Off the Shelves

HISTORY

The Gospel of the President
by Arthur Vaughn

The Jefferson Bible
Thomas Jefferson, with an introduction by Percival Everett

(Akashic Books, 2004)

What would most Americans make of The Jefferson Bible? This is the third president’s attempt to strip the Gospels of supernatural elements and convert Jesus into a mere sage instead of a messiah. In what remains a preponderantly Christian country, the Founding Fathers and Lincoln are perhaps the only figures who enjoy authority similar to Jesus. Politicians profess allegiance to all of them but take particular satisfaction in claiming to carry on the tradition of the republic’s architects. Even the many disagreements of those old farmers, bankers, and lawyers (and the uncomfortable fact that so many of them were slaveholders) have been pushed aside in the public imagination in favor of a sanctified vision. It is largely assumed that we should preserve and adapt their ideas as faithfully as possible to the changing demands of history.

This edition of The Jefferson Bible is the third in Akashic Books’s program to publish a book by each president, in chronological order. It includes, along with Jefferson’s biblical edits, an introduction by novelist Percival Everett, some relevant letters Jefferson wrote to sympathetic friends, and Jefferson’s “Syllabus of an Estimate of the Merit of the Doctrines of Jesus, Compared with Those of Others.” These short passages from Jefferson establish his high opinion of Jesus the man and moral reformer and his low estimation of Jesus’ immediate “schismatizing followers,” whom Jefferson blames for causing “good men to reject the whole in disgust, and to view Jesus himself as an impostor.”

Jefferson doesn’t quite explain what historical or literary method he used to arrive at his ideas. The biblical passages compose the bulk of the book. The four famous accounts of Jesus’s life are sliced up, rearranged, and assembled into a pseudo-historical account, with heavy emphasis on his ethical teachings and parables. To those well acquainted with the originals, the result is disconcerting: The words themselves have a familiar ring, but the work as a whole seems strangely new.

It’s a fascinating attempt, if intellectually suspect. Some of the Founding Fathers were interested in separating church from state; Jefferson tried to do them one better by separating church from Bible. He referred to his effort (a little redundantly) as a “wee little book,” but also admits to spending much time thinking about the subject. The problem is that the supernatural cannot be extricated from the Gospels, since it is the divine and the miraculous that give Jesus his authority in those works. Trying to sift these out in favor of what Jefferson supposes is “the real Jesus” is a fool’s game. Instead, we get merely a “Jefferson-approved Jesus.”

Jefferson is contemptuous of Jesus’s disciples, singling Paul out for particular blame. But Paul was the first person to write anything about Jesus, and how else would we know of him except through the writings of his followers? (He wrote nothing himself, after all.) Jefferson has similar things to say about Plato, whom he accuses of using Socrates to advance his own “whimsies.” This is true, but not to the extent Jefferson claims it’s true.

In his lively and imaginative introduction to the book, Everett notes duplicity in Jefferson, the kind that allows a person to advance certain ideas (“All men are created equal”) and then perform mental contortions to align those ideas with convenient exceptions (Jefferson’s “scientific” theories about the inferiority of black people to white). And this sort of duplicity emerges in his rearrangement of biblical accounts of Jesus. It is, if you will, the Gospel of Convenience, allowing Jefferson to claim Christianity but set himself apart from his fellow men.

Such duplicity, of course, is easily masked by an elegant 18th century voice. We’re used to the clumsy ways in which politicians manipulate religion for political gain. In Jefferson, at least, we observe a president manipulating religion for his own intellectual gratification. Reading him makes you regret the way real eloquence eludes our political figures: “I am a Christian, in the only sense in which he [Jesus] wished anyone to be: sincerely attached to his doctrines in preference to all others, ascribing to himself every human excellence, and believing he never claimed any other.”

But Jesus did claim divinity, in the very works Jefferson cribbed from to make his own scripture. Messing around with the Bible, excising passages, and making statements about “the superstitions of the vulgar” certainly wouldn’t go down well with the many Americans who consider the book an unassailable, literally true document. (That Jefferson’s ideas would have been unpopular in his own day is clear from his attempts to keep his project secret.) For fundamentalist Christians, the removal of even the tiniest passage is a grave offense. If Akashic’s little book finds its way into the right (or wrong) hands, congressional decree might replace Jefferson’s august memorial statue with one of Reagan.

