Perry Mason, a Corrupt Nation Turns Its Not Easily Entertained Eyes to You

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I grew up on Perry Mason, viewing the show with my parents virtually every Saturday night up until I was old enough to go out and create my own trouble. Until then, I enjoyed watching the virtuoso attorney leisurely handle the one case he had per week. I mean, that burly barrister was hands-on.  He’d drive around LA and its environs half the night sleuthing, make house calls galore, and be in the office the next morning alert and ready to go. Most importantly, however, he used his prodigious mind to solve each and every case in a bang-bang third act confession, all the loose ends neatly wrapped-up — ta da!

One of the pundits covering the Impeachment Inquiry evoked that great lawyer’s name, warned us not to expect the proceedings to be “Perry Mason.”  Indeed, after the first “episode” featuring Taylor and Kent, media critics complained that the proceedings lacked “pizzazz.”  No way the American public whose attention spans have been decimated by fast cut editing, screen memes, multi-tasking, and herky jerky gifs could ever focus on a series of uninspiring factual questions.

Nevertheless, Devin Nunes, who, I understand, is suing a cow, has likened at various times the proceedings to an actor’s audition, a circus, and a crusade. To be truthful, he and his shirtsleeve henchmen Jim Jordan have been the most animated performers, especially Jordan who rat-a-tats details of debunked conspiracy theories like a carnival barker, and when finished, exudes the smug, self-congratulatory demeanor of  an overconfident high school debater. Every melodrama needs a villain to hate, and from my admittedly left-of-center perspective, I find the two to be, well, for lack of a better word, deplorable.  Boo!  Hiss!

Despite Nunes’ contention that the Inquiry is tanking ratings-wise,[1] I found Tuesday’s and Wednesday’s broadcasts to be fascinating. I especially enjoyed Democratic Counsel David Goldman’s questioning of Timothy Morrison, who appeared beyond uncomfortable as he continually looked left at his lawyer to make sure what he was saying wouldn’t result in a perjury indictment. Watching him squirm, his eyes darting as if he expected some predator to swallow him at any moment, reminded me of what great literature often depicts: consistently telling the straight truth is preferable to prevarication. [2]  What a difference in demeanor between him and William Taylor, who calmly looked his questioners in the eye, answered their inquiries, and actually smiled while being assailed.

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Wednesday’s NY Times morning teaser posited three possibilities for Ambassador Gordon Sondland’s testimony.  He could lie, plead the Fifth, or fess up. As it turns out, the episode might have been billed as The Monster Bus Show, as Ambassador Sondland flattened the upper echelon of the Trump Administration, including Mick Mulvaney, Rick Perry, Mike Pompeo, Mike Pence, and that Master of Reality Television himself, Donald J Trump, who before leaving for wherever on his helicopter read from a piece of paper: “I don’t know him very well.  I have not spoken with him much.  This is not a man I know well.  He seems like a nice guy though.”

C’mon, Donald, learn your lines.  It’s so much more realistic.

For his part, at least at the beginning of the festivities, Sondland seemed calm – some have used the adjective debonair – perhaps secure in having decided to tell the truth and knowing he has millions of dollars at his disposal for securing topnotch legal counsel.

Of course, it would have been more dramatic if Trump burst into the chamber, fell to his knees, and blurted out a tearful confession like the murderers on Perry Mason.

At the end of each episode, Perry, his detective Paul Drake, and secretary Della Street huddle to explain how the case was solved.  How fun would it be to  peek in on Adam Schiff, David Goldman, and Nancy Pelosi connecting the dots in the Speaker’s office after today’s testimony

But, like I said, this is reality television, not an adaption of an Erle Stanley Gardner courtroom drama. That doesn’t mean, however, that the action necessarily lacks interest, especially given the stakes.


[1] From what I understand, television ratings don’t take into account streaming, which I suspect is how most of us viewers are accessing the proceedings.

[2] Compare Hester Prynne to Arthur Dimmesdale and Roger Chillingworth.

