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On Reviewing Books

Max Eastman's library on Martha's Vineyard.

I have been a book reviewer for twenty years, reviewing mostly non-fiction books for The Wall Street Journal and a variety of other publications, including Ron Slate's On the Seawall. A representative selection of my reviews appears here in roughly chronological order. I recently spent a week sorting through Max Eastman's library in his former house in Aquinnah and found myself reflecting on a life with and through books. Eastman, the subject of one of my biographies, died in 1969, but he seemed to have perused these books just yesterday. Reading his often dyspeptic notes, I was having a conversation with him, agreeing and (perhaps more often) disagreeing with him. He didn't treat his books well at all, and many threaten to fall apart when you open them--not because they haven't aged well but because Eastman handled them roughly, intensely, the way he would treat people, too, with irony, irritation, and, more rarely, love. I am a much gentler reader of books, a much more sympathetic critic than Eastman was (who'd simply wite "bunk!" in the margins of a book), but like him I have had the best conversations of my life with books. And, oh yes, books do talk back to you. They correct, admonish, chastise you. All the time. That's why I love being a critic--each new assignment brings another conversation partner and, perhaps, new friend into my home. There's no better life, as far as I am concerned.

Plus ça change

James T. Fields, Letter to E. S. Mills, June 14, 1863 (collection Christoph Irmscher)

Any writer who has ever received a rejection letter (and are there indeed some who never have?) will see a familiar pattern in the letter James T. Fields (1817-1881), influential publisher, editor, and co-owner of The Atlantic Monthly, sent to a certain Mr. E. S. Mills on June 14, 1863: "My dear Sir, I am sorry I cannot use the Mss., you have sent me, in the 'Atlantic'. So large a number of accepted contributions are on hand that we decline excellent  things for no other reason. with my thanks, Yours truly J. T. Fields." Modern versions of the same brush-off typically evoke, aside from the incredibly "volume of submissions," the claim that the manuscript wasn't "a good fit at this time."  Ethelbert S. Mills, the President of the Brooklyn Trust Company and a well-known patron of the arts, would kill himself ten years later, not because he never made it into the pages of the Atlantic, but because he had mishandled the company funds, including giving himself loans of over $200,000, and was about to be found out. We don't know what the "excellent things" were that he had submitted to Fields.