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Friday, September 27, 2013

Christopher Carduff on the “everyday sublime” of John Updike’s short stories

A contributing editor at The Library of America since 2006, Christopher Carduff is also the estate-appointed editor of John Updike’s posthumous publications. He recently spoke with us about the two-volume set of Updike’s Collected Stories that he prepared for the LOA.

Updike’s achievement is various and extensive, ranging from twenty-odd novels to collections of poems, memoirs, criticism, and more. To what extent do you think his future literary reputation will rest on the 186 short stories collected here?

To a large extent, actually—and in two distinct ways. First, considered as a whole, the stories can be seen as an endlessly inventive, ongoing exploration of the possibilities of the form over five decades—perhaps the richest body of stories by any North American writer of his generation, a cohort that includes Donald Barthelme, Raymond Carver, Mavis Gallant, and Alice Munro. Second, and more important, when the stories are considered individually, perhaps a dozen or so will eventually become known as masterpieces, among the best short stories ever written by an American. “Pigeon Feathers,” “Packed Dirt,” “The Gun Shop,” “A Sandstone Farmhouse,” “The Cats”: these are among the handful of stories that tomorrow’s readers will perhaps come to see as the concentrated essence of “Updike”—in much the same way that we now see “Bartleby” and “Daisy Miller” and “The Bear” as the concentrated essences of Melville and James and Faulkner.

How do the stories relate to the novels, particularly the Rabbit novels?

As Updike said in his introduction to the collected Rabbit novels, Rabbit was his ticket to the America all around him—his ticket to a discussion and dramatization of all the sweeping social forces of the postwar world, from the sexual revolution circa 1960, to the political and social upheavals circa 1970, to the events of the Carter, Reagan, Clinton years. The Rabbit saga constituted Updike’s contribution to “public fiction,” a running report on the state of the nation from 1960 to 1990 as reported through the passing thoughts and thoughtless actions of a wholly invented American Everyman.

The short stories, on the other hand, are almost always “private” in their nature and effects. They are autobiographical and domestic, dealing on the most intimate level with such matters as being a son, a husband, a father, a lover, a churchgoer, a citizen, an artist. And almost all of them, whether told in the first or third person, feature a narrator or protagonist who is an Updike stand-in, who shares Updike’s own experience of what it is to be an educated white middle-class Protestant male of his particular small-town background and his particular historical moment. It is these autobiographical short stories—the ones that deal not with “public” issues but with the miracle of existence, with the inner life and the dogged pursuit of one’s own self and soul—that I think of as his signature achievement.

You’ve arranged the stories not as Updike did in his own collections, but rather in the order of their composition.

That’s right. Now, for the first time, they can be read in the order in which they came out of Updike’s typewriter and were submitted to The New Yorker. Whenever Updike sent a story to the magazine—he had a first-refusal contract with The New Yorker at the age of twenty-two—he marked the date of submission on the first page of his copy of the typescript. Updike deemed this the date of composition, regardless of subsequent revisions, and I’ve followed his practice here. Almost all his typescripts are in the collection of the Houghton Library at Harvard; those that are not, I have dated by circumstantial evidence, usually correspondence with his New Yorker editors. The texts reprinted here are those of Updike’s last revision, and some of them incorporate changes he made in the copies of the first editions kept in his office library.

What’s the chronological span of the collection?

The earliest story here is “Ace in the Hole,” written in 1953, when Updike was a twenty-one-year-old Harvard senior. It concerns a reckless Rabbit-like young man who cannot make the transition from high school basketball star to responsible husband and father. The last one, “The Full Glass,” was written half a century later, in 2008, shortly before Updike’s seventy-sixth birthday. It is a self-consciously valedictory story, in which the Updike stand-in’s nightly ritual of pills and water becomes a kind of secular communion with the universe, “a toast to the visible world, his impending disappearance from it be damned.” Early and late, all the stories aim, in Updike’s famous phrase, to “give the mundane its beautiful due.”

Are any stories omitted from this Library of America set?

Apart from a few things published in The Harvard Lampoon—juvenilia that have no place in his canon proper—the most obvious omissions are the eighteen stories concerning the recurring characters Richard and Joan Maple and the twenty stories chronicling the life of the Jewish American novelist Henry Bech. These, as Updike wrote, “do gain from being grouped,” and will be grouped in a later Library of America volume, together with the ten essay-stories of the 1970s known collectively as “Interviews with Insufficiently Famous Americans.” Included here, however, are “Snowing in Greenwich Village” (1956), the first Maples story, and “The Bulgarian Poetess” (1964), the first of the Bechs, on the (perhaps) shaky ground that when Updike wrote each of these stand-alone stories, he didn’t know he was beginning a short story cycle.

