The Square Circuit

Academia, parenthood, living in a bankrupt city, and what I read in the process.

Monday, May 05, 2008

judt and hajdu

Two funny names with J's. Pronounce or not?

Tony Judt's recent article in the NEW YORK REVIEW OF BOOKS is one of the best things I've read in a long time. Basically, his argument is that Americans haven't really experienced war, and so for all of our self-righteous pontificating about how we "saved France's ass" (a trope so overdone and Limbaughed that it's become its own metareference on the Jim Rome show, a sort of performance of the angry American) our willingness to go to war or at least rattle sabers comes not from our great experience and success in conflict but from our absolute LACK of the experience of war on the home front. The amazing statistic here: the USSR lost over ten million civilians in WWII; France lost several million noncombatants in the two world wars, as did Germany and Italy; the United States lost 2000. That is unbelievable.

David Hajdu has been making the book-tour rounds for his recent THE TEN CENT PLAGUE, a history of the 1950s-era hysteria about the threats comic books posed to American youth, but he made his fame with POSITIVELY FOURTH STREET, a joint biography of Dylan, Joan Baez, Mimi Baez Fariña, and Richard Fariña, which I just finished. It's a solid book, grounded on a massive number of interviews (including one amazing "get" with Thomas Pynchon, which Hajdu conducted by fax), and Hajdu does a nice job of keeping the stories largely separated and thus making their intersections stand out--Baez and Dylan, of course, had a long-term romance, as did Mimi and Richard. I had no idea that Joan Baez had such success when she was so young, but that she was also so insecure about her relationship with her sister, whom she saw as being much more beautiful than her (an insecurity, of course, much stronger in someone 19, 20, 21 years old). The portrait of Dylan is pretty much what one gets from a portrait of Dylan: "I'm not there." Hajdu cherry-picks some great quotes from Dylan in his 1965-66 strung-out period, quotes where he is just cruel and dismissive of Baez, Fariña, and others such as Phil Ochs. (Hajdu has his own dismissive quote about Donovan, who in my mind deserves the snotty comments.)


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