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Friday, April 29, 2011

The poet-soldiers of the Civil War: Ambrose Bierce, John W. De Forest, Fitz-James O’Brien, Nathaniel Southgate Shaler

We certainly cannot close out National Poetry Month in this sesquicentennial year of the Civil War without acknowledging four poets who served as soldiers during the great cataclysm. Poets of the Civil War features writers from the North and South, but these four soldier-poets all fought for the Union. Their poems, in editor J. D. McClatchy’s words “exemplify a style too rare at the time” and “offer graphic witness to military life.”

Born in Ireland, Fitz-James O’Brien (1828–1862) was a well-known critic, playwright, and short-story writer in New York—and a regular at Pfaff’s Cellar, Walt Whitman’s favorite pub—when he volunteered in 1861 in the Seventh Regiment of the New York National Guard. Wounded in battle in February 1862, O’Brien managed to kill his attacker and rally his men, but his wound proved fatal and he died two months later, just a month after Harper’s magazine published perhaps his most famous poem, “A Soldier’s Letter.” O’Brien is also known for crafting wildly imaginative stories, his best-known, “The Diamond Lens” (1858), about a scientist who falls in love with a woman he discovers in a drop of water under a microscope.

Eighteen-year-old Ambrose Bierce (1842–1913) joined the Ninth Indiana Infantry in 1861, the second in the state to enlist. As Daniel Aaron notes in The Unwritten War: American Writers and the Civil War, “Of all the literary combatants of the Civil War, none saw more action or steeped himself so completely in the essence of battle.” Bierce fought at Shiloh, Murfreesboro, Stone River, Chattanooga, Kenesaw Mountain (where he was seriously wounded), Missionary Ridge, and Franklin. His wartime experience as a topographical engineer gives Bierce’s fiction and poetry a visual verisimilitude, even when what he describes borders on the surreal. Many of his mordant lines have echoed down the years, like these from “The Hesitating Veteran”:
The world is old and the world is bad,
   And creaks and grinds upon its axis;
And man's an ape and the gods are mad!—
   There's nothing sure, not even our taxes!
No mortal man can Truth restore,
   Or say where she is to be sought for.
I know what uniform I wore—
   O, that I knew which side I fought for!
Born in Kentucky and educated at Harvard, Nathaniel Southgate Shaler (1841–1906) was sympathetic to the South but believed a strong Union was necessary to protect states’ rights. Commissioned a captain in 1862, he helped defend Cincinnati against Braxton Bragg and fought off Morgan’s Raiders in Ohio. The attention to detail in Shaler’s poems betray his training as a geologist. A Southerner who always felt alien in the North, Shaler treats the enemy with compassion and respect. In “The Marksman’s Work,” after the sharpshooter “a lank, grizzled fellow, with the eye, / Blue-grey and strangely steadfast, of the sort / Who have the slaying habit,” takes out his mark at 900 yards, the Yankee soldiers “Keep eyes from others’ faces and seek out / Some trifling thing to do.”

John W. De Forest (1826–1906) may be better known for his novels (Aaron has called Miss Ravenel’s Conversion from Secession to Loyalty “the best novel about the War . . . written by a veteran or, for that matter, by anyone”), but McClatchy finds that he wrote poems distinguished by “precision and an eerie modernity.” A captain in the Union army, De Forest organized the Twelfth Connecticut Volunteers, a company from New Haven, and saw action in Louisiana and with Philip Sheridan in the Shenandoah Valley. De Forest’s battle experience and novelistic sense gives his poems a graphic immediacy, as this excerpt from “Campaigning” demonstrates:
And flying from afar, the shell
With changeful, throbbing, husky yell,
   A demon tiger, leaping miles
To spread his iron claws
   And tear the bleeding files;
While oft arose the charging cry
   Of men who battled for a glorious cause
And died when it was beautiful to die.
“Who wrote like that,” McClatchy asks, “until Wilfred Owen?”

