Looking Backward: A Tale of a World Gone By

Alice McDermott

I once asked the novelist and Thomistic philosopher Ralph McInerny why the Catholic renaissance of mid-century America collapsed so suddenly. It was almost as though the fiction of John O’Hara and the prose of Thomas Merton had opened a floodgate, and a stream of Catholic works poured across the nation. The early poetry of Robert Lowell, that surprising first novel from Walker Percy, anything by Flannery O’Connor, the stories of J.F. Powers: From the late 1930s through the early 1960s, Catholic writers writing on Catholic themes seemed to occupy a vital place in the literary culture of the United States.

She Doesn’t Understand How Bad She Was, And Still Won’t Go Away

Almost no commentator, no reviewer, has mentioned the most newsworthy fact about Hillary Clinton’s latest memoir—which is the near total lack of anything actually newsworthy in the book. With What Happened, Clinton would at last “let down her hair,” Simon & Schuster’s publicists loudly proclaimed before the book’s publication. And that was the line dutifully repeated by reporter after reporter, as though it were a fact. As though, coming from Clinton’s people, it didn’t need to be checked or reported with even the slight distancing of “Hillary Clinton says she’s let down her hair in her new book.”

Consequences of the Creative Class

It’s tempting to mock Richard Florida: the hipster urbanist with the hipster name, the new day’s heir to yesterday’s Jane Jacobs. In 2002, he wrote a book that just everyone with an ounce of hipness bought and read—a book about how hipsters were saving the nation’s cities. And now, 15 years older and not quite as hip anymore, he’s written a follow-up that says, in essence, whoops.

Fun Without Frisson

There’s a French word, frisson, that expresses something for which we don’t quite have a single word in English. Thrill, excitement, shiver, tingle: none of the common translations fully deliver the French sense of being captured, fascinated, by the presence of something—as in the medical sense of the word, the involuntary contraction of the skin in goosebumps that causes the hair on our arms to stand on end.

The Sorrows of Young Wilbur


It’s a surprisingly melancholy thing, the reading of children’s books as an adult. Maybe even the reading of children’s books as a child, given how sad those books often turn. Remember Charlotte’s Web, as young Wilbur the pig watches his spider friend Charlotte die? But to the ordinary sorrows of the world, the adult brings as well an awareness of the fading of childhood: mourning tinged with the self-consciousness of self-loss. Or, as Bruce Handy tells the reader of Wild Things, his new set of personal ruminations about children’s literature, “you are holding in your hands a work of sublimated grief.”

Forgettable Meals Forgotten

Back in 1986, Laura Shapiro published Perfection Salad, a study of culinary history that was simultaneously an enduring classic and an evanescent artifact of its time. For those too young to remember, those were the days of American feminism on a triumphal march through scholarship, with historical writing increasingly demanded to be a tale of the oppression of women. But those were also the days of a new critique of the Enlightenment, some of it born from Alasdair MacIntyre’s 1981 After Virtue and the rest derived from Michel Foucault’s 1975 Discipline and Punish.

Monkeeing Around with Culture

Michael Nesmith knows one big thing. He doesn’t understand why it’s true, and he has only a shaky sense of the consequences that flow from what he knows. But in his recent memoir, Infinite Tuesday, the former member of the Monkees at least sees clearly the fact that, somehow, he matters. Michael Nesmith is a genuine thing, an authentic place-marker, in the cultural history of his tim

Of a Region and Nation

Imagine you’re a young man from a small town in, say, Ohio. Nebraska would do just as well, I suppose. Kansas, Wisconsin, or South Dakota, for that matter. But let’s stick with Ohio, since the particular young man I have in mind was born in what’s now Martins Ferry in 1837, over on the eastern edge of the state, and grew up mostly in the town of Hamilton, out in the western reaches of Ohio.

On the Road

Since the completion of the interstate highway system, we have paid for transportation—and paid a lot: 40,200 deaths last year, up 6 percent from the 37,757 automotive fatalities of the year before. By a huge margin, car wrecks are the leading accidental cause of death in America. Year after year, we hurtle down the road in multi-ton machines and smear our blood across the asphalt.