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Friday, July 30, 2010

How tripping over a box of love letters turned Marion Elizabeth Rodgers into H. L. Mencken’s biographer

In September, The Library of America is publishing in two volumes H. L. Mencken: Prejudices: The Complete Series, the six books of pungent prose Mencken published between 1919 and 1927 under the rubric Prejudices. The LOA edition is edited by Marion Elizabeth Rodgers, author of the acclaimed biography, Mencken: The American Iconoclast, The Life and Times of the Bad Boy of Baltimore, which Charles Fecher, editor of The Diary of H. L. Mencken, hailed as “a definitive biography.”

In an exclusive interview (PDF) for today's Library of America e-Newsletter, Rodgers talks about the dazzling range of subjects found in Prejudices, the complex and mercurial writer behind them, and the accident that brought her and Mencken together:
My real introduction to Mencken was shortly before my graduation from Goucher College, in 1981, while I was researching the papers of Southern writer and alumna Sara Haardt, whom Mencken had married, thereby shattering his reputation as “America’s Foremost Bachelor.” I was putting away one of her scrapbooks in the vault of the library when I literally tripped over a box of love letters between her and Mencken. Taped to the top of the collection was a stern command, written by Mencken, that it was not to be opened until that very year. To say that my life changed at that moment would be an understatement. Suddenly, a door was swung open into Mencken’s life through the tender route of romantic correspondence. In those days my dream was to go to graduate school and write (yet another!) dull thesis on T. S. Eliot. Instead, I focused my degree on the Mencken/Haardt collection, promptly received a book contract, and became hooked. During the two decades since 1981, Mencken has pulled me through many adventures, both professional and personal, that included my editing several volumes of his work and culminated in my biography.
Haardt is still largely remembered for her relationship with Mencken (who was eighteen years her senior), but she was an author and critic in her own right, writing over fifty stories during her short life. After her marriage to Mencken in 1930, Haardt published her only novel, The Making of a Lady (1931); her story "Absolutely Perfect" was nominated for the O. Henry Prize in 1933. She died of meningitis in 1935, and the following year Mencken published a selection of her stories as Southern Album.

Related LOA works: H. L. Mencken: Prejudices: The Complete Series; American Food Writing: An Anthology With Classic Recipes (includes Mencken on hot dogs and the “Home of the Crab”)

Thursday, July 29, 2010

American writers’ homes and how to find them

Right: Edith Wharton's library at The Mount, from American Writers at Home. (Copyright Erica Lennard)

Literary travelers have two new aids to help develop travel itineraries. A. N. Devers recently launched Writers’ Houses as a labor of love dedicated to her lifelong passion of exploring homes of authors.
The impulse to create a site dedicated to documenting writers’ houses came from a growing obsession, since childhood, with books, travel, and making connections between a writer’s work and place. It also came from a realization that there wasn’t a comprehensive resource online, or in print, that helped literary pilgrims find their way.
Writers’ Houses currently features links and listings to 34 houses of American writers but aims “to document all writers’ houses open to the public in the world.” The entries range from street views of buildings not open to the public (Dashiel Hammett’s San Francisco apartment building) to links to 16 images of the Edgar Allan Poe Cottage in the Bronx, NY. Madeline Schwartz’s recent post in The New Yorker about Writers’ Houses includes a slideshow of six homes.

More like a “comprehensive resource online” is the work-in-progress site being developed by Thomas R. Hummel, author of A Journey Through Literary America. Literary Destinations currently includes listings for some 145 houses and museums related to 125 American authors. Each entry includes a helpful Google Map with directions. Some authors’ homes of course appear on both sites—Robert Frost, Herman Melville, Henry David Thoreau—but for dozens of others—John Burroughs, W.E.B. Du Bois, Zane Grey, John Muir, and many more—Literary Destinations is a convenient central location to find information about them.

