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Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Rafia Zafar on writers of the Harlem Renaissance—and the first “naissance”

To celebrate the publication of Harlem Renaissance Novels, volume editor Rafia Zafar spoke and read selections from the novels at the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in October. The animated Q&A session afterwards offered many intriguing insights into how these novels have been received—by Professor Zafar’s students and some recent reviewers.
Question: You say you feel shy about declaring your favorite [of the nine novels in the collection]. But what about your students? Do they have favorites? 
Zafar: They do. It’s interesting because I tell them sometimes I have no idea what they are going to like. And generationally it changes. For example, this is going back to nineteenth century [writing]. I taught Iola Leroy, the 1892 novel by Frances Harper, for years and my students would think it was the biggest snooze in the world, though I love it. And then about fifteen years ago my students started saying “This is the bomb, Dr. Z. This is so cool. They’re really talking about real issues and important matters.” Okay, what happened? The girls often like Plum Bun because, whatever their ethnic background, it speaks to them as young women trying to figure out who they are. It’s an identity . . . it’s a bildungsroman
That’s another thing. There are lots of different things that people do with genres in this period. Mystery novels. The female bildungsroman. The interesting modernist concatenation of forms that Jean Toomer does in Cane. Depending on where individual students are in their lives, they can really seize on books. But I’m sometimes surprised. Like with Iola Leroy—I think this might be didactic. Black Thunder is great. I like having history made alive. Some students like The Conjure-Man Dies because they think “Oh, wow, I’m reading a mystery novel for my literature class and that’s so cool.” They like different things. 
Question: You haven’t said anything about George S. Schuyler’s Black No More
Zafar: Oh, wow. One of the funny things that happened is there was a review in The Wall Street Journal and a review in the San Francisco Chronicle—and I won’t say which is which, but one of them said “I don’t know why she included this novel.” I mean, she’s obviously insane. And the other said: “Brilliant to include Black No More.” Satire is difficult. Sometimes the students—particularly because this satire gets very vicious toward the end where there’s a whole inversion of lynching—the students can get very, very disturbed. That’s a hard one to read. I love satire. 
But it’s not only satire. You can think of [Schuyler] as a precursor to Octavia Butler and Samuel Delany because it’s also science fiction. There’s the mad scientist, Dr. Crookman, the black scientist who invents this procedure that will turn black people white. The hook of the book is: what happens to America if all the black people disappear. And he just goes on from there. And it’s very, very funny. But there’s a very scary, dark humor that comes in at the end. I won’t give away what happens when all the black folks disappear. Wave a magic wand. 
Question: You said that early in your career you looked for the “naissance” before the “renaissance.” Could you say more about that? 
Zafar: If there was a reflowering of African American literature, when was the first flowering? That’s what led me to Phillis Wheatley whom I’ve written about long ago and then again recently for the Harvard Literary History. I just wanted to know who was writing then. My students are often shocked. They say, “Oh, there were black writers in the eighteenth century?” I say,“Yeah, maybe not thousands of them, but there were people writing.” 
And with the shift to transatlantic literature it’s been very interesting for me, since I love Phillis Wheatley. I love Harriet Jacobs. I think of them as my role models. One of the things I like to say is that, like Harriet Jacobs, I like to feel that I’m “creeping along with the humbler bugs”—one of her great lines from one of her letters. 
This is a really interesting time for early American literature, if you’re following it, because Wheatley is now seen as transatlantic. When you think of how she was hived off as the first black writer, the person the abolitionists held up: “See they can write! They can rhyme! They can write poetry!” And now she’s seen as part of this broader continuum of letters going transatlantic. You now have Donna Landry, a scholar who writes about the milkmaid poets in England in the eighteenth century and she includes Phillis Wheatley because she sees this continuum of white and black working class poets. And that’s kind of an exciting thing. In the 1830s, 1840s, 1850s, there is this real explosion of African American writing and that’s what I was looking at in my first book. [We Wear the Mask: African Americans Write American Literature, 1760-1870]
Watch a video of Rafia Zafar speaking at the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute (50 mins)

Also of interest:
Related LOA works: Harlem Renaissance Novels (boxed set); American Poetry: The Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries (includes eleven poems by Phillis Wheatley); Slave Narratives (includes The Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Ann Jacobs)

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Margaret Fuller’s Thanksgiving Day revelation

On Thanksgiving Day, 1831, 21-year-old Margaret Fuller experienced a moment Emerson biographer Robert D. Richardson describes as having “some of the earmarks of a religious conversion and some elements of a mystical experience.” Fuller had attended morning church services with her father but had “a feeling of disunion with the hearers and dissent from the preacher.”