Paean to Thanksgiving

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Despite its rather depressing backstory,[1] Thanksgiving ranks as my favorite holiday.

This Thanksgiving won’t be as festive as most.  Ned’s in Germany, Harrison and Taryn will be in New York, and Brooks is flying to Seattle to spend time with her father.  However, Caroline and I will make the most of it, maybe take a road trip to check out some foliage, probably eat some turkey and trimmings with her great cook of a dad up in Awendaw.

Why Thanksgiving? Well, Easter doesn’t work if you don’t believe, and Christmas depresses me, especially since it’s more or less degenerated into an obscene potlatch whose blatant materialism obliterates the tropes of the nativity story – being born in a barn, lying in a manager, etc. – not to mention the adult Jesus’s warnings of the spiritual poverty that often accompanies wealth.

Certainly, inquisitive good little boys and girls of modest means must wonder why Santa showers rich-as-Nebuchadnezzar bully Trey Warbucks and his sister Sassy with presents whose cost eclipses the GNP of Gambia while the inquisitive good little boys of modest means end up with Chinese-manufactured trinkets that may not survive until New Year’s.

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You’re not obligated to buy anyone presents or unwrap any yourselves on Thanksgiving. The holiday is about food, family, and considering your state and contemplating the positive, which, psychologically, seems like a good idea.

***

I feel extremely fortunate to have met and married Judy Birdsong and to have begotten and reared two successful sons with her, to have found true love despite my grieving, and to have a sweet, intelligent, talented, creative stepdaughter who brightens every day.

I feel fortunate to live in a country that allows me to express myself freely and to have taught at a school that allowed me to express myself freely (including publishing  this blog without censure).  I suspect the Powers-That-Was (and Continues-to Be) might not have dug my declaration of the death of Satan,  or my call to bring the missionaries home from abroad to minister to Republican operatives, or my declaring myself a sun god whose first edict is banning bikini tops on Folly Beach – oh, wait, that’s next week’s blog’s big announcement.

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[Odd segue warning] I also feel incredibly thankful for Bob Dylan, despite his being somewhat of an asshole.  Over the years, I cannot think of any musician who has provided me with so much pleasure.  When I was a disaffected teenager, Bob supplied me with oxygen to breathe and a model to follow.  His lyrics – the imagery, sonic associations, themes – gave me strength somehow.  And let me add that I feel extremely fortunate to have caught his gig at the Orange Peel, a bar in Asheville, where Judy Birdsong and I got to stand within twenty feet of the master.

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I feel thankful for my host of friends, whom I’m not about to list for fear of omission, but you know who you are.

Let’s face it, there’s so much to be thankful for that I could fill 5,000 Gutenberg-Bible-sized journals with them.

For example, I’ve never had to give or receive the Heimlich maneuver.

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I’m thankful for not having my great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandmother’s being convicted of witchcraft.

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I’m thankful for not being invited to Thanksgiving at John Currin’s.

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Come to think of it, that looks sort of fun.

At any rate, our blessings are indeed bountiful.  Happy Thanksgiving, dear readers!

And thank you for reading.  I really appreciate it!


[1] I.e., soon-to-be-exterminated natives helping land-grabbing religious fanatics survive the winter so they can begin the important business of drowning and hanging witches.

 

22 November 1963

 

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[Credit: marcocau.nl.

This Friday marks the 56th anniversary of the death of Aldous Huxley.

Midmorning on that day as a fifth grader, I sensed something amiss.  Miss McCue’s eyes were red, and she sniffled as we hunched over our worksheets, but for whatever reason, she decided not to tell us that author of Point Counterpoint had checked out of this Motel 6 of woe for superior lodgings in that undiscovered country from whose bourne no traveller returns.

I guess she figured the news would bewilder us or that it would be better coming from our parents.

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I found out on the school bus from a sixth grader, Steve Ripley, who seemed delighted at the prospect of Huxley’s not producing any more novels that might be assigned as book reports.

