Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Wallace Stevens & Marcel Duchamp.

The PN Review

May 2006

A slightly revised version of this essay appears in Wallace Stevens across the Atlantic (Palgrave Macmillan, 2008).



After leaving Paris for New York during World War I Marcel Duchamp declared, perhaps conveniently, that the true home of art had also recently moved across the Atlantic. ‘If only America would realize that the art of Europe is finished—dead’, he told a reporter for the New York Tribune in September 1915, just a few months after arriving in the States, ‘and that America is the country of the art of the future’.[1] Duchamp was already a minor celebrity in the US (hence the Tribune interview) thanks to his Nude Descending a Staircase, a large cubist painting that caused a popular sensation at the Armory Show of 1913. When he arrived in New York City he was met by Walter Pach, the Armory Show’s principal European connection, who introduced him to Walter Arensberg, a wealthy American collector who had already purchased one version of the famous Nude and would later purchase the definitive version. Duchamp was soon living and working in Arensberg’s spacious Upper West Side apartment.

On a Monday afternoon that August Arensberg telephoned his college friend Wallace Stevens and asked him to dinner with the artist and himself at the Brevoort Hotel in Greenwich Village. The Brevoort was a short ride from Stevens’s apartment in Chelsea, and its very Gallic café, run by the French restaurateur Raymond Orteig, had become a popular meeting-place for the literary and artistic avant-garde. At the Brevoort, Arensberg, Duchamp and Stevens spoke French together, ‘like sparrows around a pool of water’, as Stevens wrote to his wife Elsie shortly afterward, identifying Duchamp for her as ‘the man who painted The Nude Descending a Staircase’. This Francophone setting suited Stevens, as anyone who had read his published work up to that point could have guessed. His first post-collegiate appearance in print, from August 1914, carried the French title ‘Carnet de Voyage’, while his first major publication, in Poetry later that year, was set in Paris and Belgium, began with a quote from Pascal in the original French and described peace as a landscape painting by the 17th-century French painter Claude Lorraine.

To a contemporary observer of the literary scene, these references are likely to have suggested more than a facility with the language; Duchamp was hardly alone in emphasizing the cultural divide between Old World and New, typically represented by France and the United States. In fact, Duchamp had arrived fairly late to this literary and artistic skirmish, and his comments in the Tribune are likely to have raised the eyebrows of several American artists, who once perceived him as decidedly on the other side. The Armory Show, the scene of his American triumph two years before, was originally intended to showcase the American Association of Painters and Sculptors, and several of its members were dismayed when Walter Pach secured the participation of Duchamp and others and renamed it the International Exhibition of Modern Art. They were even more disappointed when the European artists received the bulk of the attention and the sales. Jerome Meyers, a painter and early member of the AAPS, later declared that ‘more than ever before our great country had become a colony’. Now one of the leading colonists had come to stay.

The comment from Meyers takes on an odd resonance when one comes to it by way of ‘The Comedian as the Letter C’, the long poem by Wallace Stevens recounting the journey of a Frenchman who comes to the US and plans a colony. Nor do I think that parallel is entirely coincidental. As other critics have noted, the journey of Crispin in that poem shares much with the aesthetic journey that Stevens himself took during the 1910s. A significant part of that journey began, I would suggest, around the time that Stevens dined with Duchamp in Greenwich Village. Up until that dinner, Stevens, in his poetry, appeared more interested in Europe than America. Though he had already demonstrated his distinctive penchant for place-names, he had never, before 1916, named in his poems an American place (and that includes collegiate and unpublished verse). In the six years following his dinner with Duchamp, Stevens would refer in his poetry to Tennessee, Oklahoma, Georgia, Connecticut, Florida, and the Carolinas, as well as North America, Canada, some Latin American locations and several American towns. This flood of American place-names reaches its highpoint in ‘The Comedian as the Letter C’. Then, following Stevens’s long hiatus from publishing, it becomes a trickle, rising again briefly when Stevens turns to his genealogy in the mid-1940s.

One could quite easily discuss this aspect of Stevens’s writing without any reference to Marcel Duchamp. But tracing his possible influence in this regard serves, I think, some important purposes. First, it reminds us that national identity is always a largely constructed thing. If America was for Duchamp, as for many French writers before and since, an exotic place, a kind of screen onto which he could project his own interests and ideas, it was not an altogether different kind of thing for Wallace Stevens. Stevens would later acknowledge this explicitly in ‘Description Without Place’, the 1945 poem that so angered William Carlos Williams. (Williams wrote the poem "A Place, Any Place, to Transcend All Places" in response.) Williams was upset by the poem because he had thought of Stevens as an ally in his Americanist project—an opinion that derived from the so-called Harmonium years which I will be discussing. In fact, one can find in Stevens’s Americanist poems a marked uncertainty about the project, as I will show. But Williams was not entirely incorrect to see in Stevens some sympathy as well. Which leaves us with a question. Given Stevens’s uncertainty, why did he entertain the Americanist idea? What interest did it hold for him?

‘The Comedian as the Letter C’, which takes as its central drama the establishment of a poetic career, encourages us, I think, to see this uncertain dabbling in Americanism as an attempt to find a poetic identity and establish a foothold in the literary world. It served much the same purpose, in other words, as the other ‘isms’ did for other poets of the period. Stevens had long before realized he would not make a living from his poetry, but he still wished to ‘make it’ as a poet, as Duchamp had made it as an artist. Of course, Stevens was no careerist: he had strict standards as to what would justify a literary career, which I will discuss later. It is this tension, between finding a place in the literary world and justifying that place, that appears in Stevens’s Americanist poetry, particularly, I think, in both ‘The Comedian’, and in ‘Anecdote of the Jar’, that seemingly inexhaustible, twelve-line enigma of a poem. This paper is, at heart, an attempt to understand those two poems, and the relationship between them. ‘The Comedian as the Letter C’ is a sprawling work that merits a longer discussion than I have space for, so I have focused here on the shorter poem. My path begins at the Brevoort Hotel, and its next stop is St. Paul, Minnesota, followed by a series of poems published in a tiny New York magazine, founded and edited by an American friend of Marcel Duchamp named Robert Coady.


‘­Eminent Vers Libriste

Arrives in Town

Details of Reception.

