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Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Kate Christensen on “swashbuckling, earthy, fearless” M.F.K. Fisher

The Astral by
Kate Christensen
(Doubleday, 2011)
Kate Christensen, whose most recent book is The Astral: A Novel (2011), joins our continuing series of guest blog posts by writers of fiction, history, essays, and poetry. In December 2011 Christensen started blogging about food and here she celebrates the writer she continually returns to for replenishment and inspiration.
Reading great food writing has always made me want to write about food, much the way eating a great meal makes me want to cook. Reading and eating are connected the way writing and cooking are: in the first case, you’re consuming something essential, and in the second, you’re creating something essential for other people. Food, like literature, nourishes, delights, and connects. And no food writer has ever inspired me more than M.F.K. Fisher. I love to reread all her greatest books, among them Consider the Oyster, The Art of Eating, Serve it Forth, How to Cook a Wolf, An Alphabet for Gourmets, and The Gastronomical Me
Fisher writes about her life in food in compressed diamonds of prose. Experiences, personal history, adventures, and reflections are all presented through the lens of food–eating is life, and vice versa. She gives recipes, but they’re incorporated into the prose itself, not as diktats, but as a natural part of the narrative thread. “There in Dijon,” she writes in “The Measure of My Powers,” “the cauliflowers were small and very succulent, grown in that ancient soil. I separated the flowerlets and dropped them in boiling water for just a few minutes. Then I drained them and put them in a wide shallow casserole, and covered them with heavy cream, and a thick sprinkling of freshly grated Gruyère, the nice rubbery kind that didn’t come from Switzerland at all, but from the Jura. It was called râpé in the market, and was grated while you watched, in a soft cloudy pile, onto your piece of paper.” 
Some of her anecdotes are so memorable, I recall them as if they were my own memories: her first oyster at a boarding-school party; shelling peas for a simple supper at Le Pâquis, her house in Vevey, Switzerland; a meal at an inn, alone, after hiking, during which she was held hostage by an invisible, frustrated genius of a chef and stuffed full of one gobsmacking delicacy after another until she could hardly rise from the table to walk home. She writes with equal objectivity and artfulness about the art of dining alone in a restaurant and the terrible sadness of losing the love of her life: every experience, whether mundane or extraordinary, is made thrilling. No matter what happens, she implies in every line, without saying it outright, there is always an adventure to be had in a good meal. 
As an eater and drinker, she was swashbuckling, earthy, and fearless. I love her wry, understated descriptions of meals, many of which include quantities of wine and astonishing, even potentially dangerous courses, such as this dinner she and her first husband had in Dijon as newlyweds: “We ate terrines of pâté ten years old under their tight crusts of mildewed fat. We tied napkins under our chins and splashed in great odorous bowls of Ecrivesses à la nage. We addled our palates with snipes hung so long they fell from their hooks, to be roasted then on cushions of toast softened with the paste of their rotted innards and fine brandy.” 
This is riveting stuff, but she writes with just as much artful élan about a simple, junky supper she had in her California house years later, a summer-evening meal of nothing but beer and potato chips. Fisher was anything but a food snob. She lived to eat, ate to live, wrote to eat, ate to write. Her narrative voice is simultaneously clear and opaque, ironic and passionate, elliptical and dilatory. Her books are also simultaneously satisfying and tempting. Although she writes with precision and sensual detail, I often find, as I read her, that I’m reaching like Tantalus for a receding apple, yearning for whatever she’s leaving out, which might be as simple as the actual taste of the food she’s describing, or the immediate sound of her voice in my ear. Like every great cook, and writer, Fisher satisfies hunger in the moment while creating a larger, deeper appetite for more.
Anyone familiar with Kate Christensen’s fiction knows how important food can be to her characters. Commenting on her third novel, The Epicure’s Lament, Sam Lipsyte wrote, “What a wonderfully monstrous voice Kate Christensen has created in Hugo Whittier, trust-fund misanthrope, chain-smoking foodie, confirmed cad. His narration is as rich and textured as his Lobster Newburg, which I can almost taste.” Her fourth novel, The Great Man, won the 2008 PEN/Faulkner Award. Reviewing her most recent novel in The Miami Herald, Andrew Ervin noted, “Christensen . . . amps up the tension, suspense, and pathos until it feels like the book could ignite in your hands. She’s a spectacular author who’s only beginning to get the attention she so richly deserves. . . The Astral, artfully composed and emotionally tender, is evidence of true literary genius.” Christensen lives in Portland, Maine and rural New Hampshire and is currently writing two food-related books, Blue Plate Special: a Memoir and a new novel, Gin on the Lanai, about rival food writers on Kauai.

