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September 17, 2004

Mark Helprin

Francis Morrone writes

Dear Blowhards,

Have you ever read Mark Helprin?

As I survey the fall offerings in the literary realm, the thing that jumps out at me is the new collection of stories by Mark Helprin. It's called The Pacific and Other Stories, and Amazon says it'll be out on October 21. I like Helprin as a novelist, but, in my opinion, short stories are where he really excels. This new volume will have sixteen stories, nine of them never before published.

I was already a devotee of Helprin's stories (which appeared mainly in the New Yorker) when his second novel Winter's Tale appeared in 1983. I vividly remember the eagerness with which I began reading it. After the first few pages, I felt convinced that this was going to be one of the great American novels. But after about the hundredth page (out of more than 600), I had to stop. The experience of reading this novel felt exactly analogous to eating a rich pastry. It was utterly delicious, but I knew that if I didn't stop, I'd get sick. Others have told me they have had similar experiences with Helprin's prose. In his stories, the richness never overwhelms--portion control. At novel length, it was a problem, and none of his novels has seemed to me to be quite perfect. Now, I know it's not such a harsh criticism to say of a book that it isn't quite perfect. But Helprin writes so well, you feel he has it in him to write a perfect novel. Or maybe not. Maybe he's destined to be just a writer of perfect short stories. After all, how many writers have been equally great at stories and at novels? Flaubert, Henry James, a few others. All that said, I did, a year later, get around to finishing off Winter's Tale, and boy am I glad I did. It's a very uneven book, a very flawed book in many ways. It's also the best book about New York I've ever read--it's the book that captures the soul of this contradictory city.

For then, in an overwhelming confusion, he saw before him all the many rich hours of every age and those to come, an infinitely light and deep universe, his child's innocent eyes, and the broken city of a hundred million lines which, when seen from on high, were as smooth and beautiful as a much-loved painting. All time was compressed, and he and the others were shaken like reeds when they realized fully what had come about, and why. And then they were taken by a wind which arose suddenly and carried them up in full and triumphant faith. As they ascended, in mounting cascades, they saw that the great city about them was infinitely complex, holy, and alive.

OK. If that isn't your cup of tea, then nor will any of the book's several thousand other paragraphs be. But if it is, then by reading the novel you'll know the meaning of the passage I just quoted. It's near the end of the book, and you'll know why I and other Helprinites sought solace in those words on September 11, 2001.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Helprin was the darling of literary New York. Then he ceased to be. It had nothing to do with a decline in his writing, and everything to do with his fans and critics realizing he had another life, as a scholar of military strategy. When Helprin in the 1980s came out publicly in support of the deployment of cruise missiles in Europe, his golden-boy days ended. The coup de grâce came on Sunday, April 28, 1991, when the New York Times Magazine published Paul Alexander's profile of Helprin. This piece questioned--indeed doubted--the veracity of much of what Helprin had said about himself in print over several years (he has a very colorful background). The piece made Helprin seem like a self-aggrandizing liar, and seemed designed to take him down a peg in readers' eyes. It was, in other words, a hatchet job, and Helprin has never gotten over it. He also started writing political op-eds for the Wall Street Journal and other publications. (A very useful Helprin bibliography, with links to all his web-accessible writings, is here.) In 1996, Helprin made news when he was recruited to write presidential candidate Bob Dole's speech when he resigned from the Senate. Helprin then accepted a request to write Dole's acceptance speech at the Republican Convention. Alas, Dole's people picked over Helprin's speech, and retained only bits of it. What was amazing in listening to that speech was that one knew exactly which lines were Helprin's--and they were gorgeous. Here's a snippet:

And do not think I have forgotten whose moment this is above all. It is for the people of America that I stand here tonight, and by their generous leave. And as my voice echoes across darkness and desert, as it is heard over car radios on coastal roads, and as it travels above farmland and suburb, deep into the heart of cities that, from space, look tonight like strings of sparkling diamonds, I can tell you that I know whose moment this is: It is yours. It is yours entirely.

And who am I that stands before you tonight?

I was born in Russell, Kansas, a small town in the middle of the prairie surrounded by wheat and oil wells. As my neighbors and friends from Russell, who tonight sit in front of this hall, know well, Russell, though not the West, looks out upon the West.

And like most small towns on the plains, it is a place where no one grows up without an intimate knowledge of distance.

And the first thing you learn on the prairie is the relative size of a man compared to the lay of the land. And under the immense sky where I was born and raised, a man is very small, and if he thinks otherwise, he is wrong.

