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Thursday, April 24, 2014

Aaron Sheehan-Dean on how Civil War observers “didn’t know when the end was coming”

Aaron Sheehan-Dean, author of Why Confederates Fought: Family and Nation in Civil War Virginia, recently edited The Civil War: The Final Year Told by Those Who Lived It, the final installment in the landmark four-volume series published by The Library of America. Sheehan-Dean is Fred C. Frey Professor of Southern Studies at Louisiana State University.

What does the experience of reading these contemporary, eyewitness accounts offer readers that standard narrative histories don't, particularly with regard to this final year of the war?

I think readers will be surprised by the continuing uncertainty about the course of the war. The popular Civil War narrative peaks at Gettysburg in July 1863. But the characters who populate this book didn’t know when the end was coming—Confederates remained optimistic and Unionists quite skeptical until very late in 1864. And even when the end did come, people didn’t know what to make of the war. The closing scenes allow us to see how Americans, North and South, tried to work out the war’s meaning, something that we’re continuing to do.

What does the volume tell us about the role of African Americans in the war?

In 1864, enslaved people in the South confronted the true risks of seeking freedom. White owners pursued every means to deter their flight, Union officials often proved unhelpful and unreliable, and even the environment seemed to conspire against them: Joseph Miller, an escaped slave from Unionist Kentucky, describes losing his entire family when they were expelled from Camp Nelson in the midst of freezing weather. But despite all of these dangers, southern African Americans fled slavery by the hundreds of thousands. And they did so partly because free men of color, fighting under the U.S. flag, led the way into the South destroying slavery as they went. Thomas Morris Chester’s dispatches covering the U.S. Colored Troops in the Army of the James eloquently argued that this military service earned black people full citizenship in the United States.

What do the pieces tell us about the diversity of experiences and outlooks in the North and the South?

They remind us of the huge scope and scale of this conflict. The South alone was larger than continental Europe, and although Napoleon crossed more borders in his campaigns I don’t think he encountered a broader range of people than Grant and Sherman did on their campaigns. So while we speak of this as an American conflict, the range of human experience in it was tremendous. That’s part of what makes it eternally fascinating. It would be hard to find two more conflicting views of the war than those between C. Chauncey Burr, an anti-war Democratic newspaper editor, and Wilbur Fisk, a Republican soldier from Vermont. Burr denounced Lincoln for leading “a war against a great principle—the principle of liberty and self-government” while for Fisk, “slavery and despotism have challenged war with us.”

Are there particular writers you grew closer to, or came particularly to admire, while working on the book?

It’s always a treat to find common diarists and letter writers who did not prepare their works for publication but who write with a brilliant pen. Catherine Edmondston, a plantation mistress in North Carolina, is one of those writers whose range of learning, wit, and clever invective should charm even the most skeptical readers. She tracked the armies’ movements carefully, but expended her sharpest barbs for those Confederate politicians whose failures doomed her nation. She thundered against the Richmond Enquirer’s advocacy of enlisting slaves as soldiers in January 1865: “it offers to sell the birthright of the South, not for a mess of pottage, but only for the hope of obtaining one.”

Most interesting discovery you made while assembling the book?

Given the discussion of “big data” these days, I am always surprised to find nineteenth-century Americans who make the most astute judgments based on nothing more than watching and listening. Charles Francis Adams Jr., whose father served as American minister to Great Britain (and whose grandfather and great-grandfather had each served as president), offered one of the sharpest assessments of Ulysses S. Grant ever recorded. Adams’s unit guarded Grant’s field headquarters in 1864 and he regarded Grant as physically undistinguished but uniquely capable at leading the northern armies. “He handles those around him so quietly & well,—he so evidently has the faculty of disposing of work & managing men,” Adams observed. “He is cool & quiet, almost stolid & as if stupid,—in danger & in crisis he is one against whom all around, whether few in number or a great army as here, would instinctively lean. He is a man of the most exquisite judgment & tact.” The pieces in this volume from Adams Jr. and his brother Henry, and father, all bristle with intelligence and wit.

Piece you think readers will find most surprising?

The story of Appomattox is so well known that we assume every northern soldier reacted with euphoria. That’s why Stephen Minot Weld’s letter to his sister always stops me cold. Weld came from a privileged Boston background and retained a skeptical view of his experiences, but his slow comprehension of Lee’s surrender reminds us of how completely the war had swallowed him. “I had a sort of impression that we should fight him all our lives,” Weld wrote. “He was like a ghost to children, something that haunted us so long that we could not realize that he and his army were really out of existence to us.”

Do you have a favorite piece in the collection?

I often quote Spottswood Rice when speaking with students about slavery and emancipation. Rice escaped from bondage and set out to reclaim his children. His steadfastness and confidence reveals how radically the war upended the southern social order. He warned the children’s owner, “when I get ready to come after mary I will have bout a powrer and autherity to bring hear away and to exacute vengencens on them that holds my Child . . . I have no fears about getting mary out of your hands  this whole Government give chear to me and you cannot help your self.”

