Monday, July 6, 2015

“A quintessential black literary hero” and other influences on Jabari Asim’s first novel

Only the Strong
by Jabari Asim
(Agate Publishing, 2015)
Our series of guest blog posts by writers of fiction, history, essays, and poetry continues today with a contribution by Jabari Asim, whose debut novel Only the Strong was published in May. Below, Asim cites some of the key influences on his novel, which is set in Gateway City, a fictional Midwestern metropolis that bears more than a passing similarity to the author’s native St. Louis.
I Can’t Wait on God, Albert French. French’s 1998 novel mines the alleys and streets of Pittsburgh’s Homewood community for its story of crime, passion, and missed opportunities. The setting and its many residents compete for center stage, and they are distinctively and vividly drawn. Characters like Dicky Bird, Willet, and Mack Jack strut and swagger through a rigidly segregated 1950s world, navigating darkness, bellowing trains, gossip, and swaying hips. French devotes descriptive attention to every character who deserves it, including those whose doom seems a foregone conclusion.

Devil in a Blue Dress, Walter Mosley. Like the playwright August Wilson, Mosley has few peers when it comes to using language to illuminate the experience of black men in America. His exchanges between his black male characters, whether hostile or warm-hearted, are reliably revelatory while retaining the veracity of street-honed poetry. Equal parts strength and vulnerability, Easy Rawlins is a quintessential black literary hero.

The Street
by Ann Petry
(Houghton Mifflin, 1946)
The Street, Ann Petry. I’ve always admired Petry’s focus on what I like to call the hard-working middle, black people at neither extreme of human behavior who generally escape notice, toiling away at dead-end jobs as world-changing events unfold all around them. Lutie Johnson, the central figure in Petry’s best-known novel, anticipates the hapless protagonists of Stevie Wonder’s “Living for the City,” vulnerable to urban predations and institutional racism even as she works earnestly to better her circumstances.

I Sailed With Magellan, Stuart Dybek. I first encountered Dybek’s work in Childhood and Other Stories. I admired his unapologetic affection for the working-class youngsters wandering Chicago’s unyielding streets. I Sailed With Magellan influenced A Taste of Honey, my own collection of linked stories, and continued to resonate while I worked on Only the Strong. He mixes the gritty and the elegiac with the kind of consummate ease that I was aiming for.

The Book of Numbers, Robert Deane Pharr. Pharr’s novel, set in 1935 in an unnamed Southern town, shines with the author’s knowledge of “underground economies.” His knack for the telling detail fuels his persuasive chronicle of two men’s quick rise to top of the local numbers racket. Dave Green and Blueboy Harris are both fascinating figures, but Blueboy, the older of the two, intrigues me most. Ananias Goode, the crime boss in Only the Strong, has some of Blueboy’s worldly-wise cynicism. In Goode’s blistering tirades, I hear some of Blueboy’s hardboiled philosophy: “I ain’t no wise man, but I been everywhere and done everything a black man can do in this white bastards’ world. And you are welcome to any facts I mighta picked up.”

Empire Falls, Richard Russo. At first glance, Russo’s lily-white New England town may appear to have little in common with the all-black, Midwestern neighborhood at the center of Only the Strong. But the residents of Empire Falls, while not confined by systemic racism and strictly enforced racial segregation, must also cope with isolation of a sort. I admired Russo’s careful plotting as his characters struggled on the margins, coping with economic decline and long-simmering conflicts that come to a boil. He keeps firm hold of multiple narrative strands that would prove overwhelming in less dexterous hands.

