Thursday, September 29, 2011

Celebrate the centennial of Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome

Edith Wharton began writing Ethan Frome as an exercise to improve her grasp of idiomatic French while she was living in Paris in 1907. Set aside for several years, it was the source of great pleasure when she returned to it in 1910, as she recalled in A Backward Glance (1934):
The book to the making of which I brought the greatest joy and the fullest ease was Ethan Frome. For years I had wanted to draw life as it really was in the derelict mountain villages of New England, a life even in my time, and a thousandfold more a generation earlier, utterly unlike that seen through the rose-coloured spectacles of my predecessors, Mary Wilkins and Sarah Orne Jewett.
She seemed bemused by what she was creating, writing to Bernard Berenson that the story had become:
That ridiculous nouvelle, which has grown into a large long-legged hobbledoy of a young novel. 20,000 long it is already, and growing. I have to let its frocks down every day, and soon it will be in trousers!
Wharton completed the work early in 1911, and it was serialized in the August through October issues of Scribner’s Magazine. She made further revisions and corrections in the proofs for the book, which was published by Charles Scribner’s Sons on September 30.

The publication of A House of Mirth in 1905 had caused a sensation and by 1911 Wharton had developed a devoted following—but Ethan Frome was something different: a frame-tale of marital unhappiness, with an ending of shattering violence, as biographer Hermione Lee describes:
For readers more familiar with The House of Mirth or The Custom of the Country, Ethan Frome comes as a shock, and this is not just because of the dramatic switch from her usual territory to the remote hills and poor farmers’ lives of nineteenth-century New England. What is just as startling is its quietness, what Henry James admiringly called its “kept-downness.” Ethan Frome is a story of silence and speechlessness. Voices and feelings are all “snowed under.” (The first French translation, which she oversaw, was titled Sous la Neige.) The characters live inside “dumb melancholy” and “secretive silence,” broken by sudden outbursts of long-repressed emotion.
Shortly after publication, Wharton was  indeed delighted to receive Henry James’s assessment:
I exceedingly admire, sachez Madame, Ethan Frome. A beautiful art & tone & truth—a beautiful artful kept-downness, & yet effective cumulation. It’s a “gem”—& excites great admiration here.
Another fan, Theodore Roosevelt, wrote her that the novel was “one of the most powerful things you have done.”

Ironically, many reviewers praised Ethan Frome specifically because they found it so unJamesian. The reviewer for The Nation wrote “we might have been reasonably content to rank her as the greatest pupil of a little master, were it not for the appearance of Ethan Frome.” And in Current Literature: “She has long been supposed, as the New York Sun puts it, to worship Henry James on her knees. Now, says that paper, she is standing on her feet.”

Other reviewers, however, like England’s Saturday Review, found the ending too upsetting: “Having read the story, we wish we had not read it. The error is in the end. There are things too terrible in their failure to be told humanly by creature to creature.”

Initial sales were slow, just 4,000 copies by mid-November and Wharton complained to her publisher, Charles Scribner, about the lack of advertising, poor distribution, and bad typesetting. Scribner responded by pointing out that fiction of a nonstandard length was always unpopular and unprofitable. Wharton would have her revenge, satirizing him in Hudson River Bracketed (1929) as the publisher Mr. Dreck who “didn’t know a meaner length” than forty-five thousand words.

Of course, selling well is the best revenge and the story has proved one of the most popular of Wharton’s works and over the years has been adapted for stage, television, film, and opera.

Also of interest:
Related LOA works: Edith Wharton: Novellas and Other Writings (includes Ethan Frome)

Monday, September 26, 2011

The Library of America Neologisms Contest – we have a winner!

Thank you to everyone who submitted entries to the Neologisms Contest we included as part of Patricia T. O’Conner’s wonderful guest blog post. We received more than a dozen responses with all correct answers on the first day of the contest.