Also of interest:

Related LOA books: American Food Writing: An Anthology with Classic Recipes (includes Fisher’s “A Lusty Bit of Nourishment” about oysters and “Define This Word” about the post-hike feast Christensen cites); Writing Los Angeles: A Literary Anthology (includes “Pacific Village,” Fisher’s first published essay, and “A Thing Shared” about her first memorable meal, at age ten)

Friday, February 24, 2012

“A foretaste of heaven”: Thornton Wilder’s childhood in China

Our latest Story of the Week, a previously unpublished chapter from Thornton Wilder’s unfinished autobiography, describes the period of his childhood when he and his family lived in China. (Three excerpts from the memoir appear in the new Library of America volume, Thornton Wilder: The Eighth Day, Theophilus North, Autobiographical Writings.) Wilder actually lived in China twice: first as a nine-year-old in Hong King in 1906 and five years later in Chefoo, where he and his sister boarded at a missionary school—while his father stayed 450 miles to the south in Shanghai, his older brother went to school in California, and his mother and two youngest sisters moved to Switzerland. Wilder wrote, “like a chess-player [Thornton's father] moved his wife and five children about the world.”

A number of images and other artifacts from this period are included among Wilder’s papers at Yale University. Below is a photograph, taken in Hong Kong, of Thornton (the boy on the left) with his mother Isabella, sisters Isabel and Charlotte, brother Amos, and father Amos Sr. The two girls are seated on a sedan chair that, hoisted by men, served as a dominant mode of transportation for Western residents through the crowded streets of city, then a British territory.

Click to enlarge.

Another photograph, from 1912, shows the boys and teachers at the China Inland Mission School in Chefoo. “It was a good school,” Thornton wrote. “All the teachers and administrators were English or Scottish. Of the one hundred and twenty students in the Boys’ School one hundred were English, about a dozen were American; there were a few Scandinavians. Much attention was given to religion, but there was none of the “hell-fire” evangelism that I was later to encounter occasionally at Oberlin College and even at Yale.” One of Thornton’s classmates was Henry Luce, the founder of Time Inc.

Click to enlarge.

Here is Thornton’s final report card from Chefoo, dated July 1912, before he returned with his father to California. His scores, which were unremarkable, range from a 72 in English, German, and Euclid and an 80 in Scripture down to a 46 in Algebra, a 50 in Dictation, and a 56 in Arithmetic. The summary on the lines for Conduct reads in part, “His conduct during the time he has been at the school has been exemplary . . . both teachers and fellow pupils regret that the time has come for his departure.”

Click to enlarge.

Images courtesy of Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Reprinted by permission of the Wilder Family, LLC.

Also of interest:

Margaret MacMillan on how Barbara W. Tuchman’s historical writings endure

Margaret MacMillan, historian and author of Paris 1919, recently spoke with us about Barbara W. Tuchman: The Guns of August, The Proud Tower, which she edited for The Library of America and which will be published next week.
The Guns of August has deeply affected readers since it was first published in 1962—perhaps most famously President John F. Kennedy during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Do you remember your reactions to the book when you first read it?

I read The Guns of August when it first came out. I was an undergraduate at the University of Toronto taking history, which I already loved, but when I read her book I thought this was the way history should be. I found it riveting and I wanted to write like her.

Tuchman joins Henry Adams, Francis Parkman, W.E.B. Du Bois, and John Kenneth Galbraith as the very few historians published in The Library of America series. What parallels do you see between her work and theirs? What is the significance (if any) in her being the first woman in the group?

Perhaps what joins them all—although they have written very different sorts of histories—is that they all see the big picture and they all write beautifully. As for her being the first woman in the group, someone has to be and at the time she was writing there were far fewer women who counted as serious historians or with university posts. It is different today, thank goodness.

What is distinctive about Tuchman’s approach to the historian’s craft?

What stands out is her combination of very solid research and good writing. She always believed that history was a branch of literature.

What in your view gives Tuchman's work its staying power?

