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Thursday, September 27, 2012

Penelope Niven on Thornton Wilder, reading

Guest blog post by Penelope Niven, author of the forthcoming biography, Thornton Wilder: A Life (HarperCollins)
I have the instinctive habit-formed impulse, at any unoccupied moment during the day, to reach for a book to read . . . .
—Thornton Wilder, Journal Entry 24, May 21, 1940
“Dear Papa,” Thornton Wilder wrote when he was nine. “Books I have read this month.” He listed Shakespeare’s Othello, John White’s translation of Plutarch’s Lives, Washington Irving’s Sketch Book, Wilbur Fist Crafts’s Successful Men of Today, and Sarah Knowles Bolton’s Poor Boys Who Became Famous. Thornton concluded with his opinion: “None of the books were unsatisfactory.”

Two of the books would have particularly satisfied his father, Dr. Amos Parker Wilder, journalist, orator, diplomat, and temperance advocate. American authors Crafts and Bolton were leaders in the temperance movement and wrote prolifically for children, hoping to instill in them such virtues as obedience, punctuality, hard work, and, of course, abstinence.

Thornton, his brother, Amos, and their three sisters grew up being read to—the Bible, and works by Bunyan, Scott, Dickens, Thackeray, Thoreau, James Fenimore Cooper, and John Greenleaf Whittier. On Sunday afternoons their father read to his precocious children from “edifying” books on religion, philosophy, history, and civics. On other days, their mother, a poet and lover of the arts, read mythology to them, or poetry, fiction, and drama. Thornton eagerly read every genre. His father encouraged him to read biography, not only the didactic children’s books about poor boys growing up to be famous, but Boswell’s life of Samuel Johnson and the four-volume biography of abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison. When Thornton was twenty-eight and working on The Cabala, his first novel, he wrote, “I never cry for fiction (save when I’m composing it) but I weep myself ill over biography.”

During their high school and college years, Dr. Wilder dispatched his sons to do summer work on farms, believing the experience provided a wider understanding of grassroots America. In the summer of 1916, afflicted with mosquito bites, bedbugs, and sunburn, Thornton worked six ten-hour days a week, at fifteen cents per hour, on a farm in Massachusetts. After the day’s work, he escaped into books. He was so captivated by J. M. Barrie’s plays that he read “to the cows in the stanchions the judge’s speech from Barrie’s The Legend of Leonora.” Thornton’s grounding in biblical literature came in handy another summer when he worked as entertainment director in a Connecticut camp for boys. On Sunday nights he told the boys Bible stories, and because many of them had “never heard of Goliath or Esau or Belshazzar,” he said, they gave him “credit for a great deal of talent.”

From boyhood Thornton was writing plays and stories, fed by his eclectic reading. He noted in his letters and journals the books he read and the writers who absorbed his attention. As an adult, he often read a book once for sheer pleasure, and then re-read it analytically, dissecting it and retrieving the techniques or themes he wanted to try with his own hand. He was schooling himself in the demanding arts of drama and fiction.

He read globally, exploring cultures through their books and working on his Latin, French, German, Italian, and Spanish proficiency so that he could read a text in its original language. He didn’t want another person to stand between him and the author. Books could be bridges to friendship with other American authors—Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Glenway Wescott, Alexander Woollcott, Mabel Dodge Luhan, and Edmund Wilson, among others. In 1934, Thornton met Gertrude Stein and embarked on one of the most important literary friendships of his life. Before they met, he had read Stein’s work closely enough to write a wicked parody of her style, but from 1935 until Stein’s death in 1946, he was the American champion and interpreter of her work.

In his fifties Wilder concentrated on books by nineteenth-century American authors. He was appointed Charles Eliot Norton Professor of Poetry at Harvard for 1950–51, to give a series of lectures he called “The American Characteristics in Classic American Literature.” He turned his prodigious intellectual energy to the mission he set for himself: “To interpret the American experience and the American character as revealed in nineteenth century American literature; to define what it meant to be an American in the twentieth century; and to examine the role of America and Americans in the global community.”

