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Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Mark Twain and William Dean Howells: the friendship that transformed American literature

On his 175th birthday Volume One (of three!) of the Autobiography of Mark Twain seems to be everywhere. On NPR. C-Span. Slate. And The New York Times bestseller list. Readers daunted by its 500,000 words may be comforted by this exchange in 1906 between Twain and lifelong friend William Dean Howells (it could have been much longer!):
I told Howells that this autobiography of mine would live a couple of thousand years without any effort and would then take a fresh start and live the rest of the time.

He said he believed it would, and asked me if I meant to make a library of it.

I said that that was my design, but that if I should live long enough the set of volumes could not be contained merely in a city, it would require a State, and that there would not be any Rockefeller alive, perhaps, at any time during its existence who would be able to buy a full set, except on the installment plan.

Howells applauded, and was full of praises and endorsements, which was wise in him and judicious. If he had manifested a different spirit I would have thrown him out of the window. I like criticism, but it must be my way.
It certainly wasn’t always Twain’s way. In fact, some would argue that his forty-year friendship with Howells was what enabled Twain to become Twain. As biographer Ron Powers put it:
In the slipstream of the Clemens-Howells creative bond, American literature ceased its labored imitation of European and Classical high discourse, and became a lean, blunt, vivid chronicle of American self-invention, from the yeasty perspective of the common man. Without Howells’s friendship, Mark Twain might have flared for a while, a regional curiosity among many, and then faded, forgotten. On its legitimizing strength, he gained the foundation for international status as America’s Shakespeare and struck a template for the nation’s voice into the 20th century and beyond.
Twain and Howells first met in 1869 when both were in their early thirties. Howells was then assistant editor at The Atlantic Monthly. Charged with finding new voices from the West, he had taken the unorthodox step of reviewing in the December issue a new book sold by subscription from the American Publishing Company. Howells found The Innocents Abroad “always good-humored humor . . . and even in its impudence it is charming.” He closed with this judgment of the author:
It is no business of ours to fix his rank among the humorists California has given us, but we think he is, in an entirely different way from all the others, quite worthy of the company of the best.
In mid-November, while the magazine was still on the newsstands, a six-foot, mustachioed redhead in a sealskin coat “with the fur out” descended unannounced on the magazine’s Boston office, seeking the author of the unsigned review. Howells recalled that Twain “stamped his gratitude into my memory with a story wonderfully allegorizing the situation, which the mock modesty of print forbids my repeating here.” We now know from letters that upon meeting Howells, Twain drawled, “When I read that review of yours, I felt like the woman who was so glad her baby had come white.” And a friendship was born.

Of related interest:
Related LOA works: Mark Twain: Collected Tales, Sketches, Speeches, & Essays 1891–1910 (includes the essay “William Dean Howells”); The Mark Twain Anthology: Great Writers on His Life and Works (includes Howells’s essay “Mark Twain: An Inquiry”)

Monday, November 29, 2010

How Louisa May Alcott revolutionized the “book for girls” with Little Women

In her enthusiastic tribute to Louisa May Alcott on her birthday today, Sheila O’Malley makes a pointed distinction. For her, Little Women may not be a great book, but it is “something much better than ‘great’: it is beloved”:
Jo LIVES. No one can convince me that she is just a fictional character. Nope. You cannot do it. It is also a wonderful portrait of a woman going her own way, who has a talent, many talents, and tries to find access to that talent, and also a way to express it. As a young creative and dream-filled child, Jo was a potent reminder to keep my nose to the grindstone, and to continue to develop myself, whichever way my talents took me.
In the years since 1868, when the novel was first published, millions of readers have felt the same way. Susan Cheever is one, as she writes in her new book, Louisa May Alcott: A Personal Biography:
I was twelve when my mother handed me Little Women, and the book electrified me. It was as if this woman from long ago was living inside my head. Here was a story about girls doing the things I did; a story about being obsessed with how a dress might look, or trying hard to be a good girl and then finding that, somehow, one’s actions were those of a bad girl.
Biographer John Matteson recounts that Thomas Niles, Alcott’s editor, was doubtful about the first chapters of Little Women—he found them “dull” —until he showed them to his young niece, who laughed and loved the antics of the four daughters. Alcott knew her subject: she had three sisters and was an experienced writer of six books, mostly sensational thrillers, when the request came for a “book for girls.” She took a shrewd new approach to the genre, as Alison Lurie has described:
In most juvenile fiction of the time everything was drawn in black and white. Girls’ books . . . featured a single suffering, self-sacrificing heroine of near-perfect virtue and patience. But in Little Women there are four heroines, all different and all imperfect. In the course of the story they struggle to become good, but like most human beings, they never completely succeed. The implication is that it is possible to have serious faults—vanity, anger, impatience, timidity, and selfishness—and still deserve happiness.
By the time Alcott died at the age of fifty-five in 1888 one million copies of Little Women had been sold and her royalties from this book and its two sequels amounted to more than $200,000, a considerable amount for the time. Her writing enabled Alcott to buy a furnace and carpets for Orchard House, the home where she wrote Little Women, and to pay to send her younger sister, May, to Paris to pursue her art studies.

Of related interest:
  • Visit the website for Orchard House, where the Alcotts lived from 1858 until 1877.
  • Listen to Susan Cheever speak to Leonard Lopate on NPR about Alcott and the community of Transcendentalists she and her father Bronson Alcott were part of.
  • The Cariboumom and Bermudaonion blogs are currently offering giveaways of the DVD and book of the American Masters documentary, Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women.
  • Watch clips from the American Masters documentary which features Elizabeth Marvel as Alcott and Jane Alexander as Alcott biographer Ednah Cheney:

Related LOA works: Louisa May Alcott: Little Women, Little Men, Jo’s Boys; American Writers at Home (includes a chapter on Orchard House)

Friday, November 26, 2010

Event at Grolier Club celebrates publication of Galbraith volume

On the evening of November 17, the Fellows of the Library of America gathered at the Grolier Club on the occasion of the publication of John Kenneth Galbraith: The Affluent Society and Other Writings 1952–1967. The evening featured a conversation between journalist and public commentator Bill Moyers and James K. Galbraith, son of John Kenneth Galbraith and editor of the Galbraith volume.
About 100 of the Library of America’s fellows and their guests
filled the ground floor gallery of the Grolier Club, which
currently features an exhibition called “John Wiley & Sons:
200 Years of Publication.” John Wiley was the first publisher
of many of The Library of America’s authors.
Bill Moyers with Eliza Galbraith, who lives in
New York City, and her father, James K. Galbraith.
Library of America fellows Daniel Brown and
Amanda O’Brien-Brown with their guests
Gloria Bruere and Jeff Huffines.
For more information about The Library of America Fellows programs, visit the LOA website.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Nathaniel Hawthorne, William Billings, The Iroquois, Lydia Maria Child on Thanksgiving

Morgan Meis’s recent post about Nathaniel Hawthorne’s eerie tale “John Inglefield’s Thanksgiving” reminds us that “it can be hard to give thanks unless you know why you’re doing it.” The short Hawthorne tale concerns the all-too-brief return of a prodigal daughter for Thanksgiving dinner. Before long, she is called away by “some dark power,” something she cannot resist. As Meis writes:
It is a strange story by any standard; for a Thanksgiving story it is stranger still. But Hawthorne was committed to that strangeness in everything he wrote. He wanted to produce an American literature that was deeply moral without being moralistic. It would show human beings as the inscrutable creatures that they are, struggling to make decisions in situations they can never fully comprehend.
A generation before Hawthorne the brilliant tanner-composer William Billings invoked Psalm 148 as “An Anthem for Thanksgiving.” Here the forces of darkness are vanquished:
Ye dragons whose contageous breath,
People the dark abodes of death,
Change your dire hissings into heav’nly songs,
And praise your maker with your forked tongues . . .
Many of Billings’s beautiful four-part choral pieces appear on challoweenm’s Thanksgiving classical playlist.