Her work lasts because it is highly readable and entertaining; it gives a strong sense of the past and of the characters involved; and it provides solid, evidence-based, analysis of subjects that we are still interested in such as the outbreak of World War One.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Love it? Hate it? “There is no middle ground.” Teresa Carpenter plumbs 400 years of diaries about New York

Guest blog post by Teresa Carpenter, editor of New York Diaries: 1609 to 2009, just published by The Modern Library
Today I arrived by train in New York City, which I’d never seen before, walked through the grandeur of Grand Central Terminal, stepped outside, got my first look at the city and instantly fell in love with it. Silently, inside myself, I yelled: I should have been born here!
Edward Robb Ellis
April 22, 1947
Edward Robb Ellis’s wonderstruck Midwestern boy’s ardor for New York never waned throughout his long life in the city, a period of fifty years during which time he became one of its best-known newspaper columnists and most faithful diarists.

His entry stands in marked contrast to that of eleven-year-old Anaïs Nin who, wrenched from her beloved Barcelona to relocate in New York, wrote on August 11, 1913:
It was 4 o’clock when the ship began to move again . . . Now, leaning on the railing, I couldn’t hear anything. My eyes were fixed on the lights that grew closer, I saw tall buildings, I heard the whistling of the engine, I saw a great deal of movement. Huge buildings went by in front of me. I hated those buildings in advance because they hid what I love most—flowers, birds, fields, liberty. . .
. . . Although I admire New York for its progress. I hate it, I find it superficial. I saw it as an ugly prison…
The point is: You either love New York at first blush or you want to turn and take the next train out. There is no middle ground.

My own experience was closer to Ellis’s. A Midwesterner as well, I came in through the modern and infinitely uglier Penn Station and I nearly fell to my knees and kissed the pavement. Who can explain that kind of spontaneous love you first feel for a city? New York just seems to open its arms and whisper, “No matter how strange you are, I accept you.”

Loving New York, I think, is not so much a mark of character as an indicator of temperament. You have to be comfortable with change—constant, rapid change. You must even thrive on it. You can be as public as you want or as private as you need to be. That’s possibly why celebrities like the city so much. Some days in New York you just naturally have the wind at your back, other days it’s like you’re tacking into the gale. Some will argue that it’s not the ideal place for creation of books or music or paintings; too many distractions and the ubiquitous temptation to party. Others will insist that it’s the ideal place because it marries ability and opportunity. I hold with the latter.

I’ve spend the last seven years culling through four hundred years of diaries about New York. I’ve seen the city at its worst, and in creating New York Diaries I didn’t shy away from the ugliness. To some readers I may seem a ruthless portrayer of cupidity, vice, personal betrayal, and the pity of war. Mine is not, as one reviewer noted, a Hallmark card sensibility.

But I was as deeply moved by the stories of hope and the restless striving for beauty recorded in those pages. One of the collection’s most captivating figures is Jonas Mekas, a Lithuanian refugee who was shipped to the U.S. as a displaced person in 1949. He kept a diary of those years, later published as I Had Nowhere to Go: Diaries, 1944-1954. Pursuing concurrent careers as filmmaker, critic, and the first director of Anthology Film Archives, he would later be hailed as “The Godfather of American Avant-Garde Cinema.”

During his early days in New York, Mekas lived hand to mouth as a factory worker. In an entry of November 16, 1949, he writes:
Still with G.M.Co. Putting together scissors, pliers, screwdrivers, but most of the time I don’t even know what. When we get an order of drills, the palms get covered with blisters. I can’t even touch anything, even with gloves. They keep rotating the workers from one table to another, but it’s of little help. 
The fingers are working automatically. They lead their own automatic lives. I may as well let them. Who cares about the fingers. I leave them alone. They keep moving. … Suddenly I catch myself dreaming, making plans, completely unconscious of the activities of my fingers. I have no idea what they did in the meanwhile. Maybe they strangled somebody. I wouldn’t know. I am not responsible for my fingers at all. I am a space traveller.

I am taking off again! Next to my knees the radiator is boiling. I am standing at a long table, with my back to other workers. The radiator sizzles. Behind my back a monotonous noise. In another corner some women are singing, their voices are very high. It’s their own form of space travelling. They must be off to somewhere.
Went to see Firebird (Balanchine).
Clocking off the assembly line to catch the ballet? Is there any place in the world for such a man? Of course there is: New York.

Also of interest:
Related LOA works: Writing New York: A Literary Anthology (includes entries by many of the writers in New York Diaries); American Movie Critics: An Anthology from the Silents Until Now (includes six essays by Jonas Mekas)

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Arthur Goldwag on the perplexing prejudices of Walt Whitman and Mark Twain

Guest blog post by Arthur Goldwag, author of The New Hate: A History of Fear and Loathing on the Populist Right

American letters has had more than its share of haters. Henry Adams, T. S. Eliot, H. L. Mencken and Ezra Pound leap immediately to mind; there are countless other examples as well. Though most merely reflect the prevailing attitudes of their time, class, and place, it’s natural for a reader to feel a sense of disappointment when she comes up against their prejudices. We want our literary writers to be, if not necessarily ahead of their times, at least outside of them. Faulkner’s racial politics were disappointingly retrograde and boilerplate when he expressed them in his own voice, but the characters in his novels, black and white alike, were, in Allen Tate’s words, “characters in depth, complex and, like all other people, ultimately mysterious.” Walt Whitman and Mark Twain’s attitudes about Catholics and Jews are at once offensive and well-intended; neither could be described as a hater, though both employed hateful tropes.

Fanny Fern, America’s first female newspaper columnist, was one of the early reviewers of Leaves of Grass. “The world needed a ‘Native American’ of thorough out and out breed,” she wrote in The New York Ledger on May 10, 1856, “Something beside a mere Catholic-hating Know-Nothing.” The Know-Nothings, of course, were members of the explicitly anti-Catholic political movement that arose in the 1840s.

Whitman might have celebrated “the nation of many nations” in his poetry, but what Fanny Fern didn’t know was that as a young newspaperman in the early 1840s, he had been something of a Know-Nothing himself, editorializing in The New York Aurora about the “gang of false and villainous priests whose despicable souls never generate any aspiration beyond their own narrow and horrible and beastly superstition…dregs of foreign filth—refuse of convents.” But as ethnocentric as his rhetoric undoubtedly was, it wasn’t inconsistent with his ethos. Whitman hated the authoritarianism of the Catholic hierarchy, not the Catholic immigrants themselves. Writing in Democratic Vistas in 1871, he envisioned a democracy that would supplant the “old belief in the necessary absoluteness of establish’d dynastic rulership, temporal, ecclesiastical, and scholastic” with the “doctrine or theory that man, properly train’d in sanest, highest freedom, may and must become a law, and series of laws, unto himself.”

“I have no race prejudices,” Mark Twain averred, “and I think I have no color prejudices nor caste prejudices nor creed prejudices. Indeed, I know it. I can stand any society. All that I care to know is that a man is a human being—that is enough for me; he can’t be any worse. I have no special regard for Satan; but I can at least claim that I have no prejudice against him. It may even be that I lean a little his way, on account of his not having a fair show.”

Huckleberry Finn critiqued antebellum southern norms from a vantage that was outside the verge of respectability; its racial politics are profoundly subversive—probably more so than its author intended. Though Twain has been rightly celebrated as a philo-Semite (one of his daughters would marry a Jew), he would perpetuate some of the most invidious—and inflammatory—Jewish stereotypes. While living in Vienna in the late 1890s, Twain wrote about the rise of Karl Lueger, who was elected the city’s mayor in 1895, and the anti-Semitic political movement he spearheaded. When an American Jew, responding to the article, asked Twain to speculate on the causes of Jew hatred, he ventured an elaborate, five-part answer. “Concerning the Jews” appeared in Harpers Magazine in 1898. As biographer Justin Kaplan has noted, “in his very attempt to extol the race in question, he ratified the most inflammatory pretext for resentment.”

The Jew “has made a marvellous fight in this world, in all the ages; and has done it with his hands tied behind him,” Twain wrote. “He could be vain of himself, and be excused for it.” But in Twain’s telling, there is scant mystery as to why Jews have been the objects of such enmity, going all the way back to the beginnings of history. In his decidedly eccentric take on Genesis 41, Joseph cornered the grain market and charged exorbitant prices when famine struck, beggaring the Egyptian nation. The real problem with Jews, Twain goes on, is that they’re too clever by half. If a Jew “entered upon a mechanical trade, the Christian had to retire from it. If he set up as a doctor, he was the best one, and he took the business. If he exploited agriculture, the other farmers had to get at something else. Since there was no way to successfully compete with him in any vocation, the law had to step in and save the Christian from the poor-house.”

