As a poet, historical/cultural critic, editor, and educator, David Lehman is something of a literary cottage industry. So when I contacted him for this project I wasn’t sure what he might come up with. I was anticipating poetry, but got history instead.
In Lehman’s historical/cultural writings, beginning with his 1989 The Perfect Murder: A Study in Detection to his wonderful The Last Avant-garde: The Making of the New York School of Poets and most recently A Fine Romance: Jewish Songwriters, American Songs, he rewards the reader with his unique style of authoritative reportage.
It’s the same voice that echoes through all of his writing. In his works of journal poems The Evening Sun, and The Daily Mirror, the reportage is turned inward, but has the same canny voice. Dates, facts, and name checks, are combined with an emotional resonance, and the effect moves from poignant, to funny, and back again.
After writing several drafts of this introduction at one point I typed “Is Lehman a poet that writes history, or a historian that writes poetry?” but realized that’s a silly question. Lehman is simply a writer that loves to write, and the distinctions between the forms, or categories he works in are false boundaries.
His love of writing extends beyond his personal efforts. Lehman has a built a prominent career as an editor. In 1988 he initiated The Best American Poetry and he remains the annual anthology's series editor all the while also overseeing such efforts as the Great American Prose Poems: From Poe to the Present (again, history).
Lehman’s project for the The Hypothetical Library would be an ambitious one, were it to actually be fulfilled. Vowing to write two volumes a year for the next five years, he promises to lift the veil away from historical events to reveal the hidden facts. Sadly we will never get the actual stories since this is library is only hypothetical, but I hope you enjoy the three interpretations of what could have been, what might have been, and What Really Happened.
What Really Happened at Waterloo
“Lehman skillfully narrates the sequence of events that culminated in the defeat of Napoleon. Challenging the conventional view, Lehman takes as his point of departure the fact that in any free-association game, people will respond to the mention of Waterloo with Napoleon’s name, not the Duke of Wellington’s.”
What Really Happened at Yalta
“In this newly enlarged edition of Lehman’s classic study—Originally published in 1989 as “Yalta: The Turning Point”—the author describes the negotiations among Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin at the Yalta Conference of February 1945, which determined the map of postwar Europe. Including never before released photographs of key figures.”
What Really Happened in Dallas (November 22, 1963)
“Lehman’s access to classified FBI files lends authority to his account of the assassination of John F. Kennedy. In addition to the official version of events as presented in newspapers and in the Warren Report, Lehman explores the most popular conspiracy theories of “what really happened on that dreadful day in Dallas when the nation lost not only its young leader but also its intellectual virginity.” His startling new assessment of Lee Harvey Oswald makes it clear why the conspirators had to have him killed.”
What Really Happened: Series—the hypothetical flap copy
“David Lehman initiated the What Really Happened series of books with the published vow to write two such volumes a year for five years. Each book is a succinct and highly readable account of a major historical event or chain of events. While conjecture is irresistible and has its place in the construction of historical narratives, Lehman brings to each book a solid grounding in facts and details. The first three titles in the series are: What Really Happened at Waterloo, What Really Happened at Yalta, What Really Happened in Dallas (November 22, 1963)”
The promotional quotes
“With admirable lucidity and a flair for the telling anecdote, Lehman takes a multifaceted incident or issue and renders it intelligible to a wide audience. He has a talent for summarizing received opinion as modified by previously unreleased documents. Recommended for all libraries.” Valery Paulson, Bibiliophilia
“Lehman has a strategic mind.”—Donald Kessinger, author Imperial Agency: The Glory Days of the CIA
Lehman’s body of work is so amazingly long that it threatens to eclipse the length of this blog entry! So here are some highlights. As a Poet he has written nine books. Three of my favorites are; When a Woman Loves a Man, The Evening Sun, and The Daily Mirror. Special mention goes to Jim and Dave Defeat the Masked Man which he coauthored in collaboration with poet James Cummins and artist Archie Rand, and which I had the great pleasure and luck of designing.
As an editor he has overseen seven anthologies and initiated The Best American Poetry series, of which he remains the series editor. David has also written six books of criticism including the great The Last Avant-garde: The Making of the New York School of Poets. Most recently he has written A Fine Romance: Jewish Songwriters, American Songs, a truly fascinating and illuminating study into the back-story of the American songbook. For a fuller account of David’s work click here http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Lehman
Next week: Lydia Millet