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Thursday, December 29, 2011

Herbert Leibowitz on William Carlos Williams and Ezra Pound: Episodes from a Sixty-year Friendship

Guest blog post by Herbert Leibowitz, founder and editor of Parnassus: Poetry in Review, and author of “Something Urgent I Have to Say to You”: The Life and Works of William Carlos Williams

Few literary friendships can compare to the strange, contentious alliance between Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams, which spanned sixty years, ending with Williams's death in 1963. They met in Philadelphia, where Williams was starting his first term at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine and Pound, two years his junior, was an undergraduate studying Romance Languages at the University. For Williams, a sheltered, naïve, young man from Rutherford, New Jersey, with inchoate aspirations to make his mark on the world as doctor and poet, encountering Pound was like being struck by lightning.

The two could not have been more different. Where Pound was voluble and cocksure in his opinions, Williams was cautious and diffident. Already playing the role of flamboyant literary agent provocateur, Pound aimed to drive the poetasters from the Temple of Art and seize the throne of modernist poetry czar for himself. Williams, with tastes formed by after-dinner readings at home from Shakespeare and Palgrave’s Victorian anthology, still had an adolescent’s romantic crush on Keats.

Williams enjoyed Pound’s sophisticated shoptalk and spellbinding riffs on just about any topic, An apt pupil and rapt listener, he absorbed Pound’s obiter dicta and stored them away until he had time to test their validity. Early in their friendship, a paradigm was established: Williams impressed by Pound’s dazzling erudition and precocious mastery of poetic forms, Pound enjoying the amiable and intelligent openness Williams so willingly provided. They shared common interests: fencing, theater, pretty co-eds, and dreams of future success. And if Williams was at times a reluctant disciple, that was a piquant challenge for the two to spar, as they did fencing with épées.

Ever self-centered, Pound never noticed Williams sizing him up. In a letter to his mother, on March 30, 1904, Williams drew a shrewd psychological profile of his new friend:
Pound is a fine fellow; he is the essence of optimism and has a cast-iron faith that is something to admire. If he ever does get blue nobody knows it, so he is just the man for me. But not one person in a thousand likes him, and a great many people detest him and why? Because he is so darned full of conceits and affectation. He is really a brilliant talker and thinker but delights in making himself just exactly what he is not: a laughing boor.
In his 1951 Autobiography, Williams recalls a school performance of Euripides’s Iphigenia in Aulis in which Pound played a woman of the chorus: dressed in an outlandish, ill-fitting wig and gesticulating wildly, he “heaved his massive breasts in ecstasies of extreme emotion,” as though mentally unbalanced. Pound seemed to drill home the dangers of living or dying for art; Williams refused “to be bedbug food for it,” and instead chose to earn his living practicing medicine.

Once Pound became an expatriate, restlessly moving from London to Paris to Rapallo, the two poets saw each other only for short periods and communicated mostly by mail; their exchanges could be volatile, hilarious, pontifical, or insulting—all in one letter. When Williams visited Pound in London in 1910, Ezra tried to cure Bill’s literary provinciality by introducing him to Yeats and giving him a tour of cosmopolitan London’s cultural treasures, but Pound’s garrulous salesman’s pitch left Williams feeling self-conscious and defensive; he couldn’t wait to escape the stifling ambience of hothouse aestheticism.

Pound had a famously generous side: he arranged for the publication of The Tempers (1913), published Williams’s “Postlude” in the Imagist Anthology (1914), and pushed Harriet Monroe to accept some of Williams's poems in Poetry. Williams was grateful for his pal’s assistance, but it came at a high price: in letter after letter, Pound bombarded him with advice, excoriated him for his ignorance of the classic poets, and ridiculed him for embarking on a fool’s quest for the holy grail of an American poetic idiom. Williams tolerated these hectoring outbursts, for the most part, with stoical calm. He respected Pound’s technical skills and found his advice in that area useful. When Pound’s belligerence and condescension wore him down, however, he would erupt in molten anger. The fact is, Williams freely admitted, he could not stand Pound’s company for more than a few hours at a time.

Their friendship almost crumbled when Pound edited and championed T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922), which instantly became the modernist long poem. It is no exaggeration to say that Williams felt betrayed by Pound, the pain more stinging because he had lost his oedipal rivalry to a poet he loathed. Williams reacted in two ways: he turned Eliot into a bugbear whose glory he envied and whose supercilious manner he despised; and steeling his will, he sat down to write a long poem, Spring and All (1923), he hoped would eclipse or at least compete with Eliot’s (he did not let Pound read or vet the manuscript before publication). The desired vindication failed to occur. The Waste Land was talked about everywhere, whereas Spring and All, Williams’s breakthrough poem, went virtually unread. (Half of its 350 copies were confiscated by the U. S. Post Office, probably because it was printed in France, and assumed to be salacious.) Because of their artistic disagreements, the friendship cooled, only to flare up ten years later.

Pound’s greatest gift to Williams was urging James Laughlin, the tyro founder and publisher of New Directions, to sign the Bard of Rutherford to a contract. Until 1936, Williams’s books had mostly appeared in small editions and quickly vanished. As New Directions prospered under Laughlin’s leadership, Williams’s readership began to increase. Having studied at the “Ezuversity,” Laughlin knew by heart the Pound catechism, bombast, foibles, and encyclopedic knowledge of poetry. But even he was unprepared for what occurred in the 1930s: the horrific spectacle of Pound’s mind demonstrably unhinged: the shrill propaganda broadcasts for Mussolini and the applause for Hitler and Franco’s massacres of innocents were undeniable symptoms of a descent into madness.

Williams, too, was appalled and disgusted that his old friend had become a prisoner of Fascism. The character flaws and affectations he had early intuited in Pound had metastasized into delusions of grandeur and apologies for moral and political evils. Williams flayed Pound for his cruel, unforgivable blindness to human suffering on a massive scale. Pound’s toxic fulminations could not be explained away as mere rhetorical overkill. Realizing Pound was beyond the reach of logical argument,Williams was on the verge of terminating their long friendship.

Undoubtedly, Williams’s gratitude for Pound’s tutelage and benefactions held him back from an irrevocable rupture, as did his abiding respect for Pound as a titan of poetry. After Pound was arrested for treason in 1945, he was transferred to Washington, D.C. for arraignment and incarcerated in St. Elizabeths Hospital for the Criminally Insane. He presided there for the next twelve years like a deposed monarch in exile, surrounded by his books, adding cantos to his long poem, and exchanging anti-Semitic slurs with the weird, bigoted people who visited him.

Williams corresponded infrequently with Pound in those years and, when he did drag himself to Washington for a long-postponed meeting, it was an awkward reunion. Williams could not help noticing that the old centaur had scarcely changed: the high, whinnying laugh and the spate of allusions, epigrams, and judgments ranging from the brilliant to the crackpot were as familiar as Pound’s epistolary voices.

Always eager to ground himself in plain talk with common folks, Williams described Pound to the black taxi driver who returned him to the city and asked his opinion of his friend's behavior. “He’s not crazy, he just talks too much.” Although a glib response that lets Pound off the hook, it echoed Williams’s own inner debate: is Pound to be condemned or do his magisterial contributions to poetry mitigate his guilt? This debate became public when Pound's Pisan Cantos won the Library of Congress's first Bollingen Prize in 1949—and Williams bravely and vociferously argued the latter stance.

In the last phase of their friendship, each poet lapsed into silence. For several years Pound rarely spoke, as if belatedly atoning for the diabolical words and rants he had spewn; and Williams, reeling from several strokes, could communicate only in broken phrases or in anguished stammering. When Williams died in 1963, Pound wrote to Williams's wife Floss in uncharacteristic humility: “He put up a great fight for you & he bore with me for 60 years. I shall never have another poet friend like him.”

Death had finally sundered their friendship—and how sad that Williams could not hear those plain words of tribute.

Related LOA works: Ezra Pound: Poems and Translations; William Carlos Williams: Selected Poems; American Poetry: The Twentieth Century, volume one: Henry Adams to Dorothy Parker (includes poems by Pound and Williams)

Monday, December 26, 2011

Turning high fashion into politics: Henry Louis Gates Jr. on W.E.B. Du Bois and the New Negro movement of 1900

"African American Girl, Half-Length Portrait,
with Right Hand to Cheek, with Illustrated
Book on Table." 1899 or 1900.