The winner of the Grand Prize—the 12-volume Founding Fathers Library (a $440.00 value)—is John Latta from Ann Arbor, Michigan, who submitted the first entry with all of the correct answers.

Two contestants submitted perfect entries just minutes behind the winner. We deemed that heart-breaking and are recognizing their worthy efforts by awarding prizes to the two runners-up: both John Raimo from Mt. Arlington, New Jersey, and Thomas Cubbage from Arlington, Virginia, will receive the five-volume Founding Fathers Library .

Congratulations to our winners. You can find the answers to the quiz here.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Patricia T. O’Conner on American neologisms
Quiz: Identify who coined which word

Guest blog post by Patricia T. O’Conner, author of five books about language, including Woe Is I and, most recently, Origins of the Specious: Myths and Misconceptions of the English Language (with Stewart Kellerman). Test your own knowledge of American coinages in the crafty Neologisms Quiz she has created for us. Pat and Stewart answer language questions daily on The Grammarphobia Blog.

English has hundreds of thousands of words, depending on how you count them. And every one was once a neologism—a brand-new word. Somebody or other was the first to use it, perhaps by adapting it from another word, borrowing it from another language, or making it up out of the clear blue.

A neologism (from the Greek roots for “new” and “word”) is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as a “newly coined” word or phrase, or one that’s “new to the language.” And a neologist is “a person who coins or uses new words or phrases.”

To that we should add “ … and who writes them down.” Because in lexicography, written evidence is what counts. Anybody who wants to get the credit for a neologism has to be the first to record it in writing.

In the neologism sweepstakes, British authors have beaten their American counterparts hands-down. But they’ve had quite a head start. They’ve been creating words since the earliest days of Old English, the language of the Anglo-Saxons. Through no fault of our own, we Americans arrived late to the game.

Never mind. American writers, poets, and statesmen have been enthusiastically neologizing to make up for lost time. In fact, it was Thomas Jefferson who coined the verb “neologize.” And Mark Twain created the perfect word to celebrate the first couple of hundred years of American word-making—“bicentennial.”

American neologisms are in use wherever English is spoken. Mary McCarthy’s “ivory tower” perfectly captures the image of an academic fortress. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “idyllic” is irreplaceable. On a more down-to-earth level, John Greenleaf Whittier contributed “woodsy.” Now what on earth would we do without “woodsy”? We’d have to make do with “sylvan” or “bosky” or “forested.”

Earthier still is the anatomical Yiddish import “putz,” first used in English by Henry Miller. And then there’s “shag,” the verb meaning “to copulate.” The British use the word more than we do, but guess who first used it in print? Would you believe that champion neologizer Thomas Jefferson? Don’t take my word for it—look it up.

I have to confess that I have a particular fondness for B-list neologisms, new words that either didn’t make it into standard dictionaries or slipped in through the back door as slang or colloquialisms.

Henry James, for instance, gave us a short-lived neologism that many a woman might like to see revived: “fascinatress.” How can you not like “fascinatress”? The ever-inventive Twain gave us words that are still familiar (like “lunkhead” and “plunkety-plunk”), but some of his sillier coinages have vanished, sadly. Let’s bring back “elocute” (to talk), “corpsy” (cadaverous), and “brontosaurian” (antiquated or clumsy).

For oddball neologisms, it’s tough to beat James Russell Lowell, the unsung inventor of “locomutation” (change of place), “gyniolatry” (excessive devotion to women), “pluviosity” (rainfall), “vapulatory” (of or related to flogging), and “worsification” (bad verse). Surely there’s room for “worsification” in English! (Merriam-Webster’s, please take note.)

If you’re a lover of words, oddball or otherwise, here’s a challenge:

The Library of America Neologisms Contest — UPDATED
How good is your neologism radar? Let’s put it to the test. Match the coinage in column one with the coiner in column two. You can view the answers by clicking on the link below the chart.

Click here to see who won the contest's Grand Prize—the twelve-volume Founding Fathers Library (a $440.00 value, plus the free book American Revolution).