I come from good people, very good people, and I'm proud of it. My father's name was Doran and my mother's name was Bina. I loved them and there's no moment when my memory of them and my love for them does not overshadow anything I do -- even this, even here -- and there is no height to which I have risen that is high enough to allow me to forget them -- to allow me to forget where I came from, and where I stand and how I stand -- with my feet on the ground, just a man at the mercy of God.

And this perspective has been strengthened and solidified by a certain wisdom that I owe not to any achievement of my own, but to the gracious compensations of age.

Now I know that in some quarters I may be expected to run from this, the truth of this, but I was born in 1923, and facts are better than dreams and good presidents and good candidates don't run from the truth.

I do not need the presidency to make or refresh my soul. That false hope I will gladly leave to others. For greatness lies not in what office you hold, but on how honest you are in how you face adversity and in your willingness to stand fast in hard places.

Age has its advantages.

Let me be the bridge to an America that only the unknowing call myth. Let me be the bridge to a time of tranquility, faith and confidence in action.

And to those who say it was never so, that America's not been better, I say you're wrong. And I know because I was there. And I have seen it. And I remember.

And our nation, though wounded and scathed, has outlasted revolutions, civil war, world war, racial oppression and economic catastrophe. We have fought and prevailed on almost every continent. And in almost every sea.

We have even lost. But we have lasted, and we have always come through.

All right. I am an easy crier. But by that point in Bob Dole's--Bob Dole's!--speech, I was a blubbering mess. Alas, the Helprinisms ceased, and the candidate started talking about mundane matters--though not yet Viagra. (So much for the "gracious compensations of age," eh Bob?)

To his op-eds and military writings Helprin brings all his literary skills. He also brings a minute knowledge, not just of things military and strategic, but of the world. Above all, he brings moral force. Agree with him or disagree (and I often disagree with him), he must be reckoned with. Two new pieces bear this out. One is long, and is an absolute must-read. It's called "Let Us Count the Ways to Win the War on Terrorism," and it's from the excellent Claremont Review of Books. (Helprin is a senior fellow at the Claremont Institute for the Study of Statesmanship and Political Philosophy.) The other piece is a shorter version of the Claremont essay. Entitled "Three Years On," it appeared in the Wall Street Journal of September 10.

He isn't happy with the "war on terror." He writes (in the WSJ):

Three years on, that is where we stand: our strategy shiftless, reactive, irrelevantly grandiose; our war aims undefined; our preparations insufficient; our civil defense neglected; our polity divided into support for either a hapless and incompetent administration that in a parliamentary system would have been turned out long ago, or an opposition so used to appeasement of America's rivals, critics, and enemies that they cannot even do a credible job of pretending to be resolute.

OK. I didn't take on blogging duties to talk about this stuff. So let me switch to one of my favorite subjects, and that is the glorious city of New York. In Summer 1986, the New Criterion published a special issue entitled "New York in the Eighties: A Symposium," featuring contributions from Clement Greenberg, Arlene Croce, Ada Louise Huxtable, Jed Perl, William Schuman, Leon Wieseltier, and others. Here's a snippet from Mark Helprin's essay (not, unfortunately, on the web):

How then does one account for statistically unexpected concentrations, whether by period or place (or both), of art and literature, if not by the activities of supportive institutions? How, specifically, in New York? My answer is that New York has come to possess its magic because of its topography, its climate, the light, the water surrounding it, the energy of its commerce, the compounding of twenty nationalities in a hundred mixed neighborhoods, its vast range of sensual juxtapositions, and because it is at once a haven, a prison, a beacon, a gateway, a heaven, and a hell. There are four wonderfully distinct seasons here, and many conditions of light. The history of this city is far more than the story of three hundred and fifty years in one place, since practically everyone comes from somewhere else or is immediately descended from those who do, and this ethnic rope-making alone is more an engine of culture than would be three dozen Lincoln Centers. New York is the site of extremes; in numbers, in size, in engineering, in architecture, in ambition, in exaggeration, in anarchy. It is no accident that the poetry of Walt Whitman and of Hart Crane is the poetry of fever, delusion, and wonder, for such things are the life-blood of the city. And, yet, whenever politicians talk about "the arts" they almost inevitably mean entities that employ ticket-takers.

But you cannot buy a ticket to civilization, and policies that make the city into a kind of fish farm for the breeding and keeping of artists guarantee nothing but, again, numbers, with no assurance of "more" culture. This is because culture is not produced by artists, artists are produced by culture.