St. Paul, Minn. July 19, 1916. Wallace Stevens, the playwright and barrister, arrived at Union Station, at 10.30 o’clock this morning. Some thirty representatives of the press were not present to greet him. He proceeded on foot to the Hotel St. Paul, where they had no room for him. Thereupon, carrying an umbrella and two mysterious looking bags, he proceeded to Minnesota Club, 4th & Washington-Streets, St. Paul, where he will stay while he is in St. Paul. At the Club, Mr. Stevens took a shower-bath and succeeded in flooding not only the bath-room floor but the bed-room floor as well. He used all the bath-towels in mopping up the mess and was obliged to dry himself with a wash-cloth. From the Club, Mr. Stevens went down-town on business. When asked how he liked St. Paul, Mr. Stevens, borrowing a cigar, said, ‘I like it’. (L 196)

‘The above clipping may be of interest to you’, Stevens wrote his wife Elsie from St. Paul in the summer of 1916, one year after his dinner with Arensberg and Duchamp.[2] As is no doubt apparent, the ‘above clipping’ is in fact a parody written by Stevens himself of the kind of publicity sometimes granted to well-known writers traveling to provincial cities. For ‘vers libristes’ such as Stevens, such publicity was on the rise. The entrepreneurial Amy Lowell had spent much of 1915 touring the U.S. to promote the ‘movement’. In February of 1916, Conrad Aiken complained that poetry was becoming too popular, singling out Poetry magazine and its prize-giving ways for particular complaint. Harriet Monroe herself worried about poetry’s having become fashionable, while her assistant editor Alice Corbin Henderson feared that ‘this supposed popularity of the art’ might be ephemeral: ‘a good deal of dust’. The scene in the summer of 1916 was described vividly in the Dial—which had not yet become a purveyor of the ‘new poetry’—two years later:

The Muse was on the make hereabouts: patronesses had been discovering her; prizes were multiplying; newspapers were giving critics their head; poetry magazines, mushrooms or hardier plants were springing up overnight; it was raining anthologies—boom times![3]

This comment in the Dial was made apropos of the Spectra Hoax, undertaken by Stevens’s Harvard friend Witter Bynner and another Harvard alum, Arthur Davison Ficke. ‘Spectrism’ was a send-up primarily of Imagism, but it was the proliferation of ‘isms’ that inspired the parody; the Spectrist method, according to its manifesto, was ‘not so wholly different from the methods of Futurist Painting’.[4] Bynner and Ficke recognized that these ‘movements’ had taken on a life of their own, and procured for their members an advantage when it came to publication. Louis Menand, making a similar point, has compared the various ‘isms’, and Imagism in particular, to the professional associations that blossomed in the United States late in the nineteenth century. He is not the first to suggest a connection between these movements and professionalization. ‘Just as Taylor and Gilbreth want to introduce scientific management into industry’, wrote Rebecca West in 1913, ‘so the imagistes want to discover the most puissant way of whirling the scattered star dust of words into a new star of passion’.[5]

In his satirical Minnesota clipping, Stevens uses two terms for his literary profession: vers libriste and playwright. The first aligns him with the movement that Bynner and Ficke had just begun to parody. (In the original draft of their manifesto, they identified Stevens as a Spectrist. Possibly out of loyalty to Bynner’s friend, they removed this sentence before publication.)[6] The second, meanwhile, draws attention to a portion of his output that has since been largely overlooked. His three mature efforts at poetic drama, one unfinished, received as much attention as most of his early poems—more, in fact. Just days before Stevens left for Minnesota, he learned that his first play, Three Travelers Watch a Sunrise, had won a one-hundred-dollar prize from Poetry magazine. Stevens was ‘delighted with the result’, calling it a ‘feather in my cap’ (L 194). Contrary to the view that Stevens’s poetic career was unknown to his insurance colleagues, word of this prize apparently circulated among his new co-workers at the Hartford.[7] He was extremely accommodating of the criticism provided by Monroe and another judge of the contest, hoping that the play would be successful when performed (L 194-95). The ‘clipping’ from St. Paul suggests the excitement with which he regarded his rising literary stature, while its comedy suggests his lingering uncertainty (‘some thirty representatives of the press were not present to greet him’, he notes) and even discomfort (after finding no room in the first hotel, he floods his room in the second). Stevens soon began work on another play.

A few days after sending the satirical newspaper clipping, Stevens wrote to his wife again, and described the sights of Minnesota. The ‘way the wind rolled in the grass was better than the Russian ballet’, he wrote, ‘although not unlike it’ (L 196-97). Whether Elsie would have grasped the implications of this sentence is unclear, but the comparison is not, I suspect, made lightly. The Ballet Russes was one of the first triumphs of the ‘new’ art, and it was decidedly international, making its successful Paris debut in 1909, succeeding in London two years later, and eventually winning over New York audiences as well. (Witter Bynner claimed to have first conceived of the Spectra hoax while watching Massine dance in the Spectre de la Rose.)[8] Stevens had observed the grass while sightseeing around St. Paul, and in the comment to his wife, he holds up a pastoral, American moment as not only artistically comparable to an eminent example of International Modernism, but as superior to it.

A few months later Stevens published for the first time a poem that named an American place. It was a poetic sequence entitled Primordia, and it begins with another Minnesota scene.

All over Minnesota,
Cerise sopranos,
Walking in the snow,
Answer, humming,

The male voice of the wind in the dry leaves
Of the lake-hollows.
For one,
The syllables of the gulls and of the crows
And of the blue-bird
Meet in the name of Jalmar Lillygreen.
There is his motion
In the flowing of black water. (CPP 534)

These opening lines flaunt the multiple cultural heritages of America: a Native American place-name is followed by a line comprised of one French and one Italian word, all folded into an English language poem. The sounds of local birds meet somehow in the name of a local person. Jalmar Lillygreen has a Scandinavian first name and an English surname, and is thus identifiably Minnesotan, as the state’s population at the time descended predominantly from these two European places. ‘Lake-hollows’ and snow are also distinctly Minnesotan. Tony Sharpe, one of the few critics to mention Primordia at all, calls the sequence a series of ‘regional miniatures’. That description, however, seems to suggest the ‘local-color’ writing of the late nineteenth century rather than the ‘localist’ poetics employed, I think, in this sequence. These poetics differ from earlier ‘local color’ writing in the conviction that, in the words of William Carlos Williams, ‘the classic is the local fully realized’, that ‘true’ or ‘great’ literature is always local.[9] The author of Primordia not only includes regional details, he implies a relationship between place and poetic voice. The ‘cerise sopranos’ are red birds, figured as female, who answer the ‘male voice of the wind’—a familiar trope for poetic inspiration. The sounds of the birds are, in turn, expressed by a local person. Thus the place is embodied, and local culture becomes a representation of a natural spirit. The title of the sequence, too, suggests that these local images somehow embody an originary source.

It is important to note, I think, the small phrase set off by itself in the seventh line: ‘For one’, the poems says, before introducing Jalmar Lillygreen and the notion that his name embodies his surroundings. This little phrase opens up the possibility of distance between the ideas expressed and the author of them. In this respect it may serve the same purpose as the repeated phrase ‘he said’ in the poem ‘Anecdote of Men by the Thousand’, published a couple of years later and concerned with the same argument. That poems says:

There are men whose words
Are as natural sounds
Of their places
As the cackle of toucans
In the place of toucans.