Throughout the month of December WNYC talk show host Brian Lehrer conducted a series of interviews with Henry Louis Gates Jr. about his new book Life Upon These Shores: Looking at African American History 1513–2008. Gates dedicated the book to his father, Henry Louis Gates Sr., who died on Christmas Eve 2010 at the age of 97 and a half. Designed as a “lavishly illustrated coffee table book,” the volume selects some 789 illustrations from the 26,000 in the archives of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute (where Gates is the Director) to “recreate the sense of wonder” one gets in seeing a period of history brought visually to life.

In the second interview Gates describes how W.E.B. Du Bois turned “high fashion into politics” in creating the Negro Exhibit at the Paris Exposition Universelle in 1900:
Lehrer: For the rest of today we will linger around the turn of the twentieth century. Your section on that is titled “New Negro, Old Problem.” What does the term New Negro refer to? 
Gates: This is my favorite period in African American history. My colleagues look at me and say, “Why?” For the Negro it was the end of the world. Remember: the Civil War ends in 1865. Reconstruction is 1866 to 1876. The first black senator is elected. Black members of the House of Representatives. Black people had never been freer. But because of the Hayes-Tilden Compromise—Rutherford B. Hayes becomes president—the Reconstruction period ends and a huge onslaught against black people begins. And it culminates in the 1890s with the birth of Jim Crow laws. Most people don’t realize that those separate but equal laws really were codified in 1890 and reached a zenith in 1896. 
What happened in the race was that a lot of black people became migrants and started migrating north as early as 1890. And here’s what happened within the race and it’s something that a lot of people don’t talk about or don’t want to talk about. Remember that you had these established free Negro communities in the north—slavery was abolished here in Massachusetts in 1783—so you had these long established lower middle class and middle class but free and literate black communities. All of a sudden these free Negroes are being confronted by illiterate Southern rural sharecroppers, former slaves. And a huge cultural clash ensues.

So in 1894 someone writes an essay and says “these people are Old Negroes. Those of us in the north are New Negroes.” By 1900 Booker T. Washington himself publishes a book, A New Negro for a New Century. And the new Negroes would be distinguished from the old Negroes. The new Negroes would be educated, they would be refined. They would embody what my colleague the historian Evelyn Higginbotham calls “the politics of respectability.” And they would be the vanguard of the race. They would be the part of the black community—Du Bois went on to call them “The Talented Tenth”—that would be most readily positioned to integrate, and be seen as equals with their white middle class counterparts. So in a way the Old Negro/New Negro movement was the first public class schism within the race.

Lehrer: This section of your book includes two contrasting photo essays. One of portraits of well-dressed black people – what you call the New Negro. The other being photos of sambo art. Did you juxtapose the two for this reason?

Gates: Absolutely. The photo essay you refer to was done by the great W.E.B. Du Bois. I’ll remind listeners that he was the first black man to get a Ph.D. from Harvard, and he was the greatest black intellectual of all. Essentially they were World Fairs but they weren’t called World Fairs then. There had been one in Chicago called the Chicago Columbian Exposition in 1893 which prevented black people officially from being part of it. And then Booker T. Washington gave his famous Atlanta Exposition speech at the Atlanta Exposition in 1895.

The one in Paris in 1900 was called the Paris Exposition Universelle. Du Bois was determined to establish the presence of the Negro there. So he and his Fisk University classmate—Du Bois went to historically black Fisk before he went to Harvard so he had two Bachelor’s degrees—he and his classmate, Thomas Calloway, a black lawyer, assembled this collection of photographs of these amazingly well-dressed and well-heeled upper-class black people into two albums. One was called “Types of American Negroes,” the other was called “Negro Life in Georgia, USA.” Listeners can see the whole collection online at The Library of Congress website.

There was one black congressman left in the House of Representatives. He was George Henry White from North Carolina. He would be the last black congressman to serve—he left office in 1901— until 1928. One of the last things he did was to get Du Bois $15,000 to fund what they called the Negro Exhibit. It opened on April 14, 1900, and it showed the most successful middle class African American men, women, skilled workers and business people. It showed their good taste in clothing and furnishings and culture. The pictures are full of people surrounded by books and pianos. It even included charts and graphs and maps and copies of patents black people had filed for, and lists of books written by black authors, over 1,400 books. It was the proof of the existence of the New Negro.

Lehrer: It was fashion and high culture as a civil rights strategy.

Gates: You got it. David Levering Lewis, the great historian, wrote a book about the Harlem Renaissance and he said, the Harlem Renaissance was civil rights by copyright. This was civil rights by middle class photography. And there were two reasons why Du Bois felt he had to do it. The first was the birth of Jim Crow. Separate but equal laws that had come into being since 1890, culminating with Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896. But the second was this huge proliferation of what we call sambo art. Every place a middle class white person looked from the time they shut off their alarm in the morning and went downstairs: their tea cosy, their egg cup, postcards, trade cards, advertisements. Every place they looked they saw a deracinated sambo image. This is horrible but you could even go into a drug store on vacation and buy a postcard of a lynched black man and mail it . . . They also would show black people stealing chickens, looking lasciviously at white women, stealing watermelons, eating watermelons . . .

Lehrer: That’s how black people were depicted in popular culture art to white people and Du Bois was trying to counter that with these other images.

Gates: Du Bois was trying to deconstruct it and it led to two or three New Negro movements between 1900 and 1925 culminating in the Harlem Renaissance, which was also known as the New Negro Movement.
Also of interest:
Photo credit: W.E.B. Du Bois Albums of Photographs of African Americans in Georgia Exhibited at the Paris Exposition Universelle in 1900, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. 

Related LOA works: W.E.B. Du Bois: Writings (includes “The Talented Tenth”); American Speeches: Political Oratory from Abraham Lincoln to Bill Clinton (includes Booker T. Washington’s Address at the Atlanta Exposition); Harlem Renaissance Novels (boxed set)

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Naughty and Nice: Laurence Maslon on Kaufman & Hart’s The Man Who Came to Dinner

Guest blog post by Laurence Maslon, associate chair of the Graduate Acting Program at New York University and editor of Kaufman & Co.: Broadway Comedies for the Library of America.

Christmastime has a hammerlock hold on pop culture entertainment; frequent repetitions have made plays and movies about Christmas feel effortful, obligatory, or manipulative. Yet, encountering a play or movie that just happens to have Christmas in it can be delightful, like unwrapping an unexpected stocking stuffer. The Shop Around the Corner and Auntie Mame (and the musicals based on them), for example, wield the holiday season subtly. And that over-roasted holiday chestnut, It’s a Wonderful Life, was originally released in the first week of the New Year, 1947; Christmastime was simply the final chapter in its epic story.

No play has ever exploited the incidental dramatic potential of Christmas better than Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman’s 1939 comedy, The Man Who Came to Dinner. Its main character, Sheridan Whiteside, was transparently based on one of the most dramatic, infuriating, and improbable celebrities of the era between the wars: Alexander Woollcott. Woollcott was a drama critic, raconteur, radio host, essayist, and charter member of the fabled Algonquin Round Table, but that barely suggests his influence then on middlebrow culture. He was a tastemaker of popular fiction on a scale that would have made Oprah Winfrey’s encomiums seem like fortune cookie messages. His barbed wit would have sliced Simon Cowell for breakfast. (Reviewing a volume of inferior poetry entitled And I Shall Make Music, his sole critique was “Not on my carpet, lady!”)

Famous coast-to-coast by 1938 as the host of a radio show called The Town Crier, Woollcott regaled his audience with an idiosyncratic mix of stories, reviews, and personal predilections. Although he could be quite vicious, Woollcott had a wide sentimental streak and often devoted broadcasts to wrongly convicted murderers, war veterans, seeing-eye dogs—and, of course, Christmas. Eventually, Woollcott fancied himself an actor and demanded that his pals Kaufman and Hart concoct a play for him. It wasn’t difficult to put the melodramatic Woollcott on stage—what to do with his character once he got there was another matter.