[De Forest may be best known today for coining a phrase that has plagued generations of writers. His 1868 essay in The Nation, “The Great American Novel,” was the subject of a previous Reader’s Almanac post]

Also of interest:
  • William Howard Russell’s report on Charleston after the firing on Fort Sumter, a previous Story of the Week
  • Brooks D. Simpson on what letters by Grant, Lee, Sherman, and McClellan reveal, a previous Reader’s Almanac post
  • 150 year ago: The Civil War really begins—in Baltimore, a previous Reader’s Almanac post
Related LOA volumes: Poets of the Civil War; The Civil War: The First Year Told by Those Who Lived It; American Fantastic Tales: Terror and the Uncanny from Poe to the Pulps (includes Fitz-James O’Brien’s “What Was It?” and Ambrose Bierce's “The Moonlit Road”)

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Calvin Trillin, A. J. Liebling, Dorothy Kilgallen on reporters and murders

In his review this week of Janet Malcolm’s new book, Iphigenia in Forest Hills: Anatomy of a Murder Trial, Dwight Garner reminds us that before Calvin Trillin was The Nation’s Deadline Poet or The New Yorker’s “happy eater,” he was famed for his artful murder reportage:
In his best book, the nonfiction collection Killings (1984), Calvin Trillin described what attracts him—and so many other writers—to murder stories. “When someone dies suddenly shades are drawn up,” Mr. Trillin wrote. Lives are laid bare. A murder “gives us an excuse to be there,” he said, “poking around in somebody’s life.”
In New York City at the dawn of the twentieth century, when William Randolph Hearst’s Evening Journal was slugging it out for readers with Joseph Pulitzer’s Evening World—and the morning World’s separate staff battled to find headlines more lurid than the Evening World’s—murder reporting could get dangerously competitive. A. J. Liebling deftly chronicled this blood sport in “The Case of the Scattered Dutchman”:
Reporters developed their own leads in solving crimes, outbidding the police for stool pigeons and at times outbidding the detective branch for details observed by uniformed men. Then they would follow through in person, “arresting” suspects, if the latter didn’t appear dangerous, and extorting confessions from them. These they would publish as scoops. The practice sometimes proved momentarily awkward when it developed that a reporter had abducted an innocent party, but there were few such mistakes a ten-dollar bill wouldn’t square.
Nowadays, Garner writes, “When reporters talk about covering killings, they are really talking, most of the time, about covering trials.” Malcolm’s new book concerns the 2008 Borukhova murder trial in Queens and, Garner notes, Malcolm “writes sourly about journalism” in this context:
Human frailty continues to be the currency in which it trades. Malice remains its animating impulse.... A trial offers unique opportunities for journalistic heartlessness.
The evidence in True Crime: An American Anthology, however, strongly suggests that American murder trials have a long history of bringing out the prurient and cruel in reporters. “Heartless” is certainly an apt description of Dorothy Kilgallen’s 1935 portrait of the lover of murderer Robert Allen Edwards in “Sex and the All-American Boy”:
It was the consensus among my male colleagues, who either saw Margaret Crain in the flesh or studied her photographs, that she had about as much sex appeal as a pound of chopped liver. At twenty-three she was thin, dark-haired, shapeless, with a hawklike nose that seemed always to be sniffing something unpleasant.... If ever a truck driver had whistled at Margaret, his license would have been revoked immediately due to defective vision.
Harold Schechter, editor of True Crime, addressed this aspect of the genre’s writers in his LOA interview (PDF):
I don’t know if true crime writers were more guilty of such cattiness than other journalists of the day. But they certainly were less PC than their counterparts tend to be today—another example of the way true crime writings reflect changing social standards.
Also of interest:
Related LOA works: True Crime: An American Anthology (includes Calvin Trillin’s “A Stranger with a Camera,” A. J. Liebling’s “The Case of the Scattered Dutchman,” and Dorothy Kilgallen’s “Sex and the All-American Boy”)

