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Friday, December 21, 2012

Christmas gift-books and holiday stories:
The rise and demise of lucrative markets for nineteenth-century authors

A cover of The Token and
Atlantic Souvenir: a Christmas
and New Year's present
(c. 1852)
Courtesy of the Library Company
An 1895 article in The Publishers’ Weekly notes the passing of a trend that had lasted most of the century: “Sets of an authors’ works or a special work profusely and artistically illustrated have almost entirely superseded the old-fashioned Christmas gift-books so largely at one time a feature of the holiday publishing season.” Initially a British development, these “old-fashioned” Christmas annuals spread to America early during the early 1800s. Their heyday was the first half of the century, although a number of them continued to be published until the 1860s, and attempts to resuscitate them continued until the early 1900s. A century ago, The Cambridge History of English and American Literature emphasized their importance to American literary history by devoting an entire chapter to Christmas gift-books: “Almost or quite all of those published in America were literary miscellanies, the contents being original, or, in case of some of the cheaper volumes, ‘selected.’”

Most of the material published in the annuals was what we would describe as “down-market,” but, attracted by the lucrative pay, many prominent authors were featured as well. William Cullen Bryant, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Washington Irving, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, James Russell Lowell, Edgar Allan Poe, Lydia H. Sigourney, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and John Greenleaf Whittier all contributed to annuals. (In fact, many of Hawthorne’s Twice-Told Tales first appeared in holiday gift-books.) Because the annuals were meant to be read—and sold—all year, the contents were rarely seasonal; readers didn’t buy holiday annuals for Christmas stories.

The rise of the holiday story was instead a separate, later development; as the annuals waned, seasonally themed issues of magazines provided an alternative source of income for authors. Penne L. Restad, in her book Christmas in America, puzzles over how initially these stories “appeared only sporadically and during seemingly odd times of the year. Harper’s Monthly, for example, made its first reference to Christmas in a poem, ‘The Approach of Christmas,’ in its August 1850 issue. Godey’s first literary tribute to the holiday, ‘A Christmas Hymn,’ ran in February of 1841.” Indeed, the grandfather of the American Christmas story, Washington Irving, published his famous sketches as part of the serially-published Sketch Book. His four holiday pieces—“Christmas,” “The Stage Coach,” “Christmas Eve,” and “Christmas Day”—originally appeared in January 1820—and they were not published until July in England. (In the English and subsequent American editions, the fourth piece was split into two: “Christmas Morning” and “The Christmas Dinner.”)

Eventually, however, magazines began publishing Christmas-themed stories, recipes, and illustrations in their December issues every year. By 1865 their prominence was notable enough that Mark Twain would publish a devastating parody, “The Christmas Fireside (for Good Little Boys and Girls),” in the December 23, 1863, issue of The Californian. In a study of Kate Chopin’s career, Emily Toth writes, “The market for conversion and happily-ever-after stories for Christmas and Easter was immense. It was also one of the best sources of income and recognition for professional writers.” It was a Christmas story that first brought Chopin to the attention of a national audience when it was syndicated by the American Press Association.

Like the Christmas gift-books that preceded them, magazine issues devoted to holiday stories have virtually vanished; with occasional exceptions, Christmas-themed fiction seems to have been largely relegated to the children’s literature market or, less frequently, to “regular” issues of literary magazines. When William Maxwell published a Christmas story in 1986 (“The Lily-White Boys”), it appeared in the Summer-Fall issue of The Paris Review.

With best wishes to our readers for a happy and healthy holiday season, we present three selections for Christmas from Story of the Week:

Washington Irving, “The Christmas Dinner” (1820)
Irving’s alter-ego Geoffrey Crayon is invited to Bracebridge Hall for an old-fashioned English Christmas celebration.

Mark Twain, “The Christmas Fireside (for Good Little Boys and Girls)” (1865)
An impishly wicked story about the monstrously wicked little boy to whom only good things happened.

William Maxwell, “The Lily-White Boys” (1986)
Arriving home to a ransacked townhouse after a lovely Christmas party, a married couple experiences a moment of grace.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Lincoln’s Cabinet crisis (December 1862)

Guest blog post by Aaron Sheehan-Dean, Eberly Family Professor of Civil War History at West Virginia University and one of the co-editors of The Library of America's four-volume series, The Civil War: Told by Those Who Lived It (the first two volumes of which have appeared).

Less than a week after the disastrous Union defeat at Fredericksburg on December 13, 1862, Abraham Lincoln confronted one of the most serious political crises he faced during the war. The debacle fed mounting frustration among Republicans over the administration’s conduct of the war. Led by its Radical members, the Senate Republican caucus tried to force Secretary of State William H. Seward out of the cabinet. The Radicals accused Seward of opposing vigorous prosecution of the war, exercising undue influence on the President, overruling other cabinet members, and blamed him for the administration’s slowness in embracing emancipation. Many of the Radicals hoped his ouster would increase the influence of their favorite in the cabinet, Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase.

Seward had indeed entered the administration in 1861 imagining that he might guide Lincoln, who, he believed, had little sense of how to respond to the great crisis facing the country. But Lincoln’s relative paucity of national experience obscured his considerable political skills. The two men developed a close working relationship in which Lincoln made it plain that he would decide and issue executive branch policies. His reluctance to endorse immediate emancipation came about because of his own astute evaluation of border state politics, and not from Seward’s influence.

A committee of predominantly Radical senators went to the White House on December 18 and shared with the President their concern about Seward’s influence in the administration. Lincoln had little patience for their conspiratorial view of his administration, exclaiming to his friend Orville H. Browning, “Why will men believe a lie, an absurd lie, that could not impose upon a child, and cling to it and repeat it in defiance of all evidence to the contrary.”1 Nonetheless, Seward resigned in order to avoid becoming a liability to the administration. Lincoln did not accept his resignation but instead convened a meeting with his cabinet on December 19, without Seward, to ascertain their views about how the cabinet operated. Despite reservations, most of the cabinet members agreed with Lincoln’s assessment that he fairly valued their opinions and that the cabinet sought agreement in its deliberations. The President then called the senators back to the White House, where they were surprised to find themselves in a meeting with the cabinet (absent Seward). Lincoln explained that, contrary to what the senators had heard, cabinet members freely debated issues and reached a consensus before policies were announced. Although Chase offered a mild dissent, no other cabinet member contradicted the President.

Embarrassed by this turn of events, Chase submitted his resignation, precisely the turn of events Lincoln needed in order to maintain the political balance in his cabinet. Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles recorded Lincoln’s response when Chase handed him his resignation: “This said he, looking towards me with a triumphal laugh cuts the Gordian knot. An air of satisfaction spread over his countenance such as I have not seen for some time. I can dispose of this subject now he added.”2 Knowing that he needed the support of both radical and conservative Republicans, Lincoln refused to accept either resignation, and both Seward and Chase remained in the cabinet. As the President reportedly told Senator Ira Harris of New York in one of his characteristic rural analogies, “Now I can ride: I have a pumpkin in each end of my bag.”3 Lincoln accomplished two important goals in these delicate maneuvers. By managing the disparate personalities and ideologies in his administration he continued to enjoy the counsel of some of the North’s best political minds. The episode also preserved the President’s prerogative to administer his cabinet and the executive branch as he saw fit. Republicans, Democrats, and border state Unionists in Congress would continue to use their legislative and investigative power to promote their own agendas, but as commander-in-chief, Lincoln would possess ultimate authority in a time of war.

1 Orville H. Browning: Diary, December 18, 1862, in The Civil War: The Second Year Told by Those Who Lived It, ed. Stephen W. Sears (Library of America, 2012), 684.
2 Gideon Welles: Diary, December 19–20, 1862, The Civil War: The Second Year Told by Those Who Lived It, 692.
3 An Oral History of Abraham Lincoln: John G. Nicolay’s Interviews and Essays, ed. Michael Burlingame (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1996).

(This item will be cross-posted at Civil War 150, cosponsored by The Library of America, The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, and the National Endowment of the Humanities)

Recent Reader's Almanac posts on the Civil War

Monday, November 12, 2012

How antislavery writings reconnect us with one of the most crucial themes in American literary history

James G. Basker, president of the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History and Richard Gilder Professor of Literary History at Barnard College, Columbia University, spoke with us about the recent publication of American Antislavery Writings: Colonial Beginnings to Emancipation, which he edited for The Library of America.