We Can’t Breathe, Ronald Fair. I first discovered Ronald Fair when I was in college, voraciously devouring The Hog Butcher (about the fatal police shooting of an unarmed black youth), World of Nothing, and We Can’t Breathe. In the latter, readers get to spend five years with Ernie Johnson, a young black boy growing up in 1930s Chicago. Ernie’s South Side neighborhood has much in common with my North Gateway, despite the distance of several decades. I learned from Fair’s skillful use of situational humor to leaven his unblinking portrayal of elements often found in novels about life in the inner city, including racism, violence, and predatory policemen.
Jabari Asim is an associate professor of creative writing at Emerson College and the executive editor of The Crisis, the official magazine of the NAACP. His previous publications include the short story collection A Taste of Honey (2010) and several works of nonfiction. Writing in the Washington Post, Gerald Early called Only the Strong “affecting, even touching, in telling something about the way black people live,” while Madison Smart Bell has praised its “deceptively light handling of desperately serious subject matter,” and hailed Asim as “a writer to watch.”

Previously in this series:
“Influences” posts by Deborah Baker, Kate Christensen, Jennifer Gilmore, Lauren Groff, Lev Grossman, Jane Hirschfield, Alan Heathcock, Adam Levin, Dawn McGuire, Dinaw Mengestu, Jim Moore, Manuel Muñoz, Maggie Nelson, Viet Thanh Nguyen, Geoffrey O’Brien, Arthur Phillips, Carl Phillips, Karen Russell, Timothy Schaffert, Philip Schultz, Mark Statman, Emma Straub, J. Courtney Sullivan, Ellen Ullman, and Adam Wilson

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Watch: Sportswriter’s classic portrayal of Muhammad Ali, “the maddest of existentialists,” lives again in new video

Connoisseurs of the sweet science who enjoyed The Library of America’s 2011 collection At the Fights: American Writers on Boxing will want to know that one of the contributors to that volume, sportswriter Mark Kram (1933–2002), is now the subject of his own best-of compilation. Just out from St. Martin’s Griffin, Great Men Die Twice: The Selected Works of Mark Kram is edited by Kram’s son, Mark Kram, Jr., and arrives with advance praise from John Schulian, who co-edited At the Fights with George Kimball and also edited The Library of America’s Football: Great Writing About The National Sport.

Kram’s contribution to At the Fights is “Lawdy, Lawdy, He’s Great,” his report for Sports Illustrated on the third and final contest between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier in 1975—the famous “Thrilla in Manila.” Great Men Die Twice reprints that piece—and also makes it the basis of a new promotional video in which actor James Fouhey reads Kram’s text against the backdrop of an empty boxing gym. Fouhey’s resonant tones bring to life Kram’s description of the world heavyweight champion:
The maddest of existentialists, one of the great surrealists of our time, the king of all he sees, Ali had never before appeared so vulnerable and fragile, so pitiably unmajestic, so far from the universe he claims as his alone. He could barely hold his fork, and he lifted the food slowly up to his bottom lip, which had been scraped pink.
Enjoy the full video below—and check out the links beneath the video for additional boxing-related Reader’s Almanac posts.

Related posts:

Monday, June 22, 2015

Ross Macdonald, Margaret Millar, and the traumas that encompassed literature and life

Tom Nolan is the editor of The Library of America’s recently published title Ross Macdonald: Four Novels of the 1950s. Here, in the last of three exclusive Reader’s Almanac posts about Macdonald’s life and work, he focuses on the ostensibly “friendly and healthy competition” Macdonald had with his wife Margaret Millar, herself a distinguished and prolific author of suspense novels, and what it was like for their daughter Linda to grow up as the only child of two successful writers.

A case could be made that Kenneth Millar (Ross Macdonald) and Margaret Millar (a pioneer of psychological suspense) were and are the most distinguished non-collaborating husband-and-wife couple in the history of mystery fiction. And there’s no doubt that the pressures and tensions of their 45-year marriage, which included the raising of a child, found their way into many if not most of their combined 52 novels. Early in their careers, the Millars told friends that many of their fictional characters’ best lines came from arguments they themselves had with each other.

The Dark Tunnel by
Ross Macdonald
[Kenneth Millar]
(Dodd, Mead and
Company, 1944)
Kenneth broke into print first, with short stories, reviews, poems, and humor pieces in Toronto magazines—in part to pay for his wife’s 1939 maternity-hospital bill. Maggie was the first to write and sell a mystery novel with The Invisible Worm in 1941. Ken published his debut thriller The Dark Tunnel in 1944. There ensued what he would call a “friendly and healthy competition” between two writers who for many years more or less matched each other, book for book.