So what do we get from visiting a writer’s home? How does turning a writer’s home into a museum affect the surrounding community? These are among the many questions Ann Trubek has been exploring in several recent pieces on the homes of Thomas Wolfe, Langston Hughes, and the many Edgar Allan Poe houses.
The Thomas Wolfe Memorial does not move us to think about the creative spirit so much as it moves us to think about everyday life. Cleave it from its ties to literary celebrity and it becomes replete in and of itself: Come see how, in a certain place at a certain time, some people lived, and some made a living.
Similar trenchant musings are no doubt in store when her new book, A Skeptic’s Guide to Literary Homes, is published this fall. For a contrasting view, read the two recent posts on Writers’ Houses by Ivy Pochoda as she describes living in poet James Merrill’s former home.
To sit at Merrill’s desk, my journal and computer situated between his to-do list, his dry cleaning receipts, and notes and doodles, to eat in the dining room among the token objects of his poems, or to watch the sunset from the solarium is to hope for a visit from some spirit, familiar or otherwise.
This may be closer to what literary travelers yearn to experience during visits to writers’ haunts.

Related LOA works: The website for The Library of America volume American Writers at Home includes links to the 21 houses featured in the book.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

John Steinbeck inspires summer travel and memories of another era

“We do not take a trip. A trip takes us.”—John Steinbeck
Several bloggers have found John Steinbeck an inspiring traveling companion this summer.

Jim Terry found echoes of the four months in 1960 Steinbeck chronicled in Travels with Charley in his two-week cross-country road trip from Dallas, TX, to Watkins Glen, NY.
I found my old yellowed, cracked page paperback copy which I had read nearly fifty years ago and read it again.

Steinbeck realized he had lost touch with the country he had been writing about for thirty years. He said, "I, an America writer, writing about America, was working from memory, and the memory is at best a faulty, warpy reservoir. I had not heard the speech of America, smelled the grass and trees and sewage, seen its hills and water, its color and quality of light."
Diane, Evan, and Maia are a family on a multi-year sailing trip aboard a 40-foot catamaran. This week, upon arriving at the Sea of Cortez, they turned to Steinbeck’s The Log from the Sea of Cortez to describe what they are seeing and feeling:
I’ve been struggling to find the words to describe this place—beyond snippets of stories and moments out of our life. Fortunately I don’t have to. John Steinbeck did. He was here 70 years ago on a research vessel. His book is a must have for every visitor to the Sea of Cortez:
We wondered why so much of the Sea of Cortez was familiar to us…coming to it was like returning rather than visiting. Some quality there is in the whole Sea that trips a trigger of recognition so that in fantastic and exotic scenery one finds oneself nodding and saying inwardly, “Yes, I know.”

If it were lush and rich, one could understand the pull, but it is fierce and hostile and sullen. The stone mountains pile up to the sky and there is little fresh water. But we know we must go back, and we don’t know why.
The pull they feel to turn to Steinbeck as they travel is likely to be shared by many attending the 30th Annual Steinbeck Festival—Journeys: Steinbeck Around the World, which runs from August 5 to August 8 at the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas, CA. A Travels with Charley essay contest has already begun and continues until July 31: describe your favorite journey with your dog in 300 words or less.

The Steinbeck Festival also features talks by three authors who have been affected by Steinbeck’s travel writing: Ted Conover, author of The Routes of Man: How Roads Are Changing The World and the Way We Live Today; Thomas R. Hummel, author of A Journey Through Literary America; and Ruby Bridges, author of Through My Eyes. The talk by Bridges may prove to be the emotional high point. Fifty years ago, when Bridges was six years old, she was the first black student to enroll at the all-white William Frantz Public School in New Orleans. In Travels with Charley, Steinbeck witnessed her historic first steps into that school:
The show opened on time. Sound the sirens. Motorcycle cops. Then two big black cars filled with big men in blond felt hats pulled up in front of the school. The crowd seemed to hold its breath. Four big marshals got out of each car and from somewhere in the automobiles they extracted the littlest negro girl you ever saw, dressed in shining starchy white, with new white shoes on feet so little they were almost round. Her face and little legs were very black against the white.

The big marshals stood her on the curb and a jangle of jeering shrieks went up from behind the barricades. The little girl did not look at the howling crowd, but from the side the whites of her eyes showed like those of a frightened fawn. The men turned her around like a doll and then the strange procession moved up the broad walk toward the school, and the child was even more a mite because the men were so big. Then the girl made a curious hop, and I think I know what it was. I think in her whole life she had not gone ten steps without skipping, but now in the middle of her first step, the weight bore her down and her little round feet took measured, reluctant steps between the tall guards. Slowly they climbed the steps and entered the school.
Ken Laird Studios offers more background on this event and the Norman Rockwell painting it inspired.

