Gilbert T. Sewall, contributor: Since Tom Wolfe died in May, I’ve revisited several works. The title essay in Mauve Gloves & Madmen, Clutter & Vine (1976) is a delicious send-up of a New York Review of Books-type author. His report could be thought of as a sequel to “Radical Chic,” his account of the notorious Leonard Bernstein party, the one with the unforgettable Roquefort cheesies and the Black Panthers. Wolfe’s writer is chalking up the expense nut: the seven rooms on Riverside Drive, the caterer (Mauve Gloves & Madmen), the florist (Clutter & Vine), the summer place on the Vineyard—a necessity, really—as are the Dalton and Collegiate tuitions (let’s not say why). And to our delight, Wolfe visits the day his engagé author is beginning a new book, typing out the working title,
RECESSION AND REPRESSION
POLICE STATE AMERICA
AND THE SPIRIT OF ’76
Mauve Gloves & Madmen, Clutter & Vine includes Wolfe’s seminal, “The Me Decade and the Third Great Awakening,” a premonition of the rapidly emerging culture—and religion—of narcissism. Werner Erhard and Esalen, Hare Krishna and the Jesus People, Erica Jong and Teddy Kennedy are among the 1970s cultural vectors since passed into legend. Another well-known piece here is a paean to Vietnam pilots, “The Truest Sport: Jousting with Sam and Charlie,” a favorite of Wolfe fans who consider the essay a forerunner of The Right Stuff.
Mary Beard’s SPQR (2015) and Adrian Goldsworthy’s How Rome Fell (2009) revisit a colossal subject. The two fresh accounts act as bookends, Beard’s covering Rome’s long arc, and Goldsworthy, Rome on the long fall down. Beard tries to explain what it meant to be Roman. Goldsworthy notes that Christianity aside, as the Western empire faded, Roman officials “forgot what the Empire was for.” As the Empire aged, he observes, the “wider interest of the state” became “secondary to personal success and survival.”
I don’t follow contemporary poetry, so I came to Billy Collins late, thanks to academic friends and a great dog poem, “Care and Feeding.” I’ve learned since that Collins is much loved, fills auditoriums, and sells many books. It’s not hard to see why. Collins affirms life’s small joys and the outer world beyond Me. His 2013 collection, Aimless Love, contains several bravura pieces, including the enigmatic “Flying over West Texas at Christmas” and haunting “Last Meal.”
Scott Beauchamp, contributor: Before I came to read Unafraid of Virginia Woolf: The Friends and Enemies of Roy Campbell by Joseph Pearce, Campbell was completely unknown to me. Well, maybe not completely. I thought I’d run across his name reading about the Inklings, so I was aware of some vague connection there. And my friend Andrew had shown me a photograph of Campbell which he keeps in his Judge’s chambers, so I suppose I knew what the man looked like. But my knowledge was lighter than superficial. I certainly hadn’t read any of his vigorous, witty, and at times even oracular poetry (gathered conveniently in Roy Campbell Selected Poems, edited and introduced by Joseph Pearce). I didn’t know about his growing up in South Africa, or his peripatetic bohemian lifestyle before (perhaps even after as well) his entry into the Catholic Church while living in Spain, his struggles with the siren call of fascism, his epic literary friendships with the likes of Hart Crane, Edith Sitwell, Tolkien, or Dylan Thomas, or the oversized feuds he had with the Bloomsbury group and their aesthetic progeny (he once attacked Spender onstage during a poetry reading, punching him in the nose). The biography went a ways in confirming some of my worst suspicions about the Bloomsbury group—their mindless snobbery and banal politics masking a collective petty avarice—of which Campbell, perhaps the greatest writer of satirical verse since Pope, wrote: “Hither flock all the crowds whom love has wrecked / Of intellectuals without intellect / And sexless folk whose sexes intersect…” It’s verse that could have been written yesterday.
Pearce’s biography, as well-researched and warmly written as it is, benefits from having as its subject a poet who lived off the page. Campbell’s life and work bleed into one another in complex and unexpected ways, and Pearce expertly renders the heady synthesis.