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Monday, January 31, 2011

“The Fastest Count Jack Ever Got”: Jack Dempsey Meets His Match

The current Story of the Week, Irvin S. Cobb’s “Cobb Fights It Over Again,” is a ringside report of the fight between Jack Dempsey and Georges Carpentier in 1921, one of the most famous boxing matches of the last century. Our research for the introduction to the story turned up some interesting tidbits about the fight: it was the first million-dollar gate in boxing, the arena (which held nearly 100,000 spectators) was built especially for the event, and among the crowd were a gaggle of the rich and the famous, from Henry Ford to Al Jolson.

We also found the marvelous clip below, of Jack Dempsey when he appeared on the TV quiz show What’s My Line? in 1965, just after he turned 70. The blindfolded contestants identify Dempsey in no time (“The fastest count Jack ever got,” the always quick-witted Arlene Francis quips). During the rest of the segment Dempsey and the panelists talk briefly about his testimony before the ongoing Congressional hearings into the corruption and mob influence that had long plagued boxing; the recent rematch between Cassius Clay (Muhammad Ali) and Sonny Liston, which ended in a controversial knockout; and Dempsey's longtime friendship with Gene Tunney—the boxer to whom he lost his title in 1926.

The Irvin Cobb selection is one of dozens of literary essays and classics of journalism included in the forthcoming At the Fights: American Writers on Boxing, which has just arrived from the printer and will be in bookstores on March 3. You can see the complete table of contents here.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Vladimir Nabokov’s butterfly studies bring together two cultures

Vladimir Nabokov caught his first butterfly in 1906 and his mother, an avid mushroom collector herself, taught him how to pin and spread it. In Speak, Memory he recalls from his childhood:
From the age of seven, everything I felt in connection with a rectangle of framed sunlight was dominated by a single passion. If my first glance of the morning was for the sun, my first thought was for the butterflies it would engender.
For the next seventy years hunting, collecting, and studying butterflies would prove one of the driving passions of Nabokov’s life. He and his wife spent summers in the 1940s driving from New England to Colorado hunting butterflies and Nabokov drew on those trips to create the detailed scenes of motel life in middle America that fills the pages of Lolita. In the stories “Christmas” and “The Aurelian,” in the novels Invitation to a Beheading, The Gift, and Pale Fire, Nabokov explicitly wove his knowledge of lepidopterology into his fiction.

Biographer Brian Boyd captured the interplay of Nabokov’s scientific and literary pursuits in his introduction to Nabokov’s Butterflies:
His love of Lepidoptera drew upon and further sharpened his love of the particular and the habits of detailed observation that gave him such fictional command over the physical world—biologically (birds, flowers, trees), geographically (localities, landscapes, ecologies), socially (manorial Russia, boardinghouse Berlin, motel America), and bodily (gesture, anatomy, sensation). He thought that only the ridiculously unobservant could be pessimists in a world as full of surprising specificity as ours, and he arranged his own art accordingly.
Nabokov’s two worlds came together again this week. Carl Zimmer reported in The New York Times that scientists have found persuasive evidence to support Nabokov’s theory of how the Polyommatus blues, the species he studied most closely, migrated in several waves across the Bering Strait and down into South America. The news has sparked discussions on blogs that would have tickled C. P. Snow, as scientists like John Hawks reflect on their favorite Nabokov stories, and literary bloggers like Erin Overbey and Jeff VanderMeer celebrate Nabokov’s scientific acumen.

Related Reader’s Almanac posts:
Related LOA works: Vladimir Nabokov: Complete American Novels

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Harriet Jacobs and the horror of slave auctions

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Ann Jacobs, one of the first-person memoirs collected in Slave Narratives, was published 150 years ago this month. Particularly chilling is her description of when she witnessed a slave auction:
On one of these sale days, I saw a mother lead seven children to the auction block. She knew that some of them would be taken from her; but they took all. The children were sold to a slave-trader, and their mother bought by a man in her own town. Before night her children were all far away. She begged the trader to tell her where he intended to take them; this he refused to do. How could he, when he knew he would sell them, one by one, wherever he could command the highest price? I met that mother in the street, and her wild, haggard face lives to-day in my mind. She wrung her hands in anguish, and exclaimed, “Gone! All gone! Why don’t God kill me?” I had no words wherewith to comfort her. Instances of this kind are of daily, yea, of hourly occurrence.
The anniversary of the publication of Incidents happens to coincide with the 150th anniversary of the allegedly final slave auction held in St. Louis—an event depicted in a painting by Thomas Satterwhite Noble recently posted on the blog of the Missouri State Museum, which adds, “History shows otherwise; in fact, auctions continued into 1864 in St. Louis.” The 1861 auction was also the focus of a recent reenactment cosponsored by the National Park Service and the Dred Scott Heritage Foundation; the ensuing controversy and emotions provoked by the commemoration are discussed at The St. Louis Beacon, Civil War MemoryBlack Voices, and Yesterday. . .and Today.

Related LOA works: Slave Narratives; The Civil War: The First Year Told by Those Who Lived It

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The “death of the book” is greatly exaggerated

In spite of the barrage of reports proclaiming the imminent death of the book (not to mention the recent troubles at Borders), sales of The Library of America’s backlist catalog are booming. For the last six months, backlist sales are up 18% over the same period last year. In fact the holiday season was so robust (and the trend seems to be continuing) that we unexpectedly ran out of a couple of dozen titles and have been scrambling to keep the reprints coming fast enough.

