'Voice' on Literature

Reviews of the last 50 years


November 28, 1956: Threepenny Novel
September 18, 1957: On the Road
September 3, 1958: Lolita
November 16, 1961: The Death and Life of Great American Cities
December 7, 1961: The Phantom Tollbooth
March 8, 1962: Franny and Zooey
May 10, 1962: Seduction of the Minotaur
May 24, 1962: Portrait of Hemingway
September 6, 1962: E.E. Cummings, 1894-1962
October 8, 1964: Herzog
December 14, 1967: The Confessions of Nat Turner
January 28, 1980: The Gasoline Wars
VLS, February 1986: Rednecks, Belles, and K Mart Gals: Southern Women Stake Their Claim
VLS, November 1988: The Lost Generator
VLS, August 1989: Technomancer
VLS, October 1991: Harlot's Ghost
VLS, June 1994: Regarding Jane: the Passion of the Other Bowles


November 28, 1956

Threepenny Novel
By Bertolt Brecht
Grove Press, $1.75

by Howard Fertig

I suppose there is no more perplexing sort of book than the brilliant bore. It is like the superb joke which has had its laugh, then been prolonged in desperate reiteration by the greedy humorist who can now only be repaid by the fixed smile and the hurried goodnight. Still, it was a good joke—that first time. Only afterward, by that delicate chemistry of aesthetics when too much of a good thing becomes too little, did it die.

So it is in a certain way with "Threepenny Novel," where a viewpoint, an outlook, a position, takes us a certain distance, then somehow wanders on ahead by itself while we have stopped along the way to count the pages still unread, trying to calculate when the joke will end—but, as noted, it already has. [return to top]


September 18, 1957 On the Road [links to full text version]
A novel by Jack Kerouac
Viking Press, $3.95

by Arthur Oesterreicher

As you have no doubt already gathered by now, the public emergence of Jack Kerouac from the hipsters' underground into American literature is upon us, and is going to be THE big thing for quite a while. (Another of his books is being published by Grove Press later this season. The author of "On the Road" was on "Nightbeat" last week (looking and sounding remarkably like the late James Dean, incidentally), people are already leafing curiously through it in bookstores, toting it around the Village, hugging it under their arm as they ride the subway to work. I understand that, despite the complete and incomprehensible lack of publisher's advertising so far, the first printing sold out a week after publication . . . read more. [return to top]


September 3, 1958 Lolita [links to full text version]
A novel by Vladimir Nabokov
Putnam, $5

By Jerry Tallmer

All writing begins somewhere on a scale streching from Farthest Inside to Farthest Outside. Vladimir Nabokov's widely heralded "Lolita" is the outsidest, most artificial book I've read in years. To its admirers, that may be its spendor. I want something else in novels . . . read more. [return to top]


November 16, 1961

The Death and Life of Great American Cities
By Jane Jacobs
Random House, $5.95

by I. D. Robbins

It is just possible that the dispute over the West Village redevelopment study may influence all attempts at city-planning everywhere. Behind the demonstrations in our own backyard there is theory and leadership. Providing this theory and leadership is Mrs. Jane Jacobs, a resident of Hudson Street, who has just written "The Death and Life of Great American Cities."

People know Jane Jacobs only as the Barbara Fritchie of the West Village will be surprised to find out how thoughtful and thought-provoking she can be.

For good or evil, this book will be both the cause and the weapon of countless battles over city plans and programs. Mrs. Jacobs will, I predict, be an important name in planning theory, not only because she leads a movement with fanatical followers, but because she has spelled out new theories about city-planning. She is no bucolic mystic. She believes in cities and has a clear idea of their dynamics.

Errors and Ideas
One must take great care not to disagree with Mrs. Jacobs' ideas simply because one disagrees with her methods. I think Mrs. Jacobs makes fundamental errors, but even so there are many valuable ideas in her book.

In general, and I hope I do not offend by oversimplification, Mrs. Jacobs takes issue with Ebenezer Howard, Clarence Stein, Catherine Bauer, and others who have sought to change the city into something more nearly approximating the suburbs. She makes the point, quite well, I think, that LeCorbusier's Towers in a Park idea was derived from Howard's Garden City scheme, modified to make high densities possible. She also takes issue with the City-Beautiful idea, which she says leads to the construction of islands that repel instead of oases that attract. Villagers will recognize the true Jane Jacobs when they note how roughly she treats those experts with whom she disagrees.

In place of the present popular planning concepts, Mrs. Jacobs offers the idea that a city is sound if it works. She says, in effect: "Here is a community—diverse, mixed-up, even ugly to some, but people are happy here." This, she says, is a sound urban pattern. Let us not interfere with it. Let us in fact try to duplicate it elsewhere. [return to top]


December 7, 1961

The Phantom Tollbooth
By Norton Juster, illustrated by Jules Feiffer
Epstein & Carroll, $3.95

by Jane Jacobs

The message of "The Phantom Tollbooth" is that the world is full of marvels, and the book proves its message in the most direct way possible: by being a marvel itself.

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