This is not a collection of political pamphlets, but an anthology that ranges much more widely among writers and genres—poems, personal narratives, sermons, children’s literature. Why? What were you aiming to show or achieve with this book?

The origins of antislavery beliefs lie beyond politics: they are moral, religious, intellectual, imaginative. It is through the literature (broadly defined) and collective imagination of society that antislavery ideas first flourished, exerted influence, and ultimately prevailed. Writers, not politicians, led the way and were sometimes stunningly ahead of the times: there is a short story in this collection (“A Dream,” published under the pseudonym T. T.) that imagines the election of the first black American president in 1831, more than 175 years before the election of Barack Obama.

The antislavery movement accomplished its purpose in the 1860s, and slavery was abolished. Why collect these writings now? What do they have to say to contemporary readers?

First, to help us overcome historical amnesia. For a hundred years, roughly 1865 to the 1960s, the centrality of slavery in American history was systematically repressed and forgotten. This literature reconnects us with one of the longest-running and most crucial themes in American history. Second, it reminds us that the evil of slavery persisted far too long, and that voices arose to denounce it as early as the 1680s and eventually multiplied and gathered sufficient strength to bring change.

What was most exciting discovery you made in course of researching the volume?

The surprising number of white antislavery writers from southern and slave-holding states: not only the Grimké sisters from South Carolina, but Arthur Lee, Patrick Henry, and St. George Tucker from Virginia, Peter Clemmons from North Carolina, Martha Griffith Browne from Kentucky, James Birney from Kentucky and Alabama, and Joseph Evans Snodgrass from Maryland, among others. Most surprising of all, perhaps, was the petition drafted by “the Virginia Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery” at its meeting in Manchester, Virginia, on April 5, 1791, and submitted (along with petitions from Maryland and four other states) to the U.S. Congress later that month—an antislavery petition from a slave-holding state, during a period when we tend to think that everyone accepted slavery as a political necessity for the nation.

What do you think will be the most surprising thing readers learn about the antislavery movement?

Two things stand out. First, how early the first fiercely critical opponents of slavery began to speak out, more than 100 years before the radical Garrisonians of the 1830s or Harriet Beecher Stowe in the 1850s: the Moravians in 1688, George Keith in 1693, Samuel Sewall in 1700, John Hepburn in 1715, Elihu Coleman in 1733, Benjamin Lay in 1737, John Woolman and Anthony Benezet in the 1750s, and so on. Second, calling it a “movement” is a reductive misnomer. Antislavery sensibilities and behaviors were far more diverse and diffuse than any single “movement” spanning the 1680s to 1865: every act of resistance or rebellion by a slave, every owner’s voluntary manumission or emancipatory purchase of a slave, every religious congregation that banned or condemned slaveholders, every school founded to educate black children or minister willing to baptize them, every state that abolished slavery (Vermont first, in 1777) or court that supported petitions for freedom (Massachusetts, 1780), every federal act that curbed slavery (Northwest Ordnance, 1787) or the slave trade (transatlantic trade outlawed, 1808), every expression of antipathy or disapproval of slavery, or local action against it, drained something from its power, its aura of inevitability or sustainability.

What’s your favorite piece in the collection?

So many leap to mind: Frederick Douglass’s novella “The Heroic Slave” or Louisa May Alcott’s edgy short story “An Hour” or Sumner’s emotional “Eulogy on Abraham Lincoln,” but my single favorite has to be “The Anti-Slavery Alphabet” composed by Hannah and Mary Townsend in 1847, for little children learning to read. Each letter of the alphabet is accompanied by a simple but powerful rhyme that would inculcate antislavery feelings in beginning readers, including feelings of guilt by implication. Under the letter “M,” for example, comes this: “M is the Merchant of the north, / Who buys what slaves produce— / So they are stolen, whipped and worked, / For his, and for our use.”

The writers presented in the volume seem surprisingly diverse for this early period—black and white, women and men. Is this remarkable or unusual?

Once we get past the limitations of the traditional canon, we find considerable numbers of black writers, women writers, and others we often think of as barred from the literary world in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. (This is why we should never unthinkingly subject ourselves to the contents of a single textbook or anthology—there is always so much that has been left out and left behind.) Black writers found print a powerful medium in which to testify, to bear witness to what would otherwise have been incredible—indeed, defenders of slavery almost to the end tried to deny the veracity of slave narratives by Olaudah Equiano, Frederick Douglass, Solomon Northup, and the twenty others included here. Women writers, though denied access to most issues in the public sphere, wrote compellingly about slavery because it was so deeply enmeshed with the personal and moral themes such as family, relationships, abused children, sexual vulnerability, physical and emotional suffering that they were supposed to understand more deeply than male writers. Not surprisingly, almost from the beginning the issue of slavery gave rise to concerns about the condition of women in society, and the women’s movement was to build on the momentum of the anti-slavery campaign.

The collection includes several canonical American writers—Emerson, Thoreau, Melville, Stowe. What is the relationship between these and the less renowned writers, or, more generally, between antislavery writing and American literature as we’re taught it?

From the end of the Civil War until the late twentieth century, slavery seemed to be too painful or unpleasant a topic to dwell on and, perhaps for some, also politically repugnant. As a result, the inherited canon of American literature and the general sense of “classic” American literature seems almost to have been whitewashed of the topic. Who knew that Henry Wadsworth Longfellow or Louisa May Alcott wrote antislavery literature? One purpose of this collection is to restore to view major pieces of literature by well-known figures—Noah Webster, Benjamin Franklin, Longfellow, Thoreau, Emerson, Dickinson, Alcott—that address the issue of slavery, and to make visible also their relation to the texts and topics of their contemporaries, most of them forgotten today. Specific lines of influence can be drawn—women writers inspired by Phillis Wheatley, Whittier inspired by Sarah Wentworth Morton, etc.—and a larger sense of the upwelling of many voices over time can give us better understanding of how central slavery was to the general awareness of Americans long before the political crises of the 1850s or the Civil War that followed.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Brooks D. Simpson on Lincoln and the November 4, 1862, midterm elections

Guest blog post by Brooks D. Simpson, professor of history, Arizona State University and one of the co-editors of The Library of America's four-volume series, The Civil War: Told by Those Who Lived It (the first two volumes of which have appeared).

In the midterm elections of 1862, which concluded on November 4, the Lincoln administration and the Republican party suffered a serious setback at the polls. Proclaiming “the Constitution as it is and the Union as it was,” Democrats pointed to the promised Emancipation Proclamation and Lincoln’s recent nationwide suspension of the writ of habeas corpus as evidence of the Republicans’ desire to impose a tyrannical dictatorship upon the republic. Nor did the prospects for decisive military victory seem bright: whatever optimism had been expressed in the wake of Antietam, Corinth, and Perryville had faded away as Union armies failed to capitalize on their successes.

Democrats claimed victory in New York with the election of Horatio Seymour as governor; they also won the governorship of New Jersey and assumed control of state legislatures in New Jersey, Indiana, and Lincoln’s home state of Illinois. The Democrats’ sizeable gains in the House of Representatives, mostly in the lower North from New York to Illinois, reduced the Republican majority to a plurality, although the Republicans would be able to control the new House with the support of Unconditional Unionists from the border states. Fortunately for the administration, the state election calendars in Pennsylvania and Ohio mandated elections in odd-numbered years, while Republican governors Richard Yates of Illinois and Oliver P. Morton of Indiana had been elected in 1860 to four-year terms. And as historian James M. McPherson has pointed out, Republicans still held most of the governorships and a solid majority of state legislatures, allowing the party to eventually pick up five Senate seats as the terms of Democrats elected in 1856–57 expired and Republican-controlled legislatures chose their replacements.

President Lincoln weathered the electoral defeat as well as could be expected. In responding to a rather harsh note from General Carl Schurz, a leading Republican who claimed, as Lincoln put it, “that we lost the late elections, and the administration is failing, because the war is unsuccessful; and that I must not flatter myself that I am not justly to blame for it,” the President wrote: “I certainly know that if the war fails, the administration fails, and that I will be blamed for it, whether I deserve it or not. And I ought to be blamed, if I could do better. You think I could do better; therefore you blame me already. I think I could not do better; therefore I blame you for blaming me.”