He filled his journals with research and reflections about nineteenth-century American authors and their significance in American life, enough material for the nonfiction book he dreamed about writing but never finished. He was immersed in the work of Whitman, Poe, Melville, Henry James, Thoreau, and Dickinson. He excluded Emerson. “Isn’t he awful?” Wilder wrote to Malcolm Cowley.
Yet how that colossus bestrode the world for so long! His ideas basely, soothingly, flattering all that is facile and evasive in the young republic . . . Melville’s copies of the Essays are in the Harvard Library and it’s a joy to see how Melville dug his pencil into the page in scornful annotation.
Wilder much preferred Thoreau. “Walden,” he wrote, “is a manual of self-reliance so much more profound than Emerson’s famous essay that the latter seems to be merely on the level of that advice to melancholics which directs them to take walks and drink a lot of milk.” Three of Wilder’s lectures were published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1952: “Toward an American Language,” “The American Loneliness,” and “Emily Dickinson,” a biographical portrait articulating a fundamental theme in Wilder’s own work—the importance of “loving the particular while living in the universal.”

By the time he was seventy-eight his vision was failing, and Wilder could not read as copiously as he had always loved to do. Nevertheless, in the months before his death in December 1975, he “devoured with joy” Lewis Thomas’s The Lives of a Cell and James D. Watson’s The Double Helix. “What sublime reaches,” he told his brother, adding that he was “glad to have lived long enough to peek into these processes.”

Back in 1926, when he was a young man, Wilder had reflected that “the whole purport of literature” is “the notation of the heart”—a line he wrote in a letter to his former schoolmate Henry Luce, and then embedded in a passage in The Bridge of San Luis Rey. That maxim held true for Thornton Wilder for a lifetime of writing—and a lifetime of reading.

Also of interest:
Related LOA works: Thornton Wilder: Collected Plays and Writings on Theater; The Bridge of San Luis Rey and Other Novels 1926–1948 (includes Wilder’s essay, “Gertrude Stein’s Four in America”; The Eighth Day, Theophilus North, Autobiographical Writings

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Elmore Leonard to be honored by the National Book Foundation and The Library of America

The National Book Foundation announced this morning that Elmore Leonard will receive the 2012 Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, awarded each year since 1988 to “a person who has enriched our literary heritage over a life of service, or a corpus of work.” In addition, he will join the Library of America series in fall 2014 with a volume of his crime novels from the 1970s, with additional volumes to follow. The LOA collections will be edited by Gregg Sutter, Mr. Leonard's longtime research assistant.

The Library of America issued the following statement: "Elmore Leonard recharged the American crime novel, fusing noirish humor, razor-sharp observation, and extraordinary narrative mastery in a long string of novels written to a dazzlingly high standard. Whether his background is Detroit's urban sprawl, Florida's sun-drenched rot, or the cut-rate glitz of Atlantic City casinos, Leonard conjures a world of anarchic and terrifyingly random danger. He puts in play a brilliant cavalcade of American characters—cops and killers, movie stars and con artists, judges and go-go dancers—whose language, Leonard's most brilliant creation, is a jazzy and perpetually surprising reinvention of American talk."

The LOA publication will make Mr. Leonard one of four living writers to have distinct volumes in the series devoted their writing, joining Philip Roth, John Ashbery, and W. S. Merwin (whose collected poems will be published in spring 2013). Eudora Welty and Saul Bellow were also inducted into The Library of America during their lifetimes.

Ashbery, Bellow, Roth, and Welty all received the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. Other past honorees include such authors as Ray Bradbury, Gwendolyn Brooks, Joan Didion, Maxine Hong Kingston, Norman Mailer, David McCullough, Arthur Miller, Toni Morrison, Adrienne Rich, John Updike, Gore Vidal, and Tom Wolfe. (See that National Book Foundation’s site for a complete list of past medal winners.)

The Library of America, an independent nonprofit organization, seeks to foster greater appreciation for our nation's literary heritage by publishing, and keeping permanently in print, authoritative editions of America's best and most significant writing. There are over 230 volumes in the series to date, among them editions of classic crime writing by Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and David Goodis, and the two-volume collection American Noir: Crime Novels of the 1930s, 40s, and 50s.

