Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Revisionism: Edgar Allan Poe’s “extraordinary nonsense” inspires an ingenious modern art exhibition

One of the great enigmas of American literature unexpectedly rejoins the cultural conversation this summer with the opening of Eureka, a group exhibition at the Pace Gallery in New York City that takes its name and inspiration from an all-but-unclassifiable book-length work Edgar Allan Poe published in 1848, slightly more than a year before his untimely death at the age of 40.

Title page of
Eureka first edition
(Putnam, 1848)
Eureka: A Prose Poem is frequently described as a kind of treatise in which Poe expounds his theories of the nature of the universe, from its origins to its overriding laws. But this sketch of the cosmos relies less on any scientific validation than on its author’s intuitive “ratiocination”—the same process, readers will recall, that allowed Poe’s detective C. Auguste Dupin to solve the murders in the Rue Morgue. As a representative passage attests, Eureka is primarily concerned with collapsing the distance between inner and outer space:
Discarding now the two equivocal terms, “gravitation” and “electricity,” let us adopt the more definite expressions, “Attraction” and “Repulsion.” The former is the body; the latter the soul: the one is the material; the other the spiritual, principle of the Universe. No other principles exist. All phænomena are referable to one, or to the other, or to both combined. So rigorously is this the case—so thoroughly demonstrable is it that Attraction and Repulsion are the sole properties through which we perceive the Universe—in other words, by which Matter is manifested to Mind—that, for all merely argumentative purposes, we are fully justified in assuming that Matter exists only as Attraction and Repulsion—that Attraction and Repulsion are matter. . . .
Eureka has vexed readers and critics alike since its first publication. A contemporary review in the Literary World panned it as “arrant fudge” and “extraordinary nonsense, if not blasphemy,” and exactly 100 years later T. S. Eliot harrumphed that it “makes no deep impression . . . because we are aware of Poe’s lack of qualifications in philosophy, theology or natural science.”

Partisans of the work, however, have included poets Paul Valéry and W. H. Auden; it’s also worth noting that Charles Baudelaire translated it into French and Julio Cortázar into Spanish. More surprisingly, a consensus opinion has formed in recent decades around the notion that in its eccentric way Eureka anticipates key discoveries in astrophysics, such as the Big Bang theory and the concept of an expanding universe.

Installation view of "Eureka" at Pace Gallery
Installation view of Eureka
508 West 25th Street, New York / May 1 – August 14, 2015
Photography by: Tom Barratt / Pace Gallery

This is the side of Poe’s text that drives the ingeniously curated group exhibition at Pace, which is comprised of 23 works by 12 twentieth- and twenty-first-century artists. Successive artworks alternately portray objects in space—which may or may not be taken to represent planetary bodies—in two and three dimensions; a kind of visual echo or rhyme results from several of the show’s adroit juxtapositions. A 1934 mobile by Alexander Calder, for instance, bounces off an adjacent 1987 painting by Australian Aboriginal artist Yala Yala Gibbs Tjungurrayi, whose geometric shapes pulsate with a Keith Haring–like energy. James Turrell’s hologram of a full moon confronts viewers with a disorienting trompe l’oeil, while a nearby recording of Edgar Varèse compositions evokes, one might say, the music of the spheres.

Installation view of "Eureka" exhibition at Pace Gallery
Installation view of Eureka
508 West 25th Street, New York / May 1 – August 14, 2015
Photography by: Tom Barratt / Pace Gallery

As an incisive essay by Max Nelson on the Paris Review website summarizes: “the show is a delightful cabinet of curiosities that riffs playfully, if a little abstrusely, on Eureka’s atmosphere and tone.”

According to his biographer Kenneth Silverman, Poe intimated to a friend that his “prose poem” wouldn’t be properly appreciated until 2,000 years after its appearance. But from the evidence on display at Pace, it’s tempting to conclude that his prediction was off by about 1,800 years.

Eureka is on view at Pace Gallery New York City through August 28, 2015. Visit the Pace website for complete details.