I, on the other hand, was devastated by Huxley’s passing because his novel Brave New World had given me reason to hope that the 21st century was going to be a blast – an endless hallucinogenic phantasmagoria that included indiscriminate sex with a variety of partners.

What a miserable weekend with football games cancelled and regular programming preempted.  What’s an early late empire tween to do but stare at the short bio on his dog-eared copy of Chrome Yellow and think Huxley was alive when the book was bought.

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Sandwiched between the passing of eminent composer Cecil Forsyth on 7 December 1941 and American author Alice Stewart Trillin on 11 September 2001, Huxley’s death was especially eerie given that a very famous someone also expired on that day.

That’s right.  CS Lewis also died on 22 November 1963, a day that will live in infamy.

But let’s end on a positive note.  Those fifty years have come and gone, and many of Huxley’s prophecies have come true – we live in a hedonistic age to the tune of Cole Porter’s “Anything Goes.”  As days pour at increasingly swift rates through our lives’ hourglasses, what can we do but embrace Richard Wilbur’s sage advice:

It’s almost noon, you say? If so,
Time flies, and I need not rehearse
The rosebuds-theme of centuries of verse.

If you must go,

Wait for a while, then slip downstairs
And bring us up some chilled white wine,
And some blue cheese, and crackers, and some fine
Ruddy-skinned pears

                                        “A Late Aubade”

Hell Hath No Fury Like YA Authors Scorned

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image by Violet D’Art via Flicker

As I was destroying my eyesight Wednesday simultaneously watching the Impeachment Hearing /Twitter feeds on the screen of my desktop computer, I ran across a linked tweet concerning a literary brouhaha originating at South Dakota’s Northern State University. A recent graduate named Brooke Nelson has provoked outrage from several Young Adult novelists for suggesting that a novel by best-selling YA author Sarah Dessen was too simplistic to qualify as mandatory reading.  As a junior, Ms Nelson had served on a committee to select a book all incoming freshman at Northern State University would be required to read. Several members on the committee, according to the Washington Post, “were pushing for a young adult novel by best-selling author Sarah Dessen.”

A quote in the local paper, the Aberdeen, ignited the ensuing furor: “[Dessen]’s fine for teen girls,” Brooke Nelson said, “ but definitely not up to the level of Common Read. So I became involved simply so I could stop them from ever choosing Sarah Dessen.”

Somehow Dessen caught wind of this slight diss.[1] Directly addressing Nelson by name, Dessen tweeted the following to her legion of followers:

Authors are real people. We put our heart and soul into the stories we write often because it is literally [my emphasis] how we survive in this world. I’m having a really hard time right now and this is just mean and cruel. I hope it made you feel good.

Let’s just say Nessen’s fans were not happy, including published YA authors Jodi Picoult and Roxane Gay.  Jennifer Weiner accused Nelson of being misogynistic:

“It’s hard to know what’s sadder: that Brooke Nelson has internalized misogyny to the extent that she can see nothing of worth in books beloved by “teen girls” but is presumably impressed with the merits of a book centered around video game culture that is beloved by teenage boys; that Nelson joined the committee not to champion a book or a genre but to keep a specific author’s work out of contention; that she bragged about her actions, as if she’s done some great service to literature, or that Nelson graduated with an English degree, is pursuing graduate work in English, and will someday be foisting her sexism and elitism on the next generation of readers.”

However, this comment ignores the question of whether the work possesses the complexity that required reading should possess. Are Nessen’s novels more profound than The Hand Maid’s Tale?  Are today’s in-coming freshman incapable of reading adult literature?  I was the English Department Chair of an independent school for six years and a teacher there for thirty-four, and I can assure you we never had a YA novel on our required summer reading list for the Upper School.

Here’s last year’s list, the last year I taught there:

9th grade  On the Beach by Neville Shute

10th grade: 1984 by George Orwell

11th grade: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

12th grade The Hand Maid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

AP Language and Composition: The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

AP Literature and Composition: Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

The majority of complaints from the YA authors cited in the Post story ignore the quality issue and focus on how Nelson’s quote marginalizes teenaged girls.  Here’s Jodi Picoult: “[Nelson’s quote] suggests stories about young women matter less. That they are not as worthy or literary as those about anything but young women. That their concerns and hopes and fears are secondary or frivolous.”