Anna M. Blanch has been posting a series of Thanksgiving poems on her blog. One of the most popular (generating more than 200,000 Google results) is the Iroquois Thanksgivings transcribed by Harriet Maxwell Converse at the Iroquois Green Corn Festival in New York in 1890. Among the lines celebrating the Great Spirit:
We thank Him for the darkness that gives us rest, and for
the kind Being of the darkness that gives us light, the
We thank Him for the bright spots in the skies that give us
signs, the stars,
We give Him thanks for our supporters, who have charge of
our harvests.
We give thanks that the voice of the Great Spirit can still be
heard through the words of Ga-ne-o-di-o.
The notes in volume 2 of American Poetry: The Nineteenth Century tell us that “our supporters” refers to “three sisters of great beauty, who delight to dwell in the companionship of each other as the spiritual guardians of the corn, the beans, and the squash.” Ga-ne-o-di-o is Handsome Lake, prophet of the Longhouse religion.

On a lighter note, many readers may not know that “The New England Boy’s Song,” by Lydia Maria Child, originated as a Thanksgiving, not a Christmas, song. The original second verse is:
Over the river, and through the wood,
To grandfather’s house away!
We would not stop
For doll or top,
For ‘t is Thanksgiving day.
If you don’t remember the tune, you can find the music here.

Related LOA works: Nathaniel Hawthorne: Tales and Sketches; American Religious Poems: An Anthology by Harold Bloom (includes William Billings’s "An Anthem for Thanksgiving"); Four Centuries of American Poetry

Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln to move forward with the help of several LOA friends

The news out of Hollywood this week is that Daniel Day-Lewis has agreed to play the lead in the long-delayed Steven Spielberg–produced epic Lincoln. The project features the involvement of several writers who have also provided invaluable support and advice to The Library of America over the years:
  • Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, a member of the LOA’s Committee of Consultants for History, wrote Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, the book on which the movie is based.
  • John Logan, whose play Red won this year’s Tony Award for Best Drama, co-wrote the screenplay (with Paul Webb). Logan is a longtime supporter of The Library of America and is the Guardian of three LOA books, having provided the financing necessary to insure they will never go out of print. One of the books he adopted is Lincoln: Speeches and Writings 1859–1865.
  • Tony Kushner, whose Angels in America captured both the Tony Award and the Pulitzer Prize in 1993, revised the screenplay. He recently joined The Library of America’s Board of Directors.
Spielberg’s isn’t the only Lincoln-themed motion picture on the horizon. Robert Redford’s “The Conspirator,” about the trial of Mary Surratt (convicted as an accomplice in the plot to assassinate Lincoln), will be in theaters this coming spring.

Of related interest: In September The Library of America reissued its paperback edition of Lincoln’s major writings and speeches, with an introduction by Gore Vidal.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The works of Philip K. Dick’s “Masterpiece Years”

Today’s New York Times features an interview with Anne R. Dick, Philip K. Dick’s third wife, in connection with the publication of a new edition of her memoir, The Search for Philip K. Dick. During the five years Anne and Philip were married, from 1959 to 1964—what writer David Gill calls “Dick’s family man period”—Dick wrote many of his best-known works. Two of them, The Man in the High Castle (1962) and The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1965), are included in Philip K. Dick: Four Novels of the 1960s; three, Martian Time-Slip (1964), Dr. Bloodmoney, or How We Got Along After the Bomb (1965), and Now Wait for Last Year (1966) appear in Philip K. Dick: Five Novels of the 1960s and 70s.

Commenting on this time in Dick’s life, Jonathan Lethem, editor of all three LOA volumes of Dick’s works, told The New York Times: “It’s the most important passage of his career – more masterpieces in a shorter period of time.” He had much more to say in his first of three LOA interviews about Dick:
As absurd and surreal as the images and ideas in Dick’s books could sometimes be, he always took them seriously. The predicaments of his characters were never funny to him. They were overwhelmingly terrifying and important. That’s what makes him so distinct, not only from other science fiction writers, but also from other postmodern satirical writers that he could be associated with, writers like Thomas Pynchon, Kurt Vonnegut, Donald Barthelme, and Richard Brautigan, all of whom also worked with absurdist and fantastic materials.
Dick commits to his visions with an emotional intensity unlike any other writer. He digs deeper and makes a life or death commitment to the situations in his novels. His books always have this doubleness. There’s a layer of satirical or fantastical inventiveness—he’s one of the great idea men of all literary history—but there’s also this personal emotional stake. He’s always putting everything he has at risk. The characters are deeply vulnerable, deeply flawed, and at the mercy of their situations. . .
If you had to pick a single decade to represent his work, the 1960s is the one to pick. That is the summit.
The Library of America interviewed Laura Leslie, the daughter of Anne and Philip K. Dick, in connection with the second LOA volume:
LOA: The works collected here were written between 1962 and 1977. What can you tell us about your father’s writing habits during that time?
Leslie: I can only tell you what my mother told me. She lived with my father from 1959 until 1963. My father liked to write at night and might write through the entire night, typing furiously. At that time he was writing so fast that he might finish a novel in as little as two weeks, writing night and day. Because my mother brought her three daughters with her into their marriage and my birth added a fourth, she wanted to have a more traditional family life where my father worked during the day and then joined her and the girls for a family dinner. At her urging, while they were married, he changed his writing habits to accommodate his new family life.
Of related interest:
  • Read a 2009 interview with Anne R. Dick on io9
  • Dick’s fifth wife, Tessa, has also written a memoir, Philip K. Dick: Remembering Firebright. You can read an excerpt on her blog.
  • Since August Suspend Your Disbelief has been blogging about how the movie adaptations of Dick’s works compare with the originals.
  • Donald Fagen of Steely Dan recently revealed that PKD was an early influence
Related LOA works: The Philip K. Dick Collection (three-book boxed set).

Mark Twain, Deceitful Turkeys, Offensive Clocks, and Green Turtle Soup

Source: Detroit Public Library
In time for Thanksgiving, The Library of America’s Story of the Week is Mark Twain’s “Hunting the Deceitful Turkey,” a childhood memory published in 1906 and originally written as a sketch for his Autobiography.

Maud Newton, the critic and blogger who happens to be a (very) distant relative of Mark Twain, has uncovered another Twain-related item for the holiday: a cartoon drawn by American caricaturist Thomas Nast. Twain spent the Thanksgiving holiday in 1885 at Nast’s home and got up in the middle of the night to stop all the clocks that were keeping him awake, inspiring the artist to create the drawing shown here and send it to Twain as a gift. (The caption reads, “Thomas Nast's cartoon of Mark Twain collecting the offending clocks.”)

Newton also points her readers to a third curio, posted by Macy Halford on The New Yorker’s Book Bench blog: a menu for Twain’s seventieth birthday dinner a few days after Thanksgiving in 1905. Also shown (for comparison) is another menu for a Thanksgiving feast in 1900 at New York’s Park Avenue Hotel. Most intriguing (or yucky, depending on your taste) is the presence of green turtle soup on both menus. The gluttonous feast leads Halford to conclude that “even the richest among us do not eat Thanksgiving like the rich of 1900.”