The premise of the play was simple enough—while the cosmopolitan Whiteside is lecturing in the Midwest one winter, he slips on a patch of ice and is forced to recuperate in the stifling confines of a middle-class family—but Woollcott/Whiteside’s acidulous aphorisms had the potential to wear an audience down. Kaufman and Hart solved the problem by setting the comedy during Christmastime. The charm of the holiday season would be the perfect foil for the misanthrope’s venom; it worked for Ebenezer Scrooge—why not for Sheridan Whiteside?

Kaufman and Hart also exploited Woollcott’s sentimental attachment to the Christmas season. As they have Whiteside’s secretary explain: “Christmas is Mr. Whiteside’s personal property. He invented it and it belongs to him. First thing tomorrow morning, Mr. Whiteside will open each and every present, and there will be the damnedest fuss you ever saw.” Indeed, Whiteside turns the household upside down by inviting his own badly behaved holiday guests, receiving exotic presents from around the world (including a crate of penguins from Admiral Byrd), and making long-distance calls to far-flung chums.

The climax of this occupational siege comes on Christmas Eve, when Whiteside has commandeered his hosts’ living room, replete with radio technicians and producers, to broadcast his fabled holiday program. As he begins—“This is Whiteside speaking. On this eve of eves, when my own heart is overflowing with peace and kindness . . . ,” an errant nurse barrels through the broadcast shrieking, “A penguin bit me!” An unfazed Whiteside continues to intone his tribute to that “still and wondrous night, two thousand years ago . . .”

With the character of Whiteside, Kaufman and Hart captured a Victorian sensibility during the last gasp of Art Deco modernity. Woollcott/Whiteside held on to the values of the nineteenth century with a sentimentality that was two generations removed and increasingly, if not embarrassingly, out of place. As The Man Who Came to Dinner was in rehearsal for its Broadway premiere in October 1939, the Nazis invaded Poland. The comedy went on to become a huge hit, providing much-needed laughter during what was surely the most anxious Christmas in recent memory. In fact, the war in Europe necessitated a script change by June of the following year: Whiteside’s annual custom was to ring his chum Gertrude Stein in Paris to hear the Christmas bells of Notre Dame chime over the telephone—after Paris fell to the Nazis, the phone call was changed to Whiteside’s ringing Walt Disney to hear instead the voice of Donald Duck.

If Christmas sentimentality was a useful dramatic device for Kaufman, he had little use for it off-stage (Hart was another story—his wonderful autobiography, Act One, contains one of the most sentimental Christmas stories of all time). At one point, Woollcott played the part of Whiteside in a West Coast tour. He had a mischievous penchant for inverting one of the comedy’s lines: “At Christmas,” he would say, “I always feel the needy.” “The word is ‘feed’,” asserted Kaufman, who was also the play’s director. “That’s something you aren’t going to be able to do for yourself if you don’t keep the lines straight.”

Also of interest:

Related LOA works: Kaufman & Co.: Broadway Comedies (includes The Man Who Came to Dinner); The American Stage: Writing on Theater from Washington Irving to Tony Kushner (includes a review by Alexander Woollcott and Morton Eustis’s account of Kaufman directing the rehearsals for the Broadway premiere of The Man Who Came to Dinner)

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

J. D. McClatchy on Thornton Wilder’s
“mesmerizing revisionist method of

J. D. McClatchy, poet and critic, recently spoke with us about Thornton Wilder: The Eighth Day, Theophilus North, Autobiographical Writings, which he edited for The Library of America.

Except for Our Town and maybe The Bridge of San Luis Rey, Thornton Wilder’s work is not well known today. Why should readers care about his work? Why the Library of America edition, and why now?

Wilder has too often been thought of as less a serious writer than a popular one. Our Town and The Bridge were instantly successful, and remain widely read—two faults held against them by the professoriate, who have all along condescended to Wilder as a sentimental, old-fashioned back number. (They should check with Edward Albee, for example, who considers Our Town not only the greatest American play but also the darkest and eeriest.) It may be that in the Modernist triumph, Wilder was not thought of as a radical experimentalist—a crucial label for critical darlings like Joyce and Eliot. (Hemingway and Fitzgerald could hardly be considered experimental either, but they exuded a certain glamour that the more philosophically inclined Wilder never depended on.) Neither the Modernist canon nor most college syllabi include Wilder, and his reputation—despite the acclaim in his lifetime—moves now under the radar. Or perhaps it would be fairer to say that, all along, he has been hiding in plain sight. It’s my hope that these comprehensive Library of America editions will help to reveal a writer whose narrative skill and layered perspectives are both challenging and enthralling. He was such a lively stylist—in a novel like The Ides of March, say—that earlier readers may have overlooked his mesmerizing revisionist method of story-telling, constantly upending our sense of the motives and emotions of characters.

Wilder remains a writer whom readers approach, I think, on their own. He is discovered more than he is taught. In that he resembles the great experiences of life—sex and love and ambition and heartbreak. Readers encounter the novels of Wilder more often by chance than by assignment, and the result is a more private, personal experience, as if they alone understand. We don’t experience Hemingway, Fitzgerald, or Faulkner like that, since we encounter their work publicly, in class. They’re the ABCs of American fiction. When you discover Wilder it’s as if you’ve found a new letter. I wouldn’t put Wilder ahead of those others, but he’s part of the alphabet.

The Eighth Day is a particular favorite of yours. Why?

I suspect it was also Wilder’s favorite. He had been working with mixed success on two series of one-act plays, and seemed to have reached an impasse in his career. So he stopped, drove to the desert, and started to re-make himself as a writer. He wanted to return to the novel, and he was after something big, something as grand and expansive as one of the classic nineteenth-century novels he loved. (Even his descriptions of it as a work-in-progress hinted at his ambition. While writing the early chapters about the Ashley family boarding house, he joked to a friend that he was aiming for a cross between Louisa May Alcott and Fyodor Dostoyevsky.) He took his time writing it (it appeared a month before he turned seventy), realizing it would be unlike anything he had attempted before. He took the slimmest thread—a murder mystery—and wove it into a tapestry that spans continents and generations. It is his epic, a summing up of himself, his family, our national experience (as he saw it—a humane version of American exceptionalism), all of it posed in large and often global terms, suggested in part by the then novel ideas of Teilhard de Chardin. Coaltown is another Our Town, nowhere and everywhere.

By the way, The Eighth Day was also a favorite of John Updike’s. He once wrote of it: “Untidily, self-delightingly, it brims with wonder and wisdom, and aspires to prophecy. We marvel at a novel of such spiritual ambition and benign flamboyance.”

Wilder’s work seems so various. Are there connections between the subjects and themes and literary approaches of these later books and earlier works like Bridge of San Luis Rey and Heaven’s My Destination? With the plays?

I think there are two strong impulses that animate Wilder’s work. In a 1930 letter to a friend who asked about his first three novels, Wilder wrote: “It seems to me that my books are about: What is the worst thing that the world can do to you, and what are the last resources one has to oppose to it?” So, the isolated human in extremis. And there is a contrary impulse as well: the picaresque. From Heaven’s My Destination to Theophilus North, Wilder loved an adventuring hero—let’s call him a minor American version of Don Quixote. To a Freudian, both these impulses might be rooted in Wilder’s difficult childhood, spent constantly on the move and often apart from his family. What both themes have in common is something they share with the author: a profound sense of loneliness.

There are other recurring motifs. Strong female characters, for one, from Madre Maria del Pilar in The Bridge to Dolly Levi in The Matchmaker to Eustacia Sims in The Eighth Day.

This third volume presents for the first time a number of previously unpublished autobiographical writings from late in Wilder’s career.

Yes, he had trouble writing directly about himself, and late in life discovered that he could take incidents and occasions from his past and “fictionalize” them. The fact that he was a twin whose brother died at birth was the most riveting of these occasions and led him to write Theophilus North, which he published at age seventy-six. But he kept on writing up other facts of his life, using the basics while changing the specifics. Three of these later pieces are included in this new volume. China, Yale, and Salzburg—it’s a marvelous miscellany that nods to an exciting life and to the writer’s ability to transform it.