Related posts:

Thursday, July 23, 2015

The Library of America remembers E. L. Doctorow and his “indelible” novels

Ragtime by
E. L. Doctorow
(Random House, 1975)
Writer E. L. Doctorow died in New York City on Tuesday, July 21, at the age of 84. He was born in the Bronx in 1931 and published his first novel, the spare, haunting neo-Western Welcome to Hard Times, in 1960. Over the next half-century he would continue to reexamine the American past, and simultaneously reanimate the form of the historical novel, in a string of contemporary classics that include The Book of Daniel (1971), a fictional treatment of the Julius and Ethel Rosenberg espionage case; Ragtime (1975), later adapted for both film and Broadway; Billy Bathgate (1989), a recreation of the Depression-era Bronx of his childhood; and The March (2005), which brought the author’s imagination to bear on the closing months of the Civil War.

Doctorow won the National Book Award, the Library of Congress Prize for American Fiction, and the PEN/Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction, to name just a few of his many laurels. In 2012 he was inducted into the New York State Writers Hall of Fame. Literary critic and translator Liesl Schillinger offered this stirring tribute to him at the induction ceremony:
I first encountered E. L. Doctorow’s writing as a child in the 1970s and ’80s, pulling his novels from my parents’ shelves. I began with Ragtime, and was captivated by the flowing way Doctorow integrated historic events, the changing roles of women and African Americans, and—I’ll admit—raciness, into his storytelling. I was hungry for clues to what adults cared about; and to what being an American meant. His writing informed my understanding, and has stayed with me. The 20th century is over; but the American century lives on, and will endure in Doctorow’s magnificent body of work. . . . how lucky it is that those of us who wish to revisit the most significant touchpoints of our national history may do so not by hoarding towers of text, but by inhabiting the evocative world Doctorow has conjured in his indelible novels.
Doctorow was named for Edgar Allan Poe, whom he once characterized as “our greatest bad writer.” In a more charitable vein, he contributed an admiring introduction to The Library of America paperback edition of Jack London’s The Call of the Wild, which he praised as a “tour-de-force of symbolic transfiguration.”

In 2014, meanwhile, he read from Herman Melville’s 1850 essay “Hawthorne and His Mosses” at a public event co-presented by The Library of America and The Public Theater for the LOA anthology Shakespeare in America. Listen to Doctorow read what Melville said about Shakespeare, and then enjoy what Doctorow says about Melville, in the video below.

Related post:
Liesl Schillinger on E. L. Doctorow’s chronicles of the American century

Monday, July 20, 2015

Henry James, John Singer Sargent, and the “masterpiece of painting” that survived a meat cleaver attack

An old friend of The Library of America is in New York City for the summer, receiving visitors by the hundreds every day and looking remarkably sharp despite having survived a brush with vandalism and, more recently, commemorated a hundredth birthday.

The “friend” in this case is the celebrated 1913 portrait of Henry James by John Singer Sargent—one of many arresting works featured in the exhibition Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends, currently on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. If the painting looks familiar to Library of America readers, that’s because it graces the dust jacket of the LOA volume Henry James: Complete Stories 1898–1910.

John Singer Sargent, Henry James (1913)
Oil on canvas, 33–1/2 × 26–1/2 in. (85.1 × 67.3 cm)
National Portrait Gallery, London
Photo: © National Portrait Gallery, London

The Met’s exhibition is an opportunity to appreciate both Sargent’s artistic gifts and the remarkably rarefied nature of his social circle. His portraits encompass other painters, actors, singers, dancers, and of course writers, with Robert Louis Stevenson and W.B. Yeats both being caught especially vividly.

Sargent and James became friends after James published an extensive appreciation of the artist’s work in Harper’s magazine in 1887, where he wrote: “In an altogether exceptional degree does he give us the sense that an intention and the art of carrying it out are for him one and the same thing.” Their common experience as American expatriates and members of the cultural elite created a bond between the two men, but today it’s virtually a critical commonplace to find deeper affinities between them—to link the psychological depth conveyed in Sargent’s portraits, for instance, with James’s almost obsessive attention to his characters’ inner lives. (This might also help account for why Sargent reproductions regularly appear on the covers of James paperbacks.)

The 1913 portrait was a commission by James’s friends and admirers for his seventieth birthday. According to the exhibition catalogue, the author was happy with the result, calling it “Sargent at his very best and poor old HJ not at his worst; in short a living breathing likeness and a masterpiece of painting.”