Spending the next few hours walking alone through nearby fields, she came upon a stream “shrunken, voiceless, choked with withered leaves.” She sat down by a pool. Nine years later she recreated what happened next in her journal:
I did not think; all was dark, and cold, and still. Suddenly the sun shone out with that transparent sweetness, like the last smile of a dying lover, which it will use when it has been unkind all a cold autumn day. And, even then, passed into my thought a beam from its true sun, from its native sphere, which has never since departed from me. I remembered how, a little child, I had stopped myself one day on the stairs, and asked, how came I here? How is that I seem to be this Margaret Fuller? What does it mean? What shall I do about it? I remembered all the times and ways in which the same thought had returned. I saw how long it must be before the soul can learn to act under these limitations of time and space, and human nature; but I saw, also, that it MUST do it,--that it must make all this false true,--and sow new and immortal plants in the garden of God, before it could return again. I saw there was no self, that selfishness was all folly, and the results of circumstance; that it was only because I thought self real that I suffered; that I had only to live in the idea of the ALL, and all was mine. This truth came to me, and I received it unhesitatingly; so that I was for that hour taken up into God. In that true ray most of the relations of earth seemed mere films, phenomena.
This momentary epiphany infused Fuller’s life. Her biographer Charles Capper finds that it did not so much change her religious opinions as add to her life “two things at once subtler, and, in the long run, much more important”:
One was a certain intuitive religiosity she had never known before. The other was a new degree of philosophical seriousness and urgency—a desire . . . not for self-renunciation but for some sort of self-transcendence. She was on her way to transforming herself from a bookish adolescent to an intellectual with a mission.
Also of interest:
Related LOA works: Writing New York: A Literary Anthology (includes Margaret Fuller on “City Charities”); American Poetry: The Nineteenth Century, volume one: Freneau to Whitman (includes two poems by Margaret Fuller)

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Sanford Schwartz on the “bedrock of emotional rightness and believability” in Pauline Kael’s film criticism

Sanford Schwartz, art critic and biographer, recently spoke with us about The Age of Movies: Selected Writings of Pauline Kael, which he edited for The Library of America.

Why a new collection of Pauline Kael's writing, and why now?

I believe Pauline Kael has one of the truly distinctive voices in American criticism—American writing, really—and needs to have a representative selection of her writing continuously available. It is wonderful that The Library of America feels the same way. And then most of her own collections have been out of print.

What was your relationship to Kael, and how did she influence you as moviegoer, as critic, and as a writer?

We were good friends from the 1960s on. Like many people, I wanted to talk back to her reviews—her writing invited this—and so I wrote her now and then, and that is how our friendship began. Later, there was a period when we lived a few blocks from each other, and it was easy to get together. She was an immense influence in many ways. I didn’t always agree with her, of course, but I was so amazed by her aphoristic and witty style I rarely felt I could just dismiss her opinions. They got under my skin.

In my twenties I wanted to write movie criticism, and I sent her pieces for comment, which she freely, often stingingly, gave. Even after I eventually came to write about art, I often sent her pieces to look at. This was tricky, because she was a teacher of sorts, and a generous one, and she didn’t just read you: she judged every sentence. If I survived her scrutiny I felt armored and ready to take on my actual editor. When I read her letters in preparation for selecting pieces for The Age of Movies, I found that she was doing that same thing for whatever her friend Robert Duncan would send her, and she was in her early twenties at the time.

What was Kael's impact on the cultural scene of the 1960s and 1970s?

