The Fairy Tale of His Life

A review by Caleb Crain of Hans Christian Andersen: The Life of a Storytellerby Jackie Wullschlager. Originally published in Newsday, 3 June 2001, p. B10.

Once upon a time, in nineteenth-century Denmark, there was a shoemaker who read plays, fables, and tales from the Arabian Nights to his son. A romantic spirit, the shoemaker went off to fight for Napoleon, but when he came home from the wars, he was sickly. When the boy was eleven, his father died. The Ice Maiden has carried him off, explained the boy’s mother, a kind washerwoman who liked to drink schnapps and could not read.

Perhaps because of his father’s indulgence, the boy loved the theater fiercely and believed that one day he would belong to the world of writing and performance. Without a doubt he was different from other boys. He liked to sew clothes for his collection of dolls, and he had a voice so high and pretty that once when he sang for the factory hands at a cloth mill, the workers undressed him to see if he was a girl.

At age fourteen, the boy left his mother and traveled alone to Copenhagen, Denmark’s capital city, to join the theater any way he could. First he tried singing, but his voice broke. Then he tried dancing, but he was so lanky and gawky that the only part he was allowed to dance was that of a troll. Finally he tried writing, but he did not know how to spell, and his style was wild. In person he entertained everyone he met, but most people laughed at him rather than with him. Fortunately, his failures succeeded in charming a man named Jonas Collin, who had money from the king to spend on the arts.

Collin arranged for the boy to attend grammar school in the countryside at the king’s expense. It was rare for a worker’s child to have such a chance to join the middle class. The experience was humiliating, however. At seventeen, the boy knew less than his eleven-year-old classmates. He could not even find Copenhagen on a map of Denmark. To make matters worse, the school’s headmaster, a slovenly man whose wife cheated on him, was unkind. “You’re a stupid boy, wholl never be any good,” the headmaster told him. Nonetheless the boy learned what he needed in order to become a writer. He read Shakespeare and Sir Walter Scott, and he began to keep a diary. In 1826, he wrote a poem in the voice of a dying child. The headmaster dismissed the poem as “sentimentality and idle trash,” but it was soon printed in newspapers across Europe. The boy was freed from the torture of grammar school. He returned to Copenhagen, where his poem had already begun to earn him a name as a writer.

That name was Hans Christian Andersen. As Jackie Wullschlager, a critic of arts and literature for the Financial Times, explains in her sensitive, carefully researched biography, measured in years Andersen was now an adult, but in many ways, he was still a child—and would remain one all his life. He would never marry, he would always hunger for attention and praise, and he never settled down as a writer into just one literary form. In 1829, for example, he published a book-length fantasy travelogue, a play whose ending depended on the audience’s vote, and a collection of poems. His love of experiment would eventually lead him to invent a new kind of writing altogether.

As happens to many boys with girlish habits and a love for theater, Andersen grew up to be a man who fell in love with men as easily as he did with women. In fact, he sometimes fell in love with a brother and sister at the same time: he fell for Christian and Riborg Voigt in 1830, and for Edvard and Louise Collin in 1832 and 1833. Edvard and Louise were the children of the man who had rescued Andersen by sending him to grammar school. To Andersen the Collin family seemed so enlightened, secure, gracious, and worthy that he longed to attach himself to it however he could.

Andersen’s love—whether for women or for men—was rarely returned. His love for Edvard Collin was probably the deepest and most painful feeling of his life. “I long for you, yes, this moment I long for you as if you were a lovely girl from Calabria,” he wrote to Edvard in 1835. But Edvard never had any wish to be intimate with Andersen. In fact, Andersen’s need for a mans love left him somewhat disgusted. Many years later, after Andersen died and bequeathed Edvard an estate worth 50,000 rixdollars (around $1 million), Edvard wrote that “I cannot deviate from the opinion that the best service to Andersen is done by showing the world how diseased a mind he had.”

This is a fairly stern judgment. And yet for years scholars have argued that Anderson could not have loved men sexually, because if he had, the Collin family would have known about it and would never have allowed him to escort their young sons and grandsons on trips through Europe. Wullschlager is not afraid to say that this argument has no more substance than did the emperor’s new clothes. She sees that the Collin family could have known about Andersen, disapproved of him, and yet continued to love him in their own limited fashion.