Twain’s take on the idea of political Zionism is chilling. “Have you heard of [Dr. Herzl’s] plan?” he wrote. “He wishes to gather the Jews of the world together in Palestine, with a government of their own—under the suzerainty of the Sultan, I suppose . . . I am not the Sultan, and I am not objecting; but if that concentration of the cunningest brains in the world were going to be made in a free country (bar Scotland), I think it would be politic to stop it. It will not be well to let the race find out its strength. If the horses knew theirs, we should not ride any more.”

As dark as Twain’s view of humanity might have been, Hitler and the Holocaust were beyond his capacity to imagine. “Among the high civilizations,” he wrote, the Jew “seems to be very comfortably situated indeed, and to have more than his proportionate share of the prosperities going. It has that look in Vienna. I suppose the race prejudice cannot be removed; but he can stand that; it is no particular matter.”

For all that, Twain’s admiration for the Jews was genuine; it is to his credit that he wrote and published a postscript in 1904, “The Jew as Soldier,” in which he corrected his animadversions on the Jews’ “unpatriotic disinclination to stand by the flag as a soldier.” Far from avoiding military service, he wrote, the Jews “furnished soldiers and high officers to the Revolution, the War of 1812, and the Mexican War. In the Civil War he was represented in the armies and navies of both the North and the South by 10 per cent of his numerical strength—the same percentage that was furnished by the Christian populations of the two sections.” The Jewish capacity for “fidelity, and for gallant soldiership in the field is as good as any one's,” he added.

Still, it is a testament to Twain's wrongheadedness in other respects that “Concerning the Jews” sparks lively discussions on white nationalist websites to this day. What they focus on aren’t his suppositions about Jewish intellectual superiority. It is his off the cuff observations like this one: “the Jew is a money-getter. He made it the end and aim of his life. He was at it in Rome. He has been at it ever since. His success has made the whole human race his enemy.”

Also of interest:
  • “Mark Twain and the Jews” on Jewish Virtual Library discusses the reaction of contemporary American Jews to “Concerning the Jews” 
  • In “Walt Whitman & the Irish” on The Walt Whitman Archive Joann Krieg tracks how Whitman’s attitudes toward Catholics and the Irish evolved 
  • "A Presidential Candidate" by Mark Twain, this week's Story of the Week
  • "Mark Twain and William Dean Howells: the friendship that transformed American literature," a previous Reader’s Almanac post
Related LOA works: Walt Whitman: Poetry and Prose (includes Democratic Vistas); Mark Twain: Collected Tales, Sketches, Speeches & Essays 1891-1910 (includes “Concerning the Jews” and the 1904 postscript “The Jew as Soldier”)

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

William Tucker remembers “Freedom Summer” – Mississippi 1964

Guest blog post by William Tucker, former New York Times reporter and author of the book, Terrestrial Energy, and the play, Freedom Summer

In June 1964 I had just graduated from college and taken my first job as a reporter for a small-town New England newspaper. It was exciting to see my name in print every day for the first time but there were events unfolding out in the world that loomed larger. I remember arguing with my editor about whether a New York City policeman could have avoided shooting a 15-year-old boy, the incident that led to the Harlem riots that July.

As the loneliness of a small town set in, I began spending more and more time visiting friends in Cambridge, Massachusetts. One day I walked past a church and saw a sign, “Volunteers Still Needed for Voter Registration in Mississippi.” The orientation in Oxford, Ohio, the previous month had received a big write-up in Life magazine and I had recognized one of my classmates among the volunteers. Although I had never been terribly involved in Civil Rights, I suddenly asked myself, “Why not me?” It was one of those youthful moments that can change your life forever.

Soon I was in Washington for a two-day orientation. James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner had disappeared on June 21 and their bodies had still not been found. There was a palpable tension in the air. It felt like preparing for a war zone. Bob Moses, the heroic volunteer for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) who had pioneered voter registration in Mississippi in 1961, came up for the orientation and tried to rationalize our fears. “There are towns in the state where there’s very little violence,” he told us. “Then there are towns where the authorities seem to be able to turn the violence on and off. Finally there are towns where nobody seems to have control of the violence. McComb is the worst.” Moses had entered McComb all by himself three years before.