But the “living breathing likeness” almost breathed its last before most people had a chance to see it for themselves. When the painting went on view at London’s Royal Academy in May 1914, a suffragette named Mary Wood attacked it with a meat cleaver, managing to slash the canvas three times before being apprehended. While it is tempting to speculate that Wood was venting her disapproval of the way James had portrayed the women’s movement in his novel The Bostonians nearly 30 years earlier, she was in fact engaged in a more general protest at the lack of political representation for women. In the years just prior to World War I, several English suffragettes drew attention to their cause by vandalizing pieces of art, and one theory about the Mary Wood incident suggests that at the time of its unveiling Sargent’s portrait would have symbolized an artistic elite that consisted entirely of men. (The Royal Academy itself was widely understood to be a “bastion of conservatism.”)

James relayed his feelings about the incident in a letter to his friend Jessie Allen:
Yes, it was a nasty one, or rather a nasty three—for she got at me thrice over before the tomahawk was stayed. I naturally feel very scalped and disfigured, but you will be glad to know that I seem to be pronounced curable—to all probability, that is, when the experts have well looked into me. The damage, in other words, isn’t past praying for, or rather past mending, given the magic of the modern mender’s art.
James’s optimism was well-founded. Sargent was quickly able to repair the painting with the help of a team of restorers, and The Library of America can attest that today “old HJ” looks none the worse for his ordeal.

Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends is on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City through October 4, 2015. Visit for complete exhibition information.

Related posts:

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Annie Liontas: Influences, identity, and what defines the “self-respecting immigrant novel”

Let Me Explain You
by Annie Liontas
(Scribner, 2015)
Our series of guest blog posts by writers of fiction, history, essays, and poetry continues today with a post by Annie Liontas, whose debut novel Let Me Explain You arrives this week. Below she describes some of the key influences on her book, which recounts the travails of a Greek-American family in New Jersey.
Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides. In writing Middlesex, Eugenides is said to have drafted 50 pages in one voice, picked up a new voice for another 75 pages, grown dissatisfied, and started over again. He did this for about nine years. For Eugenides, the narrative “had to render the experience of a teenage girl and an adult man, or an adult male-identified hermaphrodite.” This was further complicated by Eugenides’s desire to relay “epic events in the third person and psychosexual events in the first person.”

I could not have written Let Me Explain You without Middlesex. It was Middlesex that helped me solve the problem of structure in my own novel, and it was Middlesex that gave me a sense of scope. Middlesex confirmed my voice: it suggested I might have something to add to the conversation, even when scores of others have said their piece with far more eloquence. I am so intimately bound to Middlesex for its beauty, humor, and painful knowing of what it means to be foreign in our own bodies.

And maybe I steal a little bit of Desdemona for myself.

White Teeth by Zadie Smith. Any self-respecting immigrant novel pays homage to White Teeth, which works diligently to allow a multiplicity of voices to speak (this may be the very definition of an immigrant novel). Smith has a wonderful ear for how people talk and for what language sounds like when it’s making its home in a new country.

Smith wasn’t an immigrant herself, but she grew up around people “who had that experience, who felt separated or cut in two, who had moved from one country to another, who had the sense of leading two lives.” In White Teeth, the children of immigrants resist immigrant parents and claim their lives for their own, sometimes at a great price: assimilation brings alienation. In Let Me Explain You, this experience of exile—xenitia—visits a cost on the daughters of Stavros Stavros Mavrakis.

But White Teeth is funny, too. Smith says, “If I die and someone says, “She was a comic novelist,” I would be more than happy. My favorite writers are comic novelists. I don’t see any point in being anything else.” Me neither.

El Boom, particularly A Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez—which remains my favorite book—but also The Death of Artemio Cruz by Carlos Fuentes. I sought out The Death of Artemio Cruz when I was deep into Let Me Explain You, and I knew that what I had on my hands was a proud, stricken, narcissistic patriarch. I was looking for versions of Stavros Stavros Mavrakis in other novels. I got as close as a shadow to Artemio Cruz, to the indignation and fear of death, to the spite that he wordlessly hurled at his wife and daughter, whom he knew to be selfish and concerned only with his estate. He smelled incense on his death bed.

I mostly hated him, but I had to pay my respects to a man not long for the world. Everyone deserves their dignity, especially at the end.