In 1835, perhaps emboldened by the sense that his first novel, The Improvisatore, would be a success, Andersen attempted something new: a pamphlet of tales for children. The style he chose was lively but simple. “A soldier was marching along the high road: Left, right! Left, right!” began the first tale. Yet they were revolutionary. Before Andersen, people had recorded fairy tales, as if they were bird songs, but no one had written new ones. Nor had anyone written for children in a style that was so much like regular conversation. Andersen’s fairy tales begged to be read aloud.

Adults enjoyed them as much as children did, perhaps because in fairy tales, Andersen was able to write things that he had not been able to express in any of the other literary forms he had tried. In his tales, Andersen could write about the Ice Maiden who had kissed his father’s life away. He could write about his recurrent nightmares of a dying child, by describing a lonely girl, perishing of cold and hunger, who comforts herself with pretty images seen in the flames of the matches she lights. He could write about his awkward youth, by telling the story of a duckling who grew up to be a swan. And he could write about his unhappy love for men like Edvard, by imagining a mermaid who could only walk on land beside the man she loved if she gave up the voice in which she might have told him her feelings.

Critics did not at first understand Andersen’s innovation, but children did, and they made him wealthy and famous. Aristocrats and wealthy merchants fussed over him. After he discovered fairy tales, his life followed a steady path: his writing improved and deepened, while he became more lonely, fearful, and vain. He never found a love that might have broken him free of his childlike shell. In the 1840s he had a much-publicized crush on the Swedish singer Jenny Lind and then a long sentimental friendship with Carl Alexander, the Grand Duke of Weimar, who admired him, weeped with him, and held hands with him, but never challenged him. Wullschlager suspects that Andersen may have briefly found some kind of sexual fulfilment with a young dancer named Harald Scharff in 1862. But there is a sad hollowness to Andersen’s last decades. Acclaimed but not seen for who he was, he became a caricature of himself—like the shadow, in one of his fairy tales, who escapes from his master and eventually replaces him. Thanks to Wullschlager’s research and insight, however, one may at last glimpse the unhappy, creative man.

License to Ink

A review by Caleb Crain of Richard Posner’s Public Intellectuals: A Study of Decline. Originally published in The Nation, 11 February 2002.

The subtitle sounds bad, but keep in mind that Thorstein Veblen considered subtitling his book on academics “A Study in Total Depravity.” The really bad news concerns the title: The term “public intellectual” is practically obsolete.

It’s dying young. Although the subject of much hoo-ha lately, it has not been current for very long. Russell Jacoby popularized it in his 1987 book The Last Intellectuals: American Culture in the Age of Academe. Jacoby did not coin the term—he quoted C. Wright Mills using it in 1958—but he found a congenial semantic niche for it: to distinguish unaffiliated from college-based thinkers. In the old days, there wasn’t any need to make the distinction, because the generation born in and around 1900 doubted that intellectual life could take place in academia. “To be an intellectual did not entail college teaching,” Jacoby wrote of the era that formed Lewis Mumford and Edmund Wilson; “it was not a real possibility.” By the time of Jacoby’s book, however, contemplative lives were being led on campuses, or so it was claimed, and since the campuses had the dollars to back the claim, the old-fashioned independent intellectuals were marked with the delimiting adjective “public.”

Now the adjective is about to disappear, because the independents are on the verge of losing even their right to the noun. In his new book, Richard Posner hints that there is today “a certain redundancy in the term ‘public intellectual.'” One would expect Posner to be highly sensitive to the use of the term, because he lives the role it describes. Profiled in Lingua Franca and more recently in The New Yorker, and invited to post his diary on Slate, Posner is a judge on the Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, a founder of the field of law and economics, and the author of books on everything from the rational-choice theory of sex to the 2000 presidential election.

The term is redundant, Posner suggests, because an intellectual is by definition someone who addresses the public. Writing for fellow experts may take just as much brainpower but is merely academic. For practical reasons Posner is not concerned, as Jacoby was, with the brave last stand of independent thinkers. “There was a time when an intellectual could do as well (or rather no worse) for himself financially by writing books and articles as by being a professor,” Posner writes. “That time is largely past. The opportunity cost of being an independent public intellectual has skyrocketed because of the greatly increased economic opportunities in the academic market.” Nowadays the term “public intellectual” merely refers to an academic in his capacity as a moon-lighter. The qualifier “public” is expendable once all intellectuals have day jobs.