New York--"infinitely complex, holy, and alive."

posted by Francis at September 17, 2004


Aw, c'mon, Francis! Purple prose like Helprin's is what my father used to call "being a Writer with a capital W." That Dole speech is both maudlin and demagogic. If you want a public speaker, I refer you to Winston Churchill (who could write his own speeches).

Posted by: Agnes Lampwick on September 17, 2004 5:01 PM

I dunno, I kind of like resonant writing. Or rather, I'm glad people are out there doing the oratorical thing. It's funny the way our tastes for different kinds of prose evolve and change through the years. To my shame, I remember loving hyper-literary prose (Nabokov, etc) for a stretch in college; luckily the stretch only lasted a couple of years. These days I'm generally into plain prose that serves ideas, actions, characters. But then I'll be taken by surprise by something emotive or rhetorical that really gets to me. I wonder if the day of soaring rhetoric has gone by. Are TV cameras just too cruel and close-in to allow for gigantic flights? Maybe that kind of grandiloquence is as hard to make work today as heroic monumental figurative sculpture is -- which only means, as far as I'm concerned, that I'm glad people are doing it. I'll be trying Helprin's short stories, thanks.

Now that's another blogposting: why do so many people so overvalue long fiction and so undervalue short fiction? What's so great about long fiction anyway?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on September 17, 2004 7:24 PM

Agnes--spoken like a true copy editor, alas.

I've spent most of my life trying to write clean, spare prose. That's what I was told was good writing. And I suppose it is. But I often wonder. It often seems to me that what happened to English prose is a lot like what happened to architecture. People began to fear ornament. If Helprin's prose were a building, it would be the Paris Opera. We have all been taught to write like the Seagram Building.

John McWhorter and Richard Lanham are writers who have made similar points. I'm going to post about this. Meanwhile, can someone help me with the origins of the term "purple prose"? I'm curious when it was first coined, and when it became popular.

Posted by: Francis Morrone on September 17, 2004 8:11 PM

Speaking of rhetoric and computers and Richard Lanham ... I'm going back a few years here. But don't I remember Lanham and others arguing that computers, the post-modern machines, were going to subvert the taste for spare, modernist things, including spare modernist prose? I think they're onto something -- computers do encourage interaction, whimsicality and ornament, god knows. And the multi-media mixture of color, movement, graphics, etc certainly has grown a lot more psychedelic in recent years. But computer-era prose per se has seemed to grow ever more impoverished -- by and large, it's down to conveying information and energy and not much else.

But maybe I'm wrong -- maybe Lanham etc weren't talking about prose specifically. Still, I wonder if anyone anticipated that the explosion in multimedia extravagance would be accompanied by prose by and large being turned into informational and explicatory captions in boxes off to one side. My impression is that much of whatever rhetorical exuberance we're going to be seeing from young people growing up with Macs is going to come in the form of mixed-media: images plus movement plus some text plus sound. Swirling all that around will be the natural language of forthcoming generations.

A Michael Blowhard prediction ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on September 17, 2004 8:23 PM

For origins of the term "purple prose" try
asking Michael Quinion at:

Posted by: agnes lampwick on September 17, 2004 8:29 PM

The Lanham book you refer to is "Electronic Word," and I know I own a copy but can't find it. (Probably in a box in the basement.) But I did just pull from the shelf a 1974 book of his that I read in college, called "Style: An Anti-Textbook." I'm going to take a look at this now. As I recall, he says that clarity is one rhetorical device among many.

Posted by: Francis Morrone on September 17, 2004 8:36 PM

Great post Francis! I first read Helprin in high school (now finishing university) with "A Soldier of the Great War." I loved its epic, sweeping tone and - as you said - the richness of its style. Immediately after I read it, I went out and bought "Winter's Tale" but - again like you - could not finish it because of the same reasons you posited.
I always thought it strange that Helprin was rarely well regarded , but never looked into it. (I had discovered him in a dusty corner of my dad's bookshelf).
You have definitely convinced me to take a second try at "Winter's Tale."

Posted by: Sweeney on September 17, 2004 11:00 PM

"But I did just pull from the shelf a 1974 book of his that I read in college, called 'Style: An Anti-Textbook.' I'm going to take a look at this now. As I recall, he says that clarity is one rhetorical device among many."

