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January 30, 2009

Pay No Attention to that Reviewer Behind the Curtain

Inspired by an aside in Terry Teachout's excellent biography, The Skeptic: A Life of H. L. Mencken, I'm currently working on an essay about Mencken.

While researching this project, I came across a longish New Yorker review from 2002 on Teachout's book, by Joan Acocella. Like everyone else, I've read (or at least started) plenty of these essays, but this might be the first one I read immediately after finishing the book. Like perhaps no one else, I was shocked at how much of the New Yorker essay simply summarizes Teachout's book. (Of course, Teachout gets his best details from Mencken's Newspaper Days, but that's a bit different.) Acocella offers maybe two paragraphs of original critique or analysis; even her Mencken quotations come straight from Teachout.

Now, you can question the ultimate purpose of something that amounts to a 3,000-word precis for an already-published book—which is what I've been doing, off and on, for the last few days—but I'll leave you with another intra-literary note. One reason Acocella's essay is so disappointing is because she's a really good and really inventive critic, as demonstrated by her Willa Cather and the Politics of Criticism, an expanded version of her delightfully nasty New Yorker essay from a few years back. That book's Amazon.com page contains a wonderful blurb, originally published in the National Review in 2000, from none other than Terry Teachout. ("[Acocella] marches through the ranks of Cather scholars the way Sherman marched through Georgia.")

I'll hold off on any conspiracy theories, but sometimes it's nice to find a concrete reminder of the book establishment's small-world-ness. If only they used trackbacks and Technorati…

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