Absolutely no purchase is necessary or requested. Only one entry per person, please. The determination of the winner will be made at the sole discretion of The Library of America, and the winner will be notified by e-mail. Only U.S. residents may participate, and we will ship the prize to any address in the U.S. The winner’s name and location (city, state) will be posted on this blog.

CoinageCoiner
1. “commote” (to cause a commotion)A. Benjamin Franklin
2. “x” (to delete or cross out) B. John Steinbeck
3. “cocoon” (to swathe)C. Ralph Waldo Emerson
4. “belittle”D. James Russell Lowell
5. “godforsaken”E. Henry David Thoreau
6. “depersonalize” (to deprive of personality)F. Nathaniel Hawthorne
7. “whoop-de-do” (a bustle or fuss)G. Herman Melville
8. “A No. l” (first-class) H. William Faulkner
9. “blat” (to blurt out) I. Wallace Stevens
10. “snivelization” (civilization as a cause of anxiety)J. William Penn
11. “blabbermouth”K. Thomas Jefferson
12. “harmonica”L. William Dean Howells
13. “honk” (both noun and verb)M. Zora Neale Hurston
14. “hot cakes” (pancakes or griddle cakes)N. Mark Twain
15. “squat” (nothing)O. James Fenimore Cooper

View the answers!

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Joseph J. Corn on Into the Blue and how air warfare has evolved over the past century

Few books The Library of America has published offer quite such a far-ranging mix of ingenuity, daring, suspense, lyricism, and technical know-how as Into the Blue: American Writers on Aviation and Spaceflight, the new anthology that just arrived in the warehouse. In an exclusive interview (PDF) for the September LOA e-Newsletter volume editor Joseph J. Corn shared several of the book’s many highlights:
LOA: You note in your introduction that “One of the first practical purposes mankind found for the airplane was killing people.” Into the Blue effectively documents how dramatically the use of planes for warfare has changed over the past century: from World War I dogfights to what flight crews in Afghanistan call “the Kabul-ki Dance.” How would you characterize this progression? 
Corn: Yes, the use of airplanes to kill people—purposefully, not just accidentally—emerged early. In a 1914 selection published just after the start of World War I and before any Americans flew in the conflict, aviator Glenn L. Martin offered a prophesy as to how “veritable flying death,” as he called it, would change the face of warfare. 
He correctly divined the role that aircraft would play in reconnaissance, plane-to-plane combat, and bombing, although in the latter he strangely seems to have imagined that a major form of bombing would be suicide missions. “One man, driving an aeroplane laden with high explosives,” he wrote, would “dive like a plummet upon the bows of a great warship and destroy it. He gives one life, the enemy gives many.” Such sacrifices never became part of American tactics, but reconnaissance, dogfights, and dropping high explosives on enemies became staples of air warfare. 
By World War II military fliers added a number of new missions to this basic trio. Close support of ground troops became more important, as is seen in Samuel Hynes’s account of flying in Okinawa in 1945, dropping food, fuel, and other supplies to ground forces in parts of the island where just miles away the Japanese were still resisting. Air support of ground troops changed again in Vietnam, as Esquire reporter Michael Herr reports from his experience there from 1967–68. Armed as gunships, helicopters moved men and supplies and worked intimately with the infantry. 
Different still is the mission implicit in Sherman Baldwin’s gripping account of a night landing on a moving carrier deck during the Gulf War. His heavy EA-6B Prowler aircraft, with a crew of four, existed not to attack or bomb but solely to monitor and jam enemy communications; in part this was reconnaissance updated for the electronic age, but in using electronics as a weapon, it was also new. A similar but more high-tech chapter of ground support is presently visible in the skies over Afghanistan, as journalist Mark Bowden reports in the selection, “The Kabul-ki Dance.” The Air Force F-15s loitering over Kabul serve like taxis, awaiting communications from the ground on where to deliver the next lethal air-to-ground strike. 
In short, the missions our military has flown over nearly a century demonstrate continuity as well as change, defined and shaped in large part by the growing power of computerized communications technologies.
Read the entire interview (PDF)