From mid-career onward, Wilder was something of a nomad, traveling to far-flung places in order to write: he stopped in the desert town of Douglas, Arizona, where he knew no one, and spent more than a year there working on The Eighth Day. Why was he so peripatetic?

Wilder needed stimulants. Some writers don’t. Flaubert, say, or Henry James seemed deliberately to avoid them. But other writers—Hemingway is an obvious if overblown instance—crave them and depend on them. They seek out new experience in order to transform and shape it into material. They put themselves in the way of things, the better to watch and overhear, to “finger the goods,” as it were. This partially accounts for Wilder’s restlessness, his large acquaintanceship. Conversation and alcohol, I suppose, in quantities that tended to exhaust those around him, you could count too as necessary stimulants. Then again, there is no writer who does not need to withdraw. Emily Dickinson had her bedroom, Wilder had his stateroom. He most loved to write on ocean crossings. There was the kind of freedom he preferred: an absolutely limited freedom: the freedom to roam at will while confined to the middle of nowhere; the freedom to keep a thin wall between his work and the idle, partying crowd that be both craved and avoided. But let me add a word about your use of “peripatetic.” As a young child he shuttled—Wisconsin, China, California. It must have come to seem normal.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Carl Phillips on Randall Jarrell and the childhood that never leaves us

Double Shadow
by Carl Phillips
(Farrar, Straus
and Giroux, 2011)
Carl Phillips, whose eleventh collection of poems, Double Shadow, was a finalist for the 2011 National Book Award for Poetry, joins our series of guest blog posts by writers of fiction, poetry, history, and essays about works that have influenced them. He finds that where you discover a Randall Jarrell poem can change its meaning.

As a child, one of my favorite books—still a favorite, actually—was Randall Jarrell’s book for children, The Bat-Poet, with illustrations by Maurice Sendak. Partly, the book is about a bat who wants to be a poet. Because of this, he doesn’t exactly fit in with the other bats, and this idea of not belonging, of desiring communion in a world that one is forever outside of—simply because of being who one can’t help being—is very much Jarrell’s subject. It’s also about the longing for an audience, which the bat eventually finds in a poetry-appreciating chipmunk. And as we watch the bat encounter an owl, then write about that encounter, observe a mockingbird and then put what he’s seen into words, we find that the book is also about the ability of poetry to capture experience in a way that allows us to return to that experience once it’s over.

I was five when that book came out, and of course I just loved the book for its immediate story, for the animal drawings, for how the bat eventually finds out that he can be who he is, and find something like a home in the world. Some time in my thirties, I finally read the adult poetry of Randall Jarrell, and when I did, I was shocked to see—in his collection The Lost World—three of the four poems from The Bat-Poet. How could children’s rhymes have a place in an adult book of poems?

It’s an instance where context makes every difference. The Lost World opens with one of Jarrell’s most famous poems, “Next Day,” told by a woman who, in middle age, while shopping for groceries, suddenly understands that she’s past her prime, that she looked for happiness in the wrong places, and that

              As I look at my life,
I am afraid
Only that it will change, as I am changing:

I am afraid, this morning, of my face.
The poem ends by opening out to an understanding, more broadly, of the human condition itself:
But really no one is exceptional,
No one has anything. I’m anybody,
I stand beside my grave
Confused with my life, that is commonplace and solitary.
The poem that immediately follows this poem is “The Mockingbird,” which had appeared in The Bat-Poet, though without a title. It’s straightforward enough: a description of the mockingbird’s habits (as observed by our bat poet), as he goes around “imitating life.” We see him waxing territorial, driving all the other birds from the yard, even a cat, stealing everyone else’s songs. Finally, at day’s end, the poem also ends:
A mockingbird can sound like anything.
He imitates the world he drove away
So well that for a minute, in the moonlight,
Which one’s the mockingbird? which one’s the world?
That confusion between the world and the imitation of it—to a child, to this particular child—spoke to the magic of a bird who could copy sounds so exactly. But reading those lines in the wake of the lines with which “Next Day” concludes, I understand something very different from magic, something more about how frightening it can be to no longer know for sure what reality is or has ever been. Is this my life? Was the life I remember having lived ever really like that? Did I really have certain ambitions, and have I truly ended up somewhere very different? Or, as I once put it in one of my own poems, “Would-Be Everlasting,”

                     How much
was true? Not native to it, how much has from that country been my own
rough translation?

So much of Jarrell’s poetry concerns a desire to return to childhood, to the specific image of a mother holding her child in her arms. Such a desire returns us to a time when to want or need anything was to have it provided, a time before we became shaped by the complications that make us adult human beings. Jarrell believes—correctly—that we never really lose something of the innocence of childhood, or at least of the memory of it, and a consequent longing for it. We still, as adults, want to be held, and to be able to trust unthinkingly, in spite of what we know of the world.

The final poem—again, untitled—that the bat composes, before succumbing to hibernation, appears in The Lost World as “Bats.” It’s about the vulnerability of a bat at birth, and the mother’s instinct to feed and protect her young. As the poem closes, the mother returns, with the baby bat clinging to her, to the rafters where all the other bats live:

Their sharp ears, their sharp teeth, their quick sharp faces
Are dull and slow and mild.
All the bright day, as the mother sleeps,
She folds her wings about her sleeping child.
As a child, of course, I saw this scene simply for what it is: comforting, safe, a way of thinking about mothers that resonated with my own experience. The Bat-Poet ends shortly after this poem, with the bat returning to the company of the other bats, who have already begun hibernating: “he yawned, and screwed his face up, and snuggled closer to the others.” The End. The instinct to recreate that embrace of the mother here gets expressed in more general communing.

Again, it’s intriguing to see the poem appear in an adult collection. In the context of The Lost World, “Bats” becomes a poem about the inner child. It speaks to the world of fairy tale that characterized childhood and somehow continues to haunt us. A few poems after “Bats,” Jarrell offers us “The House in the Wood,” which revisits fairy tale, what he calls “the story // We make of life.” In the poem, an adult speaker returns to a sort of fractured Hansel and Gretel scene—it’s hard to say if it’s a dream, or a way of looking at the subconscious:

                                        If I walk into the wood

As far as I can walk, I come to my own door,
The door of the House in the Wood. It opens silently:

On the bed is something covered, something humped
Asleep there, awake there—but what?
Where are we, exactly? “We are far under the surface of the night,” and “It is only a nightmare. No one wakes up, nothing happens,” Jarrell says, before concluding his poem:
Here at the bottom of the world, what was before the world
And will be after, holds me to its black

Breasts and rocks me: the oven is cold, the cage is empty,
In the House in the Wood, the witch and her child sleep.
It’s the same scene with which “Bats” ended, the mother replaced by a witch, but a witch who has abandoned her desire to cage children and cook them, in favor of the maternal gesture of sleeping protectively with the child. This is the lost world. “A bat is born / naked and blind and pale”—those are the opening two lines of “Bats.” When I read those lines in the context of The Lost World, I understand Jarrell to mean more than that. He seems to speak to our metaphysical blindness and nakedness, the vulnerability that never quite leaves us, despite adulthood. More disturbingly, that vulnerability only increases, the further we get from anything like a protecting adult figure. We’re left, as adults, to protect ourselves and, with luck, each other.

The Lost World came out one year after The Bat-Poet. For Jarrell, childhood gets left behind, and it never leaves us. He seems to have understood that there’s something poignantly adult about childhood, and that we adults are not so far from the children who believed in magic—talking chipmunks, poetry-reciting bats; indeed, our belief in that world can continue to sustain us, even as it soberingly reminds us of all that we’ve lost.

Writing about From the Devotions (1998), a previous National Book Award finalist, J. D. McClatchy observed that “Carl Phillips has done what few of his contemporaries have dared or managed with as much elegant authority. He has plotted the romantic landscape of desire . . . His tone is at once erotic and mystical, hushed and compelling. The book is a blessing, a ravishing, a haunting.” In Newsday, John Palattella called another NBA finalist, The Rest of Love (2004) “the scintillating record of a poet struggling to understand desire and to find a pattern of understanding within the struggle itself.” Phillips’s many honors include the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award, the Theodore Roethke Memorial Foundation Poetry Award, and the Thom Gunn Award for Gay Male Poetry. In 2006, he was elected a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. He is a Professor of English and of African and Afro-American Studies at Washington University in St. Louis.

