This newsletter was sent to everyone on Jim’s email list (2,601) on Friday, March 13, 2020.
The threat of the coronavirus that is now spreading through the United States and other western nations brings to mind other contagions that have plagued human beings throughout our history. Sometimes they have colorful names; sometimes they are identified with individuals. Such was the case with Typhoid Mary.
Typhoid Mary, you will remember (I wrote about her a couple of years ago: Typhoid Mary: Not an Ogre from the Dark Ages), was a 20th-century Irish girl who worked as a cook for several well-to-do New York families. When members of those families starting contracting typhoid, alert public health officials identified her as the carrier of the disease. She was quarantined, and the disease ceased to spread. But the story didn’t end there, and it’s a sad one.
Those who say we shouldn’t overreact to the current threat are wrong. Swift, decisive public action is needed, and I hope that’s what we get. Meanwhile, stay safe, wash your hands, avoid crowds, and do the other things that health officials recommend. Staying at home and reading a good book — or several good books — sounds like a perfect antidote.
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Lillian Hellman sues Mary McCarthy, spring 1980
When playwright Lillian Hellman sued novelist Mary McCarthy for slander in 1980, lots of people thought it was a joke, including Mary McCarthy.
McCarthy had just been on the PBS talk show hosted by Dick Cavett where Cavett had asked her about writers she thought were overrated. McCarthy, whose opinions were strongly held and freely expressed, had no trouble coming up with a list: Pearl S. Buck, John Steinback, John Hersey, and Lillian Hellman.
Cavett pressed her: What was it about Lillian Hellman that was overrated? She was, McCarthy said, a bad, dishonest writer who belonged to the past. What about her is dishonest? “Everything. I once said in an interview that every word she writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the’.”
It sounded like an off-the-cuff remark, but it wasn’t. Cavett and McCarthy had discussed it before the show, and McCarthy thought that it was a clever repost, so she decided to use it.
Hellman didn’t think it was clever. She viewed it as an attack on herself, her work, and her legacy, and she was not inclined to let it pass. Cavett, who along with PBS was named in the suit, invited her to come onto his show and defend herself, but she declined. Instead, her purpose was to inflict some pain on McCarthy. Hellman was a rich woman and could easily finance an extended lawsuit. McCarthy was not and was likely to be bankrupted by the whole thing.
Hellman and McCarthy shared many similarities. They both had had difficult childhoods, and they both had become involved in leftist politics in the 1930s and 1940s. They both had a passion for writing, and though they were barely acquainted, they shared many friends in the New York literary world. Hellman made her literary name as a playwright with many successful plays on Broadway from the 1930s through the 1960s. Her memoirs also achieved critical success, although the lawsuit she filed against McCarthy drew attention to their often gaping factual and interpretative flaws.
Hellman developed a long-term relationship with detective novelist Dashiell Hammett and inherited his copyrights when he died in 1961.
McCarthy published her first novel, The Company She Keeps, in 1942, a novelistic description of the New York literary scene in the 1930s. The real-life people she was writing about, including herself, are not hard to pick out in the book. She spent the rest of her adult life writing various forms of journalism, novels, essays for magazines, and commentary. McCarthy is most remembered for her novel The Group, published in 1963, a book that helped usher in the sexual revolution of that decade. That book stayed on the New York Times best-seller list for nearly two years.
McCarthy was devoted to factual depiction even in her fiction. Hellman’s non-fiction memoirs were far less rigorous and often inflated or misrepresented her role in her stories — for which she made no apology. Thus, this differing point of view was probably the spark that ignited McCarthy’s remark to Dick Cavett.
Friends of Hellman urged her to drop the suit. Friends of McCarthy tried to get her to find a way to settle. Neither would budge. Hellman, understanding their relative financial positions, was determined to bring McCarthy to ruin. McCarthy threw herself into finding the factual errors in Hellman’s writing, and she peppered her attorneys with the fruits of her research. A New York judge allowed the case to drag on when most legal experts said it should have been dismissed.
