We’ve moved!
Visit the new Library of America blog at our new website: www.loa.org/news-and-views

Friday, July 31, 2015

Video: E. L. Doctorow pays tribute to Herman Melville’s great “kitchen-sink sort of book”

The novelist E. L. Doctorow, who died in New York City last week at the age of 84, was a friend to The Library of America over the years, having contributed an introduction to the LOA edition of Jack London’s The Call of the Wild and spoken at a number of LOA events.

We’re now pleased to present a video highlight of Doctorow’s tribute to Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick at The Library of America's twenty-fifth anniversary celebration in New York City on May 17, 2007. The clip is followed by the complete text of Doctorow’s remarks. (The complete video is available here.)

Video: E. L. Doctorow on May 17, 2007 (1:40)
Literary history finds a few novelists who achieved their greatness from an impatience with the conventions of narrative. Virginia Woolf composed Mrs. Dalloway from the determination to write a novel without plot. And then James Joyce, of course, who proved himself in the art of narrative writing before he committed his assaults upon it. The author of the sterling narrative Typee and Omoo precedes Joyce with his own blatant subversion of the narrative compact he calls Moby-Dick.

Yet I would guess that what Melville does in this novel is not from a grand preconceived aesthetic but from the necessity of dealing with the problem inherent in constructing an entire 19th-century novel around a single life-and-death encounter with a whale. The encounter clearly having to come as the climax of his book, Melville’s writing problem was how to pass the time until then—until he got the Pequod to the Southern Whale Fisheries and brought the white whale from the depths, Ahab crying “There she blows—there she blows! A hump like snow hill! It is Moby Dick!” She blows, I point out to you, not until page 537 of a 566-page book—in my old paperback Rinehart edition.

Rinehart edition,
circa 1960s
A writer lacking Melville’s genius might conceive of a shorter novel, its entry point being possibly closer in time to the deadly encounter. And with maybe a flashback or two thrown in. Melville’s entry point, you remember, is not at sea aboard the Pequod, not even in Nantucket: he locates Ishmael in Manhattan—and the book is landlocked for a hundred or so pages until the Pequod in Chapter 22 “thrusts her vindictive bows into the cold malicious waves.”

I wouldn’t wonder if Melville at this point, the Pequod finally underway, stopped to read what he had written to see what his book was bidding him to do.

This is sheer guesswork, of course. I have not read the major biographies, and I don’t know what Melville himself may have said about the writing of Moby-Dick beyond characterizing it as a “wicked book.” Besides, whatever any author says of his novel is of course another form of the fiction he practices and is never, never, to be trusted.

Perhaps Melville had everything comfortably worked out before he began, though I doubt it. Perhaps he had a draft completed of something quite conventional before the writer’s sense of crisis set in. The point to remember is the same that Faulkner once reminded his critics of: that they see a finished work and do not dream of the chaos of trial and error and torment from which it has somehow emerged.

So let me propose that having done his first hundred or so pages of almost entirely land-based writing, Melville stopped to read what he had written. What have I got here?—the author’s question.

“This Ishmael—he is logorrheic! Whatever he writes about, he takes his time. With this Ishmael, if I have a hundred or so land-based pages, if I am to keep the proportion of the thing, and the encounter with the whale is my climax, I will need at least 450 pages of sailing before I find him. My God.”

So there was the problem. His sentences had a texture that could conceivably leave his book wallowing with limp sails in a becalmed narrative sea.

Dodd, Mead and
Company, 1923
I will not speculate that there may have come to Melville one of those terrible writer’s moments of despair that can be so useful in fusing as if with lightning the book so far with the book to come. In any event he would for his salvation have to discover that his pages manifested not one but two principles of composition. First, a conventional use of chronological time. After all, Ahab would have to allow the crew the hunting of other whales. So there was that action. Bad weather and worse could reasonably be invoked. There was that action. As Ahab’s maniacal singlemindedness became apparent to the crew, some of them, at least, might contest his authority. Other whalers were abroad around the world. They could be met and inquired of. As indeed there are, what, perhaps eight or nine such encounters with other ships. Given this pattern, a habitual recourse of the narrative, we readers today can make a case for Moby-Dick as a road novel.