I think she had less of an impact in the 1960s because at the beginning of the decade she was writing mostly for movie and small-circulation magazines and then, later in the decade, you didn’t know where she would pop up. Her greatest influence certainly came after she joined The New Yorker in 1968 and during the first two-thirds of the next decade, when American movies in particular were so exciting and demanding. Many commentators have described her principally in terms of the way she showed how you could write about a popular, mass-market form and find in it the aspirations and delusions of the culture as a whole. I don’t deny the importance of this. But for the majority of her readers, and this would be in the 1980s as well, her significance was that, whether she liked the film or not, she gave you, as no other writer did, the full experience of it.

John Dos Passos on the 1932 “Bonus Army” encampment in Washington, D.C.

Earlier this month The History Nerd and NPR’s Radio Diaries noted parallels between the current Occupy Wall Street movement and the Bonus Army protests of 1932. Both initiatives, in Radio Diaries’ words, “set up encampments and vowed to stay until their voices were heard.”

What prompted the Bonus Army movement may need some context. In 1924, Congress passed a bill, over President Calvin Coolidge’s veto, to compensate World War I veterans: $1 a day for domestic service, $1.25 for each day served overseas. Those entitled to $50 were to be paid immediately, but those due more would receive certificates redeemable only upon their deaths or in 1945, whichever came sooner.

As the Depression deepened, many veterans felt they could not wait for their “Tombstone Bonus.” One of the most impatient was Walter W. Waters, an out-of-work former Army sergeant who, on March 15, 1932, stood up at a meeting in Portland, Oregon, and urged his fellow veterans to hop a freight train to Washington to claim the money that was rightfully theirs. By May 11 Waters had stirred up enough support that 250 Oregon veterans joined him on his march.

Newspaper coverage of their trek, by rail and truck, inspired marches by veterans across the country. When Waters and his men reached Washington on May 29 several hundred others had already arrived—and soon tens of thousands were encamped in Anacostia Flats and other areas in the northeast quadrant of the capital.

Dispatched by The New Republic to cover this grassroots phenomenon, John Dos Passos reported on what he saw in June 1932 (later collected in In All Countries):
Anacostia Flats is the ghost of an army camp from the days of the big parade, with its bugle calls, its messlines, greasy K. P.'s, M. P.'s, headquarters, liaison officers, medical officer. Instead of the tents and the long tarpaper barracks of those days, the men are sleeping in little leantos built out of old newspapers, cardboard boxes, packing crates, bits of tin or tarpaper roofing, old shutters, every kind of cockeyed makeshift shelter from the rain scraped together out of the city dump. 
. . . One of the strangest sights Pennsylvania Avenue has ever seen was a long line of ex-service men, hunched under their bedticking full of straw, filling up a long stairway in the middle of a particularly demolished fourstory garage that the police department had turned over to them. The cops and ex-service men play baseball together in the afternoon; they are buddies together. 
The arrival of the bonus army seems to be the first event to give the inhabitants of Washington any inkling that something is happening in the world outside of their drowsy sunparlor. . . . In the Anacostia streetcar two mail carriers and the conductor started to talk about it. “Well, they say they'll stay here till they get the bonus if they have to stay here till 1945 . . . . Terrible to think of men, women, and children starvin' and havin' to beg charity relief with all the stuff there is going to waste in this country.” . . . One of the mail carriers was from Texas and had just come back from a trip home. He'd seen them plowing under last year's unharvested cotton. “We got the food, we got the clothing, we got the man power, we got the brains,” he said. “There must be some remedy.”
When one proposed remedy—a cash-now bill to appropriate $2.4 billion to the veterans—passed the House but failed to pass the Senate, many bonus marchers accepted defeat and left. But more than 20,000 stayed. And the Hoover administration grew anxious. On July 28, just shy of two months after the encampment began, the Washington police began the process of removing the marchers. A skirmish around the armory led to shots being fired, a veteran was killed and three policemen injured. President Hoover called in General Douglas MacArthur to resolve the crisis. Paul Dickson and Thomas Allen, authors of The Bonus Army: An American Epic, chronicle what followed in an excellent article in Smithsonian Magazine:

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Nathaniel Philbrick asks “Why Read Moby-Dick?” and many rise to the “cunning test”

One of the delightful consequences of the publication of maritime historian Nathaniel Philbrick’s provocative new book, Why Read Moby-Dick?, is how it has spurred reviewers to seek the clinching answer.