Also of interest:
Related LOA works: Poets of World War II (includes five poems by Randall Jarrell); Writing Los Angeles: A Literary Anthology (includes the poem “The Lost World”)

Friday, December 9, 2011

Updating a Life: The Case of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings

The rumor that Thomas Jefferson had fathered children by his slave Sally Hemings first captured the public’s attention in 1802, when muckraking journalist James T. Callender, a former agent of Jefferson’s who turned against the president when he refused to offer him a government sinecure, wrote in a Richmond newspaper, “It is well known that the man, whom it delighteth the people to honor, keeps, and for many years has kept, as his concubine, one of his slaves. Her name is SALLY.”

For nearly two centuries, the story remained largely as it began, a rumor, one on the whole discounted by historians, vigorously refuted by keepers of Jefferson’s legacy, and tenaciously clung to by the descendents of Sally Hemings and her siblings. Reflecting the prevailing historical consensus, Merrill D. Peterson (1921–2009), in his chronology for the Library of America edition Thomas Jefferson: Writings, first published in 1984, wrote the following for the year 1802: “In July, James T. Callender, disappointed office-seeker, commences libels of Jefferson, including allegation that he fathered children by his slave Sally Hemings.” As recently as 1996, in his National Book Award–winning book American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson, historian Joseph J. Ellis concluded “that the likelihood of a liaison with Sally Hemings is remote,” with the caveat that “unless the trustees of the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation decide to exhume the remains and do DNA testing on Jefferson as well as some of his alleged progeny, it leaves the matter a mystery.”

Two years after Ellis’s book appeared, Dr. Eugene Foster and a team of geneticists conducted DNA analysis that indicated a genetic link between Jefferson and Hemings descendants: specifically, that an individual carrying the male Jefferson Y chromosome fathered Eston Hemings (born 1808), the last known child born to Sally Hemings. Of the twenty-five adult male Jeffersons who carried this chromosome living in Virginia at that time, only a few are known to have ever visited Monticello and only Jefferson himself is known to have been at Monticello approximately nine months before each of Sally Hemings’s six recorded births. “The simplest and most probable” conclusion, according to the study’s authors, was that Thomas Jefferson was Eston Hemings’s father. Most historians now agree that a preponderance of evidence—genetic, circumstantial, and oral historical—suggests that Jefferson was the father of all of Sally Hemings’s children, and this consensus is reflected, and refined, in Annette Gordon-Reed’s powerful 2008 National Book Award– and Pulitzer Prize–winning book The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family.

To reflect this new consensus, the twentieth printing of the LOA edition of Jefferson’s writings, by far the most comprehensive single volume collection available (and also, by far, The Library of America’s best-selling volume to date), will include a newly revised chronology.

Learn more about Sally Hemings and the controversy surrounding her children, visit Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: A Brief Account, at the Monticello site sponsored by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation.

Update: View or download a PDF of the updated chronology.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Update on Library of America e-books

In response to increasing demand to make our books available in electronic format and to further our nonprofit mission to disseminate great American writing as widely as possible, The Library of America recently published its first e-book, and many more e-book titles will follow in the coming months.

The first offering—available in time for the holidays—is The 50 Funniest American Writers*: An Anthology of Humor from Mark Twain to The Onion (*According to Andy Borowitz). It is available for the Kindle, Nook, iPad, and Sony Reader, and will soon be available from Google ebooks and Kobo.

Two additional titles will be available in early 2012: The Civil War: The First Year Told by Those Who Lived It and The Age of Movies: Selected Writings of Pauline Kael, followed soon thereafter by Ambrose Bierce: The Devil’s Dictionary, Tales, & Memoirs, Alexis de Tocqueville: Democracy in America, the forthcoming volume The Civil War: The Second Year Told by Those Who Lived It, and many others.

The Library of America’s goal is to insure that its e-books are as authoritative and reliable as the print versions. To insure quality control, the entire text of each title will receive at least one round (and often several rounds) of additional proofreading to catch any formatting and typographic glitches that are unique to the e-book conversion process.

Update (12/19/11): The Age of Movies is now available for the Kindle and for the Kobo eReader.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Eudora Welty and William Maxwell: Letters formed a fifty-year friendship

In an early passage in the series of lectures later published as One Writer’s Beginnings (1984), Eudora Welty reflected on her training as a child:
You learned the alphabet as you learned to count to ten, as you learned “Now I lay me” and the Lord’s Prayer and your father’s and mother’s name and address and telephone number, all in case you were lost.
That last phrase touched a nerve when she sent the lectures to her close friend and editor William Maxwell:
“In case you were lost” struck a responsive chord in my soul. I was lost, or thought I was. In Peoria. My mother was shopping in Block and Kuhl’s department store and thinking I was sufficiently absorbed with the toys I wouldn’t notice her absence, whipped up to the floor above to look at linen sheets, and when I turned around and she wasn’t there, it was as if a pit opened in front of me. What tears. There I was far from home. No mother. I sometimes wonder how I got through the remaining seventy years of my life.
Maxwell’s mother died of influenza when he was ten and, as Christopher Carduff notes in his LOA interview about Maxwell, it was “the defining event of his early life. . . In a very real sense the world stopped for him in the winter of 1918, and almost all of his best writing is a moving, literary attempt to re-create and preserve that world.” Maxwell re-examined his mother’s death in two novels, They Came Like Swallows and So Long, See You Tomorrow.

The intimate novelistic detail in Maxwell’s letter is wonderfully typical of the exchanges in the 300 letters included in What There is to Say We Have Said: The Correspondence of Eudora Welty and William Maxwell, edited by Welty biographer Suzanne Marrs and published earlier this year by Houghton Mifflin. Welty and Maxwell first met in New York when both were both in their early thirties. Welty was already a published writer and Maxwell, eager to acquire one of her pieces for The New Yorker, immediately began corresponding—and the letters between New York and Mississippi continued for more than fifty years.

Yet, it was nine years before Maxwell succeeded in convincing The New Yorker to take a Welty story. Harold Ross found “The Whole World Knows” “too arty.” The breakthrough came in 1951 with “The Bride of the Innisfallen” (I love your train story beyond all possibility of telling you”), followed quickly by “Kin” (I read “Kin” right straight through, looking for large sections that could be cut, and I couldn’t find any”) and “No Place for You, My Love” (“It’s beyond praise”). Maxwell edited all seven works Welty published in The New Yorker: five stories and two novels. By the time the correspondence reaches one of Welty’s last stories, “The Demonstrators,” more specific points of editing get addressed, as when Welty writes:
Dashes I like better than parentheses—remembering Mark Twain’s remark from somewhere, “He who would wantonly use a parenthesis would steal”—so if you agree, dash it.
Welty captured what she treasured about letter writing in her introduction to The Norton Book of Friendship:
All letters, old and new, are the still-existing parts of a life. To read them now is to be present when some discovery of truth—or perhaps untruth, some flash of light—is just occurring. It is clamorous with the moment’s happiness or pain. To come upon a personal truth of a human being however little known, and now gone forever, is in some way to admit him to our friendship. What we’ve been told need not be momentous, but it can be as good as receiving the darting glance from some very bright eye, still mischievous and mischief-making, arriving from fifty or a hundred years ago.
There are occasions when Maxwell draws inspiration from Welty, as when he dislikes Knopf’s jacket copy for So Long, See You Tomorrow so much he rewrites it:
At the end of two days . . . at my wit’s end, I helped myself to a sentence from your letter in order to get the bloody thing out of the house: “It has an inner force that never lets go.” And without giving you credit, since that would be the same thing as asking for a quote, which I would rather put my head on the railroad tracks in front of an incoming train than do to my friends.
In her introduction editor Marrs describes the unusual affinity the two writers had:
The keen intellect, the sense of humor, the lack of self-absorption, the embracing of experience in all its complexity, the capacity for love, the generosity of spirit, and the ability to face loss and death—these constitute the invisible signatures of Welty and Maxwell, signatures that are as powerfully present in their letters as in their fiction.
Also of interest:
Related LOA works: William Maxwell: Early Novels and Stories (includes They Came Like Swallows): William Maxwell: Later Novels and Stories (includes So Long, See You Tomorrow); Eudora Welty: Stories, Essays, and Memoir (includes One Writer’s Beginnings and all five New Yorker stories)