He then informed us there would be no interracial dating and no beards or long hair. Michael Schwerner had had a beard and the locals had referred to him contemptuously as “goatee” before he disappeared. We didn’t want to provoke. One Harvard graduate student, slight and balding, objected. He didn’t want to shave his beard. He launched into a long philosophical oration on how we shouldn’t be compromising ourselves and Moses–a Harvard graduate himself–answered in equally lofty terms. I remember feeling the calm of a college classroom settle over the discussion. It made it easier to face what was ahead.

Driving into Mississippi days later, we couldn’t help but notice the number of trucks driving around with no license plates and a shotgun hanging in the back window. The whole state had an air of lawlessness. Not wanting to cause my parents too much anxiety, I opted for Holly Springs, one of the less violent towns. A Freedom House had been set up in an abandoned house right across from Rust College, a prominent black institution. We were the clearinghouse for books donated from the north and much of the work involved driving carloads of books across the state to Freedom Schools (new illegal schools specially created to teach math and reading to black children).

Sir Alan Parker’s 1988 film Mississippi Burning portrays black Mississippians of that summer as a sullen, dispirited crowd sitting on porches warily eyeing strangers, more reminiscent of South Africa under Apartheid than what we encountered. The local youngsters we met were a spirited bunch, the boys voluble and ambitious, the girls verbal and sassy. As I sat in Freedom House the first night still feeling a little disoriented, one high school girl said to me, “I’m going to keep talking to you until I get a smile and a good conversation.” No college girlfriend of mine had ever been that forthright.

Our main task was beating the back roads and crossing wide cotton fields to find tenant shacks where families of as many as a dozen lived with well water and a dirt floor. Often a portrait of John F. Kennedy hung on the wall. We would try to persuade the man and woman of the house to come down to the courthouse to register to vote or, at least, to sign our petition for the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, which aimed to challenge the white segregationist Mississippi delegation at the Democratic Convention in Atlantic City in August. It wasn’t easy. People were frankly afraid. As they told us again and again, “You’re going to go back up north in September but we still have to live down here.” Tenant farmers risked being evicted. Medgar Evers had been shot on his doorstep only a year before and Herbert Lee, an early SNCC organizer, had been murdered in broad daylight by a member of the Mississippi State Legislature in 1961. No convictions ever followed.

Our slow efforts yielded some success, however, and by mid-August there was a daily progression of African Americans to the courthouse to register. Few met the requirements of being able to “read and interpret three passages from the Mississippi state constitution to the satisfaction of the recording officer,” but when Congress adopted the Voting Rights Act in 1965 the dam broke. Today Mississippi has more African American elected officials than any other state.

Perhaps the most exciting thing about the project was meeting the ambitious young African Americans who felt the world changing around them and who were ready for the challenge. An unknown sector of American society was being revealed to us. Our prime example: Roy DeBerry, a bright, sweet-natured 15-year-old who helped write a play about the death of Medgar Evers and played the lead. I remember sitting with him one day when he exclaimed, “There’s nothing more I love than reading a good book. I could stay up all night reading a good book.” The director of our Freedom School got him into Brandeis and he ended up on the cover of Anthony Lukas’s book, Don’t Shoot, We Are Your Children!, after leading a college student rebellion. He stayed with his purpose, however, and later became county executive of Hinds County, the most populous county in Mississippi. When my son visited Holly Springs in 2004 on a hitchhiking tour across the country, he found Roy’s younger brother Andre was the mayor.

There were successes and there were failures. Although we were making progress with voting, we could see it was just a beginning. The poverty was overwhelming. I remember just before I left having a heart-to-heart talk with an older woman, confessing to each other our own racial misapprehensions. Finally she said, “There’s just one thing I still don’t understand. How come the colored people have been working so hard all these years and still have nothing to show for it.” I don’t know whether I’ve yet found an answer.

To recapture the history and spirit of the times I’ve recently written a play, Freedom Summer. It was performed last year at several schools and libraries in Rockland Country, New York, and the Brecht Forum in Greenwich Village will be hosting three performances this weekend. It’s my hope that the fiftieth anniversary of Freedom Summer in 2014 may lead to it reaching a wider audience. Both the African Americans and young white members of the cast say it is an era that should not be forgotten and they are eager to tell the story to a new generation. I feel the same way.

William Tucker’s play Freedom Summer will be performed Friday, Feb 17 at 7:30 PM, Saturday, Feb 18 at 7:30 PM, and Sunday, Feb 19 at 2:00 PM at the Brecht Forum in New York City. Reserve tickets here.