But while in these first 105 pages Ishmael’s integrity as a narrator is maintained, and the set-up for the voyage suggests an assiduous and conventional narrative, there is something else, possibly less visible, a second principle of composition lurking there. It would come to Melville incipiently as a sense of dissatisfaction with his earlier books, and their gift for nautical adventure. While we may know that there is nobody, before or since, who has written better descriptions of the sea and its infinite natures and the wrathful occasions it can deliver, to Melville himself this talent would be of no consequence as he contemplated the requirements of his Moby-Dick, and felt the aching need to do this book, to bring it to fruition out of the depths of his consciousness—to resolve, into a finished visionary work, everything he knew.

So he looks again at his Ishmael. And he finds in him the polymath of his dreams.

Ishmael has read his Shakespeare. He knows European history. He is conversant with biblical scholarship, philosophy, ancient history, classical myth, English poetry, lands and empires, geography. Why stop there? He can express the latest thinking in geology (he would know about the tectonic plates), the implications of Darwinism, and look, his enlightened cultural anthropology.

“I can make this fellow an egregious eavesdropper, so talented as to be able to hear men think, or repeat their privately muttered soliloquies verbatim.”

And it is a fact that no sooner are we at sea, in Chapter 24, does Ishmael step out of time in a big way and give us the first of his lectures on whaling. His big gamble has begun, to pass the time by destroying it, to make a new thing of the novel form by blasting its conventions.

I know this to be true: Herman Melville may have been theologically a skeptic, philosophically an Existentialist, personally a depressive, with a desolation of spirit as deep as any sea dingle—but as a writer he is exuberant.

He will load his entire book with time-stopping pedagogy—he will give us essays, trade lore, taxonomies, opinion surveys, he will review the pertinent literature—he will carry on to excess outside the narrative.

It interests me that Ishmael, who is the source of Melville’s inspired subversion of the narrative compact, must therefore be himself badly used by the author. Ishmael is treated with great love but scant respect—he is Ishmael, all right, in being so easily cast out, and if he is called back it is only to be cast out again. I wonder if it was not a private irony of his author that the physically irresolute Ishmael, with roughly the same protoplasm of the Cheshire cat, is the Pequod’s sole survivor.

And then of course the excess touches every corner, every nook and cranny below deck, every tool and technical fact of the life aboard the Pequod, and everything upon it, from Ahab’s prosthesis to the gold doubloon he nails upon the mast. The narrative bounds forward from the discussion of things. So finally we look at the details and discover something else: whatever it is, Melville will provide us the meanings to be taken from it.

This suggests to me the mind of a poet. The significations, the meaningful enlargements he makes of tools, coins, colors, existent facts, even the color of the whale are the work of a lyric poet, a maker of metaphorical meanings, for whom unembellished linear narrative is but a pale joy.

Random House, 1930
Moby-Dick is a big kitchen-sink sort of book into which the exuberant author, a writing fool, throws everything he knows, happily changing voice, philosophizing, violating the consistent narrative, dropping in every arcane bit of information he can think of, reworking his research, indulging in parody, unleashing his pure powers of description—so that the real Moby Dick is the voracious maw of the book swallowing the English language.

The novel’s greatness is not negated by the fact that our culture has changed and we now no longer hunt the whale as much as we try to save it. In fact, according to newspaper reports, whale watching, not hunting, is now the greatest threat to their well being, or whalebeing. Going out in sightseeing boats to frolic with the whales is a bigger industry now, producing more income, than fishing from them, and threatens to disrupt their migratory patterns and thus their organized means of survival. In fact, one can imagine Moby-Dick as possibly a prophetic document, if one day a Leviathan rises from the sea in total exasperation of being watched by these alien humans, humans who once at least in hunting them were marginally in the natural world, but now in only observing them are in that realm no longer, and so rightly destined for the huge open jaw, and the mighty crunch, and the triumphant slap of the horizontal flukes.

But whatever the case, I can assure you Ernest Hemingway was wrong when he said American literature begins with Huckleberry Finn. It begins with Moby-Dick, the book that swallowed European civilization whole, and we only are escaped alone on our own shore, to tell our tales.

© 2007 E. L. Doctorow. Used by permission.

Related posts:

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Revisionism: Edgar Allan Poe’s “extraordinary nonsense” inspires an ingenious modern art exhibition

One of the great enigmas of American literature unexpectedly rejoins the cultural conversation this summer with the opening of Eureka, a group exhibition at the Pace Gallery in New York City that takes its name and inspiration from an all-but-unclassifiable book-length work Edgar Allan Poe published in 1848, slightly more than a year before his untimely death at the age of 40.

