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Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Jim Downs on the “darker side of emancipation,” the hundreds of thousands of freedmen who died from sickness and disease

Guest blog post by Jim Downs, associate professor of history at Connecticut College and author of Sick from Freedom: African-American Illness and Suffering during the Civil War and Reconstruction

All he needed was a pair of shoes. But shoes, especially those needed by a formerly enslaved child, seemed to be the last thing on the Union Army’s mind. The Union Army was not the Red Cross: it was a military engaged in a long and bloody war.

Even when the U.S. Army felt generous and donated “cast-off” garments and worn shoes to the freed slaves who fled to their camps for protection during the Civil War, the clothes would be in miserable condition. Shoes would be stained with blood or dirtied with animal feces and mud, most were worn down to the soles, and all were too big to fit a small child’s feet.

For former slaves who were constantly on the move, boots mattered. Throughout the Civil War and Reconstruction, Union officials ordered emancipated slaves to be transported from one location to the next based on the military’s need for laborers or depending on the exigencies of military strategy. Before the Civil War, former slaves may have been accustomed to being barefoot. But during a war in which former enslaved people were forced to take shelter in refugee camps and negotiated their newly found freedom across the desecrated, muddy, frozen land, shoes were indispensable protection against the cold, rain, and mud.

In the case of this boy, shoes may have prevented him from ending up as we find him: in front of Union officials who realized after one look at his frozen feet that he would require amputation. According to the Union official’s report, his father had enlisted in the Union Army, but his whereabouts were unknown; the boy’s mother had recently died and, based on the Union official’s description, the boy and his siblings were “nearly starved.”

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Jessica Tuchman Mathews on Barbara W. Tuchman and her “independence of spirit”

Jessica Tuchman Mathews with Rocco Staino,
Empire State Center chair
Ryan Brenizer Photography
In the second post from the series of remarks made at the recent New York State Writers Hall of Fame induction ceremony, Jessica Tuchman Mathews offers a tribute to her mother, the historian Barbara W. Tuchman, whose centennial is being celebrated in 2012. A widely recognized expert on issues related to arms control, energy policy, and science and technology, Mathews is president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a global think tank with offices in Washington, Moscow, Beijing, Brussels, and Beirut.
How to pay adequate tribute to a great lady in four minutes? I will forgo the polished prose she would have used and try merely to sketch a word picture.

What you would probably most remember if you had known her was her independence of spirit. Though shy, she never hesitated to say exactly what she thought to whomever. She had a profound unconcern for authority.

You would have recognized immediately, too, however, her discipline of thought and its corollary, clarity of expression. What she said or wrote had been deeply thought through.

She had tremendous energy and drive. On her death, her three very different daughters wrote three quite different tributes for her memorial service. All three, though, remembered her the same way in one respect: that she was never at rest.

She was an unapologetic elitist who worshipped quality. Quality derived, she believed, from two sources, “intensive effort and honesty of purpose.” In other words, not just skill, but intent. You set out to do something well or to do it half well or well enough. She had no patience for the latter two.

But she was much more than a bulldozer of energy, discipline and drive. What distinguished her most was an absolute passion for her craft. “It is this quality of being in love with your subject that is indispensable” she wrote, and she lived that.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Forthcoming from The Library of America (Winter–Spring 2013)

Ah, publishing! The calendar tells us that we’re still in the first half of 2012 but here we are finishing up our books for the early months of 2013. Below are the seven volumes newly scheduled for release, all in the main The Library of America series.

The Civil War
The Third Year as Told By Those Who Lived It
Brooks D. Simpson, editor
February 2013 / Library of America #234
ISBN 978-1-59853-197-8

Sherwood Anderson
Collected Stories
Charles Baxter, editor
  • Winesburg, Ohio
  • The Triumph of the Egg
  • Horses and Men
  • Death in the Woods
  • Uncollected Stories
January 2013 / Library of America #235
ISBN 978-1-59853-204-3

Philip Roth
Novels 2001–2007
Ross Miller, editor
  • The Dying Animal
  • The Plot Against America
  • Exit Ghost
January 2013 / Library of America #236
ISBN 978-1-59853-198-5

Philip Roth
  • Everyman
  • Indignation
  • The Humbling
  • Nemesis
January 2013 / Library of America #237
ISBN 978-1-59853-199-2

(These two volumes will complete the LOA Philip Roth edition. See the previous seven volumes.)

