Leaflet #2: Missions

What was Melville’s mission statement? Issue #2 of my newsletter.


A few days ago a friend sent me a link to “Sea Scrivener,” a 1944 comic-book biography of Herman Melville:

A little Billy Budd seems to have gotten mixed into the life (which starts on page 63, on the website linked to). While in grad school, I made a pilgrimage to Melville’s grave in Woodlawn cemetery in the Bronx, where a blank scroll decorates his headstone. My recollection is that on my way to the grave, I walked past an obelisk commemorating a family named Budd. Had it been put there before or after Melville? The New York Times reports that “plots are still available in the vicinity of Herman Melville, with prices starting at $20,000.” I’ve been getting a fair amount of junk mail from cemeteries lately, which causes one to wonder what the algorithms know about one. If any were to advertise such a propinquity, the solicitation would be a little more tempting.

At a recent dinner party, a friend who works in branding explained the importance of mission statements. Nike, for example, aims “to bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete in the world,” whereas its rivals just hope to make running shoes. The ad executive who came up with Nike’s tagline “Just do it,” by the way, was inspired by the end of murderer Gary Gilmore’s life. As Norman Mailer recounts, in The Executioner’s Song:

Then the Warden said, “Do you have anything you’d like to say?” and Gary looked up at the ceiling and hesitated, then said, “Let’s do it.”

At first, wondering whether writers have, or should have, mission statements struck me as just intellectual recreation, and maybe a little bit philistine in an amiable way. But as it happens, I worry constantly that my career is a magpie’s nest—I’ve written about antebellum legal flotsam, pirates, gay history, voting ethics, plus a couple of novels, and some commentary on sci-fi movies—and what if, all along, without my knowing it, I’ve been coherent? What a consolation that would be. All I need to do is discover the secret unity beneath my motley. The night after the dinner party, therefore, I couldn’t sleep for trying to deduce the missions of writers, retrospectively. Plato: to write down a conversation with someone who loves wisdom for its own sake. Melville: to penetrate the mystery of being incarnated as a man in a capitalist world. Orwell: to try to tell the truth about people even in the face of their dislike of hearing it. Margaret Fuller: to further the progress of liberty through intellectual service, while a woman in the 19th century. Emerson: to dramatize the way spirit escapes from and is betrayed by the forms that aim to represent it.

I couldn’t figure out my own. Something to do with the connection and conflict between life and art, between attachment and detachment? Which doesn’t explain why last year I wrote an essay about finance capitalism. Maybe the common element is my interest in stories that depose the individual they purport to serve? It would be pleasant to have some reason to think that it wasn’t just out of distractibility that I was a critic and journalist before I got around to becoming a novelist, and to know whether my fiction has to be about gay people or just happens to be about them.

“Journalism is the art of coming too late as early as possible.” —Stig Dagerman, quoted in Johannes Lichtman’s new novel Such Good Work. I like Lichtman’s gentle sense of humor. He’s very good at, for example, suggesting how bad Germans are at explaining card games: “When you put down a queen and then he puts down a queen, then two are down, so it’s until the next turn, unless it is broken.” Such Good Work is about a recent MFA grad who tries to distract himself from relapsing into opiate addiction by moving to Sweden, where he further distracts himself by volunteering to teach refugee children. It turns into a meditation on distraction and ambition, and whether feeling good undermines attempts at doing good, and ends up suggesting, without getting too heavy-handed, that there may not be a higher purpose than helping other people and oneself pass the time not unhappily.