Related LOA works: John Steinbeck: Travels with Charley and Later Novels 1947–1962; John Steinbeck: The Grapes of Wrath and Other Writings 1936–1941 (includes The Log from the Sea of Cortez)

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Reading Richard Poirier: Two Journals Honor His Legacy

Richard Poirier, who died last year (see the obituary in The New York Times), was a founder of The Library of America and he served as chairman until 2007. The author of several books, he was also a professor for five decades at Rutgers University. His contribution to American letters has been honored recently by two publications.

The most recent issue of Raritan, a quarterly journal that Poirier himself founded and edited until 2001, reprints several of his “Editor’s Notes” that show the breadth of his interests. One of them remarks on the “extraordinary reception” for the newly launched Library of America during a time when “book stores are going out of business everywhere” (this, in 1982). Another essay focuses on one of Poirier’s common plaints: the irony that so many works of social and literary criticism seem “written on behalf of people who could not be expected to read them.” In an appreciation at Paris Review Daily, Robyn Creswell writes:

Poirier didn’t think of himself as a public intellectual. He thought of himself as a reader, and supposed that expertise in reading gave him the credentials for commenting on everything else. . . .

In this sense, Raritan can be thought of as the intellectual bridge, or missing link, between those heroic organs of the past like Partisan Review (which Poirier edited in the sixties) and contemporary little magazines like FEED, The Believer, or n+1. There is a clear line of descent from Poirier’s famous essay “Learning From the Beatles” to Mark Grief’s “Radiohead, or the Philosophy of Pop” (both of which begin by complaining that our conventional ways of analyzing art do not help much when the subject is rock music).
Similarly, the latest issue of the online journal College Hill Review, is dedicated to Poirer; it includes eulogies, remembrances, and essays that honor his legacy, “even if they deal with texts he never commented on (Don Quixote, for example).” James Barszcz recalls a confrontation between Poirier and Norman Mailer:

At a party once in the 1970s, Poirier defended a man who was being attacked (only verbally, I think) by Norman Mailer. Poirier, who had written a book on Mailer for the Modern Masters series, received a letter from Mailer, saying the argument was none of Poirier's business and implying that Mailer didn't want to have anything to do with Poirier in the future. I happened to see a copy of Poirier's masterful letter in response, in which he described, as to a dullard, the childishness of Mailer's own behavior at the party. Poirier went on to say that he was only ever interested in Mailer as a writer, never as a person, so the threat to break off their relation meant nothing to him. (The break was repaired at least partially some years later, when Poirier published a favorable review of Ancient Evenings in the TLS.)

The issue also includes an interview in which Poirier discusses the worth of the idea of a “canon”:
So, yes, I believe in the canon, and canonical texts, in general, are the difficult ones. Or, to invoke a distinction I traced in The Renewal of Literature, texts that are “dense.” There, I tried to show that the “difficulty” of Eliot is not the difficulty you find in Frost. Frost seems simple, but he is quite difficult to understand. His difficulty, or density, is a function of his fidelity to the complex nature of the material—the words—he employs. You can never say it too often: literature is made of words, and the best proof of its goodness is the same as in culinary art. To what extent is it able to develop the qualities and the nuances inherent in the raw materials employed? Some people can get more out of a chicken than others. The meaning of “canonical” is simply that.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Zora Neale Hurston: Video of her ethnographic work in Florida in 1928

