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Cultural Amnesia

August 22, 1993

Amy Gerstler's review of Brad Gooch's "City Poet: The Life and Times of Frank O'Hara" (June 27) offers an example of cultural amnesia that appears to be her own as well as Brad Gooch's. She cites Gooch as praising the "innovation" of O'Hara and John Ashbery in the way both poets were "able to pass . . . from the high to the low, to gather in their nets such disparate fascinations as French Surrealist poetry, Hollywood's 'guilty pleasures,' Japanese kabuki and noh, Schoenberg's 12-tone compositions (etc.)." Then Gerstler adds: "At the time such a dynamically eclectic approach to art, what later became known as the 'postmodern' attitude, was unheard of."

Has she forgotten that this "eclectic approach to art" was a hallmark of the "modernist" attitude, first made famous in T. S. Eliot's "Prufrock" volume (1917) and then carried to its peak in "The Waste Land" (1922)? In this poem Eliot (another Harvard graduate, like O'Hara and Ashbery) passed "from the high to the low" by including motifs ranging from Wagner's "Tristan" to jazz and "dirty" music hall songs, from highbrow Greek, French and Sanskrit poetry to brilliantly innovative satires on contemporary urban life ways.

In November, 1989, the New Yorker published an infamous essay for Eliot's centenary by Cynthia Ozick in which she wildly claimed that "the latest generations do not know (Eliot) at all." On second thought, maybe she was right.

ELOISE KNAPP HAY, SANTA BARBARA

WITH HELP LIKE THIS . . .

Tobi Tobias' brief yet incisive critique of those little instruction books on life by H. Jackson Brown Jr. (June 13), reminded me of a conversation I had a few months ago. My friend and I agreed that these homilies for the Sound Bite Age are right on the mark when things are going well, but the "Catch-22" is that when life is good we don't need an instruction book--we know how to enjoy life when everything is falling into place.

The time for instruction comes when the inexplicable sneaks up from behind and knocks the wind out of us and we find ourselves crying out, "Why?" with all the strength of a whisper in the midst of a hurricane. Tobias's cogent argument reminds us that those moments of quiet desperation, when our need for guidance or support is most acute, are precisely where Jackson's books fall woefully short.

MICHAEL BALLARD, LONG BEACH

'THE FIFTIES' AND MORE

As fascinating as William Hauptman's reminiscences of the 1950s may be, they are irrelevant to David Halberstam's book, "The Fifties" (June 20). At least one-half of his book review has nothing to do with Halberstam's work, but everything to do with Hauptman's bias against Republicans and, perhaps, his unhappy childhood.

If Hauptman wants to editorialize, let him do so. Just don't let him cling to Halberstam's coattails. The point of view he expresses is not the point of view Halberstam expresses, but his review blurs this distinction.

DOUG McINTYRE, NORTH HOLLYWOOD

A VOID IN THE SOUL OF WORK

What is in the minds of all these corporate gods who see humans as merely fodder and tools in the pursuit of ever larger profits?

Margaret Langstaff's remarks in her review of Peter Drucker's "Post Capitalist Society" (July 25) provided me a glimmer of respite and hope this sunless Sunday. Langstaff patiently laid out the plot of Drucker's future society, describing its thesis and practice with fulsome admiration, and having declared his writing as "forceful" and "dazzling." Then she abruptly and startlingly veers in a new direction. Out of the blue she yanks us to attention. "But there is something troubling about this worldview as it unfolds. . . ." And then, "What does this all really add up to? . . . Does this result in a better world, a happier work force, a greater bounty in life?" And, a couple of paragraphs later she observes, "A void has been left in the soul of work that remains to be filled. . . . Surely someone somewhere is thinking about this."

Would that there were millions. There are at least two of us.

LAUREL HALL, WHITTIER

THE LITERARY ARCHIPELAGO

Your review of E. Annie Proulx's "The Shipping News" (July 18) defined Newfoundland as "a rugged island off the coast of Canada."

May I add another entry to your compendium of islands: "Manhattan, a densely populated island off the coast of the United States."

ALBERT J. DESROSIERS, LOS ANGELES

INFORMATION SOUGHT

I am writing a book on former Broadway and recording star Cliff Edwards, a.k.a. "Ukulele Ike" (1895-1971), who is best remembered as the voice of Jiminy Cricket. He was active in Hollywood from 1927 through the mid-1960s. I would like to hear reminiscences, letters or information.

WILLIAM RYAN, 2620 Jalmia Drive, Los Angeles 90046

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