You walk into the Beer Kave at the Circle K on High Street in Ellsworth or just about corner store from Main Street to Broadway and you are going to find some Miller Lite. Likewise if you browse a used bookstore, you are no doubt going to find a collection of essays. The definition of the essay is vague and can encompass a wide field of writing, but you know a good one when you read one. I particularly like essays on the arts, be it literature, film, art, music, or architecture. Like with Miller Lite, I can indulge in a pack of literary essays all day long.
I stopped at a used bookstore in Blue Hill, and I found a case of lite beer from Kenner. Historical Fictions by Hugh Kenner to be exact. A collection of book reviews, occasional writings, and other flotsam and jetsam from the academic writing life. No Pound Era here; these essays are not pounders by any stretch but pony bottles on whatever caught Hugh’s fancy or whatever he was assigned by an editor to write on. Pound (of course), Beckett, Harriet Shaw Weaver, Nabokov, Riddley Walker, Pope, Leslie Fiedler. The essays taste great and are less filling than The Pound Era, but there are still enough intellectual calories and alcohol content to stick in the old grey matter and give you a bit of a buzz.
I have just dipped into the book thus far, and I am thoroughly enjoying myself. It is like spending a pleasant happy hour by some water at sunset. You just hang out, dip into your Kenner Lite and look out over the horizon contemplating Pound’s conception of Odysseus via Dante and Homer. What a way to spend an evening.
Take Kenner’s review of a biography on Harriet Shaw Weaver of The Egoist. The review is not a rave, but Kenner wonders if anybody could do Weaver justice and if, in fact, given Weaver’s guarded nature and penchant for silence, whether such a biography is possible. Kenner concludes, “Perhaps only Henry James could have written an intelligible biography of Harriet Shaw Weaver, and he would have been guessing.” That is a nice finish to a lite beer. Very satisfying.
In a review on The Collected Stories of Seán O’Faoláin, Kenner has a few throwaway lines on the story story and the magazine format. He writes, “One thing the short story in English can’t quite shake off is its magazine provenance. It is the commercial form par excellence, and the more accomplishment you bring to it the more you court slickness, contrivance, the neat nail driven home, the quick paraphrase to assist the dentist’s office browser.”
Reading such a line at a happy hour in the evening, you might be encouraged to think of the Mimeo Revolution and how the great true mimeos, like C, Floating Bear, Ole, and Fuck You, have little to no story stories in them. Essays, reviews, plays, maybe, but not “the commercial form par excellence.” And those mimeos that do feature the short story, like Berge’s Center, seem very concerned with grants and subscriptions. In fact, those mags that print short stories often view themselves as a minor league to the big, corporate publishers. Succeed with a well-polished, though maybe experimental short story, then you might get called up with a contract for a full collection that leads to a gig with a creative writing program.
The publications that I view as participants in the Mimeo Revolution were not members of a minor league at all; they took their ball into their communities and played a different game altogether. For themselves and for the fun of it. Something like a neighborhood softball game with coolers of beer and pot smoke in the twilight. Something like that documented in Toni Basil’s short film of the Semina Circle, Game of the Week.