In the two decades before his death in 1915, Booker T. Washington was far and away the most admired black man in America. He was almost unique in having many supporters in both black and white America. This was a period when black America reached its post-slavery nadir in virtually every area of life – socially, economically, politically. In the South — where 90% of black Americans lived — the successful counterrevolution against Reconstruction meant that Jim Crow was firmly and ferociously in place. In the north, blacks enjoyed more political rights but socially and economically were at the bottom of the ladder.
To this dire situation, Washington offered a path for progress for improving race relations which was designed to appeal to both blacks and whites. In his famous 1895 speech in Atlanta, Washington advocated a compromise whereby African Americans would give up the demands for equal political rights in exchange for assistance in a mutually beneficial program of education and economic improvement. In words of Washington’s most intellectually rigorous critic W.E.B. Du Bois, this program consisted of “industrial education, conciliation of the South, and submission and silence as to civil and political rights.”
David Frum and I have had an interesting twitter debate about the merits of the Victorian novelist Anthony Trollope (you can read the dialogue here). I have a much higher regard for Trollope than Frum does and I thought it might be useful to spell out at greater than 140 character length why he’s one of my favorite novelists (and also quote some sharp critics on Trollope).
I’ve had a soft spot for Trollope ever since I started reading his novels a teenager. It’s good to start young when delving into Trollope because it takes a lifetime to survey his work. He was one of the most prolific writers of good fiction. He had 47 novels under his belt, many of them hefty tomes weighing in around the length of Bleak House, Anna Karenina or The Brothers Karamazov. As if those novels were somehow insufficient there are also five volumes of (quite excellent) short stories and miscellaneous but still voluminous books of (solid, informative) travel writing and other non-fiction (including an excellent, rewarding memoir). All of which adds not just to an oeuvre but almost a mountain range, a formidable requiring time and perseverance to conquer.
Saul Bellow’s selected letters have just been published and, at least according to a review by Jeff Simon, they reveal that the Nobel Prize winning novelist really hated the literary critic Hugh Kenner:
There are 708 letters here and none of them seem much like practice, whether nominating Roth for the Nobel Prize in 2000 or cheerfully enlisting Karl Shapiro in a mock club for “haters of Hugh Kenner.” With his old friend Isaac Rosenfeld, he says, “I used to join clubs of this sort” including a “Faerie Queene Club to which nobody could belong who had read The Faerie Queene. When I read the first canto, I was put on probation, and when I read more I was expelled. But no one could ever dislodge me from a Hugh Kenner Society.”
What was the source of Bellow’s animosity? I’d have to read the letters to find out, but I strongly suspect that at the root of it all was a very critical review Kenner wrote of Delmore Schwartz’s Vaudeville for a Princess. Writing in the October 1951 issue of Poetry, Kenner dismissed Schwartz’s book as silly and sappy. Bellow and Schwartz were great friends, and the novelist felt particularly protective of the poet because of Schwartz’s mental unstability. Bellow’s novel Humboldt’s Gift (1971) is partially about his friendship with Schwartz.