Monday, September 17, 2012

September 17, 1862: The Battle of Antietam (Sharpsburg), the bloodiest single day in American history

“Antietam (called Sharpsburg by the South),” writes James McPherson in Battle Cry of Freedom, “was one of the few battles of the war in which both commanders deliberately chose the field and planned their tactics beforehand.” Confederate General Robert E. Lee believed the Federal troops were demoralized and vulnerable after their recent defeat at Second Manassas. Now was the time to strike. Ever cautious, General George McClellan became emboldened when on September 13 a Union soldier found a copy of Lee’s orders of attack wrapped around three cigars a Southern officer had lost in a field near Frederick, Maryland. “Here is a paper,” McClellan told one of his generals, “with which if I cannot whip Bobbie Lee, I will be willing to go home.”

But McClellan believed Lee’s forces to be twice the size they actually were and took two days to arrange his troops. It wasn’t until September 16 that the northern commander had 60,000 men in the field—and another 15,000 six miles away—to stand against Lee’s 25,000 or 30,000. In a letter to his daughters after the battle Brigadier General Alpheus S. Williams captures the apprehension of the Union troops the night before the battle:
At length I got fairly asleep and for two hours and was dead to all sounds or sensations. I shall not, however, soon forget that night; so dark, so obscure, so mysterious, so uncertain, with the occasional rapid volleys of pickets and outposts, the low solemn sound of the command as troops came into position, and withal so sleepy that there was a half-dreamy sensation about it all; but with a certain impression that the morrow was to be great with the future fate of our country. So much responsibility, so much intense future anxiety! and yet I slept as soundly as though nothing was before me.
Brigadier General Alpheus S. Williams
Photograph by Matthew Brady
New York Daily Tribune correspondent George W. Smalley witnessed the battle and published his account three days later. Wiliam Cullen Bryant, editor of the rival New York Evening Post, hailed the account as one of the “best battle pieces in literature.” Smalley paints the encounter in epic proportions:
Fierce and desperate battle between two hundred thousand men has raged since daylight, yet night closes on an uncertain field. It is the greatest fight since Waterloo—all over the field contested with an obstinacy equal even to Waterloo. If not wholly a victory to-night, I believe it is the prelude to a victory to-morrow. But what can be foretold of the future of a fight in which from five in the morning till seven at night the best troops of the continent have fought without decisive result?
A “Maryland maiden” who viewed the battle from a nearby attic window offers a contrasting view when she writes, “On all the distant hills around were the blue uniforms and shining bayonets of our men, and I thought it was the prettiest sight I ever saw in my life.” Eyewitness accounts closer to the fighting tell quite a different story. Here is Major Rufus R. Dawes of the 6th Wisconsin Infantry relating his experience at the center of the battle for David R. Miller’s cornfield, a swath of ground that changed ownership four times during the day:
As we appeared at the edge of the corn, a long line of men in butternut and gray rose up from the ground. Simultaneously, the hostile battle lines opened a tremendous fire upon each other. Men, I can not say fell; they were knocked out of the ranks by dozens. But we jumped over the fence, and pushed on, loading, firing, and shouting as we advanced. There was, on the part of the men, great hysterical excitement, eagerness to go forward, and a reckless disregard for life, of every thing but victory.
Everyone who witnessed the fighting close up expressed horror at the day’s carnage. Smalley notes that “The dead are strewn so thickly that as you ride over [the battlefield] you cannot guide your horse’s steps too carefully.” Dawes laments the “dreadful slaughter” and Williams reports seeing corpses “as thick as autumn leaves along a narrow lane.” A veteran campaigner known to speak his mind, Williams also offers insight into why the deaths and casualties were so great. For one, he finds fault with how some officers directed the order of battle:
The Rebels had been strongly reinforced, and Sumner’s troops, being formed in three lines in close proximity, after his favorite idea, we lost a good deal of our fire without any corresponding benefit or advantage. For instance, the second line, within forty paces of the front, suffered almost as much as the front line, and yet could not fire without hitting our own men. The colonel of a regiment in the second line said he lost sixty men and came off without firing a gun.
On the offensive side, Williams dramatizes how lethally effective an artillery battery can be:
I was near one of our brass twelve-pound Napoleon gun batteries and seeing the Rebel colors appearing over the rolling ground I directed the two left pieces charged with canister to be turned on the point. In the moment the Rebel line appeared and both guns were discharged at short range. Each canister contains several hundred balls. They fell in the very front of the line and all along it apparently, stirring up a dust like a thick cloud. When the dust blew away no regiment and not a living man was to be seen.
By nightfall, at least 3,600 men were dead and well over 17,000 were wounded. McPherson, who estimates that another 2,000 died from their injuries, puts this in perspective:
The casualties at Antietam numbered four times the total suffered by American soldiers at the Normandy beaches on June 6, 1944. More than twice as many Americans lost their lives in one day at Sharpsburg as fell in combat in the War of 1812, the Mexican War, and the Spanish-American War combined.
Both armies stayed in position on September 18. That evening Lee and his troops returned to Virginia.