Also of interest:
Related LOA works: Into the Blue: American Writers on Aviation and Spaceflight

Monday, September 19, 2011

Brooklyn Book Festival 2011: Mark Strand, Jhumpa Lahiri, Walter Mosley, Colson Whitehead

On Sunday, September 18, thousands of readers flocked to Brooklyn’s Borough Hall and surrounding venues to hear some 260 writers who had come to read and discuss their work on more than one hundred panels at the sixth annual Brooklyn Book Festival. Every hour twelve free events competed for the attention of the decision-addled attendees.

Pulitzer Prize–winning poet Mark Strand joined Jean Valentine, Tina Chang, Justin Long-Moton, and Alice Quinn on the windy outdoor stage opposite the steps of Borough Hall to wake up the early morning crowd with recitations. Strand's brisk reading of “Dream Testicles, Vanished Vaginas” certainly did that. “I like reading this in a public place,” he chuckled.

Listen to Mark Strand read three of his poems:


Each year the festival gives its BoBi Award to “an author whose body of work exemplifies or speaks to the spirit of Brooklyn and has had a broad impact on the field of literature.” This year the award went to the Brooklyn resident Jhumpa Lahiri. Lahiri read from her second, untitled novel to a packed audience at St. Ann and the Holy Trinity Church and then discussed her writing with critic Liesl Schillinger. Lahiri explained that she had been working on the novel for fourteen years, even while she published two collections of stories, the Pulitzer Prize–winning The Interpreter of Maladies (1999) and Unaccustomed Earth (2008), and her first novel, The Namesake (2003). Asked if she writes for a hyphenated-American audience, Lahiri responded, “I don’t know. I write to answer questions I have about my life.”

On Saturday night St. Francis College, which hosted many of the festival’s events, announced that Jonathan Dee, a festival participant, won the second annual St. Francis College Literary Award for his novel The Privileges. The $50,000 prize is “aimed at encouraging mid-career authors to continue honing their craft.” “So much of being a writer is about disappointment and discouragement,” Dee said in accepting the award. “Tonight I feel the exact opposite. I feel nothing but encouraged.”

In another session at St. Ann’s previous BoBi winner Walter Mosley joined Irish writer Eoin Colfer to discuss “Gumshoes.” After Mosley read a chapter from his new Leonid McGill novel, All I Did Was Shoot My Man (coming in January), Los Angeles Times book critic David L. Ulin asked him about the draw of crime fiction and how it works. Mosley expounded on what the genre allows him to do:
Crime fiction . . . allows you a view into worlds that you might not see otherwise. Let’s say you were going to write a story about an undocumented laborer in Central California and how he died and how he lived. If you write the story straightforward like that what you do is that you get readers who are interested in that. But if the way you got into that story was from a Chicano detective who is hired by somebody in the area to find out who indeed killed the boss of all these workers then all of a sudden you have a much larger group. You can reach much further by putting something in crime fiction because a lot of people read crime fiction and they don’t care where it happens. They don’t care who’s in it. They care about the resolution of the crime because that’s what’s important to them. But in doing that you’re able to talk about a much broader world and bring people into that.
Listen to Walter Mosley talk about crime fiction:


By most accounts the most sought after ticket was to “Apocalypse Now and Then What?” which featured Tananarive Due reading from My Soul to Take, the latest in her series of African Immortals novels; Patrick Somerville, who read “No Sun” from his story collection The Universe in Miniature in Miniature; and Colson Whitehead, reading from his highly anticipated new novel, Zone One, due out in October. Whitehead took pains to set up his reading: “Zone One is an autobiographical novel based on my time clearing out zombies from downtown Manhattan. . . Some people dream about being naked in public. For me it’s zombies. Sometimes I get bit. Sometimes I make it to the human settlement.” By writing about his dreams Whitehead hoped to exorcise them, “and I’ve been 90% successful.”