Title page of
Eureka first edition
(Putnam, 1848)
Eureka: A Prose Poem is frequently described as a kind of treatise in which Poe expounds his theories of the nature of the universe, from its origins to its overriding laws. But this sketch of the cosmos relies less on any scientific validation than on its author’s intuitive “ratiocination”—the same process, readers will recall, that allowed Poe’s detective C. Auguste Dupin to solve the murders in the Rue Morgue. As a representative passage attests, Eureka is primarily concerned with collapsing the distance between inner and outer space:
Discarding now the two equivocal terms, “gravitation” and “electricity,” let us adopt the more definite expressions, “Attraction” and “Repulsion.” The former is the body; the latter the soul: the one is the material; the other the spiritual, principle of the Universe. No other principles exist. All phænomena are referable to one, or to the other, or to both combined. So rigorously is this the case—so thoroughly demonstrable is it that Attraction and Repulsion are the sole properties through which we perceive the Universe—in other words, by which Matter is manifested to Mind—that, for all merely argumentative purposes, we are fully justified in assuming that Matter exists only as Attraction and Repulsion—that Attraction and Repulsion are matter. . . .
Eureka has vexed readers and critics alike since its first publication. A contemporary review in the Literary World panned it as “arrant fudge” and “extraordinary nonsense, if not blasphemy,” and exactly 100 years later T. S. Eliot harrumphed that it “makes no deep impression . . . because we are aware of Poe’s lack of qualifications in philosophy, theology or natural science.”

Partisans of the work, however, have included poets Paul Valéry and W. H. Auden; it’s also worth noting that Charles Baudelaire translated it into French and Julio Cortázar into Spanish. More surprisingly, a consensus opinion has formed in recent decades around the notion that in its eccentric way Eureka anticipates key discoveries in astrophysics, such as the Big Bang theory and the concept of an expanding universe.

Installation view of "Eureka" at Pace Gallery
Installation view of Eureka
508 West 25th Street, New York / May 1 – August 14, 2015
Photography by: Tom Barratt / Pace Gallery

This is the side of Poe’s text that drives the ingeniously curated group exhibition at Pace, which is comprised of 23 works by 12 twentieth- and twenty-first-century artists. Successive artworks alternately portray objects in space—which may or may not be taken to represent planetary bodies—in two and three dimensions; a kind of visual echo or rhyme results from several of the show’s adroit juxtapositions. A 1934 mobile by Alexander Calder, for instance, bounces off an adjacent 1987 painting by Australian Aboriginal artist Yala Yala Gibbs Tjungurrayi, whose geometric shapes pulsate with a Keith Haring–like energy. James Turrell’s hologram of a full moon confronts viewers with a disorienting trompe l’oeil, while a nearby recording of Edgar Varèse compositions evokes, one might say, the music of the spheres.

Installation view of "Eureka" exhibition at Pace Gallery
Installation view of Eureka
508 West 25th Street, New York / May 1 – August 14, 2015
Photography by: Tom Barratt / Pace Gallery

As an incisive essay by Max Nelson on the Paris Review website summarizes: “the show is a delightful cabinet of curiosities that riffs playfully, if a little abstrusely, on Eureka’s atmosphere and tone.”

According to his biographer Kenneth Silverman, Poe intimated to a friend that his “prose poem” wouldn’t be properly appreciated until 2,000 years after its appearance. But from the evidence on display at Pace, it’s tempting to conclude that his prediction was off by about 1,800 years.

Eureka is on view at Pace Gallery New York City through August 28, 2015. Visit the Pace website for complete details.

Related posts:

Thursday, July 23, 2015

The Library of America remembers E. L. Doctorow and his “indelible” novels

Ragtime by
E. L. Doctorow
(Random House, 1975)
Writer E. L. Doctorow died in New York City on Tuesday, July 21, at the age of 84. He was born in the Bronx in 1931 and published his first novel, the spare, haunting neo-Western Welcome to Hard Times, in 1960. Over the next half-century he would continue to reexamine the American past, and simultaneously reanimate the form of the historical novel, in a string of contemporary classics that include The Book of Daniel (1971), a fictional treatment of the Julius and Ethel Rosenberg espionage case; Ragtime (1975), later adapted for both film and Broadway; Billy Bathgate (1989), a recreation of the Depression-era Bronx of his childhood; and The March (2005), which brought the author’s imagination to bear on the closing months of the Civil War.