Relate LOA volume: The Mark Twain Anthology: Great Writers on His Life and Works

Monday, November 22, 2010

Sarah Palin and John F. Kennedy’s 1960 Houston speech on religion

Advance notices of Sarah Palin’s new book America By Heart report that she takes issue with John F. Kennedy’s speech to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association on September 12, 1960. About Palin’s new book the Associated Press reports:
Palin writes that when she was growing up, she was taught that JFK’s speech reconciled religion and public service without compromising either. But since she's revisited the speech as an adult, she says, she's realized that Kennedy "essentially declared religion to be such a private matter that it was irrelevant to the kind of country we are."
In the same AP report, historian Ted Widmer, editor of The Library of America’s American Speeches: Political Oratory from Abraham Lincoln to Bill Clinton, expresses surprise at Palin’s remarks:
It's putting a negative spin on what was interpreted at the time as a sensible and uplifting message . . . JFK was trying to protect his own right to be a Catholic and to run for president.
In A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in the White House, Arthur Schlesinger wrote that with this speech Kennedy “knocked religion out of the campaign as an intellectually respectable issue.” Kennedy affirmed, “I am a Catholic,” and sought to reassure voters what that meant:
I believe in an America where the separate of church and state is absolute—where no Catholic prelate would tell the President (should he be Catholic) how to act. . . 
In her book, Palin is also said to have praised Romney’s approach (not “doing a JFK”) during the 2008 presidential campaign, when he delivered his own speech on religion. At the time, Garry Wills analyzed how Mitt Romney’s speech differed from JFK’s:
Kennedy had to convince people that he would not let the Vatican push him around. Romney has let evangelicals know that he would let them push him around. He not only has given them a theological formula on Jesus which he hopes they will accept—he implicitly has attacked Kennedy’s absolute separation of church and state using the evangelicals’ own slogan: those who think (like Kennedy) that “religion is seen merely as a private affair” are, Romney said, “intent on establishing a new religion in America—the religion of secularism. They are wrong.” That phrase has not been much noticed in public comments on Romney’s speech, but it is a key statement for the evangelicals.
With her attack on Kennedy and identification with Romney, Palin seems to be expanding on her earlier statement in April rejecting the idea that “God should be separated from the state.”

The debate over the concept of “the separation of church and state” goes back more than 200 years, when Thomas Jefferson first used the phrase famous today, in a letter sent on New Year’s Day 1802 to the Danbury Baptist Association discussing the First Amendment, “that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.”

Of related interest: Watch a video of John F. Kennedy’s Houston speech

Related LOA works: American Speeches: Political Oratory from Abraham Lincoln to Bill Clinton (includes Kennedy’s Houston speech); Thomas Jefferson: Writings

Timelessness and Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series

The anonymous “Amateur Reader” at the blog Wuthering Expectations recently hosted a Laura Ingalls Wilder week with a series of posts discussing the literary qualities of Little House in the Big Woods and Little House on the Prairie. Topics include how the sublime nature of the prairie is a thematic frame running through Prairie, how the end of Prairie ironically revisits the ending of Big Woods, and how the ending of Big Woods reveals Laura’s Augustinian concept of time (yes, really). Here are the closing lines of Little House in the Big Woods, a book that begins with “Once upon a time”:
But Laura lay awake a little while, listening to Pa’s fiddle softly playing and to the lonely sound of the wind in the Big Woods. She looked at Pa sitting on the bench by the hearth, the fire-light gleaming on his brown hair and beard and glistening on the honey-brown fiddle. She looked at Ma, gently rocking and knitting.

She thought to herself, “This is now.”

She was glad that the cosy house, and Pa and Ma and the fire-light and the music, were now. They could not be forgotten, she thought, because now is now. It can never be a long time ago.
Amateur Reader adds: “The ironies multiply as five year old Laura discovers the Augustinian nature of time. The adult Laura, sixty years in the future, knows how the child is wrong – oh, it was a long time ago. And the author knows that soon – that spring, or is it a year later? – that house and fire (but not the music) would be abandoned for another, and then another, and so on. One more ironic turn – Laura’s memories are a bit less likely to be forgotten, now, aren’t they?”

The perceptive Reader isn’t the only Wilder fan to reexamine the Little House books from a critical perspective. Caroline Fraser, writing in The New York Review of Books in 1994, said, “Wilder struggled to recast the literal events of her life into a progressive narrative: a story of moving westward and onward, of maturing, improving, succeeding. This struggle determines the structure of the narrative, its avoidance of bathos, its refusal to dwell on the sorrowful or the terrible; it is what gives the Little House books their spareness, their directness, their ability to affect us.”

The Wuthering Expectations blog asks, “How is this not great writing?” We agree: The Library of America is currently gathering the materials to create a deluxe collector’s edition of all eight Little House books. But we would love to hear what you think. Are Wilder’s books underrated or overrated? Are the Little House books for adults, too?

Friday, November 19, 2010

H. L. Mencken, Adlai Stevenson on Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address

Seven score and seven years ago today Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address. In The Lincoln Anthology: Great Writers on His Life and Legacy from 1860 to Now numerous writers uncover new meanings in Lincoln's spare 271 words. Here are two contrasting examples:

H. L. Mencken was determined to separate meaning from the myth:
The Gettysburg speech is at once the shortest and most famous oration in American history. . . Nothing else precisely like it is to be found in the whole range of oratory. Lincoln himself never even remotely approached it. It is genuinely stupendous.
But let us not forget that it is oratory, not logic; beauty, not sense. Think of the argument in it! Put it into the cold words of everyday! The doctrine is simply this: that the Union soldiers who died at Gettysburg sacrificed their lives to the cause of self-determination—“that government of the people, by the people, for the people,” should not perish from the earth. It is difficult to imagine anything more untrue. The Union soldiers in that battle actually fought against self-determination; it was the Confederates who fought for the right of their people to govern themselves. What was the practical effect of the battle of Gettysburg? What else than the destruction of the old sovereignty of the States, i.e., of the people of the States? The Confederates went into the battle an absolutely free people; they came out with their freedom subject to the supervision and vote of the rest of the country—and for nearly twenty years that vote was so effective that they enjoyed scarcely any freedom at all. Am I the first American to note the fundamental nonsensicality of the Gettysburg address? If so, I plead my aesthetic joy in it in amelioration of the sacrilege.
Illinois governor Adlai Stevenson, at a ceremony marking the 88th anniversary of the address, discerns Lincoln's awareness of the world-historical moment:
Lincoln saw the war in its global dimensions. . . As Lincoln saw it, the Confederate states had rejected two fundamental precepts of democracy. First, in refusing to accept him as their President and making his election their justification for withdrawing from the Union, they had violated the first rule of democratic government, the obligation of a minority to abide by the result of an election. . . 
Second, in making slavery the foundation stone of their new government, the Confederacy was renouncing the doctrine of the equal rights of man in favor of the creed of the master race, an idea that Lincoln abhorred. . . . 
When we realize that Lincoln saw the dissolution of the Union as a threat to democratic aspirations throughout the world, his words at Gettysburg become more meaningful. Chancellorsville, Antietam, Chickamauga and Gettysburg were deciding more than the fate of these United States. Americans were dying for the new, revolutionary idea of the free man, even as they had died at Bunker Hill and Yorktown. They were dying to save the hopes of all people everywhere.
Of related interest:
Related LOA works: The Lincoln Bicentennial Collection (3-book boxed set); H. L. Mencken: Prejudices: The Complete Series (2-book boxed set)