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Karen Russell on how Joy Williams writes the unspeakable

by Karen Russell
(Knopf, 2011)
In our continuing series of guest blog posts by writers of fiction, history, essays, and poetry, Karen Russell, whose first novel Swamplandia! was just published, shares what reading the American writer Joy Williams has taught her.
When I started writing weird Florida tales in graduate school, more than one person was appalled that I hadn't read any Joy Williams. And they were so correct—I had been deeply remiss. More than the setting of her work—some of which does indeed take place in the queer light of Florida, as well as New Mexico and Arizona and Maine—I was amazed by the emotional states Joy Williams could imprint so fluidly on the page. Unlike any other writer I know, she can render the interior slide from grief to strange cravings to jokey observation to superstitious fears, all in the span of a single paragraph, or even sentence. Her leaps floor me: she sails with a freakish grace from poignancy to sarcasm, or from one character's fantasy to another's nightmare, or from a kitschy deer-foot lamp to a disagreement with Kierkegaard. Nobody in her stories behaves the way you expect and yet somehow even their craziest actions feel inevitable, preordained. When I read her, I feel like I'm in direct contact with the deep irrationality of our species.

That you could have this kind of unmediated contact with a character's interiority came as a revelation to me. I saw that Joy Williams had an almost musical gift for holding the minor key note, whereas in my fiction I tended to overexplain like a teenager caught out after curfew. My goony first-person narrator would wind up offering some kind of Cliff's Notes to his own story (“You're probably wondering why I did that just now. Well, when I was six years old, I had a bad experience with a waffle…”). Wow, I thought, as a writer you don't have to explain everything—you don't have to recruit your character's feelings and line them up across from your character's actions, with the black-and-white symmetry of a chess game. In Joy Williams's stories, action and motivation rarely connect in a safe or sane way. This disconnect makes her stories come off as robust and dangerous as real life.

For me, so much of the humor and the tragedy of her work come from watching her characters act contrary to all of their stated interests. You get a whiff of this from the first line of her fantastic novel, The Quick and the Dead, which begins “This was no place to be tonight for any of them, but this was the place they were.” (I should mention that this novel contains, among its cast, three motherless girls, a suicidal pianist, an oracular nurse, and a stroke victim named Ray who believes a monkey is living in the back of his brain).

Friday, April 22, 2011

Earth Day: A day for words . . . and for action

Guest blog post by Bill McKibben, editor of American Earth: Environmental Writing Since Thoreau:

Earth Day 1970 may have been the greatest single outpouring of democratic fervor in U.S. history—twenty million Americans, about a tenth of the population at that moment—took to the streets for rallies, celebrations, carnivals, and clean-ups.

They were inspired, in large measure, by words: as I tried to show in American Earth, pretty much every advance in American environmental understanding and practice had been fostered by great writing: the conservation movement by George Perkins Marsh, the national parks by John Muir, the wilderness drive by Bob Marshall. And Earth Day itself by the combined efforts of David Brower, with his remarkable Sierra Club coffee table books of the 1960s, and Rachel Carson, who managed to take the shine off modernity for the first time.

But all those people in the streets in turn inspired much action—within a short period Congress had passed the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, and most of our other basic environmental legislation (laws that it is completely impossible to imagine our current Congress passing—indeed, the action at the moment is about gutting the Clean Air Act). Environmental writing has always had an inescapably political side, and never more so than at present, when great writers like Terry Tempest Williams or Rick Bass or Wendell Berry are in the forefront of our various fights. Berry—arguably the most important writer at work in the country today—occupied the governor’s office in Kentucky earlier this spring to force action ending mountaintop removal coal mining. Last Monday in Washington, the great writer Janisse Ray (author of Ecology of a Cracker Childhood) was arrested during a sit-in at the Interior Department.

But it’s not just writers that can help here. The environmental movement thrives through the creativity, passion, and energy of citizens who care. For the past four years, I've been working with 350.org on the current climate crisis. Why 350? To preserve our planet, scientists tell us we must reduce the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere from its current level of 392 parts per million to below 350 ppm. 350.org uses online tools to facilitate strategic offline action. In the last two years, there have been 15,000 demonstrations in 189 nations. CNN called it the most widespread political activity in the planet’s history. Visit 350.org to find out about some current initiatives and what you can do to make this Earth Day personal.