Do you think Updike has been an influential stylist? Do you detect the influence of his short stories on writers working now?

The lush, descriptive, pensive “Updike style”—the “everyday sublime” that characterizes the autobiographical short stories—is justly celebrated but only seldom imitated. In his novels Nicholson Baker proves to be both the truest and the most unabashed of Updike’s direct disciples: he “toasts the visible world” with a glass filled to overflowing, then out-toasts and out-drinks Updike to dazzling and intentionally hilarious effect. Among today’s short story writers, Roxana Robinson and Antonya Nelson have confessed to being under the spell of Updike’s fiction, especially in their lyrical evocations of family life. And Paul Harding, in the sentences that make up Tinkers and Enon, seems very much the Updike protégé in his precision of diction, his aching nostalgia, and the very cadences of his thought. All of these writers, I think, would admit to sharing Updike’s belief that describing God’s creation with fidelity is a devout act of praise.

Do you have a favorite Updike story?

I have a dozen of them, but if I had to choose just one, it would be one of the earliest, “The Happiest I’ve Been,” written in 1958, when Updike was twenty-six. It is the perfect evocation of the moment that comes to most Americans somewhere around the age of twenty—the moment when, after a couple of years of college or service or whatever, you return home to find that “home” is no longer yours, it’s become your parents’ house and you are, for the moment at least, homeless. And that your life is no longer among the people there—your parents and grandparents and high school classmates—and it really isn’t in the present either. Instead it’s a kind of a star on the horizon, portending God only knows what, but that you are excited to follow. It’s the story in which Updike comes into his full powers as a storyteller, and delivers a virtuoso verbal performance—and creates a unique emotional atmosphere and pattern of events and imagery—that can only be described as, well, Updikean.

Friday, September 20, 2013

The Battle of Chickamauga (September 19–20): Missed Opportunity

Guest blog post by Brooks D. Simpson, professor of history, Arizona State University and one of the co-editors of The Library of America's four-volume series, The Civil War: Told by Those Who Lived It. The third volume of the series was published earlier this year.

In June 1863 the Union Army of the Cumberland under William S. Rosecrans commenced a skillful campaign of maneuver. In just over twelve weeks it drove the Confederate Army of Tennessee under Braxton Bragg out of its namesake state and into northern Georgia. Jefferson Davis compelled Robert E. Lee to detach two divisions from the Army of Northern Virginia under the command of James Longstreet and send them to reinforce Bragg in anticipation of a counterstrike.

After several days of skirmishing, on September 18 the Confederates commenced their advance. One Texas soldier, William W. Heartsill, looked forward to giving the Yankees all they could handle. As he lay down for the night seeking warmth in “my old Green army coat,” Heartsill readied “to think and dream of comeing events or of loved ones at home.” It was time to beat back “cruel invaders that come to drench our sunny south in blood and drag us to worse than slavery.” There was only one thing left to do: “Up southrons and strike for God and our native land may the God of the right hover ore our Battle flag and may our independance be dated, from the begining of this pending contest,” a fight that promised to be “one of the most sanguinary and decisive battles of the war.”1

Sanguinary certainly describes the Battle of Chickamauga, which took place over the next two days. Heartsill’s regiment spent September 19 advancing to the sound of the guns and encountering prisoners and fields covered with dead. The next day it advanced to the front. A cannon ball took the life of brigade commander James Deshler—“It is useless to pass eulogies upon Gen D. for to know him was to love him,” Heartsill remarked—but by that evening the Texas soldier could scribble his recollections of the events of the day by the light of a fire that had just that morning warmed a Yankee’s body.2 Elsewhere the woods caught fire, consuming the bodies of dead and wounded soldiers.

In two days of battle each side had lost nearly one third of its strength in dead, wounded, and missing. In later years people claimed that Chickamauga meant “river of death,” and the battle seemed to sanctify that understanding. During the second day of fighting, Kentucky soldier John S. Jackman, who served in a Confederate brigade commanded by none other than Ben Hardin Helm, Mary Todd Lincoln’s brother-in-law, crossed the same ground covered by the division to which Heartsill belonged. Jackman was chilled by what he saw: “The dead of both sides were lying thick over the ground. . . . Men and horses were lying so thick over the field, one could hardly walk for them.”3 Late that morning the Kentuckians advanced, only to be repulsed three times. Helm was mortally wounded, one of some 18,454 casualties in a force some 66,000 strong.