Aldo Leopold
A Sand County Almanac & Other Writings on Conservation and Ecology
Curt Meine, editor
April 2013 / Library of America #238
ISBN 978-1-59853-206-7

May Swenson
Collected Poems
Langdon Hammer, editor
April 2013 / Library of America #239
ISBN 978-1-59853-210-4

W. S. Merwin
Collected Poems 1953–1993
J. D. McClatchy, editor
April 2013 / Library of America #240
ISBN 978-1-59853- 208-1

W. S. Merwin
Collected Poems 1996–2013
J. D. McClatchy, editor
April 2013 / Library of America #241
ISBN 978-1-59853- 209-8

The two volumes of W. S. Merwin: Collected Poems will also be available as a boxed set (ISBN 978-1-59853-207-4). Merwin will be only the fifth living writer to have his works collected in The Library of America series, following Eudora Welty (1998), Saul Bellow (2003), Philip Roth (2005), and John Ashbery (2008).

In addition, the following title, previously announced for this fall, has been postponed to March 2013:

The War of 1812
Writings from America’s Second War of Independence
Donald R. Hickey, editor
March 2013 / Library of America #232
ISBN 978-1-59853-195-4

Friday, June 22, 2012

New York State Writers Hall of Fame: Langdon Hammer on Hart Crane

Toni Morrison greets fellow Hall of Fame inductees
Pete Hamill and E. L. Doctorow
Ryan Brenizer Photography
On June 5, The Empire State Center for the Book, New York’s affiliate of the Library of Congress Center for the Book, held its annual gala at the Princeton Club in midtown Manhattan. The Center is committed to fostering reading and greater appreciation of the literary arts, and among its initiatives is the New York State Writers Hall of Fame, established in 2010 to recognize New York–based poets, novelists, journalists, and historians who have made an indelible mark on our culture. The centerpiece of this year’s gala was the induction of the fourteen-member class of 2012, which included E. L. Doctorow, Pete Hamill, Toni Morrison, and Joyce Carol Oates, all of whom attended. Also honored were John Cheever, Hart Crane, Edna Ferber, Washington Irving, Henry James, Mary McCarthy, Marianne Moore, Barbara W. Tuchman, Kurt Vonnegut, and Richard Wright.

Hall of Fame inductees Joyce Carol Oates and Toni Morrison
Ryan Brenizer Photography
Over the coming weeks, The Reader’s Almanac will present remarks offered at the induction ceremony, in which literary scholars, critics, and descendants of the writers honored the inductees. We begin with Langdon Hammer’s tribute to the poet Hart Crane. Hammer is professor of English at Yale University, where he teaches modern and contemporary poetry. He has written and edited several books on Crane, including volume #168 in the Library of America series, Hart Crane: Complete Poetry & Selected Letters.
Langdon Hammer offers a tribute to Hart Crane
Ryan Brenizer Photography
Like many New York writers, Hart Crane was born somewhere else—in Garretsville, Ohio, in his case. He came here to live, quite alone, in 1916. He was 17, just a little older than the century, and he felt obscurely but intensely (Crane’s feelings were usually obscure and intense) that his fate and that of the century were deeply connected with each other and with the capital of modern life, New York City.

On New Year’s Eve of that first year in the city, the new arrival wrote home from East 15th Street: “My Dear Father, I have just been out for a long ride up Fifth Ave. on an omnibus. It is very cold and clear, and the marble facades of the marvelous mansions shone like crystal in the sun. . . . The room I have now is a bit too small, so after my week is up, I shall seek out another place near here, for I like the neighborhood. The houses are so different here, that it seems most interesting, for a while at least, to live in one.”