‘These are tentative ideas for the purposes of poetry’, Stevens wrote to one correspondent interested in the philosophy of ‘Sunday Morning’. This comment returns to my earlier point. Stevens, at this time, was trying to establish himself as a poet. Experimenting with Americanism served that purpose, even if he was unsure of its ultimate persuasiveness. Certainly it was not a coincidence that Stevens submitted Primordia to a new journal called the Soil, founded by the gallery owner Robert Coady. The founding editorial of the magazine was devoted to a description of ‘American Art’:

It is not a refined granulation nor a delicate disease—it is not an ism. It is not an illustration to a theory, it is an expression of life—a complicated life—American life.

The isms have crowded it out of ‘the art world’ and it has grown naturally, healthfully, beautifully. It has grown out of the soil and through the race and will continue to grow. It will grow and mature and add a new unit to art.[10]

Coady’s editorial is highly Whitmanesque, containing long lists of American items, names, and places: the automobile, the boxer Jack Johnson, Pittsburgh and Duluth, the Panama Canal. He mentions canonical American writers—Whitman, Poe, and Hawthorne—as well as Alfred Steiglitz and Gertrude Stein. In so doing Coady attempts to boost the standing of ‘American Art’ at the expense of its European competition: the ‘refined granulation’ of European cubism, the ‘delicate disease’ of European aestheticism. These ‘isms’, principally European in origin, were crowding American works out of the market. So American art had to be touted as something different: healthful, natural, ‘of the soil’. In so doing, of course, Coady was promoting his own theory, despite his disavowal of that word. He was, in effect, promoting an American ‘ism’.

‘Anyone interested in America’, Marcel Duchamp wrote a few months after Primordia appeared, ‘should read The Soil’.[11] Duchamp knew Robert Coady; it seems possible, even, that he mentioned the editor and his magazine to Wallace Stevens, as I haven’t been able to find any other obvious connection between Stevens and this magazine. Duchamp promoted Coady’s publication in the founding editorial of his own little magazine, the Blind Man, which he founded to accompany the Independents’ Exhibition of 1917. That exhibition was planned by the Society of Independent Artists, which included Arensberg and Duchamp among its founding members. They intended the show as a more free-wheeling sequel to the Armory Show, alike in scale and, perhaps, in its ability to shock. Duchamp submitted a work that, though not as famous as his Nude, was even more baffling to most who saw it. In keeping with his earlier comments in the Tribune and his more recent support of Robert Coady and the Soil, Duchamp’s new work was not cubist, but was, he claimed, distinctly American. Entitled Fountain, it was a common urinal, signed by Duchamp with the pseudonym R. Mutt. The R, Duchamp later explained, stood for Richard, a derogatory French term for an American. He took the last name from Mutt n’ Jeff, a popular American comic strip. Defending the work in the Blind Man, Duchamp wrote: ‘The only works of art America has given are her plumbing and her bridges’.

While Fountain was baffling to many, Wallace Stevens was better placed than most to make sense of it. Not only did he know personally all the principals involved in buying, submitting and defending the urinal, he is also likely to have seen Duchamp’s first readymades two years before, after his dinner with the artist and Walter Arensberg. When the three men left the Brevoort Hotel, they ‘went up to the Arensberg’s apartment and looked at some of Duchamp’s things’, as Stevens told Elsie in a letter. ‘I made very little of them. But naturally, without sophistication in that direction, and with only a very rudimentary feeling about art, I expect little of myself’ (L 185). Stevens’s use of the word ‘things’ to describe what he saw suggests the difficulty in labeling Duchamp’s readymades—the first of which, called ‘Bicycle Wheel’, was crafted in 1913[12]—as does his apparent inability to understand what he saw. Four years later, though, he understood Fountain enough to write a poem about it, I think. In that poem, one finds a deeply uncertain commentary on Americanism, which picks up on the tentativeness of Primordia and foreshadows the later difficulties of ‘The Comedian as the Letter C’. The poem, ‘Anecdote of the Jar’, stars another colonist of sorts, and has been called anti-imperialist. Whatever its political valence may be, it reflects the troubles, I think, that Stevens had in establishing his literary career.


Shortly after Fountain was submitted to the Independents’ Exhibition, William Carlos Williams completed the poems for his third collection, Al Que Quiere! He sent copies to a few friends, including Wallace Stevens, who noted in response that a ‘book of poems is a damned serious affair’. He had not published a book himself, he explained, because he had a ‘disdain for miscellany’. His ‘own ideas of discipline’, as he called them, included having a fixed point of view and sticking to it: ‘to fidget with points of view leads always to new beginnings and incessant new beginnings lead to sterility. A single manner or mood thoroughly matured and exploited’, he wrote, ‘is that fresh thing’.[13] This language of discipline and maturation, of progress, is the language of the post-Romantic literary career, according to Edward Said. Every writer, Said argues, ‘has an interest in preventing [his or her] work from degenerating into a miscellany of writings, governed successfully by neither personality nor time’.[14] Stevens, as is clear from his letter to Williams, felt he had not yet made his writing cohere, and so had not yet placed his career on a secure footing. This concern for his poetic status, in a sense, would lead him to write ‘From the Journal of Crispin’ in 1921, and it seems that the failure of that poem, dramatized in its revision, ‘The Comedian as the Letter C’, contributed to his hiatus from publishing. That failure is foreshadowed, I think, by the ambiguity of ‘Anecdote of the Jar’.

Williams responded to Stevens’s letter publicly in an essay that appeared in the Little Review in March of 1919.[15] The essay surveys the state of American art and particularly poetry. Williams notes in the essay that he ‘clashed’ with Wallace Stevens: unlike his friend, he believed in loosening, not fixing, his attention, so that his point of view could be challenged by objects in the outside world. He referred in this context to Arensberg and Duchamp, noting that some considered Fountain ‘a representative piece of American sculpture’. Williams may have had in mind the issue of the Blind Man in which the artist responsible for the pseudonymous Fountain was defended. ‘He took an ordinary article of life’, the defense read, ‘placed it so that its useful significance disappeared under the new title and point of view—created a new thought for that object’.[16] Just at the moment that the essay by Williams, with its response to Stevens, appeared, Stevens himself was compiling a sequence of poems for Harriet Monroe’s Poetry magazine. Three months later, he sent Monroe three new poems, asking her to substitute them for some he had sent before. Among them was what appears to be, in part, a response to the essay by Williams, as well as the notorious work by Duchamp. I quote the poem in full, though I suspect many here may know it by heart.

I placed a jar in Tennessee,
And round it was, upon a hill.
It made the slovenly wilderness
Surround that hill.