Also of interest:
Related LOA works: The Civil War: The Second Year Told by Those Who Lived It (contains more than 60 pages on Antietam, including eyewitness accounts by George W. Smalley, Rufus R. Dawnes, Alpheus S. Williams, and many others)

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Dawn McGuire on Christian Wiman, Ambition and Survival, and dying too young

The Aphasia Café
by Dawn McGuire
(IF SF Publishing, 2012)
Dawn McGuire, neurologist and poet, who recently published her third collection of poems, The Aphasia Café (IF SF Publishing), joins our continuing series of guest blog posts by writers of fiction, poetry, essays, and history with an appreciation of the prose of poet and critic Christian Wiman.
In an essay about the prose of poets, Christian Wiman writes, “In prose as in poetry, there is perhaps only one definite requirement for a vital style: it must make the reader feel that something is truly at stake.” Wiman’s prose can astonish, madden, take one’s breath, and sometimes break one’s heart. He is a gifted storyteller and a disciplined, self-made intellectual. On the basis of story, style, and swagger, Ambition and Survival: Becoming a Poet (2007), his collection of personal and critical essays, ranks as a great read; but what makes it vital is its compelling narrative arc: it describes the trajectory, not of an aesthetic, but of a theology. 
Wiman is perhaps best known for having been the editor of Poetry, the oldest American magazine of verse, since 2003. But achieving that esteemed post is not one of the three events—“each shattering in his own way”—that he chronicles in his book’s moving, closing essay, “Love Bade Me Welcome.” In fact, the collection can be rearranged into “before and after” 2005, the year of the final, life-changing event. Essays written before 2005 reveal Wiman as a Miltonic figure, zigging and zagging between a defiant purity about poetry, his only absolute, with a tendency just to “blow stuff up.”

Wiman’s verbal aggression in those years mirrored the crazed rages of his youth. In the dazzling memoir, “The Limit,” he continues to beat a boy long after winning the fight, even as the bones in his own hands are breaking. When he discovers that his father has been cheating on his mother, a teenaged Wiman hits him “squarely between the eyes” and continues to hit him—his father, ashamed, does not resist—“until the last blow is closer to a caress.”

This endnote of Eros infuses his critiques of poetry. He clearly adores Hart Crane, for example, even while relentlessly checking off the poet’s failures: overwritten, “weak-kneed rhapsodies,” sentimental mysticism, inconsistent control of form, bad form. Yet Crane offers him a failure he can love. Crane’s “unremitting intensity” and “doomed ambition” bear a strong family resemblance to Wiman’s own flaws, ones he confesses and acts out from.

At twenty Wiman decided to become a poet. “I loved [poetry] most of all for the contained force of its forms, the release of its music, and for the fact that, as far as I could tell, it had absolutely nothing to do with the world I was from.” Throughout his essays, and most particularly in “Finishes: on Ambition and Survival” (1995), Wiman tussles relentlessly with Form. Form’s mastery is what makes a poem durable, enduring, and—importantly for Wiman—able to outlast its creator. A poet who has met the challenge of finding her form might write five or six poems that can endure. Such a poet will be keenly intentional about style, keenly attuned to conventional forms and devices, even while resisting, reinventing them. It is only a rare poem that succeeds in finding its Form; such poems are perfect.

Finally, Form is a deeply spiritual trope; a way to contain and redeem the Fallen Man. Wiman wrestles with John Ruskin’s idea that “the more beautiful the art, the more it is essentially the work of people who feel themselves wrong.”

There is a sense in which all art emerges out of injury or absence, out of the artist’s sense that there is something missing in him, something awry or disturbed. . . . Art—or, to be more precise, form--is not only what enables artists to experience this sense of wrongness at all, which is their deepest being and will possess them one way or another, it is their only hope of wholeness and release.
Wiman believes he will write a perfect poem, and so become right with himself.

By the penultimate essay, “Free of Our Humbug: Basil Bunting” (2004), Wiman is on the threshold of middle age. Re-reading Bunting, a high-modern formalist whom Wiman admired in his twenties, turns out to be tedious at thirty-seven. He quotes Bunting: “All arts . . . are concerned only with form in the end.” To which Wiman replies: “Well, I don’t buy it—though I have long bought it, have even peddled these notions myself.”

What’s changed? Two of Wiman’s “shattering” events have occurred. In 2001 Wiman stopped writing poetry. In 2004 he found love, a deep, romantic love. In a suddenly and dramatically lit-up world, Form is a lesser god. His spiritual hunger now becomes manifest. To speak it plain: “I needed to thank somebody . . . and so I needed to pray.”

Then comes 2005, the eve of “after.” Less than a year into his marriage, on his thirty-ninth birthday, Wiman receives the diagnosis of a rare blood disease. While the disorder is unpredictable, his case is severe; he will likely die young. “Love Bade Me Welcome” tells how Wiman and his wife get the news. They mourn together for a long time, “not my death, exactly, but the death of the life we had imagined with each other.” They find themselves entering a church; an act which “before” would have given Wiman hives. “The first service was excruciating, in that it seemed to tear all wounds wide open, and it was profoundly comforting, in that it seemed to offer the only possible balm.” If this sounds familiar, it is because it is how Wiman conceived Form: that which enables both the experience of one’s wrongness and the hope of release.

The faith toward which Wiman turns is not that of his Baptist roots—an austere, earth- and body-denying tradition.

My experience has been just the opposite: a love of the earth and existence so overflowing that it implied, or included, or even absolutely demanded, God. Love did not deliver me from the earth, but into it.
He does not become evangelical; he does not even become more secure, or more comfortable in his skin. In his poem “2047 Grace Street” he writes, “I do not know how to come closer to God / except by standing where a world is ending / for one man.” He has seizures of doubt, and knows God perhaps most intimately through His absence. He will probably die young, and “just” be dead, for there is no solacing afterlife in Wiman’s faith. But doesn’t everyone, who fully engages the world, die “too young”?

For Wiman,“Faith is not a state of mind but an action in the world, a movement toward the world.” This is probably why we can find a chemo-bald, slightly fragile Wiman “in the world,” talking about God with Bill Moyers. He speaks with simple clarity, without a hint of the distancing ironies, or the “willed immaturity” of his past. He sounds real, as in realized. This faith as movement toward the world is also “why” we find Wiman writing a different kind of poem, a masterpiece that is both profound and completely accessible. The poem takes place on a porch. It is a praise poem, for junk, a neighbor, the everyday. The mystery. It suggests how close God was all along. Just “Five Houses Down.”
In 2011 Dawn McGuire won the Sarah Lawrence/Campbell Corner Academy of Language Exchange Poetry Prize for "poems that treat larger themes with lyric intensity." About The Aphasia Café, Edward Tayler has written, “Dr. McGuire’s poems—and in their technical exactitude they are most emphatically poems, not clinical studies—touch us where we all live, on the edges of language where the “aphasic” moments we share lie just this side of intimate silence.” Her previous collections include Hands On (Creative Arts Book Company, 2002) and Sleeping in Africa (The Dog Ear Press, 1982). She is Adjunct Professor of Neurology at the Neurosciences Institute of Morehouse School of Medicine, and divides her time between Atlanta and Northern California.