Thursday, November 18, 2010

T. S. Eliot and literary culture: Dare we ask, “What is it?”

Like clockwork, Joseph Epstein’s recent lament in Commentary that “literary culture . . . seems to be slowly but decisively shutting down” set off a series of online exchanges whose very liveliness seems to challenge Epstein’s thesis. Reviewing the revised edition of The Letters of T. S. Eliot: Volume 1, 1898–1922 and the newly published Volume 2, 1923–1925, Epstein questioned why no poet or critic currently has the same cultural impact as T. S. Eliot:
The unsolved mystery is why no poetry written since the time of Eliot, Yeats, Stevens, Frost, or possibly Auden has anything like the same memorability as theirs . . . Wallace Stevens’s poetry is more beautiful, and Robert Frost’s often more powerful, than Eliot’s, but the latter’s, once read, refuses to leave the mind. . . Eliot was the equivalent in literature of Albert Einstein in science in that everyone seemed to know that these men were immensely significant without quite knowing for what.
Daniel E. Pritchard on The Wooden Spoon took up the gauntlet, noting that plenty of publishers, magazines, and blogs, including “The Quarterly Conversation, Jacket, Maggy, Pen & Anvil, Dark Sky, Dzanc Books, Fulcrum, The Critical Flame, and others . . . have persisted under the fantasy that through hard work and imagination we can make something worthwhile. Make literary culture vibrant. . . that we are literary culture.” To prove his point: when Frank Wilson responded by commenting that “while there are plenty of good writers around . . . the culture as a whole no longer seems to . . . take literature seriously,” Pritchard used that as a springboard for a follow-up post:
Well, it's absolutely fair to say that no single person has the stature that Eliot did then. Ashbery or Heaney are closest. But I'm not sure that such a figure is possible any longer. First, the narrative has changed: as an audience, we no longer anoint demigods because we no longer adhere to the same hegemony and homogeneity that existed at mid-century. . . Second, we have largely unmasked / undermined the pretension of high culture. People no longer feel the need to pay lip service to so-called high art, and alternate traditions have been legitimized in kind.
Besides, there are so many excellent poets writing today: John Ashbery, Adrienne Rich, Geoffrey Hill, Rae Armantrout, D.A. Powell, Mark Levine, Ange Mlinko, Maxine Kumin, Ben Lerner, Mark Strand, Seamus Heaney, Tim Donnelly, and many more. Beyond that, there are even more young poets uncounted: scribbling, sweating, reading. . . 
Patrick Nathan’s first impulse after reading Epstein’s essay was to mourn, but then he perked up:
With household names like Cormac McCarthy, Gabriel García Márquez, Don DeLillo, Toni Morrison; with incredibly perceptive critics along the lines of Martin Amis and Harold Bloom; with lesser known writers like Anne Carson and Eula Biss performing thrilling literary experiments, we have nothing short of a wonderfully diverse and enriching literary world. Epstein’s article only shows his unproductive and twisted nostalgia. . . In today’s world, a lover of the literary arts has a chance at greatness even if he or she couldn’t afford to go to Harvard or Oxford. In fact it’s what most of us are banking on. Things are only going to become more exciting from here.
Epstein’s essay resumes an alarm he sounded as early as 1988 in his now-famous essay “Who Killed Poetry?” (also in Commentary). Apparently, what he has read and witnessed since hasn’t changed his mind. Has he missed reading someone? Is the change in culture he is describing a difference in quality or in values? Do we sacrifice “memorability” for diversity? Is our current culture dying or vibrant? We’d like to know your thoughts.

Related LOA works: American Poetry: The Twentieth Century, volume one: Henry Adams to Dorothy Parker (includes 14 poems by T. S. Eliot); John Ashbery: Collected Poems 1956–1987

Did George Washington Swear During the Battle of Monmouth?

The Library of America’s current Story of the Week is George Washington’s account of the Battle of Monmouth. Part of the conflict’s behind-the-scenes lore, which Washington only glancingly mentions, is the cowardice and incompetence of General Charles Lee, who had been given command of the forces for the attack. Although details of warfare are always hazy, both on the scene and in retrospect, one of the more contentious points among historians and Revolutionary War buffs seems to be whether Washington, who famously prohibited the use of profanity by his troops, actually swore at Lee.

In his landmark biography of Washington, Ron Chernow summarizes a few contemporary recollections of Washington’s reaction when he encountered Lee abandoning the field:
“You damned poltroon,” Washington rejoined, “you never tried them!” Always reluctant to resort to profanities, the chaste Washington cursed at Lee “till the leaves shook on the tree,” recalled General [Charles] Scott. “Charming! Delightful! Never have I enjoyed such swearing before or since.” Lafayette said it was the only time he ever heard Washington swear. “I confess I was disconcerted, astonished, and confounded by the words and the manner in which His Excellency accosted me,” Lee recalled.
Still, during the decades after the war—and even until the present day—there has been no consensus of what Washington may have actually said to Lee. In 1900, a “new” eyewitness account (albeit delivered secondhand across the span of two sixty-year generations) surfaced in the magazine of the Daughters of the Revolution. At a dinner party in 1840, a Major Jacob Morton, then eighty years old, claimed to have been at the scene and acknowledged that Washington looked “like a thunder cloud before the lightning flash,” but he vehemently denied that the general used any inappropriate language.

But perhaps an unnamed professor of divinity quoted in Franklin Ellis’s A History of Monmouth County (1885) said it best: “If ever any body did have an excuse for swearing it was Washington at the battle of Monmouth.”

Related LOA volume: George Washington: Writings

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

What George S. Kaufman learned from the Marx Brothers

What better testimony to the enduring appeal of the snappish wit of George S. Kaufman than Dick Cavett closing not one but two posts in the past two months on The New York Times Opinionator blog with punchlines Kaufman delivered as a panelist on the 1950s television show This Is Show Business. From 1921 through 1958, Broadway audiences could depend on seeing something either written or directed by Kaufman. He wrote, or more often co-wrote, forty-five plays: twenty-six were hits, two won Pulitzer Prizes: Of Thee I Sing in 1931 and You Can’t Take It With You in 1937 (the film version of the latter also winning an Oscar for Best Picture in 1938).

For Kaufman, whose birthday is today, writing comedy was serious business. Biographer Scott Meredith describes him writing the first Marx Brothers musical The Cocoanuts in 1925:
If eating was an annoying interruption to him during leisure times, it often became an unbearable burden to be completely avoided during work periods. He much preferred to spend the time pacing the floors, lying prone on the carpets, picking up hundreds of pieces of lint, tying innumerable and permanent knots in window-curtain cords, and in general struggling over and perfecting every line and plot situation in the agonized way which once caused [Alexander] Woollcott to say about him, “In the throes of composition, he seems to crawl up the walls of the apartment in the manner of the late Count Dracula.”
Kaufman co-wrote another musical, Animal Crackers, for the Marx Brothers, and the screenplay for what many consider their best movie, A Night at the Opera. Kaufman’s painstaking approach to writing didn’t always mesh with the comedy team’s compulsive improvisation. As Kaufman summed it up: “The Cocoanuts introduced me to the Marx Brothers. The Cocoanuts was a comedy. The Marx Brothers are comics. But meeting them was a tragedy.”

Yet Kaufman came to respect their instincts and experience, as he explained in an address at Yale in 1939:
Morrie Ryskind and I learned a great lesson in the writing of stage comedy. We learned it from the Marx Brothers. We wrote two shows for them which, by the way, is two more than anybody should be asked to write. Looking back, it seems incredible that this was something we had not known before, but we hadn’t. We learned that when an audience does not laugh at a line at which they’re supposed to laugh, then the thing to do was to take out that line and get a funnier line. So help me, we didn’t know that before. I always thought it was the audience’s fault, or when the show got to New York they’d laugh.
Morton Eustis shows Kaufman applying that lesson that same year as he directs the rehearsals for the Broadway run of The Man Who Came to Dinner, the comedy Kaufman co-authored with Moss Hart. Eustis quotes Kaufman’s reaction after he and Hart have just run through a scene they rewrote moments before:
It’s amazing, you know. . . You think you have a script just as tight as possible. Then you get it on the stage and dead chunks appear all through it. When you get it in front of an audience, a whole new set of dead spots turn up. And three weeks after the New York opening you still find places you can cut.
Of related interest:
  • Edward Copeland’s recent celebration of A Night at the Opera
  • Yid with Lid’s tribute to Of Thee I Sing
  • Read more about George S. Kaufman at the website created by Laurence Maslon, editor of George S. Kaufman & Co.: Broadway Comedies
  • George S. Kaufman as a panelist on This Is Show Business:

Related LOA works: George S. Kaufman & Co.: Broadway Comedies; The American Stage: Writing on Theater from Washington Irving to Tony Kushner (includes Morton Eustis’s “The Man Who Came to Dinner with George Kaufman Directing”)

Celebrate Wallace Stevens Week

Yesterday, the literary blog Big Other launched “Wallace Stevens Week.” In coming days, the blog will feature commentary by a number of critics and poets, including an interview with Eleanor Cook (author of the Reader’s Guide to Wallace Stevens) and a post on the “maddening, funny and bizarre” titles of Stevens’s poems.

The interview with James Longenbach, a poet in his own right and the author of Wallace Stevens: The Plain Sense of Things, mentions that Stevens offered the following quote from Henry James as advice to young writers:
To live in the world of creation—to get into it and stay in it—to frequent it and haunt it—to think intensely and fruitfully—to woo combinations and inspirations into being by a depth and continuity of attention and meditation—this is the only thing.
In the video below, the inimitable Harold Bloom recites one of his favorite poems, Stevens’s “Tea at the Palace of Hoon.”