The wilderness rose up to it,
And sprawled around, no longer wild.
The jar was round upon the ground
And tall and of a port in air.

It took dominion everywhere.
The jar was gray and bare.
It did not give of bird or bush,
Like nothing else in Tennessee. (CPP 60)

Stevens, in this poem, has re-enacted Duchamp’s artistic creation, at least as described in the Blind Man: an ‘ordinary article of life’ is ‘placed’, ‘its useful significance’ disappears, and a new title, ‘point of view’ and ‘thought for that object’, are created. Of course, Stevens has changed the setting. Rather than submitting that object to an art exhibition, Stevens has placed it in the Tennessee wilderness. Why the change? The goal of Americanism, as articulated by Williams, Coady and, to a lesser extent, Duchamp, was to represent or even embody America. The jar, the work of art, should, like the name of Jalmar Lillygreen, make a sound that is natural to its place. But that is not what happens here. Stevens demonstrates this with a pun. A jar is not only an ‘earthen vessel of cylindrical form’ but also a ‘harsh sound’, or ‘discord’. ‘Ajar’, as one word, means both ‘slightly open’, and also ‘out of harmony’.

The earliest debate about this poem centered on the question of whether Stevens was for the jar or for wilderness. I don’t think one needs to come down on either side, necessarily. But it must be said that, at least by the standards of Americanism, the jar in the poem is a failure as a work of art. Duchamp was said, in the Blind Man, to have created a new ‘point of view’ with Fountain; but Stevens believed, as he wrote to Williams, that ‘to fidget with points of view’ would ‘lead to sterility’. Stevens believed there was a style that the artist achieved and that that style had an inherent value. Quoting what he believed were representative lines from Williams, he told his friend: ‘A book of that would feed the hungry’. The jar in Tennessee, on the other hand, is sterile. It does ‘not give of bird or bush’. It can feed no one.

In the years after Harmonium, Stevens would take this discord between physical reality and our attempts to represent or embody it as his central theme. He would say ‘Farewell to Florida’, the site of his most enthusiastic poems of place, and he would concern himself instead with ‘Description Without Place’. But those poems are years away from the ‘Anecdote’. Why did Stevens move from his jar in Tennessee to the ‘Journal of Crispin’, which explores the Americanist idea at greater length than any poem he had written to that point? I suspect that Stevens was unsure, in 1919, whether the failure depicted in ‘Anecdote of the Jar’ was inherent in the project itself, or, rather, in the poet attempting to carry it out. When Stevens sent the poem to Monroe, he asked her to title the sequence Pecksniffiana, after the unsavory character described at length in the second chapter of Martin Chuzzlewit by Charles Dickens. Seth Pecksniff is ‘fuller of virtuous precept than a copy-book’, and is compared to a ‘direction-post, which is always telling the way to a place, and never goes there’.[17] Stevens, in his self-deprecating way, may have seen in these lines an indictment of his own work. Though he filled his poetry with the names of places, he somehow failed to reach them. It would be two decades before he concluded that ‘we live in a place… that is not ourselves / And hard it is, in spite of blazoned days’.

[1] From “The Nude-Descending-a-Staircase Man Surveys Us,” New York Tribune, September 12, 1915, quoted by Francis M. Naumann, New York Dada: 1915-1923, New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1994, p. 36.

[2] As Holly Stevens notes, the letter is actually from June; Stevens mis-typed the date in his “clipping.”

[3] Quoted by Ellen Williams, Harriet Monroe and the Poetry Renaissance: The First Ten Years of Poetry, 1912-1922, Urbana: University of Illinois Press, p. 239. Aiken’s comments are on p. 178, and Henderson’s on p. 187.

[4] For the relationship between Futurism and Imagism, see Lawrence Rainey, Institutions of Modernism: Literary Elites and Public Culture, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999. The Spectra manifesto is quoted in William Jay Smith, The Spectra Hoax, Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1961, p. 8.

[5] Menand makes his argument in Discovering Modernism: T.S. Eliot and his Context, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987. Rebecca West’s remark comes from “Imagisme,” in The New Freewoman, August 15th, 1913. Frank B. Gilbreth and Frederick W. Taylor were pioneers in the study of productivity and business management.

[6] Smith, p. 74.

[7] Peter Brazeau, Parts of a World: Wallace Stevens Remembered, New York: Random House, 1983, p. 12.

[8] Smith, p. 21.

[9] For the description of Primordia as “regionalist miniatures,” see Tony Sharpe, Wallace Stevens: A Literary Life, London: Palgrave MacMillan, 2000, p. 27. For the remark from Williams, see “Kenneth Burke,” in Imaginations, edited by Webster Scott, New York: New Directions, 1970, p. 356. Williams later expressed these views more fully in his own little magazine, Contact, which he founded in 1920 and to which Stevens would also contribute. D.H. Lawrence, who focused his 1922 Studies in Classic American Literature on the “spirit of place,” admired Williams’ ideas, as is evident in his review of In the American Grain entitled “American Heroes” and printed in the April 14th, 1926 issue of The Nation. The review is reprinted in William Carlos Williams: The Critical Heritage, edited by Charles Doyle, London and Boston: Routledge, 1980.

[10] Robert J. Coady, “American Art,” Soil 1 (December 1916), pp. 3-4. Information about Coady is provided by Judith K. Zilczer, “Robert J. Coady, Forgotten Spokesman for Avant-Garde Culture in America,” American Art Review, vol. 2, no. 6 (Nov.-Dec. 1975).

[11] Quoted by Wanda M. Corn, The Great American Thing: Modern Art and National Identity, 1915-1935, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001, p. 85.

[12] Naumann, pp. 38-41.

[13] Williams excerpted this letter in the prologue to Kora in Hell, which is reprinted in Poetry in Theory: An Anthology, 1900-2000, edited by Jon Cook, London: Blackwell Publishers, 2004, pp. 113-14.

[14] Edward Said, Beginnings: Intention and Method, New York: Basic Books, 1975, pp. 234-35.

[15] Part II of the essay was published in April; together these essays served as the prologue to Williams’s 1920 collection of “improvisations,” Kora in Hell.

[16] Quoted by Corn, p. 49.

[17] Charles Dickens, The Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit, London: Penguin Books, 2000, p. 24.

Saying Blackberry.

Essays in Criticism

Winter 2005


Poetry’s Touch: On Lyric Address. By WILLIAM WATERS. Cornell University Press, 2003; $37.50.

Argument & Song: Sources and Silences in Poetry. By STANLEY PLUMLY. Handsel Books, 2003; $30.00.

Lyric poetry has, over the years, shed many of its original accoutrements. The lyre is gone. The poems are not sung—or even spoken that often—and rarely are they composed for social occasions, let alone specific holidays or celebrations. When one reads a modern lyric, a number of questions arise that would not have been asked of the first Greek lyrics. Who is speaking? To whom is he speaking? When and where?