But Nelson didn’t say that novels about teenaged girls “matter less.”  She said that Nessen’s novels essentially didn’t “cut the mustard,” as we Boomers used to say.  I suspect that Nelson wouldn’t have any qualms with Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar or Josephine Humphrey’s Rich in Love being required reading.

Well, Nessen should be gratified because Nelson has found it necessary to suspend her social media accounts because of a barrage of incoming hatred.  And Northern State University has publicly apologized to Nessen.

It brings to mind Dylan’s line “at pettiness that plays so rough.”


[1] I consider it a “slight diss” because I believe that it’s not terribly insulting to suggest one’s work doesn’t rise to the level of mandatory reading for all incoming freshmen of a college.  In fact, although it’s considered a classic, I don’t think To Kill a Mockingbird rises to that level because of its black and white (no pun intended) portrayal of good and evil.  What I would consider a genuine diss is Carrie Courogen’s summation of Dessen’s work as “formulaic patronizing garbage of the lowest hanging fruit variety and deserves every criticism leveraged against her.” Courogen added in a subtweet “sarah dessen books are nicholas sparks but by a woman and even dumber and slightly less christian.”  I haven’t read any of Dessen’s books, so all I’ll say is that I can’t imagine they possess the ambiguity, complexity, and depth that would elevate them into the realm of serious art.

Show White, Bruno Bettelheim, and High School Seniors

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A few years ago, the principal at my school asked that the English Department develop elective courses to provide students with choices suited to their particular interests.

I came up with a course I called “Psychoanalytical Criticism, Modernism, and Paris in the 20’s.”

I spent the summer before its debut culling public-domain texts I could publish in a “reader,” a quite laborious undertaking —  almost overwhelming — but I managed to amass 376 pages of essays, short fiction, and poetry.  In addition,  I required students to purchase Hesse’s Steppenwolf and a copy of Hamlet.

I started with Freud, providing an overview of his theories,

then delved into fairy tales, using Bruno Bettelheim’s The Uses of Enchantment as a guide.

I began with “Snow White” because Bettelheim does an excellent job of synthesizing Freud’s stages of psychosexual development with the plot of the tale.

He writes

While, psychologically speaking, the parents create the child, it is the arrival of the child which causes these two people to become parents.  Thus, it is the child who creates parental problems, and with these come his own [. . .] As soon as the position of the child in the family becomes a problem to him and his parents, the process of the child’s struggle to escape the triadic existence has begun. With it, he enters the often desperately lonely course to find himself – a struggle in which others serve mainly as foils who facilitate or impede the process [. . .] In “Snow White it is the years Snow White spends with the dwarfs which stand for her time of troubles, of working through problems, her period of growth.[1]

Typically, fairy tales don’t deal with a child’s pre-oedipal history, and “Snow White” is no exception.

“Snow White” begins

Once upon a time in midwinter, when the snowflakes were falling like feathers from heaven, a queen sat sewing at her window, which had a frame of black ebony wood. As she sewed she looked up at the snow and pricked her finger with her needle. Three drops of blood fell into the snow. The red on the white looked so beautiful that she thought to herself, “If only I had a child as white as snow, as red as blood, and as black as the wood in this frame.” Soon afterward she had a little daughter who was as white as snow, as red as blood, and as black as ebony wood, and therefore they called her Little Snow-White. And as soon as the child was born, the queen died. A year later the king took himself another wife.

Bettelheim associates the drop of blood with menstruation, “a pre-condition for conception.”

Although her mother died in childbirth, and Snow White has a stepmother by age one, she doesn’t face problems until she starts to mature, and then her narcissistic stepmother takes notice.  Bettelheim points out that “[n]arcissism is very much a part of a young child’s make-up” and “a child must gradually learn to transcend this dangerous form of self-involvement.”