Related LOA volumes: Wallace Stevens: Collected Poetry and Prose

Monday, November 15, 2010

Marianne Moore and Elizabeth Bishop go to the circus

On Anecdotal Evidence Patrick Kurp recently discovered some helpful advice on how to deal with out-of-control students in an article Marianne Moore wrote for Seventeen Magazine in 1963:
Example is needed, not counsel: but let me submit here these four precepts:

Feed imagination food that invigorates.

Whatever it is, do it with all your might.

Never do to another what you would not wish done to yourself.

Say to yourself, “I will be responsible.”

Put these principles to the test, and you will be inconvenienced by being overtrusted, overbefriended, overconsulted, half adopted, and have no leisure. Face that when you come to it.
The article features Moore’s typically eclectic menagerie of references: quotations from Confucius, filmmaker Jean Renoir, and Robert Frost, as well as “Mr. William Longendecker, an amateur of rhinoceros language,” and boxer Floyd Patterson, whose just published memoir Moore found “explicit, vivid, modest.”

Commenting on Kurp’s post, a reader wrote “I love The Complete Prose of Marianne Moore [which includes the Seventeen article]. I read it as one might read Scripture for several years in the early '90s. It is just that good.” Moore, whose birthday is today, has that effect on readers, whether they encounter her prose, her letters, or what Frank Kermode has called her highly praised “strange poetry.”
Above all there are the poems, so accurately written, and with such disciplined pleasure, yet so inexplicably and repeatedly revised. Anything could get into them, including all the chosen pleasures of her life, the ballgames and prize fights, the paintings and the exotic animals. To an extraordinary degree she did, though with great labour, exactly as she liked.
Her long life and her regimen of daily letter writing—she could write up to fifty letters a day—has made her correspondence, in editor Bonnie Costello’s words, “the largest and most broadly significant collection of any modern poet.” More than two hundred of those letters were sent to Elizabeth Bishop. When they first met, in 1934, Bishop was a twenty-three-year old Vassar student, Moore a forty-seven-year-old prize-winning poet. In “Efforts of Affection,” her remembrance of Moore, Bishop writes of their first meeting: “she began to talk. It seems to me Marianne talked to me steadily for the next thirty-five years.” As Kermode has observed, “Bishop is the poet closest to Moore in temperament, her rival as a letter-writer, and also as a devotee of the accurate.”

Edward Byrne has blogged about that first meeting, at the end of which Bishop invited Moore to go see the circus with her, not realizing that Moore always saw the circus. Two weeks later Moore greeted Bishop with “two huge brown paper bags” filled with stale brown bread for the elephants. Moore had a plot. Her cherished elephant-hair bracelet had lost a strand. Elephant hairs grow only on the tops of the heads of very young elephants. Bishop’s task: to distract the mother elephants with the bread while Moore used her “strong nail scissors” to “snip a few hairs from a baby’s head, to repair her bracelet.”
I stayed at one end of the line, putting slices of bread into the trunks of the older elephants, and Miss Moore went rapidly down to the other end, where the babies were. . . out of the corner of my eye I saw Miss Moore leaning forward over the rope on tiptoe, scissors in hand. Elephant hairs are tough; I thought she would never finish her hair-cutting. But she did, and triumphantly we handed out the rest of the bread and set off to see the other animals. She opened her bag and showed me three or four coarse, grayish hairs in a piece of Kleenex.
Of related interest:
  • Read the poem “Baseball and Writing,” in which Moore memorializes the line-up of the 1961 New York Yankees
  • In 1957 The New Yorker published the exchange of letters that resulted when the Ford Motor Company requested Moore’s help in naming the car that would become the Edsel (not one of her names)
  • Read Teri Tynes’s blog post about Marianne Moore’s days in Greenwich Village
Related LOA works: American Poetry: The Twentieth Century, volume one: Henry Adams to Dorothy Parker (includes thirty poems by Marianne Moore); Elizabeth Bishop: Poems, Prose, and Letters (includes her memoir “Efforts of Affection,” an essay on Moore’s poetry, and several letters to Moore)

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Dinner with Nathaniel Hawthorne to celebrate the publication of Moby-Dick:
“The happiest day in Herman Melville’s life”

Hershel Parker closes volume one of his magisterial two-volume biography of Herman Melville with an account of the American publication of Moby-Dick: “Melville paid for his own publication party, to which he invited one guest.” That one guest was neighbor Nathaniel Hawthorne, whom Melville had met fifteen months earlier and whose influence on the novel’s revision led the younger writer to add a dedication page:

This Book is Inscribed

The American publication date for Moby-Dick was November 14, 1851. The two writers had agreed to meet as soon as copies of the book arrived, but their wives were both nursing newborns and the Hawthornes were in the midst of packing to leave Lenox. Neither household could host the other, so Melville invited Hawthorne to a formal farewell dinner at Curtis’s hotel in Lenox on the night of publication.

A letter by “Maherbal,” a Lenox resident, published months later in the Windsor Journal testifies to the gossip this curious dinner date aroused.
Not very long ago the author of The Scarlet Letter and the author of Typee having, in some unaccountable way, gotten a mutual desire to see one another, as if neither had a home to which he could invite the other, made arrangements in a very formal manner to dine together at a hotel in this village . . . In the small talk of the flippant beaux and the light-headed belles of Berkshire, the solemn attempt of two of the greatest characters of which the country could boast, towards an acquaintance, was a subject of infinite merriment.
Hotels at the time were frequented mostly by travelers. Seeing two local residents, especially such famous recluses, dining at a hotel was considered quite unusual. In Parker’s words:
To [older Lenoxites] and to the younger onlookers, [Melville] was now the recluse of Pittsfield—the man who drove hell-for-leather into the village for his mail and hell-for-leather home, the man who had scarcely seen the inside of a church since he had moved to the Berkshires . . . Hawthorne was the even more peculiar recluse of Stockbridge Bowl, the man who might be glimpsed ducking behind trees and rocks when encountered out of doors.
However strange the sight of the two men dining together may have appeared to locals, Parker imparts great meaning to the event for the diners:
At some well-chosen moment Melville took out the book whose publication they had both been awaiting and handed his friend an inscribed copy of Moby-Dick, the first presentation copy. In no other way could Hawthorne have had a copy so soon, one that he had read by the fifteenth or sixteenth, in time to have written a letter Melville received on the sixteenth. Here, in the dining room, Hawthorne for the first time saw the extraordinary dedication and tribute to his genius – the first book anyone had dedicated to him. Never demonstrative, he was profoundly moved. . . .

The flippant beaux and the light-headed belles were witnessing a sacred occasion in American literary life, as the men lingered at the table, drinking, soothed into ineffable socialities, obscured at times from view by their tobacco smoke. They lingered long after the dining room had emptied, each reverential toward the other’s genius . . . Take it all in all, this was the happiest day of Melville’s life.
Of related interest:
Related LOA works: Herman Melville: Complete Fiction and Other Prose Works; Nathaniel Hawthorne: Collected Novels

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Kurt Vonnegut, Armistice Day, and Veterans Day

