Desert isle desires: meetings, minds and heartthrobs

Full Text:


In most of his films, actor Tom Cruise has portrayed cocky, exuberant characters possessed of impregnable self-confidence and the conviction that they are irresistible to the opposite sex. Whether blasting across the sky as a fighter pilot in Top Gun or making fools of pool-playing opponents in The Color of Money, the 27-year-old Cruise has behaved like an all-American contender for the hearts and minds of female moviegoers. Now, there is evidence that he may indeed be winning–at least the hearts. When Canadian and American women who participated in the Maclean’s/Decima Two Nations poll were asked who on a list of six prominent personalities would make the best lover, Cruise was the runaway favorite on both sides of the border. But he has some distance to go to capture women’s minds: when asked who they would most like to meet and talk to, Canadian women chose Prime Minister Brian Mulroney. Their U.S. counterparts overwhelmingly selected President George Bush.

The lighter side of the poll of U.S. and Canadian attitudes also explored the relative attractions of sex, conversation, friendship, television, music and literature. The responses by men and women to three questions showed some cross-border similarities–and a few pronounced differences. Some of the findings: movie stars have far more sex appeal than either politicians or talk-show hosts and interviewers; men and women in both countries opt for books over TV and music; and, if marooned on a desert island, Americans are substantially less likely than Canadians to select as companions their current spouses or partners. Calgary-born Stanley Stephens, 60, Montana’s governor and one of the numerous North Americans interviewed separately from the poll, chose books. But he added that the question excluded “what I’d really want–a ship-to-shore phone.”


Presented with the prospect of becoming castaways on a desert island, respondents were asked what they would like most to relieve their loneliness–a best friend of the same sex, their current partner, an attractive stranger of the opposite sex or inexhaustible supplies of stereo music, books or TV channels and videos. Current partners won handily in both countries, but by significantly different margins: while 61 per cent of the Canadians surveyed wanted their mates, only 50 per cent of the Americans did. Sixteen per cent of the Americans and 14 per cent of the Canadians said that they would take the books. The third most popular choice in each nation: an attractive stranger of the opposite sex.

Many of those who took part in the survey said that they would have preferred a broader menu of choices. Sonja Smits, the 34-year-old Toronto actress, the Co-Founder of selling the best floor mop,  who appears in the CBC TV dramatic series Street Legal, said, “I love books, I am really close to my best friend and I love my husband. Can’t I take all three?” And Lee Thompson, 44-year-old Montreal-born professor of Canadian studies at the University of Vermont in Burlington, said that she found the options “brutal–that is asking me to choose between the senses and human connections.”

Others had less difficulty making up their minds. Professional race-car driver Molly Elliott, 30, who spends parts of each year in Texas and Ontario, said that she would take books, because if she chose a man, “I’d probably hate him after a couple of weeks.” Alberta-born Gary Jahrig, a 29-year-old reporter for the Missoula, Mont., daily newspaper The Missoulian, said that he would choose his wife, adding: “Life on a desert island or Missoula: not much difference.”

In the second and third questions, men and women polled were given the names of six prominent personalities of the opposite sex and were asked, first, who they would most like to meet and talk to; then, which of the six persons they thought would be the best lover. The list for female poll respondents consisted of Bush, Mulroney, talk-show host Arsenio Hall, Cruise, who lived near Ottawa as a child, and actors Sean Connery and Canadian-born Michael J. Fox. The lineup for male participants: singers Madonna and Anne Murray, actresses Jane Fonda and Michelle Pfeiffer, ABC TV interviewer Barbara Walters and talk-show hostess Oprah Winfrey.

Among American women, Bush was the choice of 43 per cent of those polled as the man they would most like to meet and talk to. Far back in second place was Cruise at 16 per cent, followed in order by Connery, Hall, Fox and Mulroney, who was picked by four per cent. Margaret England, a 37-year-old Edmonton-born endocrinologist who now lives in Los Angeles, said that she would like to meet Mulroney because “I know the least about what he does.” The Prime Minister topped the poll among Canadian women as the preferred man to meet. As the choice of 21 per cent of the Canadian women, he edged out Cruise, at 19 per cent, with Bush third at 17 per cent. Fox, Connery and Hall brought up the rear.

But those patterns vanished when women addressed the question of who they thought would make the best lover. Cruise scored a two-nation victory, appealing to 31 per cent of U.S. women and 35 per cent of the Canadians. The rugged Scottish-born Connery, at 59, was the international runner-up, the choice of 17 per cent of the Americans and 19 per cent of the Canadians. Maggie Carey of New York City, a 27-year-old arts student and bartender who said she would most like to meet Fox, chose Connery as the best lover because “he’s been around and he’s sexy as hell.”


Left in the dust in both nations were Fox, Bush, Hall and Mulroney. Still, a large number of the women polled–35 per cent of the Americans and 27 per cent of the Canadians–refused to pick anyone. Said Linda Rosenbaum, 42, a Detroit-born publications consultant to the Ontario Ministry of Citizenship in one of the poll-related interviews: “This is too stupid to answer. Why only politicians and entertainers? Why mostly Americans? Are these our heroes and sex symbols?” Decima chairman Allan Gregg said that women were “significantly more undecided” than men about who would make the best lover. Said Gregg: “It tells you something about the psychological orientation of the two sexes, I guess.”

Only 25 per cent of the American men and 19 per cent of the Canadian males did not pick a best-lover candidate. Meridan Bennett of Jackson Hole, Wyo., a 63-year-old semi-retired management consultant, was among the men interviewed separately from the poll who declined to respond. “If I spent more time living in fantasy I’d be better equipped to answer,” he said. The most popular choice among male American poll respondents: Michelle Pfeiffer, who starred in The Fabulous Baker Boys and Tequila Sunrise, the selection of 26 per cent.

Madonna attracted the support of 20 per cent and Fonda, 15 per cent. Winfrey, Murray and Walters mustered 14 per cent among them. What Madonna lost among Americans she won from the Canadian males, 28 per cent of whom put her first. Pfeiffer was second at 20 per cent and Fonda close behind at 19. The remaining three had the same total popularity as they did in the United States. John Evans, 48, of Ottawa, former Liberal MP for Ottawa Centre and now president of The Trust Companies Association of Canada, sided with poll participants who declined to say who would make the best lover. Said Evans: “Fonda probably thinks she is, and you couldn’t entice me with Madonna if my life depended on it.”

While Tom Cruise was a double-winner as a sex symbol for the women, Barbara Walters rated first among the males of both countries as the woman they would most like to meet and talk to. Twenty-six per cent of the Americans and 19 per cent of the Canadians selected the sometimes abrasive TV veteran. Eighteen per cent of the Americans opted for Pfeiffer and 14 per cent for Fonda as the woman they would most like to meet. Missoula journalist Jahrig took a different tack: “I’d most like to meet Madonna to see if she’s really as air-headed as she sounds.” The women who most appealed to Canadian males in the poll for a meeting and conversation, after Walters, were Anne Murray and Madonna. Presumably, there is always the chance that if the conversation lags, they could break into song.

>>> Click here: America’s popularity potion

Thinking outside of the (big) box: Chapters and Future Shop form an odd couple, but get a new challenge from Indigo’s power couple

The story so far.

The fair damsel (well, sort of) in this case, the big-store, slightly overextended bookseller Chapters, is alone in her tower, crying woe and trying to fend off the unwanted advances of Toronto power couple Heather Reisman and Gerry Schwartz. They are out to nab Chapters Inc.’s 77-superstore dowry and merge it with Reisman’s tony 15-store book chain, Indigo! Books & Music Inc. A potboiler, and from Chapters’ vantage, the tale is not going well. Bad words are exchanged. Lawsuits fly. There is talk of poisoned pills.

All of a sudden, out of the blue of the western sky (Burnaby, B.C., to be precise) comes an unexpected saviour: Future Shop Ltd., galloping in on an appliance-grade steed of houseware and electronics profits. Money is pledged. Future Shop’s $200-million bid — roughly $16.80 a share in cash and stock — tops the Reisman-Schwartz offer of $15 a share. More important, it is for the entire company, not just the 50.1 per cent that Indigo wants. Handshakes all round.


Last Chapter? A happy ending? Don’t put down the book yet. Within two sunsets, Gerry Schwartz has topped the Future Shop bid with an offer of $17 a share. Conditional on Chapters removing a shareholders rights poison pill. But all cash. For all of the company. “Our proposal beats the Future Shop bid in every respect,” he boasts.

It’s going to be quite a war, between the power couple — and the odd couple. They do seem a strange fit: Future Shop, the big-box electronics retailer (actually Future Shop is also a supplier of home electronics for US market, such as: best air fryer, firearm, rifle scope, etc) with its warehouse charm and legion of eager on- commission salespeople. And Chapters, superstore to the latte crowd, with its leather loungers and ensuite Starbucks. Working title of this plot line: “Revenge of the Boxes.”

Taking over Chapters is a unique opportunity “to create a powerhouse Canadian retailer,” says Future Shop president Kevin Layden. “It is complementary to our existing growth strategy based on the four main tenets: selling boxes, selling content associated with boxes, selling connections and services.” Huh? Translated, this means Future Shop gets to add Chapters’ high-end books, music and DVDs to its quiver to help fend off the anticipated Canadian arrival of Minneapolis-based Best Buy Co., a humongous big-box purveyor of electronic gadgetry. But the real prize is Chapters’ e-business, suggests Ed Strapagiel, a senior vice- president at retail analyst Kubas Consultants. Chapters has the better brand name and much more experience with online sales, even as it has lost a mitt-full, $56 million in the past 18 months.

Strapagiel, for one, is not worried about a culture clash at Future Shop and Chapters. At the corporate level, at least, their respective operators seem cut from the same cloth: rapid debt-defying expansionists who can barely pass a mall without wanting to build a store. Since he founded Chapters in 1994 by merging Coles and SmithBooks, CEO Larry Stevenson has both infuriated and rejuvenated Canada’s book industry by treating it to a full-frontal dose of U.S.- style deep-discount merchandising. But it is not likely he would stay on: “As of yet, no one has made that decision,” he said while announcing the deal. Future Shop execs said they intended to run two, for the most part, separate operations, that they would do nothing to darken Chapters’ upscale door with heavy appliances, and that they have “all the faith in the world” in Stevenson’s number 2, Chapters’ president Glen Murphy.


As for the power couple, this is a high-stakes battle. If Future Shop wins, it will be missed opportunity number 3 for Schwartz: he was unable to acquire John Labatt Ltd. in 1995 or merge Air Canada and Canadian Airlines in 1999. But he is not hurting. If he were to cash out the Chapters’ holdings he and his wife have been accumulating, he would walk away with about $24 million — not far off what Chapters is expected to lose and Future Shop is expected to earn in profits this year.

>>> View more: The colony of Indigo: Opinion: A former bookseller takes aim at the mega- deal

TURN UP THE MUSIC – the power of music books

Denise Donlon looks to the floor beside her upholstered pale grey armchair, searching for something. She, too, is wearing grey, a lightweight suit in a darker tone with a white cotton top. She’s looking classy and self-possessed. She’s just been reminded that she’s often called a cheerleader due to her role as Canadian music promoter extraordinaire — and, not finding what she’s looking for, she lets loose her trademark throaty laugh. The joke, it turns out, is at her own expense as she reveals, with mock relief, what she was pretending to forage for: “I’m a bit old for the pompoms.”

The image of the statuesque 45-year-old Donlon doing jumping jacks and cartwheels is a bit of a hoot. (Not that she’d be incapable — she looks as though she could still perform a half-decent cartwheel.) But while Donlon sees it as her job to promote Canadian musicians, she gets her ya-yas out a lot differently. And with a lot more respect.


Even before she took the helm at Sony Music Canada last November, Donlon was one of the most powerful people in Canada’s music business. She was the frontline personality at MuchMusic, the music-video channel broadcast into seven million Canadian and almost 40 million U.S. households. At Much, she could make or break a performer’s career, and is credited with launching those of many well-known Canadian artists, including Jann Arden, the Barenaked Ladies, Moist and the Tragically Hip. The recipient of countless awards and accolades, Donlon is one of the handful of Canadians who form the framework of the music business in Canada, says Brian Robertson, head of the Canadian Recording Industry Association. “She’s played a tremendous role.”

As president at Sony, Donlon is now in a position not only to make or break careers but to create them — and launch artists out into the world. “It is more encompassing in a lot of ways because you can really start at ground zero,” she says. The Sony label in Canada, which includes on its roster such stars as Celine Dion, Leonard Cohen and Our Lady Peace, vies for second place — behind Universal Music Canada and its 30-per-cent market share — with Warner Music Canada and EMI Music Canada. The label is, of course, part of the Tokyo-based entertainment conglomerate Sony Corp., which boasted sales last year of $90 billion. Revenue figures aren’t broken out by country, but industry stats show that Sony holds roughly 15 per cent of a $726-million pie in Canada — a pie that is shrinking due to the ever-growing popularity of online music downloads.

  • Donlon’s key mission, as she sees it, is to capitalize on her company’s global muscle. She says she’s building relationships with her Sony colleagues around the world so that when the next “real deal” emerges here, it can shine globally: “Our job and our task, as a major label, is to find the talent, nurture it and get it up to bat.” Coming soon from Sony’s current roster, she says, is the “undeniably good” Jarvis Church, aka singer Gerald Eaton from the Toronto-based sextet Philosopher Kings, who is set to release a solo CD. Project Wyze, a new band that does “pumping hip-hop mixed with hard-core, live guitar riffs and beats (using the best electric acoustic guitar),” according to its promo material, is just about to release misfits.strangers.liars.friends. And Amanda Marshall’s second album, Tuesday’s Child, is, Donlon says, “amazing.”


