Undercover: Critic’s Choice–Walker Evans to Charlie Chaplin (11/20/75)

Undercover, Nov '75
Herewith, a valiant attempt, doomed to failure, to get out from under the enormous pile of notable books that has accumulated over the last few weeks:
Walker EvansPhoto­graphs for the Farm Security Administration, 1935-1938 (Da Capo paperback, $8.95). Walk­er Evans, who died earlier this year, was best known for his collaboration with James Agee, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Now, an oversized book, previously available only as a $25 hardback, collects 66 full-page and 488 third-of-a-page pictures from Evans’s work in the South (with some shots from New York and Pennsylvania).  All are in the public domain, and instructions for ordering prints from the Library of Con­gress arc included. Especially interesting are the many out­takes from Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, some of which put the pictures from that book in a new light; the shots of back-country stores, sheds and juke joints plastered with signs and ads; compositions of city streets with movie posters at their cen­ters, and unsettlingly beautiful photos of soil erosion in Tupelo, Mississippi. Evan’s photos be­long to a tradition of American aesthetics that includes Lin­coln’s speeches, Matthew Bra­dy’s photos, Emily Dickinson’s poetry, Hemingway’s short stories and John Ford’s west­erns; in the best work of these people, there is nothing remote­ly histrionic, only a subtle, even offhand insistence on the ordi­nary, on things otherwise taken for granted. But their works in­vite contemplation, and con­templation induces revelation. Blink, and it all seems ordinary again. That is magic, and this book has it on almost every page.
All God’s Dangers: The Life of Nate Shaw by Theodore Rosengarten (Avon paperback, 598 pp., $2.25). A titanic book. Nate Shaw, an 84-year-old black Alabama sharecropper, told his long story to a Harvard grad­uate student who then edited over a hundred hours of tape into a manuscript of drama and majesty; every word is Shaw’s, but much of the credit must go to Rosengarten. Shaw, who died in 1973, was not a fit subject for anybody’s sociology. He never considered himself an ordinary man, and he was not–not in terms of his great abilities as a provider for his family, his attempt to found a sharecroppers’ union in the Thirties, his willingness to fight for it, or his survival of 12 years in prison. Nor was he anything less than Biblical in his command of genealogies or in the efforts he made at each stage of his life to weigh the worth and the meaning of everything around him, every man and woman he met, and every action he took. Shaw can make an account of the joy he took hauling logs more compelling than the facts of the shoot-out that led to his imprisonment. Winner of the 1974 National Book Award in–idiotically–“Contemporary Af­fairs,” this is one of those rare hooks that one can expect to read again and again, all one’s life.
Hollywood and Levine by Andrew Bergman (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 216 pp.,$6.95). A neat mystery set in Hollywood, 1947, on the eve of the blacklist. Bergman (coau­thor of Blazing Saddles) maintains a flip, anxious tone throughout; better, he weaves Congressman Richard M. Nix­on and Humphrey Bogart into the heart of the plot. You be­lieve every word, and not just because you want to.
The Spiritual Supermarket: An Account of Gurus Gone Public in America by Robert Greenfield (Dutton pa­perback, 277 pp., $3.95). An alternately sympathetic and sickened guide to how the trick of spirituality is turned. We encounter the black mass of Millennium ’73 (“Venutians had landed at the Rainbow Inn… A baby had been born in Houston without a face, cried the name ‘Guru Maharaj-ji,’ and then died. Being in Houston during Millennium was a lot like living on the front page of the old National Enquirer”); a community gathered around a venal faker called “Yes”; the “Socratic” teachings of an entrancing Tibetan, Trungpa Rin­poche. and much more. Green­field is a most effective and unpretentious journalist; his descriptions of people and places are full of color and incisive, and his mind works like a very open, tolerant, self-effacing steel trap.
My Life in Pictures by Charles Chaplin (Grosset & Dunlap, 320 pp., $19.95). I’ve seen a lot of movie books, but never one as elegant as this. The panorama stretches from the 1880s to the present; it’s a big book, printed on very high-quality paper, with each photo, still, frame enlargement and poster gorgeously tinted in brown, mauve, red, blue, yel­low, gray or green (as some of the classier silents were). The pictures don’t jump off the page, they make you want to melt into them; and there is a portfolio in wildly full color that one needs great restraint to keep from cut­ting out and pasting up on the wall (the poster from Monsieur Verdoux goes first). But then, there are the drawings of Chap­lin by Fernand Leger, and the pictures of Edna Purviance, not to mention the ones of Paulette Goddard, or Virginia Cherrill, and I haven’t said anything about Georgia Hale, or the scenes left out of The Gold Rush

Rolling Stone, November 20, 1975


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