Chapter one ("The Prose Problem and 'The Books'") from this book can be found here:


Dave Lull

Posted by: Dave Lull on September 17, 2004 11:29 PM

As soon as I saw this post I yelled for my wife, pointed, and gave her an "Aha!" look. Winter's Tale was the first real novel I read. I was in the 7th grade. God help me.

I loved it. Was fascinated by it, talked about it constantly (and quite incomprehensively). But, around page 150, I would get stuck. Metaphors compounded on similes until I got dizzy and had to put it down. Since then, (that was 1985) I've re-read those pages twice more and still haven't finished.

However, my wife, a PhD scientist, got through it on her first reading and lists it as one of her favorite books of all time. Now, although we're both avid readers, I'm the one that reads more poetry, science fiction, Kafka stories, etc. So, my thought is that for people who are great lovers of metaphor, Winter's Tale is like looking at a solar eclipse without the piece of paper with a hole in it. My wife I think, has more defenses built in so can look at the eclipse without getting blinded.

Ok, dammit, now I'm inspired by all of you tough guys and I'm going to finish that novel!

I'd also like to give a strong seconding to the notion of Helprin's skill as a short story writer. In 1990, I wrote my first college essay on his story "The Schreuderspitze", and it remains in my top 5 stories of all time.

I also subscribe to the Claremont review and love following his work there.


Posted by: Robert Holzbach on September 17, 2004 11:48 PM

One More Thing -- "Refiner's Fire: The Life and Adventures of Marshall Pearl, a Foundling" by Helprin is built about 2 inches closer to the ground than Winter's Tale and is wonderful. In it, I think is Helprin's answer to the question: "What would be the most perfect of all possible lives?"

Wish I'd started with that one at 13!

Posted by: Robert Holzbach on September 17, 2004 11:52 PM

Dave, thanks for the link. I'd looked at the Lanhams' site before, but had never seen that those chapters were there.

Sweeney, I'm glad you're going to give WT a second run. I think it's an especially resonant book post-9/11.

Robert, "Schreuderspitze" is one of my favorite stories, too. It's in "Ellis Island and Other Stories," in which every one of the stories is a gem. Your description of "Refiner's Fire" as "2 inches closer to the ground" is good. It reminds me of something I read in an interview with Helprin. (Can't remember where.) When WT came out, Helprin's father said he thought it was good, but told his son that for his next book he should try not to violate any of the laws of physics.

Posted by: Francis Morrone on September 18, 2004 10:46 AM

Thomas Wolfe walks the earth again, and his name is -- Mark Helprin!

But seriously, there'll always be a place, nay a NEED for romantics. So Hail Bright Star!

Posted by: ricpic on September 18, 2004 4:05 PM

What do you find so impressive about Helprin's "Let Us Count the Ways to Win the War on Terrorism"?

He makes the good point that we should be prepared to spend a lot of money to defend our country.

But he seems rather naive to me. Reminds me of the guy who told me that the solution was really simple: just kill the terrorists.

Posted by: David Sucher on September 18, 2004 4:40 PM


I have read few more forceful accountings of the situation, or more passionate calls for leadership. His sense of the military realities is about as far from naive as I can imagine.

Please direct me to a comparable piece that puts these matters in such sharp relief.

Posted by: Francis Morrone on September 18, 2004 5:50 PM

On this page:

are this question and answer about purple prose:
Where is the usage of "purple," as in over-flowery "purple prose," derived from?

Purple in the sense 'marked by ornate rhetoric or elaborate literary devices' is a literary allusion. In the Ars Poetica or "Art of Poetry," the Roman poet Horace combines astute literary criticism with practical advice on writing poetry. Early in the poem, he writes:

Inceptis gravibus plerumque et magna professis

Purpureus, late qui splendeat, unus et alter

Adsuitur pannus.

In other words, "With serious works and ones of great import, some purple patch or other is frequently stitched on, to show up far and wide." The reference is to a piece of purple cloth sewn onto a plain fabric; purple was the color of the emperor and later of royalty, since it was derived from an expensive dye.

The Ars Poetica was an extremely important work and was used in the Elizabethan era and later as a model for writing. The phrase purple patch was used as a concious allusion to Horace, meaning 'an overly ornate passage in a literary work', and purple itself was then extracted as an adjective meaning 'ornate'.

Among the defenses of purple prose, two of my favorites are by Paul West and Alexander Theroux:

Simpson’s Contemporary Quotations, compiled by James B. Simpson. 1988.

