Solitary the thrush

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Illustrations from Internet Archive’s Webcomic Universe collection

Begin to write something for Small Business Saturday, drafting it in blue ink (a major gestalt shift from black) in the big new notebook. Small business: it’s nice to write or say the words. People like to hear them said. So politicians do, and they’ve left the concept rather soiled, grabbing it to wave around forever, repeating Small Business Small Business to so cynically little effect, after all, upon failure rates. Then American Express decides to buy a media credit card holiday to follow Black Friday on Facebook and 6 o’clock news programs. Small Business Saturday 2010 was the first. Here was another one.

But take the words back, scrub the concept clean to study afresh: there’s that unquenchable ideal people recognize, the American Dream of Lincoln’s America, the single lifetime’s evolution from wage-work to running one’s own concern. A national folk romance, to be honest, repeatedly dramatized until who hasn’t pictured it, the big step up to small business ownership and its tests of toil and talent, prudence and nerve; for all who work, a dream to hold in common; for all who work and dream, a common goal: our shared human life well-served in all places by skilled small proprietors.

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These thoughts lead to the recent spate of exits among old white critics. Harold Bloom, always fascinating, maybe never more so than in this article by Michael Wiengrad about his thralldom to a favorite book, died at 89 in October. 94-year old John Simon just died at a dinner theater of all places. The same week, Clive James, only 80, finished the dying he’d published articles about for years. They usually work until the end, these old white men stamped in boyhood, often, as outsiders, as these three latest were; whose ambition drove them to pinnacles; who came to tower in bankable status over decades in Western letters. They had help, sure, but it was an astonishing feat of theirs all the same, to have marshaled so much admiration with such tenacity. To judge only by how well their names were still recognized, they must have been doing something right.

In fact they were engaged in a kind of civic activism, representing what has been left of Western culture to itself. This was their job. Though employed by colleges or periodicals, inside they worked for Western culture, all their loyalties were with it. True believers, they kept their faces raised to the high-throned standards while sinking the rest of themselves, symbiotic, ever deeper into Western culture through its root system, Western letters. By middle age they’d read everything of substantial importance enough times to eventually contain, each man of them, Western culture’s entirety—not alone in his own esteem. Millions agreed with them. I agreed. They were sages.

And strong writers. Much of their prodigiousness grew from their ability to find, amid all their necessary reading, the other hours to write so much of merit. Laughing fans shivered pleasurably over the way they turned phrases; dynamite lines and paragraphs like fireworks displays lit up the briefest review; while 600 pages felt like a Disney vacation if everything Disney or plastic were painstakingly replaced with Western culture. Clive James on jazz, Harold Bloom on Whitman: joy rides. It’s the mimetic quality, their exact reproduction of something so real to them, almost a place they’d visited and now could tell of nothing else: the sheer variety of Western culture, its ranges and myths, records, masterpieces, great personalities, tragic chronologies. All was clear to them, as the ragged strung-out intermittent culture of the West resolved itself before their eyes into an incandescent globe to study and adore–all each man contained floating there, projected. Doubts, none, only a growing conviction that Western Culture was as big as they said, and as major. Bent at their desks over innumerable manuscript pages, these seemingly permanent fixtures sat proclaiming the word across two, three generations. Their views were biased and enormously selective. They had agendas. Many times they said mean things for pay. They were strange, old when young, never anything but white men. Three collected by Death lie naked in a coincidental row before us. And there is snickering, and hushed debates gaining volume; someone asks, Were these men even defensible?

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Maybe it’s just the pace of things these days, rushing spite. Kick them before they’re forgotten.

Return to the picture of the sages at their desks. Over each old man’s rounded shoulder we spot their enchanted orb’s original, filling half the window frame of stone: a better planetary body, a realm to which Earth’s higher order beings ascend. They watch the sage, their living representative, their reality his to depict and impart through labor unceasing. Who will replace these workers for Western culture? Who will speak as they could for the towering dead? They had great brains, yes, even greater stamina, no question, but their belief in their vocation was what convinced. They spoke of a wholeness they knew from experience; though it was only words, they’d reached something. Here is Bloom, writing in The Western Canon about Walt Whitman and his poem inspired by Lincoln’s death:

I remember one summer, in crisis, being at Nantucket with a friend who was absorbed in fishing, while I read aloud to both of us from Whitman and recovered myself again. When I am alone and read aloud to myself, it is almost always Whitman, sometimes when I desperately need to assuage grief. Whether you read aloud to someone else or in solitude, there is a peculiar appropriateness in chanting Whitman. He is the poet of our climate, never to be replaced, unlikely ever to be matched. Only a few poets in the language have surpassed “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d”: Shakespeare, Milton, perhaps one or two others. Whether even Shakespeare and Milton have achieved a more poignant pathos and a darker eloquence than Whitman’s “Lilacs,” I am not always certain.

 

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