The Twain is met in the New Yorker's fiction issue

MAGAZINES

June 25, 1995|By Bruce McCabe | Bruce McCabe,Boston Globe

Superb editorial packages on two controversial figures, Mark Twain and Frank Sinatra, top the good-reading agenda this week.

This week's fiction issue of the New Yorker features an unpublished episode from the newly discovered manuscript of Twain's "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," described by E. L. Doctorow in his critical response as "the greatest picaresque since Cervantes and Diderot." The episode, dropped from the 1885 edition of the novel, doesn't contain the word "nigger," which is used 200 times in the published work, but it does suggest why a black educator has campaigned to remove the book from school libraries. Here's the slave Jim responding to Huck: "Sho, child, I reckon you's mistaken 'bout dat. Gimme de gun -- I's gwyne to see."

The episode is framed not only by Mr. Doctorow's but by four other argumentative critical responses to Twain, his reputation and his work. Bobbie Ann Mason argues that Twain changed American literature the way Elvis Presley, born 100 years after Twain, would change American music. Is this persuasive? Is it true? William Styron argues that the controversy over Twain's dialect might have been finessed if he'd "merely" substituted the word "slave" for the racial slur.

The most thought-provoking reaction, however, is historian-novelist David Bradley's. It crystallizes the Twain controversy. Mr. Bradley outlines his first encounters with the slur, having been referred to that way by a little white boy on his first day of school and then having read the word several years later in Twain's "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer." Mr. Bradley's argument compares Twain's classic work and reputation with the current controversy. Mr. Bradley writes that the crux of the issue is that the word "is offensive not because it was said by literary characters in 1845 but because it is meant by literal Americans in 1995."

Sinatra appraisal

The June 20 Village Voice supplement "Sinatra at 80," brilliantly conceived, written and edited by critic Gary Giddins, is pegged to a series of tributes to the singer taking place in New York in July.

It provides what I'd thought was impossible, a detailed appraisal of Mr. Sinatra's contribution to American popular music over the decades -- he and Billie Holiday were born in the same year -- along with the freely conceded argument that he's been one of the ranking bullies of our time. (Steve Allen's witty characterization of Mr. Sinatra's temperament includes comedian Shecky Green's classic routine about how Mr. Sinatra "saved my life" when Mr. Green was accosted by three toughs in front of Caesar's Palace: "They were giving me a terrible beating, but finally Frank came up and said, 'Okay, that's enough.' ")

Sinatra biographer Will Friedwald's "A Sinatra Top 10" ranks Mr. Sinatra's quintessential recorded performances. Surprisingly, the sentimental "It Was a Very Good Year" and "Summer Wind" make the list (at 8 and 10, respectively), but Mr. Friedwald is on firmer ground with the singer's earlier hits, his carefully worked-out-and-over versions of, say, "I've Got You Under My Skin" and "Night and Day."

"No singer has possessed a song more completely than Sina- tra does 'Night and Day,' " Mr. Friedwald writes.

Writer-cabaret singer Mary Cleere Haran analyzes what she calls Mr. Sinatra's best movie performance in/as "Pal Joey," the 1957 musical. Trombonist Milt Berhart recounts the multiple-take recording of his legendary improvised solo on Mr. Sinatra's "I've Got You Under My Skin" from the 1956 album "Songs for Swingin' Lovers." Bassist David Finck brings the instrumentalist's perspective to Mr. Sinatra's tight relationship with his accompaniment.

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