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A Conversation with Gore Vidal

Thomas Powers: Meeting Gore Vidal, 31 July 2014

... conversation took place in Rome at the flat of George Armstrong, an American journalist. Thomas Powers wrote it up in his diary the following ...

Mad to Be Saved

Thomas Powers: The Kerouac Years, 25 October 2012

The Voice Is All: The Lonely Victory of Jack Kerouac 
by Joyce Johnson.
Viking, 489 pp., £25, September 2012, 978 0 670 02510 7
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... and his art. His first novel, The Town and the City, written in 1947-48, was deeply indebted to Thomas Wolfe but otherwise a conventional narrative of a young man in a backwater city tortured by hope and hesitation, swept along by history. Cassady never hesitated, was always ready for the next thing, shrugged at rules, compelled attention. His comings and ...

I have not heard her voice in a long, long time

Thomas Powers: Edna and Parker Ford, 5 October 2017

Between Them 
by Richard Ford.
Bloomsbury, 175 pp., £12.99, May 2017, 978 0 06 266188 3
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... Who​ are you?’ is the question that devils every son and daughter. Other people can seem of a piece observed from across the room or across a table or on the next pillow but clarity disappears when you look inward. The chaos within is one of the major themes in the fiction of Richard Ford. What engages him is the churning of the conscious self, as changeable as the weather on an iffy day ...

And after we’ve struck Cuba?

Thomas Powers, 13 November 1997

The Kennedy Tapes: Inside the White House during the Cuban Missile Crisis 
edited by Ernest May and Philip Zelikow.
Harvard, 728 pp., £23.50, October 1997, 0 674 17926 9
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‘One Hell of a Gamble’: The Secret History of the Cuban Missile Crisis 
by Aleksandr Fursenko and Timothy Naftali.
Murray, 420 pp., £25, September 1997, 0 7195 5518 3
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... refugees escaping to the West through the jointly-occupied capital. On the one hand, Western powers were committed to maintaining their presence in the divided city, as had been agreed during the war. On the other, Khrushchev threatened measures which carried a real danger of aggression if the city was not handed over to the Russians, who could then ...

One Great Good True Thing

Thomas Powers: Tennessee Williams, 20 November 2014

Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh 
by John Lahr.
Bloomsbury, 765 pp., £30, September 2014, 978 1 4088 4365 9
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... in his mid-sixties. ‘It may be just a matter of their running out of material.’ He knew his powers had diminished; it was a diminished writer who was trying to compete with The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire. It was then that he learned that ‘the failure of a play is one of the world’s more agonising adventures.’ Watching ...

Incandescent Memory

Thomas Powers: Mark Twain, 28 April 2011

Autobiography of Mark Twain Vol. I 
edited by Harriet Elinor Smith et al.
California, 736 pp., £24.95, November 2010, 978 0 520 26719 0
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... The sun never shone more brightly and a boy’s dreams never seemed in closer reach, nor the girl next door prettier, nor his friends readier for bold adventure on a Saturday free of school than all did in the ‘white town drowsing’ on the Missouri shore of the mighty Mississippi River where Mark Twain in the 1840s drank deeply of the sweetness of life, and never forgot it ...


Thomas Powers: Stephen Crane, 17 July 2014

Stephen Crane: A Life of Fire 
by Paul Sorrentino.
Harvard, 476 pp., £25, June 2014, 978 0 674 04953 6
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... and he left no diaries or memoir. Further confusing matters was Crane’s first biographer, Thomas Beer, whose Stephen Crane: A Study in American Letters (1923) had two virtues and one substantial demerit. The virtues were a carefully written introduction by Joseph Conrad, which treated Crane as a major writer, and Beer’s lively and vigorous ...

The Road to West Egg

Thomas Powers, 4 July 2013

Careless People: Murder, Mayhem and the Invention of ‘The Great Gatsby’ 
by Sarah Churchwell.
Virago, 306 pp., £16.99, June 2013, 978 1 84408 766 2
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The Great Gatsby 
directed by Baz Luhrmann.
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... a sculptor and polo player who married an heiress to one of the great American fortunes; and Thomas Hitchcock, the most famous polo player in America, just back from a year at Oxford courtesy of the US Army. (Jay Gatsby enjoyed the same.) Rumsey was killed near Great Neck when he was thrown from an open roadster the day after Fitzgerald arrived in New ...

The Monster Plot

Thomas Powers: James Angleton, Spymaster, 10 May 2018

The Ghost: The Secret Life of CIA Spymaster James Jesus Angleton 
by Jefferson Morley.
Scribe, 336 pp., £20, December 2017, 978 1 911344 73 5
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... by the number of high-level CIA officers who had signed off on the 10 October cable, including Thomas Karamessines, deputy director of the clandestine wing of the CIA; J.C. King, chief of the clandestine wing’s Western Hemisphere Division; and William Hood, at that time chief of operations under King. Roman said she didn’t know why the 10 October cable ...