Why the Child Is Cooking
in the Polenta
by Aglaja Veteranyi
(Dalkey Archive Press, 2012)
Why the Child Is Cooking in the Polenta by Aglaja Veteranyi.
Our story sounds different every time my mother tells it.—Aglaja Veteranyi

Aglaja Veteranyi, whom you probably never heard of, drowned herself in 2002 in Lake Zurich. A Swiss writer of Romanian origin, Veteranyi was part of a touring circus. Her stepfather was a clown and her mother an acrobat. She, herself, was made to juggle and dance. This is the subject of the novel Why the Child Is Cooking in the Polenta, which she published before she took her own life (other works released posthumously).

Vincent Kling notes in his exquisite afterward, having had the vision to translate the work into English, that Aglaja’s voice offers the “adult retrospective viewpoint but at the same time the child’s passage through successive stages of awareness.” Every line is touching, funny, or pained. Everything is true.

I read Polenta in a single sitting. I read it thinking, are you my mother? I read it thinking, you can be nobody’s mother. I stopped every few sentences to write something. I read and thought of all those stories of the old witch who fattens children up to eat them. I read Polenta and felt rage at not knowing the good-enough mother. I read it, and it helped me to write Litza as a child, suffering but resilient.
A graduate of Syracuse University’s MFA program, Annie Liontas won a grant from the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund and her short story “Two Planes in Love” was a runner-up in BOMB Magazine’s 2013 Fiction Prize Contest. For more than a decade she has dedicated herself to urban education in Philadelphia, Newark, and Camden, New Jersey. Slate calls Let Me Explain You a “sly and generous debut novel,” and Mary Karr has welcomed it as “a hilarious, fascinating, poetic work of fiction.”

Related post:
Joyce Carol Oates and Jeffrey Eugenides discuss “why we tell stories” at World Science Festival 2012

Previously in this series:
“Influences” posts by Jabari Asim, 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, July 14, 2015

Remembering James Tate, 1943–2015: “I love my funny poems, but I’d rather break your heart”

James Tate, one of the most lauded American poets of his generation, died on July 8 at the age of 71 in Springfield, Massachusetts.

Tate was still a graduate student at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 1967 when his collection The Lost Pilot was chosen for publication in the influential Yale Series of Younger Poets. During a career that spanned nearly 50 years and more than 20 books, he won a Pulitzer Prize, a National Book Award, and the Wallace Stevens Award from the Academy of American Poets.

The Lost Pilot
by James Tate
(Yale University Press, 1967)
The title poem of Tate’s first book, “The Lost Pilot,” is included in the Library of America collection Poets of World War II. The work is an elegy for Tate’s father, a bomber pilot in the Army Air Forces who was killed on a mission over Germany in April 1944 when Tate was five months old. The Poetry Foundation website has audio of Tate reading the poem, along with an Essential American Poets podcast featuring additional readings and a helpful introduction to Tate’s work.

Friends and colleagues at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where Tate taught for more than 40 years, remember him here. A highly recommended 2006 Paris Review interview with Tate, conducted by Charles Simic, includes this memorable statement of his artistic creed:
I love my funny poems, but I’d rather break your heart. And if I can do both in the same poem, that’s the best. If you laughed earlier in the poem, and I bring you close to tears in the end, that’s the best. That’s most rewarding for you and for me too. I want ultimately to be serious, but I can’t help the comic part. It just comes automatically. And if I can do both, that’s what I’m after.
Tate’s seventeenth collection of poems, Dome of the Hidden Pavilion, will be published in August.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Listen: Alexander Hamilton expert explains why the “pragmatic statesman” is getting his due on Broadway

Official poster for Lin-Manuel
Miranda’s musical Hamilton
Opening in previews tonight on Broadway, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical Hamilton has been the proverbial “hottest ticket in town since its initial run at New York City’s Public Theater earlier this year. Featuring a young multiethnic cast as the Founding Fathers and a score that mixes hip-hop, R&B, and power ballads to recount the early years of the republic, the show has accomplished the unlikely feat of making Alexander Hamilton—first United States Treasury Secretary and the man most Americans know solely as the face on the ten-dollar bill—a part of 2015’s pop-culture conversation.