Here’s a list of the titles with the most impressive increases in sales compared to last year:
  1. James Thurber: Writings and Drawings
  2. Zora Neale Hurston: Folklore, Memoirs, and Other Writings
  3. William James: Writings 1878–1899
  4. Herman Melville: Redburn, White-Jacket, Moby-Dick
  5. Alexis de Tocqueville: Democracy in America
  6. Ezra Pound: Poems and Translations
  7. Wallace Stevens: Collected Poetry and Prose
  8. Saul Bellow: Novels 1956–1964
  9. Ulysses S. Grant: Memoirs and Selected Letters
  10. Willa Cather: Later Novels
    (tie) James Fenimore Cooper: The Leatherstocking Tales: Volume One
A few of these are easily explained. Beginning last April, Keith Olbermann ended his Friday night broadcasts reading selections from Thurber, and the publication of Bellow’s letters almost certainly spurred renewed interest in his novels. Similarly, we’ve always seen an increase in sales of Grant’s memoirs whenever a new presidential memoir is published. But others on the list are, we confess, gratifyingly perplexing.

Related post: The Best-Selling Titles in The Library of America’s First Three Decades

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Get a free Library of America book

Our current Story of the Week selection—“Xingu,” by Edith Wharton—was a suggestion we received from one of our readers. We encourage you to offer your own suggestion—a story, essay, narrative poem, or article from any Library of America volume (which can be found listed here)—along with two or three sentences noting anything that might be of related interest to our readers: a current event, a commemoration, a new publication, etc. Send your recommendation to lists@loa.org with the subject line, “Story of the Week idea.”

If we use your suggestion, we’ll send you a free Library of America volume of your choice and (with your permission) acknowledge you in the introduction.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Is Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence the greatest novel about New York?

Writing in New York Magazine earlier this month, Sam Anderson made the case that the “best novel about New York” is not one of the “encyclopedic ambition bombs that attempt to capture, New Yorkily, the full New Yorkiness of New York”—he puts Manhattan Transfer, The Bonfire of the Vanities, Underworld, Invisible Man, Winter’s Tale, and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay in this category. Instead, Anderson finds that “the single greatest New York novel is the exact opposite.”
[The Age of Innocence] builds itself, obsessively, out of all the essential New York themes. The necessary (but often terrifying) seesawing between change and stasis. The constant drama of taste and class; the connoisseurship of gossip. (One man, preparing to dispense a particularly juicy bit, gives “a faint sip, as if he had been tasting invisible Madeira.”) The shiny lure of fantasy versus the sharp hook of reality. The giant shell game of phoniness and authenticity. The existential strain of distinction versus assimilation—that yearning to be free (one of Wharton’s keywords) but also to belong to a social tribe (another of her keywords). The agonizing, paradoxical struggle to feel like a special individual in a city of millions.
In her acclaimed biography of Edith Wharton (whose birthday is today), Hermione Lee offered some other clues on why The Age of Innocence may resonate with readers today:
Her survey of the age uses, and describes, surveillance. Like The House of Mirth, this novel is all about being watched. It describes a society of spies and observers, and attempts at secrecy and concealment. It is a drama with spectators (in a society dedicated to inaction and leisure) which starts in an opera house with an audience watching itself more than it is watching the stage, and ends with the figure of a solitary watcher, unable to act. . . In the very small theatre of activities that is 1870s New York, privacy is a figment.
Lee also identifies the appealing “double act” the narrator performs:
Wharton is like one of the watchers in the novel who applies to the affairs of his friends “the patience of a collector and the science of a naturalist.” . . . The page is thick with knowing allusions to details of the time, swiftly footnoted so as at once to familiarize us with vanished customs, and to make fun of them . . . The narrating voice is knowingly, even affectionately, close to what it describes (“the shabby red and gold boxes of the sociable old Academy”) yet has a historian’s remoteness and a taste for (still applicable) ironic generalizations: “Americans want to get away from amusement even more quickly than they want to get to it.”
So does this resolve the question of which is the greatest New York novel—or is there an argument to be made for another candidate?

Also of interest:
  • The Huffington Post recently posted a slide show of its editors’ sixteen candidates for “the greatest New York novel”
  • Read how Edith Wharton skewers women’s book clubs in “Xingu, the current Story of the Week
Related LOA works: Edith Wharton: Novels, Novellas, Stories, and Other Writings (4 volumes—plus a free book)

Friday, January 21, 2011

Brooks D. Simpson on what letters by Grant, Lee, Sherman, and McClellan reveal

Much as we expected, the sesquicentennial celebration of the Civil War has already begun to revive debates about the character and capabilities of the generals who directed the conflict. Craig Silver on his blog at Forbes recently weighed in on whether Robert E. Lee should be considered a traitor. Finding Lee “extremely interesting” and “a compelling biographical subject,” Brooks D. Simpson, one of the editors of the new Library of America volume, The Civil War: The First Year Told by Those Who Lived It, recently engaged the question of Lee’s attitude toward slavery on his blog.