Even as news of the administration’s setback circulated through the newspapers, Lincoln moved decisively in removing George B. McClellan from command of the Army of the Potomac on November 5, replacing him with Ambrose Burnside. The change was made just two weeks after the President had replaced Don Carlos Buell with William S. Rosecrans at the head of the Union army in Middle Tennessee. But whether new generals meant an improvement in Union military fortunes, and the political standing of the administration, remained to be seen.

(This item will be cross-posted at Civil War 150, cosponsored by The Library of America, The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, and the National Endowment of the Humanities)

Recent Reader's Almanac posts on the Civil War

Friday, October 12, 2012

Jane Hirshfield on Czesław Miłosz, (California) Poet

Come, Thief
by Jane Hirshfield
(Knopf, 2011)
Jane Hirshfield, who published her seventh book of poems, Come, Thief (Knopf), last year, joins our continuing series of guest blog posts by writers of fiction, poetry, essays, and history with this appreciation of the life and work of Czesław Miłosz, whose Selected and Last Poems: 1931–2004 Ecco Press published in 2011.

In 1936, at age twenty-five, Czesław Miłosz wrote this poem:
We were riding through frozen fields in a wagon at dawn.
A red wing rose in the darkness.

And suddenly a hare ran across the road.
One of us pointed to it with his hand.

That was long ago. Today neither of them is alive,
Not the hare, nor the man who made the gesture.

O my love, where are they, where are they going
The flash of a hand, streak of movement, rustle of pebbles.
I ask not out of sorrow, but in wonder.

Wilno, 1936
(tr: Czesław Miłosz and Lillian Vallee)
In 1991, in “Capri,” he wrote:
I reach eighty, I fly from San Francisco to Frankfurt and Rome, a passenger who once travelled three days by horse carriage from Szetejnie to Wilno.
(tr: Czesław Miłosz and Robert Hass)
Between those two poems, a changed life. Between those two poems, a changed world.

In late 2002, at ninety-one and returned to Poland from his long self-exile (ten years in Paris, then forty as professor and poet in Berkeley), Miłosz wrote this small poem in his notebook:
I pray to my bedside god.
For He must have billions of ears.
And one ear He keeps always open to me.

(tr: Anthony Miłosz)
Reading this in English eight years after the poet's death, I was struck by its curious “bedside.” A translator’s note explains: the original adjective means “near-at-hand,” “handy.” The Polish words for a first aid kit, a home-library reference book, and hand luggage all use some form of podręczny. This would, then, be not the distant and fearsome God of Judgment, but the rescuing one who knows every sparrow that falls, and the poem points toward a fully-felt fulcrum of balance: its god is local and large, intimate and immense, able to carry in a small, household form something vast, life-saving, and essential. Even the typography holds dual vision: the “g” of “god,” is lower-case; the pronoun is “He.”


Czesław Miłosz was a writer who thought much about the large. He pondered history, philosophy, religion, and, throughout his life, the central question of suffering. Yet he remained all his life a poet whose descriptions and affections were ultimately tuned to the small, the visibly near—a vanishing world slips into the vanishing body of a hare. Abstraction, ideas pried loose from those who lived and held them, were—he had witnessed—murderous. A lifelong Catholic, he could write without embarrassment of the Eternal, while remaining equally a poet of preservation and memory: of a pleated taffeta dress, a childhood river, a Warsaw librarian dead in the war, a snake, a cat. He loved debate, but also to eat, and to look. A meal had its lamb, its olives, the wood of its table, its view. An overheard conversation between women in a museum cafeteria might be conscripted into a poem of delight in our “tiny, tiny my-ness.”

For four of his nine decades, what was local, intimate, and at-hand to Czesław Miłosz was California and his Tudor-style storybook cottage on Grizzly Peak. One prose book is titled Visions from San Francisco Bay—his daily view. And so, because it is biographically true, and because he was a poet of the podręczny—of what is near to the hand—this poet of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and Poland was nonetheless a poet of whom we might say also: of California.

Some facts. Born in 1911, Miłosz spent his youth in the forests and farmlands of Szetejnie, Lithuania, a member of a Polish-speaking landholding family in a place where historical borders had long been fluid. He died in Krakow, Poland, at age 93, in 2004. In between, he attended university in Vilnius, traveled to Paris in the 1930s, watched as a member of the Polish resistance during the Second World War first the destruction of the Warsaw ghetto, and then of the larger city. He came to America first as a postwar diplomat serving the Washington D.C. embassy. After he defected, first leading the life of an émigré writer in Paris, he found a home in America, teaching in relative obscurity in the Slavic Languages Department of the University of California, Berkeley—until the Nobel Prize in 1980 procured him both that rarest of perks, a personal parking place on the Berkeley campus, and fame.

The locating of poets isn't an act of mine-stake claiming. Poets’ words are community property, and poems need no passports to pass through borders. Miłosz took U.S. citizenship, but addressed himself as “voyager” in one poem, and in another wrote to his “faithful mother tongue” (Polish), “You were my native land: I lacked any other.” We cannot unmixedly call him an “American” poet. Yet he wrote in a Polish magazine of “my fraternity of California poets.”

Miłosz was fluent in Polish, French, and English, learned Lithuanian, Russian, and some Yiddish in childhood, traveled widely (mushroom hunting in forests wherever he could). He served as ambassador between the world's literary traditions, including in his anthology A Book of Luminous Things translations of poems from Europe, Asia, North and South America, Scandinavia, and the Near East.

The word “cosmopolitan” has many definitions. Some speak of the cosmopolitan as “free from local, provincial, or nationalist ideas or prejudices”; others say simply “belonging to, at home in, all the world.” For naturalists, the word means “globally at home”—humans, then, must be, along with ants and termites, a biologically cosmopolitan species.

We don’t ordinarily think of the cosmopolitan in terms of Walt Whitman’s “kosmos,” yet it seems here somehow apt. Walt Whitman was the one poet Miłosz praised entirely without demurral. Each was a poet of breadth-embrace and a seemingly omnivorous appetite for the detailed actual. You can see the slip-hem of this in the way Whitman cannot speak of himself as “kosmos” without naming himself simultaneously a poet of particular place: “Walt Whitman, an American, one of the roughs, a kosmos.” “Walt Whitman, a cosmos, of Manhattan the son.” In these couplings is the same balance of large and local we find in Miłosz’s bedside god. Each time Whitman names himself universally capacious, he cannot seem to help issuing also a Morse Code tap on specific ground.


Perhaps I am trying to sketch here a premise too complicated for such a brief form as this virtual Library bookshelf. But Miłosz, a poet of almost incalculable range, continually reminds us also that poems, and poets, live in the small, in the local and comic recognition, in the living and perishing real. We do not, cannot, live in general; even exile takes place in a place, a deck overlooking a Bay, on which a poet with extravagant eyebrows turns the pages of a New Yorker for its cartoons. We breathe the air that is near to us, scented with redwoods and lemons, or with the exhaust of refineries, power plants, airplanes, wars. If a poet in exile continues writing, he or she will be sustained by that air and that place, and will become of it.

Let me close then with a poem by Czesław Miłosz scented with the smoke of California's cedars, which holds in its stanzas each of the places of affection here seen: Berkeley; Poland; his “place” among persons of letters, with both the hope of lasting and the acceptance of disappearance. Even the afterlife is landscape: mountainous, physical, wooded and ridged. This poem holds also history, politics, the devastation of the Second World War, the contemplation of aging and death. It breaks into almost incoherent fracture, an “omnium gatherum of chaos,” and feels its way back by effort of thought; Miłosz’s moral universe is always recalibrated by a self-judgment more severe than his judging of others. And then: the poem’s late shift into the altering “you” of direct address—for me, among the most moving and intimate gestures of all twentieth-century poems—in which Miłosz declares an abiding faithfulness to the place of his truest terrestrial citizenship: the multitudinous, flickering, humanly known, and altering earth he will leave.

