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New titles from others and blogging about my own books

An exciting new biography I am looking forward to reading

A MARVELOUS LIFE: THE AMAZING STORY OF STAN LEE by DANNY FINGEROTH (St. Martin's Press/Macmillan) offers a behind-the-scenes look at how Stan Lee became known as the voice and face of comics. As editor, publisher and co-creator of Marvel, he was the glue that held the industry together. With creative partners including Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko--with whom he had tempestuous relationships that rivaled any superhero battle--Lee created world-famous characters including Spider-Man, Iron Man, the X-Men, the Avengers, and the Hulk.

 

But Lee's career was haunted by conflict and controversy. Was he the most innovative creator in the comic book industry? Was he a lucky no-talent whose only skill was taking credit for others' work? Or was he something else altogether? In A MARVELOUS LIFE, Fingeroth attempts to answer these questions while offering his unique insider's view of Stan Lee, delving into his invention of Marvel Comics, how he redefined the word hero, and reconstructed the world's idea of how a story should be told.

 

"There's more about Stan Lee in this roller coaster of a book than I thought I'd ever want to know. But I couldnt stop reading it. Danny Fingeroth gives us, page after page, rapid and cogent insights into the Marvel world, the comics universe, and Stan Lee as innovator, ring master, high-stakes gambler, con man, and an indefatigable charmer. And visionary, as well. Of course, Stan would want to take the book apart, and put it together again."

--JULES FEIFFER (assisted Will Eisner on The Spirit, and authored The Great Comic Book Heroes)

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The Mystery of Rebecca West

In Rebecca West: A Modern Sibyl, The Literary Legacy of Rebecca West, and Rebecca West and the God that Failed: Essays, I've done my best to revive her reputation. From time to time the revival seems underway but then stalls.  Here is my take on why: 

 

The Rebecca West Mystery

 
I admire Sylvia Plath's concern with politics, with understanding how her own life is connected to the polity. She shares this conviction with Rebecca West, and almost every day I think about what an opportunity was missed because Plath did not know or understand Rebecca West. Plath watched West testify at the pornography trial of D. H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover. In her journal Plath called her "Lady Rebecca West," revealing she really had no idea who West was.

How could this be?  Plath had been well educated at Smith College and Cambridge University. She had read through the canon of Western philosophy and literature. She had worked as a journalist while still at Smith but seemed not to know about West's own groundbreaking journalism in The New Yorker, one of Plath's favorite magazines and the one she wanted publish in. She was taught by a generation of women who would certainly have read West and perhaps even taught her.  But, with the exception of the Chatterley trial, there is no sign of West on any Plath syllabus, letter, or journal entry. 

 

 

It would be easier to understand if Plath had simply rejected West, an ardent anti-Communist that could well have put off Plath, a pacifist who decried anti-Communist hysteria and the execution of the Rosenbergs. A generation of women had been put off by West. So Doris Lessing told me, saying West's politics had delayed by decades Lessing's own understanding of West's importance. Only when Lessing's own leftist politics changed to a critique of Communism did Lessing begin to take West's measure and realize what she had denied herself.

 

In Plath's case, I suspect the example of Virginia Woolf obliterated any alternative—as it still does today for many scholars who ignore West or just treat her as a difficult case. Even rehabilitations of West, like Jane Marcus's Young Rebecca, rhapsodize about her early feminism and attacks on the Conservative establishment. West's marriage to a banker and her country estate did not sit well with her earlier nonconformity. Woolf's novels and essays, coupled with her suicide and the sense of loss that self-annihilation instilled in her readers robbed West of an audience. West was simply too robust, too extroverted, too much a part of the established world. Woolf herself recoiled in her meetings with West and yet could not get enough of a West so attuned to the world OUT THERE.  

 

Virginia Woolf, if I may start an argument, fits very well into English departments. You can teach her novel after novel. West wrote novels too, of course, but they have been crowded out by her journalism and the verdict that she is not modernist enough, alienated enough, and did not suffer in quite the right way to serve as a role model or a canonical figure. West herself referred to the interstices in her body of work, and the canvas of her achievement is too much for most English professors to cover, since they would have to encompass history, journalism, art history, biography, esthetics, philosophy, politics and much more. Far more convenient to reside in Woolf's compact novels and essays and avoid the brilliant sprawl of Rebecca West's work. 