Less healthy and friendly were the squabbles the Millars had over how to bring up their child. Maggie was determined to raise daughter Linda “scientifically” following the dictates of John Broadus Watson’s later-discredited “behaviorism,” which put demands on a child to perform but allowed little or no parental affection. Ken thought this idiotic and harmful. The Millars’ disagreements sometimes became physical, which could have done their observant daughter no good.

Once her family moved to California, and as she grew older, Linda felt more and more out of place in her own home. Both her hyperintelligent parents were always busy writing. Their daughter became a precocious reader of authors far above her grade level: Theodore Dreiser, James T. Farrell, Carson McCullers—and her own mother and father, in whose works she recognized thinly-disguised portraits of each other and of herself.

Grade-school counselors warned Ken and Maggie of Linda’s social maladjustment. By adolescence, she was secretly running with a wild crowd, getting drunk, and having sex. Her parents remained oblivious and hoped college would prove her salvation. But in 1956, 16-year-old Linda was charged with vehicular homicide in a hit-and-run accident in which a 13-year-old pedestrian was killed. After a suicide attempt and three months’ confinement in a mental hospital, Linda was found guilty in juvenile court of two felony charges and placed on eight months’ probation.

The family moved north to Menlo Park, where Linda completed high school and was accepted to UC Davis. Her parents returned to Santa Barbara. In 1959, Linda disappeared from the Davis campus for eight days, during which her father went on a well-publicized search for her and (with the help of private detectives) found her in Reno.

Beast in View by Margaret
Millar (Random House, 1955),
collected in the forthcoming
Women Crime Writers:
Eight Suspense Novels of
the 1940s & 50s
The rest of Linda’s life was comparatively placid—she married a young engineering student she met at UCLA and the couple had one child, a son—but she and her parents were marked forever by the events of her teenage years, traumas which often found their way (sometimes by anticipation) into her parents’ novels.

Linda died in 1970, at the age of 31, when her son was seven. Her death drove an emotional wedge between Maggie and Ken. Maggie stopped writing for six years, while Ken worked at a slower pace than before. In time, Margaret Millar once more picked up her pen, producing her last books after Ross Macdonald, diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, was no longer able to work.

Writers used their imaginations, Ken Millar once said, to allow readers to undergo extreme experiences they would not be able to endure in real life. But Ross Macdonald and Margaret Millar both imagined dire happenings and also endured them. Both paid a high price for their fiction’s authenticity—as did their only child.

(Readers, take note: Margaret Millar’s 1955 novel Beast in View will be included in Women Crime Writers: Eight Suspense Novels of the 1940s & 50s, a two-volume set coming from The Library of America in September. Click here for a complete list of titles in the anthology.)

Previously in this series:
Ross Macdonald, perpetual stranger in his native California
Ross Macdonald: “Chandler tried to kill me”

Photos: W. C. Heinz, Ring Lardner, Red Smith join “Mount Rushmore of sportswriters” at Fenway Park

The ceremony for the PEN New England Sports Writing Hall of Fame
at Fenway Park in Boston on Monday, June 15, 2015.
© 2015 Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox

Three Library of America authors were honored on the field at Boston’s Fenway Park on Monday night, June 15, as part of a pre-game public ceremony for the new Sports Writing Hall of Fame sponsored by PEN New England. W. C. Heinz, Ring Lardner, and Red Smith were inducted along with Grantland Rice—forming an inaugural group of honorees that Karen Wulf, executive director of PEN New England, aptly characterized as “the Mount Rushmore of sportswriters.”

W. C. Heinz’s daughter Gayl Heinz was on hand for the ceremony, representing both her late father and Red Smith, the latter at the request of members of Smith’s family. Gayl Heinz later told The Library of America, “I know how hard Dad worked to get it right, and it is so gratifying to know that his work has not only passed the test of time but has risen to the top. I am deeply honored and proud to represent him and his writings.”