This past Friday, Library of America Trustee Joanne Freeman was interviewed on New York Public Radio’s Money Talking about the musical, which she gave an enthusiastic endorsement. A professor of history and American studies at Yale University, Freeman edited the Library of America volume Alexander Hamilton: Writings and her 2002 book Affairs of Honor: National Politics in the New Republic devotes a whole chapter to Hamilton’s fatal 1804 duel with Aaron Burr. (Miranda has signaled his appreciation for Freeman’s work on social media.)

A noteworthy selling point for Hamilton is that other experts on early American history—like Hamilton biographer Richard Brookhiser, for instance—are avowed fans as well. Toward the end of her radio interview, Freeman makes the musical’s appeal to the scholarly community clear:
I’ve seen it now several times, but each time with a different historian. And what’s wonderful about that is, I think we all have the same response. Wait a minute—they’re singing about the Whiskey Rebellion? They’re singing about the [national] bank? They’re singing about this stuff? And I think all of us felt like that play makes historians feel like the cool kids. Historians never feel like the cool kids.
Listen to the entire Money Talking segment via the embedded audio player below.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Tom Sawyer’s Mississippi comes to panoramic full-color life in new Metropolitan Museum exhibition

Now on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, the exhibition Navigating the West: George Caleb Bingham and the River brings together sixteen iconic paintings by George Caleb Bingham (1811-1879) depicting life on the Mississippi and Missouri rivers before the Civil War. A Virginia native who moved to the Missouri Territory as a young boy, Bingham was a primarily self-taught artist who found his truest subject in the mid-1840s with narrative scenes representing what was then the Western frontier of the United States.

George Calder Bingham, Boatmen on the Missouri (1846)
Oil on canvas, 25 × 30 in. (63.5 × 76.2 cm)
Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco,
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller III (1979.7.15)

Bingham's serene, sunlit vistas form a captivating portrayal of river life in the decades prior to the Civil War. Library of America readers may find these paintings especially appealing, though, as a visual analog to several canonical works by Bingham’s contemporary and fellow Missourian Mark Twain: The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Life on the Mississippi, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and Pudd’nhead Wilson (all of which are collected in the Library of America volume Mark Twain: Mississippi Writings).

Twain, of course, grew up on the Mississippi in the same era in which Bingham was painting it and he became a cub riverboat pilot in 1857—the year of Jolly Flatboatmen in Port, one of the last major works in Navigating the West. Yet the differences between the two Missourians tell us more about their respective artistic temperaments than any surface affinities. Bingham’s idealizing tendencies are evident both in his tranquil landscapes (there are no turbulent waters in these river scenes) and in the meticulously posed and lit human figures in his paintings. Moreover, as the wall text accompanying the Met exhibition suggests, his art reflected the aspirations of a citizenry looking to be reassured that civilization had indeed come to the frontier.

It might be fair to say Bingham’s Mississippi has more in common with the boyhood idyll of Tom Sawyer than the more brutal world of Huckleberry Finn. And in 1883, looking back on antebellum river society in Life on the Mississippi, Twain evokes a more unruly, volatile milieu than anything we see in Bingham’s canvases—one populated by “hordes of rough and hardy men,”
rude, uneducated, brave, suffering terrific hardships with sailor-like stoicism; heavy drinkers, coarse frolickers in moral sties like the Natchez-under-the-hill of that day, heavy fighters, reckless fellows, every one, elephantinely jolly, foul-witted, profane; prodigal of their money, bankrupt at the end of the trip, fond of barbaric finery, prodigious braggarts; yet, in the main, honest, trustworthy, faithful to promises and duty, and often picturesquely magnanimous.
Bingham's Jolly Flatboatmen in Port
(1857) reproduced on the covers of
two paperback Twain reprints.
That chapter in Life on the Mississippi continues with an account of a showdown between two river men marked by memorable braggadocio; the combatants’ characteristic boasts include “I’m the old original iron-jawed, brass-mounted, copper-bellied corpse-maker from the wilds of Arkansaw!” and “When I’m playful I use the meridians of longitude and parallels of latitude for a seine, and drag the Atlantic Ocean for whales!” Readers might reasonably conclude that, just as Bingham’s impulse was to tame his subjects for the broader public, Twain’s gifts led him in the opposite direction.

Navigating the West: George Caleb Bingham and the River is on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City through September 20, 2015. Visit for complete exhibition information.

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”
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