 

West would seem less untidy if, as in the case of Isaiah Berlin, her essays were collected. They would fill several volumes. But she opposed such repackaging, telling Berlin to his face that she did not see why he came out with essay collections so often. She collected herself once, in Ending in Earnest: A Literary Log. Her other essay-driven collections, like The Meaning of Treason and A Train of Powder, were rewritten and augmented as book-length narratives. She did not publish volumes of literary logs, as have writers like John Updike and Gore Vidal.  She seems to have treated work once published as just that—a one off—not to be served again like leftovers. Yet her remains are brilliant and survive in her astringent prose, whatever you think of her opinions. No one reads Vidal, I hope, because they agree with all that he says. But to West such essay-mongering seemed stale. New work engaged her. She wanted to know what was next. 

 

I don't know if a collected edition of West's essays would revive her reputation, but they deserve that treatment for both their historical and literary importance—to show how much of her writing defined an age but also what we still need to know about how literature, history, politics, art, and so much more, come into the purview of a great writer. 

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Another Faulkner-Hawks collaboration that never got filmed as originally planned.

The film, as actually shot, is a poor thing compared to Faulkner's conception of it: a man (Bogart) seeking redemption and finding himself the cynosure of a community that depends on him.  It is, in fact, a parable about Faulkner's own plight after winning the Nobel Prize. I work out this subtext in The Life of William Faulkner.
 
Faulkner knew both Brennan and Humphrey Bogart, and both actors spoke to both the talkative and taciturn sides of Faulkner’s character.
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Faulkner and Film

On March 28, I will be giving a talk at Columbia University.  Below is an outline of the talk:
 
1. There are several reasons I decided to do a biography of Faulkner (I will explain briefly), especially because of my conviction that previous biographers did not do justice to his life and work in Hollywood. That work was not separable from his output as a novelist, or to his character as a writer. So I want to describe what brought him to Hollywood and what held him there.
2. I will briefly describe the nature and significance of his Hollywood work from 1932 to 1955.
3. I then want to focus on To Have and Have Not. Should I bring a dvd? I want to show a few scenes, focus on Eddie (Walter Brennan) and how Faulkner's creation of this character fits into what I want to call his fables of fascism.
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Vanda Krefft’s new biography of William Fox

I reviewed Vanda Krefft’s biography of William Fox for The Weekly Standard. As Krefft shows, much of what we take for granted about Hollywood was either invented or developed by this forgotten filmmaker. His disappearance from film history is now explained and remedied in this monumental biography.  Read More 
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How about a biography of Eve Arden?

I would love to have a biography of Eve Arden in my Hollywood Legends series, University Press of Mississippi. I grew up watching her in Our Miss Brooks. And of course she appeared in many films, including Curtain Call at Cactus Creek, the only film of hers I have written about—in A Real American Character: The Life of Walter Brennan. I can hear her speaking to me now, so wry, so witty.  Read More 
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Kent Rasmussen’s research-in-progress on Mark Twain film adaptations

Unlike the Yankee played by Bing Crosby in this scene from The Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, Mark Twain's Yankee doesn't use a watch crystal as a magnifying glass to set fire to the proclamation ordering his execution; in fact Mark Twain's Yankee doesn't have a magnifying glass or even a watch and never sees a written proclamation.
This past year, I’ve been researching film and television productions adapted from Mark Twain’s writings. One of the first questions anyone studying this subject asks is how “faithful” the production is to its source. As I’ve gotten deeper into my research, I must confess I’m finding that question increasingly elusive.  Read More 
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A new book by one of the masters of Hollywood history

Beverly Gray worked for Roger Corman, wrote a biography of him, and now offers the biography of a film, a Hollywood classic. I have followed Beverly’s work and her blog, in which she covers so many fascinating issues in the world of cinema. I recommend her work to anyone interested in Hollywood and how film has shaped our culture. Read More 
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The biography of a book

I reviewed Anne Boyd Rioux’s biography of Constance Fenimore Woolson and can tell you she is a consummate writer. Louisa May Alcott, I don’t have to tell you, has had an enormous influence on generations of women and men (I can testify to that). Little Women had a significant impact on one of my subjects, Susan Sontag, as my wife and I recount in Susan Sontag: The Making of an Icon Read More 
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The first Dan Duryea biography

From A Classic Movie blog review: "an engaging read, because it is deeply satisfying to admire the intelligence with which this consummate professional approached his life and career. He was a smart, compassionate man, who brought joy to those around him and the reminisces of the people he knew are some of the best passages in the book." Read More 
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