Also of interest:
Related LOA works: Reporting Civil Rights: Part Two: American Journalism 1963-1973

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Joe Brainard, “oddball classicist,” artist and memoirist, is back on display and more in print than ever

In April The Library of America is publishing The Collected Writings of Joe Brainard, the enigmatic and highly influential artist and writer who dazzled the New York art world of the sixties and seventies with his mastery of a stunning range of media: assemblages, collages, oil paintings, book and magazine covers, set designs, dance costumes, and his path-breaking mixing of poetry and comic strips. His one-of-a-kind autobiographical work I Remember (1970) established him as a distinctive literary voice, a writer of grace, depth, and insightful humor. As Paul Auster writes in his introduction to the volume:
Many people have written their own versions of I Remember since 1975, but no one has come close to duplicating the spark of Brainard’s original, of transcending the purely private and personal into a work that is about everybody—in the same way that all great novels are about everybody. . . Brainard’s achievement is the product of several forces that operate simultaneously throughout the book: the hypnotic power of incantation; the economy of the prose; the author’s courage in revealing things about himself (often sexual) that most of us would be too embarrassed to include; the painter’s eye for detail; the gift for story-telling; the reluctance to judge other people; the sense of inner alertness; the lack of self-pity; the modulations of tone, ranging from blunt assertion to elaborate flights of fancy; and then, most of all (most pleasing of all), the complex musical structure of the book as a whole.
This new volume, edited by Brainard’s longtime friend and biographer Ron Padgett, includes the complete text of I Remember as well as an unprecedented gathering of journals, stories, poems, travel diaries, one-liners, comic strips, and plays—including fourteen previously unpublished works.

By a magical coincidence Brainard would have appreciated, the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College just opened on February 1 the exhibit Joe / Brains / Lamar, “a multi-format program addressing questions of archive, memory, and the genealogy of queer culture.” From February 1 through 26 the exhibit will be showing I Remember: A Film About Joe Brainard by Matt Wolf which features audio recordings of Brainard reading from I Remember as well as recollections by Padgett and rare footage from Brainard’s personal archives. Accompanying the film is a curated display of archival materials on view in the CCS Bard Library.

The Brains component of the exhibit is graphic designer Carl Williamson’s revisiting of the single issue BRAINS: A Journal of Egghead Sexuality, published in 1990 by artists Nayland Blake and D. L. Alvarez to celebrate queer sexuality with “tongue-in-cheek intellectualism.” This runs from March 5 until April 1.

Viewable online from February 1 until April 1 is Project Lamar, a collaborative creation of CCS Bard graduate student Karly Wildenhaus and curator Nathan Lee, which reconfigures the Joe / Brains / Lamar exhibition as an interactive display space aimed at conflating “mediation and the curatorial gesture, archival operations and real-time inquiry, documentation and production.” Visit it to create your own collage of Brainard’s work.

Copies of The Collected Writings of Joe Brainard have just arrived in the LOA warehouse and are now available exclusively from the LOA Web Store for 25% off and free shipping. They will be in bookstores March 29. 

Also of interest:

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

New documentary, O Brother Man: The Art and Life of Lynd Ward, celebrates the life and work of the visionary artist and storyteller

For their fourth film in six years the Connecticut-based independent filmmakers Michael Maglaras and Terri Templeton of 217Films have turned to the work of iconic American artist Lynd Ward to make the documentary O Brother Man: The Art and Life of Lynd Ward. The film will have its world premiere on March 8 at the New Britain Museum of Art, New Britain, Connecticut.

Ward’s legacy includes his innovative “novels without words,” books that tell their stories entirely through woodcut images. The Library of America published the six works he created between 1929 and 1937 in the two-volume boxed set Lynd Ward: Six Novels in Woodcuts in 2010. Drawing on interviews with Ward’s daughter Robin Ward Savage and using more than 150 of Ward’s wood engravings, drawings, and illustrations, the documentary explores the many dimensions of Ward’s achievement: as path-breaking graphic novelist, prolific illustrator, and experimental printmaker.