Crane was peripatetic and lived in many houses in the city. The address that mattered most was 110 Columbia Heights, Brooklyn. It was there he began the love affair of his life with a Danish sailor named Emil Opffer, and where, “living in the shadow of the bridge,” as he put it, he conceived of his epic poem about the visionary promise of America, The Bridge. “That window,” he said about his window facing Brooklyn Bridge, “is where I would be most remembered of all: the ships, the harbor, and the skyline of Manhattan, midnight, morning or evening,—rain, snow or sun, it is everything from the mountains to the walls of Jerusalem and Nineveh, and all related and in actual contact with the changelessness of the many waters that surround it.”

The Bridge begins with an ecstatic address to Brooklyn Bridge in which its Gothic arches suggest a new religion and a new image of divinity. The bridge rises up above not simply New York but the whole of the continent, even the Midwest Crane left behind to make his life here. This stanza comes from the proem:

O Sleepless as the river under thee,
Vaulting the sea, the prairies’ dreaming sod,
Unto us lowliest sometime sweep, descend
And of the curveship lend a myth to God.
That’s gorgeous poetry, as stirring as any language an American has authored. But it isn’t easy poetry, and The Bridge was a puzzle and a problem when it arrived in most reviewers’ mailboxes. Crane died, a suicide, in 1932. He knew what he had achieved in his poetry. But he must have feared no one would ever recognize it, including the most important audience he wrote for, literary New York. I can just imagine, therefore, how gratified he would be by this recognition tonight. Hart Crane wrote the great poem of New York, and it is right to name him one of New York’s greats.

An interview with Sidney Offit about his friend, the “congenial and modest” Kurt Vonnegut

Sidney Offit spoke with us about the recent publication of Kurt Vonnegut: Novels & Stories 1950–1962, which he edited for The Library of America.

Why do you think Kurt Vonnegut’s novels and stories still strike a chord today?
Kurt considers the seminal conflicts of war, justice, love, space, time, and “what’s it all about”? And he writes with an accessible style spiced by originality and wit.

What can younger writers learn from his work?
Write what you believe and remember, “You are writing for strangers.”

You often took walks together. What were they like?
Walks with Kurt were always an adventure. We shared intimacies and observations, and he taught me to look up and appreciate buildings as well as the sky. Whenever I stroll pass Tiffany on the south side of 57th Street between Fifth and Madison Avenues, I remember the first time Kurt discovered that the building directly east of Tiffany was once Public School 6453.

How was his tennis game?
Win or lose Kurt enjoyed tennis. Once, when we were playing doubles with our sons and off to a fast start 1-3, before they started to rally, Kurt suggested, “Let’s fall on the ball and run out the clock.”

Did he change after he became a counterculture hero and famous? 
As far as I could tell, Kurt’s fame only increased his curiosity about other people and ways of life. I never met anyone who experienced Kurt as less than congenial and modest.

Did he ever speak about World War II and Dresden? 
We cut up and kicked it around about our experiences and feelings. But there was very little Kurt told me about the war that he didn’t express vividly and originally in his novels.

What do you think of Vonnegut’s short stories?  And his ambitions for the stories compared to the novels? Did he talk about the “slicks” he wrote for? Why do you think he stopped writing stories and began to write literary and nonfiction journalism instead? 
Kurt’s short stories are works of narrative and imaginative art. He was candid about why he stopped writing them and concentrated on writing novels. The “slicks” were no longer around and there was not a lucrative market for short stories. Remember—Kurt was supporting a family with seven children.

Do you have a favorite novel or story in the new LOA collection? 
Among the stories and novels, circa 1950–1962, it’s not easy for me to play at handicapping, but if I had to make a pick I’d plunk for “Harrison Bergeron” because it’s so wildly imaginative, an easy read, unpredictable—vintage Vonnegut that is not quite as available as the other novels and stories in the collection.

What do you miss most about him? 
His observations, his humor, his warmth, his friendship, his cigarette smoke.

Also of interest:

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Brooks D. Simpson on the “Seven Days,”
June 25–July 1, 1862, and Emancipation

Guest blog post by Brooks D. Simpson, professor of history, Arizona State University and co-editor of The Civil War: The First Year

On June 25, 1862, the Army of Northern Virginia and the Army of the Potomac clashed outside Richmond, Virginia, and continued to do so for a week. The series of engagements that followed has become known as the Seven Days, and at their conclusion, Robert E. Lee had succeeded in driving George B. McClellan’s bluecoats from the outskirts of the Confederate capital. For the next twelve months, Lee and his army would achieve a series of magnificent victories in Virginia, reviving hopes for a Confederate triumph on the battlefield; it would be a year to the day of the final engagement of the Seven Days that lead elements of that army would encounter two brigades of bluecoat cavalry outside a small town in Pennsylvania named Gettysburg.

McClellan refused to accept responsibility for the outcome of the Seven Days. Ever desirous of more men, he declared to Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton that he had lost one battle “because my force was too small. I again repeat that I am not responsible for this & I say it with the earnestness of a General who feels in his heart the loss of every brave man who has been needlessly sacrificed today.” This assertion was not enough to satisfy his sense of grievance: “If I save this Army now I tell you plainly that I owe no thanks to you or any other persons in Washington—you have done your best to sacrifice this Army.” Fortunately for McClellan, a War Department telegraph operator struck the offensive sentence; it says something about the general’s forthrightness (or cluelessness) that he reprinted it in full in his report of operations, published in 1864.

Lincoln pondered the significance of the setback to Union fortunes. Initially he thought it would be best to continue to press forward in the western theater along the Mississippi River and into Tennessee while raising reinforcements for McClellan to renew his offensive. Now was no time to show the white feather. “I expect to maintain this contest until successful, or till I die, or am conquered, or my term expires, or Congress or the country forsakes me,” he informed his secretary of state, William Henry Seward. However, as McClellan’s men rallied and drove off Lee’s final determined assault at Malvern Hill on July 1, it seemed that perhaps things were not as desperate as they first appeared. It was time to consider what to do next.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

William Deresiewicz on The Sirens of Titan, when “Kurt Vonnegut has become Kurt Vonnegut”

William Deresiewicz begins his review in The Nation of the LOA’s first two Kurt Vonnegut volumes with some apprehension:
Those old mass-market paperbacks you used to find him in, with their trippy covers and flaky pages, 50¢ used? They were part of the mystique. Now here he is, decked out in the publishing equivalent of black tie: appendices, chronology, annotations, textual notes and a page layout, as the Library of America boilerplate puts it, “designed for readability as well as elegance.” Elegance? There’s a story in the second volume called “The Big Space Fuck.” “I think I am the first writer to use ‘fuck’ in a title,” Vonnegut once boasted. . . . But never mind; the words cast their spell [and] the layout is forgotten. . . . Some of them are worse than I remembered, but some of them are even better.
“With its idled masses made superfluous by technologically driven gains in productivity,” Player Piano’s “prescience is chilling,” according to Deresiewicz, yet he finds Vonnegut’s first novel “apprentice work—clunky, clumsy, overstuffed.” His reaction to the second novel is decidedly different:
Turn the page to The Sirens of Titan (1959), however, and it’s all there, all at once. Kurt Vonnegut has become Kurt Vonnegut. The spareness hits you first. The first page contains fourteen paragraphs, none of them longer than two sentences, some of them as short as five words. It’s like he’s placing pieces on a game board—so, and so, and so. The story moves from one intensely spotlit moment to the next, one idea to the next, without delay or filler. The prose is equally efficient, with a scalding syncopated wit: “‘I told her that you and she were to be married on Mars.’ He shrugged. ‘Not married exactly—’ he said, ‘but bred by the Martians—like farm animals.’”