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Setting Samuel Menashe’s poetry to music

Composer Ben Yarmolinsky is a professor of music at the Bronx Community College of the City University of New York and a founding member and director of Friends and Enemies of New Music, an organization that has been presenting concerts of contemporary music in New York since 1989. Recently he released the CD, Paradise: Songs on Poems of Samuel Menashe, and he explains how he came to set Samuel’s poetry to music.

I knew Samuel Menashe for the last seven years of his life. We were introduced in the spring of 2004, at the cocktail party following the annual awards ceremony of the American Academy of Arts & Letters. Samuel did not receive an award from the Academy on that day—nor on any other day.

In the years 2005 through 2010, I set many of Samuel’s poems to music, usually for solo voice accompanied by guitar or piano. Eventually, I accumulated almost forty Menashe songs. Samuel attended every performance of these songs, and was generous in his praise of them. He wrote: “Yarmolinsky takes note of my poems. His settings make each word a note.” One of my most prized souvenirs of our friendship is a printed card of his poem “Hallelujah” underneath which he wrote “For Ben Yarmolinsky who set my poems to music, lifted me to his level. De la musique avant toute chose.”

In December of 2013, I released a CD of my settings of 37 of Samuel’s poems. Here is one of the songs from the CD, sung by baritone Randall Scarlata:

Night Music

Why am I so fond
Of the double bass
Of bull frogs
(Or do I hear the prongs
Of a tuning fork,
Not a bull fiddle)
In perfect accord—
To one another
Across this pond
How does each frog know
He is not his brother
Which frog to follow
Who was his mother
(Or is it a jew’s harp
I hear in the dark?)

This poem presents a wonderful opportunity for text painting. In my arrangement the left hand “ribbet” motive of the piano is imitated closely by the bass notes of the cello, and echoed by the strings and percussion, so that the listener has the sense of many frogs “responding in perfect accord to one another.” I like to think of my songs as a kind of response to Samuel’s harping.
  • Paradise: Songs on Poems by Samuel Menashe is available as a CD or music download from cdbaby.com, iTunes, Amazon, cdUniverse.com, or directly from the composer, at benyarmolinsky.com.
  • The e-book edition of Samuel Menashe: New and Selected Poems is on sale for the month of April, for as low as $3.82 for Kindle, Kobo, Google Books, Nook, and iBooks (via iTunes).
  • Watch “Samuel: The Concise Poet,” a three-minute episode of WNYC’s Know Your Neighbor featuring Samuel Menashe and his dilapidated West Village walk-up apartment.

Lyrics copyright © Literary Classics of the U.S., Inc. Music copyright © Ben Yarmolinsky.
All rights reserved.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

A Daughter Chooses Her Favorite Bernard Malamud Story

We recently asked Janna Malamud Smith, whose several books include My Father is a Book: A Memoir of Bernard Malamud, which of her father’s novels or stories were among her favorites.

Writers’ children are not good readers of their parents’ books. At least, I’m not. Whenever I read my father’s stories or novels, I get vertigo. It’s as if I’m wearing crazy glasses that hide and show a world to which other readers remain oblivious. My lenses see through the surface, into the depths where a lot of stuff crawls around. Meanwhile, they obscure the more obvious landscape. I get confused about what I’m supposed to be examining. I suppose you can say that I can’t stop myself from querying the line between my father’s written fantasies and his lived life. I intuitively sense in the stories much about the person I knew—his feelings, his experience, his psychological themes. Sometimes it’s as if the fictions themselves don’t adhere and crumble before me. So my opinions need to be taken with a big grain of salt—a truth driven home again lately when my husband read The Fixer and said, “I never read it all these years because you didn’t like it. But I thought it was really good.” Enough said.

Still, there are works of his I really love—among them, The Assistant, the early chapters of Pictures of Fidelman, a bunch of the stories in The Magic Barrel and so forth. My all-time favorite is “The Jewbird.” Published in his short story collection Idiots First, it begins as a laugh-out-loud funny story, and it ends very darkly. He read it frequently at public readings, and I remember how much I loved hearing it. Part of the pleasure was that it reminded me of the bedtime stories he’d told my brother and me when we were little. He—not surprisingly—was gifted at holding children spellbound with bewitching tales. He invented characters (all the heroes were guys, and women generally were bad witches, but I won’t dwell there right now) and he kept their adventures running on across many bedtimes. Talking animals were frequently in the mix. And he loved to make us laugh. I particularly favored the tales he told about an ingenious, very busy, trouble-making raccoon who lived in our local small town zoo.

In adulthood I have loved “The Jewbird” also for its ironic, deeply humanistic take on anti-Semitism. It captures well the complex entangling of self-hatred and hatred that haunts everyone, but haunts some people more.

