Leaflet #8

Another issue of the newsletter . . .


Hot and cold

“All do not all things well,” sang Thomas Campion, and one thing that I don’t do well is the last few weeks before publication. My husband and I were trading anecdotes a few nights ago of how, in the month or so before my first novel was published, six years ago, I was a little sputtering butter warmer of rage and self-regard. I don’t want anyone to look at me! Why aren’t more people looking at me? was then the refrain of my days.

Frank Norris once said that he didn’t like to write but did like having written. It’s the sort of thing people like to hear from a writer, because it suggests that the writer is aware that there is something antisocial about the retreat from the world that is inextricable from writing, and that he is happy to reunite with the world at the end. It suggests, in other words, that the writer likes you.

What a lie. A writer is someone who likes other people much less than he likes to be able to say whatever he wants, in as rococo a way as he wants, at whatever length he wants, making jokes that only he may think are funny. For five years, while writing a novel, I have a life I never thought I’d be lucky enough to live: I sit alone for hours at a time, imagining people and a world, and growing fonder of them than of what is called the real world. And then, just when I think, Wow, I’ve finished a novel, what a good boy am I, I am told: You’re fired, sucker. Worse luck, my new job is salesman. Are my social media accounts tonally appropriate? What kind of pencil do I use? Are any of my characters based on people I knew in real life?

Overthrow is that cursed thing, a second novel. By “second novel,” I mean the book where one reaches—perhaps beyond one’s grasp. Herman Melville’s “second novel” was his third one, Mardi. (His actual second novel, Omoo, was just a sequel—more of the same of what was in his debut novel, Typee.) In Mardi, Melville attempted a novel that was also philosophy—allegorical, essayistic, stuffed full with oakum he had unpicked from his reading. It didn’t go over well. No, Herman, we liked it when you did boy’s-own adventure with ambiguous sexual frisson and anthropological tourism. Not watered-down Gulliver’s Travels but even more pedantic. For his next two books Melville went back to writing boy’s-own adventure with ambiguous sexual frisson and anthropological tourism, though he now appropriated the cultures of England and the American navy instead of those of islands in the South Pacific. In time the thwacked ambition of his “second novel” resurfaced, however. Moby-Dick is Mardi redux—a novel that is, once again, also a work of philosophy. But also with ambiguous sexual frisson and anthropological tourism, now of the culture of whaling. Melville couldn’t have written Moby-Dick if he hadn’t first written his failure Mardi. The challenge thus is not to mind failing. The proper stance to the reception of one’s work isn’t stovetop sputter but what I think of in my internal mental shortand as cool 1970s artist, wearing sunglasses and bellbottoms to her vernissage, cadging cigarettes from her friends in the back of the gallery, downing the yellowy white wine, not giving a shit because what’s important is to keep making the art, you know? Which of course is as much a lie as Frank Norris’s.

Quotes: “Les seuls vrais paradis, said Proust, sont les paradis qu’on a perdus: and conversely, the only genuine Infernos, perhaps, are those which are yet to come.” —Jocelyn Brooke, The Military Orchid

“A delightful feeling of rage seethed and bubbled over me as I read the letter. I was trembling a little and my palms felt sticky. Righteous indignation must be the cheapest emotion in the world.” —Denton Welch, Maiden Voyage

“If England is my parent and San Francisco is my lover, then New York is my own dear old whore, all flash and vitality and history.” —Thom Gunn, “My Life up to Now”

“The whole secret of a living style and the difference between it and a dead style, lies in not having too much style—being, in fact, a little careless, or rather seeming to be, here and there.” —Thomas Hardy, 1875 notebook, qtd. in Early Life

News: There’s an excerpt from Overthrow, the novel whose impending publication is causing me so much agita, in the August issue of Harper’s. In late June (gosh it’s been a while since I sent out a newsletter), the New Yorker website published my review of James Polchin’s Indecent Advances, a history of murders of gays in the 20th century and the so-called gay panic defense.

