Recently it was observed that novelist Anne Tyler “writes about middle-class people trying to endure life in Baltimore.” Tell me about it. The snow that came earlier this month—and came, and came—never left because we Baltimorons (as we like to call ourselves—but don’t you try) are inept at clearing it away. Ten days on, my curvy, hilly street is still mired in sooty, icy layers of snowpack. We’ve been parking our car on a flatter roadway down the hill just to be able to get in and out. Some streets get plowed, but not ours. Yesterday we delivered our own garbage to the city dump because the city’s crew refuses to drive up here.
Being snowbound makes you stir-crazy. After the cable TV channels have disclosed their unwatchability, and the house has been cleaned (even stray socks have been reunited with their mates insofar as possible), you look for something that will catch your interest. Like Anne Tyler. Or Anne Tyler’s mail—or at least the piece of it that was delivered mistakenly to our house. The packet came bundled with three days’ worth of mail that the postman managed to hand to us before he got his van stuck in our snowbank. (We spent 45 minutes digging him out.)
The misdirected missive was addressed to “Anne Tyler IV:4.” The sender was the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. It turns out that the author of Breathing Lessons and The Accidental Tourist has the same house number as we do but on a street four blocks away. Many frigid fjords separated us from Tyler, however, so the packet sat for two days on my newly cleared and freshly dusted desk. During that time, I admit I peered at the packet. I resisted the temptation to steam it open. It was clear from the outside of the envelope that it contained material to be used to pick new members of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. It was also clear—from the parts of the cover letter that were legible through the envelope in strong light—that there was a deadline in mid-March. You’ll be relieved to know that on February 17 I redirected the packet (unmolested, let the record show) to its owner.
That done, I got on the computer and looked up the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Anne Tyler is listed as a member in category IV:4, described as “Literature (Fiction, Poetry, Short Stories, Nonfiction, Playwriting, Screenwriting).” I’d like to present my findings from this research: first, because they’re kind of interesting, and, second, so that I might redeem this semi-sordid situation by helping Ms. Tyler (who may or may not read the website of First Things, but, anyway) fill out her ballot with the names of the most distinguished and deserving individuals who have not yet made it into the 4,600-member American Academy.
If you go to the academy’s user-friendly web site, you will find, among the hoity-toity assembly, not only MacNeil, but Lehrer; not only Mearsheimer, but Walt; every living former president who is a Democrat; and the almost-president Al Gore. There’s an apparent ban on Bushes (except for Guy L. Bush, a zoologist from Michigan State). On the other hand, you can’t say that the academy completely ignores high achievers who are right of center; Jacques Barzun, Robert Bork, Robert Conquest, Jean Bethke Elshtain, Richard Epstein, John Lewis Gaddis, Mary Ann Glendon, Gertrude Himmelfarb, Bernard Lewis, Richard Pipes, Diane Ravitch, and William J. Stuntz are members.
The most recent crop of inductees is interesting. Among the choices for 2009 were Robert Gates, Colin Powell, appellate judge Harvie Wilkinson, historians James McPherson and Robert Caro, Emmylou Harris, Dustin Hoffman, James Earl Jones, Dame Judi Dench (honorary only, because she’s a foreigner), Nelson Mandela (ditto), dance masters Bill T. Jones and Edward Villella, translator Edith Grossman, Thomas Pynchon, Tobias Wolff, and political theorist Danielle Allen.
What’s Allen doing there? Premature at best. Nor am I a big fan of John Doerr, another 2009 inductee. Doubtless he’s done a fine job as a Silicon Valley financier, but his recent notoriety comes from his climate alarmism. In his public speeches he extols the burning of food (that dumb ethanol idea) as the solution to global environmental problems. Weak picks from past years include such boringly ubiquitous Beltway types as Norman Ornstein and Marvin Kalb, people like Justin Kaplan who mainly seem well-connected, Russell Banks, who writes bad novels, and Robert Venturi, who adorns his buildings with tacky architectural flourishes.
Surely we can do better, Ms. Tyler. Herewith, my humbly offered suggestions. (As science, mathematics, and engineering are deep mysteries to me, I will not recommend scientists, mathematicians, or engineers.)
Let’s start in Tyler’s bailiwick. I spent some time trying to think of American novelists for whom she should vote. No names came to me. In that case, why not go for an honorary membership for a foreigner? I nominate Javier Marias. The Spaniard is rather obnoxiously anti-American in his political views, but such views don’t generally make it into his fiction. (Marias has written around a dozen novels, among them All Souls, A Heart So White, and Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me.)
Moving right along—and assuming that Tyler is allowed to weigh in across the full range of categories, not just in her own—Emmylou Harris is a national treasure, I agree, but how about anointing Jerry Douglas and Tony Rice, two guitar maestros who have spent decades making performers like Harris sound even better than they would otherwise? Along the same lines, Leontyne Price is surely an ornament to the organization—but can it not find room for Renée Fleming, Jessye Norman, or Patricia Racette?
The academy has admitted plenty of industrialists and entrepreneurs: Warren Buffett, Bill Gates’ father, and people with surnames like Bechtel and Lauder. To balance the big-name fat cats and the politically correct Doerr, it would be nice to let in Whole Foods CEO and cofounder John Mackey, who took a lot of heat for expressing his opposition to government-run health care.
Several reporters, editors, and publishers from the Washington Post and the New York Times are members, but so far the academy has skipped the Post’s David Ignatius, an astute commentator, and the Times’ Carlotta Gall, the stalwart presence in the paper’s Afghanistan bureau for lo, these many years. This seems to me remiss. Moreover, it would be a good idea for the organization to branch out. How about giving the nod to Claudia Rosett, formerly of the Wall Street Journal and currently of Forbes, who did such fine work exposing the U.N.’s corrupt oil-for-food program, and whose 1989 dispatches from Tiananmen Square were, according to Richard Brookhiser, “the bravest, noblest reporting I have ever seen.” Another vote well cast would be for Jack Shafer, the witty and fearless critic of media heavyweights who writes for Slate.
The membership list has an entire subcategory honoring “Literary Critics (including Philology).” That’s how Frederick Crews and Marjorie Perloff got in, and if they got in, Camille Paglia deserves to. She’s not always right, but she’s erudite, and she writes with verve.
Strobe Talbott is in—he arrived in the 2009 batch, in fact. On the other side of the aisle, Dov Zakheim, former under secretary of defense and comptroller, is at Talbott’s level of policymaking and government service. Given that Zakheim is at least as wise a “wise man” as Talbott (possibly more), he deserves a shot.
Lastly, one finds on the golden list Milos Forman and Ang Lee but, alas, not James Ivory. It was he, along with Ismail Merchant, who filmed Howards End and so many other literary adaptations some years ago, many of them quite good. It is too late for the Mumbai-born Merchant, who is deceased, but why not write in Ivory (a Californian)? Also leaping to mind is the director who raised the “mockumentary” to high comedic art: Christopher Guest has not only directorial but screenwriting credits on most of his movies, which include Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show, and A Mighty Wind. Screenwriting is deemed to be part of “Literature,” as I said, so Guest rakes in points there and in “Visual and Performing Arts—Criticism and Practice (including Art, Architecture, Sculpture, Music, Theater, Film, and Dance).”
Oops! Got to go; I see out the window that a Bobcat earthmover is rumbling and scooping its way up from the block below. Finally. There’s also a big Volvo spinning its wheels in the middle of the street. It will stop the Bobcat’s progress if I don’t get out there and lend a pushing hand.
Lauren Weiner is a freelance writer in Baltimore.