18 May, 2009Issue 9.4Review of Reviews

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Review of Reviews




You spread our Free Range Duck/Breasts with your trade-mark mix/Of honey, soya, Chinese Five Spice/While I etch/A fingernail down your spine….” These words by Ruth Padel, the newly elected Oxford Professor of Poetry, lie at the centre of a controversy-in-verse: who, exactly, is spreading the Free Range Duck Breasts? According to the Times of London, it is “common knowledge” in the poetry world that Independent columnist John Walsh is the maker of the “trade-mark mix”. The Evening Standard also identifies Walsh as the devilish lover in fake Armani who appears in Padel’s The Soho Leopard. That’s the same John Walsh whose 28 April column dredged up charges that Derek Walcott, the Nobel laureate who faced off against Padel for the poetry professorship, was an “academic sexual predator”. Walsh acknowledges that Padel is an “old friend”; Padel says that she sees Walsh “once a year at parties“.

No evidence has emerged to suggest that Padel had a hand (or any other body part) in the anti-Walcott campaign—but the allegations against the great-great-granddaughter of Charles Darwin hark back to a storied classical tradition: University of Newcastle classicist Peter Jones turns to Tacitus and finds that since the time of Tiberius, “gutter crawlers [have] gained estates and high office from their efforts”.

Rough Times for Rhodies. Padel’s post at Oxford is a “high office” (past occupants have included Seamus Heaney, Auden, and Matthew Arnold) but it is hardly a rich estate: it comes with a stingy stipend of ¬£6,901 per annum (plus ¬£40 for travel expenses). That said, at least the occupant has access to toilet paper—which is more than can be said for another prestigious Oxford honor (the Rhodes Scholarship) circa 1955. In that year, Rhodes scholar Reynolds Price discovered that his new home, Merton College, was TP-free. The New York Times and San Francisco Chronicle review Price’s memoirs of his Oxford years, when the 22-year-old aspiring writer divided his time between traveling Europe and fending off the advances of the 47-year-old Stephen Spender. (Walcott would not be the first Oxford poetry don dogged by sexual harassment charges.)

Aside from these advances (all of which were rebuffed), Price still writes fondly of Spender. By the same token, Nicole Kelby, a former Walcott student who sued the Nobel laureate for sexual harassment in 1996, still writes fondly of her onetime teacher: in a Times of London essay, she calls him “the greatest living poet“. (In 2004, Slate.com agreed with that assessment.)

Rough Times for Romans. While Walcott blamed his Oxford opponents for “a low and degrading attempt at character assassination“, Cambridge classicist Mary Beard turns her attention to assassination of a more literal sort: a new book by TP Wiseman that choreographs Caesar’s final moments. Since these events occurred in the days before CSPAN televised the Senate, the historical record is marked by uncertainty, but one thing is for sure: “There must have been a lot of blood.” There must have been a lot of outrage as well; Wiseman shows that Caesar was widely popular; scholars who suggest otherwise are guilty of “conservative wishful thinking”.

Sarah Palin: Superhero? Speaking of “conservative wishful thinking”, Sarah Palin says that she is “excited to put [her] journalism degree to work“: the Alaska governor and failed US vice presidential candidate, who received a reporting degree from University of Idaho in 1987, has signed a book deal with HarperCollins. She won’t say what the deal is worth—although she insists that her writing won’t interfere with her governing (or her grandmothering).

While Palin tries to become a writer of a bestseller, Michelle Obama is already the subject of one: the Washington Post reports that Female Force—a comic book featuring the first lady as a superheroine—has sold out its first press run and is now on a second printing. But Palin isn’t jealous of the first lady’s magical powers: according to the Detroit News, Palin was the superhuman star of a previous Female Force instalment. Palin’s press run sold out too.

Blood Bath. Michelle Obama “is not a great beauty” but will “get better with age”, according to supermodel Iman, the wife of David Bowie. The New York Review of Books concludes that Madame de Sta√´l (pronounced “style”) looked good at every age. The early 19th-century novelist’s network of correspondents included Byron, Gibbon, Goethe, Jefferson, and Talleyrand. We do not know how many of those intercourses were exclusively epistolary. But we do know that she got along poorly with Napoleon (whose own novel-writing attempts were less successful, as last week’s “Review of Reviews” duly noted). We also know that she would have been displeased to read Claire Harman’s new book Jane’s Fame: How Jane Austen Conquered the World (reviewed earlier this month in ORB by Jennifer Graham). Madame de Sta√´l (who spent her life shuttling from capital to capital) looked down upon Austen (who spent her life shuttling from Basingstoke to Bath). De Sta√´l went so far as to say that Austen was “vulgaire”.

Madame de Sta√´l would not have been the only one displeased to read Harman. Professor Kathryn Sutherland of St. Ann’s College has accused her onetime student Harman of copying ideas that Sutherland set forth in a 2005 Oxford University Press book. Harman says that she gave credit where credit was due: “If [Sutherland] had read [Jane’s Fame], she would have found herself mentioned in the text, the notes, the bibliography, the acknowledgments, and the index.” Observers are hoping that these two “former friends” resolve their dispute more amicably than Colonel Brandon and John Willoughby.

One Little Peace. Speaking of amicable resolutions: Oprah Winfrey has buried the hatchet with the author of A Million Little Pieces, James Frey. In 2006, the talk show host hauled Frey in front of a national audience and forced him to admit that his ostensibly autobiographical book was a lie. Now, Vanity Fair reports that Winfrey has spoken with Frey on the telephone and offered a personal apology.