Also of Interest
Related LOA volumes: American Earth: Environmental Writing Since Thoreau, John Muir: Nature Writings, Treasury of American Nature Writing (6 books)

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Forthcoming titles in The Library of America series

Earlier this year we announced our publication schedule for fall 2011, including five new volumes in The Library of America series. We’ve just mailed to subscribers the announcement of the series titles for 2011–2012, which includes four additional LOA series titles to be published next spring. Here are series titles #216 to #224:

Kurt Vonnegut: Novels & Stories 1963–1973
Sidney Offit, editor
June / Library of America #216
  • Cat’s Cradle
  • God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater
  • Slaughterhouse-Five
  • Breakfast of Champions
  • Stories

Harlem Renaissance Novels (two volumes)
Rafia Zafar, editor
September / Library of America #217 and #218
  • Cane, Jean Toomer
  • Home to Harlem, Claude McKay
  • Quicksand, Nella Larsen
  • Plum Bun, Jessie Redmon Fauset
  • The Blacker the Berry, Wallace Thurman
  • Not Without Laughter, Langston Hughes
  • Black No More, George Schuyler
  • The Conjure-Man Dies, Rudolph Fisher
  • Black Thunder, Arna Bontemps

Ambrose Bierce: The Devil’s Dictionary, Tales, & Memoirs
S. T. Joshi, editor
September / Library of America #219

Philip Roth: The American Trilogy 1997–2000
Ross Miller, editor
October / Library of America #220
  • American Pastoral
  • I Married a Communist
  • The Human Stain

The Civil War: The Second Year Told by Those Who Lived It
Stephen W. Sears, editor
January / Library of America #221

Barbara Tuchman: The Guns of August, The Proud Tower
Margaret MacMillan, editor
March / Library of America #222

Arthur Miller: Collected Plays 1964–1982
Tony Kushner, editor
February / Library of America #223
  • After the Fall
  • Incident at Vichy
  • The Price
  • The Creation of the World and Other Business
  • The Archbishop's Ceiling
  • The American Clock
  • other plays and writings, including previously unpublished material

Thornton Wilder: The Eighth Day, Theophilus North, & Autobiographical Writings
J. D. McClatchy, editor
February / Library of America #224

Visit our website for the complete list of series titles.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Counting the ways to celebrate National Poetry Month

Fifteen years ago The Academy of American Poets launched National Poetry Month “to widen the attention of individuals and the media—to the art of poetry, to living poets, to our complex poetic heritage, and to poetry books and journals of wide aesthetic range and concern.” Every year they invent new ways to get the country excited about poetry—and inspire others to do the same. Check out the AAP's thirty ways to celebrate—thirty ideas for what you can do to call attention to poetry, from suggestions as simple as “memorize a poem” to the more subversive “put poetry in an unexpected place.” Here's more:

Discover a new poem every day this month:
  • Poem-A-Day from the AAP is available year round on its webpage, via email, or using the Poem Flow iPhone App.
  • The editors of The New York Review of Books have selected thirty poems from the five hundred or so poems published “over the years” and are posting a new one every day in April.
  • Knopf Poetry has its own Poem-A-Day page drawing from poets it has published and available on its webpage or via email. You can also find all the poems posted in April 2010.
  • For the third year The Rumpus celebrates National Poetry Month by publishing a new, previously unpublished poem every day in April. 
  • Poetry Daily, of course, offers a new poem every day year round.
Poets on writing:
  • Thirty poets on Twitter: Follow the AAP's @POETSorg to read tweets by a different guest poet every day in April. See who will be tweeting in the upcoming days.
  • Last April The Poetry Foundation invited contributors to Harriet, its news blog, to write about the “whats, when, wheres, and whys of their writing and performing lives.” The result was “one of the most insightful, provocative, and, above all, supremely engaging months we have ever had on the blog.” So invites went out again. Read this year's entries.
  • Aimed at young writers, Scholastic's workshop-oriented National Poetry Month site features several poets, including Maya Angelou, explaining why they write.
Poets reading:
  • Use the National Poetry Map, an AAP creation, to find poetry readings and events in your state.
  • Watch a video at FSG Poetry of Paul Muldoon and Robert Pinsky celebrating the coincidence of National Poetry Month and National Podiatry Month by "sharing a few metrical feet." 
  • The University of New Mexico has added several new videos—of Renny Golden, Tony Mares, and Jessica Helen Lopez—to its ongoing collection of National Poetry Month videos of poets reading their work
Readers on poetry: 
  • This year the semifinals and the finals of Poetry Outloud, the annual national recitation contest sponsored by The Poetry Foundation and The National Endowment for the Arts, will be webcast live. Watch for it on April 28 and 29. 
  • At Poetry Society of America Laurel Crosby is asking its readers to “share the line of poetry that made you fall in love with the art.” More than 200 have responded so far. 
  • A perennial magnet for poetry lovers is the Favorite Poem Project, a collaboration between Boston University and The Library of Congress. Founded by Robert Pinsky in 1997 when he was Poet Laureate of the United States, the project features fifty short video documentaries of "individual Americans reading and speaking personally about poems they love."
Related LOA works: Four Centuries of American Poetry (five volumes—plus a free book); American Poets Project – The Complete Set (31 volumes)