Also of interest:
Related LOA works: Hart Crane: Complete Poems and Selected Letters; American Religious Poems: An Anthology by Harold Bloom

An interview with Caroline Fraser: why the Little House books are enjoyed by both children and adult readers

Caroline Fraser, author of Rewilding the World: Dispatches from the Conservation Revolution, spoke with us recently about the new publication of the two-volume boxed set of Laura Ingalls Wilder: The Little House Books, which she edited for The Library of America.

When did you first discover the Little House books?

I read them for the first time at eight or nine and couldn’t put them down. They encompassed a lost world, one that my grandmother knew as one of sixteen children of Swedish immigrants working on a Minnesota farm. She didn’t have a lot of nostalgia for those hard times and reading the books helped clarify that for me.

At one point, my sister took me aside and warned me that something very sad was going to happen at the beginning of By the Shores of Silver Lake. I suspect that the opening of that novel may be, for many young readers, their first experience of the tragedies that literature (and life) holds in store.

What brought you to reread them as an adult?

In 1993 I heard an interview on NPR with a University of Missouri professor, William Holtz, who had published a biography of Wilder’s daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, The Ghost in the Little House. In it, he argued that Lane—a successful journalist and author in her day—had acted as her mother’s ghostwriter. It touched off a firestorm of headlines, “Little Fraud on the Prairie” and so forth. I decided to look into those claims, eventually examining copies of Wilder’s unpublished letters and manuscripts for an article that was published in The New York Review of Books. In the end, Holtz’s argument was unconvincing: no one who has seen the documentary evidence, Wilder’s own manuscripts, laboriously handwritten and revised by her again and again, can come away believing that she wasn’t the author. To be sure, her daughter played a substantial editorial role, helping her mother reshape and revise the drafts, providing transitions, touching up dialogue, even adding passages. But Wilder often disapproved of her daughter’s revisions and undid them.

It has largely died down, but the controversy gave me the opportunity to rediscover the novels as an adult, and I found them just as compelling but more complex, with an undercurrent of longing, a yearning for people and places gone forever.

Do they have different things to say to adults and to children or young adults?

Indeed they do. Adults will pick up on parallels to our own times: Wilder was writing about an era of economic uncertainty, recession, bank failures, and crippling drought. Sound familiar? Railroads were as reviled in her day as big banks or corporations are in ours, something that can be seen in the workers’ payday riot described in By the Shores of Silver Lake.

Aside from the social history, the novels are a rich source for lovers of American folk music—full of popular songs, occasionally with verses that aren’t recorded elsewhere. And they bear witness to an early phase of the ecological destruction of the American West: beaver and bison were nearly gone and wolves were on their way out, triggering alterations to plant and animal communities as the Great Plains were being plowed under. Wilder’s account of the 1875 locust swarm remains an important historical document as well as a dramatic highlight of On the Banks of Plum Creek. It brings alive a national environmental catastrophe, a forerunner of those we’re experiencing now.

Do you have a favorite novel? Favorite scene?

As a child, my favorite was The Long Winter, and I’m still astonished at its claustrophobic power, its stark sense of numb survival. Little House on the Prairie seems to me now an irreplaceable narrative of the white settlement of the American West and the traumas it entailed. It’s comparable to a work of folk art, naïve on the one hand, uncanny and knowing on the other.

I have favorite moments in all the novels, but I love the scene in Little House on the Prairie of the wolf pack trotting next to Pa on his terrified mustang and later surrounding the cabin at night and howling as Laura watches from the window.

What’s the secret of their staying power?

They’re beautifully written. There are moments of high drama and descriptions of process that are as satisfying to adults as to children—raising a cabin log by log, hewing shingles, making pies, planting crops, haying. There are lyrical descriptions of landscape and a wilderness that was disappearing even as Laura Ingalls first laid eyes on it. Here’s just one:

All those golden autumn days the sky was full of wings. Wings beating low over the blue water of Silver Lake, wings beating high in the blue air far above it. Wings of geese, of brant, of ducks and pelicans and cranes and heron and swans and gulls, bearing them all away to green fields in the South. [from By the Shores of Silver Lake]
Another aspect that stays with readers must be Wilder’s portrayal of her father, Charles Ingalls. Their relationship is one of the rare instances in children’s literature of a truly close, admiring bond between father and daughter. In so many novels, the father is absent, ineffectual, even actively wicked. Charles Ingalls has his faults, but he acquires almost a mystical quality in these books, always heading out into the wilderness on his own, then returning to comfort and entertain and protect his family.