Standard answers to the first two questions are 1) the poet, and 2) himself. John Stuart Mill famously said ‘poetry is overheard’. Northrop Frye wrote that the lyric poet ‘turns his back on his listeners’. Russian theorist Mikhail Bakhtin described the lyric as a ‘monologically sealed-off utterance’.

For William Waters, these views neglect both the importance and the ambiguity of lyric address. Address, for Waters, is not merely one ‘linguistic feature’ among many others, but ‘the meridian of all discourse…. the fiber of language’s use and being, inseparable from every word in every sentence’. Lyric address, though, as Waters notes, has been ambiguous since at least the fourth century BC: the librarians and scholars who first wrote lyrics for the page, rather than performance, wrote their poetry as if it were still intended for feasts and festivals, to be performed with others present. According to Waters, this ‘detachment from context’ became the ‘foundation’ of modern lyric. Modern poets typically write for an unspecified audience who will read the poem at an unspecified time; but, Waters says, they have revelled in this ambiguity, inventing uncertain voices and unreliable personae, playing with the poem and the reader. ‘The resulting kinds of ambiguity have become integral to modern written poetry, so that to read a poem is… to enter an underspecified communicative act’.

Underspecified, yes; but monologic, no. For Waters, this is a crucial point not only for the understanding of poetry, but for the appreciation of it: we must come to the poem as if we matter to it.

Certain critical conventions hold that instead of touch we must always speak of an unbridgeable gap between the linguistic and the real, or between the ostensible act and its meaning (as when saying you, for example, is taken to be an attempt to hoodwink or dominate the other). What has not been clear is how to square these ideas with the way people actually read, and with what makes us care about reading.

Waters, quoting Virgil Nemoianu, hopes that a focus on address can lead to a ‘criticism in which writing is deliberately taken as a gift to others’. Criticism, he says, is ‘shot through with affective interest. To feel this interest is to begin to acknowledge the claims made on us as individuals by our engagement with poems’.

Waters is a professor of German, and his primary exemplar of lyric address is Rainer Maria Rilke. (He relies mostly on Edward Snow’s translations, modifying them slightly and always providing the original German.) Rilke uses the second-person often in his poems, yet critics speak of him, following Bakhtin, as a ‘monologic’ poet. The famous concluding line of ‘Archaic Torso of Apollo’, for example, rendered in English as ‘You must change your life’, is typically read as the sculpture’s injunction to Rilke, rather than Rilke’s injunction to us. It is both, of course—and this is no small point. For the poem is about the way that art speaks to us, and Rilke has, by using the second-person, reached out to his readers just as the archaic torso reached out to him.

Waters demonstrates that this concern with address appears frequently in Rilke’s poetry, reading ‘Snake-Charming’, in particular, to great effect. That poem describes a snake-charmer who ‘lures himself a hearer’, and ‘wills and wills… the reptile’ out of his basket,

and then just a glance: and the Indian’s
infused in you a foreignness,

in which you die. It’s as though a blazing
sky crashed in on you. A crack
runs through your face.

At the moment that the snake-charmer mysteriously and wordlessly speaks to his observer, the poem shifts to the second person. Rilke, Waters writes, ‘naturally discovers, in syntax, the electricity produced by a turn from third to second person; and this turn itself suggests, in pragmatics, the power of a poem over its reader’. ‘Snake-Charming’ may concern an ‘attempt to hoodwink… the other’ (in the lines following those above, ‘Spices piles themselves/ upon your Nordic memory’), but it certainly concerns, as Waters demonstrates, how and what a poet communicates to his readers, and how we, as readers, participate in that event.

Another poet whom Waters reads well is Emily Dickinson. Her ‘Essential Oils – are wrung’ does not use the second person, but Waters sees in its uncertain grammar a message for and about its readers. ‘The Attar from the Rose’, Dickinson writes, describing the hard work of writing poetry, ‘Be not expressed by Suns – alone – / It is the gift of Screws’. The poem then turns from the act of writing to the act of reading:

The General Rose – decay –
But this – in Lady’s Drawer
Make Summer – When the Lady lie
In Ceaseless Rosemary –

The word ‘this’, when used in the manner above, demonstrates a key difference between written lyric poetry and its ancient oral ancestor. ‘The written poem is an object in the visual field; a delimited thing, it can indicate itself as a thing in way that a stretch of spoken language cannot do’.

Dickinson’s ‘this’ points to the body of her poetry, or to the very poem that says ‘this’. It is a mode of access to the reader, since the demonstrative refers with equal force to the poem beneath the poet’s pen circa 1862 and to the instantiation of it that I, now, hold to read.

Dickinson seeks further ‘access to the reader’, according to Waters, with the odd phrase ‘Make Summer’. The context would seem to demand ‘makes summer’ or ‘will make summer’. Granting Dickinson’s freedom with tense and agreement (‘decay’ just above also lacks an ‘s’), Waters sees in ‘Make Summer’ a command that, by suggesting the imperative mode, invokes the second-person: ‘even in this poem without a you, it is a second-person stance of responsiveness and personal engagement that the work asks of its reader’.

This reading of Dickinson comes in a chapter on epitaphs and inscriptions that is the finest in the book. Noting that ‘poetry’s contact through print is in all salient ways identical to contact through a gravestone inscription’, Waters demonstrates that the communicative ambiguities of such writings—a living author writing as if dead, so that his unknown, future readers may keep him alive—are thus broadly illustrative. He opens the chapter with a reading of Horace’s famous ode 3.30, about making ‘a monument more lasting than bronze’. Though the poem does not make explicit mention of the reader, it is readers, the poem implies, who will preserve Horace’s monument. All poems of this tradition—such as Shakespeare’s sonnets—as well as all epitaphs, ‘require, ever and again, the willing instrumentality of a reader who will put her own mortal voice at their service’, and thus address the reader, at least implicitly. In an intriguing aside, Waters notes that Rilke, after much reflection, declined to record his poems in his own voice. To do so would have rendered unnecessary the ‘willing instrumentality’ of a living voice, something Rilke intended his poems to require.

Waters does not try to resolve the ambiguities inherent in the ‘communicative situation’ of lyric poetry; his comfort with such ambiguity and his focus on what we as readers must bring to poems are the great strengths of Poetry’s Touch. Waters is also admirably unprogrammatic. He does wander sometimes from his main arguments, particularly in his readings of specific poems, which tend to overrun their usefulness. The selection of poems, too, apart from Rilke and perhaps Dickinson, is miscellaneous. Waters might have focused instead on a single tradition—English, say, or American, or German (as Waters himself notes, the English you ‘can correspond to five distinct forms in some other languages’, complicating comparisons across languages). Nonetheless, his compact study is well worth reading, directing our attention as readers to what poems expect of us.