NUMBER: 7579

AUTHOR: Paul West

QUOTATION: Purple is not only highly colored prose, it is the world written up, intensified and made pleasurably palpable, not only to suggest the impetuous abundance of Creation, but also to add to it by showing—showing off—the expansive power of the mind itself, its unique knack for making itself at home among trees, dawns, viruses, and then turning them into something else: a word, a daub, a sonata.

ATTRIBUTION: "In Defense of Purple Prose" NY Times 15 Dec 85 [also reprinted in Paul West's Sheer Fiction (McPherson, 1987)]
This quotation can be found here:

"In defense of purple prose," alas, isn't on the web.

Neither is Alexander Theroux's Theroux Metaphrastes: An Essay on Literature (David R. Godine, 1975; also published as an appendix to the 1975 paperback edition of Mr Theroux's novel Three Wogs (David R. Godine)). It's a defense of his "amplified prose style" and his approach to fiction. In it he quotes Cardinal Newman on Aristotle's "magnanimous" man:

"His language expresses, not only his great thoughts, but his great self. Certainly he might use fewer words than he uses; but he fertilizes his simplest ideas, and germinates into a multitude of details, and prolongs the march of his sentences, and sweeps round to the full diapason of his harmony, as if [kudei gaion], rejoicing in his own vigour and richness of resource. I say, a narrow critic will call it verbiage, when really it is a sort of fulness of heart, parallel to that which makes the merry boy whistle as he walks, or the strong man, like the smith in the novel, flourish his club when there is no one to fight with. (The Idea of a University, II, ii, 5)"

For the context of this quotation from Cardinal Newman, go here:


Dave Lull

Posted by: Dave Lull on September 18, 2004 9:34 PM

Wow -- I haven't thought about Helprin in quite some time, for some reason. He slipped totally off my "reader's radar", and inexplicably so, since I loved Soldier of the Great War and Memoir from Antproof Case, and I did read a short story or two of his, ten years or so ago, now. And I know that I own a copy of Winter's Tale, which I have never got round to reading. Thanks for the reminder.

(I remember Dole delivering that speech before the Senate, and to be honest, in Dole's mouth that speech felt like the high school football player who's reciting Shakespeare because he's being made to by his English teacher. Not that Dole's dumb, by any stretch, but stylistically his delivery was about as far from what Helprin wrote as you can get, and I thought it really showed.)

Posted by: Jaquandor on September 18, 2004 10:05 PM

I thought these two passages -- and these are about the prsecriptionm, not the diagnosis -- were weak and did not offer much of a meaningful action plan, which is what I seek:

The invocation of anarchy is anyway and in most cases a bluff. These regimes live to hold power, and one and all they have seized and maintained it by violence. They are quite capable of eliminating the terrorist infrastructures within their territories and will jump to do so rather than face their own destruction. And if they refuse to cooperate, or they go down trying, then the regime that replaces them can be offered the same choice.

I thought of the Scilian in Godfather 1 when he says "Michael you think too much of me. I am the hunted one." Many of these despotic regimes seem to me (from what I have read) to be very weak and maintain themselves essentially by a form of co-habitation. In fact they use the terrorists as support; that seems to be part of the political deal. Putting pressure on a regime to remove terrorists will simply move them to the weakest countries where they will eventually become the government.

Aliens with even the slightest record of support for terrorism should be summarily deported—no alien has or has ever had the absolute right to be in the United States—and American citizens with suspected terrorist connections should be subjected to at least the same level of surveillance and investigation as figures in organized crime, with the same constitutional protections unless waived by an emergency court that, in turn, is supervised by a court higher still, the task of which is to prevent abuse of even carefully created emergency powers.
Italics added.

And pray, where do these folks leave a "record of support for terrorism?" All you'll do is pick up naive intellectuals who have prattled on somewhere about "root causes" -- which one can, I can, in fact, tease out as some support of "support" for terrorism were my job to track down such people.

So it is on these two points -- his prescription -- that I find him naive.

Posted by: David Sucher on September 18, 2004 10:12 PM


I don't think you're quite right on either score. In an earlier posting, I mentioned a piece in last month's Atlantic, about the material found on an al-Qaeda hard drive recovered in Kabul. One of the most striking things was all the discussion of placating Mullah Omar who seemed always on the verge of getting mad at OBL and kicking him out of the country. What emerged from those computer files was that the Taliban had leverage over al-Qaeda, not vice versa. Similarly, I can't imagine that Ansar al-Islam or Abu Nidal had Saddam by the short hairs.