Also of interest:
Related LOA works: American Religious Poems: An Anthology by Harold Bloom (includes two poems by Mark Strand); Becoming Americans: Four Centuries of Immigrant Writing (includes “The Third and Final Continent” from Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Interpreter of Maladies); Writing Los Angeles: A Literary Anthology (includes an excerpt from Walter Mosley’s Devil in a Blue Dress) and Writing New York: A Literary Anthology (includes an excerpt from The Colossus of New York by Colson Whitehead)

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Kenneth Slawenski on the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Franny and Zooey

Guest blog post by Kenneth Slawenski, author of J. D. Salinger: A Life and creator of the website Dead Caulfields, on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of the book Franny and Zooey by J. D. Salinger

Franny and Zooey was published by Little, Brown and Company on September 14, 1961. The book couples two stories that Salinger had previously published in The New Yorker: the story “Franny,” (January 29, 1955) and the novella, “Zooey” (May 4, 1957). Salinger squeezed another Glass family between these two, “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters” (also in The New Yorker, November 19, 1955), but that wouldn’t appear in book form until 1963 when it was paired with another New Yorker story “Seymour: An Introduction” (June 6, 1959).

No story revealed Salinger’s quest for perfection better than “Zooey.” He worked on it for over a year and half, agonizing over every word and punctuation. But Gus Lobrano, the nurturing New Yorker editor he had begun working with in 1947 in revising “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” died of cancer in March 1956 and Katherine White’s new regime proved unsympathetic to what Salinger was now doing. They found “Zooey” long and meandering, its characters too precious, and they rejected it unanimously. Editor William Maxwell broke the news, trying to spare Salinger’s feelings by citing the magazine’s policy against publishing “sequels.” Who knows what would have happened to “Zooey” had not William Shawn overridden his staff and decided to work with Salinger himself to cut the novella down? And that’s what they did over the next six months. The intensively edited shorter version published in the magazine is identical with the one published in the book.

Franny and Zooey’s publication in book form prompted a cover story in Time and established Salinger as the leading author of his day. It also generated an onslaught of critical scorn. John Updike, Joan Didion, and Mary McCarthy derided the book for the smugness of its religious content and bemoaned Salinger for displaying an unbalanced love for his characters.

Readers, however, disagreed. The book was an instant sensation and quickly rose to the number one spot on the New York Times Best Sellers list, a distinction never achieved even by The Catcher in the Rye. Today, many readers and critics regard Franny and Zooey as Salinger’s masterpiece and it has remained in print since the day it was published.

The book’s first portion, the short story “Franny,” is the tale of a young woman who questions the values around her and seeks a more spiritual path to happiness. Desperate for insight, Franny becomes enthralled by a religious book entitled The Way of a Pilgrim, the story of a wandering Russian peasant who seeks to fulfill the Biblical exhortation to “pray without ceasing.” As the story progresses, Franny slowly becomes a modern day version of the searching pilgrim. She becomes addicted to the book’s Jesus Prayer, a mantra she repeats until it synchronizes with her heartbeat and becomes self-activating. At the story’s end, Franny collapses from exhaustion, her lips involuntarily mumbling the prayer.

“Franny” is largely a dialogue piece containing only two speaking characters and little change of venue. Yet, Salinger’s manipulation of shifting narrative perspective is so well designed as to make it instantly captivating. When “Franny” begins, a third-person narrator helps guide the reader by revealing the motives and inner thoughts of the characters. Yet once the reader becomes comfortable, the narration coyly pulls away, until by the story’s end it merely relays events, delivering the full responsibility of interpretation solely to the reader. As a story, “Franny”  delivers no conclusion. But it does ask many questions. Perhaps the great question posed by “Franny” is whether or not it is possible to attain spiritual enlightenment in modern American society.