Harlem World recently posted a video containing footage recorded by Zora Neale Hurston during one of her research trips to Florida in 1928. (Update: You can view the footage at the PBS site.) Before—and even after—she became known as a novelist and story writer, Hurston actively pursued many ethnographic research programs. She graduated from Barnard College with a B.A. in anthropology in 1927 and spent several years in the late 1930s and early 1940s collecting and performing folksongs reflecting black culture in her native Florida for the Federal Writers Project (WPA). About these early films, Harlem World notes:
[Hurston] used the loan of a camera to photograph fifteen reels of film preserving the heritage of southern African-American culture. Of these reels, only nine are known to have survived and contain black & white, occasionally grainy footage capturing children at play, a baptism in a river, a logging camp, and footage of octogenarian Cudjo Lewis, the final survivor from The Clotilde, the last arriving slave ship to America (in 1859). No intertitles are presented with these clips, although the musical accompaniment is comprised of spirituals and bluegrass music.
Travel expenses and the cost of the camera were provided by Charlotte Osgood Mason, a wealthy and controversial patron of Hurston, Langston Hughes, and the Mexican artist Miguel Covarrubias. Mason also funded the research behind Hurston’s first work of nonfiction Mules and Men (1935). The University of Virginia Crossroads website offers additional insights into this troublesome patron–artist relationship as well as additional material about the creation of Mules and Men.

The Library of America volume Zora Neale Hurston: Folklore, Memoirs, and Other Writings includes the complete text of Mules and Men and features the original illustrations by Miguel Covarrubias.

Other related LOA works: Zora Neale Hurston: Novels and Stories; True Crime: An American Anthology (includes Hurston's "The Trial of Ruby McCollum")

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Walt Whitman and the Meteor of 1860

The Richmonder blog is commemorating the sesquicentennial of the American Civil War with a series of posts following the history of the war as it occurred 150 years ago. This week’s post revisits the week of July 15 to July 21, which included campaign stops by Horace Greeley stumping for Abraham Lincoln and by Stephen A. Douglas, who broke with tradition by campaigning for himself.

But perhaps the most striking occurrence was the “Meteor of 1860,” what astronomers call an “Earth-grazing meteor procession,” a string of fireballs that began over Michigan late in the evening of July 20, 1860, and passed over New York and New Haven before disappearing over the Atlantic Ocean. An article in the July issue of Sky & Telescope describes how an English professor and an astronomer at Texas State University used the Frederic Church painting, The Meteor of 1860, to identify this event as the inspiration for Walt Whitman’s “Year of Meteors” (1859-1860).
Year of meteors! brooding year!
I would bind in words retrospective some of your deeds and signs,
I would sing your contest for the 19th Presidentiad,
I would sing how an old man, tall, with white hair, mounted the scaffold in Virginia,
(I was at hand, silent I stood with teeth shut close, I watch'd,
I stood very near you old man when cool and indifferent, but trembling with age and your unheal'd wounds you mounted the scaffold;)
I would sing in my copious song your census returns of the States,
The tables of population and products, I would sing of your ships and their cargoes,
The proud black ships of Manhattan arriving, some fill'd with immigrants, some from the isthmus with cargoes of gold,
Songs thereof would I sing, to all that hitherward comes would welcome give,
And you would I sing, fair stripling! welcome to you from me, young prince of England!
(Remember you surging Manhattan's crowds as you pass'd with your cortege of nobles?
There in the crowds stood I, and singled you out with attachment;)
Nor forget I to sing of the wonder, the ship as she swam up my bay,
Well-shaped and stately the Great Eastern swam up my bay, she was 600 feet long,
Her moving swiftly surrounded by myriads of small craft I forget not to sing;
Nor the comet that came unannounced out of the north flaring in heaven,
Nor the strange huge meteor-procession dazzling and clear shooting over our heads,
(A moment, a moment long it sail'd its balls of unearthly light over our heads,
Then departed, dropt in the night, and was gone;)
Of such, and fitful as they, I sing—with gleams from them would gleam and patch these chants,
Your chants, O year all mottled with evil and good—year of forebodings!
Year of comets and meteors transient and strange—lo! even here one equally transient and strange!
As I flit through you hastily, soon to fall and be gone, what is this chant,
What am I myself but one of your meteors?
Related LOA works: Walt Whitman: Poetry and Prose; Abraham Lincoln: Speeches and Writings 1859–1865