Philbrick offers an “adaptation” of his argument in the November issue of Vanity Fair. After itemizing what made the time in which Melville wrote such an “extraordinary historical moment”—the sudden eruption of railroads and steamboats, the end of the Mexican War, the discovery of gold in California, and, most ominously, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which made slavery “no longer just a southern problem”—Philbrick expounds:
Melville’s intense imaginative engagement with these forces of turmoil and change meant that the novel he wrote and re-wrote over the course of a year beginning in September 1850 would be about much more than a whaling voyage to the Pacific. Indeed, contained in the pages of Moby-Dick is nothing less than the genetic code of America: all the promises, problems, conflicts, and ideals that had contributed to the outbreak of a revolution in 1775 and were about to precipitate a civil war in 1861, and that have continued to drive this country’s ever contentious march across 160 years, up through the current “war on terror.” This means that whenever a new crisis grips this country, Moby-Dick becomes newly important. It is why subsequent generations of readers have seen Ahab as Hitler during World War II or, closer to our own day, as a profit-mad, deep-drilling oil company in 2010, or as one of several power-crazed Middle Eastern dictators in 2011. 
Among the expatriates in Paris in the 1920s, Moby-Dick was what one writer described as “a sort of cunning test by which the genuineness of another man’s response to literature could be proved.” In 1927, William Faulkner, who would later hang a framed print of Rockwell Kent’s Captain Ahab in his living room in Oxford, Mississippi, claimed that Moby-Dick was the one novel by another author that he wished he had written. In 1949, Ernest Hemingway, upon entering his 50s, wrote his publisher that he considered Melville one of the handful of writers he was still trying to beat.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Jonathan Lethem on the “Exegesis” of Philip K. Dick

This month Houghton Mifflin publishes The Exegesis of Philip K. Dick, a massive tome of more than one thousand pages edited by Jonathan Lethem and Pamela Jackson. To create this volume the editors culled through some 8,000 pages of typed and handwritten notes, journal entries, letters, and story sketches Dick spent the last years of his life obsessively reworking.

In his exclusive LOA interview about VALIS and Later Novels in 2009, Lethem described the “Exegesis”:
LOA: You mention in the Notes to the volume that Dick wrote VALIS in a “mere two weeks in November 1978, but its composition had a longer foreground” and that it incorporates material that Dick had “rehearsed in his ‘Exegesis’, an extensive journal project.” I gather that the “Exegesis” spanned some 8,000 pages upon Dick’s death. How does the material in it differ from what he includes in his novels? Is VALIS the only novel that includes work from it? Will all of it ever be published? 
Lethem: To take the simplest question first: VALIS is the only novel that includes language from the 8,000 (largely handwritten, unstructured, repetitive, digressive, and often dull) pages called the “Exegesis”—and, in their clarity and compression, these passages are far from typical of the whole. Some other (still comparatively “finished”) sequences from those pages are collected in In Pursuit of VALIS, edited by Dick biographer Lawrence Sutin. The challenges in organizing and transcribing the lion’s share of this material are being slowly approached by the Dick estate, with the help of some conservators and scholars, even as we speak. So, if you’re really excited about the prospect of reading the entirety, for the first time there’s a project to root for. But be warned: it shows no prospect of being some “lost masterwork,” nor even particularly readable.
Earlier this week Lethem spoke with John Hockenberry on NPR’s The Takeaway about the just-published selection from the “Exegesis” :
Lethem: This was literary detective work on a lot of levels. [Dick] left this stuff completely unsorted. There‘s no page numbering. You can’t put it in chronological order. Pamela Jackson took the brunt of this. She was the hands-on editor who really made some sense out of the chaos. It mirrors what Dick was doing in the writing. He’s trying to take the chaos of reality, of his experience of the universe, and put it in some kind of order, and mostly failing. The book represents an endless series of restarts. Every morning he gets up and thinks: no, no, no throw it all out. Here’s how everything works. He begins the book a hundred times. What we did was to try and embrace the best material, distill it, remove the repetitious stuff, and bring it into a framework where you could approach it. It’s not a book that reads like a narrative. It doesn’t get anywhere. It’s an endless meditation on existence. 
Hockenberry: In the end does that meditation give us a glimpse of a world far into the future that he imagined where we are headed? Or is it a look back at a life which in a sense might be sad and unfinished at the end? 
Lethem: It’s all of those things. It does have visionary sequences in it. You can take elements of this and project them into the most amazing and unwritten Philip K, Dick novels. It’s also very, very mournful and retrospective. In some ways it’s about a writer failing to grapple with his materials and drowning inside them on a daily basis. It’s brave but also kind of tragic. It’s also really quite a scholarly work. He was studying Aramaic. He was reading the Gnostic gospels. He was gathering every piece of material he could to try to bring to bear on the inklings he was having about the world. 
Hockenberry: Is there something you found in that treasure trove where you said “This guy is just a genius.” 
Lethem: There are lyrical flights in it where suddenly it becomes visionary, it becomes literary and you just see the writer taking over and the language soars. Those are the moments I live for as an editor.
Also of interest:
Related LOA works: The Philip K. Dick Collection (3-book boxed set)

