LRB Cover

Send letters to:

The Editor
London Review of Books
28 Little Russell Street
London WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and work and home telephone numbers.


Tate Modernism

According to Ian Hamilton (LRB, 24 May), in the late 1920s Allen Tate ‘took to describing himself as Modernism’s gift to the Old South’. More than this, he can be credited with the invention of the term ‘Modernism’, at least as a sobriquet for the Eliot/Pound literary revolution. The word seems first to have been used in this sense in correspondence between Tate and fellow editors of the Fugitive in the early 1920s, and appears in print in a Fugitive editorial on ‘The Future of Poetry’ by John Crowe Ransom in February 1924. When Tate’s protégée Laura Riding introduced the word to British culture in 1927, in her joint study with Robert Graves, A Survey of Modernist Poetry, it was rapidly taken up by the clique around Auden, and subsequently surfaces in the writings of Spender, MacNeice and others from this school. Via this route and, in the United States, through the criticism of another graduate of the Vanderbilt/Fugitive stable, Randall Jarrell, the epithet entered academia in the late 1950s and by the mid-1960s had become standard usage. In a sense, then, it is the Old South which invented ‘Modernism’, described as late as 1937 by Ezra Pound as ‘a movement to which no name has ever been given’.

Stan Smith
Nottingham Trent University

Propping up the Taliban

Jason Burke (LRB, 22 March) ignores the principal cause of the fighting in Afghanistan since 1992: Pakistan’s campaign to overthrow any Afghan authority unwilling to enforce its hegemony. Ever since the ‘wrong’ Afghans, led by Ahmad Shah Masood, toppled the Communist regime in 1992, Pakistan’s military has fielded a motley series of opposition militias to get rid of them. The Taliban are merely the most recent and successful of these groups. They are opposed by many Afghans not just on account of their brutality and obscurantism, but because they are quislings.

Burke cites a discreditable, poorly researched 1994 Amnesty International report. ‘For those who find it difficult to understand why there should be any sympathy for the Taliban the report makes challenging reading,’ he says. I had been reporting from Kabul for AP and the Economist for over two years when the Amnesty report came out. It painted an unrecognisable picture of life in Kabul, taking obvious cues from Pakistani propaganda. It was researched almost entirely in refugee camps in Pakistan and eastern Afghanistan, where local authorities were known to be in league with Pakistani Intelligence. Amnesty glossed over profound distinctions between the brutal and unrepresentative factions besieging the capital on Pakistan’s behalf, and its much better behaved defenders led by Masood.

Burke claims the Taliban have no interest in exporting their practices; he ignores the presence of Central Asian and Pakistani militants whom the Taliban arm and train on Afghan soil. He criticises US cruise-missile potshots and half-hearted UN sanctions, but for the wrong reasons. The missiles were launched on Monica Lewinsky’s account, not Osama bin Laden’s. As for the sanctions, they hurt ordinary Afghans exactly as much as the Taliban want them to. Afghans understand this; so the sanctions should stand, to encourage unrest. Uprisings will fail, however, without solid military backing.

Burke speaks of unrest in the Taliban heartland over the militia’s press-gangs. But he ignores the factor that made volunteers scarce and press-gangs necessary: the battlefield reverses that Masood has inflicted on the Taliban. Independent reports suggest that one third of the Taliban’s foot-soldiers are Pakistani or Arab militants. Even apolitical Afghans understand that it’s not a civil war.

John Jennings
Flushing, New York

Do you mind if I smoke?

At Groucho Marx’s last meeting with S.J. Perelman, ‘when both men were around eighty, Perelman asked Groucho, “Do you mind if I smoke?” and was told calmly: “I don’t care if you burn.”’ The story is told by David Bromwich (LRB, 10 May). By coincidence this morning I happened to watch Chickens Come Home, an early Laurel and Hardy talkie, on TV. At one point in the film Laurel finds himself alone in a room with a rather outraged lady. After a while he says to her, ‘Do you mind if I smoke?’ to which she replies: ‘I don’t care if you burn up!’ Could this have been a standard exchange among comedians from early vaudeville days? Had Groucho Marx a very good memory for quotable lines from obscure early Laurel and Hardy talkies? Or did Stan Laurel and/or Oliver Hardy (or their writers) hear this exchange in an even earlier Groucho stage routine? Or at a party?

C. McLeod
London W6

Maddening Frye

As an undergraduate at the University of California, Berkeley in 1969 I attended lectures given by Northrop Frye, then a visiting professor. One graduate student after another challenged him with obscure fragments of literature, trying to trip him up and prove that his maddeningly perfect system of literary criticism, described by Terry Eagleton (LRB, 19 April), simply could not fit every case. Almost apologetically, he shot down every saga and veda hurled at him. Not daring to speak up in the lecture hall, I decided to try his theories on Gone with the Wind. The novel opens with Scarlett sitting in the Garden (Tara) in the centre of the universe, with a Tarleton twin on either side. She sins by trying to keep Ashley from marrying Melanie, and is expelled into the World of Experience (Atlanta). She continues to sin by lusting after Ashley, and descends into the Demonic World (the burning of Atlanta, the destruction of Twelve Oaks, the horror of her homecoming). By labouring to pull her family together she expiates her sin and merits a return to the World of Experience (postwar Atlanta), but never ceases to long for the lost Garden of her youth. In this cyclical Adonis-Eros journey the one person who sees her sinning and loves her anyway is Rhett Butler – making him, of course, Christ.