While Waters focuses on the reader of lyric poetry, Stanley Plumly presents the writer’s point of view. Argument & Song: Sources and Silences in Poetry re-prints essays dating back to the 1970s that have appeared in collections and journals—predominantly the American Poetry Review and Antaeus. Plumly, a professor of English, has published several books of poems; this is his first book of prose. Like Waters, Plumly is concerned more or less exclusively with lyric poetry, though he does not say so. The primary concern of the book—buried somewhat amid essays on yoga, Whistler, and other subjects—is the nature and form of free verse.

For Plumly, free verse is a form, similar to the sonnet or the villanelle. ‘The fiction of American free verse’, he writes, ‘is not so much that the demands are any less formal but that they are finally any different’. Every poem, he argues, must find its form; form must be achieved, for a ballad no less than a free verse poem.

Plumly is most convincing when he applies these ideas to the breaking of poetic lines. In a free verse poem, the poet can break his lines at any point, unconstrained by rhyme or meter. For a poem to succeed, however, the poet must break the lines precisely and deliberately.

There was a woman
I made love to and I remembered how, holding
her small shoulders in my hands sometimes,
I felt a violent wonder at her presence

These lines are from ‘Meditation at Langunitas’, perhaps Robert Hass’s best-known poem. Plumly discusses the poem for several pages in the essay ‘Dirty Silence’, at one point shifting the breaks in the lines above in order to demonstrate Hass’s skill:

There was a woman I made love to
and I remember how,
holding her small shoulders in my hands (sometimes)
I felt a violent wonder at her presence

Plumly oddly alters the punctuation somewhat, to little purpose, but his point is well-made. The alternative arrangement of the lines follows more closely the overt meaning of the words: each line contains a single thought. In part, perhaps, for that reason, the words lose much of their force. Hass, Plumly says, ‘works against the habit of the thought and possible metrical unit to make the good sense more interesting sense, to let us ease into the emotion with him’. Hass also thus emphasizes, ‘visually, as well as vocally’, certain key words: woman, holding, sometimes, presence. Hass has found a form for his poem, one that, while no less deliberate than that of a sonnet or sestina, appears unforced, easing his readers into the emotion.

‘Dirty Silence’, possibly the collection’s best essay, concerns the resistance a poet encounters in that search for form. The essay’s title comes from Wallace Stevens; for Plumly, it is a metaphor for ‘a certain kind of tension necessary to the “music of a poem”’ (Stevens again). That tension is particularly evident, he argues, in American poems, because all American poetry is written against the ghostly background of English poetry—at once an unsuitable tradition and an inevitable inheritance for American writers. American poets have developed a style in response to that challenge which involves foregrounding the resistance to form, ‘talking back against the metrical potential of the line’. Plumly cites for example a quatrain from Pound’s ‘To Whistler, American’, which consists of ‘four lines of ghost pentameter, half of which are sure iambic’.

You had your searches, your uncertainties,
And this is good to know—for us, I mean,
Who bear the brunt of our America
And try to wrench her impulse into art.

Plumly notes the ‘little assonant rhyme going on, in couplets’, and how Pound ‘even manages to interrupt himself (“for us, I mean”) without interrupting the “music” of the line’. Plumly describes this technique as ‘speech barking back at song’ (which would have made an excellent title for this collection of essays).

Speech barks back at song in the closing lines of another Robert Hass poem, ‘Interrupted Meditation’, which Plumly discusses in a subsequent essay.

A vault of blue sky, traildust, the sweet medicinal
scent of mountain grasses, and at trailside—
I’m a little ashamed that I want to end this poem
singing, but I want to end this poem singing—the wooly
closed-down buds of the sunflower to which, in English,
someone gave the name, sometime, of pearly everlasting.

Plumly chooses this poem to close ‘Chapter and Verse’, the three-part, one-hundred-and-fifty-page essay that concludes Argument & Song. The essay’s first two sections were published one year apart in the late 1970s. The first, entitled ‘Rhetoric and Emotion’, concerns those poets—among them Dave Smith, Robert Hass, and C.K. Williams—who write ‘out of an emotional imperative’. These poets provide a personal narrative in their poems, in the vein of Robert Lowell and, before him, William Carlos Williams. Plumly distinguishes these poets from those ‘who write from an emblematic commitment’, who are committed to the object or the image, and whose forebears include the Black Mountain poets and the Surrealists. These he addresses in the essay’s second section, ‘Image and Emblem’.

Though some poets may straddle the line between these two groups, the distinction itself is well-founded. Consider the following lines from ‘The Mystery of Emily Dickinson’, by Marvin Bell.

This morning, not much after dawn,
in level country, not New England’s,
through leftovers of summer rain, I
went out rag-tag to the curb…

This is storytelling. ‘This morning… I went out’. An event occurs. A narrative is taking shape. Contrast that with these lines from Charles Simic:

This street. Grey day
breaking. So many things
to evoke, name.
Standing here, partaking
of that necessity.

As in the Bell poem, a man stands on a street corner. And shortly afterward, in both poems, a passerby will be mentioned. But the movement in Simic’s poem is not toward narrative. Simic presents, in Plumly’s words, ‘the internal history and structure of an imagination translating its needs’. Thought is described. When Simic describes the passers-by, they will appear as emblems of thought, as images, not as characters in a story. (Both passages also begin with ‘This,’ that word so important to Waters; not surprisingly, only in the imagistic Simic poem—crafted as a kind of verse object—can the word plausibly be taken as referring to the poem itself, an effect repeated by the word ‘here’.)

Free verse storytelling is the primary subject of the essay’s third section, ‘Narrative Values, Lyric Imperatives’, first published in American Poetry Review late last year. The title seems to echo ‘Poetic Diction, Prose Virtues’, a chapter in The Situation of Poetry, by Robert Pinsky, who is a major presence in the essay. The arguments in this section are not new: they are familiar from the earlier essays, such as ‘Dirty Silence’, which says, of free verse, that ‘its narrative values depend, implicitly, on its lyric imperatives…. free verse depends on cause-and-effect connections, and therefore emphasizes, sentence to sentence, temporal plot over spatial pattern’. ‘Rhetoric and Emotion’, too, discusses how lyric has ‘come to a fuller understanding of its dramatic, narrative potential’. ‘Narrative Values, Lyric Imperatives’ applies these same ideas to a handful poets not discussed in the essay’s first two sections, with apparent emphasis on those who have recently become prominent (such as Louise Glück and Jorie Graham).