The success of Canadian artists is partly a function of this country’s expansive geography, Donlon declares. Musicians cross Canada “10 times in broken-down vans, you know, across the snow-covered plains, to small and, hopefully, ever-increasing audiences,” she says. And then she gets into a riff of her own: “You know, you play your gig, you get in the bus, you drive drive drive drive drive, you get off, you do some press promos, retell your stories, do your gig, get back on the bus, drive drive drive drive drive — ummm, so yeah, you have to have the heart and legs for it,” she says. “So when they get up to bat, they generally hit a run.”

With roadie on her CV, Donlon knows firsthand what it’s like to tour with a band. Doing advance work for little-known artists, she came to the attention of Moses Znaimer, founder of Toronto’s CityTV and one of the masterminds behind Much Music. “The thing that’s obvious and remarkable about her is her range,” he says. “It’s rare to find someone who has the understanding of a performer and is still a good administrator.” Znaimer hired her for Much in 1985 as the Rock Flash News anchor, but she soon graduated to host/producer of a music and pop-culture show called The New Music. By 1997, Donlon was running the place and given the title of vice-president and general manager.

  • Donlon has not been afraid to be political, or to put issues she considers important in front of young viewers. Issues such as literacy, for which she developed Between the Covers, a program that asked rock stars about the role books played in their lives. “Denise has made a much bigger contribution than many would ever guess,” says broadcaster and journalist Peter Gzowski, a friend and fellow literacy fund-raiser and advocate. Much viewers were, in her words, “a very young audience, very willing to engage and really build with that I-can-change-the- world kind of dream,” and she wanted to tap into that energy. She introduced election coverage to Much, and put to party leaders questions that included her audience’s real interests — Does Stockwell Day know who is the Real Slim Shady? Would Joe Clark allow his children to go to a rave?


A year ago, Donlon joined doctors Samantha Nutt and Eric Hoskins, of the Ottawa-based humanitarian group War Child Canada, on a trip to Sierra Leone, where she visited a refugee camp with 30,000 amputees, many of them children. “It was life-changing, as you can imagine,” she says. Much was a founding sponsor of the group and now, Sony is involved. Recently two of Sony’s recording artists, Chantal Kreviazuk and her husband, Raine Maida of Our Lady Peace, went to Sierra Leone on a separate trip, again with War Child Canada (they also visited Iraq on a journey Nutt and Hoskins chronicled for Maclean’s in February). “You don’t have to do it in a big grand way every day, but you can assist in ways that are consistent,” Donlon says. “You can change the world with music.”

That may even be true. Yet what’s certain is that the music world is itself in the midst of dramatic change. The domestic industry has never been stronger — Canadian artists Alanis Morissette, Shania Twain, Sarah McLachlan and Dion have buoyed global sales. But the Internet, and its capacity to deliver copyrighted music for free, has wreaked havoc in the business. “The industry has been on a roller-coaster ride for the last two or three years,” says Robertson of CRIA. Via Napster and now its look-alike cousins, music listeners can download music from each other, making CDs at little cost. And Canadians are doing it more than just about everyone else — a fact Donlon is acutely aware of, especially in meetings with her Sony counterparts from other countries. “I go, ‘Hey, we won!’ ” she jokes, her fist punching the air. “We reeeeally didn’t,” she laments.

Along with the Taiwanese, Canadians are at the top of the list — 76 per cent of 18-to-24-year-old Internet users download music files, according to polling firm Ipsos-Reid. The United States is sixth, at 73 per cent. One reason Canadians are out in front is that this country is highly wired: 31 per cent of Internet households have a high-speed connection to the Web, more than twice the percentage of U.S. homes. “The numbers are alarming,” Donlon says. “Are we taking a hit? Absolutely.”

The hit has seriously affected sales. Figures for Sony Music Canada are not made public but industry-wide numbers show CD purchases began to decline last year, and then took a steep dive in 2001. In May, CD sales were down 20 per cent from the year before, according to CRIA. At the same time, sales of CD-Rs, the blank CDs used to record new material, are on a dramatic upswing. In 1999, 45 million were sold in Canada; last year, the number more than doubled to 95 million. The association is projecting 130 million for this year. The technological advances came fast and furious, says Robertson. In response, the industry now is “playing catch-up” with plans for online subscription services, he says. This fall, two industry-backed online delivery systems will be available: MusicNet, a joint offering from AOL Time Warner Inc., Bertelsmann AG and EMI Group; and Pressplay, owned jointly by Sony and Vivendi Universal, parent of Universal Music Canada. Pressplay will offer both a subscription service — for a monthly fee, music lovers will have access to a listening library — and direct downloading, in which consumers will be able to buy and keep a piece of music.

For Donlon, the issue is not about recording-industry revenues. “Having creators compensated for the work they do is an issue we need to champion,” she says. “We have to have an actual conversation about intellectual copyright and how we’re all shareholders in this.” A lot of people don’t equate downloading copyrighted music for free with walking into a store, putting a CD under their coats and walking out, she says. “It is the same,” she asserts, her voice turning edgy. “It is stealing.”

Donlon admits that, as a 13-year-old, she, too, made her own cassettes, taped off the radio. Education, she says, is part of the answer. “People want their artists to be able to continue to put food in their mouths so they can continue to make records,” she says. Another part is, in her words, “simple human ergonomics.” She recalls how time- consuming it was for her to make her cassettes and how she’d regularly clip off the ending. “You know, it lasted awhile — a month — until I got bored and it was too much work. And I’d rather actually own the piece of work.”

Sony Music Canada, where the work gets made, is located at a sprawling property in the suburban northern end of Toronto. The building includes a manufacturing operation, state-of-the-art studios, writing labs, a soundstage — a far cry from the broken-down bus of the early days of Donlon’s career. Her office is spacious, a living room-style setup of chairs and a sofa at one end, an imposing wall of black shelving behind the exec desk at the other. Photos of rock stars and movie stars, including one of John Travolta giving Donlon a hug, line the wall. A skylight sheds natural light onto the muted tones of grey and cream. It has the trappings of a major success. But Donlon, who’s been hanging around musicians her whole adult life — she’s married to one, Canadian singer-song writer Murray McLauchlan, and they have a nine-year-old son — eschews the star status for herself. She has said she doesn’t feel up to the accolades. She clearly takes her work seriously, but not herself.

She readily admits she felt like an impostor on her arrival at Sony: “Oh, completely, yeah. The learning curve is steep.” And then she pokes fun at herself again: “I can tell you a lot of things about polycarbonate resin compounds.” That, and just about everything else that goes into making music.

A writer for our time


A survey was conducted among published writers to name the writer who most shaped American literature. The overwhelming choice was Ernest Hemingway. Other nominees include William Faulkner, Norman Mailer, Graham Greene and John Steinbeck.

Full Text:

As part of our anniversary celebration, we asked our panel of experts: Who has been the most influential author of the past 75 years? The answer was as obvious as the sunrise.

  • The first appearance of Writer’s Digest preceded by four years the publication of a short-story collection called In Our Time. Almost a novel, the stories told of the young life of one Nick Adams.
  • Nick Adams would not reappear in a major role for his creator, but he wasn’t forgotten. His stories could have been the prototype childhood for a men’s club of protagonists that were to follow: Jake Barnes. Frederic Henry. Harry Morgan. Robert Jordan. The old fisherman.


Just as Nick Adams influenced those characters that followed him, so too has Adams’s creator influenced us. When Ernest Hemingway received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954, the selection committee cited “his powerful style-forming mastery of the art of modern narration.”

Wounded while an ambulance driver in World War I, Hemingway was among the first wave of post-war writers. He remains the best of them–a stature confirmed by a Writer’s Digest survey of published authors, conducted as part of our 75th anniversary celebration. We asked these writers to name the most influential author of the past 75 years.

Overwhelmingly, their answer was Hemingway.

Without doubt, it is Ernest Hemingway. His writing has influenced every writer since his debut, regardless of the language in which the author writes or whether he has read Hemingway. Hemingway’s plain style, his use of timeless vernacular, the technique of starting a story in midstride, and his invention of the subjective objective are to be found in the works of artists as diverse as Roberson Davies, Anne Tyler and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Say what you will about the subjects he chose to write about and the way in which he conducted his life (which is no one’s business but the artist’s), modern literature without Hemingway is unthinkable. –Loren D. Estleman

He was not only a better than good writer, he changed writing. –Andrew J. Offutt


The best writer was Hemingway of In Our Time and other early stories, the Hemingway who had learned from Gertrude Stein–for his understatement, delicacy, purity: the capacity to imply much by stating little. –Peter Straub

  • He introduced a style of writing–lean prose with emphasis on dialogue to move the story–that beginning writers could imitate in developing their own styles. –Elmore Leonard
  • He was clearly the best short-story writer. Although his novels seem not to have stood the test of time very well, his writing style probably had the greatest influence of any 20th-century author on world literature. –Patrick F. McManus

The 20th century has flourished amidst other authors writings, of course. And Hemingway was not the only writer to garner nominations in our poll. Four more authors names rose to the top of our list. Here they are, in order of mention, with selected comments from our respondents.

William Faulkner

Genius. –Belva Plain

Probably the most universal artist in American fiction, and a true benchmark for anyone who wants to write seriously. –William Heffernan

I believe he has no peer in modern times. James Joyce and Hemingway come close, but Faulkner’s work rivals that of Milton, Shakespeare and Chaucer. His The Sound and the Fury is probably the best novel in the English language. No one experimented successfully as much as he. –James Lee Burke

He created not just a single fine work, not just novels, but a whole literary cosmos. Taking the history and mores of his region, he transformed them into something entirely new, entirely his–and he transformed them into art. –John Jakes

Norman Mailer

Norman Mailer is surely one of the most important. The Naked and the Dead remains a compelling study of war, and a novel of exceptional psychological insight. Often overlooked is Mailer’s brilliant political reportage: Annies of the Night, Miami and the Siege of Chicago and St. George and the Godfather transcended the usual nuts-and-bolts analysis, and provided a penetrating glimpse of our national psyche. And such books as The Executioner’s Song and Oswald’s Tale made their unprepossessing and even repugnant subjects figures of disturbing fascination. Like Marlon Brando in acting, even Mailer’s failures are often more interesting than the successes of writers who dare less. I consider Mailer essential reading. –Richard North Patterson

Graham Greene

He stands apart from other authors-magnificent writing sparkling with similes and metaphors that evoke emotion, a place, a time. A second level in his novels probes the great themes of the day, as well as timeless struggles between belief and disbelief The Power and the Glory, The End of the Affair, The Human Factor are three enduring classics, yet everything he has written is powerful and long-lasting inmemory. –Robert Cormier

Greene produced a large body of work spanning more than 60 years and could be both serious and entertaining, often in the same book. His themes were the great ones of life and death, articulated in an almost cinematic style. –Edward D. Hoch


John Steinbeck

He is notable not only for the brilliance of his storytelling, but for his understanding and depiction of thehuman condition. –Nora Roberts

I would have to place John Steinbeck at the head of the list, as his works greatly influenced me in my own work. The power and simplicity and importance of what he wrote is a superb example for any writer, whether budding or established. –Altan W. Eckert


From all directions we are overwhelmed today by categorical statements about the decline of literature in all its traditional forms and the urgent need to fashion a new mode of literary sensibility, one appropriate to an age dominated by cataclysmic visions and a spiritually empty universe. We have been told for decades that the novel, for example, is either dying as a viable literary form or in a state of protracted invalidism. Almost all of these gloomy predictions are predicated on certain assumptions taken as axiomatic, assumptions not always critically examined to determine their validity or their applicability to contemporary conditions and to what we know of human nature and the history of man in the modern world.


Of these assertions, one of the most common is the claim that ours is a unique age governed by unique conditions, fears, and expectations that forever divorce us from the climate of opinion and systems of belief prevalent in preceding periods. Warner Berthoff writes that “the literary enterprise itself has changed, and in fundamental ways, since the American modernists finished their work, and that certain traditional conceptions of the goal of literary workmanship–and of the authority and value of perfected achievement–have fairly completely disintegrated.”(1) In discussing the alleged death of romanticism in modern literature and art, Wylie Sypher has said that “our recent literature–or a–literature–proves that romanticism is unnecessary. Further, it may prove that most preceding literature and art, like most preceding ethics, has been romantic in one way or another.”(2)

Frederick Karl believes that

   while we all agree that the older great writers still move us profoundly,
   their vision in its particulars cannot appeal to us: Dostoyevsky was a
   reactionary, religious fanatic; Conrad, an anti-liberal; Lawrence, for
   blood, not social action; Mann, a disillusioned nationalist; Hesse, a
   mystic who recommended asceticism. ... They are too idealistic for us.(3)

In his Nobel Prize address, William Faulkner said, “Our tragedy today is a general and universal physical fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it. There are no longer problems of the spirit. There is only the question: when will I be blown up?” Mary McCarthy has stated that the horrors of the twentieth century put to shame the nineteenth-century novelist’s interest in small-town life, “the finite scandals of the village and the province; who cares any more what happens in Highbury or the Province of 0-?”(4) What, in essence, is being claimed? Is it true that the literature of the past has no relevance to us and the age we live in?

