolfe the Parajournalist
Dean Baker
The Marx Ratio: Not Clear Karl Would be Happy
May 23, 2018
Nick Pemberton
Maduro’s Win: A Bright Spot in Dark Times
Ben Debney
A Faustian Bargain with the Climate Crisis
Deepak Tripathi
A Bloody Hot Summer in Gaza: Parallels With Sharpeville, Soweto and Jallianwala Bagh
Josh White
Strange Recollections of Old Labour
Farhang Jahanpour
Pompeo’s Outrageous Speech on Iran
CJ Hopkins
The Simulation of Democracy
Lawrence Davidson
In Our Age of State Crimes
Dave Lindorff
The Trump White House is a Chaotic Clown Car Filled with Bozos Who Think They’re Brilliant
Russell Mokhiber
The Corporate Domination of West Virginia
Ty Salandy
The British Royal Wedding, Empire and Colonialism
Laura Flanders
Life or Death to the FCC?
Gary Leupp
Dawn of an Era of Mutual Indignation?
Katalina Khoury
The Notion of Patriarchal White Supremacy Vs. Womanhood
Nicole Rosmarino
The Grassroots Environmental Activist of the Year: Christine Canaly
Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin
“Michael Inside:” The Prison System in Ireland 
May 22, 2018
Stanley L. Cohen
Broken Dreams and Lost Lives: Israel, Gaza and the Hamas Card
Kathy Kelly
Scourging Yemen
Andrew Levine
November’s “Revolution” Will Not Be Televised
Ted Rall
#MeToo is a Cultural Workaround to a Legal Failure
Gary Leupp
Question for Discussion: Is Russia an Adversary Nation?
Binoy Kampmark
Unsettling the Summits: John Bolton’s Libya Solution
Doug Johnson
As Andrea Horwath Surges, Undecided Voters Threaten to Upend Doug Ford’s Hopes in Canada’s Most Populated Province
Kenneth Surin
Malaysia’s Surprising Election Results
Dana Cook
Canada’s ‘Superwoman’: Margot Kidder
Dean Baker
The Trade Deficit With China: Up Sharply, for Those Who Care
John Feffer
Playing Trump for Peace How the Korean Peninsula Could Become a Bright Spot in a World Gone Mad
Peter Gelderloos
Decades in Prison for Protesting Trump?
Thomas Knapp
Yes, Virginia, There is a Deep State
Andrew Stewart
What the Providence Teachers’ Union Needs for a Win
Jimmy Centeno
Mexico’s First Presidential Debate: All against One
May 21, 2018
Ron Jacobs
Gina Haspell: She’s Certainly Qualified for the Job
Uri Avnery
The Day of Shame
Amitai Ben-Abba
Israel’s New Ideology of Genocide
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail