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Thursday, December 30, 2010

Celebrate the centennial of Paul Bowles, author, composer, translator

Today is the 100th birthday of Paul Bowles, expatriate writer, composer, and translator. For the last fifty-two years of his life Bowles lived in Tangier, Morocco, with his wife, writer Jane Bowles. Jane Bowles died in 1973, Paul in 1999.

In the opening to his essay “’Without Stopping’: The Orient as Liminal Space in Paul Bowles,” Timothy Weiss encapsulates the range of Bowles’s achievements:
Bowles is unique among North American authors, and perhaps among twentieth-century Western artists, for he distinguished himself not only as a writer of fiction but also as a composer of piano concertos, sonatas, opera, ballets, film scores, and incidental music for the theatre. During the course of these artistic pursuits Bowles also became the United States’ pre-eminent expatriate, travelling and sojourning in Europe, Africa, Asia, and Central America, and living in Tangier, Morocco, for a period of more than fifty years. In his fiction and travel writings about North Africa (the Maghreb), Bowles brought a new perspective from the “periphery” to American literature and contributed to bringing international attention to Maghrebine cultures by way of his numerous translations from Moghrebi into English and his collaborations with local writers and artists.
Gore Vidal, in his introduction to the 1979 edition of Collected Stories: 1939–1976, celebrated Bowles’s story-telling:
His short stories are among the best ever written by an American . . . As a short story writer, he has had few equals in the second half of the twentieth century.
In 2000 Brian T. Edwards sought to assess Bowles’s impact on Moroccan culture and singled out one of his achievements for praise:
Bowles's translation projects may be his most lasting legacy in Morocco. Mohamed El Gahs, writing in Libération, notes that though Bowles was clear that he didn't write for a Moroccan audience, he did bring attention to Moroccan authors. "Perhaps if we must pay homage to this man," El Gahs writes grudgingly, "it would be for his capacity to give a push to the vocations of others while sacrificing his own." In forwarding Moroccan narrative, Bowles's translations represent a significant turn away from the colonialist tone of his earlier writing and demonstrate the deep respect he developed for the intricacies of the Moroccan voice. For a novelist, that is no mean tribute.
Nomadics’s post today also applauds Bowles’s efforts to promote the work of Moroccan writers.

Also of interest:
  • Yesterday Regina Weinrich, co-producer and director of Paul Bowles: The Complete Outsider, posted a commemoration of Bowles.
  • Earlier this month Geoff Wisner devoted a week to posts about Bowles. See, in particular, Bowles on New York City.
  • Story of the Week recently featured “All Parrots Speak, an article by Bowles about his adventures with parrots.
  • Last month The New York Times reported the rediscovery of a print of “You Are Not I,” Sara Driver’s 1983 film of a Bowles short story.
  • Check out the authorized Paul Bowles site for more about the Centennial celebrations.
  • Watch a clip (preceded by a brief advertisement) from Paul Bowles: The Complete Outsider:

Related LOA works: Paul Bowles: The Sheltering Sky, Let It Come Down, The Spider's House; Paul Bowles: Collected Stories and Later Writings

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Mat Johnson’s Pym twists anew a controversial Edgar Allan Poe adventure tale

It looks like another Edgar Allan Poe work is getting an update. Poe’s only completed novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket (1838), relates the adventures of a young stowaway on a New England whaling ship as he endures shipwreck, mutiny, and even cannibalism among the islands of the South Seas. Pym shares his adventures with another sailor, Dirk Peters, “son of an Indian squaw . . . and a fur trader.”
Peters himself was one of the most ferocious-looking men I ever beheld. He was short in stature, not more than four feet eight inches high, but his limbs were of Herculean mould. His hands, especially, were so enormously thick and broad as hardly to retain a human shape. His arms, as well as legs, were bowed in the most singular manner, and appeared to possess no flexibility whatever. His head was equally deformed, being of immense size, with an indentation on the crown (like that on the head of most negroes), and entirely bald.
The novel occasioned charges of racism for passages like the one above and for Poe’s depiction of a tribe of black islanders who, after being initially friendly, turn savage and slaughter the crew of Pym’s boat. In Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, Toni Morrison wrote that “no early American writer is more important to the concept of American Africanism than Poe.”

How remarkable then that Mat Johnson, James Baldwin fellow and author of the acclaimed graphic novel Incognegro, should make Chris Jaynes, a literature professor who prefers teaching Poe to Ralph Ellison, the central character of his new novel Pym. Jaynes uncovers the lost manuscript of Pym’s companion, “The True and Interesting Narrative of Dirk Peters. Coloured Man. As Written by Himself.” To authenticate the account Jaynes organizes an expedition to retrace Peters and Pym’s route to the Antarctic and, through a comical chain of events, encounters Pym himself.

Pym thus joins Death Looks Down (1945) by Amelia Reynolds Long, The Gold Bug Variations (1991) by Richard Powers, Nevermore (1994) by William Hjortsberg, Nevermore (1999) and four other Poe mysteries by Harold Schechter (editor of the LOA’s True Crime anthology), The Poe Shadow (2002) by Matthew Pearl, In the Shadow of Edgar Allan Poe (2003) by Jonathan Scott Fuqua, Entombed (2006) by Linda Fairstein, and The Pale Blue Eye (2006) by Louis Bayard, among countless other works by American writers, in reimagining Poe and his tales in new forms.

Related LOA works: The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe (in two volumes)

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

“Was the Tea Party even such a good idea the first time around?”

Caleb Crain opens “Tea and Antipathy,” his recent essay in The New Yorker on the economic motivations for the Boston Tea Party, by revisiting Nathaniel Hawthorne’s vivid story about anti-loyalist fervor, “My Kinsmen, Major Molineux.” In the tale the mob, which tars and feathers a rich elderly merchant, is led by a rider whose face is painted as if divided in two: “One side of the face blazed an intense red, while the other was black as midnight.”

Crain argues that much of what we know about the original tea parties may have more than one side.
Spend a little time with the venality, misinformation, hysteria, and violence that led up to the Revolution and the picture becomes murkier.
Historians who “follow the money,” Crain contends, have found evidence of extensive smuggling among colonial merchants. And, as John Tyler writes in Smugglers and Patriots, “illicit traders were highly influential among political radicals.” The impetus for the climactic December dumping was when Parliament restored the tea tax refund and empowered the East India Company to unload its surplus tea directly on the American market, rather than through merchant middlemen:
With the new measures, the price of legal tea was expected to halve. Consumers would save, Parliament wouldn’t lose quite so much on its bailout of the East India Company, and smuggling would be driven out of business.
Threatened, Boston’s merchants had to act:
Not only might smuggling cease to be profitable but, if the experiment of direct importation were to succeed, it might cut them out of the supply chains for other commodities as well. Clearly, it was time for Sam Adams and William Molineux to rile up the public again.
Did precolonial merchants conspire to create the fiction that England was determined to enslave the colonies? Crain concludes by quoting T. H. Breen, author of American Insurgents, American Patriots:
“No evidence survives showing that the king or his ministers contemplated a complex plan to destroy American rights,” yet a significant proportion of the American populace became convinced that this was the case.
Certainly one of the more influential believers was George Washington. Although he initially was troubled by the Tea Party, subsequent actions by the British changed his mind, as this exasperated letter to Bryan Fairfax on July 4, 1774, attests:
As to your political sentiments, I would heartily join you in them, so far as relates to a humble and dutiful petition to the throne, provided there was the most distant hope of success. But have we not tried this already? . . . And to what end? . . . Does it not appear, as clear as the sun in its meridian brightness, that there is a regular, systematic plan formed to fix the right and practice of taxation upon us? . . . Is not the attack upon the liberty and property of the people of Boston, before restitution of the loss to the India Company was demanded, a plain and self-evident proof of what they are aiming at?
Crain’s blog provides additional documentation for his article’s argument. The blog Boston 1775 found his notes for the article “even better than the original” and anyone seeking additional reading will enjoy Boston 1775’s extensive research into the history of tea parties.

Related LOA works: Nathaniel Hawthorne: Tales and Sketches; George Washington: Writings

Monday, December 27, 2010

The poem for a winter storm: Snow-Bound by John Greenleaf Whittier

As The Two Palaverers, Recollecting Nemasket, and IM Blogn remind us, few things resemble life in times past than being trapped indoors during a winter snowstorm. John Greenleaf Whittier wrote the classic account of the experience in his 759-line winter idyll Snow-Bound, published as a book in February 1866 and an instant bestseller. James Russell Lowell immediately appreciated its evocative nostalgia: “It describes scenes and manners which the rapid changes of our national habits will soon have made as remote from us as if they were foreign or ancient.”

In the poem a middle-aged narrator recaptures what he endured as a ten-year-old boy trapped by a two-day blizzard with his family and friends in a country farmhouse.
What matter how the night behaved?
What matter how the north-wind raved?
Blow high, blow low, not all its snow
Could quench our hearth-fire’s ruddy glow.
How did they pass the time? As Whittier explains in his headnote to the 1888 edition of the poem:
In my boyhood, in our lonely farm-house, we had scanty sources of information, few books and only a small weekly newspaper. Our only annual was the Almanac. Under such circumstances story-telling was a necessary resource in the long winter evenings. My father when a young man had traversed the wilderness to Canada, and could tell us of his adventures with Indians and wild beasts, and of his soujourn in the French villages. My uncle was ready with his record of hunting and fishing and, it must be confessed, with stories which he at least half believed, of witchcraft and apparitions. My mother, who was born in the Indian-haunted region of Somersworth, New Hampshire . . . told us of the inroads of the savages. . . 
Most curious and comical of the poem’s “inmates” is the “not unfeared, half-welcome guest.” Whittier identifies this neighboring boarder in his headnote as:
Harriet Livermore, daughter of Judge Livermore, of New Hampshire, a young woman of fine natural ability, enthusiastic, eccentric, with slight control over her violent temper . . . She was equally ready to exhort in school-house prayer-meetings and dance in a Washington ball-room, while her father was a member of Congress. . . A friend of mine found her, when quite an old woman, wandering in Syria with a tribe of Arabs, who with the Oriental notion that madness is inspiration, accepted her as their prophetess and leader.
Whittier’s royalties were ten cents a copy and he ultimately collected more than $10,000 from sales of the bound volume of the poem.

Other classic winter poems:

“The Snow Man” by Wallace Stevens
“The Snow Storm” by Ralph Waldo Emerson
“Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” by Robert Frost

Also of interest:
Related LOA works: James Greenleaf Whittier: Selected Poems; American Poetry: The Nineteenth Century, volume one: Freneau to Whitman (includes the complete text of Snow-Bound and eighteen other poems by Whittier)

Thursday, December 23, 2010

The logic of metaphor: Hart Crane explains “At Melville’s Tomb” to Harriet Monroe

Scarriet’s recent post about Timothy Donnelly and Donnelly’s essay, “A Match Made in Poetry: Yvor Winters vs. Hart Crane,” recalls a famous exchange of letters between Poetry’s founding editor Harriet Monroe and Hart Crane almost a century ago.

Monroe (whose birthday is today) founded Poetry in 1912 and served as its editor until her death in 1936. Her “Open Door” policy—to print the best poetry written, in whatever style, genre, or approach—led Poetry to publish poems that ranged from Joyce Kilmer’s “Trees” to Carl Sandburg’s “Chicago” to Wallace Stevens’s “Sunday Morning” (the stanzas of which Monroe notoriously convinced Stevens to rearrange).

A poet herself, Monroe liked to engage writers in lively exchanges about the meaning of their work. One of the most memorable occurred in 1926 when she queried new contributor Hart Crane on his submission, “At Melville’s Tomb”:
Take me for a hard-boiled, unimaginative, unpoetic reader, and tell me how dice can bequeath an embassy (or anything else); and how a calyx (of death’s bounty or anything else) can give back a scattered chapter, livid hieroglyph; and how, if it does, such a portent can be wound in corridors (of shells or anything else). . . . I find your image of frosted eyes lifting altars difficult to visualize. Nor do compass, quadrant and sextant contrive tides, they merely record them, I believe.
Monroe’s query drew from Crane what Colm Tóibín has called “one of [Crane’s] most detailed and useful explanations of what his lines actually meant, while making it clear that their meaning, while concrete and direct, was a dull business indeed compared to what we might call their force.” Crane wrote:
The nuances of feeling and observation in a poem may well call for certain liberties which you claim the poet has no right to take. I am simply making the claim that the poet does have that authority, and that to deny it is to limit the scope of the medium so considerably as to outlaw some of the richest genius of the past.
Crane cited examples from William Blake and T. S. Eliot:
You ask me how compass, quadrant, and sextant “contrive” tides. I ask you how Eliot can possibly believe that “Every street lamp that I pass beats like a fatalistic drum!” . . . It is of course understood that a street-lamp simply can’t beat with a sound like a drum; but it often happens that images, themselves totally dissociated, when joined in the circuit of a particular emotion located with specific relation to both of them, conduce to great vividness and accuracy of statement in defining that emotion.
Crane then addressed in turn Monroe’s specific questions:
Dice bequeath an embassy, in the first place, by being ground (in this connection only, of course) in little cubes from the bones of drowned men by the action of the sea, and are finally thrown up on the sand, having “numbers” but no identification. These being the bones of dead men who never completed their voyage, it seem legitimate to refer to them as the only surviving evidence of certain messages undelivered, mute evidence of certain things, experiences that the dead mariners might have had to deliver. Dice as a symbol of chance and circumstance is also implied.
As Ron Rosenbaum wrote in his tribute to this exchange in 1997 “we should all be grateful [Monroe] had the curiosity and the temerity to draw Crane out so eloquently.” Monroe published “At Melville’s Tomb,” along with her exchange with Crane, in the October 1926 issue of Poetry.

Related LOA works: American Poetry: The Twentieth Century, volume one: Henry Adams to Dorothy Parker (includes Monroe’s “Radio”); Hart Crane: Complete Poems and Selected Letters (includes Crane’s letter to Harriet Monroe)

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Thomas Wentworth Higginson visits Emily Dickinson, “my partially cracked poetess at Amherst,” for the first time

Brenda Wineapple wonders in White Heat: The Friendship of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson if Higginson’s extra-literary background as minister, ultra-abolitionist, feminist, and soldier made him the most incongruous correspondent for the hermit of Amherst—or the most inevitable.

Higginson (whose birthday is today) was a regular contributor to The Atlantic Monthly; his essays ranged across flowers, birds, women’s rights, physical fitness, and abolition. In the April 1862 issue his “Letter to a Young Contributor” described every editor’s ambition “to take the lead in bringing forth a new genius.”

Later that month Higginson received an unsigned six-line note that began “MR HIGGINSON, — Are you too deeply occupied to say if my Verse is alive?” Enclosed with the note were four poems: “Safe in their Alabaster Chambers,” “The nearest Dream recedes unrealized,” “We play at Paste,” and “I’ll tell you how the Sun rose. ” Inside another smaller envelope was a card signed Emily Dickinson.

Higginson had never read poems like this before. He found them too strange to publish but he was eager to learn more about the author. He quickly responded with a few small criticisms and a host of questions—and began a correspondence that would last the next twenty-four years. During that time he received hundreds of poems (Dickinson otherwise shared her work only with her brother’s wife), yet he never published, nor suggested she publish, any during her lifetime. After her death he collaborated with Mabel Loomis Todd to edit and publish the controversial (and best-selling) first collection of Dickinson’s poetry—controversial because of their extensive editing of her distinctive punctuation and spelling.

We are indebted to Higginson for his rare account of a personal interview with the reclusive poet. After eight years of corresponding, they finally met in her parlor on August 16, 1870, as he recounted in The Atlantic Monthly twenty-one years later:
After a little delay, I heard an extremely faint and pattering footstep like that of a child, in the hall, and in glided, almost noiselessly, a plain, shy little person, the face without a single good feature, but with eyes, as she herself said, “like the sherry the guest leaves in the glass,” and with smooth bands of reddish chestnut hair. She had a quaint and nun-like look, as if she might be a German canoness of some religious order, whose prescribed garb was white piqué, with a blue net worsted shawl. She came toward me with two day-lilies, which she put in a childlike way into my hand, saying softly, under her breath, “These are my introduction,” and adding, also, under her breath, in childlike fashion, “Forgive me if I am frightened; I never see strangers, and hardly know what I say.”
But she quickly found her voice:
She went on talking constantly and saying, in the midst of narrative, things quaint and aphoristic. “Is it oblivion or absorption when things pass from our minds?” “Truth is such a rare thing, it is delightful to tell it” . . . “How do most people live without any thoughts?” . . . Or this crowning extravaganza: “If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can ever warm me, I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only ways I know it. Is there any other way?”
His 1891 recollection omitted two memorable lines he wrote to his wife shortly after the meeting:
I never was with any one who drained my nerve power so much. Without touching me, she drew from me. I am glad not to live near her.
Also of interest:
Related LOA works: American Poetry: The Nineteenth Century, volume two: Melville to Stickney, American Indian Poetry, Folk Songs and Spirituals (includes 172 poems by Emily Dickinson); American Writers at Home (includes a chapter on Emily Dickinson’s Homestead)

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

F. Scott Fitzgerald dies of a heart attack in Hollywood seventy years ago today

In 1940 F. Scott Fitzgerald was in his fourth year working as a screenwriter in Hollywood, although with fewer assignments and less pay. He hoped the novel he was working on, The Love of the Last Tycoon, would revive his literary reputation. Few people were still reading him. His August 1940 royalty statement from Scribner’s reported sales of forty copies of his works (including seven copies of The Great Gatsby and nine of Tender Is the Night) for a total payment of $13.13.

The writer he introduced to his editor Maxwell Perkins in 1925 was the current rage. Ernest Hemingway’s latest novel, For Whom the Bell Tolls, would sell more than 270,000 copies in its first year. Fitzgerald had received a copy inscribed “To Scott with affection and esteem Ernest” and responded with a note on November 8:
Congratulations on your new book’s great success. I envy you like hell and there is no irony in this. I always liked Dostoeifski (sic) with his wide appeal more than any other European—and I envy you the time it will give you to do what you want.
Fitzgerald’s notebooks record a different opinion: “a thoroughly superficial book which has all the profundity of Rebecca.” The Love of the Last Tycoon would be quite different:
I want to write scenes that are frightening and inimitable. I don’t want to be as intelligible to my contemporaries as Ernest who as Gertrude Stein said, is bound for the Museums. I am sure that I am far enough ahead to have some small immortality if I can keep well.
That same month Fitzgerald received a scare when he had a mild heart attack in Schwab’s Drug Store on Sunset Boulevard. His doctor ordered him to stay in bed. Fitzgerald was then living on the top floor of a three-story walkup. To avoid the stairs, he moved into the ground-floor apartment of his lover, gossip columnist Sheilah Graham.

His estranged wife Zelda was then living with her mother in Montgomery, Alabama. Fitzgerald wrote her weekly. His December 13 letter read:
The novel is about three quarters through and I think I can go on till January 12 without doing any stories or going back to the studio. I couldn’t go back to the studio anyhow in my present condition as I have to spend most of my time in bed where I write on a wooden desk. . . The cardiogram shows that my heart is repairing itself but it will be a gradual process that will take some months. It is odd that the heart is one of the organs that does repair itself.
As biographer Matthew Bruccoli recounts in Some Sort of Epic Grandeur, Fitzgerald suffered a dizzy spell following the premiere of a new film he and Graham attended on December 20. Because his physician was coming to see him the next afternoon, Fitzgerald chose not to see a doctor. Reading about the German-Italian pact in the newspapers the next morning, Fitzgerald told Graham that he’d like to cover the war from Europe after he had completed his novel. “Ernest won’t have that field all to himself, then.” Moments later he started from his chair, clutched the mantelpiece and fell to the floor. Graham called the fire department. Fitzgerald was pronounced dead at 5:15 p.m. of coronary occlusion. He had completed the first draft of five of the projected nine chapters of his new novel. He was forty-four years old.

Also of interest:
Related LOA works: F. Scott Fitzgerald: Novels and Stories 1920–1922

Monday, December 20, 2010

South Carolina secedes from the United States 150 years ago today

Edward Ball reminds us in yesterday’s New York Times that when 169 members of the South Carolina legislature voted unanimously on December 20, 1860, to secede from the United States, the reasons they offered had more to do with slavery than with “states’ rights.” The vote was a swift reaction to the election in November of Abraham Lincoln, who would not take office until March 4, 1861. The initial Ordinance of Secession was just 158 words, but within four days the legislature issued a more detailed declaration:
The Constitution of the United States, in its fourth Article, provides as follows:

"No person held to service or labor in one State, under the laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in consequence of any law or regulation therein, be discharged from such service or labor, but shall be delivered up, on claim of the party to whom such service or labor may be due."

This stipulation was so material to the compact, that without it that compact would not have been made. . . The same article of the Constitution stipulates also for rendition by the several States of fugitives from justice from the other States. . . . For many years these laws were executed. But an increasing hostility on the part of the non-slaveholding States to the institution of slavery, has led to a disregard of their obligations, and the laws of the General Government have ceased to effect the objects of the Constitution.
But the failure of the northern states to return fugitive slaves wasn’t the only problem:
A geographical line has been drawn across the Union, and all the States north of that line have united in the election of a man to the high office of President of the United States, whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery.
For the reasons detailed, the “People of South Carolina” declared that their union with “the other States of North America is dissolved.” South Carolina hoped to spark a chain of secessions throughout the south, and seven other states seceded before Lincoln took office.

Also of interest:
Related LOA volumes: The Civil War: The First Year Told By Those Who Lived It

Friday, December 17, 2010

Whitman’s first thoughts on Lincoln

Today on The New York Times’s Disunion blog, which tracks the day-by-day events of the Civil War, writer Adam Goodheart describes his recent visit to the Library of Congress. There he perused Walt Whitman’s notebooks and found, in the entries dating from 1860–61, Whitman’s first thoughts on Abraham Lincoln.

In one entry, Whitman conjures a mythic Lincoln to mirror his hopes for the perfect President: “I would be much pleased to see some heroic, shrewd, fully-informed, healthy-bodied, middle-aged, beard-faced American blacksmith or boatman come down from the West across the Alleghanies [sic], and walk into the Presidency, dressed in a clean suit of working attire, and with the tan all over his face, breast, and arms; I would certainly vote for that sort of man, possessing the due requirements, before any other candidate.” (Last week on Reader’s Almanac, we explored the significance of Lincoln’s new beard for American letters). The Disunion blog has posted some remarkable scanned images from the inside of Whitman’s notebook.

Also of interest:
  • For more Civil War multimedia, visit the Library of Congress’s Flickr page to see a collection of recently scanned “Civil War Faces,” ambrotype and tin type portraits of Civil War soldiers.
  • The Library of America is getting ready to publish The Civil War: The First Year Told By Those Who Lived It, the first of a four-volume set collecting letters and diaries from the heat of battle, along with speeches, articles, poems, songs, military reports, legal opinions, and memoirs. The contents of the volume were posted  yesterday on our website, the books will arrive from the printer in early January and will be available in bookstores on February 3.

John Greenleaf Whittier, Muriel Rukeyser on poetry’s role in protest

Adam O’Riordan’s Guardian blog post this week, “What’s poetry’s role in protest politics?,” prompted a cascade of comments. He asks:
At times of upheaval and unrest, is poetry’s role to fan the flames or cool tempers? Down the centuries it has proved remarkably effective at both.
O’Riordan cites well-known examples of activist poetry, like Percy Bysshe Shelley “The Masque of Anarchy” and Gil Scott-Heron’s “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” and contrasts those with tonic calls for calm like Richard Wilbur’s “To the Student Strikers.” Or, O’Riordan wonders, is poetry perhaps better suited to document “the aftermath of great events” as Sean O’Brien did in Cousin Coat or Ken Smith in Wormwood and Wild Root.

American poetry has its own extensive tradition of poetic activism and historical reclamation. Just this week we celebrated the birthdays of two exemplars.

Readers anesthetized by having to memorize “Snow-Bound” did not get to experience all that John Greenleaf Whittier was. As Brenda Wineapple writes in her introduction to John Greenleaf Whittier: Selected Poems, “Whittier often wrote better, more courageously, and with more beauty than we knew.”

A self-taught versifier, working farmer, devout Quaker, and activist editor, Whittier (whose birthday is today) believed slavery the scourge of the country and joined the northern anti-slavery movement in his early twenties. His reward was often to be pelted with stones, mud, sticks and rotten eggs by mobs in New England as he campaigned with anti-slavery activists. More than almost any other nineteenth-century poet, Whittier strove to combine politics with poetry. As Wineapple notes, his poems “were meant to be read, sung, shouted, or printed on broadsides.”

Wineapple admits that Whittier’s earliest efforts could be “diffuse” and open to misinterpretation. The historian Perry Miller characterized “Toussaint l’Ouverture” (1833), an account of the 1794 slave uprising in Haiti, as “probably one of the least useful contributions to the abolitionist cause” because its brutal depiction of the rape of a French planter’s wife could be construed as an argument against, not for, emancipation. Other Whittier poems, however, stirred the soul. “Song of Slaves in the Desert” dramatizes the plight of a dispossessed people who cry the refrain, “Where are we going, Rubee?”

A century later Muriel Rukeyser was no less an activist. She was just twenty when she traveled to Scottsboro, Alabama, to report on the nine African American youths convicted of raping two white women (a decision later overturned by the Supreme Court). She was jailed there for fraternizing with other journalists across racial lines and ended up contracting typhoid fever. Her trip in 1936 to Gauley Bridge in West Virginia, the site of the (then) worst industrial disaster in American history, charged “The Book of the Dead” (1938) with an urgent mix of investigative journalism, lyricism, and a call to arms:
What three things can never be done?
Forget.     Keep Silent.      Stand alone.
The hills of glass, the fatal brilliant plain.
Two lines from Rukeyser’s poem “Käthe Kollwitz” gave Louise Bernikow the title for her pathbreaking 1974 anthology The World Split Open: Four Centuries of Women Poets in England and America:
What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life?
    The world would split open
Also of interest:
Related LOA works: John Greenleaf Whittier: Selected Poems; Muriel Rukeyser: Selected Poems

Thursday, December 16, 2010

What Philip K. Dick learned about women from Ursula K. Le Guin

In a September talk at Portland Arts & Lectures Ursula K. Le Guin offered the oeuvre of Philip K. Dick as an example of how “you can’t judge quality by genre.” What she didn’t mention was her own influence on Dick’s writing—and his influence on her. Le Guin has long been a vocal advocate for Dick’s work and has acknowledged that her 1971 novel The Lathe of Heaven was strongly influenced by Dick’s sixties novels.

But in 1981 Le Guin and Dick (who would have turned eighty-two today—less than a year older than Le Guin) had a bit of a contretemps when writer Michael Bishop wrote Dick and quoted some disparaging comments Le Guin had made in a talk at Emory University about Dick’s obsession with “unresolvable metaphysical matters,” his sanity, and his portrayal of women. Dick responded by publishing a broadside in Science Fiction Review. Le Guin apologized in the same issue for upsetting Dick—but reaffirmed her critique of Dick’s women, especially in the novels preceding VALIS:
The women were symbols—whether goddess, bitch, hag, witch—but there weren’t any women left, and there used to be women in his books.
As Lawrence Sutin details in Divine Invasions: A Life of Philip K. Dick, the two writers managed to patch up their difficulties through private letters—and Dick took Le Guin's criticism about his women to heart. The result:
In May 1981, upon completing The Transmigration of Timothy Archer, with its loving portrait of Angel Archer, Phil would write to Le Guin in joy and triumph: “This is the happiest moment of my life, Ursula, to meet face-to-face this bright, scrappy, witty, educated, tender woman . . . and had it not been for your analysis of my writing I probably never would have discovered her."
In a Library of America interview about Philip K. Dick, Jonathan Lethem shared Dick’s enthusiasm for Angel Archer:
Certainly the narrator is one of his greatest characters, bar none, and the fact that she’s female is a real gift for those readers uncomfortable with Dick’s depictions of women even in some of his finest works (there are many of us).
Also of interest:
Related LOA works: The Philip K. Dick Collection (3-book boxed set)

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, celebrated by Edmund Wilson, Harold Bloom, and Bones

Given his concern about the state of current literary culture in his recent review of T. S. Eliot’s letters, Joseph Epstein may be comforted to learn that Eliot is still very much in the zeitgeist. As The TV Watchtower recently reported, the December 9 episode of the television show Bones had Dr. Adit Gadh quoting from The Waste Land: “I will show you fear in a handful of dust.” Dr. Gadh went on to explain:
We do not actually fear death—we fear that no one will notice our absence—that we will disappear without a trace.
American readers discovered Eliot’s quoted words eighty-eight years ago today when Boni & Liveright published The Waste Land. Within a month of publication Edmund Wilson acclaimed the poem in The Dial:
. . . the publication of his long poem, The Waste Land, confirms the opinion which we had begun gradually to cherish, that Mr. Eliot, with all his limitations, is one of our only authentic poets.
Wilson itemized rather severely what many considered “his limitations”:
. . . that he depends too much upon books and borrows too much from other men . . . that he does not feel enough to be a poet and that the emotions of longing and disgust which he does have belong essentially to a delayed adolescence . . . [that] he has no capacity for life.
Yet Wilson judged these deficits counterbalanced:
Well: all these objections are founded on realities, but they are outweighed by one major fact—the fact that Mr. Eliot is a poet. . . he feels intensely and with distinction and speaks naturally in beautiful verse. . . I doubt whether there is a single other poem of equal length by a contemporary American which displays so high and so varied a mastery of English verse. The poem is—in spite of its lack of structural unity—simply one triumph after another . . .
Harold Bloom has called The Waste Land “indisputably the most influential poem written in English in [the twentieth] century.”

Not everyone has shared Wilson and Bloom’s enthusiasm. Adrian Slather retells the story of when Eliot read his poem to the royal family during World War II. The Queen Mother later recalled the experience:
We had this rather lugubrious man in a suit, and he read a poem... I think it was called "The Desert." And first the girls [Elizabeth and Margaret] got the giggles and then I did and then even the King.
Also of interest:
Related LOA works: American Poetry: The Twentieth Century, volume one: Henry Adams to Dorothy Parker (includes The Waste Land and thirteen other poems by T. S. Eliot); Edmund Wilson: Literary Essays and Reviews of the 1920s and 30s (includes “The Poetry of Drouth: The Waste Land, by T. S. Eliot”)

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

What “The Lottery” taught Shirley Jackson about her readers

The iconic power of “The Lottery” resurfaced this week when Boris Kelly’s essay on Wikileaks invoked Shirley Jackson’s story (as well as Melville’s Billy Budd and the writings of Theodore Roosevelt) and discussed how readers were “deeply disturbed by Jackson’s representation of society and did not wish to hear it.” Jackson (whose birthday is today) used to marvel about the reaction to her story in a talk she frequently gave. Her “Biography of a Story” (1960) is actually six pages longer than the eight-page story:
[“The Lottery”] was not my first published story, nor my last, but I have been assured over and over that if it had been the only story I ever wrote or published, there would be people who would not forget my name.
Jackson tells how she wrote the story early in June 1948 and that “it went quickly and easily, moving from beginning to end without pause.” In fact, what she sent off to her agent the next day “was almost word for word the original draft. This, as any writer of stories will tell you, is not a usual thing.” Her agent didn’t like it but sent it off to The New Yorker anyway and a week after the story was written the magazine bought it. Gus Lobrano, her editor, asked for only one change: to alter the date in the story (June 27) to follow the date of the magazine issue (June 26, 1948). Lobrano also had a question:
Mr. Harold Ross, then the editor of The New Yorker, was not altogether sure that he understood the story, and wondered if I cared to enlarge upon its meaning. I said no.
Lobrano thought people might be puzzled by the story. If they telephoned or wrote the magazine, did Jackson have anything in particular she wanted the magazine to say? “No,” she responded, “nothing in particular. It was just a story I wrote.”

Neither The New Yorker nor Jackson were prepared for what happened next. As biographer Judy Oppenheimer records in Private Demons: The Life of Shirley Jackson:
Its effect was instant and cataclysmic. Nothing in the magazine before or since would provoke such an unprecedented outpouring of fury, horror, rage, disgust, and intense fascination.
Jackson recorded that “of the three-hundred-odd letters that I received that summer I can count only thirteen that spoke kindly to me, and they were mostly from friends.” What she read alarmed Jackson:
I have all the letters still, and if they could be considered to give an accurate cross section of the reading public . . . I would stop writing now. . . . Judging from these letters, people who read stories are gullible, rude, frequently illiterate, and horribly afraid of being laughed at. . . .
Curiously, there are three main themes which dominate the letters of that first summer—three themes which might be identified as bewilderment, speculation, and plain, old-fashioned abuse. . . People at first were not so much concerned with what the story meant; what they wanted to know was where these lotteries were held, and whether they could go there and watch.
Also of interest:
  • Will Errickson posts a loving appreciation of the lurid covers of the paperback editions of Jackson’s works
  • Barely a month after “The Lottery,” Mademoiselle published “Charles,” one of Jackson’s family stories and a recent Story of the Week.
  • Read an exclusive Library of American interview with Joyce Carol Oates about Shirley Jackson
Related LOA works: Shirley Jackson: Novels and Stories (includes “The Lottery” and “Biography of a Story”)

Monday, December 13, 2010

W. H. Auden, Robert Bly, and James Wright on the questions and forms that define an age

From his first book, something in the poems of James Wright (who would have turned 83 today) seemed to capture the age. W. H. Auden launched Wright’s career by selecting The Green Wall, his first book of poems, as the winner of the Yale Series of Younger Poets competition for 1957. In his foreword Auden wrote:
One way of perceiving the characteristics of an age is to raise certain fundamental questions which human beings have always asked and then seeing how the poets of that age answer them, such questions, for example, as: “What is the essential difference between man and all the other creatures, animal, vegetable, and mineral?” “What is the nature and human significance of time?” “What qualities are proper to the hero or sacred person who can inspire poets to celebrate him and what is lacking in the churl or profane person whom poetry ignores?”
Auden found Wright’s attitude to nature and time distinctive, but “even more striking [was] the kind of person” Wright chose to speak of:
. . . the persons who have stimulated Mr. Wright’s imagination include a lunatic, a man who has failed to rescue a boy from drowning, a murderer, a lesbian, a prostitute, a police informer, and some children, one of them deaf. Common to them all is the characteristic of being social outsiders.
These questions and characters recur through more than two decades of Wright’s poems—but the change in how he approached them would define his work. Wright felt stuck after publishing his second book, Saint Judas (1959). But reading a translation of a poem by Georg Trakl in the first issue of The Fifties prompted Wright to write a sixteen-page, single-spaced letter to the magazine’s editor, Robert Bly. Bly’s response was simple: “Come on out to the farm.” Wright went and credits Robert and Carol Bly with saving his life.
[Bly] made it clear to me that the tradition of poetry which I had tried to master, and in which I’d come to a dead end, was not the only one. He reminded me that poetry is a possibility, that, although all poetry is formal, there are many forms, just as there are many forms of feeling.
The result was The Branch Will Not Break (1963), the book in which Wright developed what Peter A. Stitt calls his “distinctive voice.” The poet described the importance of Bly’s farm to the book in his Paris Review interview with Stitt:
At the center of that book is my rediscovery of the abounding delight of the body that I had forgotten about. Every Friday afternoon I used to go out to Bly’s farm, and there were so many animals out there. There was Simon, who was an Airedale, but about the size of a Great Dane. There was David, the horse, my beautiful, beloved David, the swaybacked palomino. Simon and David used to go out by Bly’s barn. David would stand there looking out over the corn fields that lead onto the prairie of South Dakota, and Simon would sit down beside him, and they would stay there for hours. And sometimes . . . I went and sat down beside Simon. Neither Simon nor David looked at me, and I felt blessed.
Readers familiar with Wright’s best known poem, “The Blessing,” may recognize the horse and the setting. In 1971 Wright’s Collected Poems won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.

Also of interest:
Related LOA works: American Religious Poems: An Anthology by Harold Bloom (includes “The Refusal,” “The Blessing,” and “Saint Judas” by James Wright)

Friday, December 10, 2010

Focusing the Lens of the Age on Emily Dickinson

“Dickinson the writer: how do we characterize her?” asks Helen Vendler in the introduction to her absorbing new book. Dickinson: Selected Poems and Commentaries.
She is epigrammatic, terse, abrupt, surprising, unsettling, flirtatious, savage, winsome, metaphysical, provocative, blasphemous, tragic, funny—and the list of adjectives could be extended, since we have almost 1,800 poems to draw on.
Dickinson (whose birthday is today) published just a handful of poems in her lifetime; her poetry has come to us, much as Dickinson foretold in “The Poets light but Lamps” through the “Lenses” of subsequent “Ages.” “Each Age a Lens/Disseminating their/Circumference.“ Vendler appreciates Dickinson’s long vision of her work:
Dickinson allows for the appeal of different poems to different Ages (the lens of one Age may fix more rarely here, more frequently there) and also for the difference between eras (as between convex and concave lenses), but the affirmation that every Age is a new Lens for old Light is a reassuring one: somewhere, at some time, the vital poem will find its audience. . . The Circumference widens as each era adds a new Lens, until finally no limit can be placed on the influence of poetic radiance.
Vendler discerns four ages since Dickinson’s death: the Age of Publication, the Age of Biography, the Age of Editing, and the current Age of Commentary. Focusing with dazzling acuity on 150 of Dickinson’s poems—from “first-person poems to the poems of grand abstraction, from her ecstatic verses to her unparalleled depictions of emotional numbness, from her comic anecdotes to her painful poems of aftermath”—Vendler demonstrates why Seamus Heaney has called her “the best close reader of poems to be found on the literary pages.”

And in another recent book, Maid as Muse, which the late Tillie Olsen found “absolutely original and electrifying,” Aife Murray brings us to a new appreciation of who we should thank for the survival of those 1,800 poems:
On her deathbed, Emily Dickinson extracted an oath from her maid Margaret Maher to burn the poems she stored in her maid’s trunk. This maid later tearfully appealed to the poet’s brother and sister-in-law about breaking this oath.
Of related interest:
Related LOA works: American Poetry: The Nineteenth Century, volume two: Melville to Stickney, American Indian Poetry, Folk Songs and Spirituals (includes 172 poems by Emily Dickinson); American Writers at Home (includes a chapter on Emily Dickinson’s Homestead)

Emily Dickinson’s Recipe for Black Cake (Fruitcake)

This week has been Emily Dickinson week at The Library of America. Not only is today Emily Dickinson’s birthday, but the New York staff invited members of the LOA Fellows Program to our offices for a Christmas tea, where we served Emily Dickinson’s fruitcake.

Dickinson was quite a baker; apparently her father “would eat no bread except that baked by her.” Her fruitcake (or, black cake) recipe is included in American Food Writing; it was one of several “lawless cake” recipes passed down by her family. We can recommend it as a good fruitcake even for non-fruitcake fans.
Emily Dickinson’s Black Cake
2 pounds Flour—
2 Sugar—
2 Butter—
19 Eggs—
5 pounds Raisins—
1 ½ Currants
1 ½ Citron
½ pint Brandy
½ — Molasses—
2 Nutmegs—
5 teaspoons
2 teaspoons Soda—

Beat Butter and Sugar together—
Add Eggs without beating—and beat the mixture again—
Bake 2½ or three hours, in Cake pans, or 5 to 6 hours in Milk pan, if full—
Also of Interest:
  • The Emily Dickinson Museum hosts an annual baking contest. You can find other Dickinson recipes, including her recipe for gingerbread, in the contest rules (PDF).
Related LOA volume: American Food Writing: An Anthology With Classic Recipes

LOA staff members Stefanie Peters and  Karen Duda, enjoying Dickinson’s fruitcake.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

San Francisco, New York, Los Angeles: Discovering your own infinite city

Reading Adam Kirsch’s recent review of Rebecca Solnit’s Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas—and viewing some of the book’s engaging maps on 7x7—makes us want to take up the author’s call to “discover your own infinite city.” Kirsch describes Solnit’s lyrical approach to cartography:
Ordinary maps show only the physical infrastructure that these "many worlds" share—streets, rivers, monuments. The maps in Infinite City, on the other hand, treat the physical city as a blank slate, on which many different experiences can be overwritten, like texts on a palimpsest.
Like poems, some of these maps are inspired by witty conceits and unlikely juxtapositions. "Death and Beauty" plots the locations of the 99 murders that took place in San Francisco in 2008 and, on the same map, shows where to find stands of Monterey cypress—trees whose "stable, silent lives," Solnit writes, "made them the right counterweight to violent death."
These maps reminded us of other reimaginings of familiar places, like the Literary Map of Manhattan that Randy Cohen and Nigel Holmes created in 2005 which showed where “imaginary New Yorkers lived, worked, played, drank, walked and looked at ducks.” Or New York Magazine’s “Ten Little Cities” which contended that “each person’s city is a map of his obsessions.” (Don’t miss the “Lit Guy” map.) Or Wired’s painstakingly researched Unofficial Thomas Pynchon Guide to Los Angeles, a must companion to his 2009 L.A. homage Inherent View.

What’s your favorite remapping or reimagining of a familiar place?

Related LOA works: Writing New York: A Literary Anthology; Writing Los Angeles: A Literary Anthology

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

James Thurber and John Lennon: Drawing the connection

When James Thurber died on November 2, 1961, John Lennon was playing nonstop gigs in dives in Hamburg with the Beatles, who had yet to release their first recording. They clearly had no opportunity to meet. But because December 8 marks the date in 1980 of John Lennon’s murder and of James Thurber’s birth in 1894, the two lives are annually memorialized together by circumstance.

Their actual connection may be less well known. Lennon credited Thurber with being one of the major influences on his drawing. As Lennon biographer Philip Norman wrote:
Two comic artists, one British, one American were to have a profound influence on John’s style. He loved the intricate, scratchy technique of Ronald Searle . . . And, thanks to Aunt Mimi, he became a devotee of James Thurber, both the writings for The New Yorker and the cartoons, whose surreally wavering lines were a product of Thurber’s own near-blindness. John later said he began consciously “Thurberising” his drawings from the age of fifteen.
When In His Own Write was published in 1964, the Time reviewer got the connection:
In this startling collection of verse and prosery, Lennon has rolled Edward Lear, Lewis Carroll and James Thurber into one great post-Joycean spitball. All those jellybean-lobbing, caterwauling Beatle [sic] fans are not going to understand it at all.
See for yourself. The Los Angeles Times has a photo gallery of a selected illustrations from Lennon’s books In His Own Write and A Spaniard in the Works.

You can find a selection of Thurber mammals here or you read his illustrated, whimsical assessment of his own cartoons at our Story of the Week site.

John Lennon describes “Thurberising” to Dick Cavett:

Related LOA works: James Thurber: Writings and Drawings

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Willa Cather: modernist or antimodernist?

Recent blog appreciations of My Ántonia, one of Willa Cather’s early novels, and of Sapphira and the Slave Girl, her last novel, bring to mind how divergent opinions once were about Cather’s early and late works. Although Granville Hicks conceded that O Pioneers! and My Ántonia “have their importance in American literature” because they have a “basis in reality,” his essay “The Case Against Willa Cather” started a trend in 1933 to denigrate her later works because they never tried to “see contemporary life as it is.” “She sees only that it lacks what the past, at least in her idealization of it, had,” Hicks wrote. Many other critics, including Alfred Kazin and Lionel Trilling, took a similar line.

Cather’s reputation as an antimodernist stems in part from her angry responses to such criticism. She called her 1936 collection of essays Not Under Forty because “the book will have little interest for people under forty years of age. The world broke in two in 1922 or thereabouts, and the persons and prejudices recalled in these sketches slid back into yesterday’s seven thousand years.” The collection includes her 1922 essay “The Novel Démeublé,” which many see as her writing credo:
Whatever is felt upon the page without being specifically named there—that, it seems to me, is created. It is the inexplicable presence of the thing not named, of the over-tone divined by the ear but not heard by it, the verbal mood, the emotional aura of the fact or the thing or the deed, that gives high quality to the novel or the drama, as well as to poetry itself.
Shelves of books have been written about what Cather meant by “the thing not named.” Does it echo Oscar Wilde’s “the Love that dared not speak its name”? Or was she aligning herself with the allusive, suggestive writing of the modernists who invite readers to create meaning as they read?