What distinguishes the essay is Plumly’s response to Language poetry, which had not yet emerged when he began writing criticism in the late 1970s. He wishes to give this development a fair hearing; he quotes Charles Bernstein approvingly, and gives sensitive readings of two Michael Palmer poems, whom he clearly admires. But, like William Waters, he cannot abide the interpretations offered by some academic readers, who see an ‘unbridgeable gap between the linguistic and the real’. He dismisses, for instance, a reading of Palmer by Steve McCaffery, in which McCaffery writes that there ‘is no place in his work because there largely is no referent incanted’. As rebuttal, Plumly cites the Palmer poem ‘Twenty-four Logics in Memory of Lee Hickman’, which begins

The bend in the river followed us for days
and above us the sun
doubled and redoubled its claims

Now we are in a house
with forty-four walls
and nothing but doors

‘Even in his most severe symbolist voice, he speaks from circumstance, from time and place, from specifics, within an overt, or covert, gesture toward action, motive, identity’. For Plumly, ‘Palmer is interesting to the extent that he is associated with… those values that connect the word to the world, perception to emotion, and language to motive’. Poets, Plumly believes, must work to connect the word to the world, the linguistic to the real—precisely because words are, so often, at such a remove from experience. What would be the purpose of a poetry with ‘no referent incanted’?

This appears to be a recent and growing concern. In the preciously titled ‘Words on Birdsong’, from 1992, Plumly relates the story of a young poet who, in a public lecture, talks ‘about the source of one of his poems’, and about ‘how he had had to change the primary story of the experience in order to accommodate the secondary story of the poem’. The poem described a psychosomatic attack experienced by a friend. ‘Having written a draft of his poem, however, the poet found that his language had turned too elevated for the illness, was too hyperbolic’—and so the poet killed off the subject of his poem, deciding to ‘“meet the construct” by raising the stakes of his material’. The poet was happy with the result, thinking it one of his best.

Plumly disagrees. ‘When our poet lies about death he voids the substance of his elegy’. Hence the word ‘sources’ in the title of this collection. Plumly believes that a poet must find inspiration in experience, and not merely in words or other poems. ‘Language, as such’, he says, ‘is not the source of poetry’. This effectively distances him from a whole school of thought in contemporary poetry criticism. In ‘Narrative Values, Lyric Imperatives’, he argues ‘that there is no such thing as an “indeterminate sign”; only a less determinate sign’.

It is perhaps because he thinks this way that Plumly makes such a good reader of Robert Hass, whom he discusses at length three times in Argument & Song. ‘Meditation at Langunitas’, published in 1979, can be read as a refutation of what William Waters calls the ‘critical conventions’ espoused by Steve McCaffery and others. In the poem, Hass takes up ‘the notion that,/ because there is in this world no one thing/ to which the bramble of blackberry corresponds,/ a word is elegy to what it signifies’. Hass’s response to this notion is not, as some critics might prefer, to write ‘a splendid poetry of displacement, of shifts and nomadic drifts of text through zones of page’ (as McCaffery describes the work of Palmer). It is, instead, to seek for those

moments when the body is as numinous
as words, days that are the good flesh continuing.
Such tenderness, those afternoons and evenings
saying blackberry, blackberry, blackberry.

Balliol College, Oxford David Haglund

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Rickey Liked to Take Walks.

I wrote a couple of baseball columns a few years ago while I was a graduate student at Oxford, including one about Rickey Henderson.

Me and the Book of Mormon.

London Review of Books

May 22, 2003

I recently mentioned to an English friend that my parents don’t drink because they’re Mormons. ‘So, Dave,’ he asked sheepishly, ‘how many wives does your father have?’ I explained that the Mormon Church outlawed polygamy in 1890; Utah wouldn’t otherwise have been allowed to join the Union. I didn’t mind the question, though. Mormons may no longer be subject to extermination in Missouri (that legislation was rescinded in 1976), but the eleven million Latter-Day Saints—a little under half live in the US—are generally thought to be peculiar, when they are thought of at all.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints was founded by Joseph Smith in Palmyra, New York, in 1830, shortly after he published the Book of Mormon. The Book purported to be the history of a family of Jews who had sailed to the Americas around 600 B.C. According to the Book, shortly after the Resurrection Christ appeared to these inhabitants of the New World. The content of the book, however, was less startling than its means of production: it had, Smith claimed, been translated from gold tablets that he unearthed from a local hillside. Smith, a farmer’s son, said he’d been directed to the hill by an angel, and the book was therefore evidence of Smith’s own status as a prophet, as well as of a new dispensation of Christ’s gospel on earth.

The Mormon canon also includes the Old and New Testaments, a collection of modern revelations (mostly to Joseph Smith) entitled the Doctrine and Covenants, and some other translations by Smith of ancient material collected as the Pearl of Great Price. Smith was a native of Vermont and a contemporary of Emerson—his radical, optimistic theology has echoes of the secular beliefs of the Sage of Concord (whom he never read, so far as I know).

During my second year at the University of Chicago, I found a class being taught by Wayne Booth. Booth, author of the Rhetoric of Fiction and The Company We Keep, was one of the more famous members of the English department and had a reputation as a warm and engaging teacher. He was also a lapsed Mormon, born in 1921 in the Mormon town of American Fork, Utah, and raised there. He lost his faith, he told me later, while serving a mission. The Mormon mission is a two-year rite of passage for nineteen-year-old Mormon males, and females so inclined. Missionaries are sent all over the world to preach the gospel, while adhering to a strict code of behaviour. (I put off going on a mission because of my doubts.) It was while on his mission that Booth first became interested in rhetoric, as he presented the Mormon gospel to strangers, and attempted to conceal his unbelief as honestly as he could. He later coined the term ‘unreliable narrator’.

I became a student of Booth’s in large part so that I could share my faith-related struggles with the famous professor. I went to see him, and told him that I no longer believed in the Mormon gospel, but couldn’t imagine an alternative view of the world. Booth asked me if I had read ‘Sunday Morning,’ by Wallace Stevens. I hadn’t, but went straight to my room and found it in a cheap anthology bought not long before in a thrift store. ‘There is not any haunt of prophesy,’ Stevens writes, ‘nor cloudy palm/ Remote on heaven’s hill, that has endured/ As April’s green endures.’ Who needed religion?

Well, my father, for one. He was disappointed when I told him of my loss of faith, and surprised by my reasons. I told him that I could not accept falsifiable claims made by the Mormon Church. The first that came to mind was that God lived on a planet called Kolob. This is one of the more obscure pieces of Mormon theology, found in the Pearl of Great Price, the least read book in the Mormon canon. Nonetheless, there it was. My father had already seen two older children stop attending church because of life-style issues: Mormons, who give a great deal of their time to the Church, do not smoke, or drink alcohol, tea, or coffee; they donate ten percent of their pre-tax income to the Church; they don’t have sex before marriage. My father told me he never thought he’d have a child who left the church because he could not accept that God lived on Kolob.