Bohica’s post earlier this week on Daily Kos cites the Veterans for Peace Armistice Day Message and recalls the shift in focus that occurred in 1954, when Armistice Day was changed to Veterans Day. Veterans for Peace quotes Kurt Vonnegut’s preface to Breakfast of Champions when Philboyd Studge travels “in time back to November eleventh, nineteen hundred and twenty-two.”
I will come to a time in my backwards trip when November eleventh, accidentally my birthday, was a sacred day called Armistice Day. When I was a boy, and when Dwayne Hoover was a boy, all the people of all the nations which had fought in the First World War were silent during the eleventh minute of the eleventh hour of Armistice Day, which was the eleventh day of the eleventh month.
It was during that minute in nineteen hundred and eighteen, that millions upon millions of human beings stopped butchering one another. I have talked to old men who were on battlefields during that minute. They have told me in one way or another that the sudden silence was the Voice of God. So we still have among us some men who can remember when God spoke clearly to mankind.
Armistice Day has become Veterans’ Day. Armistice Day was sacred. Veterans’ Day is not. 
Vonnegut was indeed born on November 11, 1922, and served as an infantry battalion scout in World War II. Captured by the Germans at the Battle of the Bulge on December 19, 1944, he became an eyewitness, as a prisoner of war, to the Allied bombing of Dresden, as he described in a Paris Review interview:
. . . a siren went off—it was February 13, 1945—and we went down two stories under the pavement into a big meat locker. It was cool there, with cadavers hanging all around. When we came up the city was gone.
The Germans called the building that housed the POWs Schlachthof Funf (Slaughterhouse Five) and that gave Vonnegut the title of his best-known, bestselling novel. However, as Elizabeth Abele notes in her essay “The Journey Home in World War II Novels,” Vonnegut was working through his wartime experiences in all his writing in the 1960s:
It actually took Vonnegut four sequential and interconnected novels to express his personal response to the violent reality of World War II—Mother Night (1962), Cat’s Cradle (1963), God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater (1965), and finally Slaughterhouse-Five (1969). . . Their focus is on the unintentional results of war: not only the killings of civilians but, just as importantly, the aftereffects that follow the veteran home; the particular manner in which those left behind are nonetheless infected by war.
The “looping” element in Vonnegut’s writing, his altering of the flow of time, which some readers credit to his roots in science fiction, has been recognized by other war veterans as a technique that resonates with their experiences, as novelist Tim O’Brien explained in a 2005 interview with Zoe Trodd:
The looping aspect of my writing is important. To tell stories in a linear way would be deceitful. The trauma doesn’t end, it comes back in memory, returns and returns, often with a difficult take on the original event; horror, outrage, disbelief. War and trauma don’t end in a literal sense, they reverberate across time, and my repetitions are a way to get at this psychological truth.
Vonnegut’s personal war-narrative, as Abel details, “loops throughout his entire oeuvre, from Mother Night to A Man without a Country (2005).”

Of related interest: Colby Buzzell, “War in Reverse: Reading Vonnegut in Iraq

Related LOA works: Poets of World War II; Reporting World War II: American Journalism 1944-1946; The Library of America will be publishing its first Kurt Vonnegut volume in May 2011.

Charles W. Chesnutt’s The Marrow of Tradition reimagines the Wilmington, North Carolina coup d’etat

Michelle Alexander’s new book The New Jim Crow and a recent post on GroundUpCT about the plight of the Scott sisters in Mississippi raise questions about whether Jim Crow practices continue without redress in the America of Obama. More than a century ago, opposition to the relaxation of Jim Crow laws and to black participation in the political process peaked in a notorious event in November 1898: the uprising by a mob of white supremacists in Wilmington, North Carolina, to overthrow legally elected black officials. Charles W. Chesnutt used this incident, which a 2006 state-appointed commission called “the only recorded violent government overthrow in U.S. history,” as the basis for what many consider his masterpiece, The Marrow of Tradition (1901).

At the end of the nineteenth century, Wilmington was the largest city in North Carolina and a majority of its population were black. After the elections of 1894 and 1896, the Fusionist Party (a merging of the Populist and Republican parties) had gained control of the state government and started to pass laws increasing the rights of black citizens. In the election of 1898, Democratic candidates regained control of the state government and were determined to reverse course.

Historian C. Vann Woodward describes the actual events of November 10 in The New York Review of Books:
Immediately after the election, a mob led by a prominent white citizen burned down [the offices of the African American newspaper The Daily Record]. [The editor] escaped, but the mob, joined by an infantry company mobilized for the Spanish-American War, hunted down black leaders, killed some, and drove thousands of other black citizens from their homes and property, which was seized or destroyed by whites. Before it was over between ten and twenty black bodies lay in the streets. The chief leader of the attack on the press then settled into the mayor’s office.
The Marrow of Tradition follows the intersecting stories of numerous characters, white, black, and of mixed race, as they struggle to coexist in a small North Carolina town rife with racial tension. One of Chesnutt’s aims, in the era of yellow journalism, was to show the power of a newspaper as a tool for propaganda—racial hatred, in this case. The novel climaxes as a demonstration turns ugly:
The proceedings of the day—planned originally as a “demonstration,” dignified subsequently as a “revolution,” under any name the culmination of the conspiracy formed by Carteret and his colleagues—had by seven o’clock in the afternoon developed into a murderous riot. Crowds of white men and half-grown boys, drunk with whiskey or with license, raged through streets, beating, chasing, or killing any negro so unfortunate as to fall into their hands. Why any particular negro was assailed, no one stopped to inquire; it was merely a white mob thirsting for black blood, with no more conscience or discrimination than would be exercised by a wolf in a sheepfold. It was race against race, the whites against the negroes; and it was a one-sided affair, for until Josh Green got together his body of armed men, no effective resistance had been made by any colored person, and the individuals who had been killed had so far left no marks upon the enemy by which they might be remembered.
The 1901 review of the novel in The Richmond Times noted “To the accuracy of the picture Mr. Chesnutt has presented, there is a surprising unanimity of opinion: the riot he describes might have been photographed in a dozen Southern towns; the murder has, unfortunately, been reduplicated a score times, and even minor details and atmospheric effects of the book carry with them the conviction of actuality.”

Of related interest:
Related LOA works: Charles W. Chesnutt: Stories, Novels, and Essays

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Kristallnacht in the writings of Arthur Miller and Philip Roth

The night of November 9, 1938, marks the beginning of the two days known as Kristallnacht, “The Night of Broken Glass.” As Sigrid Shultz reported in The Chicago Tribune the next day:
Systematic destruction of Jewish property, looting, arson, and wholesale arrests of Jews without official charges swept Germany today. It is estimated that 20,000 Jews were arrested in Germany and what was Austria.
The Nazi violence far outdid anything that happened along this line in Germany in the darkest days of the Red revolution. Then hungry mobs stormed food stores. Today the mobs gloated over the smashed stores of Jews. They helped themselves to clothes, furs, and toys, and scattered the goods in the streets for their friends to pick up.
Later reports estimated that 30,000 Jews were arrested and sent to concentration camps, more than 200 synagogues burned down and 7,000 Jewish businesses destroyed. Most historians date the beginning of the Holocaust from Kristallnacht and Jews worldwide memorialize the events every year.

Reimagining Kristallnacht has challenged writers since Günter Grass confronted the event with his harrowing novel The Tin Drum in 1959. Two American writers renowned for tackling difficult subjects waited until their seventies to try. In 1994 seventy-nine-year-old Arthur Miller wrote the play Broken Glass, in which the marital difficulties of a Jewish couple living in New York City in 1938 are inextricably entangled with the husband’s struggle with his identity as a Jew and his wife’s pathological reaction to news reports of Kristallnacht:
Hyman [a doctor]: Very disturbing. Forcing old men to scrub the sidewalks with toothbrushes. On the Kurfurstendamm, that’s equivalent to Fifth Avenue. Nothing but hoodlums in uniform.
Gellburg [the husband]: My wife is very upset about that.
Hyman: I know, that’s why I mention it. (Hesitates.) And how about you?
Gellburg: Of course, it’s a terrible thing. Why do you ask?
Hyman: (a smile)—I don’t know, I got the feeling she may be afraid she’s annoying you when she talks about such things.
Gellburg: Why? I don’t mind.—She said she’s annoying me?
Hyman: Not in so many words, but . . .
Gellburg: I can’t believe she’d say a thing like . . .
Hyman: Wait a minute, I didn’t say she said it . . .
Gellburg: She doesn’t annoy me, but what can be done about such things? The thing is, she doesn’t’ like to hear about the other side of it.
Hyman: What other side?
Gellburg: It’s no excuse for what’s happening over ther, but German Jews can be pretty . . . you know . . . (Pushes up his nose with his forefinger.)
Philip Roth was a spry seventy-one when he concocted The Plot Against America (2004), his alternate history of the war years. When Walter Winchell tours the country to speak out against President Charles Lindbergh’s anti-Semitism, riots break out and American Jews experience their own Kristallnacht:
The worst and most widespread violence occurred in Detroit, the Midwestern headquarters of the “Radio Priest” Father Coughlin and his Jew-hating Christian Front . . . There, in the city’s biggest Jewish neighborhoods, shops were looted and windows broken, Jews trapped outdoors were set upon and beaten, and kerosene-soaked crosses were ignited on the lawns of the fancy houses along Chicago Boulevard and out front of the modest two-family dwellings of the housepainters, plumbers, butchers, bakers, junk dealers and grocers who lived on Webb and Tuxedo and in the little dirt yards of the poorest Jews on Pingry and Euclid.
Related LOA works: Reporting World War II: Part One: American Journalism 1938-1944 (includes Sigrid Schultz’s report on Kristallnacht); Arthur Miller: Collected Plays 1944-1961; Philip Roth: Collected Works 1959-1995

