Little Rock Lit

The Connections: Sniffing out Clinton's literary precursors

Talk about your big debuts: Bill Clinton's My Life comes in at just a couple of lines over William Gaddis's densely allusive 956-page opus, The Recognitions (1955). Already the press has begun referring to My Life passages by page number, as in cnn.com's citation of the first mention of Monica Lewinsky on page 773. A parlor game suggests itself—cross-indexing lines in My Life with Steven Moore's invaluable exegesis, A Reader's Guide to William Gaddis's The Recognitions (1982; also available online at williamgaddis.org). Those seeking occult insight into Lewinsky's appearance on the ninth line of page 773 should look at "773.9" in Moore, which reveals that Clinton is in fact referencing the Romanian story collection In Tuneric si Luminä: Darkness and Light (1912) by Ioan Alexandru Bratescu-Voinesti (1868–1946)." (And they say I have no social life!)

But in tone, My Life is a far cry from the Gaddis tome; though Clinton discusses religion, there isn't enough in here about the forgery of old masters. A closer touchstone is the work of fellow Arkansan Charles Portis, the reclusive author whose five enjoyable novels include True Grit(1968). For starters, Clinton's step-grandparents hail from "Dardanelle, in Yell County"—True Grit narrator Mattie Ross's home. No doubt this reviewer's affection for My Life lies partly in a hallucinatory misreading of the ex-president's memoirs as the great lost Portis novel. Compare the wry meanderings below.


ON BELIEF

Clinton: "Baptists require an informed profession of faith; they want people to know what they are doing, as opposed to the Methodists' infant-sprinkling ritual that took Hillary and her brothers out of hell's way." [p. 30]

Portis: "[The Cumberland Presbyterians] broke with the Presbyterian Church because they did not believe a preacher needed a lot of formal education. That is all right but they are not sound on Election. . . . I confess it is a hard doctrine, running contrary to our earthly ideas of fair play, but I can see no way around it." [TG, p. 109]


ON LEGALISTIC PROSE

Clinton: "The house had belonged to a man who wrote the national plumbing code back in the early 1950s. There was still a set of those fascinating volumes on the living-room bookshelves . . . " [p. 107]

Portis: "She taken a notion she wanted me to be a lawyer. . . . She bought a heavy book called Daniels on Negotiable Instruments and set me to reading it. I could never get a grip on it. Old Daniels pinned me every time." [TG, p. 137]


ON THE ART OF ANNOTATION

Clinton: "He wrote withering comments in the margins of essays, calling one of his students 'a capricious little bilge pump,' responding to another's expression of chagrin with 'turned into a cabbage, did you?' " [p. 77]

Portis: "He hardly spoke at all except to mutter 'Crap' or 'What crap' as he processed newsmatter, affecting a contempt for all events on earth and for the written accounts of those events." [The Dog of the South, p. 8]

 
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