Wallace Stevens, no mean modernist, was an enthusiastic fan of Cather’s later work. In a letter to a friend about Sapphira and the Slave Girl on December 9, 1940—two days after the novel was published on Cather’s birthday—he observed:
Miss Cather is rather a specialty. You may not like the book; moreover, you may think she is more or less formless. Nevertheless, we have nothing better than she is. She takes so much pains to conceal her sophistication that it is easy to miss her quality.
Cather’s clear prose style helped make her books bestsellers, but can a writer be too readable? In Cather, Canon, and the Politics of Reading Deborah Carlin suggests “that it is the lucidity and seeming readability of Cather’s concise prose that make her novels difficult to place squarely within canonical modernism as we know it, despite the efforts of critics to redefine the parameters of what ‘modernism’ as a term signifies.”

The good news appears to be that today’s readers are able to discover Cather’s later works anew. As the writer who posts on The Port Stands at Your Elbow remarked with, we think, delight after picking up Willa Cather: Later Novels for Shadows on the Rock: “The collection also includes A Lost Lady, The Professor’s House, Lucy Gayheart and Sapphira and the Slave Girl, none of which I know anything about.”

Related LOA works: Willa Cather: Complete Fiction and Other Writings

Abraham Lincoln and the Rise and Fall of Beards in American Literary History

In a recent New York Times blog post marking the sesquicentennial of Abraham Lincoln’s beard, Adam Goodheart traces the history of how Lincoln became the first American president to sport facial hair.

Lincoln’s personal decision to grow a beard was sparked by an eleven-year-old named Grace Bedell, who wrote to him that if he grew one, “All the ladies like whiskers and they would tease their husbands to vote for you and then you would be President,” but he was also participating in a nation-wide “beard movement.” Beards had become associated with revolutionary nationalism, and Northerners who sympathized with slave-owners were derided as “doughfaces.”

In the fifty years after Lincoln became president, only one man (William McKinley) would be elected to that office without any facial hair. But after William Howard Taft, who left office in 1913, no American president has had facial hair.

Curious, we made a list of the bearded Library of America authors. It turns out that most of our iconically bearded authors were indeed participating in the late-nineteenth-century beard trend, including Henry David Thoreau, Herman Melville, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Ulysses S. Grant, William T. Sherman, both Henry and William James, and even Walt Whitman. Since then, our authors have been mostly clean-shaven. Only two of our twentieth-century authors sported full beards for any length of time: Philip K. Dick and John Berryman.

Update: A couple of our loyal readers remind us that, late in life, Ezra Pound upgraded from his trademark goatee to a beard.

More fun with beards:

Monday, December 6, 2010

Oliver Wendell Holmes observes the Transit of Venus and finds a “working creed”

The American Literary Blog reminds us that December 6, 1882, was one of only six occurrences in modern times when humans have witnessed the Transit of Venus, the cosmic moment when the second planet comes between the Earth and the sun. It’s an event rarer even than the return of Halley’s comet every seventy-six years. Observations have been recorded in 1639, 1781, 1769, 1874, 1882, and 2004. One more will occur in our lifetime: June 6, 2012, after which the next will be on December 11, 2117.

In the nineteenth century scientific expeditions were mounted to observe the events of 1874 and 1882 from the best vantage points. Walt Whitman recorded in his daybook for December 6, 1882, that he “saw the transit of Venus over the Sun, 11 a.m. through a piece of smoked glass, furnished me by a boy at the Camden ferry,” but no further mention of the event occurs in his prose or poetry.

Oliver Wendell Holmes waited in line on Boston Common to pay a dime to observe the event through a telescope. He memorialized the event in “The Flaneur” and in his autobiography. According to charts of the event, the 1882 transit took a little more than six minutes, so Holmes’s turn on the “tube” must have been propitiously timed—and perhaps dangerous for his eyesight:
The sun and I are face to face;
He glares at me, I stare at him;
And lo! My straining eye has found
A little spot that, black and round,
Lies near the crimsoned fire-orb’s rim.
The sight changed Holmes’s view of the universe, as a later verse captures:
A black, round spot,—and that is all;
And such a speck our earth would be
If he who looks upon the stars
Through the red atmosphere of Mars
Could see our little creeping ball
Across the disk of crimson crawl
As I our sister planet see.
Holmes mused on the experience in greater detail in his autobiography:
Ever since I paid ten cents for a peep through the telescope on the Common, and saw the transit of Venus, my whole idea of the creation has been singularly changed. . . . In looking at our planet equipped and provisioned for a long voyage in space,—its almost boundless stores of coal and other inflammable materials, its untired renewal of the forms of life, its compensations which keep its atmosphere capable of supporting life, the ever growing control over the powers of Nature which its inhabitants are acquiring,—all these things point to its fitness for a duration transcending all our ordinary measures of time. These conditions render possible the only theory which ‘can justify the ways of God to man,’ namely, that this colony of the universe is an educational institution so far as the human race is concerned. On this theory I base my hope for myself and my fellow-creatures. If, in the face of all the so-called evil to which I cannot close my eyes, I have managed to retain a cheerful optimism, it is because this educational theory is the basis of my working creed.
Of related interest:
Related LOA works: American Poetry: The Nineteenth Century, volume one: Freneau to Whitman (includes "The Flaneur" and ten other poems by Holmes)

Saturday, December 4, 2010

The literary masterpiece about Washington: has any topped Henry Adams’s Democracy?

Writing in the City Journal, Christopher Hitchens laments that America’s first-tier novelists have neglected Washington as the focus of their novels. “Can one imagine a Dickens without London or a Zola or Flaubert without Paris?” He dates the root cause of such oversight to the negotiations whereby Alexander Hamilton gave in to Thomas Jefferson’s desire for a capital near Virginia in exchange for Hamilton’s National Bank—American’s cultural and political capitals were thereby forever riven in twain.

Hitchens finds the original model for the Washington novel in Henry Adams’s Democracy. Adams published it anonymously on April Fools’ Day 1880 and it became an immediate sensation, going through fifteen printings over the next thirty-five years before any edition carried his name. Guessing the identity of the author became a popular parlor game (much like what happened in 1996 with Primary Colors). John Hay, Clarence King, even Adams’s own wife were suspects. In 1911 Adams told a correspondent, “Really, of course, Henry James wrote it, in connection with his brother Willy, to illustrate Pragmatism.” The only correct guess came from the British novelist Mrs. Humphrey Ward.

Arthur Schlesinger testified to the novel’s staying power in a The New York Review of Books in 2003:
People today read Democracy not as a roman á clef but as a gallery of political types and as a novel of political ideas. Adams . . . was less interested in portraying real personages than he was in defining Washington types—the unscrupulous politician, the naïve idealist, the lightweight reformer, the cynical diplomat, the cunning lobbyist, the congressional hangers-on. The cast of Adams’s Democracy populates Washington today, which is why the book is still in print. . . Democracy: An American Novel is all too true for Washington under corporate domination at the beginning of the twenty-first century.
Many writers have attempted Washington novels since 1880 and in his article Hitchens catalogs several contenders: Norman Mailer’s Harlot’s Ghost; Allen Drury’s Advise and Consent; Christopher Buckley’s Wet Work; Thomas Mallon’s Fellow Travelers; Gore Vidal’s Lincoln, Burr, and The Golden Age; Ward Just’s Honor, Power, Riches, Fame, and the Love of Women and Echo House.