In other words, the short lifespan of the term corresponds to the interval between the decline of “Intellectuals cannot be professors” and the rise of “All intellectuals are professors.” About this transition Jacoby was wistful and, in a desperate, Gertrude-Stein-beckoning-the-Lost-Generation way, optimistic. “A specter haunts American universities or, at least, its faculties: boredom,” Jacoby wrote, and he quoted a report that found “almost 40 percent [of professors] ready and willing to leave the academy.” Posner, by contrast, is resigned and matter-of-fact. He knows the laws of economics. The marketplace of ideas, like other markets, results from the preferences and resources of those who participate in it. If 40 percent of professors say they want to leave the academy, they must have excellent reasons for staying. After all, if nothing were holding them back, their dissatisfaction would not show up in surveys of professors; they would not be professors.

The market has reasons that reason know not of, and Posner is willing to respect them. “In the main we shall have to live with this slightly disreputable market,” he writes. “But what else is new? We Feinschmeckers have to live with vulgarity in popular culture, the sight of overweight middle-aged men wearing shorts and baseball caps, weak coffee and the blare of the television set in every airport waiting lounge. It is doubtful that the public-intellectual market is a more debilitating or less intractable feature of contemporary American culture than these other affronts to the fastidious.”

But although a monopoly by academics may be inevitable, Posner apprehends the mediocrity of it, acutely. “The disappointment lingers,” he admits. In fact he was motivated to write this book by dismay at what his tenured peers had written and said about the impeachment of Clinton, the Microsoft antitrust case and the supposed moral decline of America. Their commentary seemed so shoddy and silly as to require an economic explanation.

How do you analyze the economics of something so airy? In fact, once Posner sets in, it turns out to be less airy than bloody. Much of the fun in reading Public Intellectuals consists of watching Posner triage the meats for his sausage.

You won’t be put through his grinder just because you’re smart and pop up in Nexis. Of Nation writers, Alexander Cockburn and Patricia Williams make his list, as do Victor Navasky and Katrina vanden Heuvel, but Christopher Hitchens inexplicably does not, even though Posner has a footnote to him. John Rawls is out, too—too academic. Harvard’s new president, Lawrence Summers, qualifies, just barely. Theodore Roosevelt, Newt Gingrich, Winston Churchill. Leonard Bernstein and William Sloane Coffin are excluded because they are better known for nonintellectual achievements. This caution is justified because intellectual celebrity is so easily dwarfed by other kinds. The intellectual most often mentioned in the media between 1995 and 2000 was Henry Kissinger, and yet the 12,570 allusions to him are as a drop in the bucket and are counted as the small dust of the balance beside Michael Jordan’s 108,000.

Whether devised by art, science or expedience, the tallies and rankings are where most readers will start, and Posner has strategically placed them in the precise middle of his book, as far from either end as possible, for the same reason grocers put milk at the back of the store. “Consumer Reports does not evaluate public intellectuals,” Posner observes, and people like to know the score. It is disconcerting to see Camille Paglia and Oliver Wendell Holmes nearly tied in a ranking by media mentions. It is suggestive that the intellectual most often cited in scholarly writing between 1995 and 2000 was Michel Foucault, and even more suggestive that Foucault’s score is nearly twice that of the second-most-cited intellectual, Pierre Bourdieu. (Posner himself comes in tenth.)

Once the air of the horsetrack has dissipated, the reader turns to Posner’s analysis. Here is the news, in summary: If you are a public intellectual, your odds of being mentioned in the media improve if you are not an academic, are not dead, have served in government and are either a journalist or a writer.

At first glance this might look like good news. But the higher profile of non-academics does not mean that the unaffiliated intellectual is alive and well. It means, rather, that those who have managed to become public intellectuals despite a lack of academic credentials tend to be mentioned more frequently than their academic peers. As time goes by, there are fewer such people. Of the 546 intellectuals in Posner’s sample, 56 percent of the dead ones are academics, and 70 percent of the living ones. And as Posner deadpans, “Notice the high average age even of the living public intellectuals”—64 years old. Among actual young people, the rate of intellectual institutionalization is probably even higher.

“Media mentions come at the expense of scholarly citations (and vice versa),” Posner observes. “An academic who wants to succeed as a public intellectual might be well advised to substitute government service for additional scholarly publications!” But if it is posterity you hunger for, think carefully. In Posner’s sample, being dead correlates well with scholarly citations, which suggests that “public-intellectual work is more ephemeral than scholarship.” The correlation may, of course, suggest other inferences to less sanguine minds.