The pungent smells of a California winter,
Grayness and rosiness, an almost transparent full moon.
I add logs to the fire, I drink and I ponder.

“In Ilawa,” the news item said, “at age 70
Died Aleksander Rymkiewicz, poet.”

He was the youngest in our group. I patronized him slightly,
Just as I patronized others for their inferior minds
Though they had many virtues I couldn’t touch.

And so I am here, approaching the end
Of the century and of my life. Proud of my strength
Yet embarrassed by the clearness of the view.

Avant-gardes mixed with blood.
The ashes of inconceivable arts.
An omnium-gatherum of chaos.

I passed judgment on that. Though marked myself.
This hasn’t been the age for the righteous and the decent.
I know what it means to beget monsters
And to recognize in them myself.

You, moon, You, Aleksander, fire of cedar logs.
Waters close over us, a name lasts but an instant.
Not important whether the generations hold us in memory.
Great was that chase with the hounds for the unattainable meaning
    of the world.

And now I am ready to keep running
When the sun rises beyond the borderlands of death.
I already see mountain ridges in the heavenly forest
Where, beyond every essence, a new essence waits.

You, music of my late years, I am called
By a sound and a color which are more and more perfect.

Do not die out, fire. Enter my dreams, love.
Be young forever, seasons of the earth.

(tr. by Czesław Miłosz and Robert Hass)
All of the poems cited in this post appear in Czesław Miłosz: Selected and Last Poems: 1931-2004 and are used with permission from Ecco Press.

Jane Hirshfield contributed a remembrance of Miłosz to the book, An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czesław Miłosz (2011). Miłosz once wrote about her work: “A profound empathy for the suffering of all living beings—it is precisely this I praise in the poetry of Jane Hirshfield. . . . In its highly sensuous detail, her poetry illuminates the Buddhist virtue of mindfulness. She is among the most outstanding of my fraternity of California poets.” Reviewing Come, Thief in The Washington Post, Steven Ratiner observed, “Hirshfield’s verse involves a deepening attention to every aspect of human experience, from the dailiness of our lives to the most ineffable moments.” Dwight Garner cited her Kindle Single, The Heart of Haiku (2011), as “so good” it awakens you to “what feels like the promise of a new genre.” About Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry (1998), Gary Snyder wrote, “These expansive, fearless essays are on the basics of—not poesy in any small sense—but mind, wit, stalking, silky focus, the eros of knowledge, the steely etiquette of art.” In 2012, Hirshfield was elected a Chancellor of The Academy of American Poets.

Jane Hirshfield reads and discusses “Winter” by Czesław Miłosz

Also of interest:
Related LOA works: Becoming Americans: Four Centuries of Immigrant Writing (includes an excerpt from Miłosz’s ABCs)

Thursday, October 11, 2012

An interview with Gary K. Wolfe: why the 1950s were the golden age of the science fiction novel

Photo by Amelia Beamer /
Locus Magazine
Gary K. Wolfe, author of Evaporating Genres: Essays on Fantastic Literature, spoke with us about the recent publication of the two-volume boxed set of American Science Fiction: Nine Classic Novels of the 1950s, which he edited for The Library of America.

When and how did you first discover the writers and books collected in this set?

I’m reasonably certain I first read all these novels before I was fifteen, since I was of the generation that more or less came of age with 1950s science fiction. Something that seems to be a common experience among young science fiction readers, probably true even today, is that we quickly develop a sense not only of our favorite writers, but even our favorite publishers, anthologists, and cover artists. By the time I’d been reading science fiction for a couple of years, I knew that my tastes veered toward Ballantine Books, and those wonderful Richard Powers covers (one appears on the Library of America boxed set and another on the jacket of the 1953–56 volume).

I returned to these authors later when the study of science fiction became part of my academic work, and then again when I was rereading to make the selection for this two-volume set. Obviously, some writers and titles stood up better than others, but I was a bit pleasantly surprised at how well some of them not only stood up, but gained added resonance in perspective.

What makes the 1950s the golden age of the science fiction novel?

“Golden age” is probably a term that takes on different meanings depending on which generation of science fiction readers you talk to. A fan named Peter Graham is said to have originated the widely-quoted claim that “the golden age of science fiction is twelve,” and there’s probably something to that.

The most common usage, however, came about in the 1950s and pretty clearly reflected the attitudes of readers and writers of that generation. For them, the “golden age” commonly referred to the 1940s, the decade or so after John W. Campbell Jr. assumed the editorship of Astounding Science Fiction, when major writers such as Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, Theodore Sturgeon, Ray Bradbury, and others developed their reputations.

The 1940s was a crucial time for science fiction’s development, but it wasn’t a golden age of novels. That wasn’t possible until there was a substantial market for them, which didn’t develop until the late 1940s and early 1950s, when major publishers began to take note of the genre, possibly spurred on by the rise of paperback books and the demand for new material. It suddenly became possible for writers—whose previous markets had mostly consisted of pulp short fiction magazines—to conceive a full-length novel and expect to find a publisher for it, and possibly even a decent advance. This was more true in the U.S. than in England, it should be noted, which had a slightly different literary history for science fiction.

Did you have any principles or guidelines in mind in making the selection of the novels?

We began with some obvious ground rules, such as defining the 50s as the years 1950–59. My own rule was that the novels we selected should be genuine 1950s novels, meaning that they were conceived as novels and not novel-length works assembled from earlier short stories. A number of important SF works published during the 1950s—Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot, Clifford Simak’s City, James Blish’s The Seedling Stars—were actually story collections with some connective material added, or what are sometimes called “fix-ups.” My feeling was that such works actually represented the short fiction of the 1940s rather than the novels of the 1950s.

Beyond that, we tried to avoid a too-obvious “greatest hits” collection. Instead, we wanted a variety of SF themes and a variety of ways in which these works informed, or were informed by, the ongoing dialogue about science, technology, and society that was quite lively during that decade. It would be possible to fill a volume with nothing but nuclear apocalypse tales, for example, but that could lead to a distorted view of the field, and would ignore the ways in which science fiction grappled with other issues, from religion (A Case of Conscience) to consumerism (The Space Merchants).

How would you recommend these novels to readers who aren’t knowledgeable about SF or regular readers of it?

I often hear complaints from non-readers that some modern science fiction can be challenging, or that it’s difficult to find an accessible entry point for reading it. It’s true that SF has developed a sizable number of conventions and tropes that can be confusing to the uninitiated; sometimes even the way SF uses language can be daunting. These novels were written when SF was still in the process of developing those conventions and usages, and thus can provide both a solid grounding and a convenient entry point. I also hear from a number of people who read science fiction when younger, but moved on as they grew older. For them there may be a nostalgia factor—although that really isn’t the point of the collection—and it may provide an opportunity to re-examine some of those youthful passions in perspective.

How would you recommend the set to avid SF buffs?

Science fiction is old enough by now to have several generations of fans, and in each generation are those who want to “read back” into the history of the field before they began reading it. I’ve met a number of readers, already in their 40s, whose first experiences with the genre date from the cyberpunk period, or William Gibson’s Neuromancer, for example. They might be interested in discovering how Gibson echoes some of Alfred Bester, or what popular contemporary writers like Connie Willis or Neil Gaiman learned from Robert Heinlein or Fritz Leiber. This is one of the reasons I think the website accompanying the set is so important; the essays by contemporary writers offer an opening into the archaeology of the genre, as well of evidence of its continuing influence. In addition, I believe the novels themselves stand out as good SF even by today’s standards.

Do you have a favorite novel in the collection?

I suppose like most readers, my favorites change over time. The novels which most affected me when younger were probably Sturgeon’s More Than Human and Brackett’s The Long Tomorrow, in that order. I think they hold up pretty well, as does the satire of Pohl and Kornbluth’s The Space Merchants. But the first novel I selected for the collection was Bester’s The Stars My Destination, which is capable of thoroughly surprising readers even today.

The online companion includes appreciations of the novels by contemporary SF novelists—Neil Gaiman, William Gibson, Peter Straub, Connie Willis, and others. How has contemporary writing been influenced by the novels from the 1950s? What’s the relationship between the classic works collected here and the contemporary literary scene?

