Sentences — April 1, 2009, 4:52 pm

The Evil Thoughts of Man


Monday, I mentioned close reading as a practice indivisible from literary criticism. The thought was sparked by a letter I’d just received in response to an essay of mine in The New York Review of Books on Toni Morrison’s latest novel, A Mercy. To give you a little context on the reader’s letter, here’s a paragraph that he referenced from Morrison’s novel:

One day… an eagle laid her eggs in a nest far above and far beyond the snakes and paws that hunted them. Her eyes are midnight black and shiny as she watches over them. At the tremble of a leaf, the scent of any other life, her frown deepens, her head jerks and her feathers quietly lift. Her talons are sharpened on rock; her beak is like the scythe of a war god. She is fierce, protecting her borning young. But one thing she cannot defend against: the evil thoughts of man. One day a traveler climbs a mountain nearby. He stands at its summit admiring all he sees below him. The turquoise lake, the eternal hemlocks, the starlings sailing into clouds cut by rainbow. The traveler laughs at the beauty saying, “This is perfect. This is mine.” And the word swells, booming like thunder into valleys, over acres of primrose and mallow. Creatures come out of caves wondering what it means. Mine. Mine. Mine. The shells of the eagle’s eggs quiver and one even cracks. The eagle swivels her head to find the source of the strange, meaningless thunder, the incomprehensible sound. Spotting the traveler, she swoops down to claw away his laugh and his unnatural sound. But the traveler, under attack, raises his stick and strikes her wing with all his strength. Screaming she falls and falls. Over the turquoise lake, beyond the eternal hemlocks, down through the clouds cut by rainbow. Screaming, screaming she is carried away by wind instead of wing.

One character tells this fable as a bedtime story, and I cited it in the essay to the end of discussing Morrison’s own, larger project in A Mercy—a novel about America’s beginnings that I found rampantly unconvincing. To corroborate my findings, I spent a fair amount of essayistic space picking out moments in Morrison’s prose where her characters were presented with such stylistic variance as to become incoherent as fictional beings. Much of the piece, therefore, was a close reading of the ways that Morrison’s novel can be said to fail along aesthetic lines.

But, I learned via the mail, there’s close reading, and then there’s close reading. For while, to my mind, the language of the fable above seemed—unlike that in much of the rest of the book—appropriately undistracting, Jack Kligerman, a Professor Emeritus of English who taught at Lehman College, CUNY, for 35 years, wrote to say that the passage actually contains a real whopper if you know a thing or two about birds.

Though the scene above is told by a native American in the late 1680s, Mr. Kligerman, also a birder and photographer, informed me that starlings wouldn’t have been in North America for another 200 years. As you can learn, starlings only arrived in North America in 1890, thanks to “a group dedicated to introducing to America all the birds mentioned in Shakespeare’s works” and which released one hundred European Starlings into Central Park.

A lone anachronism, of course, isn’t going to murder any serious work of art, any more than an error in local color can dependably kill our interest (the first page of Kafka’s Amerika: The Missing Person features a Statue of Liberty in whose raised hand not a lantern but sword is held aloft). But what is interesting to me in Mr. Kligerman’s get is how a detail of fact in a historical fiction was to him as distracting as my own concerns were to me. So many things, is the upshot, can reasonably take a reader out of a reading experience. Novelists should always be their own closest readers, and the best of them typically are.

Single Page

More from Wyatt Mason:

From the February 2010 issue

The untamed

Joshua Ferris’s restless-novel syndrome

Sentences May 1, 2009, 2:41 pm

Weekend Read: The Last Post

Sentences April 29, 2009, 4:12 pm

A Certain, Wandering Light

Get access to 164 years of
Harper’s for only $39.99

United States Canada



September 2014

Israel and Palestine

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Washington Is Burning

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

On Free Will

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

They Were Awake

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content


Arab artists take up — and look past — regional politics
“When everyday life regularly throws up images of terror and drama and the technological sublime, how can a photographer compete?”
“Qalandia 2087, 2009,” by Wafa Hourani
“There was torture by the previous regime and by the current Iraqi regime,” Dr. Amin said. “Torture by our Kurdish government, torture by Syrians, torture by the U.S.”
Visiting His Own Grave © Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
The Tale of the Tape·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Heroin isn’t the weakness Art Pepper submits to; it’s the passion he revels in.”
Photograph (detail) © Laurie Pepper
The Soft-Kill Solution·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"Policymakers, recognizing the growing influence of civil disobedience and riots on the direction of the nation, had already begun turning to science for a response."
Illustration by Richard Mia
New Books
New Books·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Almond insists that watching football does more than feed an appetite for violence. It’s a kind of modern-day human sacrifice, and it makes us more likely to go to war.”
Photograph by Harold Edgerton

Chance that a movie script copyrighted in the U.S. before 1925 was written by a woman:

1 in 2

Engineers funded by the United States military were working on electrical brain implants that will enable the creation of remote-controlled sharks.

Malaysian police were seeking fifteen people who appeared in an online video of the Malaysia-International Nude Sports Games 2014 Extravaganza, and Spanish police fined six Swiss tourists conducting an orgy in the back of a moving van for not wearing their seatbelts.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!


In Praise of Idleness


I hope that after reading the following pages the leaders of the Y. M. C. A. will start a campaign to induce good young men to do nothing. If so, I shall not have lived in vain.

Subscribe Today