How successfully did the long-running television series (1974–83) capture the spirit of the books?

I’m an enthusiastic consumer of television adaptations, but this one is pretty dreadful, with its inaccuracies and ahistorical nonsense. I know that many people discovered Wilder’s work from the television show, which may be an excuse for it. But preening Michael Landon with his 1970s layered hairdo is just all wrong.

What’s your view of the Laura-Rose collaboration?

Laura Ingalls Wilder would probably never have written or published the novels without her daughter’s encouragement, editorial advice and revisions, and publishing savvy. As the series progressed, Wilder became more adept under her daughter’s tutelage. It was a unique and unusual collaboration, one that seems to have brought out the best from both women. I can’t think of another instance of a daughter playing this role for her mother.

Regarding the ghostwriter controversy, it’s worth remarking that if Lane had wanted to write a great American novel about the frontier, she certainly had the opportunity. She made two attempts, both based on her mother’s material, Let the Hurricane Roar and Free Land. But she was a more commercial writer, and her later fiction is often stagy and melodramatic. She lacked her mother’s fine ear and her restraint.

How would you characterize the special quality of Wilder’s achievement in the Little House books? Why do they belong in The Library of America?

Wilder’s work reclaims not only her own childhood but an entire American era. She defined her achievement best, in her speech at a Detroit book fair in 1937:

. . . I began to think what a wonderful childhood I had had. How I had seen the whole frontier, the woods, the Indian country of the great plains, the frontier towns, the building of railroads in wild, unsettled country, homesteading and farmers coming in to take possession. I realized that I had seen and lived it all—all the successive phases of the frontier, first the frontiersman, then the pioneer, then the farmers and the towns.

Then I understood that in my own life I represented a whole period of American history.” [Speech at The Book Fair, Detroit, Michigan, October 16, 1937, reprinted in volume 1]
Wilder took that material, reaching back and recovering childhood memories, and, with some help from her daughter and her husband—Almanzo Wilder doubtless supplied many details for Farmer Boy—transformed them into enduring tales. And she did it beginning in her sixties. She was in her mid-seventies by the time she finished. It was really a “labor of love,” as she put it.

That said, the Little House books are artifacts of their time: they include stereotypes and racism, and they reflect a time when manifest destiny was accepted uncritically. The infamous phrase—“the only good Indian is a dead Indian”—occurs several times in Little House on the Prairie. The books are not beloved by many Indian readers, and the tendency in some circles to hold them up as moral exemplars has been questioned by scholars of Native American history.

But they are classic works of American literature, written for younger readers but no less important for that. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Little Women were written for children, and we recognize their importance in our culture, although we might not rank them with more ambitious novels like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Notions of the canon are more inclusive now than they were even a few decades ago, and we’re attuned to the influential, formative role of children’s literature and its appeal to a wider audience. Ultimately, these novels cannot be marginalized as mere popular or genre fiction. Taken together, they’re panoramic in scale and remarkable in their evocation of a particular time and place and experience.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Lightness v. pungency: Michael Gorra on Henry James’s two versions of The Portrait of a Lady—25 years apart

Guest blog post by Michael Gorra, Mary Augusta Jordan Professor of English Language and Literature at Smith College and author of the recently published Portrait of a Novel: Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece

One October day many years ago I sat in a college classroom and wondered why the book on my desk wasn’t the same as the one the professor held in his hand. They were each called The Portrait of a Lady, and yet I couldn’t make the words he read aloud match up with the ones on the page before me. Henry James’s heroine was named Isabel Archer, and I could follow nicely when my teacher read that “she had had everything that a girl could have.” But it seemed that James then went on to specify. “Everything” included “the latest publications, the music of Gounod, the poetry of Browning, the prose of George Eliot.” The girl in my book didn’t have all that, she got only “a glimpse of contemporary aesthetics,” and I cursed myself for having gotten a cheap used copy instead of the new Penguin in the college bookstore. Mine was clearly abridged—and yet why didn’t it say so?

