February 02, 2006

Annals of animalistic analogies

Here's one of those odd coincidences. Earlier today I read Mark Liberman's post about Vladimir Nabokov's prophetic vision of emoticons, which links back to a post Mark wrote in 2003 about Nabokov. In the earlier post, Mark mentions the famous line attributed to Roman Jakobson when asked if Nabokov should be given a faculty position at Harvard:

"I do respect very much the elephant, but would you give him the chair of Zoology?"

A few hours later I ended up at Brendan Wolfe's entertaining blog The Beiderbecke Affair, led there by a blog feed that picked up on a post about Arnold Zwicky's disquisition on "the vocabulary of toadying." In the post right below that one is an excerpt from a column by Martin Peretz in The New Republic (subscription required). Peretz sternly takes Garrison Keillor to task for his hilarious evisceration of Bernard-Henri Lévy's American Vertigo in Sunday's New York Times Book Review. (The subtitle of Lévy's book is "Traveling America in the Footsteps of Tocqueville," but Keillor remarks that the book is really about the French: "There's no reason for it to exist in English, except as evidence that travel need not be broadening and one should be wary of books with Tocqueville in the title.") Here's the excerpt from Peretz:

There is no philosophical argument in his hostile review, only a litany of ridicule. Keillor is an American mythographer, the nostalgic and reverse-snobbish creator of Lake Wobegon, his hugely successful line in middlebrow American sentimentality and a much greater assault on America's gray matter than Lévy's reflective visits to Las Vegas and Dealey Plaza in Dallas. What does the inventor of  "A Prairie Home Companion" know about the tradition in which Lévy is working? Suppose Sartre had followed Tocqueville to the United States and written about his journey. To whom should the Times have assigned its review? To Thornton Wilder? Yes, that's it: the author of Our Town. There's the connection: Tocqueville was fixated on small-town America, and many of the classic community studies of the early decades of the last century were written about places called Middletown and Elmtown, Plainville and Hilltown, Yankeetown and Southern Town, false names for actual polities with a few thousand souls. So maybe Keillor was actually an inspired choice. Why shouldn't a bird review an ornithologist?

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at February 2, 2006 11:25 PM