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg: The Letters

A murder trial brought them together and launched a friendship that endured even as each became icons of their generation. A remarkable, newly published collection of 200 letters—two-thirds have never been published before—begins in 1944 when Allen Ginsberg was still an undergraduate at Columbia University and Jack Kerouac, four years his senior, was experimenting with writing and breaking into the New York literary scene. The last letter was written just six years before Kerouac’s death in 1969. As Janet Maslin writes in today's New York Times, “The free-spirited energy of their early communications can be seen slowly ossifying into the discourse of eminences too busy being famous to be friends.” Flavorwire has posted a tantalizing sampling of letters and photos from the book:
“Realize, Allen, that if all the world were green, there would be no such thing as the color green. Similarly, men cannot know what it is to be together without otherwise knowing what it is to be apart. If all the world were love, then, how could love exist? This is why we turn away from each other on moments of great happiness and closeness. How can we know happiness and closeness without contrasting them, like lights?”
Kerouac to Ginsberg, September 1948

“The point is that all thought is inexistence and unreality, the only reality is green, love. Don’t you see that it is just the whole point of life not to be self conscious? That it must all be green? All love? Would the world then seem incomprehensible? That is an error. The world would seem incomprehensible to the rational faculty which keeps trying to keep us from the living in green, which fragments and makes every thing seem ambiguous and mysterious and many colors. The world and we are green. We are inexistent until we make an absolute decision to close the circle of individual thought entirely and begin to exist in god with absolute unqualified and unconscious understanding of green, love and nothing but love, until a car, money, people, work, things are love, motion is love, thought is love, sex is love. Everything is love. That is what the phrase ‘God is Love’ means.”
Ginsberg to Kerouac, October 1948
Related LOA works: Jack Kerouac: Road Novels 1957-1960; American Religious Poems; An Anthology by Harold Bloom

Monday, July 19, 2010

The strange death of Margaret Fuller

The American Literary Blog notes that July 19th marks 160 years since the bizarre turn of events that led to the death of critic/editor/reformer/feminist/poet/travel-writer Margaret Fuller. During her return voyage from a three-year sojourn in Italy, the captain of her ship died of smallpox. The inexperienced first mate who took charge ran the ship aground in a storm just 100 yards off Fire Island. Fuller, her husband Marchese Giovanni Angelo d'Osso, and their one-year-old son all drowned before they could be rescued. The bodies of Fuller and her husband were never recovered, nor was the manuscript on the Italian revolution she was carrying with her.

In his 1846 essay, “The Literati of New York,” Edgar Allan Poe offered a brief portrait of Margaret Fuller, “the personal woman”:
She is of the medium height; nothing remarkable about the figure; a profusion of lustrous light hair; eyes a bluish gray, full of fire; capacious forehead; the mouth when in repose indicates profound sensibility, capacity for affection, for love — when moved by a slight smile, it becomes even beautiful in the intensity of this expression; but the upper lip, as if impelled by the action of involuntary muscles, habitually uplifts itself, conveying the impression of a sneer. Imagine, now, a person of this description looking you at one moment earnestly in the face, at the next seeming to look only within her own spirit or at the wall; moving nervously every now and then in her chair; speaking in a high key, but musically, deliberately, (not hurriedly or loudly,) with a delicious distinctness of enunciation — speaking . . . and emphasizing the words . . . not by impulsion of the breath, (as is usual,) but by drawing them out as long as possible, nearly closing her eyes the while — imagine all this, and we have both the woman and the authoress before us.
This essay also appears in Edgar Allan Poe: Essays and Reviews.

Other related LOA works: Ralph Waldo Emerson: Selected Journals: 1829-1842; American Poetry: The Nineteenth Century, volume one: Freneau to Whitman

Friday, July 16, 2010

Listen to William Faulkner online

The University of Virginia recently posted audio recordings of William Faulkner reading and answering questions in 1957 and 1958 during his two terms as the university’s first Writer in Residence. The audio quality is quite good and Faulkner can be quite effusive in his answers, as the sample below from May 23, 1958, demonstrates. This exchange occurred on his last day there, following his reading of a passage from The Sound and the Fury.
Student: What is the immediate stimulus that makes you write?

Faulkner: Oh, it’s a demon. I don’t know where it came from. [audience laughter] I think every artist has got one.