“Zooey,” Salinger’s longest work after The Catcher in the Rye, picks up where the story of “Franny” left off. Debilitated after her collapse, Franny has returned home to her family’s Manhattan apartment to recuperate from her spiritual crisis. She lays inert on the living room couch, decrying the spiritual insensitivity of those around her.

Franny’s older brother Zooey first appears cornered in the bathtub by their mother, Bessie Glass. Bessie persuades Zooey to try to lift Franny up from her malaise. But Zooey is also suffering from a subtler but no less damaging spiritual crisis. He is consumed by a personal struggle with his own ego and his growth has been stunted by a religious upbringing so advanced that it has bigoted him against all others.

Despite Zooey's shortcomings, he attempts to rescue Franny from her dilemma, but the long intellectual argument he uses, rather than spiritual logic, drives Franny deeper into distress.

Relief for Franny–as well as Zooey–comes at the story’s end, a gentle spiritual revelation that readers feel as powerfully as it is experienced by the characters. Containing Seymour Glass’s now-famous parable of “The Fat Lady,” the climax rivals the intangible epiphany that concludes The Catcher in the Rye.

Fifty years after publication, the mystical allure of Franny and Zooey continues to draw readers. Each generation rediscovers the book and embraces the unfading beauty of its probing spirituality while delighting in Salinger’s undeniable gift for impeccable dialogue.

Also of interest:
  • Dead Caulfields includes a chronology of events in the life of the Glass family
  • In 2001 Janet Malcolm wrote an extended appreciation of Franny and Zooey for The New York Review of Books (registration required)
  • "A. J. Liebling, Jean Stafford, Walker Percy, and the 1962 National Book Award for The Moviegoer" (Franny and Zooey was a contender) – a previous Reader’s Almanac post

Monday, September 12, 2011

Marion Elizabeth Rodgers on H. L. Mencken and the Harlem Renaissance

Guest blog post by Marion Elizabeth Rodgers, author of Mencken: The American Iconoclast and editor of the LOA volumes H. L. Mencken: Prejudices: The Complete Series.

For H. L. Mencken, newspaperman, literary and social critic, editor of the Smart Set and the American Mercury, race was a recurrent and vital theme. As early as 1910, Mencken declared that a discussion of the relation between the races was the most important issue in American life. In his newspaper columns from 1911 to 1913, Mencken expressed his concern about the public health problems of Baltimore’s black population with opinions often more progressive than many of the local reformers. In articles and private letters during the turbulent years of World War I and afterwards, he shared his distress as segregation and lynching increased, African-American publications were suppressed, and black dissidents came under surveillance.

It was during these uncertain times that Mencken became friends with James Weldon Johnson, then writing for New York Age. Johnson wanted to meet the Smart Set editor, saying, “Mencken had made a sharper impression on my mind than any American then writing.” Johnson felt that Mencken’s essays, “The National Letters” and “The Sahara of the Bozart,” had not gone far enough. Taking his cue, Mencken later revised “The Sahara of the Bozart,” and went further, maintaining that the hope for Southern literature and culture lay in the hands of black writers. (These later versions are reprinted in the LOA’s edition of Prejudices). In his columns in the New York Evening Mail, Mencken began exploring the possibility of the Great Negro Novel.

As Charles Scruggs has demonstrated in The Sage in Harlem: H. L. Mencken and the Black Writers of the 1920s, both essays were important clarion calls to black intellectuals. W.E.B. Du Bois joined Johnson in quoting Mencken in the pages of The Crisis, The Messenger, New York Age, and elsewhere. “The Sahara of the Bozart” inspired Walter White to write The Fire in the Flint and it was Mencken who persuaded Alfred A. Knopf to publish White’s book. Behind the scenes, Mencken often championed the work of black authors, and many publicly acknowledged their debt. For young Richard Wright, reading the essays in Mencken’s Prejudices inspired him to become a writer.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Reviewing how writers have coped with 9/11

The tenth anniversary of 9/11 not only compels us to revisit our emotions from that day but also presents us with the challenge of how best to memorialize a national trauma.