A bit of Googling reveals that the search for the great Washington novel has its own tradition. Mark Athitakis surveyed a number of candidates in 2008 and quoted Jeffrey Charis-Carlson, “a scholar of District literature”; “[The consensus is that] the great Washington novel is something of an oxymoron.” Writing about the decline of the Washington novel in The New York Times Book Review in 1995, Terry Teachout argued that “the best novels about American politics, Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men (1946), and Edwin O’Connor’s All in the Family (1966) and The Last Hurrah (1956) are, significantly, not about Washington at all.”

Bloggers Steven Riddle and Mark Judge, responding to Hitchens, question this assumption that novels about politics can really capture all of what Washington is. Riddle nominates Dinaw Mengestu’s The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears as “a very fine Washington novel” and Judge argues that if Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist is not a masterpiece it is certainly “a great, timeless novel.”  

What should the Great Washington Novel be “about”? What novel about Washington have the critics missed? Is there not a candidate we can believe in?

Related LOA works: Henry Adams: Novels, Mont Saint Michel, The Education

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Frederick Douglass, Henry David Thoreau, and the martyrdom of John Brown

Margaret Kimberley, on her Freedom Rider blog, muses, “if anyone ever won by losing, it is John Brown”; her sentiment echoes the complex mix of feelings that contemporaries felt on the day of Brown’s execution, December 2, 1859.

“This will be a great day in our history,” wrote Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in that day’s diary entry, “the date of a new Revolution,—quite as much needed as the old one.” Longfellow believed that by hanging Brown, the Virginians were “sowing the wind to reap the whirlwind, which will come soon.”

Brown envisioned arming an insurrection of Southern slaves by capturing the arsenal at Harpers Ferry. His assault and occupation on October 16 lasted less than thirty-six hours and cost the lives of three townspeople, one marine, and ten of Brown’s eighteen men, including two of his sons. Beyond his initial recruits, no slaves answered his call.

Three weeks before, Brown had hoped to enlist Frederick Douglass by outlining the plan for the raid to him. Douglass thought it suicidal, as he details in Life and Times:
I at once opposed the measure with all the arguments at my command. To me such a measure would be fatal to all running off slaves . . . and fatal to all engaged in doing so. All his arguments, and all his descriptions of the place, convinced me that he was going into a perfect steel-trap, and that once in he would never get out alive . . . I looked at him with some astonishment . . . and felt that he was about to rivet the fetters more firmly than ever on the limbs of the enslaved.
After being jailed, Brown refused to plead insanity or to be rescued. As he told his brother, “I am worth inconceivably more to hang, than for any other purpose.” Brown’s dignified demeanor during his briskly paced trial and the publication of his moving letters to his wife began a swell of sympathy in the North. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in his Journal, “if Brown is hung, the gallows will be as sacred as the cross.”

Brown had met with Emerson and Henry David Thoreau in 1857—most of Brown’s funding came from northern abolitionists. Following the raid Thoreau sprang to his defense, eager to correct what he believed to be inaccurate press accounts. “A Plea for Captain John Brown,” which he delivered in Concord on October 30 and again on November 3, was reprinted and discussed in all the Boston papers. It will surprise anyone who thinks of Thoreau as the apostle of nonviolence:
It was his peculiar doctrine that a man has a perfect right to interfere by force with the slaveholder, in order to rescue the slave. I agree with him. They who are continually shocked by slavery have some right to be shocked by the violent death of the slaveholder, but no others. . . I speak for the slave when I say, that I prefer the philanthropy of Captain Brown to that philanthropy which neither shoots me nor liberates me.
Two more essays on Brown would follow: “Martyrdom of John Brown” and “The Last Days of John Brown,” the latter for a memorial service on July 4, 1860. Three days after Brown’s hanging Thoreau wrote in his Journal:
Of all the men who are said to be my contemporaries—it seems to be that John Brown is the only one who has not died. I meet him at every turn. He is more alive than ever he was. . . He is no longer working in secret. John Brown has earned immortality.
Also of Interest: Biographer and scholar Louis A. DeCaro, Jr. devotes his blog to the life and times of John Brown: Abolitionist.

Related LOA works: Frederick Douglass: Autobiographies; Henry David Thoreau: Collected Essays and Poems

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Rosa Parks keeps her seat and launches the Civil Rights Movement

On the fifty-fifth anniversary of Rosa Parks’s historic decision not to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, Donald Pennington asks:
... can we all have the courage of that one woman whom, though all alone, simply refused and stood her ground? When the moment of truth arrives in our lives, will we be as self-confident, defiant, and as beautiful as Rosa Parks?
In an essay in 1972 James Baldwin phrased a similar thought somewhat differently:
If Mrs. Parks had merely had a headache that day, and if the community had had no grievances, there would have been no bus boycott and we would never have heard of Martin Luther King.
Although the three riders next to her did give up their seats to white passengers, Rosa Parks refused. She chose to be arrested:
People always say that I didn't give up my seat because I was tired, but that isn't true. I was not tired physically, or no more tired than I usually was at the end of a working day. I was not old, although some people have an image of me as being old then. I was forty-two. No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in.
At the time of her arrest Parks had been a secretary for the NAACP in Montgomery, and E. D. Nixon, the local NAACP leader, quickly secured the services of a white lawyer to bail her out. King biographer Taylor Branch captures Nixon’s thoughts as he delivered her home:
Rosa Parks was without peer as a potential symbol for Montgomery’s Negroes—humble enough to be claimed by the common folk, and yet dignified enough in manner, speech, and dress to command the respect of the leading classes.
When Nixon asked her if she was willing to fight the case, Parks responded “If you think it will mean something to Montgomery and do some good, I’ll be happy to go along with it.” She was arrested on a Thursday. Over the weekend 35,000 handbills were distributed calling for a one-day bus boycott the following Monday, the day Parks was to be arraigned.

Martin Luther King Jr. later wrote of being called to the window by his wife early Monday morning:
As I approached the front window, Coretta pointed joyfully to a slowly moving bus. ‘Darling, it’s empty!’ I could hardly believe what I saw. I knew the South Jackson line, which ran past our house, carried more Negro passengers than any other line in Montgomery . . .
The Kings then knew the boycott would be a success. Later that day an assembly of local ministers created the Montgomery Improvement Association and elected twenty-six-year-old King its first president. That night thousands gathered in the Holt Street Baptist Church to decide whether the boycott should continue. This would be the occasion for King’s first historic speech:
Just the other day, just last Thursday to be exact, one of the finest citizens in Montgomery (Amen)—not one of the finest Negro citizens (That’s right), but one of the finest citizens in Montgomery—was taken from a bus (Yes) and carried to jail and arrested (Yes) because she refused to get up to give her seat to a white person. (Yes, that’s right) . . .
And you know, my friends, there comes a time when people get tired of being trampled over by the iron feet of oppression. [Sustained applause]
Joe Abzell captured the aftermath in his report for The Montgomery Advertiser:
When the resolution on continuing the boycott of the bus was read, there came a wild whoop of delight. Many said they would never ride the bus again. . . The meeting was much like an old-fashioned revival with loud applause added. It proved beyond any doubt there was a discipline among Negroes that many whites had doubted. It was almost a military discipline combined with emotion.
The boycott lasted thirteen months and ended only when, in late December 1956, the Supreme Court affirmed a lower court’s ruling outlawing segregation on Alabama buses.

Related LOA works: Reporting Civil Rights: American Journalism 1941-1963 (includes “The Rosa Parks Protest Meeting at Holt Street Baptist Church,” by Joe Abzell); American Speeches: Political Oratory from Abraham Lincoln to Bill Clinton (includes Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech to the Montgomery Improvement Association, December 5, 1955)
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