Finally, the case ended in 1984 when Hellman died. The executors of her estate dropped the suit. McCarthy expressed disappointment. “I didn’t want her to die. I wanted her to lose in court. I wanted her around for that,” she said. McCarthy died five years later.
The controversy inspired a couple of non-fiction books that chronicled and analyzed the feud and a 2002 play by Nora Ephron, Imaginary Friends.
Podcast recommendation: The Nobody Zone
Yet, no one has ever heard of him.
The podcast, produced by RTE in Ireland and Third Ear in Denmark, is an engaging one that takes some unusual twists and turns. Here’s the description:
In a forgotten London underworld, a homeless Irishman kills multiple times without detection, unseen in a world where nobody seems to care. A true crime series from RTÉ in Ireland and Third Ear in Denmark. Source: The Nobody Zone on Apple Podcasts
The starting premise is that someone should have known about this guy, particularly since he was Irish and the Irish in London were, at the time he was operating, a pretty tight group. Even so, he remained invisible. But that’s just the starting point of the story. Listen to the first episode, and you will probably be hooked.
The Prolific Reader. Kill the Quarterback is listed there along with some other great mysteries.https://theprolificreader.com/mystery”
Good advice from Shane Parish at the Farnham Street blog
I agree with this wholeheartedly:
Rich sources of information like good journalism, detailed books, or websites that require time and effort are rarely free. When you find them, support them by following, sharing, and/or paying.
Farnham Street: https://fs.blog/. He has a free newsletter that is much shorter than this one and well worth the amount of time you will spend with it.
The apostrophe controversy continues to rage; the BBC weighs in
Despite persistent cries for its tiny head, the tough little apostrophe continues to survive and attract supporters.
The BBC has recently published a round-up of arguments, detractors, and adherents, such as:
. . . Colin Matthews, head of English at Churchfields Primary School in Beckenham, England, says he doesn’t think the evolution of language is “an excuse not to be clear and unambiguous”. For him, teaching grammar is about avoiding ambiguity; it’s not about “knowing how an apostrophe is used; it’s about clarity in meaning.”
There are, of course, multitudes who survive perfectly well without knowing how to use apostrophes, but Matthews believes that while there are still prospective employers “who will throw a job application in the bin if the apostrophes are wrong,” we need to continue teaching children how to use them correctly. Source: BBC – Culture – Have we murdered the apostrophe?
This article delves into the history of the punctuation mark and rounds out the current controversies.
Crowd-sourced thesaurus for and by writers
Looking for a synonym for “interesting” (or any other word)?
If so, you may want to check out PowerThesaurus: https://www.powerthesaurus.org/. It’s been around for 10 years now and lists hundreds (sometimes thousands) of synonyms and antonyms for words you are likely to use. Those who use it can also rate the words for how useful they are. This thing is fast and incredibly easy to use. No sign-ins or any of that nonsense.
So, what are the top three synonyms for interesting: fascinating, intriguing, captivating.
(Hat-tip to Jane Friedman for this one.)
Finally . . .
Best quote of the week:
“If the reader prefers, this book [his posthumously published memoir, ‘A Moveable Feast’] may be regarded as fiction. But there is always the chance that such a book of fiction may throw some light on what has been written as fact.” Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961), Nobel Laureate American journalist, war correspondent and novelist
Helping those in need
Fires in California, hurricanes on the Atlantic Coast, tornados in Tennessee — disasters occur everywhere. They have spread untold misery and disruption. The people affected by them need our help.
It’s not complicated. Things happen to people, and we should be ready to do all the good we can in all of the ways we can. (Some will recognize that I am paraphrasing John Wesley here).
When is the last time you gave to your favorite charity? The United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR.org) is my favorite charity. Please make a contribution to this one or to yours.
Keep reading, keep writing (especially to me), and have a great weekend.
His Amazon author page is where you can find more information about his books.
Last week’s newsletter: The thrillers of Jack Higgins, the rise of Dorothy Thompson, plus some March literary madness: newsletter, March 6, 2020
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