I think those contemporary writers speak better for themselves than I could hope to, and I’ve already mentioned how some of the tropes and conventions of the field were very much still in development during the 50s. What has surprised and delighted me over the last several years is the degree to which the work of contemporary writers not directly associated with science fiction—Michael Chabon, Jonathan Lethem, Junot Díaz, Margaret Atwood, etc.—has been informed by works like these. We’re beginning to see a broadening of literary ancestry, if you will, expanding beyond the traditional canon to include not only science fiction, but the crime and noir novels which The Library of America has also recognized in earlier collections.

It’s a little harder to gauge the impact of the ideas in these novels in the wider popular culture, but it’s interesting to note how the pastoral post-apocalyptic settings of novels and films like The Hunger Games or new TV series like Revolution echo the setting of Brackett’s The Long Tomorrow, or how satires of the advertising field like Mad Men echo elements of Pohl and Kornbluth’s The Space Merchants.

What’s the most fun/interesting discovery you made while working on the online companion?

It was surprising to discover how much audio and video material was available, including several radio and TV adaptations of works by our authors (not necessarily the novels themselves) which are on the website. These give a sense of how science fiction appeared in other media during the 50s, of what its pop-culture surfaces looked like in an era before the advent of big-budget CGI epics. For me the most delightful discovery was the wide-ranging audio interview with Leigh Brackett, which is full of fascinating bits about her Hollywood career as well as her SF and mystery writing.

The novels collected in the set are over half a century old. In what ways are the issues/themes/fears they are grappling with still our own?

Well, nuclear anxiety certainly hasn’t gone away, as the current concerns over Iran indicate. But it’s changed focus; instead of fears of a global nuclear apocalypse waged by superpowers, it’s shifted toward terrorism and rogue regimes. The power of intrusive advertising and media is still a topic of much public discussion, although it too has shifted, from TV and newspapers toward social media and the Internet—something SF more or less missed the ball on (although SF has never been all that successful in actual predictions, which was never what it was about in the first place).

But the most effective science fiction, like the most effective fiction, is about more than topicality, and science fiction can also provide powerful literalized metaphors for more universal concerns such as identity, alienation, even revenge. Budrys’s Who? may be very much a Cold War novel in terms of its topicality, but its central issue asks what our identity is comprised of—how we would prove who we actually are if challenged. Sturgeon’s More Than Human, like much of his fiction, is about how damaged or alienated outsiders can become part of a larger whole. Even Matheson’s The Shrinking Man, perhaps the most fable-like tale in the set, deals quite literally with diminishment and loss, and (spoiler alert, perhaps) offers no scientific or technological “fix” for its protagonist’s existential condition.

Where should The Library of America go from here? What’s the next logical project?

The 1950s was a crucial and transformative decade in SF, but it would be overreaching to claim that it represents the entirety of the ways in which SF has contributed to American literature. I can see three possible future directions. One involves recognizing the ways in which short fiction was crucial to the development of the genre prior to the 1950s, especially in the 1930s and 1940s (or even earlier), when many of the standard templates and tropes of the genre were developed. Another would be to look at later decades, such as the 1960s and 1970s, when significant new voices—Samuel R. Delany, Ursula K. Le Guin, Joanna Russ, Roger Zelazny, Robert Silverberg, Harlan Ellison, etc.—radically changed the literary tone and ambitions of the genre. A third, obviously, would be to recognize individual writers in the manner in which The Library of America has already recognized Kurt Vonnegut and Philip K. Dick. Two writers who have passed away within the last couple of years and who would be strong candidates are Ray Bradbury and Joanna Russ.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Billy Collins, Pete Hamill, Philip Levine, Bernice L. McFadden, Joyce Carol Oates, Colson Whitehead, many others at the 2012 Brooklyn Book Festival

Johnny Temple, Edwidge Danticat, Paul Auster, and Pete Hamill
Jonny Temple, Edwidge Danticat, Paul Auster, Pete Hamill at Brooklyn Book Festival
Photo: Joann Jovinelly
More than ten thousand booklovers reportedly attended the seventh annual Brooklyn Book Festival, which packed readings by 280+ authors onto more than 100 panels between 10 AM and 6 PM on Sunday, September 23. While all the readings were free, multiple concurrent events meant no one person could attend more than seven or eight, fewer if you cared to patronize any of the 100 outdoor stalls hosted by publishers, authors, journals, and associations in the square outside Brooklyn’s Borough Hall.

Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz annually awards the “Bobi,” the Best of Brooklyn, Inc. Award, to an author whose “outstanding contributions to literature reflect the spirit of Brooklyn.” This year’s recipient, Pete Hamill, joined previous winners Paul Auster, Walter Mosley, and Edwidge Danticat in participating in the festival.

“Brooklyn is my Old Country, my true home place,” said Hamill, in accepting the award, “the place that shaped me, the place where I learned to read, to listen, to fill myself with visions. The place of music and laughter and decency, punctuated now and then by tragedy. I will carry that Brooklyn with me to my grave.” Asked at a panel where the ideas for his novels came from, Hamill replied, “Anywhere. Walking the dog or overhearing a conversation on the street.” If you read the notebooks of Henry James, Hamill observed, that’s what you will find. “He wrote down something that happened during the day. Then he would explore possibilities. What if the person were a woman rather than a man?”

Many other authors had advice for aspiring writers during Q&A’s following their readings. The “Fiction Triumvirate” panel at cavernous St. Ann and the Holy Trinity Church featured authors Bernice L. McFadden, Joyce Carol Oates, and Colson Whitehead. Reading from her story “Black Dahlia & White Rose,” Oates imagined monologues from two aspiring actresses, Norma Jeane Baker and Elizabeth Short, victim of one of California’s most infamous, unsolved murder cases. “How is it that one person becomes Marilyn Monroe and the other becomes the Black Dahlia? That gets to the heart of the great mystery, the phantasmagoria of our existence.”
Joyce Carol Oates, Colson Whitehead, Bernice L. McFadden at Brooklyn Book Festival
Photo: Kathryn Kirk
McFadden read from Gathering of Waters, her novel based on the gruesome 1955 murder of Emmett Till. In response to the question “what was the most difficult part of writing,” McFadden replied, “I don’t have a linear process. It’s very spiritual. I know when the end is coming because I get very emotional. Then I have to sit down and work it all through.” Oates, by contrast, said that she “has to get the last line first.”

Whitehead published his most recent novel, Zone One, a year ago, which may explain why his “reading” was more performance art. He intoned the book’s first line, “He always wanted to live in New York,” four times—each time breaking off to riff on the agony of writing (“If you remembered what it was like, you’d never do it.”) , his wife’s reaction to his novel, Sag Harbor (“I liked Lila Mae in The Intuionist better.”), seeing Clockwork Orange at age eleven, and the mystery of R2D2 (“The first Star Wars had the Death Star, light sabers, and hyperspace but couldn’t give R2D2 a voicebox?”) until he was out of time. When it comes to his work habits, however, Whitehead described a very structured routine: “I work up on an outline and plot an assignment for each day, from beginning to end, so I know where I’m going.”

Other panels also offered privileged insights into an author’s work. The “Poets Laureate Past and Present” panel featured Billy Collins (U.S. Poet Laureate 2001–2003), Philip Levine (U.S. Poet Laureate 2011–2012), Tina Chang (Brooklyn Poet Laureate) , and Ishmael Islam (New York City Youth Poet Laureate). After reading his poem “The Sandhill Cranes of Nebraska,” which begins “Too bad you couldn’t have been here six months ago,” Collins noted that when poet Howard Nemerov was asked to make up a word to “fill a hole in the language,” he came up with the verb “to azaleate,” meaning “to commiserate needlessly with some visitor about a local natural phenomenon that they either missed because they arrived too late or will miss because they are leaving too early.” Collins then confessed, “I couldn’t have written my poem without that word in the background.”