Monday, November 8, 2010

Benjamin Franklin, 21, creates one of the first American social networks

In an essay in the October 4 issue of The New Yorker Malcolm Gladwell challenged the claims that Twitter and Facebook have reinvented social activism by comparing them unfavorably with the low-tech achievements of Civil Rights activists in the 1960s. A recent post on Pilant’s Business Ethics Blog reminds us, however, that impressive social networks existed more than two hundred years earlier. James Pilant quotes biographer John Torrey Morse, Jr.’s account of how Benjamin Franklin used the Junto group he created to launch the first fire company in Philadelphia in 1736. He also used the network to develop a library.

Twenty-one-old entrepreneur Franklin formed the Leather Apron Club, self-dubbed the Junto, in 1727 as soon as he decided to settle in Philadelphia. The social elite had their gentlemen’s clubs; what Franklin sought was an association of working tradesmen and artisans who would gather once a week to discuss issues of common concern. As biographer Walter Isaacson describes them:
At first the members went to a local tavern for their Friday evening meetings, but soon they were able to rent a house of their own. There they discussed issues of the day, debated philosophical topics, devised schemes for self-improvement, and formed a network for the furtherance of their own careers. . .
The tone Franklin set for Junto meetings was earnest. Initiates were required to stand, lay their hands on their breast, and answer properly four questions: Do you have disrespect for any current member? Do you love mankind in general regardless of religion or profession? Do you feel people should ever be punished because of their opinion or mode of worship? Do you love and pursue truth for its own sake?
Those familiar with Facebook’s popular “25 Random Things about Me” may be amused to know that Franklin developed a guide listing useful conversation topics for Junto members. It consisted of twenty-four questions. Here are a few:
1. Have you met with anything in the author you last read, remarkable, or suited to be communicated to the Junto? . . .
2. What new story have you lately heard agreeable for telling in conversation?
17. Is there any man whose friendship you want, and which the Junto or any of them, can procure for you?
Junto members were encouraged to bring to meetings books for other members to read; but books were expensive so Franklin hit on the idea of recruiting subscribers outside the Junto who would pay for the right to borrow books. In soliciting subscriptions Franklin discovered that people were reluctant to support “a proposer of any useful project that might be supposed to raise one’s reputation.” So Franklin attributed the idea of the library to his friends. This approach worked so well that Franklin “ever after practiced it on such occasions.” The Library Company of Philadelphia was incorporated on November 8, 1731.

The Junto became so popular that Franklin encouraged members to form their own satellite groups, but these weren’t the only social networks in colonial America. Literary societies flourished all along the eastern seaboard. In an interview with The Library of America, David S. Shields describes the colonial and Revolutionary-era American literary scene:
One of the features of the world of the late 17th and all throughout the 18th century was that like-minded people who believed in [common] values gathered together in a number of associations: ladies’ tea tables and salons, tavern clubs, coffeehouse associations, societies for the promotion of some ideal, or subscribing libraries.
You can find a Google Map of many of these colonial salons, coteries, and literary clubs here.

Related LOA works: Benjamin Franklin: Silence Dogood, The Busy-Body, and Early Writings; American Poetry: The Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries

Friday, November 5, 2010

Robert E. Sherwood’s controversial version of Abraham Lincoln’s Election Night

Saturday, November 6, marks the sesquicentennial of the presidential election of Abraham Lincoln. In one of the last scenes of his Pulitzer Prize–winning 1938 play Abe Lincoln in Illinois, Robert E. Sherwood dramatized Election Night in Lincoln’s campaign headquarters in Springfield. Mark S. Reinhart, among many others, has attacked the controversial scene as “inflammatory and untrue. . . . No such incident took place on Lincoln’s election night.”

Sherwood defended his inventions in notes he added to the published version of the play. He recognized that in this scene “one speech has been much criticized and deplored by good people who revere Lincoln’s memory and cannot believe that he ever cursed at his wife.” Acknowledging that by all accounts Lincoln “treated the obstreperous Mrs. Lincoln with unfailing courtesy and tender considerateness” during their White House years, he maintained that an honest portrayal of Lincoln’s marriage required him to show that
. . . on occasion, his monumental patience snapped. That it did, before the move from Springfield, there can be no doubt. Usually he met her tirades with stony silence, or abrupt departure, or with laughter . . . But [William H. Herndon, Lincoln’s law partner] records that at least once, when she had run him out of the house and was chasing him down Eighth Street, and they approached some church-goers, he turned on her, picked her up, spanked her, and thrust her back into the house, saying, “There, now, stay in the house and don’t be a damned fool before the people.”
Herndon may not be the most reliable source here; he and Mary Todd Lincoln never got along and fought over her husband’s legacy. Although there is documentary support for occasional marital discord, Stephen Oates agrees with many historians that much of Herndon’s 1889 book, especially the sections about Mary, is “malicious gossip.”

Yet Sherwood accepted Herndon’s account as unfiltered truth and felt that the “most appropriate moment” to dramatize this was “Election Night . . . with the nerves of both so severely strained.” In the scene Mary has been growing increasingly agitated as the telegraphed results reported by Lincoln’s staff show his Democratic opponent Stephen Douglas leading. Lincoln sits at a table, calmly reading press clippings.
Mary: (her voice trembling) I can’t stand it any longer!
Abe: Yes, my dear—I think you’d better go home. I’ll be back before long.
Mary: (hysterical.) I won’t go home! You only want to get rid of me. That’s what you’ve wanted ever since the day we were married—and before that. Anything to get me out of your sight, because you hate me! And it’s the same with all of you—all of his friends—you hate me—you wish I’d never come into his life!
Lincoln then asks his staff to “step out a moment.” After they leave he “turns on Mary with strange savagery.”
Abe: Damn you! Damn you for taking every opportunity you can to make a public fool of me—and yourself! It’s bad enough, God knows, when you act like that in the privacy of our own home. But here—in front of people! You’re not to do that again. Do you hear me? You’re never to do that again!
(Mary is so aghast at this outburst that her hysterical temper vanishes, giving way to blank terror.)
Mary: (in a faint, strained voice) Abe! You cursed at me. Do you realize what you did? You cursed at me.
(Abe has the impulse to curse at her again, but with considerable effort, he controls it.)
Abe: (in a strained voice) I lost my temper, Mary. And I’m sorry for it. But I still think you should go home rather than endure the strain of this—this Death Watch.
(She stares at him, uncomprehendingly, and then turns and goes to the door.)
Mary: (at the door) This is the night I dreamed about, when I was a child, when I was an excited young girl, and all the gay young gentlemen of Springfield were courting me, and I fell in love with the least likely of them. This is the night when I’m waiting to hear that my husband has become President of the United States. And even if he does—it’s ruined, for me. It’s too late . . .
(She opens the door and goes out. Abe looks after her, anguished . . .)
Also of interest: A humorist imagines seeing Lincoln in his Springfield home after his election victory, in “Artemus Ward on His Visit to Abe Lincoln,” on the Story of the Week site.

Related LOA works: The Lincoln Bicentennial Collection (3-book boxed set, including The Lincoln Anthology, which excerpts the full Election Night scene from Abe Lincoln in Illinois)

Thursday, November 4, 2010

C. K. Williams, heir to Whitman, ponders prayer

Even though he turns seventy-four today, C. K. Williams continues avidly to ply his craft, writing new poems and inspiring listeners with his readings. In October the online-only The Manchester Review published “Writers Writing Dying” and Jonathan Timbers just blogged about the impact of a recent Williams reading.

