Where, amid the current whining about the dearth of big-shot public intellectuals, is there a thought for the fate of the institutionally unaffiliated, luftmensch intellectual? Donald Phelps is the sort of nonacademic critic whose crafted essays are way too pop for the scholarly journals and whose aesthetic interests are far too quirky to ever be freelance-worthy no matter how many times Talk magazine crawled back from the grave.
Brooklyn-born and Brooklyn College-educated, a day worker in a large New York City bureaucracy, Phelps published most of his pieces in small literary mags. I stumbled across his lone collection, Covering Ground, at the Strand some 20 years ago—it is a startling mix of pieces on the Continental Op, William Buckley, Isaac Bashevis Singer, old-time director Allan Dwan, the Supreme Court, Phelps’s teeth, and his friend Manny Farber. It is often pretty brilliant, especially the piece on the “Muck School” of stand-up comedy.
Reading the Funnies anthologizes Phelps’s essays on the newspaper comic strips of his childhood—a series of alternative universes whose “daily, hypnotic present tense” he celebrates in beautifully long, dense sentences. Phelps not only addresses the classics—Dick Tracy, Popeye, Little Orphan Annie—but defends such forgotten figures as the funny-animal illustrator Harrison Cady and unfunny single-panel cartoonist J.R. Williams. The thinking invested in this crumbling ephemera is moving in itself, particularly when Phelps praises Gasoline Alley‘s “majestic self-containment” and Wordsworthian feel for commemorative rites. Phelps’s descriptions are precise and pungent. He characterizes the feel of Our Boarding House, home of the imperial deadbeat Major Hoople, as suffused with “the stodgy, dawdling, hand-in-pocket, near-torpor of such a place, where it seems perennially to be Sunday afternoon: The men shuffled about in vests and pullovers, toothpicks or cigar butts drooping from jutting lower lips. . . . The standard facial expression was a Ned Sparks stare of bilious doubt, which, one felt, would deepen to incredulity were the other person to say anything remotely new or important.”
Reading the Funnies evokes not just the comics but a whole Depression-era mentalité. Phelps shows a surprising fondness for “cat man” B. Kliban that allows him to comment on R. Crumb and other underground cartoonists. I’d like to hear more on that—in fact, Phelps did write on the movie Crumb some years back in Film Comment. Why doesn’t someone collect the dozen essays—mainly on ’30s movies—he was publishing in Film Comment as recently as January 2000? Better yet, why don’t they ask him to write some more?
Also in This Week’s Books Section:
Joy Press on The Sweetest Dream by Doris Lessing
Alisa Solomon on Strangers in the House: Coming of Age in Occupied Palestine by Raja Shehadeh