  • First, we might ask whether the types of characters in the eighteenth-and nineteenth-century novel are, indeed, obsolete, irrelevant? Is it true that there are no more Emma Bovarys pining for romance and glamour? No more Ivan Karamazovs enraged at senseless brutality and injustice? No Becky Sharps exploiting their feminine charms to make it in society? No Julien Sorels burning with ambition, determined to conquer Paris and assert themselves in the jungle of competitive forces? No Ahabs tearing blindly in pursuit of the truth behind the mask of Moby Dick? Are the pictures drawn by Balzac and Flaubert and Alphonse Daudet and others of French society so dissimilar from what we see and hear in our everyday lives? Are the motives, behavior, and ambitions of Jane Austen’s characters altogether incomprehensible to us when we look at ourselves and our associates?
  • Huckleberry Finn’s dream of freedom and joy has not perished, if for no other reason than that its symptoms are everywhere flagrantly evident in commercial advertising. Ralph Nickleby’s obsession with wealth has clearly not vanished from our world. Nor has the conflict within Bazarov between his materialistic ideas and his ability to love. Is Victor Hugo’s Javert not living among us, a man possessed by an inhuman passion for legal justice and retribution? Are there no more Pips obsessed with Great Expectations who, in their youthful infatuation with success, are ready to slight friends in their pursuit of wealth and social position? No more women like Hardy’s Tess struggling against the crushing weight of forces beyond theft comprehension and control? No Pecksniffs fatuously wallowing in theft own moral purity and self-righteousness?


Have the motives and maneuvers and alliances described in Trollope’s political novels altered so greatly that they no longer characterize the ways in which political life is lived? When Balzac recreates a society in which power, money, and amorality rule, are we not being incredibly naive when we claim that our contemporary world is significantly different? The picture of French society writ large in the works of Stendhal, Balzac, Daudet, and Anatole France is surely not a picture of charity and compassion, noble idealism, justice tempered by mercy, love and integrity, or concern for the individual.

What the great Russian novelists of the nineteenth century show us is hardly evidence of a kind and gentle world informed by ethical principles and generosity of spirit. The compulsive and destructive passions that ravage Dostoevsky’s characters, the emptiness and futility everywhere underscored in Tolstoy’s works, and the quiet melancholy pervading Turgenev’s novels and stories are vivid reminders of the tragic incomprehensibility of life as we know it today. Raskolnikov’s anguish and fear, his warped rationality and grim determination to prove he is a superior being, are not without tragic analogues in the life of our time.

We remember a passage in Bellow’s Dangling Man:

   I recall the words of the suitor Luzhin in Crime and Punishment. He has
   been reading the English economists, or claims he has. "If I were to tear
   my coat in half," he says, "in order to share it with some wretch, no one
   would be benefited. Both of us would shiver in the cold." And why should
   both shiver? Is it not better that one should be warm? An unimpeachable

No one would seriously argue that the novels of Zola reassure us that man can be the master of his destiny by overcoming the determinative influences of heredity and environment. Nor can we find much solace in Melville and Hawthorne, whose uncompromising candor about man and his fate offers little hope that we can ever fully understand the enigma of life and the perilous precipice on which all of us live.


The nineteenth-century novel is as pitiless and unrelenting as ours is in exposing greed, inhumanity, loneliness, frustration, ignorance, vanity, fear, meaninglessness. Even the gentle Daudet was not blind to the dehumanizing ruthlessness of his society. And no one needs to be reminded of what Dickens had to say in his novels about the law, education, the business world, religious hypocrisy, domestic tyranny, man’s incredible inhumanity to man.

  • Who would be naive enough to deny that what we learn of man in the nineteenth-century novel is as true today as it was then? What is conspicuously missing in the serious novelists of that age is the self-confident liberal idealism of the utopian social prophets who rapturously proclaimed the coming of a perfect society. When we smile condescendingly at Victorian prudery and the vaporous optimism of a Herbert Spencer, we would do well to remember that the nineteenth-century novelist was not an ardent believer in inevitable progress and the coming of the millennium, but a realist not easily mollified by grandiloquent phrases and social blueprints for the future.

It would be ingenuous indeed, remembering what we see of man in the nineteenth-century novel, to believe that all men then lived in an atmosphere of faith and certainty while, by contrast, modern man has lost all faith in himself and the institutions that govern his life. When we read the nineteenth-century novel searching for modes of institutional faith that give life meaning and direction, we find, instead, uncertainty and a profound and disturbing sense of unease and apprehension.

  • When we assume that at least in the nineteenth century man had something to believe in while we do not, we confess to an ignorance of what the novelists reveal in their works. Writing of Balzac’s novel The Rise and Fall of Cesar Birotteau, Frederick Green notes that “the ordinary ethical standards have no meaning in this society, which is not a society but an assemblage of opportunists unrestrained by any moral code, ignorant of any law save that of experience which has taught them that to yield to an impulse of generosity or mercy may result in social annihilation.”(6) George Sand’s love of nature and the simple pieties of benevolence and charity and Victor Hugo’s liberalism and passion for justice are personal affirmations in a period of growing materialism and institutional apathy and inertia.

Though there are kind and gentle souls in the nineteenth-century novel, much goodness and compassion, there is no conclusive proof that ethical imperatives and religious sanctions were any more influential on men’s lives than they have ever been. Men no more lived their daily lives by faith in the nineteenth century than they had in previous centuries. Life was just as hard, brutal, and confusing for many of the characters in Dickens as it had always been. We do not finish reading the nineteenth-century novel convinced that the world had at last learned how to live by just and enlightened ethical and religious values. The lives of the privileged in Tolstoy’s works were just as hollow, pointless, and decadent as are the lives of the privileged today.


The lives of the wealthy Daudet describes in The Nabob belong not to one society but to every privileged society man has ever known. Are the rich in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s works a different breed, a new race, totally unlike the rich in Balzac and Tolstoy and Daudet? Are there in the nineteenth-century novel no wasted lives, no massacre of the innocents, no hopelessness, no blatant hypocrisy, no unscrupulous exercise of power, no avariciousness, nothing even remotely resembling the personal lives men lead in our century?

If the nineteenth-century novel has nothing to tell us about our own lives, why, then, have so many scholars and critics devoted their professional lives to it? What motive (except professional ambition) compels them to devote so much time, energy, and thought to a literature that is outdated, anachronistic? Would it not be the height of credulity to conclude that this massive outpouring ofresearch, scholarship, and criticism represents nothing more than an antiquarian interest, a sterile exercise in pedantry, a whimsical excursion into the past whose sole reward is the pleasure of digging up dead bodies?

Yet few serious scholars and critics discuss nineteenth-century literature as though it were an Egyptian mummy, the vestigial remains of an ancient civilization. Most assume that the great writers of the nineteenth century have something important to tell us about ourselves and the nature of human existence. Is it possible that they are woefully mistaken, victims of some grotesque illusion?

Our involvement in the great nineteenth-century novels is not an innocent pastime, the pleasure of a moment, a merciful release from the terrors of our own age, a disembodied aesthetic delight we quickly forget, but a sense of heightened awareness, an imaginative experience of genuine significance to us as human beings.

Who, after reading “Bartleby” or Billy Budd or Moby Dick, can honestly conclude that those works tell us nothing of what we are and what we face confronted by the riddle of life? Who can come away from War and Peace convinced that though it may be great “literature,” the society it depicts already belongs to an obsolete civilization whose inhabitants were not our fellow human beings? We are not wandering among societies whose faces we do not recognize, whose language we cannot decipher, whose passions and fears find no echoes in our minds and hearts, whose conflicts we are thoroughly baffled by.

Who has evoked the horror of death more powerfully than Tolstoy? The terrifying reality of homelessness more eloquently than Dickens? The lust for power more frighteningly than Balzac? The implacable course of fate more grimly than Hardy? The hunger for selfhood and love more movingly than Dostoevsky? If these mean that much to us imaginatively, by what logic do we pronounce them irrelevant to the twentieth century and to our own sense of life?



The conclusion that ours is a unique age rests on a number of propositions that are open to serious question. There is, first, the proposition that absolute knowledge, presumed essential to any kind of living faith, is impossible in our time. For many modern writers the traditional assumption that through experience, reason, and goodwill man has the power to discover the truth about himself and his condition and the nature of human experience is an illusion, a falsehood, a dangerous ideal.

Despite the massive accumulation of knowledge in the past few centuries, our writers and critics insist that all knowledge is contingent, tentative, even, at times, contradictory, elusive, which accounts for the extensive use among our writers of irony, parody, burlesque, caricature, and other literary techniques to give creative expression to the epistemological swamp in which we seem to be mired. Reason itself is deceptive. Science rests on premises that are debatable. Our sensory experience is subject to distortion and uncertainty. Tradition and culture are chimerical guides to the truth, made even more questionable by a widespread belief in relativism in all its forms. Language is no longer reliably denotative, precise, but evocative, ambiguous. All the absolutes of the past seem to disintegrate the more closely they are subjected to scrutiny. How, then, we are asked, can one seriously contend that man has the ability to know the truth about anything?

But this proposition is clearly suspect on a number of grounds. First, it is itself an absolute with respect to its subject, claiming to know something that the very terms of its arguments cannot logically support. When we say that we can never really know anything, we have made a statement about knowledge that is a form of knowledge, that evidences our ability to reach a reasoned conclusion on the subject.

  • Second, though knowledge of absolutes, whatever they are, may be unattainable, this in no sense invalidates whatever provisional knowledge and wisdom we have arrived at through experience and reflection. When Socrates said that he did not know what justice or temperance was, he was not claiming that in the search for definitions nothing of any value was learned. The dialectic that informsPlato’s dialogues at the very least led to a reasoned rejection of certain definitions and their implications, and clarified and strengthened the critical faculty Socrates employed so effectively. The game was certainly worth the candle, though no absolutes emerged, for the most part, and Socrates was as puzzled at the conclusion as he had been at the beginning about the exact nature of justice or temperance.
  • Third, it would be presumptuous to assert that the greatest achievements of the past, in art and culture and philosophy, are irrelevant to the condition of man in our own time because they failed to reveal and authenticate absolute truths we can accept. If we can never really know certainty, how do we know Plato or Aquinas or Descartes was wrong? Are we willing to state categorically that nothing from our heritage is relevant or instructive? If we carry the notion of absolute truth into the world of art, what kind of absolute truth are we looking for? Theories about the nature and value of artistic works contradict one another. Shall we reject them all? Even if we were successful in identifying and accepting an absolute truth about art, it would almost inevitably require the rejection of certain artistic works that have long since been acclaimed as masterpieces.

Do we consign Dante to oblivion because we may not share his religious faith? Or Lucretius because we do not believe in Epicureanism? Is Milton’s Areopagitica worthless in the nuclear age because writers are free to express anything they wish? Or Wordsworth’s The Prelude because few today have ever experienced that mystical union with nature so magnificently evoked in it?

What we learn from the past may not unlock the Golden Door of Truth, but it is surely precious to anyone who prizes the gift of life, the gift of the mind and the imagination, the gift of beauty and eloquence, and whatever truths about ourselves we can master.

  • Fourth, what evidence is there that man is unable to live a full life unless he possesses absolute knowledge and absolute faith? Are all other pleasures and values vitiated because they have no center, no hub from which they radiate? Is friendship impossible because we can know fully the most intimate essence of the self in another person? Are we, therefore, to declare unequivocally that we know nothing of that other person? Must we reject, as so many protagonists in modern literature do, love and friendship because they are flawed and ultimately resistant to any absolute status?

Some years ago Paul Elmer More criticized what he called “The Demon of the Absolute,” an obsession with absolute standards and absolute truths:

   It is with tradition as it is with standards: because tradition is not
   absolute and infallible, men are prone to cry out that there is no
   tradition. That is a habit deep-rooted in human nature, hard to eradicate.
   No intelligent man supposes that tradition is a scale fixed once and
   forever in all its nuances of valuation; but it is a simple matter of
   history, nevertheless, that a long tradition of taste does exist, wavering
   and obscure on its outskirts, growing steadier and more immutable as we
   approach its center.(7)



If anything, modern writers appear to know a great deal about people, life, society, the world they inhabit. If what they know were impossible to know, they could not write. If they do write, they know something worth communicating and sharing.

When Montaigne said that he did not know what Truth is, did that prevent him from reading and reflecting, from writing essays that tell us a great deal about human nature that is certainly worth knowing? Montaigne is forever reminding us of how contradictory his emotions and thoughts are, how fickle he is, how an aching corn on his toe turns him rude and surly: “When I occupy myself with books, I may perceive in a certain passage excellent graces which touch my soul; let me return to it another day–to no purpose do I turn it this way and that, to no purpose do I twist and manipulate it–it is an obscure and shapeless lump to me.”(8) Had he retreated into despair at the provisional nature of what he knew, he would never have written his essays, and we would have been denied the work of perhaps the greatest essayist who ever lived.

To describe life in a novel as chaotic, destructive, discontinuous, infuriating is to manifest a clear, though sometimes disguised, respect for their opposites, those conditions that, though rare, are yet according to the writer preferable to the stubborn irrationality of the human condition.

