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
story-telling”

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

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)
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