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Studying with Miss Bishop:
Memoirs from a Young Writer’s Life

by dana gioia
paul dry, 184 pages, $16.95

Dana Gioia has had an unusual and distinguished career as a poet, an executive with General Foods, and Chairman of the National Endowments for the Arts. In Studying with Miss Bishop: Memoirs from a Young Writer’s Life, he describes mainly his early years as a prospective writer. The emphasis, though, is not on the usual story of how he became a writer, but on people he met, or almost met, along the way. Some are well-known: ­Elizabeth Bishop and Robert ­Fitzgerald, under whom he studied at Harvard; John Cheever and James Dickey, with whom he had chance meetings. A few are not. His Mexican uncle, Theodore Ortiz, died early on in a plane crash, but left a library of classical books that helped to make a reader out of the young Gioia and shape his taste. So, too, Ronald Perry, a poet of promise, entered Gioia’s life, but his sudden death prevented them from ever meeting, and his writing remains an unplumbed mystery.

The portraits Gioia creates are vivid, his prose supple, unpretentious, often humorous. What comes across most is his generosity. Even a churlish, drunken Dickey gets a good word at the end. The most touching is of Elizabeth Bishop: “I am not a very good teacher so to make sure you learn something in this class I am going to ask each of you to memorize at least ten lines a week from one of the poets we are reading.” She was, for Gioia, a better teacher than she allowed, as the careful commentary on her class makes clear. My own favorite anecdote was of the great classicist and translator, Robert Fitzgerald, someone I knew a bit but now feel I understand better. Memoirs of this sort can easily become tired. Gioia’s shows a youthful freshness and curiosity on every page.

—Jonathan F. S. Post

Private Notebooks: 1914–1916
by ludwig wittgenstein
edited and translated by marjorie perloff
liveright, 240 pages, $24.95

This thoughtfully prepared edition of Wittgenstein’s three war journals marks the first time these documents have appeared in English. To contextualize these documents, translator Marjorie Perloff offers a necessarily summary but intriguing glimpse into Wittgenstein’s life and work in her introduction, editor’s notes, and afterword. She describes Wittgenstein, in her words “arguably the most important philosopher of the twentieth ce­ntury,” as a “mysterious and ­contradictory” figure whose “aim, throughout his life, [was] to turn into a different person.” These words of summary are well-chosen, as the picture of Wittgenstein that emerges from his journals is of a man focused almost entirely on cultivating his character. Rather than using his journal to record a narrative of his daily life, in these pages we see Wittgenstein engaged in a constant struggle with himself as he attempts to cultivate a serene inner distance from his surroundings—a task which he finds necessary so that he does not “lose [him]self” to the intense unpleasantness of military life.

Though doubtless this book will prove most interesting to those already invested in the life and work of its author, I think lay readers mostly unfamiliar with Wittgenstein’s life and work will find a surprising amount of resonant material in these pages. It seems to me that many in the West today find themselves struggling in the same way Wittgenstein struggles in these journals, feeling they should be living differently than they are living, more or less consciously waiting for some great event to come along and give them the opportunity to transform themselves into the person they wish to be. Wittgenstein’s notebooks offer comfort to people in this position, showing them that they are not the only ones to go through this sort of struggle, and revealing that their condition is not completely unique to late modernity.

This self-portrait of a twenty-five-year-old Wittgenstein is familiar in many ways; his intense frustration with himself, his desire to be transformed into a better person, his general struggle with existence—revealed in frequent exclamations like “God will make me a better ­person!”—call to mind thoughts and feelings I have had on an almost daily basis. It is reassuring to think that Wittgenstein, a titan of twentieth-­century philosophy, also grappled with his character and his place in the world as a young man, as it gives one hope that they too might find their projects through much fear and trembling. I expect the ­many others in his (and my) position will receive hope from this book.

—James Paul Rogers

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