Friday, April 15, 2011

Ah, spring! when sporting minds turn to baseball—and books about baseball

Every April prompts high hopes for the home team, high expectations for the new roster of baseball books, and hearty harrumphs for pundits calling critical balls and strikes.

David Ulin in the Los Angeles Times kicks off the season by revising his list of “The Nine Best Baseball Books”—notoriously excluding Roger Kahn’s The Boys of Summer and Jim Bouton’s Ball Four—but happily including Ring Lardner’s You Know Me Al, Bernard Malamud’s The Natural, Jim Brosnan’s The Long Season, Jimmy Breslin’s Can’t Anybody Here Play This Game?, and Roger Angell’s Five Seasons. On Open Page Chauncey Mabe is baffled that Ulin’s list fails to include any of Mark Harris’s four baseball novels, which he asserts “together constitute a neglected classic of literary Americana.”

Leonard Cassuto, co-editor of the recently published Cambridge Companion to Baseball, sounds off in The Chronicle that “no one should doubt that baseball is America’s most literary sport.”
The game has a natural affinity to narrative: Each contest unfolds like a measured story, and the gaps in the action leave room for embroidery of all kinds. And embroidery there has been, with the romance of baseball proclaimed—against evidence that baseball is a big business, and often a venal one.
Likewise, in “Baseball in literature, baseball as literature,” their chapter in the Cambridge Companion to Baseball, Stephen Partridge and Timothy Morris note, “It’s hard to read an American classic without finding some mention of baseball.” Even Jay Gatsby, the ultimate American dreamer, may have had ties to the fixing of the 1919 World Series. Partridge and Morris uncover many little-known gems, including Lucy Kennedy’s 1950 novel The Sunlit Field, which recreates pre–Civil War baseball in Brooklyn and features a cameo appearance by Walt Whitman.

The connection between baseball and American culture gets its most sustained celebration every June at the Cooperstown Symposium on Baseball and American Culture, hosted by the Baseball Hall of Fame and the State University of New York at Oneonta. In February McFarland & Company published a collection of the best presentations from 2009 and 2010 including the intriguingly entitled “Plié Ball! Baseball in American Dance,” “On the Brink: Babe Ruth in Dennis Lehane’s The Given Day,” and “The Golem, the Rabbi, and ‘That Long-Sought Hebrew Star’: Jews in 1920s Baseball.”

And what’s spring without a controversy? Baseball statistician extraordinaire Bill James stirred up an opening-day fracas when he excerpted a piece from his new book, Solid Fool’s Gold: Detours on the Way to Conventional Wisdom, on Slate. “Shakespeare and Verlander” asked “why are we so good at developing athletes and so lousy at developing writers?” “The population of Topeka, Kansas,” James observes “is roughly the same” size as London’s population in Shakespeare’s time. So where, James asks, are the distinguished writers of Topeka? Dean Robinson, Alan Jacobs, and Ross Douthat were among the legion quick to challenge the wisdom of James’s assumptions (including the question of which player belongs in the title with Shakespeare—certainly not Verlander).