The Mormon scripture that refers to Kolob had been the subject of controversy since the late 1960s. The ‘Book of Abraham’, which Joseph Smith published in 1842, purports to be a first-person account by the Patriarch in which Jehovah appears to him and reveals the nature of the cosmos. The Lord shows Abraham the stars, including the one ‘nearest unto the throne of God,’ which is called Kolob. Smith ‘translated’ the work from Egyptian papyri purchased in 1835 from one Michael Chandler, in Kirtland, Ohio. The papyri were long thought lost in the great Chicago fire of 1871. In 1967, however, they re-surfaced at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The Museum returned them to the Church, and they were translated by an Egyptologist at the University of Chicago. He found that they were ordinary Egyptian funerary documents that dated from around 60 AD. Mormon scholars have struggled with the problem of the papyri ever since, suggesting and revising a handful of precarious theories.

Oddly, this controversy is nowhere mentioned in By the Hand of Mormon: The American Scripture that Launched a New World Religion, by Terryl Givens. While the book isn’t published by a Mormon press, it has a distinctly Mormon slant. Givens is a graduate of Brigham Young University, the private college owned and operated by the Mormon Church. He makes no mention of any religious affiliation—perhaps on the assumption that knowledge of his Mormon background would cast doubt on his meticulous scholarship. It shouldn’t, but in his account of the current debates concerning the Book of Mormon’s authenticity, Mormon apologists have the upper hand every time.

The Book of Mormon begins with Nephi, a Jew whose father is instructed by God to flee Israel with his family just before the Babylonian captivity. Nephi himself is then commanded by God to build a ship so that his family may sail to the New World. On the new continent, the descendants of the righteous Nephi and those of his wicked brother Laman become warring tribes. A series of Nephite scribes record the ups and downs of these peoples, culminating with the appearance of Christ in the New World, in about 34 AD. Having completed his ministry in Israel, Christ descends upon the New World from Heaven, delivers his second Sermon on the Mount and ushers in a period of righteousness and peace. Obedience to his teachings eventually ebbs, and, in the Book’s bloodiest battle, all but a few of the righteous Nephites are killed. After the battle, Mormon, a faithful Nephite on the run from his enemies, engraves an abridged version of the records on gold plates and passes them onto his son, Moroni, who writes a few more chapters before burying the plates in a hillside around c. 421.

And underground they remained until Joseph Smith dug them up in 1827. The area of western New York State where he claimed to have dug them up was known as the ‘Burned-Over District,’ because of the many Christian revivals that had taken place in the area. Evangelical Christianity had reached such a pitch of activity in the northern US that ministers spoke of a ‘Second Great Awakening’ (the first occurred in the middle of the eighteenth century). According to the Personal History he wrote in 1838, Smith prayed to God in 1822, at the age of 14, and asked him which of the many competing denominations was true. God and Christ appeared to him (as two separate beings: Mormons are not Trinitarians), and informed him that none was. A year later, Smith was visited by the Moroni, now an angel, who told him that there was ‘a book deposited, written upon gold plates, giving an account of the former inhabitants of this continent, and the source from whence they sprang.’ After three preparatory visits, the angel directed Joseph to unearth the plates, and with them a set of divine spectacles affixed to a breastplate. Using these, Joseph dictated 116 pages to a farmer called Martin Harris (they were subsequently lost, and never re-translated). A year later, Smith dictated the entire book—apart from the lost section—to a student called Oliver Cowdery, in a matter of weeks. This time, according to contemporary accounts, Joseph relied primarily on a seer stone he had possessed since 1825 (and used at one time for money-digging). After showing the gold plates to two groups of intimates Smith gave them back to Moroni.

Though the Book of Mormon is mostly consistent with traditional Christianity—even the idea that Native Americans are descended from Jews was not, in 1830, that unusual—in the ensuing years Smith had several revelations that broke completely with the Protestant and Catholic traditions. By the 1840s, he was preaching that devout men would become gods themselves in the afterlife, and would be married eternally to multiple wives. ‘God himself,’ Smith wrote, ‘is an exalted man, and has not existed for all eternity, but came into existence at some time, and dwelt on an earth, the same as Jesus Christ did.’ And the universe, he claimed, was created out of something, not nothing. This radical, polygamous vision incited great anti-Mormon feeling, but Smith went on working at his vision of the Kingdom of God on Earth, a theocratic ideal that was very nearly realised in the town of Nauvoo, Illinois, where he was mayor and commander of the Nauvoo Legion, an armed militia authorized by the US government. He was eventually arrested for ordering the destruction of a Nauvoo press that was being used to print tracts attacking him, and murdered in jail. He was 35.

As Givens argues, the contents of the Book have always been less important than its supposedly divine origin. On the other hand, the integrity of Joseph Smith is fundamental to the Mormon Church, and his identity depends upon the validity of the Book of Mormon. Mormon efforts at verification have a long and not uniformly distinguished history. When Mayan relics were discovered in Central America a few years after the Book of Mormon was published, the editor of one Mormon newspaper wrote that the newly discovered ruins ‘are among the mighty works of the Nephites—and the mystery is solved.’ Mormons later organised their own archaeological expeditions, eventually with Church funding, but Hebraic parallels have not been forthcoming.

While expeditions in the 1950s satisfied some Mormon apologists, they did not, as Givens notes, find anything so conclusive as Nephi’s tomb. (Givens provocatively describes an altar unearthed in the 1990s that bears a place-name found in the Book of Mormon as the first piece of archaeological evidence for the Book of Mormon’s validity.) A more recent generation of Mormon scholars has built a cottage industry out of comparative textual analysis. The godfather of this field is Hugh Nibley, who is still writing in his nineties. After returning from service in World War Two, Nibley began comparing the cultural world presented in the Book of Mormon with what is known about the Near East in the time that Nephi and his family sailed for the New World. Nibley has found parallels in ceremonies, metaphors and literary techniques used by the Nephite scribes, and in proper names.

His example has inspired a generation of Mormon scholars associated with the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies (FARMS). Established in 1979, and incorporated into Brigham Young University in 1997, the Foundation publishes a newsletter, a journal, an annual, and books; its scholars are diligent, well-trained, and cautious. Careful not to overstate their case, they prefer working with and around mainstream scholarly consensus to flying in the face of it. They are largely concerned with convincing non-Mormon scholars of the intellectual plausibility of the Mormon faith. This audience largely ignores their work. By the Hand of Mormon is, as much as anything, an effort to change that. Most people, however, will remain unprepared for the moment when a pair of smiling Mormon missionaries—there are more than 60,000 of them at any given time—show up soon on their doorsteps, ready to tell them all about it.