Student: Do you think—what I'm trying[...] . [audience laughter] [...]. Do you—do you think before you write or do you write— [audience laughter]

Faulkner: Well, I'm glad you stopped there. Thank you. [audience laughter] Did—I think I know what you mean by the stimulus. It's—you're alive in the world. You see man. You have an insatiable curiosity about him, but more than that you have an admiration for him. He is frail and fragile, a web of flesh and bone and mostly water. He's flung willy nilly into a ramshackle universe stuck together with electricity. [audience laughter] The problems he faces are always a little bigger than he is, and yet, amazingly enough, he copes with them, not individually but—but as a race. He endures. He's outlasted dinosaurs. He's outlasted atom bombs. He'll outlast communism. Simply because there's some part in him that keeps him from ever knowing that he's whipped, I suppose. That as frail as he is, he—he lives up to his codes of behavior. He shows compassion when there's no reason why he should. He's braver than he should be. He's more honest. The writer is—is so interested, he sees this as so amazing and—and you might say so beautiful. Anyway, it—it's so moving to him that he wants to put it down on paper or in music or on canvas, that he simply wants to isolate one of these instances in which man—frail, foolish man—has acted miles above his head in some amusing or dramatic or tragic way. Anyway, some gallant way. That, I suppose, is the incentive to write, apart from it being fun. I sort of believe that is the reason that people are artists. It's—it's the most satisfying occupation man has discovered yet, because you never can quite do it as well as you want to, so there's always something to wake up tomorrow morning to do. You're never bored. You never reach satiation.
Related LOA works: William Faulkner: Complete Novels

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Washington Irving and the model for Rebecca in Ivanhoe

Born in Philadelphia in 1781, Rebecca Gratz began her philanthropic career at twenty when she helped establish the first of many organizations to help the needy. A devout Jew, Gratz founded the first Sunday school for Hebrew children in America in 1838. One of her brother’s closest friends was Washington Irving and Gratz’s own dearest friend was Matilda Hoffman, the object of Irving’s first, last, and only love. This shared affection—Matilda died at eighteen in her friend Rebecca’s arms—formed a lifelong bond.

So it was that when Irving visited Sir Walter Scott in 1817 and the conversation turned to his host’s next novel. According to an unsourced (and still unconfirmed) article by Graetz van Rensselaer, “The Original of Rebecca in Ivanhoe,” in an 1882 issue of Century Magazine, Irving had a ready recommendation for the model for a character.
During one of their many conversations, when personal and family affairs were the topics, Irving spoke of his own, and Miss Hoffman’s cherished friend, Rebecca Gratz, of Philadelphia, described her wonderful beauty, related the story of her firm adherence to her religious faith under the most trying circumstances, and particularly illustrated her loveliness of character and zealous philanthropy. Scott was deeply interested and impressed, and conceived the plan of embodying the pure, moral sentiment, that like a thread of silver ran through the story. Although “Rob Roy” was then unfinished, he was already revolving in his mind the plot and characters of “Ivanhoe.” He immediately determined to introduce a Jewish female character, and, on the strength of Irving’s vivid description, he named his heroine Rebecca.
Susan Sklaroff writes an ongoing and engaging blog about the life of Rebecca Gratz in which quotes from Irving frequently appear. Here’s a recent entry about the fad in 1802 of keeping engagements and even weddings secret:
There is nothing that seems more strange and preposterous to me than the manner in which modern marriages are conducted. The parties keep the matter as secret as if there was something disgraceful about the connexion . . . they sneak into matrimony as quietly as possible, and seem to pride themselves on the cunning and ingenuity they have displayed in their maneuvers.
Related LOA works: Washington Irving: Fiction, Tales, and Historical Works

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Elizabeth Bishop: Her very private life mined for fiction, twice

Michael Sledge’s new novel The More I Owe You opens with forty-year-old Elizabeth Bishop arriving in Brazil. Her planned two-week visit is about to become the life-changing, at times tempestuous, seventeen-year love affair with the vivacious Brazilian architect Lota Machedo de Soares—and the novel follows the relationship to its tragic end.

