Richard Poirier

Richard Poirier, founding editor of Raritan, was chairman of the board of the Library of America. He died in 2009.

“[Eliot’s] lifelong sexual preoccupations and obsessions with the consequences of the sexual act did not emerge from the marriage but were only greatly intensified by it. And it is this intensification, felt in the rhythms, the visionary grandeur and abruptions in his poetry, that went on to make him one of the most culturally challenging and controversial figures in the history of Anglo-American letters.”

All My Truth: Henry James Memoirs

Richard Poirier, 25 April 2002

Published in 1913, when Henry James was 70, A Small Boy and Others is the first of three late volumes that taken together have sometimes been called the ‘autobiography’ of Henry James. The focus of A Small Boy is on the years of his infancy and boyhood up to the age of 15, and it was soon followed by the publication in 1914 of Notes of a Son and Brother, which takes him to the age...

This is the first comprehensive biography of Saul Bellow and the first to receive his co-operation over the complete, ten-year span of its writing. The author, James Atlas, whose biography of Delmore Schwartz appeared in 1977 and who is the general editor of the Penguin Lives Series, was given full access to Bellow’s letters and unpublished manuscripts and final permission to quote all...

Big Pod: How Podhoretz Dumped His Friends

Richard Poirier, 2 September 1999

This book is ostensibly about six literary figures with whom Norman Podhoretz, for 35 years the editor-in-chief of Commentary, was closely involved from the early Fifties until the early Seventies: Allen Ginsberg, Lionel and Diana Trilling, Hannah Arendt, Lillian Hellman and Norman Mailer. It was in the early years of this same period, the first five years of the Sixties, that what was often called the Family, a closely allied group of mostly New York intellectuals who published largely in Partisan Review and Commentary, came to prominence in the United States and when, as a consequence, it began also to disperse. Its members found themselves invited to write for other and much higher paying national magazines like the New Yorker, Esquire, Vogue, even Playboy. As a result, the Family’s cohesiveness was gradually disappearing as the national prestige of some of its members was markedly increasing. This was the world that Podhoretz entered in the late Fifties when he came onto the New York literary scene as a writer and editor.

In Praise of Mess: Walt Whitman

Richard Poirier, 4 June 1998

With the publication of Volumes VIII and IX, some ninety years after the appearance in 1906 of the first volume, all two and a half million words of Horace Traubel’s Walt Whitman in Camden are now in print. Altogether the volumes cover the last four years of Whitman’s life, from 1888 to 1892, and consist of nearly day by day renditions of Whitman’s conversations, correspondence, and such activities as he was still up to, along with reports of his last illnesses and lingering death. Traubel constructed this record from notes sometimes taken in the half-light of Whitman’s sickroom in the little house Whitman owned on Mickle Street in Camden, New Jersey, or jotted down later from memory, when he returned home to his wife and family or to his desk at the bank that employed him.

The Monster in the Milk Bowl

Richard Poirier, 3 October 1996

Melville began writing Pierre, or The Ambiguities in August 1851; he had just turned 33 and was already the author of six books. The most recent of these, Moby-Dick, was about to be published, and reviews of it, largely negative in the United States and somewhat less so in England, would begin appearing while he was working on the new novel and negotiating the terms for its publication. Of the books already in print, only the first two, Typee and Omoo, had had much commercial success, and even Typee, which made him for a time a minor celebrity, had been criticised, as nearly all his works would be, for blasphemy and untruth, prompting his publishers to ask him to revise for the second printing, adding some assertions as to the veracity of the story and cutting some unflattering references to Christian missionaries.

In Praise of Vagueness

Richard Poirier, 14 December 1995

From the beginning of his distinguished career, with his influential The Reign of Wonder: Naivety and Reality in American Literature, on to the more recent Adultery and the Novel and his fluently recondite Venice Desired, on the literary figurations of that city since the 18th century, Tony Tanner has shown a rare degree of excitement and curiosity about the workings of literary style, the way words come to life in response to the performative presence within them of a novelist or a poet.

American Manscapes

Richard Poirier, 12 October 1989

There is a species of literary criticism now flying high in the academy which should eventually come to roost in the Food and Drugs Administration. The FDA is that part of the United States Government charged with the labelling of products. Do they meet the minimum daily requirements of things that are good for you? Are there infectious ingredients, additives or local colourings that need to be exposed by analysis? Just the sort of thing students are being encouraged these days to ask of the literature they read. Criticism in the spirit of the FDA is intended to reduce your tolerance for golden oldies, to reveal consumer fraud going on in books that for these many years have had a reputation for supplying hard-to-get nutrients.