One of the most remarkable segments in the film shows Ward deftly engraving into wood an image in his magnum opus Vertigo. In an exclusive interview with The Library of America Art Spiegelman discussed Ward’s choice of medium and how he became interested in wordless novels:
Spiegelman: Ward’s way of approaching the wood is appropriate to a very white Anglo-Saxon Protestant man with a great, great work ethic who loves working with his hands, loves the craft aspect as well as the expressive aspect of what he does. His pictures are a full expression of that sensibility. So it’s hard to say: did he choose wood engraving because he wanted to make a certain kind of picture, or did he make a certain kind of picture because he liked to work with his hands? Wood engraving is a careful process and an exacting one. There are many other ways to get an image across without having to get your fingers all bloody. There’s a lot that can go wrong if you chop at the wrong angle. I think his choice had to do in part with the roots of the tradition of printing, making books as objects. He cared about the history of type, the history of representing images—the history of woodcuts goes back to the origins of bookmaking as we’ve come to know it. I think that’s the core reason. 
Ward first became interested in the idea of stories without words while he was studying printmaking in Germany and the works of the Belgian artist Frans Masereel were the first he discovered. What’s interesting about that group of three, Masereel, the German artist Otto Nückel, and Ward: not only did they communicate in different media, their work expressed different sensibilities. Nückel did just one experiment, Destiny, in this area of stories without words. His work is informed by a delight in light; his pictures are infused with an almost impressionist way of making the image known. Masereel’s many works are freely hewn, chunked exuberantly into the wood and have a blunt visual approach. He is very eager to distort and cascade loud layers of information into pictures. For the most part Ward’s work has a methodical quality. Even in his first book, Gods’ Man, the pictures are very consciously rooted in the early tradition of what a woodcut might look like. He uses its emblematic qualities more and more as he goes on and pursues detailed picture-making to great reward.
Read the full interview with Art Spiegelman about Lynd Ward

Watch the trailer for O Brother Man: The Art and Life of Lynd Ward (YouTube)

Also of interest:
Related LOA works: Lynd Ward: Six Novels in Woodcuts (boxed set)

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Forthcoming from The Library of America (Summer–Fall 2012)

Our spring titles are still arriving from the printer, yet we’re already busy typesetting and proofreading our summer and fall titles. Below are the volumes scheduled for release during the summer and fall of 2012, including two major anthologies of historical writings, a much-anticipated collection of science-fiction novels, and three twentieth-century authors representing three disparate genres.

American Antislavery Writings
Colonial Beginnings to Emancipation
James G. Basker, editor
November / Library of America #233
ISBN 978-1-59853-196-1

American Science Fiction
Nine Classic Novels of the 1950s (two volumes)
Gary K. Wolfe, editor
Volume 1: 1953–1956
  • Frederik Pohl & C. M. Kornbluth, The Space Merchants
  • Theodore Sturgeon, More Than Human
  • Leigh Brackett, The Long Tomorrow
  • Richard Matheson, The Shrinking Man
Volume 2: 1956–1958
  • Robert Heinlein, Double Star
  • Alfred Bester, The Stars My Destination
  • James Blish, A Case of Conscience
  • Algis Budrys, Who?
  • Fritz Leiber, The Big Time
October / Library of America #227 & #228
ISBN 978-1-59853-157-2 (boxed set) / -158-9 (volume 1) / -159-6 (volume 2)

Jack Kerouac
Collected Poems
Marilène Phipps-Kettlewell, editor
September / Library of America #231
ISBN 978-1-59853-194-7 (trade jacket) / ISBN -193-0 (series jacket)

Kurt Vonnegut
Novels & Stories 1950–1962
Sidney Offit, editor
  • Player Piano
  • The Sirens of Titan
  • Mother Night
  • six stories
May / Library of America #226
ISBN 978-1-59853-150-3

Laura Ingalls Wilder
The Little House Books (two volumes)
Caroline Fraser, editor
  • Little House in the Big Woods
  • Farmer Boy
  • Little House on the Prairie
  • On the Banks of Plum Creek
  • By the Shores of Silver Lake
  • The Long Winter
  • Little Town on the Prairie
  • These Happy Golden Years
  • The First Four Years
  • plus four rare autobiographical pieces
September / Library of America #229 & #230
ISBN 978-1-59853-162-6 (boxed set) / -160-2 (volume 1) / -161-9 (volume 2)

The War of 1812
Writings from America’s Second War of Independence
Donald R. Hickey, editor
November / Library of America #232
ISBN 978-1-59853-195-4

New in Paperback
At the Fights: American Writers on Boxing
George Kimball & John Schulian, editors
ISBN 978-1-59853-205-0
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