So much for the facts. Although Posner is known as a pragmatist, the most provocative analysis in Public Intellectuals is actually of his own hunches and grudges, and of the social maps drawn by observes like Jacoby and Bobos in Paradise author David Brooks.

Posner thinks that public-intellectual work offers the consumer three goods: entertainment, solidarity and information. The consumer (and the magazine editor or television producer who procures on the consumer’s behalf) can usually tell by inspection whether it reassures people that they are on the right team, be it of abortion-haters or deconstruction-defenders. In an age of specialized knowledge, however, only another expert can judge whether the information in a piece of commentary is worthwhile. Its value is what an economist would call a “credence good”; consumers have to take it on faith. By the time you figure out that there must have been a flaw somewhere in that September 1999 Atlantic Monthly article titled “Dow 36,000,” it is too late to get your money back. By now even the writers have been paid.

Most markets in credence goods correct for this uncertainty, in order to keep frustrated consumers from fleeing. Sellers may offer money-back guarantees, advertise heavily to signal long-term commitment to a product, cooperate with a third-party rating system, choose retailers who are reputed to be judicious gatekeepers or consent to government regulation. Even in the absence of any correctives, however, sellers usually refrain from offering egregiously low-quality products, because they want customers to buy from them again in the future. They are deterred by “the cost . . . of exit from the market.”

The public-intellectual market deals in credence goods, but Posner fears that it may be suffering from market failure. Consumers trust periodicals and talk shows to act as filters, but they seem to be filtering for entertainment and solidarity rather than for information. More damaging, the cost of exit from the public-intellectual market is very low. No academic loses his job because he has made a fool of himself on the Op-Ed page. It has therefore become unwise for the consumer to believe public intellectuals. Posner likens them to palm readers: They claim to know the answers to vital questions, but the cost of figuring out whether they really do is prohibitive. The rational consumer responds by discounting the value of the information and consulting them merely for entertainment.

Why is the cost of exit from the public-intellectual market so low? For the simple reason that there is not much reward for entering it in the first place. Here economic analysis converges with traditional lament. The professors have ruined everything. They are obscurantist, pedantic, naive, exaggerative of the reach of their expertise, theory-mad, timid toward anyone who might put a letter in their tenure file and intemperate toward everyone else, but the real problem is their free time. They have a lot of it, and they are willing to sacrifice almost any quantity to see their names in print. They are, in other words, cheap. They drag the supply curve downward on the dollar axis. The price of public-intellectual work drops, and more of it is produced.

With prices so low, unaffiliated intellectuals can no longer make a living. (At many periodicals, the payment for editorials and book reviews is lower than for other kinds of writing. This is not because they require less effort; it is because an academic can always be found to write them.) Absent a class of people whose livelihood depends on the market, an ethos of quality gives way to an ethos of tourism. “He is on holiday from the academic grind and all too often displays the irresponsibility of the holiday goer,” Posner writes of the moonlighting professor. “Insulated from the retribution of disappointed consumers by virtue of being part-timers,” academic intellectuals behave like a movie-star politicians.

You’re so vain, you probably think this book is about you, don’t you?

Public Intellectuals is a portmanteau book. The first part consists of the analysis of the public-intellectual market described above, but in the second, the reader is dropped into conversations whose beginnings he has not witnessed. Martha Nussbaum is wrong to think that the moral of The Golden Bowl is resignation to your husband’s adultery. (Martha Nussbaum is here? In the room with us?) Wayne Booth’s attempt to reconcile the aesthetic to the ethical is doomed. Aldous Huxley predicted the future better than George Orwell, but Orwell wrote a better novel. Robert Bork is disingenuous about so-called partial birth abortions. Gertrude Himmelfarb is unconvincing about the cultural metastasis of the naughty. Richard Rorty may be the heir to Socrates, Dewey and J.S. Mill, but he deploys a rhetoric that passed its freshness date sometime in the 1930s, and as for Martha Nussbaum—did I mention her already? The chapters are informative and at times highly entertaining (“The ‘Ode on Melancholy’ is not improved by being made risquéˆ, just as a pig is not enhanced by wearing lipstick,” writes Posner, in a simile that becomes more disturbing the more it is considered), but they are miscellaneous, and the reader senses that because of a wish to revisit old grudges—or recycle old articles—the tail is wagging the pig.