America Deserta

Richard Poirier, 16 February 1989

‘I think, therefore I am’ was not supposed by Descartes to apply only to those for whom thinking is a line of work. That would appear to be the operating assumption, however, of the celebrated French sociologist-philosopher Jean Baudrillard in America, the latest of his works translated into English. At first the reader might wonder why a prose as dense as his should be made more so by having it stretched across pages of a width and gloss more appropriate to an otherwise agreeably produced and illustrated coffee-table book. But if not actually initiated by the author, the design must have been done to please him, intent as he is on the primacy of the visual image. The design is meant to be a comeuppance, I suspect, for any credulous intellectualists, American or Parisian, who might harbour a sentimental preference (actually the in petto preference of the author himself) for the cultural supremacy of the printed word. At several points these intellectualists are objects of the author’s scorn for not having yet achieved his own fascinated horror and elation in response to America, ‘the great hologram’ where ‘cinema is true because it is the whole of space, the whole way of life that are cinematic.’ In this ‘tactile, fragile, mobile, superficial culture’ he wants to discover the destiny that lies in wait for Europe.

Seventeen Million Words

Richard Poirier, 7 November 1985

On 5 December 1963, the day Jack Ruby shot Lee Harvey Oswald in Dallas, a man in Boston named Arthur Inman, having made several earlier attempts on his own life, managed to put a bullet through his head. A variety of chronic ailments and complaints had made him an invalid for nearly all of his 68 years, and except for brief excursions in his ancient chauffeur-driven Cadillac, he had since 1919 confined himself to an apartment building in downtown Boston named Garrison Hall. For as many as sixteen hours of a normal day he would stay in bed, when not sitting or reading in the bathroom. The rooms he frequented were kept shaded for the same reason his car was painted a dull black: to protect his eyes from glare. He suffered periodically from nose bleeds, hay fever, arthritis, influenza, a slipping rib cage, migraine headaches, pain in the testicles, pains in the neck, collarbone and shoulder, chills, cold sweats, canker sores, skin rashes, trouble with his stomach, which required frequent pumping, trouble with his throat, which required ultra-violet treatments, trouble with his coccyx, which was ministered to by a succession of osteopaths. He was especially dependent on Dr Cyrus Pike, who much of the time was having an affair with his wife Evelyn.


Richard Poirier, 24 January 1985

With V. (1963), The Crying of Lot 49 (1966) and Gravity’s Rainbow (1973) to his credit so far, Thomas Pynchon, American of no known address, is possibly the most accomplished writer of prose in English since James Joyce. This is not to say that he is also the best novelist, whatever that would mean, but that sentence by sentence he can do more than any novelist of this century with the resources of the English-American language and with the various media by which it is made available to us, everything from coterie slangs to technological jargons, from film to economic history, from comic books to the poetry of T.S. Eliot, from the Baedeker to the Bible. The works of other novelists may prove, as the phrase would have it, more humanly satisfying than his, but Pynchon chooses to use his immense talents as a writer and encyclopedist to show why he cannot offer satisfactions of that kind. His jaunty complaints in the Introduction that the stories in Slow Learner fail to provide full, lifelike characters are for this reason alone so curious and irrelevant as to suggest either that he is kidding – and I am afraid he isn’t – or that he is tired. I do not mean that in his fiction he is anti-humanist, but that what he finds of the human, when embodied or inscribed in language, is shown to be mostly grotesque, as names like Pig Bodine or Pierce Inverarity or Tantivy Mucker-Maffick or Scorpia Mossmoon will suggest, and that what he cherishes about human beings is scarcely discernible, except in those extraordinarily poignant catalogues of waste in which his writing abounds. In that respect he resembles Mucho Maas in The Crying of Lot 49, who stopped being a used-car salesman because ‘he had believed in the cars. Maybe to excess.’’