Levine prefaced his reading of “Black Wine” with a personal revelation:
This reading is a kind of experiment and this poem is about the same experiment and the experiment is sobriety. This is the first reading in about seventeen years that I’ve given sober and for that reason will probably be the worst. . . It may work and then I’ll keep doing it.
Listen to Philip Levine read “Black Wine”

Also of interest:
Related LOA works: At The Fights: American Writers on Boxing (includes pieces by Pete Hamill and Joyce Carol Oates); American Religious Poems: An Anthology by Harold Bloom (includes two poems by Philip Levine); Writing New York: A Literary Anthology (includes an essay by Colson Whitehead)

Monday, October 8, 2012

Aaron Sheehan-Dean on the Battle of Perryville (October 8, 1862): “Fourteen hours of fire and smoke, with lead and iron hail”

Guest blog post by Aaron Sheehan-Dean, Eberly Family Professor of Civil War History at West Virginia University and one of the co-editors of The Library of America's four-volume series, The Civil War: Told by Those Who Lived It (the first two volumes of which have appeared).

Writing in the 1880s, when Americans of all stripes busily commemorated the Civil War, veterans of Perryville decried the lack of attention paid to the battle. “Fourteen hours of fire and smoke, with lead and iron hail,” wrote Captain Marshall Thayer of Michigan’s Second Cavalry, “’deserves more than a contemptuous notice.’” 1 Thayer’s concern about historical memory echoed a strange silence on the day of the battle. A rare atmospheric phenomenon called an acoustic shadow hovered over the main battleground for much of October 8, leaving the Federal commander, Major General Don Carlos Buell, ignorant of the titanic struggle going on only miles from his headquarters. Buell heard no musket fire at all and what little cannon fire reached his tent suggested a minor duel. Irritated, Buell demanded that whoever was responsible “stop that firing” and then sat down to an early dinner. 2 Buell planned to engage the enemy on October 9, but Braxton Bragg’s Confederates had attacked instead, and the half of Buell’s army that was engaged barely hung on through a day most veterans would describe as their worst in the war.

What Buell missed hearing was a long and violent effort by Bragg’s Army of Mississippi to eliminate the main Union presence in Kentucky. The fighting, according to all concerned, rivaled the worst of the war’s most notoriously bloody battles. Sam Watkins, the famous Confederate memoirist described the gritty tenacity of the fighting:
We were soon in a hand-to-hand fight—every man for himself—using the buts of our guns and bayonets. One side would waver and fall back a few yards, and would rally, when the other side would fall back . . . and yet the battle raged. Such obstinate fighting I never had seen before or since. The guns were discharged so rapidly that it seemed the earth itself was in a volcanic uproar. The iron storm passed through our ranks, mangling and tearing men to pieces. The very air seemed full of stifling smoke and fire, which seemed the very pit of hell, peopled by contending demons. 3
As Thayer urged, the battle needed to be remembered for more than just its brutality. The central Kentucky bluegrass town of Perryville, about fifty miles southeast of Louisville, was an unlikely spot for a major engagement, but it proved a key moment in the Civil War. In mid-1862, Bragg, along with Confederate General Edmund Kirby Smith, mounted a offensive through Tennessee and into Kentucky (paralleling Robert E. Lee’s offensive into Maryland at the same time). The high point came on October 4, when Bragg prematurely inaugurated a Confederate governor for Kentucky, a divided state but one with a strong majority of Unionists. Only hours after installing a governor, Bragg abandoned Frankfort, the state capital. Although Bragg’s attack at Perryville nearly destroyed the Buell’s army, his own confidence was shaken and his army seriously weakened by the effort. After the battle, Bragg retreated further, moving all the way back into Tennessee and abandoning Kentucky to the Union. This proved the essential feature of the campaign. As Abraham Lincoln had already noted, “to lose Kentucky is nearly the same as to lose the whole game.” Thanks to the tenacity of Buell’s soldiers and a disorganized, poorly led Confederate western command, Union-held Kentucky stayed in the game.

1 Marshall Thayer, quoted in Kenneth W. Noe, Perryville: This Grand Havoc of Battle (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2001), xiv.
2 Noe, Perryville, 215.
3 Sam Watkins, “The Battle of Perryville,” in The Civil War: The Second Year of the War Told By Those Who Lived It (New York: Library of America, 2012), 596.

(Cross-posted at Civil War 150, cosponsored by The Library of America, The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, and the National Endowment of the Humanities)

Recent Reader's Almanac posts on the Civil War

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Penelope Niven on Thornton Wilder, reading

Guest blog post by Penelope Niven, author of the forthcoming biography, Thornton Wilder: A Life (HarperCollins)
I have the instinctive habit-formed impulse, at any unoccupied moment during the day, to reach for a book to read . . . .
—Thornton Wilder, Journal Entry 24, May 21, 1940
“Dear Papa,” Thornton Wilder wrote when he was nine. “Books I have read this month.” He listed Shakespeare’s Othello, John White’s translation of Plutarch’s Lives, Washington Irving’s Sketch Book, Wilbur Fist Crafts’s Successful Men of Today, and Sarah Knowles Bolton’s Poor Boys Who Became Famous. Thornton concluded with his opinion: “None of the books were unsatisfactory.”

Two of the books would have particularly satisfied his father, Dr. Amos Parker Wilder, journalist, orator, diplomat, and temperance advocate. American authors Crafts and Bolton were leaders in the temperance movement and wrote prolifically for children, hoping to instill in them such virtues as obedience, punctuality, hard work, and, of course, abstinence.

Thornton, his brother, Amos, and their three sisters grew up being read to—the Bible, and works by Bunyan, Scott, Dickens, Thackeray, Thoreau, James Fenimore Cooper, and John Greenleaf Whittier. On Sunday afternoons their father read to his precocious children from “edifying” books on religion, philosophy, history, and civics. On other days, their mother, a poet and lover of the arts, read mythology to them, or poetry, fiction, and drama. Thornton eagerly read every genre. His father encouraged him to read biography, not only the didactic children’s books about poor boys growing up to be famous, but Boswell’s life of Samuel Johnson and the four-volume biography of abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison. When Thornton was twenty-eight and working on The Cabala, his first novel, he wrote, “I never cry for fiction (save when I’m composing it) but I weep myself ill over biography.”

During their high school and college years, Dr. Wilder dispatched his sons to do summer work on farms, believing the experience provided a wider understanding of grassroots America. In the summer of 1916, afflicted with mosquito bites, bedbugs, and sunburn, Thornton worked six ten-hour days a week, at fifteen cents per hour, on a farm in Massachusetts. After the day’s work, he escaped into books. He was so captivated by J. M. Barrie’s plays that he read “to the cows in the stanchions the judge’s speech from Barrie’s The Legend of Leonora.” Thornton’s grounding in biblical literature came in handy another summer when he worked as entertainment director in a Connecticut camp for boys. On Sunday nights he told the boys Bible stories, and because many of them had “never heard of Goliath or Esau or Belshazzar,” he said, they gave him “credit for a great deal of talent.”

From boyhood Thornton was writing plays and stories, fed by his eclectic reading. He noted in his letters and journals the books he read and the writers who absorbed his attention. As an adult, he often read a book once for sheer pleasure, and then re-read it analytically, dissecting it and retrieving the techniques or themes he wanted to try with his own hand. He was schooling himself in the demanding arts of drama and fiction.

He read globally, exploring cultures through their books and working on his Latin, French, German, Italian, and Spanish proficiency so that he could read a text in its original language. He didn’t want another person to stand between him and the author. Books could be bridges to friendship with other American authors—Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Glenway Wescott, Alexander Woollcott, Mabel Dodge Luhan, and Edmund Wilson, among others. In 1934, Thornton met Gertrude Stein and embarked on one of the most important literary friendships of his life. Before they met, he had read Stein’s work closely enough to write a wicked parody of her style, but from 1935 until Stein’s death in 1946, he was the American champion and interpreter of her work.

In his fifties Wilder concentrated on books by nineteenth-century American authors. He was appointed Charles Eliot Norton Professor of Poetry at Harvard for 1950–51, to give a series of lectures he called “The American Characteristics in Classic American Literature.” He turned his prodigious intellectual energy to the mission he set for himself: “To interpret the American experience and the American character as revealed in nineteenth century American literature; to define what it meant to be an American in the twentieth century; and to examine the role of America and Americans in the global community.”