Many of us look to our artists for help. In Commentary D. G. Myers recently catalogued some thirty novels that have grappled with the task of incorporating the day’s events into a work of art. He ended with qualified recommendations for any of them and concluded that “the best novels about terrorism remain Joseph Conrad’s Secret Agent and Philip Roth’s American Pastoral.Newsweek wrote this week that “not one novel can yet claim to capture the moment and the ensuing years. . . . It is nonfiction, including such now classics as The Looming Tower, Ghost Wars, and The Forever War that speaks to our unceasing attempts to understand the messy realities of the world that engulfed us. Our Zolas and Dickenses are our war correspondents and journalists.”

Assessing the poems that address 9/11 proves even more difficult. As Philip Metres notes in his splendid essay “Beyond Grief and Grievance: The poetry of 9/11 and its aftermath”:
The events of 9/11 occasioned a tremendous outpouring of poetry; people in New York taped poems on windows, wheatpasted them on posts, and shared them by hand. In Curtis Fox’s words, “poetry was suddenly everywhere in the city.” Outside the immediate radius of what became known as “ground zero,” aided by email, listserves, websites, and, later, blogs, thousands of people also shared poems they loved, and poems they had written. By February, 2002, over 25,000 poems written in response to 9/11 had been published on poems.com alone. Three years later, the number of poems there had more than doubled.
In “Remember 9/11 Through Poetry,” John Lundberg last year offered a selection of poems from Deborah Garrison, W. S. Merwin, Galway Kinnell, and Wisława Szymborska. Etruscan Press and Melville House have risen to the task with two impressive collections: September 11, 2001: American Writers Respond and Poetry After 9/11: An Anthology of New York Poets. But it is Metres who performs an invaluable service by heeding Theodor Adorno’s warning about the difficulty of turning traumatic events into art:
by turning suffering into images, harsh and uncompromising though they are, it wounds the shame we feel in the presence of the victims. For these victims are used to create something, works of art, that are thrown to the consumption of a world which destroyed them.
Metres cites poems that he believes “avoid doing injustice to the victims” and that makes his essay enriching reading.

Listening to Alec Baldwin read Colson Whitehead's essay “Lost and Found” on the Special 9/11 edition of Selected Shorts last weekend shows how a finely crafted essay can deliver as much impact as a poem or a novel. Writing two months after the attacks, Whitehead reminds us:
We can never make proper goodbyes. . . . You didn't know that each time you passed the threshold you were saying goodbye.

I never got a chance to say goodbye to the twin towers. And they never got a chance to say goodbye to me. I think they would have liked to; I refuse to believe in their indifference. You say you know these streets pretty well? The city knows you better than any living person because it has seen you when you are alone.
Related LOA works: Philip Roth: The American Trilogy 1997-2000 (includes American Pastoral); Writing New York: A Literary Anthology (includes Colson Whitehead's essay, which was slightly revised for inclusion in his book The Colossus of New York)

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Richard White on Frank Norris, The Octopus, and the Southern Pacific Railroad

Guest blog post by Richard White, Margaret Byrne Professor of American History at Stanford University and author of Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America

Frank Norris understood railroads. His 1901 novel The Octopus dramatized the conflicts between California ranchers and wheat growers on the one side and the railroad and its political machine on the other. He modeled his fictional Pacific and Southwest Railroad after the Southern Pacific, and he got the details right. In my recent book, Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America, I quoted Norris when I needed a pithy and quite accurate account of how railroads set rates and why people hated them for it. And I also used Norris’s description of one of his central characters, S. Behrman, to encapsulate everything the Southern Pacific Railroad could, and did, do.
If the freight rates are to be adjusted to squeeze us a little harder, it is S. Behrman who regulates what we can stand. If there’s a judge to be bought, it is S. Behrman who does the bargaining. If there is a jury to be bribed, it is S. Behrman who handles the money. If there is an election to be jobbed, it is S. Behrman who manipulates it. It’s Behrman here and Behrman there.
S. Behrman was a fiction, but he was also a composite of men who were real enough: W.H. Mills, Creed Haymond, W.W. Stow, Boss Billy Carr and others who looked after Southern Pacific interests in California during the 1880s and 1890s. Norris knew California and the Southern Pacific. Behrman did what actual railroad operatives did.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