In his conclusion, Posner returns to topic. Academia has diminished intellectual life, but rebellion is futile, because academia is what Tocqueville would call a soft tyranny. Like the Hand of God as described to me in Sunday school, it destroys not by striking the wicked but by releasing them into the danger they prefer, where they must write for in-flight magazines in order to pay their rent.

Accordingly, Posner offers extremely modest proposals for reform: He would like to encourage academics to post their public-intellectual work on websites, deposit printouts in libraries and disclose relevant earnings. He doesn’t think the reforms will be adopted, because “the irresponsibility of public-intellectual work is one of the rewards of being a public intellectual.” But even if Posner’s suggestions were adopted, they would change nothing. The money involved is usually trivial, as he himself admits, and he has overestimated how hard it is to trace what an academic has said in public.

As near as I can tell, only one of Posner’s suggestions have even the faintest chance of success: “One might hope that as a matter of self-respect the university community could be persuaded to create and support a journal that would monitor the public-intellectual activities of academics and be widely distributed both within and outside the community.” Thus would specialized academics be matched by specialized journalists, and the failure of one market remedied by the development of another. Alas, Lingua Franca suspended publication in November.

Uptown Girl

A review by Caleb Crain of My Misspent Youth by Meghan Daum. Originally published in The Nation, 30 April 2001.

“These pieces are not confessions,” Meghan Daum declares in the foreword to My Misspent Youth, an anthology of articles she wrote for The New Yorker, Harper’s, and other magazines. Nonsense. Maybe, as she claims, “a few of the stories I tell never even happened,” but the first time I read her book, I read it in a single afternoon, mesmerized and spluttering, because all the essays have the flavor of confession.

They taste, that is, like a hot fudge sundae: salty sweet. Or more exactly, they taste like an inside-out hot fudge sundae: sweet, then salty. The surface is chilly, pale, slick, sugary. Beneath is a dark hot goo, like half-coagulated blood. The difference, in texture and temperature, is exhilarating and probably not good for you.

Just over thirty, Daum has been anthologized in The KGB Bar Reader and championed by Thomas Beller, the novelist-scenester-editor of the literary journal Open City. Until she decamped last year to Nebraska (she writes about her new life there in the latest issue of O), Daum was as urbane a writer as they come. Like Joan Didion, to whom she is often compared, she is a nonfiction switch-hitter: an empathetic reporter and a provocative autobiographer. The reported essay on flight attendants reprinted here, which Open City rescued after a men’s magazine killed it, is a gem. She owes her fame, however, to her confessions. In print she has admitted to unsafe sex, inventoried her debts and spending habits, and chronicled her waitership at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, much the way David Sedaris chronicled his elfhood at Macy’s Santaland. In the first person lies her weakness—and her strength.

In “Creative Writers and Daydreaming,” Freud explained that the egotism of most daydreams repels everyone except the person who dreamed them up. In successful literature, however, the same fantasies manage to be pleasing, because great writers are able to short-circuit or neutralize the reader’s envy and contempt—to trick readers into identifying with daydreams they would ordinarily roll their eyes at. When Charles Dickens or Jane Austen share their fantasies, you enjoy them as if they were your own.

This is not, however, how confessions work. Memoirists don’t convince you to overcome your envy and contempt; they expect and plan for those reactions. You can’t read Meghan Daum’s essays without becoming enraged. If someone tells you that she has been financially compelled to move from New York City to Nebraska because she only earned $40,000 in 1997 and $59,000 in 1998, you will roll your eyes. (In my case, patience lapsed when Daum claimed that financial anxiety had blocked her writing by rendering her unable to think “about anything other than how to make a payment on whatever bill was sitting on my desk, most likely weeks overdue.” “Weeks”? And she calls herself a writer?) She can’t hope that you will sympathize; there is another game afoot. Arousal to indignation is in fact one of the pleasures Daum is offering. Of course she’s infuriating. In real life, people always are.

Like all real people, Daum has unexamined, often self-serving ideas about herself. Unlike most real people, she writes about them uncensored. When they hurt her and those around her, the reader feels anger, as if she were a friend who needs a talking-to. But if he’s honest with himself, the reader may also recognize a few of his own self-serving ideas among Daum’s—particularly if he too is a freelance writer who has found it hard to support himself in New York City. This is the hot goo. We all know it’s wrong to believe that just because you are a writer, you deserve a high-bourgeois lifestyle and boundless love. And we know it is wrong to think that if you haven’t received these prizes yet, it is because you don’t yet write well enough. But if you are a writer, this is the sort of nonsense you believe, or used to believe until you were disillusioned. Disillusionment may have improved you, but to spend a little stolen time with the old cheats is nonetheless a sticky, high-calorie pleasure.

