Landing in California, Remembering Tolstoy and Other Letters to the Editor

Dead Men Walking

To the Editor:

Even a reviewer as skillful as Nigel Cliff, reviewing Laurence Bergreen’s “In Search of a Kingdom” (March 28), lacks space to do more than touch on the wide-ranging adventures of a man like Francis Drake, so I would like to add a bit about Drake’s reported sojourn on the coast of California in 1579. The great navigator desperately needed a safe harbor to repair the Golden Hind and found one at present-day Point Reyes National Seashore.

The area was well inhabited by the Miwok people who came to visit — singing, crying, falling on their knees. The English assumed they were being worshiped as gods, but what the Miwok believed was that these were their own dead returning for an unknowable purpose from the offshore region where they were supposed to spend eternity.

Confusion, indeed, but both groups dealt kindly with each other so Drake was able to repair his ship and depart, which no doubt greatly relieved his hosts.

David Traxel
Philadelphia

Forgiven, Foregone

To the Editor:

I appreciated Adam Haslett’s review of Russell Banks’s “Foregone” (March 21), not least because it led me immediately to purchase and then enjoy the novel. But I couldn’t help wondering why the likely parallel with Tolstoy’s “The Death of Ivan Ilyich,” which leapt to mind on first reading the review, did not invite mention. Curious, I followed “Foregone” with a rereading of the Tolstoy, untouched on my shelves for decades.

All doubts were put to rest, as it were, when I once again encountered Ilyich’s near to last words, as he arrives at the point where Banks’s protagonist begins desperately seeking to acknowledge and make amends for an “inauthentic” life. Weakened by pain and wishing to dismiss his family from his bedside, Ilyich tries to say “forgive me.” But what he utters is — “forego.” Exploring Banks’s thematic and structural plays on Tolstoy may delight others as it did me.

Susan Greenstein
West Lebanon, N.H.

An Unexpected Duet

To the Editor:

A. O. Scott is clearly speaking of Tillie Olsen’s published writing (March 28) when he says: “The voices in her fiction feel very close to her own. To go further beyond the boundaries of self would involve an imaginative leap — and an ethical risk — that she was reluctant to take.” However, there was a surprising (and sparkling) side to her, and she was willing to take such imaginative leaps in other contexts.

In the mid-1970s, Olsen came to Portland, Ore., where I taught at the University of Portland. I’d been introduced to Olsen’s work some 10 years before by the poet Nancy Willard, my freshman college English teacher, and I was so excited that Olsen was to be in town that I invited her to speak to the freshmen I was then teaching. She agreed to visit the class and she was a joy — sensitive to the students, soft-spoken yet decisive, principled yet openhearted.

At one point, she wanted the class to hear some lines of poetry that, for her, represented what truly great writing could be. She chose Hart Crane’s poem “Legend,” and after telling the class how pleased she was to introduce them to this great poet, she began to recite the work by heart.

At one point in the second stanza, her memory faltered. As it happened, I’d memorized “Legend” a few years before, and it was one of the high points of my academic life to, unbidden, join her in voicing Crane’s lines until she found the thread again and to see her eyes widen with pleasure at the unexpected duet. That stanza goes: “I am not ready for repentance; / Nor to match regrets. For the moth / Bends no more than the still / Imploring flame. And tremorous / In the white falling flakes / Kisses are,— / The only worth all granting.”

Mindy Aloff
Brooklyn

The Dawn of Modernism

To the Editor:

Ben Libman’s essay on modernism in literature (March 28) makes a strong case for the year 1925 (as opposed to 1922) as the breakout period when writers like Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway, John Dos Passos and F. Scott Fitzgerald changed the way Western literature went in a new and exciting direction.

If I had a complaint about the essay, it is that Libman could have shown that literature was just one disrupter in the arts that year. Think of what Picasso and his colleagues were doing in Paris (Robert Henri and the Ashcan School were also breaking barriers, as were John Marin and Max Weber in the United States), and Gershwin and the Jazz Age were coming into vogue. This was the year that deconstruction and modernism were born.

Lawrence A. Rand
Weston, Mass.

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