Also of Interest
Related LOA Title: Baseball: A Literary Anthology (includes pieces by Roger Angell, Jim Bouton, Jimmy Breslin, Jim Brosnan, Mark Harris, Roger Kahn, Ring Lardner, Bernard Malamud, Buster Olney, and many more)

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Pete Hamill discusses tabloids, boxing, and Cus D’Amato

In the video below, Broadway Boxing interviews LOA editor and author Pete Hamill.

(Courtesy Alex Belth's Bronx Banter and sny.tv)

“Up the Stairs with Cus D’Amato”, the selection Hamill discusses in the video, was a recent Story of the Week.

Related LOA works: At the Fights: American Writers on Boxing

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

After 150 years, readers and writers still wonder: Is there—or can there be—a Great American Novel?

The Great American Novel, that quixotism of American letters, is an idea originating in the efforts of a young country to define and distinguish both itself and its literature. Perhaps it is surprising, then, to find that the term has a concrete genesis: an article called (what else?) “The Great American Novel” and written by the Civil War novelist John William De Forest in the January 9, 1868, issue of The Nation.

De Forest argues that though the country was too young and green to produce an epic poem a la the Iliad or the Aeneid, America could possibly still produce a Great American Novel. He runs through a shortlist of possible authors:
  • Washington Irving: “too cautious”
  • James Fenimore Cooper: “shirked the experiment”
  • Nathaniel Hawthorne: “staggered under the load of the American novel”
  • Harriet Beecher Stowe: “the nearest approach to the desired phenomenon”
  • Oliver Wendell Holmes: “hampered by his scientific theories”
De Forest asks, “Is there, in other words, a single tale which paints American life so broadly, truly, and sympathetically that every American of feeling and culture is forced to acknowledge the picture as a likeness of something which he knows?” He answers, “Not one!”

Since De Forest introduced the Great American Novel as a goal for American literature, many writers have made it the aim of their careers. In a 2009 article for Salon, Laura Miller refers to this preoccupation as the Great Literary American Novel Syndrome, or GLANS. Among its victims:
  • Norman Mailer called the Great American Novel “the big one,” says The Independent in an article about his quest for it. He first announced his intention of writing one in 1957, toiling towards that goal for the next fifty years
  • Ralph Ellison spent forty years working on a follow-up to Invisible Man, in which he aimed, according to Newsweek, “to do nothing less than plumb once and for all the mystery and dilemma of race and identity in American society.” He died before he could finish it.
  • Truman Capote began Answered Prayers in 1958, intending it to be an American À la recherché du temps perdu. Its original publication date, in 1968, was delayed to 1972, then ‘75—when the first of four chapters ran in Esquire—then ’77 and ’81. It was published posthumously, in unfinished form, in 1987.
In 1973 Philip Roth published his mockingly titled The Great American Novel, a book about a failed major-league baseball league that pokes fun at (in the words of a reviewer in The New York Times) “the decorums of novel-writing and the frailer conventions of the national style.” Thirty years later, when a journalist effusively praised the book, Roth “laughed and said it’s usually the precocious teen sons of friends who tell him that. But he said no novel was more fun to write.”

A Wikipedia list, while hardly definitive, includes twenty candidates for Great American Novel and serves as an interesting starting point for discussion. Tell us what you think—is there, or can there be, a single novel of the type De Forest envisioned, a work that captures the American zeitgeist? And, in her Salon article, Miller highlights the question, “Why can’t a woman write the Great American Novel?” The Wikipedia list includes The Age of Innocence and To Kill a Mockingbird, but are there any candidates by women that have been unjustly neglected?

Related reading:
Related LOA volumes: Philip Roth: Novels 1973–1977

Monday, April 11, 2011

150 year ago: The Civil War really begins—in Baltimore

"Massachusetts militia passing through Baltimore,"
oil on Canvas (1861).

Guest blog post by Harold Holzer, editor of The Lincoln Anthology: Great Writers on His Life and Legacy from 1860 to Now

Writers and readers alike usually mark their Civil War sesquicentennial calendars by the so-called “official” beginning of the conflict: the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861.