He adds that “all children are jealous, if not of their parents, then of the privileges the parents enjoy as adults [. . .] Since a narcissistic (step)mother is an unsuitable figure to relate to or identify with, Snow White, if she were a real child, could not help being jealous of her mother and all her advantages and powers [. . .] If a child cannot permit himself to feel his jealousy of a parent (this is very threatening to his security), he projects his feelings onto this parent.”  The child wants to be rid of this parent, which again, according to Bettelheim, is projected onto the parent, i.e., the child perceives the parent wants to get rid of her.

So, essentially, Snow White’s oedipal struggle is not repressed. The queen hires a hunter, a father figure, to murder Snow White in the forest, but “he fails to take a strong and definite stand,” not following the queen’s demand to murder her stepdaughter nor doing his moral duty of rescuing her. Rather, he abandons Snow White, expecting her to be killed by wild animals. “A weak father is as little use to Snow White as he was to Hansel and Gretel [. . .] It is such fathers who create unmanageable difficulties in a child or fail to help him solve them.”

Since Snow White is more beautiful than the queen, she has charged the hunter to bring back Snow White’s lungs and liver, which she cannibalizes, though, of course, she’s actually devouring the lungs and liver of an animal the hunter has slain.

Bettelheim:

The pubertal child is ambivalent in his wish to be much better than his parent of the same sex because the child fears that if this were actually so, the parent, still much more powerful, would take terrible revenge.  It is the child who fears destruction because of his imagined or real superiority, not the parent who wants to destroy.  The parent might suffer pangs of jealousy if he, in his turn, has not succeeded in identifying with his child in a positive way, because only then can he take vicarious pleasure in his child’s accomplishments.  It is essential that the parent identify strongly with his child of the same sex for the child’s identification with him to prove successful.”

Which, obviously, isn’t the case with Snow White. She ends up escaping her original home and stumbling across the dwarf’s dwelling in the forest. To satisfy her hunger, she takes a little bit from each of the dwarf’s plates, which Bettelheim suggests shows that she can control her “oral cravings.” She does the same with the dwarf’s beds, settling eventually in the seventh dwarf’s bed.  When these workaholics come home, the seventh dwarf “slept with his companions, one hour with each, until the night had passed.”  Bettelheim argues that “Work is the essence of [the dwarfs’ lives]; they know nothing of leisure or recreation [. . .]  and the price of living with them is conscientious work.”  He adds, “dwarfs are eminently male, but males who are stunted in their development [. . .] They are certainly not men in any sexual sense – their way of life, their interest material goods to the exclusion of love, suggest a pre-oedipal existence.”

Snow White’s sojourn with the dwarfs symbolizes the latency period, yet it is not a time free from dangers.  Her stepmother reappears in her life and tempts her three times, first with stay laces, suggesting that Snow White is now an adolescent.  Disguised as a peddler, the stepmother laces Snow White so tightly that she faints from a lack of oxygen.  Bettelheim argues that here the queen stands “for a parent who temporarily succeeds in maintaining his dominance by arresting his child’s development.”  Bettelheim posits this incident denotes Snow White’s becoming “overwhelmed by the conflict between her sexual desires and her anxiety about them.”

Indeed, vanity also plays into the queen’s second temptation, the poisoned combs that she places in Snow White’s hair.  The final temptation, of course, is the poisoned apple, which Bettelheim argues is a symbol for love and sex, harkening back to the Eden myth and the Judgement of Paris. The queen divides the apple in half, eating “the white part herself, while Snow White accepts the red, ‘poisonous half.’”  Bettelheim goes on to add, “Repeatedly we have been told of Snow White’s double nature: she is as white as snow and as red as blood – that is her being has both its asexual and its erotic aspect.

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“Eating the red (erotic) part of the apple is the end of Snow White’s innocence. The dwarfs, the companions of her latency existence, can no longer bring her back to life; Snow White has made her choice, which is as necessary as it is fateful. The redness of the apple evokes sexual associations like the three drops of blood which led to Snow White’s birth, and also menstruation, the event which marks the beginning of sexual maturity.”