Brenda Wineapple recently assessed Sledge’s accomplishment:
In her Brazil poems, Bishop captured the rich, sensual detail of fern and rock and the green hills of Rio, of women carrying market baskets, of the sound of hail on a tin roof. All this Sledge uses to evocative effect, portraying her surroundings and their impact on her with elegant simplicity. Consider . . . Sledge’s expressive use of color, reminiscent of Bishop’s own: “The sky was a vertiginous blue, the forest a thousand brilliant greens, the vertical mountain black, like a great ship’s hull cleaving the earth.” “I am very visually minded,” Bishop once said of herself, “and mooses and filling stations aren’t necessarily commonplace to me.” What Sledge has given us is a visually minded novel, rich in surfaces.
This is not the first time this affair has sparked inspiration. In 2002 Neil K. Besner translated from Portuguese Carmen L. Oliveira’s 1995 dual biography, published in the United States as Rare and Commonplace Flowers: The Story of Elizabeth Bishop and Lota de Macedo Soares. Oliveira drew on interviews with friends and employees of Bishop and Soares—and their letters—to create a well-researched yet partially invented story. As Emily Nussbaum noted in 2002:
“Art just isn't worth that much,” Bishop wrote disapprovingly to Robert Lowell after he used his wife's letters in his work. A reader, she said, couldn't tell “what's true, what isn't . . . how much has been 'made up,' and so on.” Carmen L. Oliveira shrugs off such warnings (her background is as a novelist). As readers, we are made privy to private conversations, as well as to the comments of a gossipy Greek chorus of pseudonymous Brazilian friends. . . . But while “Rare and Commonplace Flowers” blurs lines, it is really not especially radical; mimicking a chorus of scandalized friends, after all, is not the same as making them or their opinions up. And Oliveira’s sources are fairly straightforward: much of her description of the women's private lives, for example, derives from the recollections of their maids. In fact, the book is at its best describing some of the most subjective sequences: for instance, the private bliss of the Samambaia idyll, the “house and rock / in a private cloud.”
Related LOA works: Elizabeth Bishop: Poems, Prose, and Letters

Monday, July 12, 2010

James Avati, “King of the Paperbacks”

Tally Ho! recently posted images of several favorite paperback covers of William Faulkner novels from the ’50s.

Many of these covers were created by James Avati, the artist frequently credited as having invented the art of paperback covers. A 1998 MetroActive Arts interview with Avati captures how he worked:
. . . [Avati] stood out from the majority of other illustrators of the time by insisting on actually reading every book before designing its cover.

As a result, he read some very good books. Among Avati’s thousand-plus illustrations are those for Erskine Caldwell’s Tobacco Road, C. S. Forester’s The African Queen, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, Grace Metalious’ Peyton Place, Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth, Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy, J. D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, and Robert Anderson’s Tea and Sympathy.

Avati's approach—to capture the book’s overall theme, rather than a specific scene, by employing gritty, boldly realistic characters placed in a sharply detailed setting—immediately proved to have the desired effect: It sold books.
Related LOA works: William Faulkner: Complete Novels

Friday, July 9, 2010

H. L. Mencken and the history of bathtubs: “Harmless fun in war days”

In “A Neglected Anniversary” (New York Evening Mail, December 28, 1917), H. L. Mencken took just 1,800 words to perpetrate a hoax on his wartime readers that continued to be cited as fact as late as 2008 (in a Kia television ad). Even The Washington Post fell for it less than a decade ago. Frank Lee MeiDere recounts the history of “The Great Bathtub Hoax of H. L. Mencken,” whose famous prank begins:

On December 20 there flitted past us, absolutely without public notice, one of the most important profane anniversaries in American history, to wit, the seventy-fifth anniversary of the introduction of the bathtub into These States. Not a plumber fired a salute or hung out a flag. Not a governor proclaimed a day of prayer. Not a newspaper called attention to the day.
Related LOA works: H. L. Mencken: Prejudices: The Complete Series

Mark Twain tells all in “new” autobiography

A recent PBS NewsHour segment on the preparations at the University of California Press for the publication this November of Volume One of the uncensored autobiography of Mark Twain—not to be published until 100 years after his death—takes us behind the “unmarked door in the Bancroft Library” at Berkeley and into the Mark Twain Archive. The Twain scholars at work offer some teasing glimpses of what’s to come.