A. J. Liebling, Jean Stafford, Walker Percy, and the 1962 National Book Award for The Moviegoer

Jim Santel’s beautiful recent essay in The Millions revisiting how The Moviegoer changed his life “like a slow-release drug” reminds us that Walker Percy’s novel is among several remarkable works of fiction celebrating their fiftieth anniversary this year. The finalists for the 1962 National Book Award for Fiction, all published in 1961, included Catch-22 by Joseph Heller, A New Life by Bernard Malamud, The Château by William Maxwell, Franny and Zooey by J. D. Salinger, The Spinoza of Market Street and Other Stories by Isaac Bashevis Singer, The Pawnbroker by Edward Lewis Wallant, and Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates.

What may be less well known is that the publisher of the winning book, a first novel, did not submit it for consideration. The Moviegoer had sold less than 5,000 copies and Knopf had placed its bet on The Château. Jay Tolson tells the story in Pilgrim in the Ruins: A Life of Walker Percy:
Unlikely as it sounds, The Moviegoer won the National Book Award in large part because of writer A. J. Liebling’s interest in Earl Long and Louisiana politics. Having finished a book on the colorful and corrupt governor [The Earl of Louisiana], Liebling happened to read a review of The Moviegoer that mentioned the book’s New Orleans setting. Liebling bought a copy of the novel, read it, and was so impressed that he recommended it to his wife, Jean Stafford, who was then serving on the NBA fiction panel, along with Herbert Gold and Lewis Gannett. Stafford was equally taken with the novel and thought it far better than anything she had so far read. She asked the National Book Foundation to send copies of the books to the other two judges. When the three judges met in early March, they came swiftly and unanimously to the choice: The Moviegoer.
Percy did not learn of how he came to be nominated until Gay Talese published an account in The New York Times two days after the award ceremony, which prompted Percy to write Stafford:
. . . I will ask you to pass on to Mr. Liebling the gratitude which I am only just now making out the dimensions of. (I’ll call him Joe if you all come to Louisiana—right now the habit of literary respect is too great.) If I understand it correctly, had it not been for Mr. Liebling (and his recent interest in Louisiana) The Moviegoer might never, would never have been considered. To think then, that if it hadn’t been for old Earl, etc. For the first time, I feel kindly to the Longs.
Talese reported that “Apparently [Stafford] convinced the other two fiction judges of the merits of the novel,” which incited an editorial in Show magazine denouncing Stafford and Liebling for cheating “Joseph Heller’s brilliant farce-tragedy” out of the award it deserved. Liebling responded by publishing a letter in Show detailing what happened and noting that the two other judges had been out of the country until they met to make their final decision.

As part of his award-winning ordeal, the reticent Percy had to appear on The Today Show the morning after the awards. Asked by host Hugh Downs why the South produced such good literature, Percy famously answered “Because we lost the war.” Shortly after returning home to Covington Percy received a congratulatory note from a fellow Southern writer whose opinion he highly prized:
Dear Mr. Percy,
I’m glad we lost the War and you won the National Book Award. I didn’t think the judges would have that much sense but they surprized [sic] me.
Regards,
Flannery O’Connor
Previous Reader’s Almanac posts of interest:
Related LOA works: A. J. Liebling: The Sweet Science and Other Writings (includes The Earl of Louisiana); William Maxwell: Later Novels and Stories (includes The Château); Flannery O’Connor: Collected Works
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