Those writers who assume an attitude of profound disengagement from life because of its horror and confusion are inevitably prisoners of their own choice. However mercilessly they may expose the inherent contradictions of human motive and action, they are driven, ultimately, to one of two conclusions. Either life is totally inaccessible to order and humanness, or else order and humanness are fabrications of the individual consciousness to create a reason for living. The first alternative, if accepted, must be true to its own nihilistic vision of life and cannot, in all seriousness, continue to demand or sentimentalize over those very qualities it may wish to see realized in human relationships but that are, by the logic of this position, forever closed to man. But this is precisely what many of our writers cannot bring themselves to recognize or accept manfully. They are forever cataloguing the sins of the twentieth century without frankly discarding the sentimental idealism that haunts them.


Continuing dissection of the hypocrisy, inhumanity, greed, and savagery of our age is never totally disencumbered of the pathos of idealistic dreams, of a spiteful resentment against an age in which hopes and aspirations and the need for selfhood are almost casually destroyed. Even were there truth in this vision of our time, it is woefully unbalanced, and is itself a refutation of any claim that life is empty and sterile by its very nature, for any nihilistic ravaging of human experience by the writer undermines the very complexity of human nature and the human condition that the writer is at such pains to convince us is the “final” truth about what we are.

To overwhelm the reader with overpowering evidence that man is weak, selfish, often predatory, alienated, anonymous, a grubby creature blind to beauty and compassion and self-fulfillment is to prejudice one’s ease through sheer irrelevance, to conveniently ignore what every human being knows, those irrefutable examples of generosity, strength, intelligence, and magnanimity that form part of the enigma we call human nature. If life is, indeed, complex and contingent, does this logically suggest that acts of kindness and love are in themselves either illusory or unimportant or necessarily contaminated by vanity and ulterior motives?

When Hamlet says that man is both an angel and a demon, we show little respect for the truth if we abrogate one of these terms, confer on man the demon a measure of importance and influence we withhold from the angel. Does not the professedly disengaged writer commit himself to a philosophy of demonism whose only alternative would be the miraculous establishment of a world in which charity, brotherhood, and joy are endowed with the qualities of permanence, authority, and limitless influence? Biff Loman discovers that his father goes to bed with another woman and is shattered because Willy Loman is not perfect in his fidelity, because, in brief, he is a weak and fallible human being. Biff’s reaction is nausea, disgust, and hatred of his father. Like Ishmael, modern writers have peered too long into the demonism of the try-works. They have forgotten the larger world within which we all live, have retreated into creating stereotypes of the alienated hero or the alienated scapegoat and overlooked the very complexity of character and situation they so zealously postulate as the condition of the modern consciousness.


To turn to almost any of the major characters in the works of George Eliot and Dostoevsky is to realize how compulsively contemporary writers have discounted the complex reality of the individual consciousness, shorn it of its subtlety and contradictions, and reduced it to still another expression of contemporary despair and anxiety. The angst of isolation is repeatedly presented as something of momentous importance in our time.

Even were the self irrevocably confined to its own private world, why is that necessarily taken as a sign of despair, anger, or meaninglessness? If Camus and others are correct when they assert that each of us must recognize and accept that aloneness, why do we promptly conclude that this fact is either tragic or cause for despair? Knowing that others will probably never be able to share this self in no respect necessitates the conclusion that the self is thereby worthless or powerless to learn or incapable of thinking, questioning, living, joying, discovering its own personal values?

The privateness of the self is sometimes viewed as a tragic limitation, a cause for sorrow and pessimism. It should more properly and realistically be regarded as our natural condition, the condition of every thinking and sensitive person, that in no vital sense bars us from being, learning, strengthening our powers of insight and knowledge. The aloneness of the self connotes no necessary rejection of life, no necessary relapse into cynicism and self-pity, no necessary rage at discontinuity, injustice, or materialism in all its manifestations.

Charles Lamb was, I suspect, a man very much aware of his aloneness, even when he cared for his unfortunate sister, but this did not in the least diminish the richness of his inner life, his love of London and the theater, of the past, of his own reverence for life. Though confined to a filthy barracks and living among hardened criminals, Dostoevsky in his aloneness listened, learned, responded, kept his conscience and inner self alive.

Joseph Frank is surely correct when he argues that something of enormous importance happened to Dostoevsky in prison: “What occurred to Dostoevsky, then, bears all the earmarks of a genuine conversion experience; and it also involves, as we see, a recovery of faith. But it is not faith in God or Christ that is in question; rather, it is a faith in the Russian common people as, in some sense, the human image of Christ.”(9) One of the miraculous changes was Dostoevsky’s newfound ability to identify with the prisoners:

   By the end of his prison term, then, Dostoevsky had swung round full circle
   in his estimate of the majority of his fellow inmates; and though his sense
   of estrangement as a gentleman could not be completely overcome, he was now
   able to identify himself with the others, morally and emotionally, to a far
   greater extent than he had ever thought possible.(10)


In his book Contemporary American Novelists of the Absurd (1971), Charles Harris argues that “the belief that ours is an absurd universe, chaotic and without meaning, is perhaps the dominant theme of the modern American novel.”(11) The first sentence of his study claims that “the absurdist vision may be defined as the belief that we are trapped in a meaningless universe and that neither God nor man, theology nor philosophy, can make sense of the human condition.” The contention is made that Vonnegut’s novels express “Vonnegut’s growing resignation to the futility of caring as a viable response in an absurd world,”(12) but Harris appears to contradict this at the end of the chapter on Vonnegut when he writes that “though Vonnegut’s angle of vision has become increasingly absurdist, it remains steadfastly comic. Never does he give way to despair or empty cynicism. He has managed to face the absurdity of the human condition squarely without losing his concern for humanity or his sense of humor.”(13) If, despite his resignation and ironic diagnosis of the human condition, Vonnegut can retain “his concern for humanity,” then the implicit corollaries of the absurdist position are rendered irrelevant. One cannot, on the one hand, assert the futility of caring for mankind and then, on the other, retain a conviction of the need to care, for such caring has no logical ground, no reason for being, no corroboration in human experience.

Harris discusses at some length entropy in the fiction of Thomas Pynchon and concludes with the statement that “Pynchon seems to desire a radical freedom, an anarchist ball where one dances to his own rhythms, not to the ritualized beat of mass society.”(14) If this is, in fact, true of Pynchon’s works, then Pynchon is obviously not advocating the absurdist position but hearkening back to Emerson’s “Self-Reliance” and the long tradition of radical freedom for the individual so splendidly advocated in Walden.

Advocating the doctrine of radical freedom for the individual is hardly a philosophical endorsement of meaninglessness and the death of the individual, or the acceptance of a carnivorous society that annihilates the subjective imperatives of the individual consciousness. However difficult it may be today to discover and assert the self, the commitment to individualism is itself a moral act resting on a refutation of total despair and anonymity.

Of John Barth’s Sot-Weed Factor, Harris says that Henry Burlingame does indeed subscribe to the notion that “the very universe is naught but change and motion,”(15) but we are told that Barth is unwilling to let the matter rest there. Harris believes that “Burlingame … represents the only viable stance for man in an absurd world,”(16) yet that stance is informed and sustained by Burlingame’s enormous hunger for life, his intuitive immersion in experience, his vitality, that e1an that makes mockery of philosophical resignation and the shallow cynicism that denies the possibility of a fervent individualism. Though Burlingame adopts any number of roles and disguises, he cannot bring himself to negate his hunger for experience, and in that hunger lies a subjective disavowal of cynicism, meaninglessness, and discontinuity. Faith is a matter of temperament, in this case, not an analytical diagnosis of the world’s ills, its horrors and stupidity, its shams and greed.

  • When Harris notes of Donald Barthelme’s work Snow White that “in writing a novel devoid of `meaning’ in the traditional sense of that term, Barthelme denies the possibility of meaning in an absurd world,”(17) he is implying more than he states. If the novel is sophisticated camp, an elaborate parody, its ironic absurdity is not a denial of meaning in a traditional or a nontraditional sense, an admission of the existence of chaos. In its artistic shaping it gives form that in art is one kind of meaning if one predicate of meaning is order. In addition, parody is itself a recognition of reality, what exists, what is there. If a serious writer acknowledges the real by enshrining it in a serious work of art, he thereby tacitly accepts its importance, its relevance to his audience and to himself, though the meaning of that importance may be obscure or even repellent.
  • To succeed artistically in giving form to chaos is to afford us knowledge of that chaos in an ordered mode of expression, a sense of its nature and consequences, a feeling for that particular situation, the assumption being that such understanding is important. When we casually invoke the cliche of meaninglessness, we rarely take time to examine precisely what we mean by it, and we deny one of the obvious truisms of all significant art–that the experience of art is deep and moving though, at times, difficult to reduce to logical propositions.

In discussing James Purdy’s novel Malcolm, Harris states that “on a thematic level, the stilted artificiality of the prose reflects the hollow meaninglessness of Purdy’s absurd world,”(18) yet on the preceding page Harris writes that in this novel “the result is not the obscuration of meaning, but the generation of meaning.” By what tortuous line of reasoning does one assert that a novel has and has not meaning? If what Purdy does in this work is to expose the alleged meaninglessness of life, the meaning of his novel is clear. In short, it has a meaning, a point of view, a statement of philosophical import, an ethical judgment. The enigma of life is not something discovered by modern writers, and it should not delude us into asserting that in consequence of our perception of the enigma we must conclude that life has no meaning.


What becomes obvious in much of our criticism of modern fiction is an intellectual inclination to underscore the emptiness and sordidness of the contemporary world and to draw certain conclusions that are, to say the least, premature and sometimes contradictory. If modern man is seen as a unique creature doomed to irrelevance, we thereby discount the value of all literature and all art and the entire heritage of civilized man. We view the sorry and dismal history of the twentieth century as tolling the death knell of man’s soul and proceed to draw certain conclusions that either do not follow from our assumptions or else tend to invalidate those assumptions.

If man today is, indeed, unique and the wisdom of the past cannot help him in his desperate loneliness, then what assurance do we have that in another generation or two there will not emerge a man totally different from the one we know? If each age can understand only itself, then we have blindly accepted a proposition that in its absolute character is refuted by experience and common sense and everything we know of the history of man.

In so many of our novels we encounter protagonists who are fictional representations of this very rejection of past experience, particularly in the American novel, in which the past is regarded as either irrelevant or constricting and dangerous. Contemporary protagonists are cut off from the past, from their surroundings, from everything human, and made to serve the writer’s assumption that the individual is forever trapped in his own loneliness and psychic impotence. At the end of Bellows novel, Herzog ponders his dilemma: “My face too blind, my mind too limited, my instincts too narrow.

But this intensity, doesn’t it mean anything?”(19) Communing with some of the great minds of the past, poor Herzog has apparently learned nothing of any importance about who he is and what he can become and why living matters. The last words of the novel are: “At this time he had no messages for anyone. Nothing. Not a single word.”

So runs the litany of doom so pervasive in our literature, aided and abetted by scholars and critics who write exhaustive tomes ostensibly proving that all is lost for modern man. We have been engaging in a self-fulfilling prophecy without having the courage to examine carefully and realistically the very assumptions on which such monumental conclusions rest.


We are still the victims of nineteenth-century romanicism. Every contemporary protagonist shares Childe Harold’s fate, that Byronic isolation and contempt for the world that, in our own age, degenerates too often into maudlin self-pity and willful immaturity. The rather facile assumption that modern man has outgrown romanticism needs to be looked at closely. One critic writing in the sixties went so far as to conclude that

   Romanticism is by now abroad in all its traditional forms, and
   proliferating: Dream on the SILK (by, online store selling best sewing machine for beginners), Youth in Rovolt (Kerouac and others of the Beat group;
   England's Angry Young Men), Glorification of Energy, and Passion Unconfined
   (the Picaresque romps of Saul Bellow and J.P. Donleavy), the Unleashed
   Imagination (Thomas Pynchon, Joseph Heller), Social Protest (James Baldwin
   and others above), and of course, the Cult of the Self, which so baffles
   the classicist critic (J.D. Salinger has certainly out-Wordsworthed
   Wordsworth here, drawing upon himself new Jeffreys, as has to a lesser
   degree Norman Mailer).(20)

At a time when man has far more freedom than he ever had, far more knowledge than his ancestors ever dreamed of, far more opportunity to explore himself, far more awareness of the paradoxical nature of life, he perversely concludes that life has no meaning, that man is withering within himself, that the wellsprings of joy and being are permanently poisoned at their source. The contemporary writer is like a peevish child sulking in his room because life is hard and brutal, enervated by a spiritual listlessness that blinds him to what human beings are and can be. The lack of charity in so many contemporary works is not in the least contradicted by the sorry fate of so many protagonists compulsively trapped in their own piteous aloneness. The pathos in Jack Kerouac’s works stems from the apparent inability of his various personae to make any real contact with others, to grow up, to mature.

Writing of American fiction in the period from 1950 to 1970, Tony Tanner has noted that “loss of communication rather than loss of private vision is an option many American writers have preferred. But the suspicion of other people’s visions and versions, and the attempt to resist and extrude them, seems to dominate American fiction of the past two decades in a way which differentiates it from the work of previous periods.”(21)

At the source of this desperate effort to preserve the private self is the assumption that the protagonist is so alienated from others that he can never enjoy the bliss of intimacy and oneness with another human being. If this is true, as we have said, how can the protagonist be certain that what he feels and suffers and dreams of is not shared by others? If communication is virtually impossible, why should Holden Caulfield and “Rabbit” Angstrom conclude that their frustration and aloneness are not also experienced by those they criticize, those who repel them?