I’d like to report that I promptly put up my hand and asked what was going on, but I was shy and instead just bumbled along for the rest of the class and even on into the next week. The novel ends with a famous kiss, and my book told me that it was “like a flash of lightning.” My teacher’s said something more. On his pages that “kiss was like white lightning, a flash that spread, and spread again, and stayed,” and so on for another fifty words. Well, the book had hit me like that, and even in what I thought was my own defective copy. It was time to get a good one.

The truth is that The Portrait of a Lady exists in two versions. You can read the text James published in 1881, or you can get the one that he revised twenty-five years later for what he called the New York Edition of his works. James had always tinkered with his own published works, marking them up and trying to make them better, even if the changes were for his eyes only. Then in 1905 he started to plan a definitive edition of his novels and tales, an edition “selective as well as collective; I want quietly to disown a few things.” As part of that, the early books that had made his name—stories like “Daisy Miller,” novels like the Portrait itself—would have their surfaces rubbed over, their style nudged or even kicked into line with that of his later work. Or as he himself put it, he would close the gap between “the march of my present attention…[and] the march of my original expression.”

My teacher had ordered the text of the New York Edition, which had become the classroom standard. I was reading the 1881 version, which some publishers had continued to use and which remained a staple of used bookstores and libraries. And over the years I’ve seen my own early puzzlement duplicated on the faces of one student after another; though I’m happy to say that they’re not at all reluctant to ask about those discrepancies. Put simply, the difference lies in the metaphoric weight and physical pungency of the older writer’s language. In 1881 Isabel waits to see her sick cousin Ralph, and grows “impatient at last; she grew nervous and even frightened.” In the later text, which James revised in 1906 and published in 1908, she grows “nervous and scared—as scared as if the objects about her had begun to show for conscious things, watching her trouble with grotesque grimaces.” The style in that later version is without question richer and more complicated.

Whether it’s an improvement is another question. James’s early texts have a lightness of touch that better suits his youthful comedy, and some readers have always preferred the relatively straightforward prose of those first editions. But his language had already begun to grow full by the time he wrote the Portrait, and the book can sustain the black brocade of his later manner.

Still, the changes are extensive. There’s something new in almost every paragraph, and the pages on which James made his revisions—you can see them at Harvard’s Houghton Library—seem an almost illegible confusion of word-balloons, of lines and arrows and scribbled interjections. His revisions are so great, in fact, that some critics believe we really have two Isabels, and maybe even two different novels.

The literary historian Nina Baym, for example, has argued that the 1881 Portrait is concerned with the social questions of its moment, and especially with the position of women in a world where their fate still depends upon marriage. The New York Edition, in contrast, offers us an interior drama, a modernist account of its heroine’s mental processes. One version concentrates on her “independence”; the other on her “awareness.” James’ revisions certainly do focus our attention on Isabel’s inner life, and even on what his brother, the philosopher William James, had called “the stream of consciousness.” Yet the later chapters of the novel’s first edition were already moving in that direction. James’s revisions don’t change it so much as they make its opening movements fit the book that it had by its last pages become.

The Library of America has, however, chosen to use the first version in its volume of James’s Novels, 1881–1886, and for their purposes that seems to me the only defensible choice. James left some major works out of the New York Edition, such as The Bostonians, and saw no need to revise his later novels in the same way as he had the Portrait. Both consistency and chronology demand that the Library make the decision it has in fact made: to print an early book version of each work.

And me? For my classes I have always ordered James’s revised edition, and expect I’ll go on doing so; I can’t do without that kiss in all its fullness. In writing about Isabel’s story, however, I’ve chosen to use the 1881 edition as my primary text. My new book, Portrait of a Novel, is a critical biography that looks at James’s life and work through the lens of his first great novel. It’s a study of development, of James in the act of becoming; a writer who wasn’t yet a monument, not yet the figure whose disciples would call him The Master. Instead of looking back to the novel’s early version as something discarded, I look forward to its later one as a form of culmination. The paradox is that in doing so I’ve become oddly happy that I began, so many years ago, by buying the wrong book.

Also of interest:
Related LOA works: Henry James: Complete Novels (6 books)
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