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Error Messages: Night Thoughts Inspired by James O'Donnell's Avatars of the Word
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boundary 2 28.3 (2001) 191-205



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Error Messages:
Night Thoughts Inspired by James O’Donnell’s Avatars of the Word

Anthony Grafton

Book Reviewed: James J. O’Donnell, Avatars of the Word: From Papyrus to Cyberspace (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998).

American intellectuals have always come, like American athletes and musicians, in every imaginable shape, size, sex, and color. But for the past century and more, they have all taken part in one vital activity: the one that medieval scholastics called translatio studii, the transmission of learning. Teachers usually passed the baton, at least in the first instance. Great professors such as Meyer Schapiro, Lionel Trilling, and Hannah Arendt instructed, challenged, and provoked. They served as models of hard thinking, of minds in vigorous motion, and of continual engagement with the world. And they portrayed art and literature, history and politics as the last sacred things in a secular time, even as they disagreed sharply on how to understand them. To learn from teachers such as these amounted to an initiation into mysteries—and enabled one to join in what became an argument without end.

The work of the classroom, necessary but not sufficient, found indispensable support from magazines. The young had their first contact with [End Page 191] these as student readers: symbolically, as children, eavesdropping at the far end of the long dining room, baffled and excited all at once. Here’s Cynthia Ozick, as a New York University freshman in Washington Square, 1946: “Attached to a candy store, the newsstand. Copies of Partisan Review: the table of the gods. Jean Stafford, Mary McCarthy, Elizabeth Hardwick, Irving Howe, Delmore Schwartz, Alfred Kazin . . . I don’t know a single one of these names, but I feel their small conflagration flaming in the gray street: the succulent hotness of their promise. I mean to penetrate every one of them.” The little magazines were scorching hot back then. Noses pressed against breath-fogged shop windows, sweaty palms reached out, hoarded nickels rang on the counter—and to buy not just Partisan but also Commentary, the Kenyon Review, and the Journal of the History of Ideas.

Eventually, students and readers grew up. They became writers. Often they started out by playing both roles at once, as reviewers. Wilson in the twenties, McCarthy and Kazin in the thirties, Sontag in the sixties: Each in turn left the Kindertisch, joined the conversation, and moved it along—other voices in the same rooms. My own generation had similar experiences in the 1960s, though often with different teachers and different magazines. By the late sixties, Trilling had been outflanked by Paul Goodman and Norman O. Brown, and they in turn by Herbert Marcuse—so, at least, the numbers of their self-proclaimed disciples suggested. As to the magazines, Partisan Review wouldn’t light any fires anymore. It, Commentary, and many others had met the fate that awaits all periodicals when their original inspiration runs low. They had become paper ghouls, The Dead Magazines that Won’t Lie Down. Their bright covers imperfectly concealed the rot that had penetrated the flesh and begun to corrode the bone.

But new teachers and periodicals were full of life. We read Joan Didion and Elizabeth Hardwick, Carl Schorske and Lawrence Stone in the New York Review of Books. We scanned the Village Voice and the weekly underground papers to explore new arts, learn new ways of talking about them, and hear new voices. As our interests became more refined and technical, new quarterlies responded to our fascination with Heidegger and Said as the old ones had fed our elders’ hunger for Kafka and Sartre, for Modernism with a big M and politics with a small p. For more general purposes, we also had the old New Yorker, which brought us the world—a little too barbered and chastened, but varied and detailed and rich beyond what fiction could imagine. Anyone who wanted to burn with a modern version of Walter Pater’s hard gemlike flame could easily find a writer with a match. [End Page...