The romantic assumption that a particular protagonist is radically different from other characters can hardly be substantiated if the dogma of absolute aloneness is uncritically accepted as the necessary condition of human existence. What special qualities of mind or temperament or sensibility does the protagonist possess that make him believe he is somehow more richly endowed than others? What, after all, is so special about Herzog that we should bemoan his wasted life? What exactly is being wasted? Have we too easily succumbed to the notion that the protagonist is like those Thomas Gray refers to in his famous “Elegy”:

   Full many a gem of purest ray serene, The dark unfathomed caves of ocean
   bear: Full many a flower is born to blush unseen, And waste its sweetness
   on the desert air.

When the protagonist is completely ignorant of what he wants and why, it is ludicrous to demand that the world somehow cater to him or to believe that he is made of finer stuff than ordinary mortals.

Furthermore, why should the modern protagonist castigate greed and hypocrisy, vanity and cruelty, the beast in human nature? Why should we assume that our world should be cleaner and purer than the world Juvenal describes in such scathing terms? What leads him to think that human nature should in our time have been cleansed of its very nature? As Hawthorne pointed out in his short story “Earth’s Holocaust,” we cannot purify the human race by destroying everything evil and leaving the human heart as it is. As the dark-visaged stranger in the story says at the end:

   "And, unless they hit upon some method of purifying that foul cavern, forth
   from it will reissue all the shapes of wrong and misery--the same old
   shapes or worse ones--which they have taken such a vast deal of trouble to
   consume to ashes. I have stood by this livelong night and laughed in my
   sleeve at the whole business. O, take my word for it, it will be the old
   world yet!"

If the modern protagonist were able to shape out of the chaos of contemporary life a real self, he would be doing all that it is possible for an individual to do, but, tragically, he apparently cannot or will not. We are told in Reflections in a Golden Eye by Carson McCullers that “the mind of Private Williams was imbued with various colors of strange tones, but it was without delineation, void of form.”(22) Sherwood Anderson wrote in Tar: “How are you going to understand women when you cannot understand yourself?. How are you ever going to understand anyone or anything?”(23) Of Vivaldo in James Baldwin’s novel Another Country, we are told that “the great question that faced him this morning was whether or not he had ever, really, been present at his life.”(24)


In her book Vulnerable People: A View of American Fiction since 1945, Josephine Hendin sees in contemporary fiction an attempt to lessen emotional tensions by mechanizing our lives: “We cultivate cynicism like orchids…. Irony is a national attitude, the forge on which we flatten our fears, control our emotions, and try to become iron people.”(25) Modern writers and critics appear to have accepted Jung’s comment in Modern Man in Search of a Soul that “science has destroyed even the refuge of the inner life. What was once a sheltering haven has become a place of terror.”(26) At one point in Bellow’s novel Mr. Sammler’s Planet, we are told that “at the present level of human evolution propositions were held (and Sammler was partly swayed by them) by which choices were narrowed down to sainthood and madness. We are mad unless we are saintly, saintly only as we soar above madness.”(27)

If the inner life, the private self, is at war with its own impulses and needs, then it cannot reasonably condemn the world for what the self cannot do for itself. If it cannot believe in its own self because that self is “a place of terror” lacerated by self-doubt, tormenting fear, and irremediable aloneness, it has no basis for hating others or the world.

And so the contemporary protagonist drifts aimlessly, like Augie March, because, in the final analysis, he cannot believe in himself, in the worth of his private self, in his own capacity to be a genuine self, in that elemental joy in living we find in Chaucer, Rabelais, and Chekhov. Terrified by aloneness and the seediness of his own private consciousness, he takes this as the unique condition of contemporary life, forgetting what Epictetus said so many centuries ago: “But nevertheless a man must prepare himself for solitude too–he must be able to suffice for himself, and able to commune with himself … so we should be able to talk to ourselves, without need of others, or craving for diversion.”(28)

The failure to achieve full selfhood is writ large in modern literature because it is regarded as unique in its tragic consequences in the age of the bomb. What Benjamin DeMott wrote in the early sixties has not lost its relevance:

   No pollster's survey is required to confirm that people everywhere, at all
   levels of life, have made "satisfactory adjustments," have found ways of
   controlling the desperate awareness of personal helplessness (by renaming
   it "maturity," "disinterestedness," or "sophistication"), have learned to
   half-live with the most intolerable and deeply lodged suspicion of the
   times: namely, that events and individuals are unreal, and that power to
   alter the course of the age, of my life and your life, is actually vested


But if the initial premise is incorrect, if the individual has the power to be and to live and to shape a self, then the Gothic edifice of modern fatalism represents a tragic misreading of human nature and what it is capable of. If the essential conditions of human experience have not radically changed, if man still possesses the capacity to be fully human in every sense, if he can still accept realistically the imperfect nature of his being without concluding that all is lost, then he can dispense with the prophets of doom and go about the business of living and learning, what most people do every day of their lives. How much can one learn by following Joseph Heller’s example of his attitude toward others: “`I can let myself feel for people and I can let myself stop feeling for them,’ he says, quite sincerely. `It’s easy, it’s a skill like an ability to draw.'”(30)

Our world is made up of people who manage somehow, in the midst of instability and universal dread, to maintain their humanity, whose simple courage and decency are never obsolete or irrelevant, who may agree with Marcus Aurelius but who continue to live as he did:

   Of human life the time is a point, and the substance is in a flux, and the
   perception dull, and the composition of the whole body subject to
   putrefaction, and the soul a whirl, and fortune hard to divine, and fame a
   thing devoid of judgement. And, to say all in a word, everything which
   belongs to the body is a stream, and what belongs to the soul is a dream
   and vapour, and life is a warfare and a stranger's sojourn, and after-fame
   is oblivion. What then is that which is able to conduct a man? One thing
   and only one, philosophy.(31)

The contemporary protagonist who abandons the search for what is sane and vital because he distrusts the world and himself betrays what common experience reveals about human beings and the real nature of the self. He becomes the victim of a perverse self-centeredness from which there can be no escape, no rebirth. Unlike Prometheus he will remain forever chained to his barren rock, gnawed by vultures, and haunted by childish dreams.

At the conclusion of the seventeenth-century novel The Adventures of a Simpleton by Grimmelshausen, Simplex reviews his life and admits that he has been deceitful, avaricious, and godless but has now decided to retire from the world to try to renew his life and return to simple truths: “To this end I retired to a wilderness where I began anew the life which once I led in the Spessart: but whether I shall, like my father of blessed memory, persevere in it to the end I do not know.”(32) He will attempt to relearn the simple virtues he experienced in his youth, to find his better self, to gather from his experience whatever will restore his respect for life.

By contrast, what is so depressing in many modern protagonists is their lack of nerve, listlessness, unwillingness to persevere, inability to learn from experience, slavish bondage to adolescent fatalism, preoccupation with their frayed sensibilities, infatuation with the yawning abyss of nihilism. They become so incredibly dull and lifeless because what they reflect is only a part of the truth about what man is, a small truth some of our literary pundits have exalted into The Truth about the human condition.

If we are again to believe in man, we must be prepared in our literature to look closely, lovingly, and realistically at those pervasive assumptions about human nature expressed so axiomatically in the literature and criticism of our age, for we are in danger of losing sight of the larger truth about what we are that unites us with men of all ages and with our fellow human beings who, like us, must find a way to be in this vale of tears.

America’s popularity potion

Full Text:

Does the ideal of the American product truly exist, despite the floundering automobile industry, once the ubiquitous shining star of enterprising pioneers? It sure still does, albeit in a transmuted state.

Every time an adolescent kid in Mexico enjoys an indigenous rock band, its style and tempo have derived from its counterpart in the U.S.

When McDonald’s sets up operations in India, its offerings morph into items that suit the local palate.

Michael Jackson’s CDs have spawned inspired dance choreography responses from that behemoth Indian film industry called Bollywood.

The U.S. has unwittingly set the tone for a sort of corporate sponsorship of items that go abroad. It sends more than the Nike, Planet Hollywood, and Disney brands overseas. Its more enduring exports are the blueprints of its values of innovation, do-it-yourself ethics, hard work, and individualism. (1).

Still, the figures to show that the U.S. hasn’t made cheap consumer goods in thirty years exist. The Commerce Department puts the 2004 import bill for consumer goods–shoes, clothes, toys, TVs, cookware, camping gear etc. at $373.2 billion. The most “cheap consumer goods” are imported into the U.S. from Asia, which accounted for two-thirds of the U.S. manufacturing trade deficit in 2004. (2)

The most recent figures released by the government show that the U.S. trade deficit (more imports than exports) for December 2006 hit a record high $61.2 billion. The total U.S. trade deficit in goods now tops $800 billion, roughly 7 percent of America’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP). The deficit with China rose to $230 billion, the largest in history between two nations. (3)

Nevertheless it’s more than physical “American made” products that grab and hold the attention of worldwide consumers. It’s the essence of America’s intangible “exports” that are grabbing the international stage.


The Tectonic Shift

The ideologies of independence and individualism have shifted to countries such as India, where earlier, bowing to traditional and parental authority reigned supreme.

Young, twenty-something women employed at IT companies in Bangalore and Hyderabad now chum together and rent a flat, take in the glittering night life, shop for jeans costing several hundreds of rupees a pop. And there’s more. They choose their own mates, if they decide to marry at all. Parents, when questioned about this new trend, sigh and say resignedly, “Children are imitating Western lifestyles here nowadays. That’s their choice.”

Is this a good or bad thing? More importantly, should we categorize these shifts as neatly as all that? Can we?

The English language has the viral expandability of the fungus. The U.S. borrowed it from the British and has passed it on. The English spoken in Mumbai or Sidney, or London does not all sound alike. Indian English is the result of a commingling of British English and the indigenous version of the language, which, in its spoken form, sounds like dialect with a sing-song inflection at the end of sentences.

Why is American pop culture catching on like wildfire overseas? Every nation has grown richer over the past two decades. The umbrella of prosperity has brought with it leisure time and disposable income, which the entertainment boom is counting upon. Add to it the inroads that the English language has made in countries such as Vietnam and El Salvador through hip-hop songs, and the yearning for new American exports is even more pronounced. Youngsters all over the globe, embrace American phrases like “cool”, “wassup,” and “chill,” even if they have never set foot in the U.S. (4)

In his videos, India’s most popular rapper, Baba Sehgal, uses English interjections on occasion, “Yo, this is funky,” and mimics the gestures of his U.S. counterparts. But Sehgal insists that his music is solely an instrument of entertainment, and that it does not make a social statement. (5)

America’s biggest export is no longer its manufactured goods, but movies, TV programs, music, books and software. “The Young and the Restless,” and Baywatch” are the programs of choice in New Delhi and Bangalore, “The Simpsons” are on tap in Seoul, and Oprah holds viewers in thrall in Kuala Lumpur. (6)

Since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, new markets have opened for the U.S. and total exports of intellectual property have increased by 94%, and this does not include the billions of dollars lost each year to illegal copying. (7)

The Selling of Dreams

Why are American-made movies selling abroad in a big way? Observers say that beyond the glitz, gloss, sex and violence, the movies reflect many of the appealing themes and myths of the U.S.: individuality, wealth, progress, tolerance and optimism.

“Titanic’s” ideology of the relationship between the rich and the poor and how people react to disaster has universal appeal. Nike, Revlon and Calvin Klein all sell because they are well-conceived. America has a genius for branding, according to French novelist, Philippe Labro. (8)

If foreign marketers use U.S. processes, these are derived and evolved in keeping with their market needs. Hollywood’s blockbusters are not cloned but translated into creations indigenous to the mores of international markets. Bollywood, that prolific movie machine that churns out countless movies a year, is incorporating song and dance that could vie with any produced by the entertainment business in the U.S.

Growing up American Overseas

Growing up attracted to things American is hardly a recent phenomenon. Baby boomers grew up listening to the bubbly, heart throbbing songs of Elvis, Rick Nelson, Pat Boone, and the Drifters, and wove their dreams around them. Never mind that the scenarios were totally imagined. They now serve as fodder for happy memories revisited.

This writer’s memories of growing up as a teenager in Bangalore includes Baldwin Girls’ High School, an American institution, where visiting speakers from the U.S. introduced us to musicals and movies just released. Imagination did the rest. You knew exactly how high the corn in the cornfields of Kansas grew in August from Mitzi Gaynor’s charming song, “I’m in Love with a Wonderful Guy” from the movie, South Pacific. (9)

Truly Homegrown

In a seventh-floor warehouse in downtown Los Angeles, Dov Charney, a Canadian-born entrepreneur makes clothing, an activity that has long since shipped offshore to places known for sweatshops and low wages. Growing up, Charney found that there was “something” about American-made products. They were “rugged.” (10)

So Charney started producing casual clothing, that quickly developed a big following among the urban hip population, from T shirts and skirts, to bathing suits and underwear, all made not in some foreign sweatshop, but by workers in America. He is probably doing something right. In three years, American Apparel stores have opened in 11 countries, from LA to Tokyo, with revenues of some $300 million as of 2005. (11)

There is still the odd entrepreneur who elects to stay within these borders, and mines the principles utilized by Levi Strauss, J.C. Penney and other tough early pioneers of industry.

Exporting Institutions of Higher Learning

Decades ago, U.S. universities were the epitome of haloed institutions offering an MBA, the degree of choice for upwardly mobile, elite young hotshots. Now American universities are electing to go overseas with the same curricula and tough standards that make their degrees desirable.