Below, in Technicolor, is the info on my bookstore events. Please don your bellbottoms and lengthen your sideburns and feather your hair and come:Please come help launch Caleb Crain's new novel Overthrow at a bookstore event in Brooklyn, Manhattan, San Francisco, or Los Angeles Brooklyn: Books Are Magic, 225, Smith St. Tuesday, August 27, 7:30pm. Caleb Crain reads from Overthrow with help from Christine Smallwood, Jana Prikryl, Daniel Smith, and Leon Neyfakh Manhattan: The Strand, 828 Broadway. Thursday, September 5, 7:30pm. Caleb Crain talks about Overthrow in conversation with Kate Bolick. Manhattan: McNally Jackson South St. Seaport, 4 Fulton St. (new location!). Sunday, September 8, 4pm. Caleb Crain and Astra Taylor discuss his novel Overthrow and her book Democracy May Not Exist but We'll Miss It When It's Gone San Francisco: Book Passage, 1 Ferry bldg. Wednesday, September 18, 6pm. Caleb Crain discusses Overthrow in conversation with Anna Wiener Los Angeles: Book Soup, 8818 Sunset Blvd. Saturday, September 21, 4pm. Caleb Crain talks about Overthrow in conversation with Elaine Blair

A retrospective glance

The New Yorker, as you may have heard, has redesigned its website, and is making all articles published since 2007 free, for the summer, in hopes of addicting you as a reader. Once you’re hooked, they’ll winch up the drawbridge, and you’ll have to pay, pay, pay. But for the moment let’s not think about either the metaphor I just mixed or its consequences, shall we?

A self-publicist’s work is never done, and it seemed to behoove me to take advantage of the occasion. So I googled myself. It turns out that I’ve been writing for the New Yorker since 2005 and that ten articles of mine have appeared in the print magazine over the years. All seem to be on the free side of the paywall as of this writing (though a glitch appears to have put several of the early articles almost entirely into italics). Enjoy!

“Rail-Splitting,” 7 November 2005: Was Lincoln depressed? Was he a team player?
“The Terror Last Time,” 13 March 2006: How much evidence did you need to hang a terrorist in 1887?
“Surveillance Society,” 11 September 2006: In the 1930s, a group of British intellectuals tried to record the texture of everyday life
“Bad Precedent,” 29 January 2007: Andrew Jackson declares martial law
“There She Blew,” 23 July 2007: The history of whaling
“Twilight of the Books,” 24 December 2007: This is your brain on reading
“There Was Blood,” 19 January 2009: A fossil-fueled massacre
“Bootylicious,” 7 September 2009: The economics of piracy
“It Happened One Decade,” 21 September 2009: The books and movies that buoyed America during the Great Depression
“Tea and Antipathy,” 20 December 2010: Was the Tea Party such a good idea the first time around?
Unfortunate Events, 22 October 2012: What was the War of 1812 even about?
“Four Legs Good,” 28 October 2013: Jack London goes to the dogs
“The Red and the Scarlet,” 30 June 2014: Where the pursuit of experience took Stephen Crane

“Melville’s Secrets” in HTML

When my essay “Melville’s Secrets” was published last year by Leviathan: A Journal of Melville Studies, I wasn’t able to obtain permission to post a copy here on this blog. Since then, however, Leviathan has moved to a new publisher, Johns Hopkins University Press, which does allow scholars to archive their contributions on personal websites. With the editors’ permission, therefore, I’m posting the essay here today. (The essay is also available as a PDF at the journal’s website, if you work at an institution with a subscription to Project Muse).

Seeing stars after sperm squeezing

Hydria Chananaea
Detail, plate 23 of the Harmonia Macrocosmica of Andreas Cellarius

In my essay “Melville’s Secrets,” I offer an interpretation of a famous passage in Moby-Dick about sperm-squeezing, which concludes with a vision of “long rows of angels in paradise, each with his hands in a jar of spermaceti.” Melville scholar Scott Norsworthy has made a couple of discoveries that he generously describes as a “footnote” to my essay: It transpires that there’s another angel with a jar in Melville’s late prose-poem combination “Under the Rose,” and that, what’s more, both jar-carrying angels may be allusions to a Christianized star-map first published in 1660 by Andreas Cellarius. Norsworthy further wonders whether the row of asterisks that follow the sperm-squeezing passage are meant to suggest a constellation.