If it were up to me, everyone who aspired to make a living as a writer would be obliged, at an early age, to read Thoreau’s “Life without Principle,” Fitzgerald’s “The Crack-up,” Gissing’s New Grub Street, and Connolly’s Enemies of Promise. “My Misspent Youth,” the title essay in Daum’s collection, may belong in this canon, not for Daum’s insight, which is no better than Fitzgerald’s, but for her lyricism, which rivals Connolly’s.

This is the chilly, pale, slick, sugary surface. Daum says she learned how to write sentences from her father, a music composer. And on the evidence of her prose style, I have no trouble believing her claim that she was in her day the second-best high school oboist in New Jersey, even without practicing. She has the ease of a natural. Note the rhythms in the opening lines of her essay “Toy Children”:

Though I had a stuffed-animal collection that rivaled the inventory of a Toys “R” Us, I was a child that hated dolls. By hate, I’m not talking about a cool indifference. I’m talking about a palpable loathing, a dislike so intense that my salient memory of doll ownership concerns a plastic baby whose duty among my playthings consisted solely of being thrown against the wall repeatedly and then smudged with a combination of red lipstick, purple Crayola, and, when available, spaghetti sauce. This was done in an effort to simulate severe injury, possibly even internal bleeding, and this doll, who, if I recall correctly, had eyes that opened and shut and therefore had come preassigned with the name Baby Drowsy, spent most of her time in a shoe box in my closet. This was the intensive care unit, the place where, when I could no longer stand the sight of Baby Drowsy’s fat, contusion-ridden face, I would Scotch tape a folded Kleenex to her forehead and announce to my mother that Baby Drowsy had been in yet another massive car wreck.

The sentences here start off compact and declarative. The first two bring to mind the humorously flat disavowals in Frank O’Hara’s poem “Autobiographia Literaria”: “I hated dolls and I / hated games, animals were / not friendly and birds / flew away.” But then, like a beetle lifting its chitin to reveal gossamer wings, out from under these assertions Daum unfolds subordinate clauses full of color and ambivalence, linked with a delicacy that requires the reader’s attention but never flummoxes him. She segues from aphorism to excursus as gracefully as Hazlitt, who loved hate in similar cadences: “Is it pride?” Hazlitt wondered. “Is it envy? Is it the force of contrast? Is it weakness or malice? But so it is, that there is a secret affinity, a hankering after evil in the human mind, and that it takes a perverse, but a fortunate delight in mischief, since it is a never-failing source of satisfaction.”

But let’s get back to the hot goo. Nearly every piece in My Misspent Youth contains an understanding of Daum and the world that is appealing and false. She succeeds in wrecking some of them; others resist her. For a reviewer to set forth exactly why and how Daum has failed to undeceive herself would be a bit like doing the crossword puzzle as a public service. Not quite taking her at her word is part of the reader’s fun. But I can’t resist a brief look at two issues: love and money.

In her first essay, “On the Fringes of the Physical World,” and in her last, “Variations on Grief,” Daum describes relationships with men who loved and disappointed her. The first, a sportswriter she calls Pete, failed to live up to the promise of his email courtship, when he wooed her under the America Online moniker PFSlider. The second, a rich, idle aesthete she calls Brian, died of a respiratory infection at age twenty-two without having made anything of his life.

Though the men are different, their relationships with Daum are strangely alike. Both surprised Daum by spoiling her. “He gave me all of what I’d never realized I wanted. . . . I’d never seen anything like it,” she writes of Pete/PFSlider. “I have never in my life allowed a person to cater to my whims the way he did,” she writes of Brian. Daum is aware of the lopsidedness. “I slurped up his attention like some kind of dying animal,” she writes of Pete/PFSlider. “I liked him because he didn’t hold me in contempt for refusing to reciprocate the romantic aspects of his affection for me,” she writes of Brian. But in both cases, she is reluctant to relate her longing for attention to the phoniness she experiences later, when she meets Pete face-to-face and when she tries to mourn Brian. Instead she blames the internet for disguising Pete’s nature (when, in fact, his first email, “is this the real meghan daum?” perfectly reveals the nature of his seduction), and she somewhat mystically links Brian’s death to his lack of interest in hard work (when, in fact, Brian had at least one difficult achievement to his credit: he loved a writer unrequitedly).