On the other hand, even the most devout Christian should admit that there is something invigorating about having Jesus’s ethical precepts gathered in one place. It’s a refreshing antidote to religious triumphalism, with its emphasis on the privileges of faith over the beauty of deeds and ethical reasoning. Jefferson’s Jesus is radical, at times anti-authoritarian, at times gentle pacifist. Maybe we need his “wee little book” after all.

Arthur Vaughn is a writer who lives in Brooklyn.

 

 

CULTURE

An Expat Life
by Corrie Pikul

The Japan Journals: 1947-2004
Donald Richie, ed. Leza Lowitz

(Stone Bridge Press, 2004)

Trips to Japan turn tourists into scribes. Americans are usually so baffled by a culture that both rejects and appropriates our own that talking out their confusion on paper is the only way they can make it through the day. While these journals are necessary for the writer, they’re usually insufferably boring for anyone else. Every American in Japan seems to think that their brand of foreign bewilderment is uniquely entertaining.

However, cultural critic Donald Richie, author of over 40 books about Japan, is one expat who can always be counted on to produce fresh, insightful commentary, even if he’s simply recounting a trip to the theater or a stroll around the park. Edited by his friend, the writer Leza Lowitz, The Japan Journals is a thick compilation that spans Richie’s 50 years abroad. Due to Richie’s keen powers of observation, witty prose, and knack for selecting anecdotes, The Japan Journals is the definitive account of the foreigner in Japan. It is also a touching personal story of the life of a brilliant man.

In 1946, Richie heard that the U.S. Civil Service was accepting appointments to Japan, and, desperate to get far away from Ohio, he applied. Richie was originally brought to Tokyo as a typist, but, despite no initial knowledge of Japanese, Japan, or film, he was soon hired as a human-interest reporter and movie critic at the Occupation newspaper. Over the next 50 years, the boy from Ohio would become one of Japan’s premiere intellectuals, and the world’s foremost authority on Japanese film.

Richie was the go-to guy for foreign artists and intellectuals visiting Japan, and his social record reads like an international Who’s Who. In his journals, Richie casually describes sightseeing with Truman Capote, Alberto Moravia, and Angus Wilson; attending Kabuki performances with Igor Stravinsky; an outing to a sex theater with Richard Avedon, and later, coffee and intense conversation with Susan Sontag; and parties and meetings with every bold-face name in Japanese film.

In person, Richie liked to ask provocative questions and catch people off guard, and he can sometimes come off as obnoxious. However, his personal writing also shows a generous, sensitive man who cares deeply about his friends, and who can be moved to tears by something as simple as his new apartment’s expansive view of Tokyo. Getting to know Richie, we can see how he would come to be regarded as a father figure to three different Japanese ex-boyfriends. (While he has never wanted to be classified as homosexual, Richie writes openly in his journals about sex with straight men. With its obsessive separation of private life from public, 20th century Japan provided fertile ground for this way of life, and Richie was very rarely lonely.) We can also see why a 19-year-old Sophia Coppola would choose to latch onto Richie at a party, “for protection,” he writes. She had “looked around and decided I was the least threat.”

At one point in his journal, Richie expresses frustration with those who ask him when he first fell in love with Japan. “I never did,” he writes. “I liked the place from the first, but I fell in love with other places.”

It’s a good thing, too; otherwise, he wouldn’t be able to comment on it objectively. Like most foreigners, he feels a sinking in his heart as he watches Japan become more Western, and frustration with the pervasive groupthink and the national refutation of the individual self. Yet Richie understands that his outsider position made him the critic and thinker he is today. In March of 1992 he wrote, “I am at home in Japan precisely because I am an alien body. I am no longer a member over there [in America], and cannot become a member over here—this defines my perfectly satisfactory positions. One does not have to be a member of something.”

As a septuagenarian, Richie is given to lamenting the passage of time. When he huffs that cell phones, Walkmans, and Palm Pilots obviate the need for human interaction and socialization, the staunch individualist suddenly and undoubtedly joins an international legion of those who are adjusting to changes in their world.

There is a moment towards the end of The Japan Journals where we think Richie is about to draw things to a close. It’s New Year’s Eve 1999, and Richie is walking with friends to a shrine when they encounter a group of boisterous teenagers, and they exchange New Year’s blessings. He writes, “For this one moment everything returns—it is the new millennium, but my fifty years have not passed. They have been for this time returned to me.”