He ends the essay by stating that the tale “teaches that just because one has reached physical maturity, one is by no means intellectually or emotionally ready for adulthood, as represented by marriage.”

“Like Snow White,” he writes, “each child in his development must repeat the history of man, real or imagined.  We are all expelled eventually from the original paradise of infancy, where all our wishes seemed to be fulfilled without any effort on our part. Learning about good and evil – gaining knowledge – seems to split our personality in two: the red chaos of unbridled emotions, the id; and the white purity of conscience, the superego.  As we grow up, we vacillate between being overcome by the turmoil of the first and the rigidity of the second (the tight lacing, and the immobility enforced by the coffin). Adulthood can be reached only when these inner contradictions are resolved and a new awakening of the mature ego is achieved, in which red and white coexist harmoniously.”

***

Depending on the student, these high school seniors either dismissed Bettelheim’s analysis or had their minds’ blown.  I emphasized that Freud was not what I would call a scientist, that his theories are not empirically based, but that they do offer sometimes extraordinary insight into the realm of the unconscious.  I stressed that it’s not necessary to buy into a paradigm to be able to employ it in interpretation, that whether you believe in Freud’s theories or not, being able to synthesize them into a coherent argument is good exercise.  Indeed, for their exam, I provided them the text of “Jack and the Beanstalk” and had them provide a Freudian interpretation.


[1] Bettelheim is no fan of Disney’s version.  “[A] bowdlerization,” he writes, “which unfortunately emphasizes the dwarfs, who failing to develop into mature humanity, are permanently arrested on a pre-oedipal level (dwarfs have no parents, nor so they marry or have children.”)

Peeking into Poets’ Bedrooms

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I’ve only visited three famous writers’ domiciles  –  Yeats’ Tower, Thor Ballylee, in County Galway (1979); Shakespeare’s birth house in Warwickshire (1995);  and a home Frost lived in on a side of a road somewhere in New Hampshire (2007).

It felt like calling on the dead – the houses restored, sort of Disneyesque, way too un-lived in.

A while back, a friend posted on her FaceBook page a photograph of Walt Whitman’s bedroom back in the day. Alas, the image somehow conjured the Muse of PhotoShopping, Plagiaria.  Alas, I say, because no way I have the artistic talent to pull off the idea Plagiaria whispered in my ear.

Anyway, let’s take a peek into the Barbaric Yapper’s bedroom.

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My idea, which I am bestowing to any 3-D artist out there, is to use the concept of a bedroom as a representation of an author’s interior life, his or her unconscious as it were, each installation with a window looking out (hence not an attic) onto the world the artist perceived – dingy Dublin brownstones for Mr. James Joyce/Lucy-in-the-Sky butterflies flitting just outside the window of Miss Emily Dickinson.

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Take Ernesto Hemingway, par example.

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His mother called him Ernestine and dressed him like a girl.

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the unhairy one ~ 2 yrs

Here’s a crude approximation of Hemingway’s unconscious installed in EA Poe’s dorm room at UVA:

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Obviously, an actual artist could do better, perhaps creating a doll-house, each room devoted to a different writer from a different era, vestiges of influence sprinkled about, La Commedia on Eliot’s bedside table next to an overloaded ashtray of unfiltered Pall Malls.

Art On Pall Mall

At any rate, what strikes me about the actual bedrooms of these writers, except for Whitman’s, is how spartan they are.  For example, here’s where Yeats slept at Thor Ballylee:

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Barely a step up from Thoreau’s:

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Of course, there are exceptions. Truman Capote lay him down to sleep here:

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And Virginia Woolf in this swanky boudoir:

The interior of Virginia Woolf's bedroom at Monks House, East Sussex

And, finally, the bedroom where this barely published poet tosses and turns:

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At any rate, we all can be thankful that we’re not the inhabitant of this bedroom:

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And sleep tight, Marcel!

Note:  This post originally appeared in Late Empire Ruminations 20 November 2012