Of related interest:

Friday, April 4, 2014

James Shapiro on how American attitudes toward Shakespeare keep changing

Photograph by Mary Cregan
James Shapiro, best-selling author of Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? and 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare, recently edited Shakespeare in America: An Anthology from the Revolution to Now, published this week by The Library of America. Shapiro is Larry Miller Professor of English at Columbia University.

Why this book? And why now?

An extraordinary range of Americans—including poets, presidents, actors, and novelists—have written compellingly about Shakespeare over the past two hundred years: short stories, essays, musicals, sci-fi, burlesques, parodies, and, as this anthology shows, much else besides. Yet surprisingly little of this rich material has been collected before. Taken together, this writing tells a powerful story of the past two hundred years in our national culture. As attention increasingly turns to “Global Shakespeare,” it’s important to reflect on what has been a distinctly American engagement with Shakespeare.

What was the strangest or most surprising thing that you learned in the course of your research for this book?

Easily the strangest thing I researched in the course of putting together this anthology was the amateur production of Othello in 1846 in Corpus Christi, Texas, staged by American troops on the eve of war with Mexico. A young officer named Ulysses S. Grant was cast to play the role of Desdemona. I’m still wrestling with what it meant for a future Civil War general and president of the United States to see this play about racial division through the eyes of its tragic heroine.

What is your favorite piece in collection?

My absolute favorite (among many) in the collection is Jane Addams’s 1895 essay, “A Modern Lear.” It’s brilliant, passionate, one of the finest things written about the play, and, in choosing to view Shakespeare’s tragedy through the lens of the bloody Pullman Strike, a hundred years ahead of its time. The powerful (and Lear-like) industrialist George Pullman made sure that it wasn’t published at the time, and it didn’t appear in print until 1912. I’m proud that The Library of America has anthologized it and hope that it reaches the wide audience it deserves.

Which plays have been favorites for American readers and theatergoers? Which have been neglected—and why?

Americans have had their own mini-canon of plays taught and staged over the past two hundred years. The great tragedies—Hamlet, Lear, Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, and especially Othello (not surprisingly, given our long preoccupation with race) top the list. Comedies such as Much Ado about Nothing and A Midsummer Night’s Dream have held their own. But the history plays, with the exception of Richard III, have fared less well; these plays about national identity seem to matter far more to the English, whose past they recount, than to us.

President Bill Clinton, who wrote the foreword to the collection, joins a long line of presidents fascinated with Shakespeare. What is it about presidents and Shakespeare?

Shakespeare had a particular gift for creating plays that put individuals under incredible pressure—in his tragedies, to the breaking point. It’s no surprise to me that those among us who experience the most intense pressure day in, day out—the presidents of the United States—have been drawn to his plays, from George Washington and Abraham Lincoln up to the present day. I am deeply grateful to President Clinton, a particularly astute reader of the plays, for sharing his thoughts about Shakespeare.

What American production do you most wish you could have seen?

I’m torn on this one. I really wish that I could have seen Orson Welles’s anti-fascist production of Julius Caesar at the Mercury Theatre in New York in 1937. But if I could choose only one it would have to be watching Paul Robeson play Othello on Broadway in 1943.

What is your favorite Shakespeare-inspired musical?

It’s strange that the English never managed to create a great Shakespeare musical; Americans did, including The Boys from Syracuse and Kiss Me, Kate. But my favorite, and surely the best, is that exhilarating rewrite of Romeo and Juliet: West Side Story (1957).

Have American attitudes or ideas about Shakespeare changed over the years?

Attitudes toward Shakespeare evolve because America itself keeps on changing—and literary and theatrical responses to Shakespeare are particularly sensitive to these cultural shifts. In anthologizing over two hundred years of that history—by sharing some first-rate writing—I hope to offer an alternative history of America, one that casts light not only on our long struggles with issues like race and immigration, but also on what it means to be an American.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

The Grapes of Wrath at Seventy-Five:

On April 14, 1939, The Viking Press published John Steinbeck’s most famous and enduring work, The Grapes of Wrath. This month, to commemorate the novel’s seventy-fifth anniversary, Penguin has just published On Reading The Grapes of Wrath by Susan Shillinglaw. A professor of English at San Jose State University and Scholar in Residence at the National Steinbeck Center, Shillinglaw has been director of the Steinbeck Research Center at San Jose State for eighteen years. Her previous publications include Carol and John Steinbeck: Portrait of a Marriage (U of Nevada Press, 2013).

In the following guest post, Professor Shillinglaw examines how Steinbeck’s investigative journalism laid the foundation for writing The Grapes of Wrath and how the novel still resonates today.