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Rafia Zafar on writers of the Harlem Renaissance—and the first “naissance”

To celebrate the publication of Harlem Renaissance Novels, volume editor Rafia Zafar spoke and read selections from the novels at the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in October. The animated Q&A session afterwards offered many intriguing insights into how these novels have been received—by Professor Zafar’s students and some recent reviewers.
Question: You say you feel shy about declaring your favorite [of the nine novels in the collection]. But what about your students? Do they have favorites? 
Zafar: They do. It’s interesting because I tell them sometimes I have no idea what they are going to like. And generationally it changes. For example, this is going back to nineteenth century [writing]. I taught Iola Leroy, the 1892 novel by Frances Harper, for years and my students would think it was the biggest snooze in the world, though I love it. And then about fifteen years ago my students started saying “This is the bomb, Dr. Z. This is so cool. They’re really talking about real issues and important matters.” Okay, what happened? The girls often like Plum Bun because, whatever their ethnic background, it speaks to them as young women trying to figure out who they are. It’s an identity . . . it’s a bildungsroman
That’s another thing. There are lots of different things that people do with genres in this period. Mystery novels. The female bildungsroman. The interesting modernist concatenation of forms that Jean Toomer does in Cane. Depending on where individual students are in their lives, they can really seize on books. But I’m sometimes surprised. Like with Iola Leroy—I think this might be didactic. Black Thunder is great. I like having history made alive. Some students like The Conjure-Man Dies because they think “Oh, wow, I’m reading a mystery novel for my literature class and that’s so cool.” They like different things. 
Question: You haven’t said anything about George S. Schuyler’s Black No More
Zafar: Oh, wow. One of the funny things that happened is there was a review in The Wall Street Journal and a review in the San Francisco Chronicle—and I won’t say which is which, but one of them said “I don’t know why she included this novel.” I mean, she’s obviously insane. And the other said: “Brilliant to include Black No More.” Satire is difficult. Sometimes the students—particularly because this satire gets very vicious toward the end where there’s a whole inversion of lynching—the students can get very, very disturbed. That’s a hard one to read. I love satire. 
But it’s not only satire. You can think of [Schuyler] as a precursor to Octavia Butler and Samuel Delany because it’s also science fiction. There’s the mad scientist, Dr. Crookman, the black scientist who invents this procedure that will turn black people white. The hook of the book is: what happens to America if all the black people disappear. And he just goes on from there. And it’s very, very funny. But there’s a very scary, dark humor that comes in at the end. I won’t give away what happens when all the black folks disappear. Wave a magic wand. 
Question: You said that early in your career you looked for the “naissance” before the “renaissance.” Could you say more about that? 
Zafar: If there was a reflowering of African American literature, when was the first flowering? That’s what led me to Phillis Wheatley whom I’ve written about long ago and then again recently for the Harvard Literary History. I just wanted to know who was writing then. My students are often shocked. They say, “Oh, there were black writers in the eighteenth century?” I say,“Yeah, maybe not thousands of them, but there were people writing.” 
And with the shift to transatlantic literature it’s been very interesting for me, since I love Phillis Wheatley. I love Harriet Jacobs. I think of them as my role models. One of the things I like to say is that, like Harriet Jacobs, I like to feel that I’m “creeping along with the humbler bugs”—one of her great lines from one of her letters. 
This is a really interesting time for early American literature, if you’re following it, because Wheatley is now seen as transatlantic. When you think of how she was hived off as the first black writer, the person the abolitionists held up: “See they can write! They can rhyme! They can write poetry!” And now she’s seen as part of this broader continuum of letters going transatlantic. You now have Donna Landry, a scholar who writes about the milkmaid poets in England in the eighteenth century and she includes Phillis Wheatley because she sees this continuum of white and black working class poets. And that’s kind of an exciting thing. In the 1830s, 1840s, 1850s, there is this real explosion of African American writing and that’s what I was looking at in my first book. [We Wear the Mask: African Americans Write American Literature, 1760-1870]
Watch a video of Rafia Zafar speaking at the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute (50 mins)

Also of interest:
Related LOA works: Harlem Renaissance Novels (boxed set); American Poetry: The Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries (includes eleven poems by Phillis Wheatley); Slave Narratives (includes The Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Ann Jacobs)

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Margaret Fuller’s Thanksgiving Day revelation

On Thanksgiving Day, 1831, 21-year-old Margaret Fuller experienced a moment Emerson biographer Robert D. Richardson describes as having “some of the earmarks of a religious conversion and some elements of a mystical experience.” Fuller had attended morning church services with her father but had “a feeling of disunion with the hearers and dissent from the preacher.”

Spending the next few hours walking alone through nearby fields, she came upon a stream “shrunken, voiceless, choked with withered leaves.” She sat down by a pool. Nine years later she recreated what happened next in her journal:
I did not think; all was dark, and cold, and still. Suddenly the sun shone out with that transparent sweetness, like the last smile of a dying lover, which it will use when it has been unkind all a cold autumn day. And, even then, passed into my thought a beam from its true sun, from its native sphere, which has never since departed from me. I remembered how, a little child, I had stopped myself one day on the stairs, and asked, how came I here? How is that I seem to be this Margaret Fuller? What does it mean? What shall I do about it? I remembered all the times and ways in which the same thought had returned. I saw how long it must be before the soul can learn to act under these limitations of time and space, and human nature; but I saw, also, that it MUST do it,--that it must make all this false true,--and sow new and immortal plants in the garden of God, before it could return again. I saw there was no self, that selfishness was all folly, and the results of circumstance; that it was only because I thought self real that I suffered; that I had only to live in the idea of the ALL, and all was mine. This truth came to me, and I received it unhesitatingly; so that I was for that hour taken up into God. In that true ray most of the relations of earth seemed mere films, phenomena.
This momentary epiphany infused Fuller’s life. Her biographer Charles Capper finds that it did not so much change her religious opinions as add to her life “two things at once subtler, and, in the long run, much more important”:
One was a certain intuitive religiosity she had never known before. The other was a new degree of philosophical seriousness and urgency—a desire . . . not for self-renunciation but for some sort of self-transcendence. She was on her way to transforming herself from a bookish adolescent to an intellectual with a mission.
Also of interest:
Related LOA works: Writing New York: A Literary Anthology (includes Margaret Fuller on “City Charities”); American Poetry: The Nineteenth Century, volume one: Freneau to Whitman (includes two poems by Margaret Fuller)

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Sanford Schwartz on the “bedrock of emotional rightness and believability” in Pauline Kael’s film criticism

Sanford Schwartz, art critic and biographer, recently spoke with us about The Age of Movies: Selected Writings of Pauline Kael, which he edited for The Library of America.

Why a new collection of Pauline Kael's writing, and why now?

I believe Pauline Kael has one of the truly distinctive voices in American criticism—American writing, really—and needs to have a representative selection of her writing continuously available. It is wonderful that The Library of America feels the same way. And then most of her own collections have been out of print.

What was your relationship to Kael, and how did she influence you as moviegoer, as critic, and as a writer?

We were good friends from the 1960s on. Like many people, I wanted to talk back to her reviews—her writing invited this—and so I wrote her now and then, and that is how our friendship began. Later, there was a period when we lived a few blocks from each other, and it was easy to get together. She was an immense influence in many ways. I didn’t always agree with her, of course, but I was so amazed by her aphoristic and witty style I rarely felt I could just dismiss her opinions. They got under my skin.

In my twenties I wanted to write movie criticism, and I sent her pieces for comment, which she freely, often stingingly, gave. Even after I eventually came to write about art, I often sent her pieces to look at. This was tricky, because she was a teacher of sorts, and a generous one, and she didn’t just read you: she judged every sentence. If I survived her scrutiny I felt armored and ready to take on my actual editor. When I read her letters in preparation for selecting pieces for The Age of Movies, I found that she was doing that same thing for whatever her friend Robert Duncan would send her, and she was in her early twenties at the time.