The Library of America published The Top of His Game: The Best Sportswriting of W. C. Heinz earlier this spring, and released American Pastimes: The Very Best of Red Smith in 2013. Lardner is represented by the volume Stories and Other Writings, which includes “Tyrus,” about Ty Cobb, and You Know Me Al, his celebrated baseball novel from 1916. (Vintage editions of You Know Me Al are on display at the Sports Writing Hall of Fame—see photo, below.) All three writers also appear in the LOA collection Baseball: A Literary Anthology.

Now established in the Press Room at Fenway Park, the Sports Writing Hall of Fame honors writers who have made lasting contributions to sports literature. The Hall is a collaboration among PEN New England (the local chapter of PEN American Center), the Boston Red Sox, and Kurt Cerulli, the founder and chief executive of the financial services firm Cerulli Associates who is also a noted collector of sports memorabilia. With his wife Mary, Cerulli also founded PEN New England’s Cerulli Award for Excellence in Sports Writing in 2012.

Meanwhile, for those keeping score, after the Sports Writing Hall of Fame ceremony the Boston Red Sox fell to the Atlanta Braves, 4-2, for their seventh loss in a row, on a damp, chilly night at Fenway. Readers can speculate as to whether any Boston fans consoled themselves that night by imagining how Heinz, Lardner, or Smith would have captured the scene in print.

Inductees Red Smith and W. C. Heinz, shown here
on a monitor at the reception for the PEN New England
Sports Writing Hall of Fame at Fenway Park on June 15, 2015.
© PEN New England

Library of America volumes at the reception for the
PEN New England Sports Writing Hall of Fame.
© 2015 Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox

Gayl Heinz with the Library of America collection
of her father's sportswriting.
© PEN New England

A Sports Writing Hall of Fame display case with books, photos,
and memorabilia related to the four inductees.
© PEN New England

Related Reader’s Almanac posts:

Audio and text selections:

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Listen: Publisher Max Rudin introduces the “indispensable” Library of America

Looking to learn more about The Library of America in an easily digestible form? Last week our Publisher, Max Rudin, spoke to Ron Litke of Rivet Radio in a conversation that covered The Library of America’s mission and editorial process, its perennial bestsellers, and whether a presidential election cycle affects the popularity of any of its titles.

Library of America Publisher Max Rudin
in New York City, May 26, 2015.

© Star Black
Characterizing The Library of America as “more than the sum of its parts,” Rudin described the organization’s commitment to an eclectic roster that spans the gamut from A (as in Adams, Henry) to Z (Zukofsky, Lewis). As Rudin explained, The Library of America’s scope has widened beyond traditionally defined classic authors like Herman Melville and Mark Twain to encompass such areas as war journalism and sportswriting, sermons and speeches, and genres like science fiction and hardboiled detective novels. As Rudin tells Litke, “Once these writers join each other on the same shelf, they begin to speak to each other across centuries, across geography.”

Listen to the full interview with Max Rudin using the audio player embedded below.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Viet Thanh Nguyen: We still live in Ralph Ellison’s moment

The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen
The Sympathizer
by Viet Thanh Nguyen
(Grove Press, 2015)
Our newly-relaunched series of guest blog posts by writers of fiction, history, essays, and poetry continues today with a contribution by Viet Thanh Nguyen, whose debut novel The Sympathizer was recently published to wide acclaim. Here, Nguyen discusses his novel’s debt to Ralph Ellison.
“I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces.” This is the first line of my novel, The Sympathizer, and in it you can hear the echo of another novel. “I am an invisible man,” Ralph Ellison wrote. “No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms.” A few lines later in my first paragraph, I continue to evoke Invisible Man with this sentence: “I am not some misunderstood mutant from a comic book or a horror movie, although some have treated me as such.”

These references constitute part of my homage to Ellison, but my greatest gesture of respect has been to take his surname for my son’s first name. Most people do not get the allusion, never having read Ellison’s book. For those that do get it, the name functions as a password. You and I, we believe in the power of the word, of the book, of literature.

