A powerful memory moving sideways

In the aftermath of Philip Roth’s death, a sentence that appeared in Lisa Halliday’s novel Asymmetry, which fictionalizes Halliday’s friendship with Roth, has started circulating:

“An artist, I think, is nothing but a powerful memory that can move itself through certain experiences sideways.” It’s a nice sentence—a pleasing mix of elusive and resonant. Did Roth himself write it? Well, no, though he could have transcribed it. Ruth Margalit got its provenance half-right in her recent review of Asymmetry for the New York Review of Books. Margalit claimed that in Halliday’s novel “The quote bears no attribution, but it comes from the nineteenth-century novelist Stephen Crane.”

Not exactly. In fact the quote appears in no novel, poem, or letter that Stephen Crane is known to have written. If you google, you’ll see that it has popped up in essays about Crane and in biographies of him for decades, but its earliest appearance is on page 232 of a 1923 biography of Crane by Thomas Beer. Beer’s biography, however, is largely fictional. Beer snookered not a few—Alfred Kazin and John Berryman are among those who fell for his tales—but as I wrote in a 2014 New Yorker essay about Crane, scholars have known since 1990 “that scores of the letters [in Beer’s biography] were ‘concocted,'” and “more than half a dozen people in Beer’s biography were concocted, too—including many whom Beer had credited as sources.” Beer seems to have been gay—he once commended a novel for containing “the most wonderful description of hair on a boy’s chest,” and in letters he addressed male friends as “Bitch” and “Purple Sunflower”—but he was conflicted about it, and he seems to have had a troubled identification with Crane’s youth, looks, accomplishment, and sexual amorality. Last week, after reading Margalit’s review, I checked the two-volume 1988 edition of Crane’s correspondence, and the scholars who compiled it, Stanley Wertheim and Paul Sorrentino, don’t include the sideways-moving-memory sentence. It doesn’t even appear in the appendix they devoted to letters that have no source apart from Beer’s biography. In Beer’s biography, the sentence is part of a letter that Crane supposedly wrote to a young aspiring writer, and the letter jabs at Henry James and André Gide, which makes it easy to look for in the index to Wertheim and Sorrentino’s edition. (In his ventriloquisms, Beer liked to knock other gay writers; it’s his tell.)

In short, neither Philip Roth nor Stephen Crane came up with the idea that an artist is a powerful memory moving itself through experiences sideways. It came instead from a soul who had a much more fraught relationship with his sexuality and his powers of invention.

A retrospective glance

The New Yorker, as you may have heard, has redesigned its website, and is making all articles published since 2007 free, for the summer, in hopes of addicting you as a reader. Once you’re hooked, they’ll winch up the drawbridge, and you’ll have to pay, pay, pay. But for the moment let’s not think about either the metaphor I just mixed or its consequences, shall we?

A self-publicist’s work is never done, and it seemed to behoove me to take advantage of the occasion. So I googled myself. It turns out that I’ve been writing for the New Yorker since 2005 and that ten articles of mine have appeared in the print magazine over the years. All seem to be on the free side of the paywall as of this writing (though a glitch appears to have put several of the early articles almost entirely into italics). Enjoy!

“Rail-Splitting,” 7 November 2005: Was Lincoln depressed? Was he a team player?
“The Terror Last Time,” 13 March 2006: How much evidence did you need to hang a terrorist in 1887?
“Surveillance Society,” 11 September 2006: In the 1930s, a group of British intellectuals tried to record the texture of everyday life
“Bad Precedent,” 29 January 2007: Andrew Jackson declares martial law
“There She Blew,” 23 July 2007: The history of whaling
“Twilight of the Books,” 24 December 2007: This is your brain on reading
“There Was Blood,” 19 January 2009: A fossil-fueled massacre
“Bootylicious,” 7 September 2009: The economics of piracy
“It Happened One Decade,” 21 September 2009: The books and movies that buoyed America during the Great Depression
“Tea and Antipathy,” 20 December 2010: Was the Tea Party such a good idea the first time around?
Unfortunate Events, 22 October 2012: What was the War of 1812 even about?
“Four Legs Good,” 28 October 2013: Jack London goes to the dogs
“The Red and the Scarlet,” 30 June 2014: Where the pursuit of experience took Stephen Crane