He filled his journals with research and reflections about nineteenth-century American authors and their significance in American life, enough material for the nonfiction book he dreamed about writing but never finished. He was immersed in the work of Whitman, Poe, Melville, Henry James, Thoreau, and Dickinson. He excluded Emerson. “Isn’t he awful?” Wilder wrote to Malcolm Cowley.
Yet how that colossus bestrode the world for so long! His ideas basely, soothingly, flattering all that is facile and evasive in the young republic . . . Melville’s copies of the Essays are in the Harvard Library and it’s a joy to see how Melville dug his pencil into the page in scornful annotation.
Wilder much preferred Thoreau. “Walden,” he wrote, “is a manual of self-reliance so much more profound than Emerson’s famous essay that the latter seems to be merely on the level of that advice to melancholics which directs them to take walks and drink a lot of milk.” Three of Wilder’s lectures were published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1952: “Toward an American Language,” “The American Loneliness,” and “Emily Dickinson,” a biographical portrait articulating a fundamental theme in Wilder’s own work—the importance of “loving the particular while living in the universal.”

By the time he was seventy-eight his vision was failing, and Wilder could not read as copiously as he had always loved to do. Nevertheless, in the months before his death in December 1975, he “devoured with joy” Lewis Thomas’s The Lives of a Cell and James D. Watson’s The Double Helix. “What sublime reaches,” he told his brother, adding that he was “glad to have lived long enough to peek into these processes.”

Back in 1926, when he was a young man, Wilder had reflected that “the whole purport of literature” is “the notation of the heart”—a line he wrote in a letter to his former schoolmate Henry Luce, and then embedded in a passage in The Bridge of San Luis Rey. That maxim held true for Thornton Wilder for a lifetime of writing—and a lifetime of reading.

Also of interest:
Related LOA works: Thornton Wilder: Collected Plays and Writings on Theater; The Bridge of San Luis Rey and Other Novels 1926–1948 (includes Wilder’s essay, “Gertrude Stein’s Four in America”; The Eighth Day, Theophilus North, Autobiographical Writings

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Elmore Leonard to be honored by the National Book Foundation and The Library of America

The National Book Foundation announced this morning that Elmore Leonard will receive the 2012 Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, awarded each year since 1988 to “a person who has enriched our literary heritage over a life of service, or a corpus of work.” In addition, he will join the Library of America series in fall 2014 with a volume of his crime novels from the 1970s, with additional volumes to follow. The LOA collections will be edited by Gregg Sutter, Mr. Leonard's longtime research assistant.

The Library of America issued the following statement: "Elmore Leonard recharged the American crime novel, fusing noirish humor, razor-sharp observation, and extraordinary narrative mastery in a long string of novels written to a dazzlingly high standard. Whether his background is Detroit's urban sprawl, Florida's sun-drenched rot, or the cut-rate glitz of Atlantic City casinos, Leonard conjures a world of anarchic and terrifyingly random danger. He puts in play a brilliant cavalcade of American characters—cops and killers, movie stars and con artists, judges and go-go dancers—whose language, Leonard's most brilliant creation, is a jazzy and perpetually surprising reinvention of American talk."

The LOA publication will make Mr. Leonard one of four living writers to have distinct volumes in the series devoted their writing, joining Philip Roth, John Ashbery, and W. S. Merwin (whose collected poems will be published in spring 2013). Eudora Welty and Saul Bellow were also inducted into The Library of America during their lifetimes.

Ashbery, Bellow, Roth, and Welty all received the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. Other past honorees include such authors as Ray Bradbury, Gwendolyn Brooks, Joan Didion, Maxine Hong Kingston, Norman Mailer, David McCullough, Arthur Miller, Toni Morrison, Adrienne Rich, John Updike, Gore Vidal, and Tom Wolfe. (See that National Book Foundation’s site for a complete list of past medal winners.)

The Library of America, an independent nonprofit organization, seeks to foster greater appreciation for our nation's literary heritage by publishing, and keeping permanently in print, authoritative editions of America's best and most significant writing. There are over 230 volumes in the series to date, among them editions of classic crime writing by Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and David Goodis, and the two-volume collection American Noir: Crime Novels of the 1930s, 40s, and 50s.

Monday, September 17, 2012

September 17, 1862: The Battle of Antietam (Sharpsburg), the bloodiest single day in American history

“Antietam (called Sharpsburg by the South),” writes James McPherson in Battle Cry of Freedom, “was one of the few battles of the war in which both commanders deliberately chose the field and planned their tactics beforehand.” Confederate General Robert E. Lee believed the Federal troops were demoralized and vulnerable after their recent defeat at Second Manassas. Now was the time to strike. Ever cautious, General George McClellan became emboldened when on September 13 a Union soldier found a copy of Lee’s orders of attack wrapped around three cigars a Southern officer had lost in a field near Frederick, Maryland. “Here is a paper,” McClellan told one of his generals, “with which if I cannot whip Bobbie Lee, I will be willing to go home.”

But McClellan believed Lee’s forces to be twice the size they actually were and took two days to arrange his troops. It wasn’t until September 16 that the northern commander had 60,000 men in the field—and another 15,000 six miles away—to stand against Lee’s 25,000 or 30,000. In a letter to his daughters after the battle Brigadier General Alpheus S. Williams captures the apprehension of the Union troops the night before the battle:
At length I got fairly asleep and for two hours and was dead to all sounds or sensations. I shall not, however, soon forget that night; so dark, so obscure, so mysterious, so uncertain, with the occasional rapid volleys of pickets and outposts, the low solemn sound of the command as troops came into position, and withal so sleepy that there was a half-dreamy sensation about it all; but with a certain impression that the morrow was to be great with the future fate of our country. So much responsibility, so much intense future anxiety! and yet I slept as soundly as though nothing was before me.
Brigadier General Alpheus S. Williams
Photograph by Matthew Brady
New York Daily Tribune correspondent George W. Smalley witnessed the battle and published his account three days later. Wiliam Cullen Bryant, editor of the rival New York Evening Post, hailed the account as one of the “best battle pieces in literature.” Smalley paints the encounter in epic proportions:
Fierce and desperate battle between two hundred thousand men has raged since daylight, yet night closes on an uncertain field. It is the greatest fight since Waterloo—all over the field contested with an obstinacy equal even to Waterloo. If not wholly a victory to-night, I believe it is the prelude to a victory to-morrow. But what can be foretold of the future of a fight in which from five in the morning till seven at night the best troops of the continent have fought without decisive result?
A “Maryland maiden” who viewed the battle from a nearby attic window offers a contrasting view when she writes, “On all the distant hills around were the blue uniforms and shining bayonets of our men, and I thought it was the prettiest sight I ever saw in my life.” Eyewitness accounts closer to the fighting tell quite a different story. Here is Major Rufus R. Dawes of the 6th Wisconsin Infantry relating his experience at the center of the battle for David R. Miller’s cornfield, a swath of ground that changed ownership four times during the day:
As we appeared at the edge of the corn, a long line of men in butternut and gray rose up from the ground. Simultaneously, the hostile battle lines opened a tremendous fire upon each other. Men, I can not say fell; they were knocked out of the ranks by dozens. But we jumped over the fence, and pushed on, loading, firing, and shouting as we advanced. There was, on the part of the men, great hysterical excitement, eagerness to go forward, and a reckless disregard for life, of every thing but victory.
Everyone who witnessed the fighting close up expressed horror at the day’s carnage. Smalley notes that “The dead are strewn so thickly that as you ride over [the battlefield] you cannot guide your horse’s steps too carefully.” Dawes laments the “dreadful slaughter” and Williams reports seeing corpses “as thick as autumn leaves along a narrow lane.” A veteran campaigner known to speak his mind, Williams also offers insight into why the deaths and casualties were so great. For one, he finds fault with how some officers directed the order of battle:
The Rebels had been strongly reinforced, and Sumner’s troops, being formed in three lines in close proximity, after his favorite idea, we lost a good deal of our fire without any corresponding benefit or advantage. For instance, the second line, within forty paces of the front, suffered almost as much as the front line, and yet could not fire without hitting our own men. The colonel of a regiment in the second line said he lost sixty men and came off without firing a gun.
On the offensive side, Williams dramatizes how lethally effective an artillery battery can be:
I was near one of our brass twelve-pound Napoleon gun batteries and seeing the Rebel colors appearing over the rolling ground I directed the two left pieces charged with canister to be turned on the point. In the moment the Rebel line appeared and both guns were discharged at short range. Each canister contains several hundred balls. They fell in the very front of the line and all along it apparently, stirring up a dust like a thick cloud. When the dust blew away no regiment and not a living man was to be seen.
By nightfall, at least 3,600 men were dead and well over 17,000 were wounded. McPherson, who estimates that another 2,000 died from their injuries, puts this in perspective:
The casualties at Antietam numbered four times the total suffered by American soldiers at the Normandy beaches on June 6, 1944. More than twice as many Americans lost their lives in one day at Sharpsburg as fell in combat in the War of 1812, the Mexican War, and the Spanish-American War combined.
Both armies stayed in position on September 18. That evening Lee and his troops returned to Virginia.

