We’re a Nation of Smirking Persons, and Other News


On the Shelf

Walt Whitman, famously unsmirking American.


  • Here’s the problem with America, as Walt Whitman saw it: we’re “a nation of smirking persons” when we should be one “of sane and cleanfleshed men.” For this, we may blame the restive, costive decadence of city life, which has produced “a set of sickly milk-and-water men” who “bloat themselves with quantities of trash.” This was true in 1858, when, under a pseudonym, Whitman wrote a series of columns on “Manly Health.” And it’s still true now, friends. Just last night, I bloated myself with quantities of trash, and I plan to do it again immediately. But fear not. There are a few things we can do, Whitman says, to reclaim our vigor: grow a beard, eat exclusively beef, sleep with the window open. His advice, as I’ve written elsewhere, isn’t always stirring, but it’s hard to look away from the spectacle of masculine insecurity he presents: “Where Leaves of Grass celebrates a man sublimely comfortable in his own skin, Manly Health is more likely to warn that skin is ‘one of the great inlets of disease.’ Whitman’s column warns against potatoes, prostitutes, overthinking, hot beverages, and between-meal snacking, to name a few of his prohibitions. As for condiments: forget about them. Real men abjure catsup.”

  • Laura Marsh remembers Bob Silvers—and Bob Silvers’s diction: “During the years I worked at the Review, our rituals were Bob’s rituals and our vocabulary was his—carefully edited—vocabulary. We flinched at empty descriptors like compelling and massive … The hardest words for me to let go of were context and in terms of. Once you stripped those away, you had to think about how one thing related to another (sometimes, you discovered, it didn’t), and struggle to articulate it in more concrete language … He routinely worked late into the night, seven days a week, from behind a huge horseshoe-shaped control pad, piled disastrously high with manila folders. It was not unusual to arrive at the office in the morning to find a haystack of memos in his outbox, and a desk strewn with blunted pencils and exhausted Wite-Out bottles. If the Review was a rare place you could find rigorous thought, Bob made it that way not by magic but through an unwavering commitment to independence.”
  • Tim Winton was born in Australia. It took a sojourn in Europe, with its radically compressed scale and “relentlessly denatured” environment, to bring his native landscape into sharp relief: “Despite a peopled history of sixty thousand years, Australia remains a place with more land than people, more geography than architecture. But it is not and never has been empty. Since people first walked out of Africa and made their way down to this old chunk of Gondwana when it was not yet so distant from Asia and the rest of the world, it has been explored and inhabited, modified and mythologized, walked and sung. People were chanting and dancing and painting here tens and tens of thousands of years before the advent of the toga and the sandal. This is true antiquity. Few landscapes have been so deeply known. And fewer still have been so lightly inhabited.”
  • “Some dance to remember, some dance to forget,” sang America’s greatest poet, Don Henley. (NOTE: JOKE.) David Rieff is in the latter camp, as evidenced by his new book, In Praise of Forgetting. Phoebe Roy caught him at a debate recently: “Rieff produced a polite but shocked murmur in the audience by describing George Santayana’s maxim that ‘those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it’ as the dumbest thing ever said by a smart man. His point was that although commemoration is respectful and right, whether or not it has a marked moral outcome is another matter. There is no evidence, for instance, that the memory of the Holocaust did anything to prevent Rwanda or Bosnia, or that it isn’t used by some people as an exercise in self-absolution or, in the United States, as its own form of nationalism. Perhaps when we say that we have forgotten the lessons of any particular atrocity, an accusation leveled at many governments in response to the Syrian refugee crisis, what we mean is that we have found new ways to forget and reasons why this atrocity cannot be usefully compared to ones before it.”