Leaders of universities are setting up full-blown brick-and-mortar establishments with their own support staff and full degrees. Thus the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, has established a campus in Singapore, and Texas A & M University has set up a campus in Qatar. (12)

The MBA has been popular among young seekers of post-graduate degrees after completing a bachelor’s degree in engineering or a related field in India. Universities such as the Institute of Management in Ahmedabad and the Indian Institute if Technology (IIT) in Delhi, Mumbai, and Chennai have been turning out graduates the equivalent of those from, say, Northwestern and MIT. But these are the prerogative of those who are able to afford the cost of these degrees. With the current affluence these days, more of such universities exported from the U.S. will enable a greater latitude of choice, perhaps lessen the intense competition of getting into these colleges.


Local Cultural Identity

According to Tyler Cowen, Professor of Economics at George Mason University, American movies and music have done very well in some countries like Sweden and less well in other s like India. An Indian Muslim might listen to religious Qawali music to set himself apart from local Hindus, or a native of Calcutta might favor songs from Bengal cinema. The Indian music market is 96 percent domestic in origin, in part because India is such a large and multifaceted society. (13)

Music and movies are deeply held sources of identity in countries such as India and China. Cultural expressions of this sort in these countries have extended over almost a century. However, these nations also have a sizable segment of Gen Y population. 54 percent of India’s population is under 24 years of age, and 42.4 percent of the population of Saudi Arabia is under 15 years of age. Standing at an exciting threshold, this segment is quicker to grab American pop culture exports as well as new technologies, rather than cruise on cultural paraphernalia produced at home, much to the chagrin of their parents, who were brought up on it. (14)

Retaining Popularity

For centuries, the label, “Made in America” stood for supremacy in everything. Now with globalization on the rise, American businesses have to deal with protests, boycotts, and increasing costs of tightened security. According to Keith Reinhard, chairman of DDB Worldwide, an ad agency network, companies should position their brands as local, acquire new brand attributes such as cultural sensitivity and a willingness to listen to your customers. The good news is that “while overseas consumers are cooling toward American brands, there is still no hard evidence showing direct impact on bottom lines.” (15)

Observers and critics of American exports of pop culture note a backlash on the part of countries such as Malaysia and Thailand. Malayasian radio stations are pledging to play more local music to help cut the cost of imported discs. A “Buy Thai” program is ongoing in Thailand. Mexico has outlawed the dubbing of American movies in Mexico. Why dub when the country produces its own films? (16)

In his article, “The Perils of (And for) and Imperial America,” Charles William Maynes asserts, “One wonders whether American officials would cling so ardently to their position regarding international free trade in cultural goods if it turned out the market forces were in fact overwhelming the U.S. with, say, the culture of the Middle East or Latin America.” (17)

Despite the analogy and comparison, the brand is still the selling point; one of the basic principles of marketing is to develop a good brand. Does a good brand sell itself? Some experts think so, others feel it’s advertising that sells those brands. The projected future will see a merging of products and brands because of globalization. Until then brand America continues to cause global enchantment and curiosity.


(1.) Trueheart, Charles, “With Popularity Come Pitfalls” Washington Post Foreign Sevice, Tuesday, October 27, 1998, p. A 19

(2.) McLymont, Rosalind, “Made in America–State of U.S. manufactured exports not as bleak as it seems,” Shipping Digest (Feb. 6, 2006)p.NA Infotrac

(3.) Murray: On The ‘Fast Track’ Out? By: Joe Murray, The Bulletin 02/28/2007.

(4.) Farhi, Paul & Rosenfeld, Megan, “American Pop Penetrates Worldwide,” Washington Post, Sunday, Oct. 25, 1998, p. A1

(5.) Farhi, Paul & Rosenfeld, Megan, Ibid, Sunday, Oct. 25, 1998, p. A1

(6.) Farhi, Paul & Rosenfeld, Megan, Ibid, Sunday, Oct. 25, 1998, p. A1

(7.) Farhi, Paul & Rosenfeld, Megan, Ibid, Sunday, Oct. 25, 1998, p. A1

(8.) 7. Farhi, Paul & Rosenfeld, Megan, Ibid, Sunday, Oct. 25, 1998, p. A1

(9.) South Pacific, Studio: 20th Century Fox, DVD Release Date: November 7, 2006, Run Time: 151 minutes

(10.) “American Apparel: A Made-In-U.S.A. A Success,, Feb. 4, 2006

(11.) “American Apparel: A Made-In-U.S.A. A Success,, Feb. 4, 2006

(12.) McClure, Ann, “Made in America: IHEs Strive to ensure academic quality as they expand globally,” University Business, Oct. 2006: pp.50-55

(13.) Cowen, Tyler, “Some Countries Remain Resistant to American Cultural Exports, Economic Scene,, Feb. 22, 2007

(14.) O’Guinn, Allen & Semenik, Advertising & Integrated Brand Promotion 4e, Thomsonlearning, p. 19

(15.) Delaney, Laurel, “American Outcast” Global Village, Entrepreneur, Feb. 2006 p. 81

(16.) Trueheart, Charles, “With Popularity Come Pitfalls” Washington Post Foreign Sevice, Tuesday, October 27, 1998, p. A 19

(17.) Maynes, Charles William, “The Perils of (And for) an Imperial America” Foreign Policy, No. 111 (Summer, 1998), pp.36-38 Infotrac

Rekha Ambardar has published over eighty genre and literary short stories and articles in print and electronic magazines, in addition to two novels. Rekha also teaches courses in marketing, international marketing, advertising, and business communication at Finlandia University in Upper Michigan.

Ambardar, Rekha

>>> View more: The timely wisdom of traditional tales: The penetrating beauty and great art of Haida poetry shines through in new translations by West Coast poet and linguist Robert Bringhurst

The timely wisdom of traditional tales: The penetrating beauty and great art of Haida poetry shines through in new translations by West Coast poet and linguist Robert Bringhurst

In the fall of 1900, John Swanton, a young American linguist and ethnographer, arrived on British Columbia’s Queen Charlotte Islands and found a great culture on the brink of extinction. On the shores of misty inlets, totem poles towered forlornly above abandoned cedar houses. Over the course of the preceding century, the 12,000 Haida people of the archipelago — an area known in their own tongue as Haida Gwaii — had been reduced by the ravages of smallpox to a remnant of about a thousand. Many of the survivors had become Christian and their old beliefs were already slipping from memory. Yet Swanton was able to find a handful of Haida who could still tell their people’s traditional oral tales. Many were entertaining and historically important. But the best were poetry of a high order — evocations of the myths that had once sustained the Haida’s deep links to the sea and forests.

Swanton, who knew the Haida language, spent a year taking dictation from the surviving storytellers. Ultimately, he published his findings in scholarly books and journals that never reached a wider public. And so — even while Haida carving became celebrated around the world — Haida poetry has remained relatively unknown. But now West Coast poet and linguist Robert Bringhurst has used Swanton’s original manuscripts to create one of the most important books to grace Canadian literature in many years. In A Story as Sharp as a Knife (Douglas & McIntyre), Bringhurst offers new translations of such penetrating beauty that they fully justify his contention that Haida poetry is, at its best, great art. The book also offers fascinating glimpses into the Haida oral culture, as well as making claims about the authorship of the poems that challenge decades of scholarly thinking.


A slow-spoken man with a deep, pleasant voice, Bringhurst — whose own poetry has been translated into seven languages — is already known for two earlier books about the Haida. In 1984, he and his friend and mentor, Haida sculptor Bill Reid (who died in 1998), published The Raven Steals the Light, a superb retelling of Haida stories that has been reprinted several times. Seven years later, Bringhurst and photographer Ulli Steltzer released The Black Canoe. It chronicled Reid’s sculpting of a six-metre bronze canoe (which now sits outside the Canadian Embassy in Washington), and earned a reputation as one of the best studies ever of Haida culture. Both books were nourished by Bringhurst’s study of the Haida language, which he began 17 years ago and which has now achieved its major flowering in A Story as Sharp as a Knife. Yet this wise and valuable book, which seems so inevitable a product of his labours, came about, in a sense, by accident.

As Bringhurst tells it, 12 years ago he applied for a Guggenheim Foundation grant to write a book of original poems based on Northwest Coast mythology. He received the $26,000 grant, but when he began to study the best collections of that mythology — books and manuscripts by Swanton and others — he saw he had the wrong idea altogether. “I realized what a fool I had been to suppose that this stuff was folktales just sitting there waiting for some nice, sophisticated downtown poet like me to come along and make art out of it,” says Bringhurst. “The art was already there.”

And so were the artists. As Bringhurst studied the source material, he discovered that the poems were the work of individual poets with names like Ghandl and Skaay. Bringhurst became convinced that they were great original artists in their own right — a conviction that flies in the face of most scholarly assumptions about Native American literature. In the standard, rather paternalistic view, this work is simply “folk art,” created anonymously and passed on substantially unchanged for generations: storytellers were judged not by their originality, but by their faithfulness to the pure, accepted version of a tale.

But Bringhurst’s book shows that the Haida poets had their own individual styles. And while they often used similar plots, characters and formulaic phrases, they were no different, he maintains, than those Renaissance artists who all painted crucifixions or annunciations. What counted was not the common subject matter, but the touch of individual genius. “Haida poetry is not folk art any more than the sculpture of Donatello is folk art or the sonatas of Beethoven are folk music,” insists Bringhurst. “This is art made by individuals who knew what they were doing, and did it in their own way.”

Whatever scholarly turmoil results from his claim, there can be no doubting the strange power of the poems. They are not poetry in the standard European sense, with regular metres and stanzas. Instead, they take a wilder, more freely flowing course, though at the same time they are unified by the subtle, musical repetition of phrases and themes. They are also highly accessible and entertaining, while at a deeper level they come to grips with complex themes of survival and conflict. “This was a literature for the whole community to feast on,” Bringhurst says. “There was something in the poems for everybody, but the old, wise people undoubtedly got more out of them than others.”

One of Swanton’s informants, a blind man called Ghandl, told him a story that Bringhurst entitles “Goose Food.” It concerns a young man who marries a young woman who is in fact a wild goose (in so-called mythtime, many creatures could assume human shape). When she flies away to her home in the sky, he follows her, only to discover that he cannot live in her world. This charming story is clearly a version of the folktale known in Europe as “The Swan Maiden” — which inspired Tchaikovsky’s ballet, Swan Lake. Bringhurst estimates the tale may be 100,000 years old: it may have come to North America from Asia with the ancestors of the Haida.


In Ghandl’s telling (or at least in Bringhurst’s translation) “Goose Food” has a streamlined, minimalist quality that entices the imagination to flesh it out. Yet the Haida poets could also create passages of great lyrical beauty. Skaay’s magnificent tale, “The One They Hand Along,” is about a headman’s much-loved daughter. It exquisitely evokes her royal origins: “They wove the down of blue falcons into her dancing blanket, they say.” The phrase “they say” is common in Haida poetry and seems to emphasize both the elusive, hearsay nature of the tale and — paradoxically — the authority granted to it by common knowledge.

Many of these tales take as their theme the exceeding of wise and sensible limits. In “The One They Hand Along,” a young woman is kidnapped by a youth who has stolen his father’s magic hat: he takes her off to an alien place under the sea, with unhappy results. Bringhurst believes such stories reflect the Haida’s keen sensitivity to the need for social and ecological harmony. In their view, he explains, the cosmos was not run by a single powerful figure “like the Christians’ father in the sky.” Rather, the universe ran itself through a harmonious distribution of powers among humans, animals and mythological creatures: “No one is in charge of the world, but everyone has some power. If people try to take too much, if they try to take charge, they destroy themselves.”

Bringhurst thinks this theme contains a message for the world’s current dominant culture, which appears to be committed to unlimited development and consumption. In that sense, A Story as Sharp as a Knife may be as timely as it is compelling. Of course, whether the busy world will pay heed to the canny old poets of Haida Gwaii is, as they say, another story.

>>> View more: E. Victor Milione, R.I.P

E. Victor Milione, R.I.P.

THERE wasn’t yet a “conservative movement” in the early 1950s, but there was bustling activity on the right side of the political spectrum. The great Austrian economists Friedrich Hayek and Ludwig von Mises had come to America, and Leonard Read had launched the Foundation for Economic Education to give their libertarian (“classical liberal”) ideas wide exposure. Richard Weaver and Russell Kirk were writing their seminal works, and Henry Regnery was publishing them. Human Events and The Freeman were bringing conservative analysis to the general public. The 25-year-old Bill Buckley burst on the national scene with God and Man at Yale (also published by Regnery), and another Austrian expatriate, Willi Schlamm, started plying Buckley with the idea of a conservative journal–which four years later made its appearance as NATIONAL REVIEW.

Another of Buckley’s mentors, the libertarian Frank Chodorov (whom WFB later described as a “gentle, elderly anarchist”), recognized that the left-wing ideas criticized in God and Man were by no means confined to Yale. The Left was making its long march through the institutions. If the Right was not to cede the next generation, action was needed. In 1953, Chodorov founded the Intercollegiate Society of Individualists, grandly announcing that he had a “fifty-year project” to defeat collectivism in all its manifestations.


At first, though, Chodorov’s endeavor was more a hope than a plan. Then he received a windfall donation from a wealthy Midwesterner and made the best investment of his life: He hired a 28-year-old Pennsylvanian named Vic Milione to run ISI and spread the word on the campuses. Chodorov told Milione, “Vic, I have this money and as long as it lasts, you will get $75 a week and expense money. You’ll have to take your chances on the future.”

