Friday, September 23, 2016

Eccentrics , no

I found a book on the library’s New Books shelves: Eccentrics: A Study of Sanity and Strangeness by David Weeks and Jamie James (1995, not new, I know). I looked in the index for anyone I knew and landed on pages 84 and 85. Here’s Emily Dickinson:

Emily Dickinson always wore white, never went out of her room, and hid her poems in little boxes.
Well, no. The 1846 daguerreotype of Dickinson (as a young woman) shows her wearing a dark dress. The 1859 daguerreotype that may be of Dickinson also shows dark clothing. In later life Dickinson became more reclusive and often wore white. She did not hide her poems in little boxes: she shared some of her work with close friends and published a handful of poems anonymously. And she wrote (famously) to Thomas Wentworth Higginson to ask for his thoughts about her poems — a gesture that suggests she was thinking of publication. Dickinson sewed pages together to bind her poems into fascicles. Martha Dickinson Bianchi, Dickinson’s niece, described the fascicles and also noted “variants and fragments found lying loosely in drawers and boxes.” Lavinia Norcross Dickinson said that her sister’s poems were discovered in a locked box. Mabel Loomis Todd, Dickinson’s posthumous editor, kept Dickinson’s manuscripts locked away for decades in a camphorwood box. But did Dickinson hide her poems in little boxes? No.

And here’s Glenn Gould:
One of the most widely admired pianists of the twentieth century, Glenn Gould is perhaps even more famous for his eccentric performance habits and extreme hypochondria that for his interpretive genius. He lived in deathly fear of drafts, and habitually appeared on stage dressed for an arctic expedition — in the words of Leonard Bernstein, “doubly hatted, doubly mittened, and endlessly muffled and mufflered.”
Gould is perhaps even more famous for leaving the world of concert performance for the recording studio, a point that goes unmentioned in Eccentrics. Hypochondriacal, yes, of course, but the claim that Gould came on stage to perform in hats, mittens, and mufflers is absurd. It draws upon Leonard Bernstein’s account of having Gould over for dinner:
Bernstein invited the pianist to dinner at his place in the Osborne apartment house, just across from Carnegie Hall. “He was all bundled up,” Bernstein recalls, . . . “and he had an astrakhan hat over some other kind of hat, doubly hatted, doubly mittened, and endlessly muffled and mufflered.”

Otto Friedrich, Glenn Gould: A Life and Variations (1989). This title appears in the bibliography for Eccentrics .
And from another Bernstein account of the same dinner:
At some point, early on — I think when he was doing the Beethoven C Minor Concerto with me — Glenn and I were going to do some work at my apartment, so I invited him to dinner first. This was the first time Felicia, my wife, had actually met him. As you know, Glenn had a “cold complex.” He had a fur hat on all the time, several pairs of gloves and I don’t know how many mufflers, and coat upon coat.
I think it’s fair to assume a degree of comic exaggeration in Bernstein’s description. Comic or not, it’s not a description of a musician appearing on stage.

Kevin Bazzana’s biography Wondrous Strange: The Life and Art of Glenn Gould (2003) recounts a Moscow concert at which Gould, after endless encores, “gave a final bow dressed in his coat, hat, and gloves.” That’s the bow of a musician who knows when to call it a night.

Arthur Schopenhauer: “A precondition for reading good books is not reading bad ones: for life is short.” My conclusion from pages 84 and 85 is that Eccentrics is a book to skip.

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Emily Dickinson : Glenn Gould

[Martha Dickinson Bianchi’s description appears in Emily Dickinson Face to Face (1932). Lavinia Norcross Dickinson’s comment is quoted in Thomas H. Johnson’s The Poems of Emily Dickinson (1955). The camphorwood box appears in Richard B. Sewall’s The Life of Emily Dickinson (1974).]

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