Seventy-five years after it was first published, John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath remains as relevant—its cry for equity as sharp and insistent—as ever. The bruising honesty of the novel owes much to its journalistic roots. From August 1936 to February 1938, off and on for eighteen months, John Steinbeck conducted on-the-ground research, driving an old bakery truck from his Northern California home to the Central Valley, to Fresno and Button Willow and Bakersfield and Weedpatch. He bore witness to migrant woe, initially as an investigative reporter for the liberal San Francisco News.

In the summer of 1936, as Steinbeck was completing Of Mice and Men, the editor asked him to write a series of articles on migrant housing in California. A few months earlier, a federal government camp program had been launched to provide decent housing for migratory field workers. The plan was to build a dozen or more model migrant camps up and down the state. Two were open in 1936, one in Marysville near Sacramento and another in Arvin, near Bakersfield. Both enclaves faced strong opposition by local growers: if field workers came together in these government-run, safe and clean little communities, who knew what might happen. Strikes? Labor organizing? Protests?

Steinbeck’s assignment was to sway public opinion, soften hearts and minds steeled against the government camp program; illuminate the deplorable conditions in squatters’ camps; and break down “Okie” prejudice. “The migrants are hated for the following reasons,” he wrote in his first article of what became “The Harvest Gypsies” series: “that they are ignorant and dirty people, that they are carriers of disease, that they increase the necessity for police and the tax bill for schooling in a community, and that if they are allowed to organize they can, simply by refusing to work, wipe out the season’s crops. They are never received into a community nor into the life of a community. Wanderers in fact, they are never allowed to feel at home in the communities that demand their services.”

Change a few words and that might describe twenty-first-century resistance to illegal immigrants or the angry push-back on passage of the DREAM Act. Steinbeck’s assignment for the San Francisco News was to move readers to an empathetic recognition that those folks are our folks.

Some of Steinbeck’s research for “The Harvest Gypsies” series is embedded in The Grapes of Wrath in the Weedpatch camp chapters (22 and into 26), which describe an oasis of dignity for migrant families. Camp director Jim Rawley nudges the Joads to renewed self-respect, and his kindness was drawn closely on that of Tom Collins, the director of the Arvin camp that Steinbeck visited in the late summer of 1936. Steinbeck read Tom’s detailed camp reports, running some 30 pages per week and carefully recording the number of campers, their jobs, their sicknesses and songs and troubles. Steinbeck traveled with Tom and interviewed migrants with him. He and Tom brought food to the destitute and helped with the sick. “To Tom who lived it,” the dedication to The Grapes of Wrath reads, in part.

Rereading the novel in 2014 sparks countless moments of recognition all over again, context shifted, impact fresh. The Grapes of Wrath continues to speak so powerfully in our era because Steinbeck dug in so deeply and with such passionate conviction into his own.

In some ways the book feels more timely than ever this year, as we in California emerge from a very discontented winter. As I write a green skin stretches over the state, pale shoots that belie what we know: that aquifers are depleted; that this winter’s rainfall was late and brief; that the parched Central Valley soil might not, as in past decades, produce 50% of the nation’s fruits and vegetables—or 99% of the country’s artichokes, dates, olives, walnuts and (water-thirsty) almonds. “The spring is beautiful in California,” Steinbeck writes in Chapter 25 of The Grapes of Wrath. “Valleys in which the fruit blossoms are fragrant pink and white waters in a shallow sea. . . . And on the level vegetable lands are the mile-long rows of pale green lettuce and the spindly little cauliflowers, the gray-green unearthly artichoke plants.”

All that is still visible in Monterey County, Steinbeck country, even in a drought year. Other California stories, however, aren’t pink or gray-green or lovely.

Steinbeck’s terrain was unlovely stories—of what happens when the green promise does not deliver or the fecund earth does not produce—be it in Oklahoma or in California. The soil dries and poor people get tractored off—or laid off, the threat this harvest season, when many fewer workers will be needed. Houses are repossessed and families move on, to more fragile homes. Or, as in Chapter 25, California growers burn surplus crops to keep prices high “and in the eyes of the hungry there is a growing wrath.”

John Steinbeck startles readers to attention, then and now. Another drought. Banks foreclosing—yet again. Angry workers demanding fair wages—$10.10 an hour as a living wage. Decent housing and safe working conditions for fieldworkers still making news, today’s stories about women who are sexually vulnerable in the fields. His saga of land use and workers’ anguish is as poignant, maybe more so, in this year of “exceptional” drought in much of California; in this decade where the voices of the “98%”—the wide swath of Americans that interested John Steinbeck throughout his career—are muted. Power versus powerlessness was his narrative arc. And it’s ours as well.

“Communication between two humans even under the best of circumstances is staggeringly difficult. When I am able to get through to establish a contact I have a sense of joy. That is the real base of all the arts—they are kind of frantic signals like mirror flashes between mountains. . . .”
—John Steinbeck

Of related interest:
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