Compliant phoniness—and its unfailing sidekick, imperfectly muffled rage—is an occupational hazard for writers. They are, after all, people who have made a profession out of saying whatever it takes to get attention. But it is for her commentary on another hazard of the striving writer’s life that Daum has become almost famous: unsecured debt—and its unfailing sidekick, a rampaging sense of socioeconomic entitlement.

In “My Misspent Youth,” Daum explains that at age seventeen she visited a music copyist’s prewar apartment at West End Avenue and 104th Street in Manhattan. The copyist had oak floors, “faded Persian rugs . . . and NPR humming from the speakers.” I imagine he had a subscription to The Nation, too. At that moment, Daum imprinted the style of life she wanted, and like the hero of Knut Hamsun’s novel Hunger—the one who needlessly starves himself—she insisted on procuring it by writing.

It can’t be done, of course—not today, not on the Upper West Side, not without the innovative credit-card use that Bush and Congress are about to consign to the dustbin of history. (Memo to Vince Passaro: Cash out now.) This is no surprise. What redeems Daum’s essay from mere self-pity (I failed) or backhanded boast (If I couldn’t make it, no one can) is an embarrassing insight, which can be phrased as a question: Would you live in Thoreau’s Walden shack if it had wall-to-wall shag carpeting?

Daum would not. “When you get to a certain age you learn what the deal breakers are,” she writes. “I was never interested in being rich. I just wanted to live in a place with oak floors.” Beneath the humor is an unbecoming truth, rarely spoken aloud. Suffering for art brings socioeconomic compromise, which, in a culture stratified by market segment, looks cheap rather than austere. Literature is a high-bourgeois taste. Even if it only brings in a petty-bourgeois salary, to accept petty-bourgeois taste would feel like giving up hope on it as a profession. Thus carpet, dust ruffles, pantyhose, Maxwell House, and Billy Joel give Daum the heebie-jeebies. When she finally runs, it’s to Nebraska. She can’t afford to stop in Jersey City.

Except for the scorn of Billy Joel, I sympathize. A writer as gifted as Daum deserves to live in a prewar UWS 1BR fully reno w/ hdwd flrs & EIK. I can’t, however, agree with the conclusion she draws from her exile. (It may, after all, be temporary. Despite “Good-Bye to All That,” Joan Didion has not made it a point of pride to stay away.) Wanting to live in a place with oak floors is an interest in being rich. There’s nothing wrong with that. As Samuel Johnson said, “no man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.” But if Daum thought it would be evident to a seventeen-year-old’s glance how a writer could pursue wealth with integrity, or combine ambition with gentility, she must have been living in an uptown world.

Errata for “The Algerine Captive”

There were typos in the first printing of my edition of The Algerine Captive by Royall Tyler (Modern Library Paperback Classics, 2002). Here’s a list of how to fix them. (The errors should be fixed in the second printing, and I’d be pleased to hear from anyone who has one. The book is available for sale at Amazon and Barnes & Noble)

We chose not to regularize Tyler’s spellings, so inconsistencies such as “Gibraltar”/”Gibralter” and “ancient”/”antient” are deliberate. Corrections marked with an asterisk are of 1797 printer’s errors; the rest are of errors new to the 2002 text.

13.7 clans of England ] clans of Ireland
16.3 strains ] stains
17.8 Yulers ] rulers
*41.24 decriped ] decrepit
47.23 partecting ] partecling
65.19 seales ] scales
68.19 Hun ] Hum
74.1 Insert line break after “reign,”
85.8 sitting ] fitting
*85.8 Africa. ] Africa,
105.1 abast ] abaft
111.21 cleaning ] cleansing
111.21 cleaned ] cleared
128.3 wasted ] wafted
129.fn delotery ] deletery
136.1 sorsque ] forsque
143.3 tail ] humane fellow citizens, by a minute detail
*151.6 Hyghte ] Hyghe
151.7 yelypt ] yclypt
151.10 soemanne ] foemanne
*154.4 Dauntle’s pursue ] Dauntless pursues
156.35 announced ] annexed
*178.10 adsurdities ] absurdities
181.9 then ] than
210.30 bootees ] booters

Compiled July 24, 2002.