I feel a debt to Ellison because Invisible Man performs the essential maneuver that I hope marks my own aesthetic, which is the treatment of marginalized experience as universal experience. He foreshadowed Toni Morrison, who unapologetically declares her intentions to write about Black people for Black people. Everyone else can listen in and follow along.

In Ellison’s case, if there was not quite the same degree of defiance, perhaps he made that defiance possible. He himself followed on W.E.B. Du Bois’s insight in The Souls of Black Folk that the Negro was a person of double-consciousness, always seeing himself through his own eyes and the eyes of others. Is there a better definition of modern consciousness? This one has been routed through Black history, injury, and perception, as well as the crucial conviction that the other side of Old World Enlightenment was New World slavery and colonialism. This dark side, what scholar Paul Gilroy memorably calls the Black Atlantic, produced equally rich insight from the depths of slave ships and the plantation system’s concentration camps. Ellison riffed on double-consciousness to arrive at the sense that a Black man was always invisible to white people—until the moment when he was too visible.

Invisible Man
by Ralph Ellison
(Random House, 1952)
I am not Black but I have felt a small degree of simultaneous invisibility and hypervisibility, occasioned by a parallel history of war and anti-Asian racism. I have sat at a most genial dinner of rich, powerful, old white alum of an Ivy League university where, apropos of nothing, except for the fact that I was the sole Asian American at the table—indeed, in the entire dining room—a ninety-six-year-old executive who flew in bombers during the Pacific War said that dropping the atomic bomb on Japan was the right thing to do. The unprovoked warning was clear, not that I needed it. I had already written the scene in my novel where a Cold War pundit tells my narrator exactly the same thing about Hiroshima and Nagasaki as he, too, sat at dinner, in close quarters “with some representative specimens of the most dangerous creature in the history of the world, the white man in a suit.”

So, in a world where apocalypse exists as more than a mad threat, at least for people of darker shade, what is the function of fiction? For Ellison, writing during the Atomic Age and the Cold War, the novel as form was a “raft of hope.” I agree, as any writer probably will, but I also differ. A raft is only large enough for one person, perhaps two, which is why the invisible man, after being stung by the failure of his revolution, and after retreating to a hole, eventually emerges by himself. My narrator, too, confronts the failure of his revolution, and he, too, goes into a kind of a hole. But when he emerges, he finds himself not on a raft but on a boat, and not by himself but among a crowd of the revolution’s castoffs. For him, the antidote to a failed revolution is not individualism, which appeals so much to Americans, but a doubling of faith—perhaps foolish faith—in the solidarity and collectivism that is a part of both revolution and democracy.

Although I end my novel by revising Ellison, I am nevertheless invoking him. His insights remain, for the nightmare from which his invisible man was struggling to awaken continues today, when it remains necessary to say that Black Lives Matter. We still live in Ellison’s moment.
Born in Vietnam and raised in the United States, Viet Thanh Nguyen teaches English and American Studies at the University of Southern California and lives in Los Angeles. His fiction has appeared in Best New American Voices, TriQuarterly, Narrative, and the Chicago Tribune. The Sympathizer was called “remarkable” and “gripping” in the New York Times Book Review by Philip Caputo, who also wrote that Nguyen’s depiction of his double-agent narrator “compares favorably with masters like Conrad, Greene, and le Carré.”

Previously in this series:
“Influences” posts by Deborah Baker, Kate Christensen, Jennifer Gilmore, Lauren Groff, Lev Grossman, Jane Hirschfield, Alan Heathcock, Adam Levin, Dawn McGuire, Dinaw Mengestu, Jim Moore, Manuel Muñoz, Maggie Nelson, Geoffrey O’Brien, Arthur Phillips, Carl Phillips, Karen Russell, Timothy Schaffert, Philip Schultz, Mark Statman, Emma Straub, J. Courtney Sullivan, Ellen Ullman, and Adam Wilson

Friday, June 12, 2015

Listen: Lost suspense masterwork returns to life in second Library of America audiobook

Last week we shared details of our first-ever audiobook: The Horizontal Man by Helen Eustis, a 1946 novel included in our upcoming two-volume anthology Women Crime Writers: Eight Suspense Novels of the 1940s & 50s.