Doctorow won the National Book Award, the Library of Congress Prize for American Fiction, and the PEN/Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction, to name just a few of his many laurels. In 2012 he was inducted into the New York State Writers Hall of Fame. Literary critic and translator Liesl Schillinger offered this stirring tribute to him at the induction ceremony:
I first encountered E. L. Doctorow’s writing as a child in the 1970s and ’80s, pulling his novels from my parents’ shelves. I began with Ragtime, and was captivated by the flowing way Doctorow integrated historic events, the changing roles of women and African Americans, and—I’ll admit—raciness, into his storytelling. I was hungry for clues to what adults cared about; and to what being an American meant. His writing informed my understanding, and has stayed with me. The 20th century is over; but the American century lives on, and will endure in Doctorow’s magnificent body of work. . . . how lucky it is that those of us who wish to revisit the most significant touchpoints of our national history may do so not by hoarding towers of text, but by inhabiting the evocative world Doctorow has conjured in his indelible novels.
Doctorow was named for Edgar Allan Poe, whom he once characterized as “our greatest bad writer.” In a more charitable vein, he contributed an admiring introduction to The Library of America paperback edition of Jack London’s The Call of the Wild, which he praised as a “tour-de-force of symbolic transfiguration.”

In 2014, meanwhile, he read from Herman Melville’s 1850 essay “Hawthorne and His Mosses” at a public event co-presented by The Library of America and The Public Theater for the LOA anthology Shakespeare in America. Listen to Doctorow read what Melville said about Shakespeare, and then enjoy what Doctorow says about Melville, in the video below.

Related post:
Liesl Schillinger on E. L. Doctorow’s chronicles of the American century

Monday, July 20, 2015

Henry James, John Singer Sargent, and the “masterpiece of painting” that survived a meat cleaver attack

An old friend of The Library of America is in New York City for the summer, receiving visitors by the hundreds every day and looking remarkably sharp despite having survived a brush with vandalism and, more recently, commemorated a hundredth birthday.

The “friend” in this case is the celebrated 1913 portrait of Henry James by John Singer Sargent—one of many arresting works featured in the exhibition Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends, currently on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. If the painting looks familiar to Library of America readers, that’s because it graces the dust jacket of the LOA volume Henry James: Complete Stories 1898–1910.

John Singer Sargent, Henry James (1913)
Oil on canvas, 33–1/2 × 26–1/2 in. (85.1 × 67.3 cm)
National Portrait Gallery, London
Photo: © National Portrait Gallery, London

The Met’s exhibition is an opportunity to appreciate both Sargent’s artistic gifts and the remarkably rarefied nature of his social circle. His portraits encompass other painters, actors, singers, dancers, and of course writers, with Robert Louis Stevenson and W.B. Yeats both being caught especially vividly.

Sargent and James became friends after James published an extensive appreciation of the artist’s work in Harper’s magazine in 1887, where he wrote: “In an altogether exceptional degree does he give us the sense that an intention and the art of carrying it out are for him one and the same thing.” Their common experience as American expatriates and members of the cultural elite created a bond between the two men, but today it’s virtually a critical commonplace to find deeper affinities between them—to link the psychological depth conveyed in Sargent’s portraits, for instance, with James’s almost obsessive attention to his characters’ inner lives. (This might also help account for why Sargent reproductions regularly appear on the covers of James paperbacks.)

The 1913 portrait was a commission by James’s friends and admirers for his seventieth birthday. According to the exhibition catalogue, the author was happy with the result, calling it “Sargent at his very best and poor old HJ not at his worst; in short a living breathing likeness and a masterpiece of painting.”

But the “living breathing likeness” almost breathed its last before most people had a chance to see it for themselves. When the painting went on view at London’s Royal Academy in May 1914, a suffragette named Mary Wood attacked it with a meat cleaver, managing to slash the canvas three times before being apprehended. While it is tempting to speculate that Wood was venting her disapproval of the way James had portrayed the women’s movement in his novel The Bostonians nearly 30 years earlier, she was in fact engaged in a more general protest at the lack of political representation for women. In the years just prior to World War I, several English suffragettes drew attention to their cause by vandalizing pieces of art, and one theory about the Mary Wood incident suggests that at the time of its unveiling Sargent’s portrait would have symbolized an artistic elite that consisted entirely of men. (The Royal Academy itself was widely understood to be a “bastion of conservatism.”)