What was Kael's impact on the cultural scene of the 1960s and 1970s?

I think she had less of an impact in the 1960s because at the beginning of the decade she was writing mostly for movie and small-circulation magazines and then, later in the decade, you didn’t know where she would pop up. Her greatest influence certainly came after she joined The New Yorker in 1968 and during the first two-thirds of the next decade, when American movies in particular were so exciting and demanding. Many commentators have described her principally in terms of the way she showed how you could write about a popular, mass-market form and find in it the aspirations and delusions of the culture as a whole. I don’t deny the importance of this. But for the majority of her readers, and this would be in the 1980s as well, her significance was that, whether she liked the film or not, she gave you, as no other writer did, the full experience of it.

John Dos Passos on the 1932 “Bonus Army” encampment in Washington, D.C.

Earlier this month The History Nerd and NPR’s Radio Diaries noted parallels between the current Occupy Wall Street movement and the Bonus Army protests of 1932. Both initiatives, in Radio Diaries’ words, “set up encampments and vowed to stay until their voices were heard.”

What prompted the Bonus Army movement may need some context. In 1924, Congress passed a bill, over President Calvin Coolidge’s veto, to compensate World War I veterans: $1 a day for domestic service, $1.25 for each day served overseas. Those entitled to $50 were to be paid immediately, but those due more would receive certificates redeemable only upon their deaths or in 1945, whichever came sooner.

As the Depression deepened, many veterans felt they could not wait for their “Tombstone Bonus.” One of the most impatient was Walter W. Waters, an out-of-work former Army sergeant who, on March 15, 1932, stood up at a meeting in Portland, Oregon, and urged his fellow veterans to hop a freight train to Washington to claim the money that was rightfully theirs. By May 11 Waters had stirred up enough support that 250 Oregon veterans joined him on his march.

Newspaper coverage of their trek, by rail and truck, inspired marches by veterans across the country. When Waters and his men reached Washington on May 29 several hundred others had already arrived—and soon tens of thousands were encamped in Anacostia Flats and other areas in the northeast quadrant of the capital.

Dispatched by The New Republic to cover this grassroots phenomenon, John Dos Passos reported on what he saw in June 1932 (later collected in In All Countries):
Anacostia Flats is the ghost of an army camp from the days of the big parade, with its bugle calls, its messlines, greasy K. P.'s, M. P.'s, headquarters, liaison officers, medical officer. Instead of the tents and the long tarpaper barracks of those days, the men are sleeping in little leantos built out of old newspapers, cardboard boxes, packing crates, bits of tin or tarpaper roofing, old shutters, every kind of cockeyed makeshift shelter from the rain scraped together out of the city dump. 
. . . One of the strangest sights Pennsylvania Avenue has ever seen was a long line of ex-service men, hunched under their bedticking full of straw, filling up a long stairway in the middle of a particularly demolished fourstory garage that the police department had turned over to them. The cops and ex-service men play baseball together in the afternoon; they are buddies together. 
The arrival of the bonus army seems to be the first event to give the inhabitants of Washington any inkling that something is happening in the world outside of their drowsy sunparlor. . . . In the Anacostia streetcar two mail carriers and the conductor started to talk about it. “Well, they say they'll stay here till they get the bonus if they have to stay here till 1945 . . . . Terrible to think of men, women, and children starvin' and havin' to beg charity relief with all the stuff there is going to waste in this country.” . . . One of the mail carriers was from Texas and had just come back from a trip home. He'd seen them plowing under last year's unharvested cotton. “We got the food, we got the clothing, we got the man power, we got the brains,” he said. “There must be some remedy.”
When one proposed remedy—a cash-now bill to appropriate $2.4 billion to the veterans—passed the House but failed to pass the Senate, many bonus marchers accepted defeat and left. But more than 20,000 stayed. And the Hoover administration grew anxious. On July 28, just shy of two months after the encampment began, the Washington police began the process of removing the marchers. A skirmish around the armory led to shots being fired, a veteran was killed and three policemen injured. President Hoover called in General Douglas MacArthur to resolve the crisis. Paul Dickson and Thomas Allen, authors of The Bonus Army: An American Epic, chronicle what followed in an excellent article in Smithsonian Magazine:

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Nathaniel Philbrick asks “Why Read Moby-Dick?” and many rise to the “cunning test”

One of the delightful consequences of the publication of maritime historian Nathaniel Philbrick’s provocative new book, Why Read Moby-Dick?, is how it has spurred reviewers to seek the clinching answer.

Philbrick offers an “adaptation” of his argument in the November issue of Vanity Fair. After itemizing what made the time in which Melville wrote such an “extraordinary historical moment”—the sudden eruption of railroads and steamboats, the end of the Mexican War, the discovery of gold in California, and, most ominously, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which made slavery “no longer just a southern problem”—Philbrick expounds:
Melville’s intense imaginative engagement with these forces of turmoil and change meant that the novel he wrote and re-wrote over the course of a year beginning in September 1850 would be about much more than a whaling voyage to the Pacific. Indeed, contained in the pages of Moby-Dick is nothing less than the genetic code of America: all the promises, problems, conflicts, and ideals that had contributed to the outbreak of a revolution in 1775 and were about to precipitate a civil war in 1861, and that have continued to drive this country’s ever contentious march across 160 years, up through the current “war on terror.” This means that whenever a new crisis grips this country, Moby-Dick becomes newly important. It is why subsequent generations of readers have seen Ahab as Hitler during World War II or, closer to our own day, as a profit-mad, deep-drilling oil company in 2010, or as one of several power-crazed Middle Eastern dictators in 2011. 
Among the expatriates in Paris in the 1920s, Moby-Dick was what one writer described as “a sort of cunning test by which the genuineness of another man’s response to literature could be proved.” In 1927, William Faulkner, who would later hang a framed print of Rockwell Kent’s Captain Ahab in his living room in Oxford, Mississippi, claimed that Moby-Dick was the one novel by another author that he wished he had written. In 1949, Ernest Hemingway, upon entering his 50s, wrote his publisher that he considered Melville one of the handful of writers he was still trying to beat.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Jonathan Lethem on the “Exegesis” of Philip K. Dick

This month Houghton Mifflin publishes The Exegesis of Philip K. Dick, a massive tome of more than one thousand pages edited by Jonathan Lethem and Pamela Jackson. To create this volume the editors culled through some 8,000 pages of typed and handwritten notes, journal entries, letters, and story sketches Dick spent the last years of his life obsessively reworking.