SPENCER MICHELS: Editor Ben Griffin, who joined the Twain Project five years ago, relates another jolting passage, where Twain took out his anger on an entrepreneur named James Paige, who lost him money.

BENJAMIN GRIFFIN, editor, Autobiography of Mark Twain: This is the end of the piece he wrote about Paige.

"Paige and I always meet on effusively affectionate terms, and yet he knows perfectly well that, if I had his nuts in a steel trap, I would shut out all human succor and watch that trap until he died."

Related LOA works: The Complete Mark Twain Library (7 volumes, plus a FREE book!); The Mark Twain Anthology: Great Writers on His Life and Works

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

“The human young Alexis de Tocqueville is much more impressive than the cold abstraction . . .”

Sean Wilentz catches the wandering eye of 26-year-old Alexis de Tocqueville in his review of Leo Damrosch’s Tocqueville’s Discovery of America:
When the energetic, young French liberal aristocrats Alexis de Tocqueville and Gustave de Beaumont toured the United States in 1831 and 1832 ostensibly to study America’s prisons, their minds, not surprisingly, often turned to more alluring subjects. “In addition to a very fine library, our host has two charming daughters with whom we get along very well,” Tocqueville wrote to his sister-in-law from a well-appointed home in Canandaigua, New York. “Suffice it to say that we gazed at them even more willingly than at their father's books.”

Author Leo Damrosch’s response when The Juvenile Instructor blog asked which is the best translation of Democracy of America:
Tocqueville’s language was a mixture of florid prose and seventeenth century aristocratic French dialect, while still remaining quite lively. Unfortunately, because of his old-fashioned vocabulary, most English translations end up being too dull or dead to really capture the text’s beauty. To Damrosch, the translation that comes the closest to recreating Tocqueville’s playful prose is Arthur Goldhammer’s edition in the Library of America series.
Damrosch makes the same recommendation in this recent interview on C-Span

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Cornelius Ryan on D-Day: Nothing like a reporter chasing his story

The Longest Day—the book Michael Shapiro writes “changed journalism”—began with 1,150 responses to Cornelius Ryan’s questionnaire. “The Reporter Who Time Forgot” tells the story behind the book.

Ryan had initially proposed a D-Day book about only the first two or three hours of the invasion. But then he began to report, and his ads (“Personal: Were You There on 6 June 1944?”) yielded thousands of responses. He followed up with a three-page questionnaire that could serve as a primer for reconstructing a narrative: Where did you land and at what time? What was the trip like during the crossing? Do you remember, for example, any conversations you had or how you passed the time? Were you wounded? Do you remember what it was like—that is, do you remember whether you felt any pain or were you so surprised that you felt nothing?

Related LOA works: Reporting World War II: American Journalism 1944–1946; A J Liebling: World War II Writings

William James: Not afraid of dying, but annoyed to be doing it so soon

Jonathan Rée appreciates William James for being “just about the only philosopher who didn’t end up as either a pettifogging nit-picker or an overbearing egomaniac with delusions of genius.”
If [William James’s] works have not been as widely read as they deserve, they have been able, from time to time, to strike lights in the lives of others — most notably Ludwig Wittgenstein, who of all the great philosophers was always the hardest to please. Bertrand Russell allowed himself to be thoroughly vexed in 1912, when Wittgenstein kept praising Varieties of Religious Experience and telling him that ‘it does me a lot of good.’

Emily Dickinson: “Thanks for the Ethiopian Face”

In Ardor and the Abyss poet James Longenbach finds quite a different Emily Dickinson—an extraordinarily powerful woman, an artist who was intimidated by nothing–the opposite of a fear-driven recluse”—in Lyndall Gordon’s revelatory new biography, Lives Like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and Her Family’s Feuds
The young Dickinson was so volatile, so volcanic in her intuitions that she could clear a room. Mental and emotional acuity of that level is frightening because people have no way of explaining its source. It requires no nurturing. It expands not only without the intervention of other people but without the effort of the person who possesses it—or is possessed by it. It simply happens. Not many people want to have tea with the Delphic Oracle, however mesmerizing her speech.

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