. . . With a decade writing stories for the slicks under his belt (Colliers, Cosmopolitan, The Saturday Evening Post), Vonnegut knew about pushing an audience’s buttons. Later, when he taught at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, he won his students’ reluctant allegiance by eschewing aesthetic pieties and teaching them how to grab a reader’s attention. People want illusions, The Sirens of Titan insists, and they are abjectly grateful to anyone who can offer them. [The protagonist Malachi] Constant is trapped on Mercury with another man, Boaz. Each knows something about the other that the other doesn’t know about himself. “Don’t truth me,” Boaz pleads with him, “and I won’t truth you.”

Fortune makes for satire, the vanity of human wishes. What elevates the novel to tragedy is the fact that Constant isn’t guiltless. The truth Boaz withholds is something dreadful that the other man has done: unwillingly, unwittingly, but done nonetheless. This is high Greek stuff. Our moral beings are not ours to rule, yet we are accountable for them all the same. Tragedy means that, in the end, you do not question what’s become of you, because you know that you deserve it. . . . The novel is punctuated by moments of piercing loss. At the last, like all true tragedy, it leaves us drained and humbled. . . . Later, Vonnegut would justly be accused of sentimentality. Here the emotion is earned. In this, his second novel and his second-greatest, he achieves a sublimity he would never attempt again.
Previous Reader’s Almanac posts of interest:
Related LOA works: Kurt Vonnegut: Novels & Stories 1950–1962 (includes The Sirens of Titan); Kurt Vonnegut: Novels & Stories 1963–1973

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Anne Lauterbach, Brad Gooch, and Edmund White on “the real thing,” Joe Brainard

Last week the McNally Jackson bookstore in New York City circulated a quite splendid email celebrating the new Library of America volume The Collected Writings of Joe Brainard. “Artist, poet, book designer, cartoonist, memoirist, and gay icon, Joe Brainard is almost uniformly celebrated by those who've read him and too-little known by those who haven't,” read its opening.

The impulse that prompted this email—the impulse to share the discovery of a writer who seems to defy easy categorization yet who makes a lasting impression in an unusually intimate way—is strikingly similar to what motivated the creation of “I Remember Joe Brainard,” a page where thirteen friends and fellow artists offer video tributes that try to recapture what made Brainard such a captivating personality and influential artist.

Here is close friend and confidante, art consultant, poet, and essayist Anne Lauterbach on the flavor of the time:
It was an interesting moment in American poetics. There was a withdrawal from confessional work, which had dominated the literary scene in the 50s, and then in the 60s there was a riot of all of those notions of importance or significance. It all got very confused, and for someone in our generation it was a real turn. The first generation of the New York School looked at a lot of things, not all of them American. So they set a new kind of constellation in motion. Barbara Guest looking at H.D., reaching back to another formulation of modernism. Of course [John] Ashbery had a deep immersion in French culture before anyone else did. And then [James] Schuyler and [Frank] O’Hara, too. That group of people made this very interesting nexus of connection among the arts, wanting poetry to be in relation to the other configurations of culture. And Joe was very conscious of that, which is why he did both writing and drawing. There was a great moment when those were not separate arenas. You didn’t have to make this kind of singularity out of your work. You didn’t have to be one thing. . . .