In his exclusive LOA interview about VALIS and Later Novels in 2009, Lethem described the “Exegesis”:
LOA: You mention in the Notes to the volume that Dick wrote VALIS in a “mere two weeks in November 1978, but its composition had a longer foreground” and that it incorporates material that Dick had “rehearsed in his ‘Exegesis’, an extensive journal project.” I gather that the “Exegesis” spanned some 8,000 pages upon Dick’s death. How does the material in it differ from what he includes in his novels? Is VALIS the only novel that includes work from it? Will all of it ever be published? 
Lethem: To take the simplest question first: VALIS is the only novel that includes language from the 8,000 (largely handwritten, unstructured, repetitive, digressive, and often dull) pages called the “Exegesis”—and, in their clarity and compression, these passages are far from typical of the whole. Some other (still comparatively “finished”) sequences from those pages are collected in In Pursuit of VALIS, edited by Dick biographer Lawrence Sutin. The challenges in organizing and transcribing the lion’s share of this material are being slowly approached by the Dick estate, with the help of some conservators and scholars, even as we speak. So, if you’re really excited about the prospect of reading the entirety, for the first time there’s a project to root for. But be warned: it shows no prospect of being some “lost masterwork,” nor even particularly readable.
Earlier this week Lethem spoke with John Hockenberry on NPR’s The Takeaway about the just-published selection from the “Exegesis” :
Lethem: This was literary detective work on a lot of levels. [Dick] left this stuff completely unsorted. There‘s no page numbering. You can’t put it in chronological order. Pamela Jackson took the brunt of this. She was the hands-on editor who really made some sense out of the chaos. It mirrors what Dick was doing in the writing. He’s trying to take the chaos of reality, of his experience of the universe, and put it in some kind of order, and mostly failing. The book represents an endless series of restarts. Every morning he gets up and thinks: no, no, no throw it all out. Here’s how everything works. He begins the book a hundred times. What we did was to try and embrace the best material, distill it, remove the repetitious stuff, and bring it into a framework where you could approach it. It’s not a book that reads like a narrative. It doesn’t get anywhere. It’s an endless meditation on existence. 
Hockenberry: In the end does that meditation give us a glimpse of a world far into the future that he imagined where we are headed? Or is it a look back at a life which in a sense might be sad and unfinished at the end? 
Lethem: It’s all of those things. It does have visionary sequences in it. You can take elements of this and project them into the most amazing and unwritten Philip K, Dick novels. It’s also very, very mournful and retrospective. In some ways it’s about a writer failing to grapple with his materials and drowning inside them on a daily basis. It’s brave but also kind of tragic. It’s also really quite a scholarly work. He was studying Aramaic. He was reading the Gnostic gospels. He was gathering every piece of material he could to try to bring to bear on the inklings he was having about the world. 
Hockenberry: Is there something you found in that treasure trove where you said “This guy is just a genius.” 
Lethem: There are lyrical flights in it where suddenly it becomes visionary, it becomes literary and you just see the writer taking over and the language soars. Those are the moments I live for as an editor.
Also of interest:
Related LOA works: The Philip K. Dick Collection (3-book boxed set)

Friday, November 4, 2011

Tracy Daugherty on the 50th Anniversary of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22

To mark the fiftieth anniversary this fall of the publication of Catch-22, Tracy Daugherty, author of Just One Catch: A Biography of Joseph Heller, offers this guest blog post.

Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 was not an immediate success, critically or commercially, when it was first published fifty years ago. Novelist Richard Stern, writing on page 50 of the October 22, 1961 New York Times Book Review, said Heller’s book was “no novel.” It was, rather, an “emotional hodge-podge” and its author “like a brilliant painter who decides to throw all the ideas in his sketchbooks onto the canvas” to “compensate for the lack of design.” The review caught Heller and his editor, Robert Gottlieb, by surprise. They thought they had “the fix in,” as Heller told a friend.

In advance of the book’s publication, Gottlieb had taken Francis Brown, the editor of the New York Times Book Review, to lunch. Gottlieb impressed upon Brown the unusual and special nature of Catch-22 and urged him not to assign a conventional reviewer to the novel. Brown assured Gottlieb he would give the matter careful consideration. He chose Richard Stern to review the book because Stern was considered a “black humorist,” just the type of writer who could appreciate what Heller was up to in crafting a comic take on war.

The catch was, Stern saw Heller as a competitor, and used the review to try to squelch him. In years to come, stories circulated (until they became myths) that Heller had been extremely confident about Catch-22’s success, so much so that bad reviews never bothered him. In fact, he was terribly anxious about the book’s reception; after all, anxiety is the core subject in all of his novels. Years later, he could quote verbatim lines from his negative reviews. Alice Denham, a friend of Heller’s and an aspiring writer, remembered him stopping by her apartment on Manhattan’s west side shortly after Stern’s review appeared. She said he was exceedingly glum and she gave him a stiff drink. He’d been hoping the book would skyrocket and allow him to quit his job as an advertising copywriter.

The day would come when he would be able to live off his books, but in the meantime Catch-22 gained traction slowly. Initially, the novel sold better in England than it did in the United States. The Cold War was at its height, and Europeans saw Americans as bellicose and blinkered in their paranoid views of Communism. British reviewers couldn’t believe that a scathing anti-war novel would come out of the United States, and they were delighted. Catch-22 shot to the top of the British bestseller lists.

Immediately, Robert Gottlieb purchased ad space in American newspapers, urging American readers, “Come on! Don’t let the English beat us! Come on Yanks! To your booksellers! Help close the Catch-gap!” Heller was lucky that his publisher, Simon & Schuster, had just weathered enormous personnel changes at the top, the result of several deaths and retirements. No senior authority figure was around to oversee Gottlieb’s ad campaign for Catch-22: he spent money freely and publicized the book for an unusually long time. He had once confessed to a fellow editor, “I don’t really understand popular fiction.” But he knew how to create a sensation.

Despite moments of despair over negative reviews, Heller enjoyed the positive responses he got more than any other author Gottlieb had ever witnessed. He took an “innocent and marvelous, happy, wholesome enjoyment in his success,” Gottlieb said, once the book finally took off. “He loved being the author of Catch-22.” By the end of the 1960s, once the novel had been embraced as a book about Vietnam (its absurdities now seemed to match the daily newspaper headlines), Catch-22 had achieved critical eminence as well as popular success. Historian Stephen E. Ambrose was one of the earliest critics to note the novel’s importance. In January 1962, he wrote Heller, “For sixteen years I have been waiting for the great anti-war book which I knew WW II must produce. I rather doubted, however, that it would come out of America; I would have guessed Germany. I am happy to have been wrong. Thank you.”

Also of interest:

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Celebrate the centennial year of Ambrose Bierce’s The Devil’s Dictionary

David Marsh on The Guardian’s Mind Your Language blog and Stefany Anne Golberg on Drexel University’s The Smart Set remind us that Ambrose Bierce only succeeded in publishing The Devil’s Dictionary with the title he wanted in 1911 when, at the age of 69, he included it in his Collected Works. When Doubleday, Page first brought the book out in 1906 they feared the public reaction to Bierce’s title and called it The Cynic’s Word Book (“Cynics” being as familiarly used in titles then as “Dummies” is now). Bierce dismissed this change in a letter:
Here in the East the Devil is a sacred personage (the Fourth Person of the Trinity, as an Irishman might say) and his name must not be taken in vain.
Bierce had been peppering his newspaper columns with the aphoristic definitions that fill The Devil’s Dictionary since 1881. Yet Marsh, among others, finds his writing remarkably fresh today:
While some entries have dated, much of the book remains strikingly topical: in the Rs alone we find definitions of radicalism ("the conservatism of to-morrow injected into the affairs of to-day"), referendum ("a law for submission of proposed legislation to a popular vote to learn the nonsensus of public opinion"), and riot ("a popular entertainment given to the military by innocent bystanders"). 
In some ways, Bierce was born too soon: many of his aphorisms would have made wonderful tweets. He would have savoured the controversy over the Man Booker prize ("novel: a short story padded") and phone hacking ("pillory: a mechanical device ... prototype of the modern newspaper").
Golberg offers some thoughts on why Bierce’s Dictionary has enjoyed such enduring popularity:
He was a satirist of the first order . . . he saw himself as no mere humorist, no dandy wit seeking cheap titters from parlor rooms. Rather, Bierce saw himself as a voice of authority and a harbinger of truth. No one was safe from his verbal blitz. It’s amazing that any newspaper ever employed Ambrose Bierce, who readily showered his bile on anyone and anything in society he deemed hypocritical—which was just about everyone and everything. The Devil’s Dictionary was an attack on politics, philosophy, the aristocracy. For example, a POLITICIAN was:
An eel in the fundamental mud upon which the superstructure of organized society is reared. When he wriggles he mistakes the agitation of his tail for the trembling of the edifice. As compared with the statesman, he suffers the disadvantage of being alive.
In his exclusive LOA interview S.T. Joshi, editor of Ambrose Bierce: The Devil’s Dictionary, Tales, & Memoirs, cites two of his favorite entries:
Bierce refined his satirical skills over the decades so that he was able to pack the biggest wallop into the smallest space. His classic definition of “Alone” (“In bad company.”) is an example. My favorite definition is that for “Cynic,” where Bierce was clearly thinking of himself: “A blackguard whose faulty vision sees things as they are, not as they ought to be.”
Read the entire interview with S. T. Joshi about Ambrose Bierce (PDF)

Also of interest:
Related LOA works: Ambrose Bierce: The Devil’s Dictionary, Tales, & Memoirs
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