William Benemann
University of California, Berkeley

Sink the ‘Bismarck’!

Frank Kermode's letter (Letters, 10 May) about the Hood at Hvalfjord raises interesting doubts about my account of the ship's movements. He is right in wondering whether there were earlier Bismarck reports before the dinkum oil came from Sweden on 20 May 1941. The Royal Navy was terribly conscious of the Bismarck threat and when on 19 April she was reported to have passed the Skaw, Tovey sent Hood to Hvalfjord to support his Denmark Strait watchdogs. This report was false, but Tovey used Hood again for similar purposes until she finally returned to Scapa in May. The Kermode lunch aboard Hood must have been during this to and fro period. It was undoubtedly from Scapa that, at 20.00 hours on 21 May 1941, she left on her last, alas fatal voyage, in company with Prince of Wales and with the object of intercepting Bismarck either between Iceland and the Faeroes or on emergence from the Denmark Strait.

Lawrence Hogben
Soyans, France

Mystery and Deeper Mystery

Mysteries of Paris: The Quest for Morton Fullerton is a detective story, tracing Fullerton’s life not straight from birth to death but as it emerged during my investigation. Hermione Lee (LRB, 8 March) finds the book chronologically ‘strange’, in that ‘word-for-word conversations with interviewees … descriptions of every page disinterred … are produced as if warm and new. (Quite possible if a diary was kept, quite plausible if fiction is the genre.)’ Working for R.W.B. Lewis, Edith Wharton’s biographer, I kept, not a diary, but verbatim shorthand notes of interviews, official records, memos, bibliographical data, letters, maps etc. The originals or transcripts of those papers went to Lewis. Reading copies of them after a two (not 30) year break revived my interest in the story, and when I began my own book I continued to follow methods I hadn’t realised were strange. In the unfolding story, however, madness strangely began to seem pervasive, from poor Teddy Wharton to myself in search of ‘Mme Mirecourt’. One place I visited, Lee says, ‘turns out (with the fictional appositeness that she makes free use of throughout) to be a psychiatric hospital’.

No episode in the book is fictional. Lee can write to the mayor of St Rémy for the hospital brochure and correspondence about my visit. If she finds the story ‘warm and new’, even ‘sensational’, I am glad, since I hoped to convey some of the excitement of the chase in this sometimes magniloquent, sometimes simple, sometimes flippant, but entirely factual narrative.

The book is not about Lewis, though Lee’s constant reference to him might make readers think so. She takes it on faith (for he gives no sources) that his version of a subject is right. She reproaches me for neglecting Wharton’s biographer Shari Benstock, ‘who is at pains in her book to correct some inaccuracies by Lewis’ and has ‘established’ that Lewis mistranslated Fullerton’s divorce decree and mistakenly said that Fullerton had fathered his ex-wife’s child. Benstock knew that Lewis had made those errors because I told her so. After my TLS article on Lewis she suggested a meeting; when we met, and later, I gave her information about Fullerton. Though Benstock forgot to mention this in her acknowledgments, I am sure she will confirm what I say. Benstock ‘establishes’ (Lee’s word) Fullerton’s non-paternity in five words, the divorce in 21; neither is documented. Moreover, both facts had already been discussed in the TLS piece that led Benstock to me. (Several of Lee’s allegations against me are quoted from attacks on that exposé. Readers have no way of knowing that they were disproved in my replies, of which she makes no mention.)

‘But after all her travails and indignation, Mainwaring has to admit that there are plenty of mysteries that may never be unravelled.’ Lee’s pronouncement is made of a book which, from prologue to epilogue, emphasises the unending spiral of mystery, solution and deeper mystery. It is rather like saying that Gibbon admitted that Rome declined and fell. We may soon see spiral action again, with the solution of an old mystery: Wharton’s rumoured ‘real’ father, the ‘extremely cultivated English tutor’, has been identified, and his life explored, in a book that will lead to other mysteries and, doubtless, new biographies.

Readers can obtain an e-mail copy of a fuller analysis of Lee’s piece by writing to

Marion Mainwaring
Framingham, Massachusetts

Freudian Slips

What Sebastiano Timpanaro, whose work was discussed by Perry Anderson (LRB, 10 May), failed to see in his book The Freudian Slip is that Freud's own (sexual) instances of slips show only one way in which repression can affect behaviour and speech. The source of the repression can come from within, from fear of oneself, or it can come from without, when a fear of political and social reprisals has become embedded. Freud gives the example of a man who is supposed to get up and declare a meeting open, but finds himself declaring it closed. The inability of millions of Eastern Bloc citizens to speak Russian, even after they had studied it compulsorily for 13 years, must have been a collective Freudian slip.

By only applying Marxist and philological analyses Timpanaro failed to read Freud as a writer interested above all in the irony of the human situation, and the way it is reflected in our use of language.

Lesley Chamberlain
London NW3

Freud Memorial Lecture

It is amazing how the Arab-Israeli conflict never fails to bring out a good dose of huffy British self-righteousness, even luring into print ‘Editor, London Review’ (Letters, 19 April), who tells us distinctly what is ‘Jewish’ – something only the Nazis previously succeeded in doing. When you lift up a rock to throw it, you never can tell what will crawl out.

Philip Schreibman