Tag Archives: Somerset Maugham

Reading: Durant, O’Neill, Mitchell.

29 Jul


I’ve been dipping into Will and Ariel Durant’s Interpretations of Life, Will’s take on 20th century fiction writers he admires. It’s great. He’s a very fine writer and researcher, engaged in the kind of grand synthesizing history that few of our contemporary historians attempt. (The couple’s History of Civilization, compulsively readable and erudite runs to two or so bookshelves. The only other writers I can think of who worked on this scale are John Gunther, Theodore White, Edward Gibbon, and, perhaps, Jared Diamond.) He wrote, Ariel edited, and together they formed an unparalleled publishing dynamo. Lessons Learned From History, a tiny little book, should be required high school reading.

Will and Ariel Durant, the great husband and wife writing team.

Durant’s take on literature is humble, insightful, rigorous and conservative. His insights can be at times kind of silly. He criticizes some writers for course language while praising their realistic depiction of real people, he has strange standards for style, and he favors the canonical. For instance, he passes over Dos Passos for Faulkner and Hemingway, Graham Greene for Steinbeck. He has this to say Of Human Bondage, one of the great novels of the 20th century: “The book is not high literature; it does not hold attention through depth of thought, nobility of feeling, or excellence of style; it is, however, a faithful and unpretentious record of a soul’s development.” All of which is (strange) nonsense; Durant is exactly wrong. Bondage describes with precise, moving language the story of a young orphan becoming a man, through his perceptions and thoughts and feelings. The boy grapples with art, religion, love, hardship, society, success, and failure, coming to a hard-won, secular morality. His struggles are depicted with such a big-hearted humanity—even if Maugham in his personal life was a rapacious ass–if it doesn’t possess nobility of spirit, I don’t know what does. The style of the novel is a perfect example of the old adage: easy reading often masks damn hard writing.

Anyway, his essay on Eugene O’Neill is the best in the book. He loves O’Neill, and gives an exemplary account of his life and works. Here Durant describes O’Neill’s time in the bowery: “His favorite resort was a tavern popularly known as the Hell Hole . . . . He liked the inebriated philosophers who meditated there, and who in their cups revealed the secrets of their lives; these men, he said later, were the best friends he had ever had.”

Eugene O’Neill: Portrait of an unhappy man.

O’Neill used these railbirds and hustlers, castaways and drunks, prostitutes and pimps, rogues and rapscallions as the basis for the cast of his second best play, The Iceman Cometh. (I wrote about the film version here.) Iceman is a powerful, if at times punishing experience, but the denizens of the bowery dive come to life. You can feel the lives of these desperate people.


I love when my reading dovetails. Here Durant, O’Neil and Joseph Mitchell sort of fit together like a puzzle. I just finished my second pass through Up in the Old Hotel, a collection of Mitchell’s writing.

Joseph Mitchell was a staff writer for The New Yorker for some 30 years, filing story after story about the rough and tumble eccentrics and drunks who occupied the Bowery area of mid-century New York. He loved drunks, saloonkeepers, weirdos, visionaries, hustlers, the stinking homeless, the destitute, the outcasts, the outlaws—the same characters O’Neil writes about in Iceman. No one has tried, but there’s probably some overlap in the people they wrote about. Mitchell visited the same places, just 20 years later.

Mitchell is an unparalleled stylist, a journalist-poet with one foot in the gutter. His profiles of bar people rank among the best of America’s writing, witty, humane, elegant, insightful—a view into a disappeared world. He makes journalism, and writing, look easy. Here he is describing a regular named Eddie Guest in his collection, McSorley’s Wonderful Saloon: “Eddie Guest is a gloomy, defeated, ex-Greenwich Village poet who has been around the Bowery off and on for eight or nine years. He mutters poetry to himself constantly and is taken to Bellevue for observation once a year. He carries all his possessions in a greasy beach bag and sleeps in flophouses, never staying in one two nights in succession, because, he says, he doesn’t want his enemies to know where he is.” He loved ramblers, gamblers, working class heroes and inebriated philosophers. He is the factual mirror for Iceman. You can smell the breath of his profiles; you can hear their hearts beating. Everyone who reads him falls in love. He was a goddamn superb writer, a true one of a kind.

Joseph Mitchell, the great reporter of the downtrodden and depraved.

He spent his time with the denizens of America’s underbelly, mined it for poetry, and it exacted a price. In 1964, he filed his last story for The New Yorker. And for the following 32 years, he came into work, typed in his office, but never turned in a single sentence for publication. Then he died.

His longest work is Joe Gould’s Secret, where he revisits the lies and manipulations of a grand raconteur who he had profiled as a younger man. (The profile is called “Professor Sea Gull.”) Through the course of this exquisite, and heartbreaking, long essay, Mitchell reveals the dark side of Gould’s deceptions, while delineating his precipitous mental and physical decline. It’s clear that Mitchell felt he had betrayed Gould in his essay, and the consensus is that after Gould’s death, he somehow lost his voice, couldn’t write anymore, didn’t see the value of it. And then he eked through thirty more years of typing. Was he faking? Did he destroy all the work? Did he lose his mind?

Joe Gould, the drunken raconteur.

It is one of literature’s mysteries, although Mitchell isn’t alone. Edward Anderson, a superb author, wrote just two novels: Hungry Men, my vote for the best depression era novel, and Thieves Like Us, one of the finest crime novels of the 1930s. And then nothing. Or John Williams, one of our country’s finest novelists, author of the incredible Stoner, who wrote just four novels over the course of some fifty years. And then nothing.

The truth of it is that Mitchell was probably exhausted from his decades-long infatuation with the rank poverty of dilapidated New York, exhausted in his spirit and in his bones, and seeing Joe Gould perish so stupidly and alone, fractured the core belief that his writing mattered.