Copying the coyote

Richard Poirier, 18 October 1984

When, in the summer of 1898, at the age of 56, William James went to Berkeley, California to deliver a series of lectures on pragmatism, he could have used his own life to illustrate the immensely difficult but successful application of one of its tenets: that truth is best seen as ‘what it is better for us to believe’, not as ‘as an accurate representation of reality’, and that what is better for us to believe is what can be ascertained only in and through our actions, not by consultation with fixed ideas or traditions or, notably in his case, by family example. Until his late thirties, like his father, the theologian Henry James Sr, he had experienced breakdowns in which invalidism was compounded by the threat of insanity; like his brother Henry, 15 months his junior, he had had acute problems with his back and with constipation; like his sister Alice and another brother, Robertson, he had suffered nervous collapses, then called neurasthenia, which were augmented by recurrent eye troubles. Thanks to the further example of his father, who was famously leisured and vague (‘I am determined,’ he wrote a friend, ‘to take holiday for the rest of my life and to make all my work sabbatical’), and to his mother’s benevolent inducement of hypochondria in all five of her children, William had been in danger of devoting himself, in Alice’s phrase, to the ‘life-long occupation of improving’, even as he tried to make a go now of one thing, now of another. Howard Feinstein has written a brilliant study of William’s crises over idleness, illness and vocation, within the context of intense parental and sibling entanglements, especially as these lead back to his father’s own conflicts with his father, the fearsome William James of Albany. In the process, Feinstein offers an appalling account of the high incidence in three generations of the James family, and of many other privileged families in 19th-century New England, of affective disorders, alcoholism and psychopathology.

Peter Conrad’s Flight from Precision

Richard Poirier, 17 July 1980

When the Redcoats first encountered the Colonial revolutionaries they were quite unexpectedly beaten, and according to an anecdote in Harold Rosenberg’s The Tradition of the New, they were beaten because they were the best-trained infantry in Europe. They had been so well trained that when they looked at the rough American terrain on which their opponents had chosen to meet them, they could not see it. Instead, what they saw was a European battlefield on which they expected to march in formation to meet and overwhelm a similar formation of the enemy, rather than uncouth renegades shooting from behind trees. A gridiron of style, a trained mode of perception, preceded them into battle, creating the illusion that in front of them was only what they intended to find.


Richard Poirier, 20 December 1979

This book, by a man who at 35 was already called ‘a legend in American journalism’, is a lengthy and anecdotal analysis of the transactions between political power in the United States during the last fifty years and the power of the mass media. The latter are exemplified for Halberstam by four conglomerates of the American communications industry, each more or less in the control of a single family: the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS), created and run by William Paley; Time Inc, including Life, owned by Henry Luce; the Washington Post and Newsweek, run by Philip and then by Kay Graham; and the Chandler family’s Los Angeles Times. Beginning in the Thirties with President Roosevelt, who, more than any President before him, manipulated the newspapers and the new possibilities of radio (which President Hoover seldom used), the book is a survey of a period that includes President Eisenhower (who only reluctantly went on TV during his campaigns against a Stevenson who had a patrician disdain for it), President Kennedy (who won the election of 1960 thanks in part to the disastrous appearance of Nixon in the first of the televised debates), and finally Presidents Johnson and Nixon, both of whom were severely damaged, as was Senator Joe McCarthy, by the dramatisations on TV of such horror shows as Vietnam, the Watergate scandal and the Army-McCarthy hearings. Truman gets treated very scantily in the book for the reason, I suppose, that he proved, as did Carter, that the media aren’t nearly so powerful as Halberstam likes to think. Opposed by nearly every newspaper, magazine and radio commentator in the country, unable to afford extensive radio time of his own, scorned by the opinion-makers, and written off by the pollsters, Truman defeated Dewey (and Wallace) in 1948 by talking to crowds from the back of a train on a whistle-stop tour across the country, and by holding together the old coalition of labour, the South and the big-city machines.


American Manscape

12 October 1989

David Leverenz (Letters, 23 November) wastes most of his annoyance at my long and damaging review of his Manhood and the American Renaissance on a couple of small and inessential errors of quotation and spelling, none of any demonstrable importance to my criticisms of his book, which he meanwhile fails to answer. He in fact voices agreement with most of what I say against his interpretations, his methods...

Dark and Deep

Helen Vendler, 4 July 1996

‘It would be hard,’ Robert Frost wrote, ‘to gather biography from poems of mine except as they were all written by the same person, out of the same general region north of...

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Grandfather Emerson

Harold Bloom, 7 April 1994

Richard Poirier, now in his middle sixties, seems to me perhaps the most eminent of our living literary critics, at least in the United States. He has a central position in contemporary American...

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Transcendental Criticism

David Trotter, 3 March 1988

‘What to believe, in the course of his reading, was Mr Boffin’s chief literary difficulty indeed; for some time he was divided in his mind between half, all, or none; at length, when he...

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