I think there is an irony that the main piece of writing he created was I Remember and around the period of his leaving too early there is this recuperative remembering of Joe. To me, there’s something about that that is oddly accurate, a fit that makes you conscious.
Brad Gooch recalls what it was like to be writing poetry at the same time as Brainard—and now to be teaching him:
In terms of writing poems myself, Joe was part of a world that became a kind of aesthetic. He was a hero worshiper of Frank O’Hara and James Schuyler, poets I was also a worshiper of and influenced by. Both of them were very experimental, gay, and tended to write about their friends and daily life. They tried not to be conventional, academic, or corny. All of that came through Joe, and them. The interesting thing with Joe was that he was closer to my generation. Joe, from the Midwest, has a kind of American adolescent voice and casual appearance—ease—that seemed more contemporary. He could write a poem so simply out of your own memories, your own raw material, and it could be as exciting as The Wasteland.
When I teach creative writing at William Paterson University in New Jersey, students always respond to I Remember more than any other poem. It’s the greatest inspiration for their own poetry, because everyone has memory. Somehow Joe gives them permission to write what they’re actually thinking and feeling, rather than what they’re supposed to be thinking and feeling. Certainly being around Joe, he did give me that kind of permission. He was incredibly supportive. I felt sheepishly honored in a way that he was being my friend. All of these things had an influence on me. He was an encouraging kind of guy. Sometimes it was odd to realize he would beat himself up about his qualities that were making his art and poetry great. He had a side that maybe he was supposed to be Whistler or W. H. Auden. He didn’t act on that, but it was interesting that he struggled with that. That struggle made him seem more contemporary than more distant figures.
Edmund White was already an established writer when he met Brainard in the seventies, yet found the young writer affected him personally:
I don’t think his work impacted mine at all. I was quite old when I met him, so I’d already written a lot by that point. I was also a very sophisticated writer who wrote books that were infused with other works of literature. I had been a professor, a critic, everything he wasn’t. He was naïve; he was immediate in his taste. His taste reigned supreme in his world. If he liked something, that was it and he didn’t question it. I never heard him speculate about psychoanalysis or artistic theory. That wasn’t him at all. But he had a great influence on people’s lives, and their values. I think he made everyone feel slightly shoddy. He was so pure that you felt compromised around him. He was the real thing. I think that was the influence on our lives. He was calling us to something ideal.
Discover more from these reminiscences and from those by Frank Bidart, Ron Padgett, Robert Pinsky, among others at “I Remember Joe Brainard.”

Also of interest:

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Joyce Carol Oates and Jeffrey Eugenides discuss “why we tell stories” at World Science Festival 2012

From left, Jonathan Gottschall, Joyce Carol Oates, Jeffrey Eugenides
On June 2, award-winning novelists Joyce Carol Oates and Jeffrey Eugenides joined a panel of three scientists to address the question “Why We Tell Stories: The Science of Narrative” at this year's World Science Festival in New York City. The panel’s moderator, Jay Allison, who produces a popular venue for contemporary storytelling, The Moth Radio Hour, on NPR, described the session’s ambitious agenda: “Why do we have a primal urge to tell stories? Do they help us survive? Do they serve an evolutionary role? What happens in the brain when we tell stories?”

Much of the discussion focused on what storytelling’s role may have played in human evolution. Paul Bloom, professor of psychology and cognitive science at Yale University, profiled the curious place fiction holds in this context:
It’s no mystery why people would want facts about the real world: who’s sleeping with whom, where the food is—gossip is a natural appetite and a powerful one. It makes sense. But why would we want facts about people who we full well know don’t exist, and events that don’t either. Why would we spend our money, spend our time pursuing those things? That’s just an extraordinary puzzle.
Keith Oatley, professor emeritus of cognitive psychology at the University of Toronto and author of three novels, devised an experiment to compare the performance of people who mostly read fiction to those who mostly read nonfiction. He asked participants to characterize what emotions they detected—fear, anxiety, desire—in thirty-six pictures of just the eyes of different people. The fiction readers performed decidely better than the nonfiction readers. Oatley’s conclusion: the “more stories—fiction—you read, the better you are at understanding people.”