Also of interest:
Related LOA works: The Civil War: The Second Year Told by Those Who Lived It (contains more than 60 pages on Antietam, including eyewitness accounts by George W. Smalley, Rufus R. Dawnes, Alpheus S. Williams, and many others)

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Dawn McGuire on Christian Wiman, Ambition and Survival, and dying too young

The Aphasia Café
by Dawn McGuire
(IF SF Publishing, 2012)
Dawn McGuire, neurologist and poet, who recently published her third collection of poems, The Aphasia Café (IF SF Publishing), joins our continuing series of guest blog posts by writers of fiction, poetry, essays, and history with an appreciation of the prose of poet and critic Christian Wiman.
In an essay about the prose of poets, Christian Wiman writes, “In prose as in poetry, there is perhaps only one definite requirement for a vital style: it must make the reader feel that something is truly at stake.” Wiman’s prose can astonish, madden, take one’s breath, and sometimes break one’s heart. He is a gifted storyteller and a disciplined, self-made intellectual. On the basis of story, style, and swagger, Ambition and Survival: Becoming a Poet (2007), his collection of personal and critical essays, ranks as a great read; but what makes it vital is its compelling narrative arc: it describes the trajectory, not of an aesthetic, but of a theology. 
Wiman is perhaps best known for having been the editor of Poetry, the oldest American magazine of verse, since 2003. But achieving that esteemed post is not one of the three events—“each shattering in his own way”—that he chronicles in his book’s moving, closing essay, “Love Bade Me Welcome.” In fact, the collection can be rearranged into “before and after” 2005, the year of the final, life-changing event. Essays written before 2005 reveal Wiman as a Miltonic figure, zigging and zagging between a defiant purity about poetry, his only absolute, with a tendency just to “blow stuff up.”

Wiman’s verbal aggression in those years mirrored the crazed rages of his youth. In the dazzling memoir, “The Limit,” he continues to beat a boy long after winning the fight, even as the bones in his own hands are breaking. When he discovers that his father has been cheating on his mother, a teenaged Wiman hits him “squarely between the eyes” and continues to hit him—his father, ashamed, does not resist—“until the last blow is closer to a caress.”

This endnote of Eros infuses his critiques of poetry. He clearly adores Hart Crane, for example, even while relentlessly checking off the poet’s failures: overwritten, “weak-kneed rhapsodies,” sentimental mysticism, inconsistent control of form, bad form. Yet Crane offers him a failure he can love. Crane’s “unremitting intensity” and “doomed ambition” bear a strong family resemblance to Wiman’s own flaws, ones he confesses and acts out from.

At twenty Wiman decided to become a poet. “I loved [poetry] most of all for the contained force of its forms, the release of its music, and for the fact that, as far as I could tell, it had absolutely nothing to do with the world I was from.” Throughout his essays, and most particularly in “Finishes: on Ambition and Survival” (1995), Wiman tussles relentlessly with Form. Form’s mastery is what makes a poem durable, enduring, and—importantly for Wiman—able to outlast its creator. A poet who has met the challenge of finding her form might write five or six poems that can endure. Such a poet will be keenly intentional about style, keenly attuned to conventional forms and devices, even while resisting, reinventing them. It is only a rare poem that succeeds in finding its Form; such poems are perfect.

Finally, Form is a deeply spiritual trope; a way to contain and redeem the Fallen Man. Wiman wrestles with John Ruskin’s idea that “the more beautiful the art, the more it is essentially the work of people who feel themselves wrong.”

There is a sense in which all art emerges out of injury or absence, out of the artist’s sense that there is something missing in him, something awry or disturbed. . . . Art—or, to be more precise, form--is not only what enables artists to experience this sense of wrongness at all, which is their deepest being and will possess them one way or another, it is their only hope of wholeness and release.
Wiman believes he will write a perfect poem, and so become right with himself.

By the penultimate essay, “Free of Our Humbug: Basil Bunting” (2004), Wiman is on the threshold of middle age. Re-reading Bunting, a high-modern formalist whom Wiman admired in his twenties, turns out to be tedious at thirty-seven. He quotes Bunting: “All arts . . . are concerned only with form in the end.” To which Wiman replies: “Well, I don’t buy it—though I have long bought it, have even peddled these notions myself.”

What’s changed? Two of Wiman’s “shattering” events have occurred. In 2001 Wiman stopped writing poetry. In 2004 he found love, a deep, romantic love. In a suddenly and dramatically lit-up world, Form is a lesser god. His spiritual hunger now becomes manifest. To speak it plain: “I needed to thank somebody . . . and so I needed to pray.”

Then comes 2005, the eve of “after.” Less than a year into his marriage, on his thirty-ninth birthday, Wiman receives the diagnosis of a rare blood disease. While the disorder is unpredictable, his case is severe; he will likely die young. “Love Bade Me Welcome” tells how Wiman and his wife get the news. They mourn together for a long time, “not my death, exactly, but the death of the life we had imagined with each other.” They find themselves entering a church; an act which “before” would have given Wiman hives. “The first service was excruciating, in that it seemed to tear all wounds wide open, and it was profoundly comforting, in that it seemed to offer the only possible balm.” If this sounds familiar, it is because it is how Wiman conceived Form: that which enables both the experience of one’s wrongness and the hope of release.

The faith toward which Wiman turns is not that of his Baptist roots—an austere, earth- and body-denying tradition.

My experience has been just the opposite: a love of the earth and existence so overflowing that it implied, or included, or even absolutely demanded, God. Love did not deliver me from the earth, but into it.
He does not become evangelical; he does not even become more secure, or more comfortable in his skin. In his poem “2047 Grace Street” he writes, “I do not know how to come closer to God / except by standing where a world is ending / for one man.” He has seizures of doubt, and knows God perhaps most intimately through His absence. He will probably die young, and “just” be dead, for there is no solacing afterlife in Wiman’s faith. But doesn’t everyone, who fully engages the world, die “too young”?

For Wiman,“Faith is not a state of mind but an action in the world, a movement toward the world.” This is probably why we can find a chemo-bald, slightly fragile Wiman “in the world,” talking about God with Bill Moyers. He speaks with simple clarity, without a hint of the distancing ironies, or the “willed immaturity” of his past. He sounds real, as in realized. This faith as movement toward the world is also “why” we find Wiman writing a different kind of poem, a masterpiece that is both profound and completely accessible. The poem takes place on a porch. It is a praise poem, for junk, a neighbor, the everyday. The mystery. It suggests how close God was all along. Just “Five Houses Down.”
In 2011 Dawn McGuire won the Sarah Lawrence/Campbell Corner Academy of Language Exchange Poetry Prize for "poems that treat larger themes with lyric intensity." About The Aphasia Café, Edward Tayler has written, “Dr. McGuire’s poems—and in their technical exactitude they are most emphatically poems, not clinical studies—touch us where we all live, on the edges of language where the “aphasic” moments we share lie just this side of intimate silence.” Her previous collections include Hands On (Creative Arts Book Company, 2002) and Sleeping in Africa (The Dog Ear Press, 1982). She is Adjunct Professor of Neurology at the Neurosciences Institute of Morehouse School of Medicine, and divides her time between Atlanta and Northern California.

Also of interest:
Related LOA works: Hart Crane: Complete Poems and Selected Letters; American Religious Poems: An Anthology by Harold Bloom
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