Hey, Is That Proust? and Other News


On the Shelf

Quite possibly Proust. Photo via the Guardian.


  • People say late-night TV is improving in the age of Trump. Man, Colbert really brought it last night, they’ll say; or, Seth Meyers is on fire lately; or, Gee whiz, that Saturday Night Live program sure gave the administration what-for! But make no mistake: the late-night variety show is a pale and desiccated husk of what it once was. For a counterexample, Joan Walsh revisited the one-week stand Harry Belafonte had on the Tonight Show, where he filled in for Johnny Carson in February 1968: “The week featured Belafonte’s searing, in-depth interviews with Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., just months before both were assassinated … A few days later, King kibitzed with comedian Nipsey Russell, the blacklisted African-American singer Leon Bibb, and actor Paul Newman, who played his trombone. Another episode featured basketball star Wilt Chamberlain and actor Zero Mostel, who stood on the couch to shake the giant NBA player’s hand. Other guests included singers Buffy Sainte-Marie, Petula Clark, Dionne Warwick, and Robert Goulet; comedians Tom and Dick Smothers; actor Sidney Poitier (Belafonte’s close friend); American poet laureate Marianne Moore; water-skier Ken White; and Metropolitan Museum of Art director Thomas Hoving. Fifteen of the twenty-five guests that week were African-American. Only Belafonte could have pulled that off, says TV producer Norman Lear almost fifty years later. ‘He was an ambassador in both directions—to his own people and to the Caucasian community. There wasn’t anyone else like him. It is rare to this day.’ ”

  • In the fifties, Colin Wilson scored a big hit with his book The Outsider, which became a kind of pop-existentialist hit. Teens loved it. Professors loved it. Teenage professors especially loved it. But the success went to Wilson’s head—his hubristic followup, Religion and the Rebel was so bad it relegated his work to “sleazy-looking paperbacks at motorway service stations.” Phil Baker writes, “Even before Religion and the Rebel, Wilson had begun to dig his own grave with his charmless opinions: Shakespeare, for example, had ‘an absolutely second-rate mind,’ ‘like a female novelist.’ Publishing his diaries in the Daily Mail, Wilson announced ‘I am the major literary genius of our century,’ and this generous estimate of his own significance remained consistent: ‘It strikes me,’ he told an interviewer four decades later, ‘that in five hundred years time they’ll say ‘Wilson was a genius’, because I’m a turning point in intellectual history.’”
  • And now, with a tidy evisceration of academe, Kevin Birmingham: “The privilege of tenure used to confer academic freedom through job security. By now, decades of adjunctification have made the professoriate fearful, insular, and conformist … ‘Professionalization’ means retrofitting your research so that it accommodates the critical fads that will make you marginally more employable. It means cutting and adding chapters so that feathers remain unruffled. Junior faculty play it safe—conceptually, politically, and formally—because they write for job and tenure committees rather than for readers. Publications serve careers before they serve culture … The most foolish mistake is addressing an audience beyond the academy. Publishing with Penguin or Random House should be a wonderful opportunity for a young scholar. Yet for most hiring committees, a trade book is merely one that did not undergo peer review.”