The Bloodied Nightgown and Other Essays

  • By Joan Acocella
  • Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • 368 pp.

The erudite, entertaining author is gone too soon.

The Bloodied Nightgown and Other Essays

A life of the mind: Many pursue it, few attain it, and fewer still manage to share its fruits with thousands of others. Such a person was Joan Acocella, for years the dance critic for the New Yorker, and more recently, an essayist for the New York Review of Books (NYRB), too. Sadly, Acocella died earlier this year.

Doubtless her death will leave a void in the intellectual landscape and send readers searching in vain for other writers who can provide such smart, breezy observations as those in “Fuckwad,” her essay about dictionaries of obscenities. “When you drop your grocery bag in a puddle or close a window on your finger,” Acocella writes, “‘geez Louise’ is not going to help you much. ‘Fuck’ is what you want.” (As one might expect, the New Yorker did not publish this particular gem. Apparently, however, the NYRB had no problem with it.)

For those who grieve her loss, there is the consolation of “Fuckwad” and the 23 other essays in The Bloodied Nightgown, its title taken from Acocella’s pithy essay examining the Dracula phenomenon. Like many in the collection, that piece was inspired by the publication of a book — in this case, From Demons to Dracula: The Creation of the Modern Vampire Myth by Mathew Beresford.

For Acocella, though, a new book is merely a springboard for a deeper dive into broader subjects. In the aforementioned case, Acocella, in addition to offering a wide-ranging examination of the study of Dracula, sprinkles her essay with quirky, fascinating facts. For example, we learn that, by 1734, the word “vampire” was imbedded in the English language; that a belief in vampires remains deeply rooted in Eastern European culture; and that Bela Lugosi, the Hungarian actor who portrayed the monster in an early film, was buried in his Dracula cape. This signature marriage of studiousness with eccentricity evinces Acocella’s capacious mind and makes her work as entertaining as it is informative.

 In “A Theory of the Fantastic,” about Gianni Rodari, the Italian writer of children’s books, she gives us details of his life, such as the delicious rolls his father baked every morning, and how, in the grinding poverty of postwar Italy, some of Rodari’s students came to school shoeless. But she also situates his stories in the wider political landscape, calling them fables against fascism. She further posits that Rodari embraced Surrealism because it was fresh and unsullied by the memory of Mussolini and the humiliation of defeat. Plus, Surrealist painters expressed with paint, she writes, what Rodari did with words:

“the pairing of opposites — particularly the joining of a dreamworld to a punctilious realism.”

There seems to be no subject that Acocella didn’t embrace. Her choices range from Gilgamesh to Andy Warhol, from the Book of Job to Richard Pryor, and from Beowulf to Kahil Gibran. If whatever recent book that originally piqued her interest isn’t up to snuff, she doesn’t shy from saying so. She calls The Unquiet Englishman: A Life of Graham Greene by Richard Greene (no relation) a “Monday-Tuesday biography,” meaning, “we look for the beach, but all we see are the pebbles.” Ouch!

Nevertheless, she is fair, remarking favorably on the thoroughness of Scott Saul’s biography of Pryor and Blake Gopnik’s of Warhol. And Acocella herself was a great respecter of thoroughness. In “The Queen of Crime,” her essay on Agatha Christie, she states that she read all 66 of Christie’s books. One can only imagine the research she undertook to write as confidently and blithely as she did about Lousia May Alcott’s aversion to marriage, Elmore Leonard’s crooked characters, and Marilynne Robinson’s unflinching, brutal honesty.

Essentially, The Bloodied Nightgown is a nightstand book. While each of its essays is tightly structured, no central theme unifies the collection. Perhaps that is as it should be. Read one on Wednesday and another on Saturday. Don’t like “Waugh Stories”? No problem. Skip ahead to “Funny Peculiar.” What matters is that, in an era when the words “artificial” and “intelligence” are paired without irony, there once existed a writer named Joan Acocella whose life of the mind was as incandescent as it was real.

Patricia Schultheis is the author of 40 published short stories, including the award-winning collection St. Bart’s Way. She is also the author of Baltimore’s Lexington Market, published in 2007, and A Balanced Life, published in 2018. She is the recipient of numerous awards and honors and is a member of the National Book Critics Circle. She lives in Baltimore.

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