In fact, that show of firepower cost no lives, and caused little damage save for the temporary splintering of the flagpole that hoisted the American flag. The “real” war began a week later, in a state that never seceded: Maryland. On April 19, the 6th Massachusetts Infantry, passing from one train station to another in Baltimore en route to the defense of Washington, fell under attack from local toughs. When the smoke cleared, four soldiers and nine civilians lay dead in the streets.

Horrifically bloody as it was, the fury that the pro-secession mob unleashed that day should have surprised no one—least of all President Abraham Lincoln. Just two months earlier, the festering hostility there nearly ended his presidency before it began.

Bowing to warnings of violence, even assassination, he had reluctantly but wisely cancelled his planned pre-inaugural public visit to the city and slipped through town secretly overnight en route to Washington. Had he chosen to brave the gangs committed to preventing his safe passage to the capital, President-elect Lincoln might not have lived to become President Lincoln.

Baltimore remained a particularly churning pro-slavery hotbed—especially after the President called for volunteers to suppress the Rebellion after the attack on Fort Sumter. To many Baltimoreans, Lincoln threatened nothing less than invasion of sovereign states, and no doubt the President’s decision to send troops to prevent formation of a Maryland secession convention fueled the fear and resentment further.

Lincoln long remained embarrassed about slipping through Baltimore in February, but he never apologized for sending Massachusetts volunteers through the city in April—even into the fury of people he angrily condemned as “rowdies.” To objections from its Mayor, who insisted that the Administration divert further trainloads of troops, he erupted: “Our men are not moles, and can’t dig under the earth; they are not birds, and can’t fly through the air. There is no way but to march across, and that they must do.”

The following morning he met wounded survivors of the attack on the 6th Massachusetts and lamented, “I begin to believe that there is no North.” But in a tougher manner, he told one of Maryland’s senators that day that the capital would be defended no matter what. Striking a tone that he would maintain for the next four years, Lincoln declared bluntly of the secessionists: “I do not mean to let them invade us without striking back.”

“And,” as he put it four years later, “the war came.”

Also of interest:
  • A recent blog post on Iron Brigader details the events of the Baltimore Riot
  • Read Ralph Brave on how the “Pratt Street Riots” affected the history of Baltimore
  • Read William Howard Russell’s famous report on the Battle of Fort Sumter, a previous Story of the Week
  • Read Brooks D. Simpson on Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address, a previous Reader’s Almanac post
  • Read Harriet Jacobs on the horror of slave auctions, a previous Reader's Almanac post
Related LOA works: The Civil War: The First Year Told by Those Who Lived It (includes eyewitness accounts of the April 19 Baltimore Riot); The Lincoln Bicentennial Collection (3-book boxed set)

Friday, April 8, 2011

Christopher Benfey on Stephen Crane’s debut as a poet

Just six months after the sensation caused by the serialization of The Red Badge of Courage, Stephen Crane created a stir of a different kind when, in May 1895, the avant-garde Arts & Crafts publisher Copeland & Day brought out Black Riders and Other Lines, his first book of poems. In an exclusive interview with The Library of America Christopher Benfey, editor of Stephen Crane: Complete Poems (the latest volume in the American Poets Project series), sets the scene:
Crane wrote the sixty or so poems of Black Riders in a single period of creative intensity, during the first three months of 1894, when he was living hand to mouth as a freelance newspaper writer in New York City. It was like Rilke in Duino or Van Gogh at Arles, with the creative lightning striking again and again. Crane felt, at the time, that he could “turn the poetic spout on or off.” The book has a tight unity of form and focus (mainly brief, free-verse parables of an ironic bent). Crane was aiming to shock; in his writing he wanted, he said, to be “unmistakable.” And he achieved what he was after in Black Riders. Nobody else could have written poems like these. Here’s one of my all-time favorites, three lines of blistering warning about the self-fulfilling perils of paranoia:
A man feared that he might find an assassin;
Another that he might find a victim.
One was more wise than the other
LOA: Do you think Crane would be unhappy that most publishers today ignore the convention of printing the poems from Black Riders entirely in uppercase letters? If printed that way today we would read each poem as if it were shouted. Is that what Crane intended?
Benfey: It wasn’t Crane’s idea to print the poems entirely in capital letters, like newspaper headlines, but he loved the effect. His publishers, for some reason, called the layout “classical,” but the typological look of the poems is bracingly modern, like something out of E. E. Cummings or Mallarmé. Such a layout, as some critics have noted, insists on the written status of the poem, as opposed to seemingly orally based poetry like Whitman’s. I like to think that Crane wanted his poems to be delivered by the strongest and loudest possible means, and capital letters had that effect on his first readers, like amplification. To use them now, though, would run the risk of making the poems seem merely eccentric or gimmicky. And it’s by no means clear that Crane would want them printed that way.