By a stroke of luck, Peter and I were recently able to see The Fabulous Nicholas Brothers, a one-night-only presentation at BAM by Film Forum programming director Bruce Goldstein of dance numbers by, home movies of, and interviews with Fayard and Harold Nicholas, debonair black dancers in American movies of the 1930s and 1940s. (An earlier version of Goldstein’s presentation seems to be available here. We were clued in about the Nicholas Brothers because, a couple of months ago, while Peter was reading Zadie Smith, he was so struck by her praise of their dance number in the 1943 movie Stormy Weather that we watched it online.) By the end of Goldstein’s presentation, during a video he and a collaborator had shot of the brothers reprising, in their seventies, a dance number that they had first recorded for Vitaphone in their teens, I was in tears—at their elegance, at their good nature, at the longevity of hard work and talent. In Goldstein’s telling, they took every opportunity that was consonant with dignity, with a cheerfulness that seems to have been a force of nature. If there were frustrations and disagreements, they seem not to have dwelt on them, and if there were romantic troubles or personality clashes, they did as well as they could and moved on. Nothing became a tragedy; no setback was allowed to become as meaningful as the work. There’s something beautiful about that, and about their gameness—their willingness always to do their best. Were they lucky? Yes, probably, Goldstein’s documentary work suggests: in having been loved since childhood, in having been gifted, in having boundless enthusiasm. But because they were black they weren’t as famous or as successful as they should have been, and they seem neither to have pretended not to see this nor to have let it eat away at their love for their art. A model.

This is issue #2 of Leaflet, a newsletter by Caleb Crain. My next novel comes out in August, and you can buy an early copy now from your local bookstore, Barnes & Noble, or Amazon.


I started a newsletter. A week after saying on Twitter that I would never do this. (Sorry.) First issue: peeing in snow, seven centuries of music history.


I seem to be writing a newsletter. No idea what I’m doing here.

Until yesterday, when they melted, there were these enormous shunting-togethers of discarded snow in the park—large coagulations smeared with mud, studded with decayed leaves, and riddled with holes where dogs had peed into them. Our dog, of course, was fascinated; he could not get enough of sniffing them and peeing into them himself. Stuck waiting for his attention to weaken, I found myself thinking of the new philosophical concept of “the hyperobject”: a thing so distendedly significant that it exceeds any perceptual category through which one tries to apprehend it. Climate change, for example: too big for meteorology, too big for history, too big for political science. One can do nothing but loiter—mesmerized, compelled—and contribute to the aggregation.

“A man I know who should be well informed about this tells me that when the angels play music before God they play Bach, but when they play by themselves for their own amusement they play Mozart.” —Iris Murdoch to Brigid Brophy, 31 March 1964, Living on Paper. The internet seems to believe that the originator of this witticism was the theologian Karl Barth; I’m guessing he wasn’t Iris Murdoch’s well informed man.

Our friend Peter Mendelsund (author of the new novel Same Same) recently tipped us off to the new album c. 1300–c. 2000, in which pianist Jeremy Denk plays his way through seven centuries. It’s kind of like reading through all five volumes of Richard Taruskin’s Oxford History of Western Music but in under two hours and you’re just listening. Or rather, I imagine it would be like reading all of Taruskin, since I haven’t actually read Taruskin. Since pianos didn’t exist in the 14th century, Denk has made his own arrangements of early chansons and madrigals, which is of course musicologically impure but has the effect of abstracting away the early-period-instrumentness of those compositions as one usually hears them and one has the impression of listening instead to the evolution of mere music.

Tween boy, talking to peers, overheard on the sidewalk last week: “It’s true. They rub their cloacas together. That’s how they do it. A cloaca is literally a birdhole.”

New: Last week, on Steamboats Are Ruining Everything, I wrote an accordionable line-by-line commentary about “The Palinode,” a double-sonnet from 1600 about the transience of pleasure, beauty, soap bubbles, and praise. (I did this kind of commentary once before, years ago, with Thomas Wyatt.) I also wrote a post suggesting that brick-and-mortar bookstores might thrive if publishers were to set books’ retail prices. In theory yes, the economist Mathieu Perona wrote in to tell me, but in practice, it doesn’t necessarily work out that way. When Perona wrote his doctorate on the policy of fixed book prices in France and elsewhere, he discovered that in the real world, fixed book prices don’t always correlate with the flourishing of bookstores; he found that in France, that’s partly because French publishers have used their price-setting power to deny sufficient profit margins to French retailers.

The future: My novel Overthrow will be published by Viking in August. If you buy a copy now, ahead of time—either from your local independent bookstore, or from Barnes & Noble or Amazon—it will give the book a boost. Cover art and description here.