Fools’ Gold by
Dolores Hitchens
(Doubleday, 1958)
Today we’re equally excited to give a sneak preview of our second audiobook, Fools’ Gold (1958) by Dolores Hitchens, another title in the Women Crime Writers collection. The story of two juvenile delinquents fresh out of lockup and a sheltered young orphan girl who hatch a robbery scheme that goes badly astray, Fools’ Gold is perhaps best known today as the inspiration for Jean-Luc Godard's 1964 film Bande À Part (Band of Outsiders).

A 2011 review by Dan Stumpf on the MysteryFile blog suggests the novel is ripe for reappraisal: Stumpf calls it “a nasty piece of work. . . . quite well done. [Hitchens] has a good feel for letting the characters shape the plot, and she isn’t bothered by a bit of clutter and untidiness as things play out in a nicely cluttered and untidy finale.”

Scott Brick recording Fools’ Gold
in Los Angeles, June 2015.
Longtime audiobook producer Patti Pirooz, who is also handling The Library of America’s Horizontal Man audiobook, is shepherding Fools’ Gold through production in Los Angeles. Behind the microphone is Scott Brick, a writer, actor, and veteran audiobook narrator with more than 600 titles to his credit, ranging from bestsellers like Moneyball and The Bourne Identity to classics like In Cold Blood and Light in August. Publishers Weekly named Brick its “Narrator of the Year” in 2007, and he has won two Audies from the Audio Publishers Association and over fifty Earphones Awards from AudioFile magazine for his work as a reader.

Want to hear a sample of the narrating chops that have made Brick so lauded in his field? Enjoy a brief excerpt of his Fools’ Gold reading via the audio player embedded below.

Watch Reader’s Almanac in the coming months for further information about our Fools’ Gold audiobook and Women Crime Writers, both of which will be released in September.

Related post:
Orange Is the New Black star is the voice behind first Library of America audiobook

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Maggie Nelson: American classics that influenced the writing of The Argonauts

The Argonauts
by Maggie Nelson
(Graywolf Press, 2015)
For the relaunch of our series of blog posts by contemporary fiction writers, essayists, poets, and historians, we reached out to Maggie Nelson to learn what classic works of American writing might have influenced her critically acclaimed new memoir The Argonauts.
James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time. If you’re looking for an example of how to move between personal anecdote, trenchant political analysis, and urgent spiritual/ontological rumination, I doubt anyone bests Baldwin. His account of his meeting with Elijah Muhammad was, is, endlessly instructive to me, not only for its use of an encounter as a springboard for reflection, but also for Baldwin’s skill in saying exactly what he wants and needs to say without bending under the pressures of imagined readerships, some of whom might stand all too ready to misuse his critique. (I thought about this issue a lot when trying to figure out how to weight various critiques in The Argonauts.)

Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Essential Writings. People love to talk about unclassifiable creative nonfiction as a recent invention, but what on God’s green earth are Emerson’s essays? Genre-wise, and sentence by sentence, they are some of the strangest, most inspiring pieces of nonfiction that I know. (Nietzsche thought so too—how’s that for mind-blowing.)

This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color, edited by Cherrie Moraga and Gloria Anzaldua. First published in 1981, this collection feels fresh, relevant, and necessary every time I pick it up. Whenever people complain to me about the so-called “ivory towerness” of theory, I advise them to revisit the “theory in the flesh” articulated in these pages, which proves how some—perhaps most—people who come to analyze the intersections of race, gender, class, and sexuality do so out of a need to make livable lives, and sometimes to survive.

David Wojnarowicz, Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration. I read this book when it came out in 1991. I was eighteen, and had just come of age in San Francisco, a city ravaged by AIDS, but I hardly knew what the hell had happened, what was happening. This book helped me to understand everything—about AIDS, about the brutality of normalcy, about how rage might be mobilized to sublime effect in writing, about queerness, about mortality, about friendship, about how hallucinogenic, poetic accounts of roadside encounters might be paired with utterly fierce condemnations of this country’s politics, and so much more.