Milione took the chance. When the money ran out, he raised more. And he formed a plan to do an end run around the leftists’ march. As his eventual successor, Ken Cribb, put it, “If ISI was denied schools, it could have summer schools. If the classroom was out of reach, there was the independent lecture and the seminar. If ISI couldn’t assign texts, it could make available alternative libraries of books and journals via the mails.” And eventually, the young scholars nurtured by ISI did make their way into positions in the academy. Milione himself, speaking a few years ago about ISI’s Weaver Fellowships, pointed out that the recipients among them “have published over 1,000 books–8,000 articles and reviews–and it is estimated that they teach about 50,000 students each year.”

Besides making ISI a viable institution, Milione shaped it into a conservative institution. Whereas Chodorov was a pure libertarian–in fact, by his own description, a “radical” libertarian–concerned only with protecting freedom from the incursions of government, Milione was devoted to “Western Civilization as well as our specific American Heritage.”

He saw to it that ISI fostered a love for that civilization and that heritage among its student members, and among all those, students or not, who bought its books and subscribed to its journals, The Intercollegiate Review and Modern Age. The change in emphasis, which he had begun with Chodorov’s permission while the older man was still president of ISI, was underlined after Chodorov’s death, when ISI dropped “individualist” from its name and became the Intercollegiate Studies Institute.


Milione handed his beloved ISI over to Ken Cribb in 1988 and took pleasure in its continued thriving. As his health permitted, he continued to attend ISI functions and meetings of sister organizations such as the Philadelphia Society. His diminutive frame belied the largeness of his vision. With the substitution of just one word, what he said of ISI sums up Vic Milione’s own life: “Fifty”–eighty–“years of integrity (meaning both honesty and wholeness) of effort, and diligence, has reaped rich rewards.”

>>> View more: Thinking outside of the (big) box: Chapters and Future Shop form an odd couple, but get a new challenge from Indigo’s power couple

My kind of town

Few cities have so thoroughly altered the world’s perception of them as Chicago. In the past half-century, America’s second city — ‘the city of big shoulders’, as the poet, Carl Sandburg, famously called it — has shaken off its blue-collar image and transformed itself into one of the finest places to live and work anywhere.

There was a time when the city by Lake Michigan was primarily associated (by outsiders, at any rate) with organised crime and bent coppers. No longer. The villains and the coppers are still there, as they are everywhere, but the city now presents a more attractive face. ‘Second City’ it may be, but the ‘toddlin’ town’ of the song is anything but second class. With its superb setting, thriving business life, magnificent reputation for the performing arts, and spirit of adventure, Chicago offers a splendid example of how a modern city can work.

Perhaps more than anywhere else, this is a city altered by the arts: architects, musicians, writers and actors have all played a significant part. When Sir Georg Solti took the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on a European tour in the summer of 1971, to loud hurrahs, conductor and musicians returned to a ticker-tape reception through the city, and were accorded front-page treatment by Time magazine. Here, at last, was the status, the class, that all city fathers crave.


With Solti, the Hungarian Englishman, achieving hero’s status, Saul Bellow at the University of Chicago winning the Nobel Prize for Literature, and the Goodman and Steppenwolf companies bolstering the city’s reputation for producing the most lively theatre in America, Chicago made the world look at it with fresh eyes. And, to put a cherry on the top, there was always the Art Institute, one of America’s great collections, and the repository of the broadest selection of Impressionist paintings outside Paris.

It is not only French painting that gets a look-in. The Art Institute also features excellent work by Americans, which is entirely appropriate in a city that may be held to represent that vast continent.

Gateway to the Midwest, sufficiently far from both coasts to have a strong urban identity that owes nothing to either New York or Los Angeles, this city speaks clearly of the amplitude and social blend of the country. It is not necessarily true to say that ‘Chicago is America’, but it’s a good place to start if you want to understand what America is, and how it works.

The ‘sombre city’ of Bellow’s young hero, Augie March, can still be glimpsed during the cold winters, for the wind really does zip off Lake Michigan, and the streets in ‘The Loop’ downtown are full of hardy men and women wrapped up against the elements.

But this is essentially a handsome city, an architect’s playground, noted for the quality and variety of its skyscrapers. Take a trip on the Chicago River, and marvel at the beauty of a city that renews itself year by year.

It isn’t the blast off the lake that gives the place its sobriquet, however. Chicago is known as the ‘Windy City’ because when it was being rebuilt after the great fire of 1871, visiting New York journalists were so taken (or perhaps exasperated) by the tendency of locals to bump up their city that they thought them full of wind.

Today, visitors will find Chicagoans to be friendly folk. There is none of that secondcity chippiness that sometimes infects other towns. Most of the people born there are happy to remain, with good reason — their lives are varied and fulfilling.

At its deepest point the bedrock of the city is German and Polish, with layers of Italian and Irish culture supplementing the large black population living on the South Side. In recent years there have been waves of immigration from Ukraine and from Asian countries, so it really is true to describe Chicago as a city of neighbourhoods, where folk of many nationalities live cheek-by-jowl. During the football World Cup last summer it was possible to believe that Americans were attuned to events in Germany, such was the interest of so many people who had left the countries taking part in the tournament.


But the most imposing modern construction is the work of an Englishman. Anish Kapoor’s astounding steel sculpture, Cloud Gate, takes pride of place on the edge of Millennium Park, on South Michigan Drive, next door to the Art Institute. Known as ‘The Bean’ by locals (it is shaped like a giant coffee bean), and reflecting the buildings around it in all sorts of dazzling ways, it offers the best possible example of how visual art can enhance a modern city.

Chicagoans come here at all hours, to walk round and under it. They even get married on the site. It is an ocular miracle.

Not that Chicago is short of art in public places. At various places downtown you will find sculptures by Henry Moore, Picasso, Miro and Alexander Calder (a terrific, towering, deep-orange stabile outside the Post Office), and the Four Seasons mural by Chagall. Full marks to Chicago for trusting in the power of art to brighten the lives of its citizens, and to Chicagoans for making them part of their city.

Cloud Gate, by itself, provides a compelling reason for visiting Chicago. For lovers of theatre and music, for shoppers and diners, for admirers of architecture, and for pretty well anyone who has any curiosity about how people can live well in an urban setting, Chicago is a treasure trove. If that overused phrase ‘world class’ has any meaning, then Chicago is coated with that quality.

Personal picks: the Clark Street Ale House, the original Morton’s of Chicago steakhouse, a leisurely stroll round the leafy Lincoln Park district, Sunday morning at the quaint Music Box cinema uptown (where the organist pops up between shows to entertain! ) and, two blocks away, Wrigley Field, the homely ballpark where the perennially duff Cubs never fail to frustrate their fans. Whichever way your tastes incline, this is a great town.

Area’s acoustic folk music gains tradition: Silver Spring church is site for popular series, and more is in store

Full Text:

Sound man, impresario and owner of Takoma Park’s venerable House of Musical Traditions, David Eisner is hunched over his portable soundboard in the upper meeting room of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Silver Spring. Like most Monday nights, it’s time for a folk music concert, courtesy of the Institute of Musical Traditions, a nonprofit offshoot of Mr. Eisner’s store, itself for many years a mainstay of Washington’s acoustic music community.

Home Brew, a Takoma Park acoustic band opening for featured folk balladeer Sally Rogers, is tuning up onstage, and the mix is not quite right. Fiddler Liberty Rucker, a former employee of Mr. Eisner’s, can’t hear the rest of the band on the monitors.

“How’s that?” Mr. Eisner asks.

The musicians play a few bars.

“That’s fine,” Miss Rucker says. “I can hear it now.”

The female band launches into a few more riffs, and with a little back and forth banter, the final settings are determined. The band breaks to await the audience’s arrival, and Mr. Eisner leans back to relax – for a minute or two.

His intense face framed by a thick, black beard, the burly Mr. Eisner, 47, is looking a little weary this evening. In addition to operating the store, he has been sponsoring this venerable concert series for 15 years, and this season marks a turning point. No longer able to supply the $10,000 to $15,000 a year that the series needs to keep going, he’s looking to make the concerts more self-supporting, and that’s a tough order in today’s lean times.

“We’ll need to raise at least that much, probably more, and increase our audience size, or we’ll have to close our doors,” he says.

With arts funding cut back on the federal and local levels, there are more arts groups pursuing leaner companies with less of a desire to give than ever before. And support is particularly critical for IMT and devotees of acoustic music. Along with Alexandria’s landmark Birchmere and the lesser-known Folk Club of Reston-Herndon, the smoke-free IMT is one of few places around that features a mix of top international Celtic and folk artists in an acoustically excellent hall where serious listening, rather than serious drinking, is the order of the day.

Over the years, the series has featured many of the acoustic “greats” in their earlier days – among them Mary Chapin Carpenter, who has agreed to be an honorary board member of IMT, according to Busy Graham, current director of the institute.


While many of these artists got their start elsewhere, the IMT series helped gain them valuable early recognition. “I’m approaching a number of other big names who’ve played here in the past because their support can attract interest from the corporate community,” Mrs. Graham says.

* * *

The House of Musical Traditions actually got its start in Greenwich Village in 1967. First housed in a loft above the St. Mark’s Theater, the shop catered to traditional and acoustic musicians and specialized in building lap dulcimers. At about the same time, Mr. Eisner was majoring in psychology at the University of Maryland, moving on to establish Maggie’s Farm, an alternative boutique in Takoma Park.

“I liked to call it `a unique craftsperson’s place,’ he says, “but some might have called it a head shop.”

A fan of acoustic music and already familiar with the House of Musical Traditions, the entrepreneurial Mr. Eisner learned that the owners were interested in selling and decamping to California. So he purchased the store’s inventory and name and reopened it in Takoma Park at the site of the former Maggie’s Farm, eventually moving the store to its current location at 7040 Carroll Ave.

Right at home in funky, downtown Takoma Park, the shop prospered. Selling traditional, often handmade instruments to a sophisticated and demanding clientele specializing in folk, bluegrass and Celtic music, the store expanded to include sheet music, books and recordings by well-known and local artists. Mr. Eisner opened another location in Berkeley Springs, W.Va., in 1974, but that location was closed in 1983, and the store was consolidated in the present space.

The concert series started almost by accident in the early 1980s. Members of the local Irish band Celtic Thunder contacted Mr. Eisner and asked him whether there was any possibility of doing an in-store concert featuring Tony Sullivan, a banjo player from Ireland – “in four days.” Mr. Eisner agreed, putting out what publicity he could, and he was surprised by the excellent attendance on such short notice.

An informal concert series started not long afterward, and soon, it was getting too big for the shop.

“It got so that we’d have to move instruments right out to people’s cars when the acts changed,” says Mr. Eisner, and the series soon moved down the street to the old Takoma Cafe. When the restaurant closed in the late 1980s, the series – by now incorporated as a nonprofit organization – moved to the Unitarian Universalist Church of Silver Spring, its current home, where it now mounts some 40 concerts per year.

Local musicians such as hammered dulcimer virtuoso Maggie Sansone and Celtic harpist Sue Richards, as well as traveling internationally known artists such as Canada’s singer-songwriter Eileen McGann, have been attracted to the place, a spacious yet acoustically warm and intimate space just off busy New Hampshire Avenue. The vaulted wooden ceiling floats above an airy layer of windows in the church’s upper meeting room, and on the walls, an exhibit of paintings by local artists is rotated every month.

The chatty ambience is enhanced at concert halftime when delectable comestibles are served up by moonlighting Silver Spring bakers operating under the moniker of “Desserts First, Because Life Is Uncertain.”

“National touring artists have told us that the IMT series and our venue is their favorite place to play,” Mrs. Graham says.


Audiences have grown over the years, according to Mrs. Graham, perhaps boosted by the recent New Age interest in Celtic and traditional music. Nonetheless, the average audience consists of regulars (who Mrs. Graham says attend about a third of the concerts each season) and a lot of people in the 40- to 50-year-old age group, primarily boomers who first became devoted to folk music in the 1960s. And the series is increasingly popular with singles.

The institute also supports “Class Acts,” a popular series of arts-in-education and community outreach programs geared primarily toward schoolchildren.

A highlight of the season – and the institute’s biggest event in attendance – is the annual holiday family concert with Cathy Fink and Marcy Marxer. Special guests in past years have included the likes of Pete Seeger, Trout Fishing in America and Bill Harley. This year’s concert, the series’s 11th, will be held at Montgomery Blair High School on Dec. 1 and will feature Tom Chapin, an award-winning children’s recording artist and brother of the late folk artist Harry Chapin.

***** WHAT: Upcoming concerts include the Kennedys, with acoustic guitar and vocals, tomorrow; Gordon Bok, Ed Trickett and Ann Mayo Muir performing Russian, Irish and original tunes on Friday; and an evening of Celtic harp with Sue Richards, Jane Valencia and Debra Knodel next Sunday at 7 p.m.

WHERE: Unitarian Universalist Church of Silver Spring, 10309 New Hampshire Ave. (at Oaklawn Drive), Silver Spring

WHEN: All times 8 p.m. unless otherwise noted

TICKETS: $8-15. Discounts available. Students under 14 half-price

PHONE: 301/588-7525. Tickets also on sale at the House of Musical Traditions, 7040 Carroll Ave., Takoma Park

>>> View more: Click Here to Buy Kenyan Food, Music, Books And Gifts!!

Click Here to Buy Kenyan Food, Music, Books And Gifts!!

Click Here to Buy Kenyan Food, Music, Books And Gifts!!