As for your second point, I can't imagine we don't have under surveillance members of certain foreign mosques whose leaders are pro-terrorist, yet cannot now detain these mosque members when they enter the U.S. These--not the college professors--are what, I think, Helprin is talking about. Whether or not we should do that is another question. But the point's hardly naive.

Posted by: Francis Morrone on September 19, 2004 1:22 PM

Dave Lull--

Many, many thanks for the background on "purple prose" and for the wonderful quotes from Paul West and from John Henry Newman.

Again, I find the architectural analogy striking. When Hitler, that famous architecture buff, visited Paris on the heels of his army, he arrived equipped with a detailed architectural itinerary he'd worked out from books, and had his driver make a circuit of the French capital's architectural landmarks. At the Opera, Hitler fairly choked on the ornateness, which he despised--considered, in fact, degenerate. I, on the other hand, ragard that building's rich decoration to be a great testament to the human spirit. So do I find Helprin's prose.


Glad to have brought Helprin back to your attention. As for Dole's speech, I'd love to see a tape of it. I remember it a little differently. I thought Helprin's lines beautifully matched the cadences of Dole's speaking style. But I could be misremembering--something I do a lot of at my age.

Posted by: Francis Morrone on September 19, 2004 1:41 PM

I hope that you are correct about the degree of control which even the weakest government exert; I don't think that you are but I do not have enough information to offer a slam-dunk response.

But as to the second point, it's not so much what _you_ think Helprin is saying as what he is actually does say.. In fact we can very easily and with no trouble prevent people from entering the USA and of course we should -- if and when we have any real facts. And that is of course the problem and it is so self-evident that I still feel quite justified in characterizing as naive someone who would suggest that the first step is to make sure that the bad huys don't into our country. That's obvious.

What's not obvious is how to do it and what is the standard? To refuse admission to people who -- as I suggested -- simply fall for the "root cause" approach is self-defeating. Those people may be naive but they are not our enemy. The goal is to divide our enemies and unite our friends. Willy-nilly and inept actions (e.g. the war in Iraq) simply do the opposite: unite our enemies and divide us from our friends.

Posted by: David Sucher on September 19, 2004 5:00 PM

I read "A Soldier of the Great War" with great enjoyment and it contains many spectacular chapters, but there's too much muchness there. If they filmed it, it would have to be the biggest budget movie of all time. So, I'll keep an eye out for Helprin's short stories.

Posted by: Steve Sailer on September 19, 2004 7:54 PM

I think Dave Lull deserves a "researcher of the week" award, at the very least.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on September 20, 2004 12:20 AM

I am a huge fan of Winter's Tale -- I reread it for the third time last year -- and all of Helprin's other fiction. The only tic of his that I find occasionally irritating is his persistent placement of physical courage as the ultimate virtue: whether in war or in mountain climbing (no one writes a mountain better, I think: see particularly "The Schreuderspitze" and the pastoral-with-eagles chapters in the middle of Refiner's Fire), there is a lot of triumphing over physical adversity. A minor quibble, that.

Michael: As a film fancier, are you aware of the Helprin-Martin Scorsese connection? Scorsese was attached to plans to film Winter's Tale in the late 80's but it never happened. He approached Melissa Mathison to write it, but she was unable to take it on. Although never made, the project led to two later films: Mathison wrote "Kundun" (Scorsese mentions the Helprin connection briefly in this interview) and I have always understood that Helprin's fictionalized portrayal of the Five Points district is what first led Scorsese to what ultimately became the differently-fictionalized "Gangs of New York."

Posted by: George Wallace on September 20, 2004 2:08 PM


I've always wondered about the Helprin-Scorsese connection. When he made "Gangs," I knew he'd never do "Winter's Tale." Interestingly, Helprin is one of two major fiction writers to be inspired by Herbert Asbury's "Gangs of New York." (The other is Borges, in "Universal History of Infamy.")

Not only did Helprin borrow from Asbury, but an awful lot of WT is based on real stuff from New York's history--from Petipas' and Mouquin's, which were real establishments, to Hardesty Marratta, who was a real person.

Posted by: Francis Morrone on September 20, 2004 2:15 PM

Francis, I'll e-mail you a copy of West's "In Defense of Purple Prose" if I can track down your address.

Helprin's short story ("Perfection") in the current Commentary ( was particularly pleasing to the Yankee fan in me.

Posted by: David M on October 7, 2004 3:07 PM

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