At one point Oates questioned whether the panel was viewing storytelling too positively. “There are very negative kinds of storytelling. Paranoid schizophrenics have their stories. Sometimes they publish books, like Mein Kampf. And many people are taken in by them.” But Bloom pointed out that one of the most surprising findings independently arrived at in the research of all three scientists was the prevalent appeal of “the sad and the scary,” even at a young age:
The defining feature of many stories is that they involve bad things. Jonathan [Gottschall] sums it up in his wonderful book [The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human]: The core element that they share is trouble. You would expect kids rationally to avoid their worst fears, but they confront them. They dive into them. One solution to the puzzle which Keith has emphasized is that stories serve as a form of safe practice. There are horrible things in the world that we need to deal with. Just like play is often viewed by ethologists as practicing for the future, we practice in our imaginations. Maybe it makes us better prepared to deal with horrible things.
Listening to Eugenides read a passage from The Virgin Suicides prompted Oates to recall one of her motivations for writing:
One of the motives for creating art is a feeling of homesickness, that you’ve lost something. That’s very powerful and haunting and you can’t quite get to it in your conscious life. Through your imagination you’re inhabiting this invisible and palpable place. That’s one of the reasons why people write—that’s why I write--out of loneliness and homesickness you’re evoking this lost world.
The ninety-minute discussion covered much of what moderator Allison outlined—including scans of what a brain looks like when a person is reading Chekhov. Eugenides summed up many of the thoughts expressed during the evening in his closing comment:
I think it’s persuasive that stories exist to impose a meaning in a meaningless world, or a world we could fear is meaningless, regardless of the content of the story. The fact that there seems to be an order, and some sort of organization in the story is what we get from the story. It’s kind of our nutrition. As literature goes on, writers begin to distrust the simplicity of the stories that were written before and they have to start writing the little train that tried but couldn’t because all the other stories were about the train that could. . . . 
I just happen to be reading an Alice Munro story last night called “Cortes Island.” It’s about a young woman who’s kind of becoming a writer. She’s in a marriage that’s perfectly acceptable and new, but there are hints that it’s not going to be great in her life and she’s begun to read a lot and write and she gets interrupted now and then in her reading and the line is something like: “she would be interrupted at the point of astonishment the book had brought her to, the giddiness of gulped riches.” I’m often asked why I read. It’s sort of that astonishment that books bring me to and “the giddiness of gulped riches” that I get from reading. That’s going to have to be there in a hundred years in whatever form stories take or how they are delivered.
Also of interest:
Related LOA works: American Fantastic Tales: Terror and the Uncanny from the 1940s to Now (includes “Family” by Joyce Carol Oates); At the Fights: American Writers on Boxing (includes “Rape and the Boxing Ring” by Joyce Carol Oates)

Friday, June 1, 2012

Blake Bailey, Michael Chabon, Susan Cheever, and Allan Gurganus celebrate the centennial of John Cheever

From left: Michael Chabon, Susan Cheever, Allan Gurganus, Blake Bailey
Photo: Nancy Crampton © 2012

On May 17 writers Blake Bailey, Michael Chabon, Susan Cheever, and Allan Gurganus gathered at the 92nd Street Y in New York City to celebrate the one-hundredth birthday of novelist and story writer John Cheever.