James relayed his feelings about the incident in a letter to his friend Jessie Allen:
Yes, it was a nasty one, or rather a nasty three—for she got at me thrice over before the tomahawk was stayed. I naturally feel very scalped and disfigured, but you will be glad to know that I seem to be pronounced curable—to all probability, that is, when the experts have well looked into me. The damage, in other words, isn’t past praying for, or rather past mending, given the magic of the modern mender’s art.
James’s optimism was well-founded. Sargent was quickly able to repair the painting with the help of a team of restorers, and The Library of America can attest that today “old HJ” looks none the worse for his ordeal.

Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends is on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City through October 4, 2015. Visit metmuseum.org for complete exhibition information.

Related posts:

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Annie Liontas: Influences, identity, and what defines the “self-respecting immigrant novel”

Let Me Explain You
by Annie Liontas
(Scribner, 2015)
Our series of guest blog posts by writers of fiction, history, essays, and poetry continues today with a post by Annie Liontas, whose debut novel Let Me Explain You arrives this week. Below she describes some of the key influences on her book, which recounts the travails of a Greek-American family in New Jersey.
Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides. In writing Middlesex, Eugenides is said to have drafted 50 pages in one voice, picked up a new voice for another 75 pages, grown dissatisfied, and started over again. He did this for about nine years. For Eugenides, the narrative “had to render the experience of a teenage girl and an adult man, or an adult male-identified hermaphrodite.” This was further complicated by Eugenides’s desire to relay “epic events in the third person and psychosexual events in the first person.”

I could not have written Let Me Explain You without Middlesex. It was Middlesex that helped me solve the problem of structure in my own novel, and it was Middlesex that gave me a sense of scope. Middlesex confirmed my voice: it suggested I might have something to add to the conversation, even when scores of others have said their piece with far more eloquence. I am so intimately bound to Middlesex for its beauty, humor, and painful knowing of what it means to be foreign in our own bodies.

And maybe I steal a little bit of Desdemona for myself.

White Teeth by Zadie Smith. Any self-respecting immigrant novel pays homage to White Teeth, which works diligently to allow a multiplicity of voices to speak (this may be the very definition of an immigrant novel). Smith has a wonderful ear for how people talk and for what language sounds like when it’s making its home in a new country.

Smith wasn’t an immigrant herself, but she grew up around people “who had that experience, who felt separated or cut in two, who had moved from one country to another, who had the sense of leading two lives.” In White Teeth, the children of immigrants resist immigrant parents and claim their lives for their own, sometimes at a great price: assimilation brings alienation. In Let Me Explain You, this experience of exile—xenitia—visits a cost on the daughters of Stavros Stavros Mavrakis.

But White Teeth is funny, too. Smith says, “If I die and someone says, “She was a comic novelist,” I would be more than happy. My favorite writers are comic novelists. I don’t see any point in being anything else.” Me neither.

El Boom, particularly A Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez—which remains my favorite book—but also The Death of Artemio Cruz by Carlos Fuentes. I sought out The Death of Artemio Cruz when I was deep into Let Me Explain You, and I knew that what I had on my hands was a proud, stricken, narcissistic patriarch. I was looking for versions of Stavros Stavros Mavrakis in other novels. I got as close as a shadow to Artemio Cruz, to the indignation and fear of death, to the spite that he wordlessly hurled at his wife and daughter, whom he knew to be selfish and concerned only with his estate. He smelled incense on his death bed.

I mostly hated him, but I had to pay my respects to a man not long for the world. Everyone deserves their dignity, especially at the end.

Why the Child Is Cooking
in the Polenta
by Aglaja Veteranyi
(Dalkey Archive Press, 2012)
Why the Child Is Cooking in the Polenta by Aglaja Veteranyi.
Our story sounds different every time my mother tells it.—Aglaja Veteranyi

Aglaja Veteranyi, whom you probably never heard of, drowned herself in 2002 in Lake Zurich. A Swiss writer of Romanian origin, Veteranyi was part of a touring circus. Her stepfather was a clown and her mother an acrobat. She, herself, was made to juggle and dance. This is the subject of the novel Why the Child Is Cooking in the Polenta, which she published before she took her own life (other works released posthumously).

Vincent Kling notes in his exquisite afterward, having had the vision to translate the work into English, that Aglaja’s voice offers the “adult retrospective viewpoint but at the same time the child’s passage through successive stages of awareness.” Every line is touching, funny, or pained. Everything is true.