Indeed, Lowitz tells us that Richie had intended for this to be the last entry of The Japan Journals, and that he wrote no more for several years. However, Lowitz says that Richie “came to miss the daily record,” and that for him, “living seemed to have less meaning when it went un-chronicled.” One hopes that Donald Richie, now 80, will continue to chronicle his impressions of a changing Japan, and of a changing world.

Corrie Pikul is a writer who lives in Brooklyn.

 

 

LITERARY LIVES

Utopia Under the BQE
by Elizabeth Hoover

February House: The Story of W. H. Auden, Carson McCullers, Jane and Paul Bowles, Benjamin Britten, and Gypsy Rose Lee, Under One Roof in Wartime America
by Sherill Tippins

(Houghton Mifflin, 2005)

In 1940, George Davis, fired from his post as fiction editor of Harper’s Bazaar, rented a dilapidated house in Brooklyn Heights and installed an assortment of brilliant and volatile artists who spent the next year working, fighting, and drinking. Carson McCullers sipped her morning toddy (sherry and tea) in her emerald-painted room in the house at 7 Middagh Street as down the hall the burlesque star Gypsy Rose Lee typed her mystery novel, The G-String Murders—a struggle with three-inch nails. Downstairs a naked Davis slept off nights of hard drinking in the living room surrounded by dockworkers. W. H. Auden, who had fled fame in England, was housemother, collecting rent, assigning chores, and insisting on no politics over dinner.

Gradually, as repairs allowed, new artists moved into February House (named for its residents’ February birthdays). Composer Benjamin Britten worked with Auden on an ill-fated opera about Paul Bunyan; a highly disciplined Oliver Smith pioneered new set designs for Broadway shows; Jane Bowles wrote her first and only novel inspired by Auden, whom she followed around adoringly, offering her typing services for free. (Needless to say, her husband and roommate, the composer and writer Paul Bowles, was not amused.) 

“All people belong to a We except me. Not to belong to a We makes you too lonesome,” laments Frankie, the young heroine in McCullers’s A Member of the Wedding, a work born in February House. In her new book, Sherill Tippins, a Brooklyn enthusiast, captures the chaotic euphoria as this collection of expats and Depression-era survivors desperately tried to create the “We” Frankie longed for. While sometimes spilling into psychobabble, February House is a cozy, gossipy read punctuated by solid, if perfunctory, literary criticism and able summations of the era’s political pressures. Remarkably compact, the book does have some glaring imbalances; for example, the details of Salvador Dalí’s dozen or so visits occupy several pages while Richard Wright, who lived in the house for a year, receives a glancing quarter paragraph.

Tippins efficiently draws out the idiosyncrasies and personalities of these artists, tapping secondary sources as well as unpublished correspondence. While Auden, broadly drawn, is an eccentric European intellect shuffling off to the opera in house slippers, here he is also sympathetic and human—struggling with his faith, tender in his friendship with McCullers, and insistent on balanced meals complete with two vegetables. Gypsy Rose Lee comes across as not only a sassy stripper but also as a practical mind and, improbably, the most disciplined writer in the house.

February House became a magnet for artists and writers who had previously balked at the idea of visiting working-class Brooklyn. There they found quiet, tree-lined streets and a rowdy riverfront where stevedores, sailors, and workers welcomed the artists into dive bars and occasionally followed them home. They also found a vibrant incubator, shockingly decorated, bursting with intellectual debate, and generously welcoming. Tippins writes, “After only three months, it had become a new world, a free zone, for so many. In a sense, the ramshackle Brooklyn house was developing into a miniature culture in its own right.”

Like all well-intentioned utopias, February House fell into chaos as individuality asserted itself. Tempers flared over Davis’s incessant entertaining, Britten and Bowles fought over practice space (Bowles was banished to the unheated basement), and Auden battled Klaus Mann over the role of the writer in wartime. Jealousies and bedbugs infested the house, affecting productivity.

The artists splintered off to return home and dry out, serve in the military, or follow wayward lovers, and the house, still badly in need of repairs, was demolished to make way for the Brooklyn Queens Expressway.

Elizabeth Hoover is a writer who lives in Brooklyn.

 

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