Friday, November 4, 2011

Tracy Daugherty on the 50th Anniversary of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22

To mark the fiftieth anniversary this fall of the publication of Catch-22, Tracy Daugherty, author of Just One Catch: A Biography of Joseph Heller, offers this guest blog post.

Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 was not an immediate success, critically or commercially, when it was first published fifty years ago. Novelist Richard Stern, writing on page 50 of the October 22, 1961 New York Times Book Review, said Heller’s book was “no novel.” It was, rather, an “emotional hodge-podge” and its author “like a brilliant painter who decides to throw all the ideas in his sketchbooks onto the canvas” to “compensate for the lack of design.” The review caught Heller and his editor, Robert Gottlieb, by surprise. They thought they had “the fix in,” as Heller told a friend.

In advance of the book’s publication, Gottlieb had taken Francis Brown, the editor of the New York Times Book Review, to lunch. Gottlieb impressed upon Brown the unusual and special nature of Catch-22 and urged him not to assign a conventional reviewer to the novel. Brown assured Gottlieb he would give the matter careful consideration. He chose Richard Stern to review the book because Stern was considered a “black humorist,” just the type of writer who could appreciate what Heller was up to in crafting a comic take on war.

The catch was, Stern saw Heller as a competitor, and used the review to try to squelch him. In years to come, stories circulated (until they became myths) that Heller had been extremely confident about Catch-22’s success, so much so that bad reviews never bothered him. In fact, he was terribly anxious about the book’s reception; after all, anxiety is the core subject in all of his novels. Years later, he could quote verbatim lines from his negative reviews. Alice Denham, a friend of Heller’s and an aspiring writer, remembered him stopping by her apartment on Manhattan’s west side shortly after Stern’s review appeared. She said he was exceedingly glum and she gave him a stiff drink. He’d been hoping the book would skyrocket and allow him to quit his job as an advertising copywriter.

The day would come when he would be able to live off his books, but in the meantime Catch-22 gained traction slowly. Initially, the novel sold better in England than it did in the United States. The Cold War was at its height, and Europeans saw Americans as bellicose and blinkered in their paranoid views of Communism. British reviewers couldn’t believe that a scathing anti-war novel would come out of the United States, and they were delighted. Catch-22 shot to the top of the British bestseller lists.

Immediately, Robert Gottlieb purchased ad space in American newspapers, urging American readers, “Come on! Don’t let the English beat us! Come on Yanks! To your booksellers! Help close the Catch-gap!” Heller was lucky that his publisher, Simon & Schuster, had just weathered enormous personnel changes at the top, the result of several deaths and retirements. No senior authority figure was around to oversee Gottlieb’s ad campaign for Catch-22: he spent money freely and publicized the book for an unusually long time. He had once confessed to a fellow editor, “I don’t really understand popular fiction.” But he knew how to create a sensation.