I read Polenta in a single sitting. I read it thinking, are you my mother? I read it thinking, you can be nobody’s mother. I stopped every few sentences to write something. I read and thought of all those stories of the old witch who fattens children up to eat them. I read Polenta and felt rage at not knowing the good-enough mother. I read it, and it helped me to write Litza as a child, suffering but resilient.
A graduate of Syracuse University’s MFA program, Annie Liontas won a grant from the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund and her short story “Two Planes in Love” was a runner-up in BOMB Magazine’s 2013 Fiction Prize Contest. For more than a decade she has dedicated herself to urban education in Philadelphia, Newark, and Camden, New Jersey. Slate calls Let Me Explain You a “sly and generous debut novel,” and Mary Karr has welcomed it as “a hilarious, fascinating, poetic work of fiction.”

Related post:
Joyce Carol Oates and Jeffrey Eugenides discuss “why we tell stories” at World Science Festival 2012

Previously in this series:
“Influences” posts by Jabari Asim, Deborah Baker, Kate Christensen, Jennifer Gilmore, Lauren Groff, Lev Grossman, Jane Hirschfield, Alan Heathcock, Adam Levin, Dawn McGuire, Dinaw Mengestu, Jim Moore, Manuel Muñoz, Maggie Nelson, Viet Thanh Nguyen, Geoffrey O’Brien, Arthur Phillips, Carl Phillips, Karen Russell, Timothy Schaffert, Philip Schultz, Mark Statman, Emma Straub, J. Courtney Sullivan, Ellen Ullman, and Adam Wilson

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Remembering James Tate, 1943–2015: “I love my funny poems, but I’d rather break your heart”

James Tate, one of the most lauded American poets of his generation, died on July 8 at the age of 71 in Springfield, Massachusetts.

Tate was still a graduate student at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 1967 when his collection The Lost Pilot was chosen for publication in the influential Yale Series of Younger Poets. During a career that spanned nearly 50 years and more than 20 books, he won a Pulitzer Prize, a National Book Award, and the Wallace Stevens Award from the Academy of American Poets.

The Lost Pilot
by James Tate
(Yale University Press, 1967)
The title poem of Tate’s first book, “The Lost Pilot,” is included in the Library of America collection Poets of World War II. The work is an elegy for Tate’s father, a bomber pilot in the Army Air Forces who was killed on a mission over Germany in April 1944 when Tate was five months old. The Poetry Foundation website has audio of Tate reading the poem, along with an Essential American Poets podcast featuring additional readings and a helpful introduction to Tate’s work.

Friends and colleagues at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where Tate taught for more than 40 years, remember him here. A highly recommended 2006 Paris Review interview with Tate, conducted by Charles Simic, includes this memorable statement of his artistic creed:
I love my funny poems, but I’d rather break your heart. And if I can do both in the same poem, that’s the best. If you laughed earlier in the poem, and I bring you close to tears in the end, that’s the best. That’s most rewarding for you and for me too. I want ultimately to be serious, but I can’t help the comic part. It just comes automatically. And if I can do both, that’s what I’m after.
Tate’s seventeenth collection of poems, Dome of the Hidden Pavilion, will be published in August.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Listen: Alexander Hamilton expert explains why the “pragmatic statesman” is getting his due on Broadway

Official poster for Lin-Manuel
Miranda’s musical Hamilton
Opening in previews tonight on Broadway, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical Hamilton has been the proverbial “hottest ticket in town since its initial run at New York City’s Public Theater earlier this year. Featuring a young multiethnic cast as the Founding Fathers and a score that mixes hip-hop, R&B, and power ballads to recount the early years of the republic, the show has accomplished the unlikely feat of making Alexander Hamilton—first United States Treasury Secretary and the man most Americans know solely as the face on the ten-dollar bill—a part of 2015’s pop-culture conversation.

This past Friday, Library of America Trustee Joanne Freeman was interviewed on New York Public Radio’s Money Talking about the musical, which she gave an enthusiastic endorsement. A professor of history and American studies at Yale University, Freeman edited the Library of America volume Alexander Hamilton: Writings and her 2002 book Affairs of Honor: National Politics in the New Republic devotes a whole chapter to Hamilton’s fatal 1804 duel with Aaron Burr. (Miranda has signaled his appreciation for Freeman’s work on social media.)