Against Interpretation
by Susan Sontag
(Dell, 1966)
Susan Sontag, Against Interpretation. Whenever I go back to my heavily annotated copy of Against Interpretation, I am appalled at how much of my thinking, and even my sentences, seem to me cribbed from Sontag. I guess I read Against Interpretation—an American classic of criticism if there ever was one—at a particularly molten moment in my development, when I was trying to figure out how to combine art and literary criticism, philosophy, and a certain speed or heat in my writing style. Sontag was so clearly already driving that car. I got in, and the rest is history.

Wayne Koestenbaum, My 1980s and Other Essays. Koestenbaum was my teacher once, and I remember very clearly his telling me: You have to get yourself to say upfront the unspeakable, indefensible thing; after that, you can spend the rest of the piece backpedaling or devoting yourself to nuance. But at least you’ve said it. I am endlessly in thrall to his mastery of this skill: his unsurpassable talent for assertion—hilarious, provocative, or perverse assertion—coupled with an appetite for / apprehension of nuance. I am edified by the range, verve, experiment, and energy of this collection, which makes me think there is a version of “American letters” that I could get behind.
Maggie Nelson's previous books include several volumes of poetry in addition to The Art of Cruelty: A Reckoning (2011), a work of cultural criticism named one of the best books of the year by the New York Times. The Argonauts—a book whose form tests the boundaries of genre at the same time its content pushes against traditional gender definitions—has been called “vibrant, probing, and, most of all, outstanding” by NPR, and “a beautiful, passionate, and shatteringly intelligent meditation on what it means not to accept binaries” by the Chicago Tribune. Nelson lives in Los Angeles and currently teaches in the School of Critical Studies at CalArts.

Previously in this series:
“Influences” posts by Deborah Baker, Kate Christensen, Jennifer Gilmore, Lauren Groff, Lev Grossman, Jane Hirschfield, Alan Heathcock, Adam Levin, Dawn McGuire, Dinaw Mengestu, Jim Moore, Manuel Muñoz, Geoffrey O’Brien, Arthur Phillips, Carl Phillips, Karen Russell, Timothy Schaffert, Philip Schultz, Mark Statman, Emma Straub, J. Courtney Sullivan, Ellen Ullman, and Adam Wilson

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Ross Macdonald, perpetual stranger in his native California

Tom Nolan is the editor of The Library of America’s new title Ross Macdonald: Four Novels of the 1950s. In this, the second of three Reader’s Almanac exclusives about Macdonald’s life and work, he relates the biographical circumstances that help explain why Macdonald was able to regard California, the state in which he was born, with both the knowingness of a local and the detachment of an outsider.

(Read the first post in Nolan‘s series here.)

Readers around the globe found an imaginative vision of Southern California in the fiction of Ross Macdonald. But Macdonald himself—by birth Kenneth Millar—was raised far from the promised glow of the Golden State, up north in frigid Canada. The bright but impoverished son of a fractured family, young Kennie was shunted across four provinces from one relative to another. His mother, however, continued to remind him that he’d been born near San Francisco (in Los Gatos, also the birthplace of John Steinbeck) and instilled in him the notion that he “belonged” in California. It took thirty years for this pauper-prince to find his way back (with a wife and child) to his state of origin. Once there, of course, he was a stranger in a strange land.

"The Drowning Pool" original edition
The Drowning Pool by
[John] Ross Macdonald
(Knopf, 1950)
In Santa Barbara, where the Millars settled at once and for good, he felt especially out of place: a still far-from-wealthy man in a town of many millionaires, a bookish PhD. candidate and strict moralist in a city rife with hedonists. (Macdonald skewered the sexual preoccupations and artistic pretensions of certain Santa Barbarans in his 1950 novel The Drowning Pool.) Ninety miles to the south was Hollywood, with its low-hanging poisoned fruit. Visible from his backyard was a mountain range which for years seemed to Millar like the Great Wall of China, cutting him off from the main social and intellectual currents of American life.