Comedy is murder

Thomas Powers: Joseph Heller, 8 March 2012

Just One Catch: The Passionate Life of Joseph Heller 
by Tracy Daugherty.
Robson, 548 pp., £25, September 2011, 978 1 84954 172 5
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Yossarian Slept Here: When Joseph Heller was Dad and Life was a Catch-22 
by Erica Heller.
Vintage, 272 pp., £8.99, October 2011, 978 0 09 957008 0
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... The longest years of Joseph Heller’s writing life fell between his first book and his second. He set no records but the delay eventually got his name into magazine pieces about one-book authors, a cautionary roster of the silent that included Margaret Mitchell, J.D. Salinger, Harper Lee and Ralph Ellison. Heller’s history reflected theirs – the dreams of youth and years of literary apprenticeship, a period of obsessed scribbling, enthusiasm from a publisher, a ripple of applause from the fraternity of reviewers, followed by the ever mysterious and arbitrary embrace of readers in their multitude ...

At the End of a Dirt Road

Thomas Powers: The Salinger File, 24 October 2019

The Catcher in the Rye, Nine Stories, Franny and Zooey, Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour – an Introduction 
by J.D. Salinger.
Little, Brown, 1072 pp., $100, November 2018, 978 0 316 45071 3
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... change but Salinger couldn’t be found so Maxwell okayed the insertion of a comma. According to Thomas Kunkel, a historian of the magazine, when Salinger saw the comma where he had put no comma, he was ‘melancholy’. Maxwell told Kunkel he never did it again. Knowing how his father felt about meddling editors, Matt Salinger may feel deep hesitation about ...

All I Can Stand

Thomas Powers: Joseph Mitchell, 18 June 2015

Man in Profile: Joseph Mitchell of the ‘New Yorker’ 
by Thomas Kunkel.
Random House, 384 pp., £22.50, April 2015, 978 0 375 50890 5
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... met annually with editors to describe what he was working on – is the central challenge faced by Thomas Kunkel in his new life of the writer, Man in Profile. Kunkel found references to several possible projects: a big New York novel in the manner of James Joyce whom Mitchell admired above all other moderns; a life and times of a smart and funny woman who ...

Too Fast

Thomas Powers: Malcolm X, 25 August 2011

Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention 
by Manning Marable.
Allen Lane, 592 pp., £30, April 2011, 978 0 7139 9895 5
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... How to be black in America was the challenge for spirited young men of colour who found their way to Harlem in the troubled years of the 1940s, when music, poetry, dance and art were giving way to drink, drugs, street crime and sex for money. Malcolm Little’s first impulse was to cut loose in the big city where he found himself soon after his 17th birthday in 1942 ...

A Thousand Mosquito Bites

Thomas Powers: Jews in Wartime Dresden, 21 September 2000

I Shall Bear Witness: The Diaries of Victor Klemperer, 1933-41 
edited by Martin Chalmers.
Phoenix, 656 pp., £11.99, May 1999, 0 7538 0684 3
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To the Bitter End: The Diaries of Victor Klemperer, 1942-45 
edited by Martin Chalmers.
Phoenix, 704 pp., £8.99, August 2000, 0 7538 1069 7
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... What all men know – that Hitler wanted, intended and tried to annihilate the Jews of Europe – was something largely hidden from the Jews themselves until the job was far along. Hitler had spoken clearly enough in Mein Kampf, but the slow, deliberate and secretive progress of his Government’s efforts somehow lulled his victims in Germany just as it misled and confused most of those who watched from abroad ...

Ten Thousand Mile Mistake

Thomas Powers: Robert Stone in Saigon, 18 February 2021

Child of Light: A Biography of Robert Stone 
by Madison Smartt Bell.
Doubleday, 588 pp., £27, March 2020, 978 0 385 54160 2
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The Eye You See With: Selected Non-Fiction 
by Robert Stone, edited by Madison Smartt Bell.
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 320 pp., £20.99, April 2020, 978 0 618 38624 6
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‘Dog Soldiers’, A Flag for Sunrise’, Outerbridge Reach’ 
by Robert Stone, edited by Madison Smartt Bell.
Library of America, 1216 pp., £35, March 2020, 978 1 59853 654 6
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... Robert Stone​ was the feral child of American literature. He arrived in the world with no one to explain or defend him, except his mother, Gladys. About her we know only stray bits of personal history. The chief evidence that Stone’s father existed is the fact of Stone himself. All other claims – that he was a railroad detective, was a Greek or a Jew, had been killed by a bomb in Shanghai in 1937, even that his given name was Homer – are hearsay, most of them floated by Gladys one day, taken back the next ...

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