A noteworthy selling point for Hamilton is that other experts on early American history—like Hamilton biographer Richard Brookhiser, for instance—are avowed fans as well. Toward the end of her radio interview, Freeman makes the musical’s appeal to the scholarly community clear:
I’ve seen it now several times, but each time with a different historian. And what’s wonderful about that is, I think we all have the same response. Wait a minute—they’re singing about the Whiskey Rebellion? They’re singing about the [national] bank? They’re singing about this stuff? And I think all of us felt like that play makes historians feel like the cool kids. Historians never feel like the cool kids.
Listen to the entire Money Talking segment via the embedded audio player below.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Tom Sawyer’s Mississippi comes to panoramic full-color life in new Metropolitan Museum exhibition

Now on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, the exhibition Navigating the West: George Caleb Bingham and the River brings together sixteen iconic paintings by George Caleb Bingham (1811-1879) depicting life on the Mississippi and Missouri rivers before the Civil War. A Virginia native who moved to the Missouri Territory as a young boy, Bingham was a primarily self-taught artist who found his truest subject in the mid-1840s with narrative scenes representing what was then the Western frontier of the United States.

George Calder Bingham, Boatmen on the Missouri (1846)
Oil on canvas, 25 × 30 in. (63.5 × 76.2 cm)
Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco,
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller III (1979.7.15)

Bingham's serene, sunlit vistas form a captivating portrayal of river life in the decades prior to the Civil War. Library of America readers may find these paintings especially appealing, though, as a visual analog to several canonical works by Bingham’s contemporary and fellow Missourian Mark Twain: The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Life on the Mississippi, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and Pudd’nhead Wilson (all of which are collected in the Library of America volume Mark Twain: Mississippi Writings).

Twain, of course, grew up on the Mississippi in the same era in which Bingham was painting it and he became a cub riverboat pilot in 1857—the year of Jolly Flatboatmen in Port, one of the last major works in Navigating the West. Yet the differences between the two Missourians tell us more about their respective artistic temperaments than any surface affinities. Bingham’s idealizing tendencies are evident both in his tranquil landscapes (there are no turbulent waters in these river scenes) and in the meticulously posed and lit human figures in his paintings. Moreover, as the wall text accompanying the Met exhibition suggests, his art reflected the aspirations of a citizenry looking to be reassured that civilization had indeed come to the frontier.

It might be fair to say Bingham’s Mississippi has more in common with the boyhood idyll of Tom Sawyer than the more brutal world of Huckleberry Finn. And in 1883, looking back on antebellum river society in Life on the Mississippi, Twain evokes a more unruly, volatile milieu than anything we see in Bingham’s canvases—one populated by “hordes of rough and hardy men,”
rude, uneducated, brave, suffering terrific hardships with sailor-like stoicism; heavy drinkers, coarse frolickers in moral sties like the Natchez-under-the-hill of that day, heavy fighters, reckless fellows, every one, elephantinely jolly, foul-witted, profane; prodigal of their money, bankrupt at the end of the trip, fond of barbaric finery, prodigious braggarts; yet, in the main, honest, trustworthy, faithful to promises and duty, and often picturesquely magnanimous.
Bingham's Jolly Flatboatmen in Port
(1857) reproduced on the covers of
two paperback Twain reprints.
That chapter in Life on the Mississippi continues with an account of a showdown between two river men marked by memorable braggadocio; the combatants’ characteristic boasts include “I’m the old original iron-jawed, brass-mounted, copper-bellied corpse-maker from the wilds of Arkansaw!” and “When I’m playful I use the meridians of longitude and parallels of latitude for a seine, and drag the Atlantic Ocean for whales!” Readers might reasonably conclude that, just as Bingham’s impulse was to tame his subjects for the broader public, Twain’s gifts led him in the opposite direction.

Navigating the West: George Caleb Bingham and the River is on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City through September 20, 2015. Visit metmuseum.org for complete exhibition information.

Monday, July 6, 2015

“A quintessential black literary hero” and other influences on Jabari Asim’s first novel

Only the Strong
by Jabari Asim
(Agate Publishing, 2015)
Our series of guest blog posts by writers of fiction, history, essays, and poetry continues today with a contribution by Jabari Asim, whose debut novel Only the Strong was published in May. Below, Asim cites some of the key influences on his novel, which is set in Gateway City, a fictional Midwestern metropolis that bears more than a passing similarity to the author’s native St. Louis.
I Can’t Wait on God, Albert French. French’s 1998 novel mines the alleys and streets of Pittsburgh’s Homewood community for its story of crime, passion, and missed opportunities. The setting and its many residents compete for center stage, and they are distinctively and vividly drawn. Characters like Dicky Bird, Willet, and Mack Jack strut and swagger through a rigidly segregated 1950s world, navigating darkness, bellowing trains, gossip, and swaying hips. French devotes descriptive attention to every character who deserves it, including those whose doom seems a foregone conclusion.