But Ross Macdonald was in a long tradition of California chroniclers from elsewhere: Ambrose Bierce (Ohio), Nathanael West (New York), John Fante (Colorado), James M. Cain (Maryland), Raymond Chandler (Illinois)—outsiders who observed with a fresh and often wary eye. As a beginning Southland novelist, Macdonald was drawn in his early books to the lurid moving targets that had already caught the eyes of his 1930s and ’40s predecessors: the Sunset Strip gangsters (Danny Dowser, the mobster in The Way Some People Die, seems a caricature of Mickey Cohen, the L.A. hood who became a ’50s celebrity), the Hollywood dream factories (see The Barbarous Coast), the self-serving faux-sophistication of well-to-do adulterers, and the cruder entertainments of the lower classes.

The Barbarous Coast
by Ross Macdonald
(Knopf, 1956)
Macdonald’s vision widened and deepened as he wrote through the 1950s and ’60s, and as California society changed. Crass hoodlums faded from public view, and Macdonald’s examination of Southern California’s sins focused inward: on dysfunctional families, the generation gap, and the timeless greeds of dubious characters gravitating to the Western edge of the country to reinvent themselves and start anew.

Con artists posed as aristocrats. New money hid its source. Expectant beneficiaries mortgaged their souls in anticipation of future wealth. Embittered spouses choked on private resentments. Abused children smashed out at hypocrisy through sex, drugs, violence. And the past threatened to reveal sordid and dangerous secrets: a hushed-up first marriage, an ex-con sibling, a skeleton in the desert.

As Ross Macdonald came into his mature themes and style throughout the ’60s, he was recognized not just as a superior detective novelist but as a significant regional (hence national) author. Canadian Kenneth Millar, like many Golden State emigrants, and many of the characters he wrote of, had reinvented himself—as the California-American Ross Macdonald.

In the process, he Canadianized his new home in print. He held its natives to a higher moral standard than they might aspire to, described the physical landscape and its creatures with the sensibility of one raised in a land that valued such beauty, and expressed profound awareness of how the past irrevocably influenced the present: a strong theme in contemporary Canadian fiction (from Margaret Laurence to Robertson Davies to Margaret Atwood) as much as in the post-hard-boiled novels of Ross Macdonald.

Friday, June 5, 2015

Video: Henry Louis Gates, Jr. on “an implicit political victory for our people”

In New York City last week, Library of America Board member Henry Louis Gates, Jr. gave a rousing account of his work as Director of The Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University during which he told a capacity crowd at the Century Association, “I think that the last barrier for African-Americans to cross in terms of victory over racism will be the barrier of intellectual prejudice—the belief that somehow we are naturally inferior.”

Video: Henry Louis Gates, Jr. on May 26, 2015 (5:05)

Gates’s remarks came in a conversation with businessman and investor Glenn Hutchins, who supports the Center through his Hutchins Family Foundation. The May 26 program was a co-presentation of The Library of America and The Hutchins Center.

Prompted by Hutchins, Gates looked back to the late 1960s, when elite universities in the U.S. first began to acknowledge the need for African American studies as a discipline. He explained, however, that at the time he and many of his peers “didn’t know what it meant create a real academic department,” and that a number of the initial African American studies programs “were embarrassments, really, academically. They were created so the students would not blow up the library or burn it down.”

For that reason, Gates continued, he had specific ambitions when Harvard University recruited him to rebuild what was then called the Department of Afro-American Studies in 1991.

“To me, creating an academic entity at one of the world’s greatest institutions, full of brilliant people—white and black, gay and straight, American, European, African, Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, wherever they came from—built on the most sound and rigorous academic principles, would be an implicit political victory for our people.

“And that’s what I set out to do.”

Watch the complete program on The Library of America’s YouTube channel.

Related post:
Photo Gallery: Capacity crowd joins Library of America for Henry Louis Gates, Glenn Hutchins talk

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