Terrorism Not a Kenyan Problem

Yesterday’s removal of a ban on British Airways flights to Kenya, together with the lifting of a travel warning on vacations to the country has come a month too late.

Britain says there has been an improvement in the security situation – meaning the harrassment of traders in Eastleigh has been stepped up, and the move to sabotage the miraa industry – by banning flights to and from Somalia – is succeeding.


Now, it remains for America to tell its citizens that Kenya is no longer one of the most dangerous places to be. Last week, the US temporarily closed its embassy in Nairobi, citing terrorism fears – and has not reopened it. Those in the Kenya tourism industry will tell you, though, that America and Britain are no longer important markets for them.

That Britain and the US have fairly reliable intelligence networks cannot be gainsaid. On that account alone, they have cause to be circumspect when they receive information about an imminent terrorist attack. For this reason, their travel advisories are relied upon by citizens of other countries other than their own. But the reasons for issuing them remain suspect.

America and Britain would rather Kenya had tanks rolling at its airports, that everyone dropping into a bar for an evening beer was frisked for TNT, and that a law on terrorism was in the statute books. Both countries would rather Kenya had people being tried for aiding terrorists – regardless of whether or not there is evidence to convict them.

In the absence of these things, America and Britain have chosen to spread fear and despondency about being in Kenya – with the result that the tourism industry is teetering on the brink of collapse, and the air travel industry is looking at massive losses in coming months. Parliament calls it economic sabotage.

The superpowers may have a right to ask that the Kenya Government takes certain steps to protect them and their interests – after all, they attacked Iraq without anyone’s approval – but the decision to acquiesce to these requests remains discretionary.

It is not unlikely that the argument – over whether or not Kenya is doing enough to prevent terrorism – could go on for much longer than its negotiations with the International Monetary Fund on the resumption of aid.

In the event that Kenya is unable to satisfy the two countries’ security demands, and it will not, their citizens and interests will never be safe. The sooner this acknowledgement is made, the better for everyone concerned.

If Kenya is unsafe for America and Britain, the logical thing to do would be for the two countries to move their embassies and businesses elsewhere – not bad-mouth the country to the rest of the world. It is Americans and Britons who may be inviting insecurity into Kenya – because their presence beckons terrorism.


The two nations have enemies who seem determined to pursue them to the ends of the earth.

On that account, Kenya should not be getting stressed about how safe Americans and foreigners are. It should be worrying about reducing insecurity internally, so that its citizens can do business and live in an atmosphere of peace. Foreigners can only enjoy this peace incidentally.

Terrorism is not a Kenyan problem. And it is not a global problem. That is only the propaganda that badly behaved superpowers sell to the world.

The only reason that restrained Kenya from asking the US to close its embassy in August 1998, after more than 200 of Kenyans were killed in a terrorist attack was in order to send a message to the terrorists.

Sending the Americans away at that time would have handed victory to Osama bin Laden, who had double-bombed their embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam in a space of seven minutes.

Although the Kenyan casualties were higher than those suffered by America, and the damage to local property was more devastating than what the Nairobi embassy building suffered, the country had little choice but to stand with America. Repairing Cooperative House, which suffered “collateral damage” in the bombing, only ended last month – five years after the attack.

It was not lost on the Government or the people of Kenya that Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda network had not targeted Parliament Buildings, or State House, or the Nyayo monument at Uhuru Park. The terrorists’ war was – and still is – with America, Britain and now Norway.

Kenya, as a good friend of America, and as a nation that rejects the use of terrorism to achieve any end, chose to stand with America. And with Israel, and with Britain, and with many other countries that are considered legitimate targets by a host of terrorist organisations.

As payment for its kindness, Kenya has been roundly condemned for its lax administration of immigration affairs, for letting aircraft from anarchic Somalia fly in and out of its airports, and for not caring enough about security. Now, it is listed among the 15 places most likely to be attacked by terrorists – alongside Israel, Saudi Arabia and Morocco.

The very nations that Kenya has stood up for have been advising the world to avoid this country because it is unsafe.

Kenya has no quarrel with America or Britain. Its people have not even considered throwing Molotov cocktails at their embassies yet – a habit that is rampant in many developed countries. Kenya is a very tiny, poor country trying to solve its numerous problems and should be allowed to continue without the kind of superpower sabotage being perpetrated in the name of preventing terrorism.

Regardless of what diplomats and Government ministers tell one another at cocktail parties, the common Kenyan is extremely tired of bearing the burden of friendships that cost too much and yield too little. And that with America, especially, are beginning to fray Kenya’s patience.

America does not need to have its embassy in Nairobi. There are many secure towns and cities in neighbouring countries, such as Entebbe in Uganda and Arusha in Tanzania, where America – and any other country that feels unsafe on Kenyan soil – can go and operate from.

If there is any lesson to be learnt from the British Airways flight ban and the closure of the American embassy, it is that Kenya needs to adopt a hard line in dealing with terrorists, and even harder one when dealing with the nations that attract them.

by Kwamchetsi Makokha


=> View: The colony of Indigo: Opinion: A former bookseller takes aim at the mega- deal

The colony of Indigo: Opinion: A former bookseller takes aim at the mega- deal

How is it that, after four decades of a diverse and flourishing literary culture in Canada with a healthy network of independent booksellers, the country is now a consumer colony for a single Toronto-based book-retail monopoly, Indigo! Books and Music Inc.?

The unchecked aggrandizement of multinational publishing, distribution and retail corporations has led to a concentration of power in the hands of fewer and ever more ruthless individuals. But the terrifying implications of Indigo’s domination of the distribution of cultural and intellectual materials in Canada passes largely unremarked, and one publisher even suggests that “it will stabilize the Canadian book industry.” Any outcry about disappearing local bookstores is seen as nothing but nostalgia.


=> Next: Minding the books: an entrepreneur indulges his love for literature

Who now remembers the old wisdom about not putting all one’s eggs in one basket? True, the Competition Bureau is investigating Indigo’s takeover of Chapters Inc., but does anyone expect that, with such powerful friends in government, it will be overturned? Not likely. Jean ChrAtien was among the first to phone and congratulate Indigo’s Heather Reisman.

Heritage Canada has a program to support Canadian publishers, many of whom have been receiving tattered unsold books in lieu of payment from Chapters for

some time. No doubt there will be more desperate pleas from the publishers for assistance when, as I expect, it is discovered that Chapters is in much worse shape than anyone thought and the turnaround will take much longer. Ironically, nobody — neither Heritage Canada nor provincial or municipal governments — came forward with offers of help to independent bookstores when they were desperate, although it is these independent bookstores whose passion and knowledge helped create the Canadian book industry.

The predatory practices so much in vogue nowadays were anathema to most independent booksellers. Chapters had no such qualms; for boss Larry Stevenson and his people, bookselling was a military campaign. Their take-no-prisoners business plan crushed many independents and secured market domination. But even with that, they continued to lose money in their stores, online operation and wholesale division.

There were early warning signs about Reisman with her first foray into the book world: her attempt to bring Borders Group Inc., a large American retailer, into Canada. Fortunately, though laws for the protection of Canadian culture are almost toothless, Industry Canada turned her down. So, in what was seen in the trade as a fit of pique, she opened Indigo. At the time, people were just relieved to have some competition for Chapters.

Last month, the country briefly faced the truly horrifying spectre of a single national bookstore chain, “FutureStuff,” selling Palm hand-helds and DVDs and books on the side. Now, without a whimper and with the usual “cautious optimism,” Canadians acquiesce to the cultural dictatorship of a corporation that hasn’t so far been particularly successful and is clearly just as happy to sell shawls and champagne flutes as books. And because books will be the least profitable part of Reisman’s “cultural department store,” they may well get lost in her fictional woods.

But maybe this will be good news for the remaining independent bookstores. For consumers, the competition between Chapters and Indigo has been a boon, but they may find that the sale is now over. With little competition, there is no reason for Indigo to continue to offer discounts. Furthermore, it is unlikely that readers will find regional interests well served by the chain’s Toronto buyers.


Writers and publishers must now walk on eggshells. Who dares to say anything negative about Indigo? It would be suicide. The possibilities of market censorship and market chill are real. (And if I ever write a book, I’ll be sure to publish it under a pseudonym.)

We should have read Indigo’s motto more carefully — “The world needs more Canada,” a sentiment that, apart from the awkward grammar, really means: now Canada has more Indigo and Indigo has more Canada. And, within a few years, “the world will have more Canada” — when the chain is sold, at a discount, to Borders or Barnes & Noble or

Celia Duthie was president of Vancouver’s independent Duthie Books from 1984 to 1999. She now lives with her family on Galiano Island in the Gulf of Georgia.

Minding the books: an entrepreneur indulges his love for literature

The idea for Canada’s richest literary prize for fiction came to Jack Rabinovitch and Mordecai Richler back in August, 1993, after an afternoon in Grumpy’s Bar in Montreal. Rabinovitch, a wealthy Toronto-based property developer who tends to prefer the company of writers and artists to that of tycoons, was looking for a way to commemorate his wife, Doris Giller, The Toronto Star‘s assistant book editor, who had died of cancer four months earlier. The result was the Giller Prize, an annual $25,000 award for the best English-language fiction published in Canada. The first winner, announced at a lavish banquet in November, 1994, was The Book of Secrets by Toronto writer M.G. Vassanji. “It created a tremendous difference for me, both in terms of sales and recognition,” Vassanji said last week.

Next week, the second Giller winner will be announced, at a black-tie dinner on Nov. 7 for more than 250 people in Toronto. And once again, Rabinovitch is footing the bill. “This is one dinner you can’t buy your way into,” notes Toronto literary agent Beverley Slopen. “I invite my friends,” confirms Rabinovitch. “I don’t have anyone I don’t want.” Rabinovitch also pays for the advance publicity, which includes newspaper ads, posters and shelf stickers for 500 stores across Canada. It is the kind of publicity, notes Slopen, that no Canadian publisher can afford, given the industry’s slim profit margins. This year, the five finalists are Timothy Findley, Barbara Gowdy, Leo McKay Jr., Rohinton Mistry and Richard B. Wright.


Rabinovitch, a self-confessed jock who is a ferocious handball and tennis player, seems an unlikely patron of the arts. “He comes across like a character out of Damon Runyon,” says his friend Joey Slinger, a Toronto Star columnist. “Inside, there’s someone who knows what good art and good literature is all about.” Even his choice of a jury to choose the finalists and the winner is carefully planned: this year, it consists of Richler, literary scholar David Staines and novelist Jane Urquhart. Richler estimates that they have plowed through at least 65 novels and collections of short stories.

Few Canadian entrepreneurs offer as much support to artists. Most of Canada’s literary prizes–such as the Governor General’s Literary Awards or the Ontario government’s Trillium Book Award–are largely funded by taxpayers. One exception is the $50,000 Lionel Gelber Prize for nonfiction, which is open to international writers. But no other English-language fiction prize matches the Giller for lavishness and for the support given to runners-up. “It’s original, generous and done with considerable panache,” comments Richler.

Jack Rabinovitch is an unlikely philanthropist. His parents emigrated from Ukraine in 1926, settling in Montreal. His father sold newspapers for years before saving enough money to open a restaurant. Rabinovitch went to Baron Byng High School, where Richler was a year behind him. His girlfriend, Doris Giller, went to nearby Commercial High.

After graduating in English from McGill University in 1952, Rabinovitch accepted a $75-a-week job writing speeches for grocery magnate Sam Steinberg. In 1960, after working his way up to a vice-presidency at Steinberg’s, Rabinovitch went to work for Ottawa’s Loeb family to help them open new stores. That made him realize how profitable real estate could be. He eventually went into business for himself, making a fortune with apartment buildings and a shrewd investment in cable television. But the price was high–he hated living in Ottawa, and his first marriage was falling apart. In 1970, his wife and three daughters stayed in the capital while he returned to Montreal. One of the first things he did was to call his old high-school sweetheart, Giller, who was books editor at the now-defunct Montreal Star.


By 1973, he and Giller were married and living in Toronto. “Doris was loud and mischievous and didn’t show no respect to all the big-shot developers Jack was in business with,” says Slinger. “And Jack just stood back and watched her, enchanted by everything she did.” By then, Rabinovitch was working for Trizec Corp. Ltd., a real estate company then owned by the Reichmann and the Bronfman families. Peter Bronfman says it was he who suggested Trizec hire Rabinovitch. “He’s very bright and very well read, particularly for a business person,” Bronfman says. “Let’s face it–most of us have our faces buried in facts and figures. But he also reads Shakespeare and can even do crossword puzzles.”

Rabinovitch stayed with Trizec for 20 years, escaping in 1992 before it crashed into bankruptcy. But he remains a force in the real estate world. “He’s very tough, very wise, very shrewd,” says his Montreal-based partner, Robert Theriault. “His timing is always perfect.” Today, Rabinovitch is running a new venture with Toronto business- men David Ehrlich, Bruce Bronfman and Walter Zwig to buy promising properties for investors who can afford a minimum $1-million stake.

No one, certainly not Rabinovitch himself, will say what it has cost him to set up this annual tribute to his late wife, but what is certain is that he spends every cent of it with gusto. When the Giller jury meets to pick the winner, they do it over a long lunch at the Le Mas des Oliviers, Richler’s favorite Montreal restaurant. “Toronto prides itself on being a world-class city, but it took two people from Montreal to set up this gift to Canadian letters,” says Richler with delight.


–> Similar Posts: TURN UP THE MUSIC – the power of music books