Devil in a Blue Dress, Walter Mosley. Like the playwright August Wilson, Mosley has few peers when it comes to using language to illuminate the experience of black men in America. His exchanges between his black male characters, whether hostile or warm-hearted, are reliably revelatory while retaining the veracity of street-honed poetry. Equal parts strength and vulnerability, Easy Rawlins is a quintessential black literary hero.

The Street
by Ann Petry
(Houghton Mifflin, 1946)
The Street, Ann Petry. I’ve always admired Petry’s focus on what I like to call the hard-working middle, black people at neither extreme of human behavior who generally escape notice, toiling away at dead-end jobs as world-changing events unfold all around them. Lutie Johnson, the central figure in Petry’s best-known novel, anticipates the hapless protagonists of Stevie Wonder’s “Living for the City,” vulnerable to urban predations and institutional racism even as she works earnestly to better her circumstances.

I Sailed With Magellan, Stuart Dybek. I first encountered Dybek’s work in Childhood and Other Stories. I admired his unapologetic affection for the working-class youngsters wandering Chicago’s unyielding streets. I Sailed With Magellan influenced A Taste of Honey, my own collection of linked stories, and continued to resonate while I worked on Only the Strong. He mixes the gritty and the elegiac with the kind of consummate ease that I was aiming for.

The Book of Numbers, Robert Deane Pharr. Pharr’s novel, set in 1935 in an unnamed Southern town, shines with the author’s knowledge of “underground economies.” His knack for the telling detail fuels his persuasive chronicle of two men’s quick rise to top of the local numbers racket. Dave Green and Blueboy Harris are both fascinating figures, but Blueboy, the older of the two, intrigues me most. Ananias Goode, the crime boss in Only the Strong, has some of Blueboy’s worldly-wise cynicism. In Goode’s blistering tirades, I hear some of Blueboy’s hardboiled philosophy: “I ain’t no wise man, but I been everywhere and done everything a black man can do in this white bastards’ world. And you are welcome to any facts I mighta picked up.”

Empire Falls, Richard Russo. At first glance, Russo’s lily-white New England town may appear to have little in common with the all-black, Midwestern neighborhood at the center of Only the Strong. But the residents of Empire Falls, while not confined by systemic racism and strictly enforced racial segregation, must also cope with isolation of a sort. I admired Russo’s careful plotting as his characters struggled on the margins, coping with economic decline and long-simmering conflicts that come to a boil. He keeps firm hold of multiple narrative strands that would prove overwhelming in less dexterous hands.

We Can’t Breathe, Ronald Fair. I first discovered Ronald Fair when I was in college, voraciously devouring The Hog Butcher (about the fatal police shooting of an unarmed black youth), World of Nothing, and We Can’t Breathe. In the latter, readers get to spend five years with Ernie Johnson, a young black boy growing up in 1930s Chicago. Ernie’s South Side neighborhood has much in common with my North Gateway, despite the distance of several decades. I learned from Fair’s skillful use of situational humor to leaven his unblinking portrayal of elements often found in novels about life in the inner city, including racism, violence, and predatory policemen.
Jabari Asim is an associate professor of creative writing at Emerson College and the executive editor of The Crisis, the official magazine of the NAACP. His previous publications include the short story collection A Taste of Honey (2010) and several works of nonfiction. Writing in the Washington Post, Gerald Early called Only the Strong “affecting, even touching, in telling something about the way black people live,” while Madison Smart Bell has praised its “deceptively light handling of desperately serious subject matter,” and hailed Asim as “a writer to watch.”

Previously in this series:
“Influences” posts by Deborah Baker, Kate Christensen, Jennifer Gilmore, Lauren Groff, Lev Grossman, Jane Hirschfield, Alan Heathcock, Adam Levin, Dawn McGuire, Dinaw Mengestu, Jim Moore, Manuel Muñoz, Maggie Nelson, Viet Thanh Nguyen, Geoffrey O’Brien, Arthur Phillips, Carl Phillips, Karen Russell, Timothy Schaffert, Philip Schultz, Mark Statman, Emma Straub, J. Courtney Sullivan, Ellen Ullman, and Adam Wilson
Wikio - Top Blogs - Literature