Despite moments of despair over negative reviews, Heller enjoyed the positive responses he got more than any other author Gottlieb had ever witnessed. He took an “innocent and marvelous, happy, wholesome enjoyment in his success,” Gottlieb said, once the book finally took off. “He loved being the author of Catch-22.” By the end of the 1960s, once the novel had been embraced as a book about Vietnam (its absurdities now seemed to match the daily newspaper headlines), Catch-22 had achieved critical eminence as well as popular success. Historian Stephen E. Ambrose was one of the earliest critics to note the novel’s importance. In January 1962, he wrote Heller, “For sixteen years I have been waiting for the great anti-war book which I knew WW II must produce. I rather doubted, however, that it would come out of America; I would have guessed Germany. I am happy to have been wrong. Thank you.”

Also of interest:

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Celebrate the centennial year of Ambrose Bierce’s The Devil’s Dictionary

David Marsh on The Guardian’s Mind Your Language blog and Stefany Anne Golberg on Drexel University’s The Smart Set remind us that Ambrose Bierce only succeeded in publishing The Devil’s Dictionary with the title he wanted in 1911 when, at the age of 69, he included it in his Collected Works. When Doubleday, Page first brought the book out in 1906 they feared the public reaction to Bierce’s title and called it The Cynic’s Word Book (“Cynics” being as familiarly used in titles then as “Dummies” is now). Bierce dismissed this change in a letter:
Here in the East the Devil is a sacred personage (the Fourth Person of the Trinity, as an Irishman might say) and his name must not be taken in vain.
Bierce had been peppering his newspaper columns with the aphoristic definitions that fill The Devil’s Dictionary since 1881. Yet Marsh, among others, finds his writing remarkably fresh today:
While some entries have dated, much of the book remains strikingly topical: in the Rs alone we find definitions of radicalism ("the conservatism of to-morrow injected into the affairs of to-day"), referendum ("a law for submission of proposed legislation to a popular vote to learn the nonsensus of public opinion"), and riot ("a popular entertainment given to the military by innocent bystanders"). 
In some ways, Bierce was born too soon: many of his aphorisms would have made wonderful tweets. He would have savoured the controversy over the Man Booker prize ("novel: a short story padded") and phone hacking ("pillory: a mechanical device ... prototype of the modern newspaper").
Golberg offers some thoughts on why Bierce’s Dictionary has enjoyed such enduring popularity:
He was a satirist of the first order . . . he saw himself as no mere humorist, no dandy wit seeking cheap titters from parlor rooms. Rather, Bierce saw himself as a voice of authority and a harbinger of truth. No one was safe from his verbal blitz. It’s amazing that any newspaper ever employed Ambrose Bierce, who readily showered his bile on anyone and anything in society he deemed hypocritical—which was just about everyone and everything. The Devil’s Dictionary was an attack on politics, philosophy, the aristocracy. For example, a POLITICIAN was:
An eel in the fundamental mud upon which the superstructure of organized society is reared. When he wriggles he mistakes the agitation of his tail for the trembling of the edifice. As compared with the statesman, he suffers the disadvantage of being alive.
In his exclusive LOA interview S.T. Joshi, editor of Ambrose Bierce: The Devil’s Dictionary, Tales, & Memoirs, cites two of his favorite entries:
Bierce refined his satirical skills over the decades so that he was able to pack the biggest wallop into the smallest space. His classic definition of “Alone” (“In bad company.”) is an example. My favorite definition is that for “Cynic,” where Bierce was clearly thinking of himself: “A blackguard whose faulty vision sees things as they are, not as they ought to be.”
Read the entire interview with S. T. Joshi about Ambrose Bierce (PDF)

Also of interest:
Related LOA works: Ambrose Bierce: The Devil’s Dictionary, Tales, & Memoirs
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