The opening poem as it appeared in the original edition of Black Riders

Read the entire interview (PDF)

Also of interest:
Related LOA volumes: Stephen Crane: Complete Poems (American Poets Project)

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Herman Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener” still inspires and unsettles writers

Chris from Chrisbookarama had to write to about Bartleby because “he keeps popping up in my life.” Anthony on Time’s Flow Stemmed was surprised by how “disquieting” he found Melville’s 1853 story. And for Ben Kafka, in Lapham’s Quarterly, the story is one of the “smartest inquiries into the psychopathology of paperwork” and forms part of Kafka’s own entertaining inquiry into diverse aspects of office work: Why, he wonders, is there no Norton Anthology of Paperwork?
My Norton Anthology of Paperwork would include some of the finest historical examples of boilerplate, alongside selections of letterhead, fill-in-the-blank forms, fine print, and the history of that wonderfully poetic instruction, “last name, first.” . . . Paperwork occupies us and preoccupies us, whether we are maritime lawyers or nail-salon owners, congressional aides or human-resource managers, college professors or freelance web designers.
Pondering paperwork leads Kafka to wonder why paperworkers “so often feel sorry for ourselves . . . while having so little sympathy for others.” And why “paperwork has so few heroes in mythology, literature, cinema, real life. There is no John Henry or Mighty Casey or Casey Jones or Rosie the Riveter inspiring us to work better or harder.” Such thinking leads to his appreciation of Melville’s treatment of “the physical and psychical consequences of office work” and, in particular, his portrayal of what the story’s narrator describes as "the interesting and somewhat singular set of men, of whom, as yet, nothing that I know of has ever been written—I mean the law copyists, or scriveners."

Scriveners, Kafka notes, used tools that “resembled those of a medieval monk in many ways, not least in the reliance on a quill pen, the steel nib still being relatively novel.” Even Melville’s narrator concedes that copying
is a very dull, wearisome, and lethargic affair. . . I can readily imagine that, to some sanguine temperament, it would be altogether intolerable. For example, I cannot credit that the mettlesome poet Byron would have contentedly sat down with Bartleby to examine a law document of, say five hundred pages, closely written in crimpy hand.
The problem of the story, Kafka writes, “is that Bartleby turns out to be no more willing to work than the mettlesome poet.” One day he simply refuses to copy. His mild “I would prefer not to,” the most memorable line in the story, could perhaps be considered the stifled rallying cry of legions of paperworkers ever since.

What explains the story’s enduring appeal? Kafka turns to a 1974 essay by psychoanalyst Christopher Bollas who found that “the story is more about the narrator than the narrated.” It is the lawyer’s sympathy, as much as the pitiful plight of the clerk, that moves us. And yet:
the narrator cannot quite transform this identification into a proper sense of solidarity. The thing he and his copyist have most profoundly in common, paperwork, is also what drives them apart. The copying has to get done, whether Bartleby prefers to or not. The story’s famous last lines, “Ah, Bartleby! Ah, humanity!” express the narrator’s bad conscience, which should also be ours. What our fellow paperworkers need isn’t pity, but patience.
Related LOA works: Herman Melville: Pierre, Israel Potter, The Piazza Tales, The Confidence-Man, Billy Budd, Uncollected Prose (includes “Bartleby, the Scrivener”)
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