On criticism, the East India Company, Isabella Stewart Gardner, Falstaff at the Met, George Balanchine & more from the world of culture.
This week: criticism, the East India Company, Isabella Stewart Gardner, Falstaff at the Met, George Balanchine & more.
Critic at Large: Essays and Reviews: 2010–2022, by D. J. Taylor (Shoestring Press): Life on Grub Street can be challenging, but it’s not without attendant attractions. One of those is the potential to have a platform to tell the unbidden truth. As the prolific D. J. Taylor writes in the introduction to his new collection of essays and reviews, “One of the heartening features of the literary landscape . . . is how tenaciously the freelance reviewer endures and how regularly, in an age where most people are terrified of saying in public what they really feel about anything, there rises from a newspaper arts section or magazine book column the sound of someone declining to follow the party line.” The state of literary criticism would be a happier one if we had more critics like Taylor. Critic at Large ranges widely, from contemporary novelists such as Salman Rushdie, to Victorians such as George Gissing, to oddities of the twentieth century such as Brian Sewell, collecting pieces from both British and American publications, including The New Criterion itself. —BR
Adventurers: The Improbable Rise of the East India Company: 1550–1650, by David Howarth (Yale University Press): In 1580, eight years before the Spanish Armada, Sir Francis Drake returned to England from his expedition to plunder Spanish and Portuguese treasure ships in South America. On his journey back, he stopped in the Spice Islands, previously unknown to the English, and stocked his hold with spices and goods that gave a 5,000-percent return to his vessel’s investors. And so began the English interest in not only privateering, but also trading those goods directly. In the waning years of Elizabeth I’s reign, a group of powerful Englishmen, who came to be known as the “Adventurers,” founded the English (later British) East India Company just for this purpose. At its peak, the company colonized and controlled India, Southeast Asia, and Hong Kong; it dominated the oceans with a massive navy; and it drove global trade, both legal and illegal. But by no means was the company’s success assured. In his new book, Adventurers, David Howarth chronicles the fraught origins of the joint-stock company and its rise to global prominence. —JW
“Fellow Wanderer: Isabella’s Travel Albums” at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston (through May 21): Isabella Stewart Gardner was as eclectic in her travels as she was in her museum-making. An exhibition now on view at her creation on the Muddy River looks to the dozens of travel albums she assembled during her grand tours. Moving from Europe to the Middle East to the Far East and back to the American Southwest, her scrapbooks brought together found photographs, plant clippings, and her own writings through numerous trips taken with her husband, Jack, between 1867 and 1895. An exceptionally lavish catalogue, edited by the exhibition’s curators Diana Seave Greenwald and Casey Riley, further conveys the feel of these transporting concatenations. —JP
Falstaff at the Metropolitan Opera, New York (through April 1): The elderly Giuseppe Verdi must have feared to see a bit of himself in the character of Sir John Falstaff, that “vanity of years” whose delusions of grandeur long overstay Prince Hal’s welcome in Shakespeare’s Henriad. Indeed, Verdi was nearly eighty years old when he composed Falstaff—his final opera—spurred, like Falstaff, by his younger associates to sally forth one last time. Yet Verdi did not tumble from the saddle: Falstaff is his late comic masterpiece, drawn from the cheerier material of Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor. See it through April 1 at the Met in a revival production conducted by Daniele Rustioni, with the baritone Michael Volle in the title role. —IS
“An Evening with Jennifer Homans,” at the National Arts Club (March 21): In our February 2023 issue, John Check notes how, when lauded for his creations, George Balanchine would respond, “God creates, I assemble.” And yet even to assemble a résumé of this prolific dancer and choreographer’s wide-ranging achievements may seem a superhuman task. The dance critic Jennifer Homans, whom Check calls “an ideal guide to Balanchine’s life and accomplishments,” has done all this and more with her new biography Mr. B: George Balanchine’s 20th Century, a rich portrait of the man and the works that left such a lasting influence on the world of dance. Next Tuesday, March 21, Homans will be on hand at the National Arts Club to discuss her book with Diane Solway, the author of a biography of Rudolf Nureyev. Registration is free. —RE
In the news:
“Betting on Catastrophe,” by Mark G. Brennan for University Bookman. On Where Next? Western Civilizations at the Crossroads, a collection of essays from The New Criterion edited by Roger Kimball (Encounter Books).
“Roger Kimball introduces the March issue.” A new podcast from the Editor & Publisher of The New Criterion.
From the Archives:
“The cracked kettle of Flaubert” by Eric Ormsby (May 2006). On Flaubert: A Biography by Frederick Brown.
“Correcting the course,” by James Piereson. On Toward a More Perfect Union: The Moral and Cultural Case for Teaching the Great American Story by Timothy S. Goeglein.
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