Charles Simic once described Williams as “a poet of rundown neighborhoods, greasy spoons, gas stations, semi-abandoned children, Vietnam veterans in wheelchairs, miserable women married to unhappy men.” Anne Sexton called him “the Fellini of the written word.” Repair (1999) won the Pulitzer Prize and The Singing (2003) the National Book Award.

Williams is best known for his long line, so long it frequently runs past the margin of the page. Reviewing With Ignorance in 1977, James Atlas commented: “The lines are so long that the book had to be published in a wide-page format, like an art catalogue.” Yet this expansive line suits Williams’s penchant for philosophical investigations and qualifications.

Harold Bloom selected “The Vessel” from Williams’s 1992 collection A Dream of Mind for inclusion in American Religious Poems, an anthology that identifies Walt Whitman as “our prime shaman of the American Religion.” In “On Whitman: Mortality,” Williams affirms the importance of Whitman in the tradition of spirituality: 
... when I give myself over to Leaves of Grass, I come marvelously close to having something like an intuition of deathlessness, an experience that blossoms out of the fusion of that primitive instinct to go on forever, with the poetic force of the matter of Whitman’s song.
In “The Vessel” Williams explores and questions the meaning of prayer even as he tries to pray:
I’m trying to pray; one of the voices of my mind says, “God,
     please help me to do this,”
but another voice intervenes: “How conceive God’s interest
     would be to help you believe?”
Commenting on the inspiration for “The Vessel” in Jewish American Poetry: Poems, Commentary, and Reflections, Williams wrote:
But then comes this other thing, this prayer-thing, which seems in some absurd way to have nothing to do with anything else, but still brought with it moments, though I think perhaps they’re all over now, when I would long towards the god I knew had to hover out beyond questions of theodicy, beyond issues of theology: I called on him to resolve that bleak, obsessive question the yes-no mind of the mortal has to ask because we can never have a yes without a perhaps or a no; the question of why existence at all, and if so, why then the twice why of the nonexistence of being dead?
Of related interest:
Related LOA works: American Religious Poems: An Anthology by Harold Bloom; Walt Whitman: Poetry and Prose

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

The famous denizens of Patchin Place: “Are ya still alive, Djuna?”

Patchin Place with Jefferson M... Digital ID: 1219158. New York Public Library
Patchin Place with Jefferson Market
in background. Photo by
Berenice Abbott (November 24, 1937).
Yesterday, author Emma Straub wrote for the Paris Review blog about her former method of aparment-hunting: searching for locations where influential authors had lived or found inspiration. One of her old homes was the storied Patchin Place in Manhattan, near 10th Street at Sixth Avenue and across from the Jefferson Market Library.
Of the ten row houses, only #4 is still intact as a single-family house, and was e. e. cummings’s home for forty years. . . . My neighbors were an elderly couple who argued on the front steps (one memorable fight centered on the fact that the husband had taken the subway all the way to the airport before realizing he’d left his wife behind) and a woman who watched daytime TV at the loudest volume possible. Slightly more glamorous former residents of Patchin Place included Djuna Barnes, Theodore Dreiser, and Marlon Brando.
Straub’s affectionate and humorous reminiscences call to mind the remarkable chapter on Djuna Barnes in Republic of Dreams: Greenwich Village, the American Bohemia, 1910–1960, by the late Ross Wetzsteon. Barnes (most famous for her classic modernist novel, Nightwood) lived as an ornery recluse on Patchin Place for over four decades, until her death in 1982 at the age of 90. Her intimidating reputation was the same with famous visitors and random strangers alike; one often-told story features Carson McCullers bursting into tears when Barnes screamed at her to “go the hell away!” She terrified local business owners; once an unwary store clerk, asking for identification for her check payment, received the shouted response, “Identification? I was a friend of T. S. Eliot and James Joyce!” Weeks would go by, however, when hardly anyone would see her, and her neighbors reported hearing Estlin Cummings (more popularly known as e.e.) yell across the courtyard from the window of his own apartment, “Are ya still alive, Djuna?

As for Emma Straub, although her best friend moved into the other apartment on the floor of her Patchin Place abode, neither camaraderie nor literary “osmosis” could outweigh “finding a cockroach on your neck in the middle of the night” (not to mention the promising adventure of sharing a place with her new boyfriend). Now she lives in Brooklyn, far away from “streets not already codified in someone else’s language, at least in no publication I’ve found.”

Familial Postscript: This past weekend, Emma’s father, best-selling author Peter Straub, garnered two World Fantasy Awards: a Lifetime Achievement Award and the honors for Best Anthology, for editing the two-volume Library of America collection, American Fantastic Tales: Terror and the Uncanny: From Poe to Now.

Related LOA Volumes: Writing New York: A Literary Anthology (includes Djuna Barnes’s “Come Into the Roof Garden, Maud”)

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

What All Souls’ Day meant for Edith Wharton

All Souls’ Day (November 2) had a special meaning for Edith Wharton. In 1935 she dedicated her memoir, A Backyard Glance, to “the friends who every year on All Souls’ Night come and sit with me by the fire.” Remembering dear ones was an annual custom for Wharton. Writing on All Souls’ night in 1921 she led off her litany of “all my dead” with her childhood nurse, “my darling Doyley,” and included Henry James and Howard Sturgis.

Over the course of her life Wharton moved from having a phobic terror of an “undefinable menace” to becoming one of literature’s most accomplished practitioners of the ghost tale. In her autobiographical fragment “Life and I” she recalls how as a nine-year-old recovering from a bout of typhoid fever she was given a “robber-tale” which proved “perilous reading” and brought on a serious relapse:
When I came to myself, it was to enter a world haunted by formless horrors. I had been naturally a fearless child; now I lived in a state of chronic fear. Fear of what? I cannot say—& even at the time, I was never able to formulate my terror. It was like some dark undefinable menace, forever dogging my steps, lurking, and threatening. . . How long the traces of my illness lasted may be judged by the fact that, till I was twenty-seven or eight, I could not sleep in the room with a book containing a ghost-story, & that I have frequently had to burn books of this kind, because it frightened me to know that they were downstairs in the library!
By 1909, when she wrote her poem “All Souls,” she had clearly recovered. Two lovers tryst among the graves in the churchyard:
And where should a man bring his sweet to woo
But here, where such hundreds were lovers too?
Where lie the dead lips that thirst to kiss,
The empty hands that their fellows miss,
Where the maid and her lover, from sere to green,
Sleep bed by bed, with the worm between?
For it’s turn of the year and All Souls’ night,
When the dead can hear and the dead have sight.
“All Souls’” was also the title of her very last story, completed in February 1937—just six months before her death. In her preface to Ghosts, the posthumously published collection including the story, she wrote, “Ghosts, to make themselves manifest, require two conditions abhorrent to the modern mind: silence and continuity.” Although the narrator claims “this isn’t exactly a ghost story,” “All Souls’,” with its focus on an injured elderly woman alone in a large mansion on All Souls’ night, becomes a masterful study of silence:
Silence – more silence! It seemed to be piling itself up like the snow on the roof and in the gutters. Silence. How many people that she knew had any idea what silence was – and how loud it sounded when you really listened to it?
Seventy-five and in poor health, Wharton poured a litany of anxieties into her last story, as her biographer Hermione Lee illuminates:
The title was a private reference to her long annual habit of sitting alone, remembering her dead . . . But whereas in Wharton’s own life these vigils were consolatory, the story is one of pain, loneliness and terror. Her long-vanished life at The Mount, the loss of her dear old servants, her dread of helplessness in old age, her experience of solitude and illness, her horror of what was happening in the world, and, deepest down, what she never spoke of, her fear of death, are all felt in this last story.
Of related interest:
Related LOA works: Edith Wharton: Novels, Novellas, Stories, and Other Writings (the five volumes include A Backward Glance, the poem "All Souls," the story "All Souls'," and the biographical fragment "Life and I")
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