Following a recording of Cheever himself reading one of his favorite stories, “The Death of Justina,” novelist Michael Chabon introduced his reading:
Every writer has his or her own personal pantheon of greats. John Cheever has long occupied and continues to occupy the highest position in my pantheon of writers. . . Of the things you do love [in a writer’s work] there are some that you love fiercely and intensely and more than any other. The story I’m going to read to you tonight is definitely one of those. I think it’s probably Cheever’s first great story, “The Enormous Radio.”
Cheever biographer Blake Bailey explained how Cheever’s “first flush of fame” in 1964, when the publication of The Wapshot Scandal landed him on the cover of Time magazine, created a problem. Although “the funniest and most charming of men, Cheever was morbidly shy. He drank to mitigate that shyness.” And he had no intimates. “His only confidante was his journal. It was twenty-eight volumes, 4,300 single-spaced typed pages.” Cheever had to figure out how to cultivate “a persona on a vast public scale.” Bailey charmed the audience with his own “cheesy” impersonation of one aspect of Cheever's persona creation, as chronicled in his biography:
The main aspect of this personage was his curious accent. Was he a Cambridge Brahmin? British? What? It was hard to pin down. Philip Roth pointed out that it wasn’t really a New England accent at all—“more like an upper-class New Yorker, someone like [George] Plimpton, perhaps.” This was close, though Cheever’s accent was somewhat more mutable than Plimpton’s. When appearing on The Dick Cavett Show, or putting an impudent barkeep in his place, Cheever became almost a parody of the pompous toff (“like Thurston Howell III on Gilligan’s Island”), but at other times—relaxed, cracking jokes—he sounded not unlike a boy from the South Shore with an English mother. “I knew John before he had an accent,” said Jerre Mangione, his old FWP colleague from the thirties. No matter. Most agree that Cheever’s accent became a well-assimilated part of his persona—“a suave, fictional dialect,” as the poet Dana Gioia put it, “[that] seemed to have the force of ancient authority, as if he were some New England Homer standing at the apex of a long oral tradition.”
Cheever’s daughter, Susan, perhaps best known for her critically acclaimed memoir Home Before Dark, read four passages from her father’s journals because, she said,
Everybody knows that when he was writing with a capital “W” he wrote like an angel. But one of the things that fascinates me about him is that when he was just writing in his journals he also often wrote like an angel. (Which suggests that writing can’t be taught, even though I spend a great deal of time teaching it.)
She described the following entry as her favorite:
Waiting at the R.s’ for Susie [“That’s me.”] to finish her French lesson, with Ben. A northwest wind and a winter twilight, a moon already bright before dusk and a cold night on the way. This hour when we seem caught in the bluff death of the year. The light loses its breadth, but not its clarity or its power. These subtle blues and lemony lights are like the lights of anesthesia, lust, repose. The stars come out and the play of light continues. It is not that the light goes, a dimness falls from the sky over everything, obscuring the light. The dimness falls over everything. The cold air makes the dog seem to bark into a barrel. Bright stars, houselights, rubbish fires.
Novelist Allan Gurganus closed the evening with a vivid reminiscence of his experience as one of twelve students enrolled in Cheever’s class at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop in 1973 (only three had ever read Cheever before: Ron Hansen, T. Coraghessan Boyle, and himself):
He sat cross-legged on a blonde oak desk looking like a Noel Coward leprechaun. Blue-and-white striped Brooks shirt, unpressed khakis. John Cheever wore size six Weejuns. (You know I’ve always wanted to say that. For its interior rhymes. For its being factual. For its snappy attempt at sounding both as smart and clear, well, as John Cheever. So yes, John Cheever wore size six Weejuns.) Though he was only sixty-one, due to being a lifelong chain smoker/drinker fresh from intensive care, he looked eighty. And I at twenty-five, studying this battered idol, felt too smooth, half-formed . . .
Cheever’s courtesy struck me as heart-breaking. He treated us like this room’s celebrities. Such eagerness to amuse and be amused. Such readiness to become hopeful, or at least distracted. He had already written most of his immortal prose and just this mortal husk seemed left. . . . He carried an ardent charge, some chance belief in the great Greco–New England birthright called Valor, Decency, Love. He trailed transcendentalist optimism, though by now it was like those jet rings you can only see at sunset. When nervous his Yankee accent grew more temperamental and regional. This day Katharine Hepburn couldn’t have understood him.
Gurganus ended with a moving imagining of Cheever at work (“Over one hundred stories in The New Yorker alone; I’m here to tell you, brothers and sisters, that’s a heroism!”):
And if that first page he types does not utterly sing here in the maid’s room where such wage earning occurs, he just wads that up. He rolls a clean sheet into the manual and he tries. That last attempt, it just didn’t mean enough of one thing. It lacked a salt sting. It lacked the apple smell. So we’re going to start over: the compression, the emotional surge, the sheer necessity we feel in these brief stories that tumbled in only to recede with tidal force. Even as we read them today all are still guided, puppeteered and deified by one dear, confused, pansexual, 130-pound, alcoholic husband and father, not yet letting himself sneak upstairs in stockinged feet to snitch an 11 AM snort from the pantry, a reward for another morning spent earning his way into the promised world denied, while carrying on his back his family, his lies and addictions, his fugitive sex, his genius, and of course his beneficiaries, all of us, all the readers alive on earth tonight. Well done ye good and faithful servant. Happy Birthday, John.
Also of interest:
Related LOA works: The Collected Works of John Cheever (boxed set)
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