Letters penned by military leaders (and included in The Civil War: The First Year) often reveal more than the writer intended. In an exclusive interview (PDF) for The Library of America Simpson reflects on how the dispatches selected for the book reflect the quite disparate personalities of the war’s commanders:
LOA: The contributions from the generals display a range of writing styles. Would it be fair to characterize Robert E. Lee as having the more eloquent and elegant style, followed by Grant’s crisp and straightforward dispatches, to the choppier and more colloquial styles of McClellan and Sherman?
Simpson: Lee always seemed to be writing as if someone was looking over his shoulder. He was always thinking about how he might appear to others. Sherman wrote as he thought, quickly, rarely pausing or reflecting on how his words sounded or even what he was saying. Sometimes his letters read as if he was blowing off immense amounts of steam lest he otherwise explode. Grant’s prose at its best is simple and direct, breaking things down to their essentials, a quality of mind that helps explain why he excelled at mathematics. He could explain a problem, consider what might happen, and offer a solution. Unfortunately for McClellan, he shared his emotions and his inner thoughts in letters to his wife, much like Sherman, and so the impression of him that we have is shaped by reading thoughts we might ourselves think but never share in any writing that we thought would be seen by others. See in particular the August 16, 1861, letter in which he observes “the Presdt is an idiot, the old General [Winfield Scott] in his dotage.”
Also of interest:
Related LOA works: The Civil War: The First Year Told by Those Who Lived It; Grant and Sherman: Civil War Memoirs (boxed set)

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Looking back: The most popular Story of the Week selections and Reader’s Almanac posts

The beginning of the year prompts moments of reflection. Looking back on 2010 The Library of America has been heartened by the warm reception readers gave to two of the year’s initiatives. In January LOA launched Story of the Week to a base of thirty thousand subscribers. That number is now approaching seventy thousand and increasing every week.

The swelling numbers may account for the most popular stories occurring in the past five months. What else connects them? We’ll leave that to you, although watching thousands of readers vault a lesser-known gem like "The Little Room" to the #2 spot makes us think "a good yarn” is as good a guess as any.
  1. “Hunting the Deceitful Turkey,” Mark Twain – week of November 22
  2. “The Little Room,” Madeline Yale Wynne – October 18
  3. “The Train,” Flannery O’Connor – October 4
  4. “I’ll Be Waiting,” Raymond Chandler – December 6
  5. “The Nature of Liberty,” H. L. Mencken  – September 6
In July LOA launched the Reader’s Almanac with daily posts seeking the “enduring” in American literature. The most popular posts often surprised us by spiking traffic five to seven times the average volume. Finding a pattern among them is a bit of a puzzle. Who knew so many readers would find sales data so interesting? Or a decades-old video of ethnographic research? Or an anonymous rejection letter?
  1. The Best-Selling Titles in The Library of America’s First Three Decades – January 3, 2011
  2. Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and Bob Dylan: Desolation Angels led to “Desolation Row” – October 21, 2010
  3. Vladimir Nabokov: Lolita first published in the U.S. 52 years ago – August 18, 2010
  4. Mark Twain, Huckleberry Finn, and How to Sell a Banned Book – September 29, 2010
  5. Zora Neale Hurston: Video of her ethnographic work in Florida in 1928 – July 26, 2010
We know that no one would get a greater kick over his appearance on both lists than Mark Twain, this year’s most beguiling best-selling author, but he probably would have expected no less.

Remembering John F. Kennedy on the 50th anniversary of his inauguration

Fifty years ago today John F. Kennedy Jr. was sworn in as the 35th President of the United States. His speech (video below), which at fourteen minutes is relatively short for an inaugural address, has become one of the most famous Presidential speeches in American history, including its unforgettable line, “ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.”

For the inaugural ceremony, Kennedy asked Poet Laureate Robert Frost to recite either a new poem or “The Gift Outright,” a poem published in 1942 that Frost later called “a history of the United States in a dozen [actually, sixteen] lines of blank verse.” Frost did compose a new poem for the inauguration, but he was unable to read from his manuscript due to both the wind and the reflection of the sun hitting the snow-covered ground. Thinking quickly, he instead recited from memory “The Gift Outright” (“The land was ours before we were the land’s. . .”). The Library of Congress has scanned and posted on their website the typescript of the poem he had intended to read, “Dedication.”

In honor of the 50th anniversary, the Kennedy Library recently began digitizing various documents from Kennedy’s life. From the trove, Maureen O’Connor has extracted JFK’s college application and has posted it on Gawker’s website. Harvard’s application in those days was all of three pages long, and Kennedy’s “essay,” date April 23, 1935, was a mere five handwritten sentences. (O’Connor comments, “Somewhere, a guidance counselor just burst into a maniacal fit of laughter.”) The future president wrote:
The reasons that I have for wishing to go to Harvard are several. I feel that Harvard can give me a better background and a better liberal education than any other university. I have always wanted to go there, as I have felt that it is not just another college, but is a university with something definite to offer. Then too, I would like to go to the same college as my father. To be a ‘Harvard man’ is an enviable distinction, and one that I sincerely hope I shall attain.
This week also marked the passing of one of Kennedy’s closest colleagues, Sargent Shriver. The first director of the Peace Corps, Shriver was instrumental in encouraging Kennedy to telephone Coretta Scott King in 1960 when her husband was jailed in Georgia, an essential (and controversial) move during the Civil Rights era. Shriver remained close to Jackie Kennedy after JFK’s assassination, helping her to plan Kennedy’s state funeral.

Related LOA volume: The paperback edition of American Speeches: Political Oratory from Patrick Henry to Barack Obama, which was published today, contains four speeches delivered by Kennedy, including his inaugural address.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Adam Levin: American literary influences on The Instructions

The Instructions
by Adam Levin
(McSweeney's, 2010)
For the first entry in a new series of blog posts by novelists, historians, essayists, and poets, we asked novelist Adam Levin what great American works of fiction influenced the writing of his 1100-page, critically acclaimed debut novel, The Instructions.

Nearly every reviewer has noted the range of Levin’s literary influences. Praising Levin’s “uncanny facility for blending sympathy and satire,” Maud Newton writes, “The Instructions really does recall Infinite Jest. Other forbears—Roth, Salinger, Cervantes, and The Book of Jonah (‘the most deadpan comedy ever written’)—are explicitly evoked.” Similarly, Foster Kamer in the Village Voice found nods to authors ranging from S. E. Hinton and Robert Cormier to Kurt Vonnegut and Joseph Campbell. “Essential to The Instructions’ success is the careful moderation Levin took with his influences,” Kamer adds. “They're not distracting.”

Here are seven works of American fiction that inspired Levin during the decade he was writing his novel.
The Painted Bird, Jerzy Kosinski. A young Jewish boy roams the Eastern European countryside during World War II and learns to worship power, then maybe unlearns it—it’s hard to say. The thrills a reader experiences in those moments when the boy masters violence are deeply haunting, tinged with something like regret. Though its protagonist is a child, nothing in this book is cute.

End Zone, Don DeLillo. War as football as football as war. Part 2 of this novel is a particular joy. It’s a hugely visceral thirty-page play-by-play description of a college football game that, even—and maybe especially—to someone like me who knows next-to-nothing about football, never fails to thrill. It strongly influenced the way I approached writing Book 20 of The Instructions.

Operation Shylock: A Confession, Philip Roth. A dark, angry book, maybe Roth’s darkest and angriest, maybe his most underrated, certainly one of his funniest. It engages deeply with ideas about homeland, authenticity, Jewish identity, loyalty, and Zionism without ever getting shmaltzy or academic (not that Roth is one to get shmaltzy or academic). It’s also a super-agile novel-as-memoir metafiction whose technical brilliance can’t be overstated.

My Life As a Man, Philip Roth. A volume my narrator uses to wedge open a door, this is the other big contender for Roth’s darkest and angriest. The feature subject matter here is a hideously cruel, dream-annihilating marriage. Comprising two short stories and a memoir by the fictional Peter Tarnopol, this one’s a super-agile metafiction, too.

Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace. Two chapters in this book—the Eschaton chapter, and the one featuring the fight between Gately and the Hawaiianly shirted Canadians—had powerful influence on the way I thought about the “9-1-1 Is a Joke” section of The Instructions, as well as the aforementioned Book 20. Beyond that, I just generally tend to think it’s better to be reading this book than it is to be not-reading this book. Each time I read it, I’m more immersed in it than I was the last time; I care more deeply about more characters more often, and I understand more clearly how they’re shaped by one another and the world in which they live. I am not currently reading this book and I miss it.

“CivilWarLand In Bad Decline,” George Saunders. Even more surprising than the number of shivers packed into this story’s ending is how many times you can re-read it and be shaken. This isn’t at all to slight the rest of the story—which is violent, hilarious, grim, and sweet—but the last paragraph is the part that sticks around with the greatest clarity, and it’s everything I want the end of a narrative to be: as unforeseeable as it is inevitable, a justification of every syllable preceding it. I’ve read CivilWarLand no fewer than fifty times, and its last seven words make an appearance in The Instructions, written in permanent marker on the T-shirt of a chubby kid.

“A Poetics For Bullies,” Stanley Elkin. The last few words of this one appear on a different chubby kid’s T-shirt in The Instructions. Narrated by Push, an exceedingly articulate bully, this short story pits Truth against Love, and has you rooting lovingly for Truth. By the end, you’re not just hoping the bully will remain a bully; you need him to do so. If he quits, you’ll be lost.
Related post: LOA editor-in-chief Geoffrey O'Brien writes about works that influenced his writing in “The House of Walworth, American Gothic, and Gilded Age Literature.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Oscar Wilde visits Walt Whitman in Camden, New Jersey

It was on this day in 1882 that twenty-seven-year-old Oscar Wilde, on his first lecture tour of America, paid a visit to the ailing sixty-two-year-old Walt Whitman at Whitman’s brother’s home in Camden, New Jersey. Whitman was delighted with the meeting, as he told a reporter from The Philadelphia Press who came to interview him that evening. To Whitman “[Wilde] seemed . . . like a great big, splendid boy.”

After they shared a bottle of home-brewed elderberry wine (made by Whitman’s sister-in-law Louisa) in his parlor, Whitman took Wilde to his “den” on the upper floor of the house and found his guest surprisingly unaffected. “I imagine that he laid aside any affectation he is said to have, and that I saw behind the scenes.” In discussing his aesthetic philosophy, Wilde reportedly said, “I can’t listen to anyone unless he attracts me by a charming style or by beauty of theme.” Whitman disagreed:
Why, Oscar, it always seems to me that the fellow who makes a dead set at beauty by itself is in a bad way. My idea is that beauty is a result, not an abstraction.
Wilde had eagerly arranged the meeting through his Philadelphia publisher and claimed a familiarity with Whitman’s work “almost from the cradle” owing to his mother having regularly read to him from one of the first copies of Leaves of Grass published in Ireland. Wilde reported his impressions to the Boston Herald ten days later:
I spent the most charming day I have spent in America [with Whitman] . . . He is the grandest man I have ever seen. The simplest, most natural, and strongest character I have ever met in my life. I regard him as one of those wonderful, large, entire men who might have lived in any age, and is not peculiar to any one people. Strong, true, and perfectly sane: the closest approach to the Greek we have yet had in modern times. Probably he is dreadfully misunderstood.
Wilde frequently mentioned his fondness for Whitman in his lectures and reminisced at length about the visit in an interview in February:
The room which has most impressed me [in America is] a little bare whitewashed room . . . [upstairs at 431 Stevens Street] in Camden town, where I met Walt Whitman, whom I admire intensely. . . There was a big chair for him and a little stool for me, a pine table on which was a copy of Shakespeare, a translation of Dante, and a cruse of water. Sunlight filled the room, and over the roofs of the houses opposite were the masts of the ships that lay in the river. But then the poet needs no rose to blossom on his walls for him, because he carries nature always in his heart. This room contains all the simple conditions for art—sunlight, good air, pure water, a sight of ships, and the poet’s works.
Also of interest:
  • In the November 1882 issue of Century Magazine Helen Gray Cone published a parody “Narcissus in Camden,” which reimagines the conversation between the two poets as a poetic dialogue.
  • Gary Scharnhorst’s biographical note (PDF) includes more information about Whitman and Wilde, who met again in May.
  • In 2010 the University of Illinois Press published Oscar Wilde in America: The Interviews, edited by Scharnhorst and Matthew Hofer, which includes annotated transcriptions of forty-eight of the ninety-eight interviews Wilde gave during his 1882 tour.
Related LOA works: Walt Whitman: Poetry and Prose

Friday, January 14, 2011

James Baldwin on hearing Martin Luther King preach in Montgomery

In 1961 Harper’s Magazine commissioned James Baldwin to write a profile of Martin Luther King. Baldwin had first met King in 1958, a little more than a year after the Montgomery Bus Boycott (which King had helped lead) had ended in a federal decree outlawing desegregation on public buses. In “The Dangerous Road Before Martin Luther King” Baldwin, once a teenage preacher himself, offers one of the most vivid and insightful accounts of what it was like to hear the twenty-nine-year-old King:
King is a great speaker. The secret of his greatness does not lie in his voice or his presence or his manner, though it has something to do with all these; nor does it lie in his verbal range or felicity, which are not striking; nor does he have any capacity for those stunning, demagogic flights of the imagination which bring an audience cheering to its feet. The secret lies, I think, in his intimate knowledge of the people he is addressing, be they black or white, and in the forthrightness with which he speaks of those things which hurt and baffle them.  He does not offer any easy comfort and this keeps his hearers absolutely tense. He allows them their self-respect—indeed, he insists on it.
Most preachers, Baldwin notes, offer their congregation only “the sustenance for another day’s journey.” King by contrast made everyone who heard him feel they could “change their situation.” Baldwin quotes an example:
“. . . And we’ve got to stop lying to the white man. Every time you let the white man think you think segregation is right, you are co-operating with him in doing evil.
“The next time,” he said, “the white man asks you what you think of segregation, you tell him, Mr. Charlie, I think it’s wrong and I wish you’d do something about it by nine o’clock tomorrow morning!”
This brought a wave of laughter and King smiled, too. But he had meant every word he said, and he expected his hearers to act on them. They also expected this of themselves, which is not the usual effect of a sermon; and that they are living up to their expectations no white man in Montgomery will deny.
Previously on Reader’s Almanac:
Related LOA works: James Baldwin: Collected Essays

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Carver, Cheever, Twain: Let's not “say anything about New Year’s resolutions”

Two weeks into January marks the unofficial date by which all the various resolutions so hopefully made on January 1 have been quietly forgotten until next year. The making—and the giving up—of New Year’s resolutions seems a distinctly American tradition, so in search of company we wondered which authors might have been the worst at keeping theirs.

Not many writers owned up to failed attempts at annual resolutions, although Raymond Carver seems to have been familiar with the experience. His story “Where I’m Calling From” includes the following among its closing lines: “I won’t raise my voice. Not even if she starts something. She’ll ask me where I’m calling from, and I'll have to tell her. I won't say anything about New Year’s resolutions. There’s no way to make a joke out of this.”

John Cheever’s failure to keep his 1960 resolution is revealed by Blake Bailey in Cheever: A Life. Cheever’s goal was to write no more short stories (he hoped to write novels instead)—“which fortunately he failed to keep,” adds Jonathan Dee in a review for Harper’s Magazine.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the fullest account we could find of a failed attempt at keeping a resolution comes from Mark Twain. In The Innocents Abroad, after giving an example of how monotonous his journal had become while at sea for several weeks—a typical entry being, “Saturday—Morning, dominoes. Afternoon, dominoes. Evening, promenading the decks. Afterwards, dominoes.”—Twain writes:
It reminds me of the journal I opened with the New Year, once, when I was a boy and a confiding and a willing prey to those impossible schemes of reform which well-meaning old maids and grandmothers set for the feet of unwary youths at that season of the year—setting oversized tasks for them, which, necessarily failing, as infallibly weaken the boy’s strength of will, diminish his confidence in himself and injure his chances of success in life. Please accept of an extract:
Monday—Got up, washed, went to bed.
Tuesday—Got up, washed, went to bed.
Wednesday—Got up, washed, went to bed.
Thursday—Got up, washed, went to bed.
Friday—Got up, washed, went to bed.
Next Friday—Got up, washed, went to bed.
Friday fortnight—Got up, washed, went to bed.
Following month—Got up, washed, went to bed.”
I stopped, then, discouraged. Startling events appeared to be too rare, in my career, to render a diary necessary. I still reflect with pride, however, that even at that early age I washed when I got up. That journal finished me. I never have had the nerve to keep one since. My loss of confidence in that line was permanent.
Know of any other American writers with notable resolutions, kept or otherwise? Let us know in the comments.

Related LOA volumes: John Cheever: Collected Stories and Other Writings, Raymond Carver: Collected Stories, Mark Twain: The Innocents Abroad and Roughing It

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

A ten-mile run through Dashiell Hammett’s early Baltimore haunts

While readers usually associate him with San Francisco, Dashiell Hammett spent his formative years in Baltimore. His family settled there in 1898 when he was four and he didn’t leave permanently until he turned twenty-six. Baltimore was where Hammett cut his teeth as a twenty-one-year-old detective with the Pinkerton Detective Agency. James Wright, the older gumshoe who showed him the ropes, would later become the memorable character The Continental Op.

Scenes from Baltimore infuse Hammett’s fiction. The city in which The Glass Key is set is never named but anyone familiar with the street names recognizes it as Baltimore.

Commemorating yesterday's fiftieth anniversary of Hammett's death, Patrick Maynard charts a ten-mile run that visits ten sites that figured in his life or fiction—and in the process shows how much Baltimore has changed in the last century.

Also of interest: Find other sites from Hammett’s childhood at The Baltimore Literary Heritage Project

Related LOA works: Dashiell Hammett: Complete Novels; Dashiell Hammett: Crime Stories and Other Writings

Monday, January 10, 2011

Charles Guiteau, James Garfield’s assassin, and the disturbing history of political assassinations

Much of the coverage of the attempted assassination of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords on January 8 has speculated on what may have motivated the alleged shooter. In 1881 Cuban writer José Martí published in a Mexican newspaper a famous report of the trial of Charles Guiteau, the lawyer who assassinated President James Garfield. His account shows that heightened emotions and difficulty in attributing motivation have long followed political assassinations.
Interest in the trial of Garfield’s killer has not waned or tapered off. It’s as if a wild beast were on exhibit and the entire nation were gathered to have a look at it. Guiteau is a cold, demonic, livid figure . . . He does not arouse pity; he does not arouse forgiveness; he arouses no desire to excuse him.
Convinced that a speech he gave in support of Garfield was instrumental in his 1880 election, Guiteau appealed daily at the White House for a diplomatic appointment. Sternly and consistently rebuffed, he determined to assassinate Garfield and stalked and shot him twice on July 2, 1881.

Guiteau’s was one of the first high-profile trials to use the insanity defense. “Listen to him,” his defense attorney George Scoville urged the court. In his testimony Guiteau claimed his act was commanded by God:
. . . like a bolt of lightning the thought came to my mind that if Garfield was no longer in the way all problems would be resolved. In the morning the thought returned. And after that the idea of removing the president did not leave me; it worked on me, tortured me, oppressed me for two weeks. . . I then believed and I still believe now that it was divinely inspired. . . I wished no harm to the president. I was in great spiritual agitation, distraught and drowning. I had no relief until it was all done: then I felt happy, and gave thanks to God.
Garfield died from his wounds two months later. After a long and widely publicized trial, Guiteau’s defense failed. He was found guilty in January and executed in June 1882.

Almost exactly one hundred years later, the insanity defense was successfully employed in the trial  of John Hinckley, Jr., who was found not guilty by reason of insanity in the shooting of President Ronald Reagan.

Also of interest: David Rapp's account of the shooting of James Garfield in American Heritage

Related LOA works: True Crime: An American Anthology  (includes "The Trial of Guiteau" by José Martí)

Friday, January 7, 2011

Scholars Rediscover Three Forgotten Stories by Zora Neale Hurston

Earlier this week, Glenda R. Carpio and Werner Sollors published an essay on their experiences team-teaching a course on Zora Neale Hurston (who was born 120 years ago today) and Richard Wright. They used the two Library of America editions of Hurston’s writings as their primary texts, but encouraged students to do original research using less-accessible texts and resources. Poking around on their own, Carpio and Sollors unexpectedly rediscovered three forgotten stories by Hurston:
And then one afternoon we were burrowing through what felt like the umpteenth reel of microfilm from the 1920s and early 1930s, a time when Hurston had already published stories but before her first novel came out. Anyone who has used microfilm of newspapers knows how tedious scanning its often blurry print can be. Then Werner stopped. He had come upon a short story by Hurston that neither of us knew about. We kept looking. The next day, we found two more, all from 1927. As we looked into them, we discovered that not one was listed in the bibliography in Robert Hemenway’s biography of Hurston, or included in any collections of her stories that we knew of. Even more surprising, the stories were set in the New York City of the Harlem Renaissance; they reminded us less of the canonical Hurston than of authors like Rudolph Fisher and Nella Larsen, who are more closely associated with stories of migration from the country to the city and with sophisticated novels of manners in urban settings.

From: “The Newly Complicated Zora Neale Hurston,” The Chronicle of Higher Education (January 2, 2011)
The two scholars note that the existence of these three stories—and there may well be others—shows that it’s not entirely correct to view Hurston through the prism of her later focus on rural black life. “They show us that Harlem was of more than just passing interest to the author . . . Hurston’s urban period reminds us that she was a central player in the Harlem Renaissance—but also one of its fiercest critics.”

You can also view recently discovered footage filmed by Zora Neale Hurston during one of her research trips to Florida in 1928. More information about this film can be read here.

Related LOA volumes: Zora Neale Hurston: Novels and Stories, Zora Neale Hurston: Folklore, Memoirs, and Other Writings

Louis J. Budd, leading Twain scholar and LOA editor, dies at 89

We’ve just learned that Louis J. Budd, one of America’s foremost Mark Twain scholars of the twentieth century, died Monday, December 20, according to the Duke University press office. He was 89 years old.

Although he continued to teach for several years as a professor emeritus, Professor Budd formally retired in 1991—the year before the publication of The Library of America’s two-volume collection Mark Twain: Collected Tales, Sketches, Speeches, & Essays 1852–1910, which he edited. Among his other publications are Mark Twain: Social Philosopher (1962) and Our Mark Twain: The Making of His Public Personality (1983). He also co-edited (with Peter Messent) A Companion to Mark Twain (2005).

Appropriately for a Twain scholar, Professor Budd was known for his exactness and his wit. In his essay “Overbooking Halley’s Comet” (via the blog BeNotForgot), Budd discussed a famous saying attributed to Twain, “I came in [with Halley’s Comet]. I expect to go out with it”:
He did so only if we arrange the facts loosely. Crucial to those facts is: what dates the coming and going of that comet? . . . To book Twain for a round trip by the criterion of the comet’s closest approach to the earth, equal opportunity would have to include anybody born in the northern hemisphere up to at least six weeks before or after mid‑October 1835 and dying within the month before or after 18 May 1910. We don't need demographies to suggest that many women and men would have qualified for boarding‑passes. (As for how many when the best telescope was used—sheesh!) Halley’s Comet was not Twain’s unearthly Air Force One. There’s enough that is unique and even uncanny about Twain without our hyping the facts. In sober truth he had—to bowdlerize Twain—a “quadrilateral astronomical incandescent” career.
And we, too, bowdlerize Twain to salute Louis J. Budd for his “quadrilateral astronomical incandescent” career.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Will bowdlerizing Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn attract more readers?

Weeks after it was first published in February 1885, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn endured its first censorship attempt when the Concord Public Library in Massachusetts banned it. Now, 125 years later, a new edition from NewSouth Books in Alabama re-engages the controversy by choosing to replace the book’s 219 usages of the word “nigger” with “slave” (and similarly replacing “Injun”). The edition is the brainchild of Twain scholar Alan Gribben who found audiences more accepting when he made these changes during public readings, as he explained this morning in an NPR interview with Studio 360’s Kurt Andersen:
As I had these experiences on my lecture tour it began to seem to me that we were handicapping teachers and younger readers by not making something available that simply sidestepped this whole controversy about this one word. . . In every case the audience would let out an almost audible sigh of relief as though I had resolved some problem that they came to the reading with. . . Just get the rid of the word and then you can start talking about the story and the beauties and the sharp social critique in these words.
News about the new edition has sparked a viral response that has made Huckleberry Finn a trending topic on Twitter this week. Most reactions are negative. In a poll taken by the The St. Louis Post-Dispatch book blog, 98% of the 618 respondents said the change should not be made. With  articles appearing this past week in The New York Daily News and The New York Times, Shelley Fisher Fishkin (editor of The Library of America’s The Mark Twain Anthology: Great Writers on His Life and Work) is one of many scholars rallying to defend the original language, As she writes in the Times:
To understand how racism works in America it is necessary to understand how this word has been used to inflict pain on black people, challenge their humanity, and undercut their achievements. Leading black writers in America from Frederick Douglass to Ralph Ellison have understood this: to criticize racism effectively you have to make your reader hear how racists sound in all their offensive ugliness. When Malcolm X famously asked, “What do you call a black man with a Ph.D.?” and answered “Nigger,” he was testifying to the destructive power of this word and the world view it embodied.
Writer Ishmael Reed echoed Fishkin’s argument on The Wall Street Journal blog Speakeasy:
If one censors Mark Twain’s use of the word, why not censor the black writers who use the term? Whose characters use the term? My new book, Barack Obama and The Jim Crow Media, The Return of the Nigger Breakers, uses a term in the title that was employed in slave times to refer to workers whose specialty was breaking unruly slaves. One was Edward Covey to whom Frederick Douglass was sent to be broken. This account appears in “Life and Times of Frederick Douglass,” an 1881 classic which includes the word “nigger” at least ten times.
Like Douglass and other 19th-century authors, Twain used the words with which he was surrounded and to insist that he omit words is not only to put a gag on his characters but a gag on the Age.
Toni Morrison, in an essay included in The Mark Twain Anthology, acknowledges, “Reading ‘nigger’ hundreds of times embarrassed, bored, annoyed—but did not faze me.” And she concludes that, while readers have been arguing over what the novel is for a hundred years, “What it cannot be is dismissed. It is classic literature, which is to say it heaves, manifests and lasts.”

Also of interest:
Related LOA works: The Complete Mark Twain Library (7 volumes, plus a free book)

Vladimir Nabokov shares his enthusiasm for Lolita jackets from around the world

The good folks at Vintage/Anchor pointed us to the following video on YouTube. Particularly delightful is Nabokov’s quip about the Turkish cover (“I'm not sure who is—who is older!”).

See a previous Reader’s Almanac post about the reception of Lolita upon its publication—and the hostile rejection letters Nabokov initially received.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

New on the LOA website: Boxing in literature, James Fenimore Cooper

  • Recently listed by the popular blog The Millions as one of the most anticipated titles for 2011, At the Fights: American Writers on Boxing has just arrived from the printer. The contents of the 500-page volume have been posted and can be found here. This new anthology is available now for immediate shipment from the LOA Web Store and will be available in bookstores on March 3.
  • We’ve just posted a PDF version of Winter 2010-2011 Library of America Newsletter. The issue recaps the LOA’s fall list and recent reviews of last year’s titles and notes some major donations recently granted to The Library of America to support its mission.
  • For reasons known only to the mysterious overlords of publishing, recent sales of The Library of America's two-volume edition of James Fenimore Cooper’s The Leatherstocking Tales (The Last of the Mohicans, The Prairie, and three other novels) have spiked dramatically, and we've had to go back to press for a rush reprint. Although the first volume is currently out of stock at most retailers until next month, you can still get the set at the LOA Web Store for 25% off.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

New study of American character recalls Tocqueville’s Democracy in America

Is it still possible to define the American character? Was it ever? Recent reviews of Claude S. Fischer’s Made in America: A Social History of America’s Culture and Character are stirring lively debates. Writing in Boston Review, David M. Kennedy applauds Fischer, a sociologist, for undertaking a time-honored pursuit abandoned by historians in the 1960s. Kennedy finds in Fischer’s book echoes of Alexis de Tocqueville’s path-breaking two-volume study, Democracy in America (1835–40), which “remains the most astute analysis of American society ever penned, a touchstone and inspiration for all subsequent efforts to grasp the elusive essence of America’s national character.”

In his book, Fischer locates the central trait of the American character in voluntarism. Sarah E. Igo in her review for The American Prospect finds Fischer rediscovering (and sometimes straining to find) this “key trait that binds Americans together.” Similarly, Kennedy writes:
[Fischer] creatively fuses Tocqueville’s familiar observation about Americans as inveterate joiners and his equally famous notion of individualism. Voluntarism, for Fischer, embraces both the recognition of each person as a “sovereign individual” at liberty to pursue his or her own destiny, and the belief that “individuals succeed through fellowship—not in egoistic isolation but in sustaining, voluntary communities.”
On dagblog Donal interweaves thoughts about Fischer’s book with his reaction to watching the New Year’s Day Twilight Zone marathon and laments that “voluntarism isn’t uniting us.” But is it supposed to? What’s appealing about voluntarism as a unifying principle is that it can explain the impulse for some Americans to identify with the Tea Party and for others to join MeetUp or the Green Party or to attend the Rally to Restore Sanity.

The diversity and contrariness of the American character was exactly what de Tocqueville celebrated:
There is perhaps no country on earth where one meets fewer idle people than in America, or where all who work are more passionately devoted to the quest for well-being. . . An American will attend to his private interests as though he were alone in the world, yet a moment later he will dedicate himself to the public’s business as though he had forgotten them. At times he seems animated by the most selfish greed, and at other times by the most ardent patriotism. The human heart cannot be divided this way. The inhabitants of the United States alternately exhibit a passion for well-being and a passion for liberty so strong and so similar that one can only believe that the two passions are conjoined and confounded somewhere in their souls.
Also of interest:
Related LOA works: Alexis de Tocqueville: Democracy in America

Monday, January 3, 2011

The Best-Selling Titles in The Library of America’s First Three Decades

Over the weekend, Roger Ebert noted on Twitter that The Library of America’s first collection of Philip K. Dick fiction, Four Novels of the 1960s, is the “best-selling” title in the LOA’s history. Indeed, two years ago, we had publicized that the volume had sold faster than any other title during its first year of publication, and it is currently in its sixth printing, with more than 50,000 copies sold.

But, because it was published just four years ago, the volume has a way to go before it becomes the Library of America’s all-time best-selling title. We’re asked frequently what have been the most popular volumes in our history, and we thought we’d start off the New Year by publishing our top-ten titles, based on the total number of copies sold through all channels (including retail stores, book club sales, and our mail-order subscription program):
  1. Thomas Jefferson: Writings [1984]                                   217,518
  2. Mark Twain: Mississippi Writings [1982]                         150,973 
  3. Abraham Lincoln: Speeches 1859–1865 [1989]                120,589
  4. Abraham Lincoln: Speeches 1832–1858 [1989]                118,284
  5. Walt Whitman: Poetry & Prose [1982]                             114,790
  6. Henry David Thoreau: A Week, Walden, etc. [1985]        114,367
  7. Debate on the Constitution: Part One [1993]                               112,273
  8. Ralph Waldo Emerson: Essays & Lectures [1983]            108,781
  9. Robert Frost: Poems, Plays, & Prose [1995]                      106,772
  10. Flannery O'Connor: Collected Works [1988]                   105,753
Philip K. Dick, still selling strong, is at #39 on the list. Other titles published during the last decade include The American Revolution [2001] at #24, H. P. Lovecraft: Tales [2005] at #31, and John Steinbeck: Novels 1942–1952 [2001] at #38.

All told, the 215 titles in the Library of America series total 222,020 pages (an average of 1,047 pages per volume), with over 8 million copies in print.
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