Barbara’s Nonfiction Picks, Feb. 2014, Pt. 1: Four Essential Literature Titles, Including Susan Cheever on e.e. cummings

Cheever, Susan. E.E. Cummings: A Life. Pantheon. Feb. 2014. 256p. ISBN 9780307379979. $30; ebk. ISBN 9780307908674. LITERATURE
Though Edmund Wilson called his poetry hideous, Malcolm Cowley proclaimed e.e. cummings unsurpassed in his field, and when he died in 1962, he was the most read poet in this country after Robert Frost. There’s still plenty of room for the work of this imaginative iconoclast. Novelist/memoirist Cheever, who’s also distinguished herself with literary studies of the transcendentalists, has an understanding of the creative act and should bring cummings to life. Note that the Poetry Society of America will stage an event at New York’s Lincoln Center to coincide with publication of this work.

Shaw, Prue. Reading Dante: From Here to Eternity. Liveright: Norton. Feb. 2014. 398p. ISBN 9780871407429. $28.95. LITERATURE
You only think you know Dante’s La Divina Commedia—or at least its spiraling Inferno, which many of us first attempt at age 13. Emeritus reader in Italian studies at University College London and editor of the edizione nazionale of Dante’s Monarchia and of a digital edition of the Commedia, Shaw brings us to a whole new level, offering the most thoroughgoing introduction to the Commedia imaginable. Here she places the Commedia in historical and cultural context while taking on such received ideas as Dante’s vengeful attitude toward some compatriots.

White, Edmund. Inside a Pearl: My Years in Paris. Bloomsbury USA.  Feb. 2014. 240p. ISBN 9781608195824. $26. LITERATURE/MEMOIR
In 1983, White left behind the burgeoning AIDS crisis in New York and moved to Paris, though he didn’t speak a word of French and knew exactly two people in the city. By the time he returned to the States, he had mastered the language and culture so successfully that he spoke on French TV and radio. He also became Jean Genet’s definitive biographer and wrote persuasively about Marcel Proust and Arthur Rimbaud, which helped him win the French Order of Arts and Letters. Oh, and he’s brushed elbows with folks like Catherine Deneuve and Michel Foucault. All of which suggests that this memoir of his Paris years while be both illuminating and fun to read.

White, Edward. The Tastemaker: Carl Van Vechten and the Birth of Modern America. Farrar. Feb. 2014. 384p. ISBN 9780374201579. $30; ebk. ISBN 9780374708818. LITERATURE
Appreciating modernism in early 20th century America requires appreciating Carl Van Vechten, a photographer, a novelist, and, above all, a cultural champion who introduced Gertrude Stein to Americans, supported the Harlem Renaissance, and befriended luminaries like Langston Hughes and F. Scott Fitzgerald. White, who studied European and American history at Mansfield College, Oxford, and Goldsmiths College, London, should offer a fresh take on this key figure, not much chronicled recently, capturing both his accomplishments and his dark-edged experiences in Jazz Age New York.

Barbara Hoffert About Barbara Hoffert

Barbara Hoffert (, @BarbaraHoffert on Twitter) is Editor, LJ Prepub Alert; past chair of the Materials Selection Committee of the RUSA (Reference and User Services Assn.) division of the American Library Association; and past president, treasurer, and awards chair of the National Book Critics Circle.