Mission Impossible

Henry Czerny, confident that he has the situation well in hand, sits at table and says, “I can understand you’re very upset.” Tom Cruise, sitting opposite, bares teeth, says, “You’ve never seen me very upset.” And he pulls from his pocket exploding bubble gum, which he hurls at the glass wall of a giant fish tank, and

Don’t ask.

Michael Berube, I gather, is upset. He complains that Benj DeMott read his book carelessly. It’s a wonder he read it at all. DeMott owned up promptly to a mistake, My bad, he said. He forgot to add, Your worse. What DeMott did was overlook a footnote. As bad goes, it isn’t much. Berube wrote the book, It isn’t much. Who would feel obliged to sift through the footnotes?

Berube’s position is that a missed footnote calls for a response in print. And here’s how he frames it.

Ah, if only there were some way one could verify my claim! If only there were some printed words somewhere, something one could look up, like a good reporter…

Then he runs the entire note. Insufferable before, he remains so.


DeMott wonders aloud how I got “roped” into it. I wonder if I was roped into it, and especially into Berube’s headline. Berube’s was one of three books I reviewed (or “reviewed”, as Berube prefers). My comments on The Left at War were largely unfavorable. It took no great courage to disparage the book. My only break with any consensus was noticing it.

The Left at War consists of miscellaneous essays, relabeled chapters to give the impression of a sustained argument and-though here the publisher rather than Berube may be responsible—to boost the book’s commercial prospects. “Chapter” by “chapter” the book is a negligible production. Its notes could be safely skipped.

I gave Berube’s acknowledgments an unusual amount of attention because they were the pages in the book that grabbed my attention. Extensive thankyous have proliferated in recent years. But here Berube exceeds the common run. If ingratitude is sharper than a serpent’s tooth, Berube shows that gratitude can be duller—well,as dull as The Left at War. In Dissent, Berube writes simply of

my grateful acknowledgment that the National Humanities Center had offered me a month-long fellowship.

That is not what he wrote in his book. There, and it is what my review considered, he wrote:

Though I began planning to write this book in 2002-03, I did not have a chance to start working on it seriously until the National Humanities Center offered me an Assad Meymandi Fellowship for the month of March 2006. Some year-long Center fellows asked me what I could possibly do with a mere month of fellowship time,I can now tell them that I had four glorious weeks in which to read from morning until night, collect my thoughts, make my notes, and even—sometimes-sit in silence. I had not realized until I arrived in the Research Triangle (North Carolina) that I have never, at any point in my adult life, lived alone’ but I can say with gratitude that the experience of sitting in silence and thinking after reading for eight or ten hours is really quite extraordinary. I thank Geoff Harpham for making that experience possible.

A left at peace. He called it glorious. No angel with a sword is keeping him out. I only pointed out how he could find his way back. His response isn’t even one of horror. The idea of quitting his job simply doesn’t compute. Like Rimbaud’s Nina, his answer is, “Et mon bureau?” And his kissoff is to urge DeMott and urge me to show up for our putative jobs. Captain, you so mean—and not at all clear. Is it really DeMott’s job to study Berube’s fine print? And what yoke has he prepared for me?

The job he has given me is to remind him of the usual procedure when a review is less than enthusiastic. Usually, the reviewed author lets it go by without comment. If the author does choose to respond, it is—in polite society—customary to do so in a letter to the editor[1]—I, for one, have shown myself extraordinarily receptive to such letters. Berube has preferred to write a long post on a website that has no provision for comments.

Anyone who publishes hopes for some resonance—better praise, but something. Usually, though, the world will little note nor long remember what we say here. Most people live with the fact. Had my review gone entirely unread, unpublished even, I would not have been greatly distressed. Berube sees things differently. A less than positive review elicits from him a less than candid summary of the review, a worked up storm of controversy—that missed n. 29—and a long block quote in his own praise, spoken by himself. His one concession, the kind of thing one might hear at some dopey job interview, is that his book might have been just too ambitious. Berube’s Dissent article is an attempt to give his inconsequential book an afterlife. It isn’t working, and it isn’t helping[2].


1 I understand that when he first read the review, he sent an e-mail to the paper that read in its entirety, “You cannot be serious.”
2 DeMott’s response to Berube quotes him as wanting to set the historical record straight, re what Packer and Berman said to each other. Does he think he’s the historical record? What will live on, I suspect, is a story that begins, “George Packer and Paul Berman walk into a bar…” Before long a tipsy kangaroo shows up, and generations now unborn will have no idea what anybody was talking about.