Unfortunately for Heartsill, Jackman, and their fellow Confederates, living, wounded, and dead, Chickamauga was not decisive. Although the Rebels punched right through a gap in the Federal line on September 20, Union corps commander George H. Thomas conducted a gallant defense along Snodgrass Hill, winning the sobriquet “the Rock of Chickamauga.” At first, it appeared that Thomas might have merely staved off the inevitable, for Rosecrans pulled his army back into Chattanooga, Tennessee, only to find himself besieged by the pursuing Bragg. There it looked as if the Yankees might be starved into submission. Once the Confederates dug in and waited, however, their own generals began feuding. Before long Bragg found himself in heated combat, not with the bluecoats, but with his own commanders. President Davis declined to relieve Bragg, instead shuffling a few subordinates and earmarking Longstreet to advance upon Knoxville, Tennessee, defended by a force under the command of the ill-fated Ambrose Burnside.

Abraham Lincoln had his problems with his generals as well. When reports reached Washington claiming that Rosecrans was dispirited, desperate, and might even abandon Chattanooga altogether, the President decided to turn to the only general in the west upon whom he could rely. Orders went out naming Ulysses S. Grant commander of the newly-created Military Division of the Mississippi, putting him in charge of operations from the Appalachian Mountains to the Mississippi River. Given the choice to retain Rosecrans or to elevate Thomas to command of the Army of the Cumberland, Grant chose the latter, and wired Thomas to stay where he was. Back came the answer: “I will hold the town until we starve.”4

1 William W. Heartsill: Journal, September 17–28, 1863, in The Civil War: The Third Year Told by Those Who Lived It, 523.
2 Ibid., 525.
3 John S. Jackman: Diary, September 18–20, 1863, ibid., 532.
4 George H. Thomas to Ulysses S. Grant, October 19, 1863, in The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant, volume 9, ed. John Y. Simon (Southern Illinois University Press, 1982), 302.

(This item is cross-posted at Civil War 150, cosponsored by The Library of America, The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, and the National Endowment of the Humanities)

Story of the Week selection on the aftermath of the Battle of Chickamauga
The Nameless Dead,” Kate Cumming (a Confederate Army nurse)

Recent Reader's Almanac posts on the Civil War

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Elmore Leonard: John Steinbeck “set me free”

Elmore Leonard died on August 20 at the age of 87. In the months before his death he had been working on his 46th novel. He had also been looking forward to the publication of the Library of America edition of his best fiction and had given his final approval to the selection of novels for three LOA volumes. (The first collection, scheduled to appear in September 2014, gathers four novels, all set in Detroit and published in the 1970s).

A decade ago, on April 8, 2002, Leonard was one of six prominent writers who delivered a few remarks at the twentieth-anniversary celebration of The Library of America, which took place at the The Pierpont Morgan Library in New York City. Joining him on the stage were Gail Buckley, Michael Cunningham, Richard Price, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., and Wendy Wasserstein. The presenters were asked to speak about writers from the LOA series for whom they feel a special affinity. Leonard chose John Steinbeck, and his remarks appear below.

* * *
I’m not certain how academic critics rate John Steinbeck, perhaps not up there with Hemingway and Faulkner, but I honor him today because fifty years ago he set me free. It was one book in particular, Sweet Thursday, published in 1954, that did the job.

I’ll never forget the scene in which Doc, the marine biologist, sits down to write.
Doc bought a package of yellow pads and two dozen pencils. He laid them out on his desk, the pencils sharpened to needle points and lined up like yellow soldiers. At the top of a page he printed: OBSERVATIONS AND SPECULATIONS. His pencil point broke. He took up another and drew lace around the O and the B, made a block letter out of the S and put fish hooks on each end. His ankle itched. He rolled down his sock and scratched, and that made his ear itch. “Someone’s talking about me,” he said and looked at the yellow pad. He wondered if he had fed the cotton rats. It is easy to forget when you’re thinking.
He feeds the rats and remembers he hasn’t eaten.
When he finished a page or two he would fry some eggs. But wouldn’t it be better to eat first so that his flow of thought would not be interrupted later? . . . He fried two eggs and ate them, staring at the yellow pad under the hanging light. The light was too bright. It reflected painfully on the paper. Doc finished his eggs, got out a sheet of tracing paper, and taped it to the bottom of the shade below the globe. It took time to make it neat. He sat in front of the yellow pad again and drew lace around all the letters of the title, tore off the page, and threw it away. Five pencil points were broken now. He sharpened them and lined them up with their brothers.
Doc looks out the window to see a car drive past and a girl come out of the Bear Flag and walk along Cannery Row.

He writes a few lines after observing the way the girl walks, with pride but not vanity. And his pencil point breaks. “He took another, and it broke with a jerk, making a little tear in the paper. He read what he had written; dull, desiccated, he thought.” The scene ends with Doc getting up and going across the street for a beer.

It amazes me that a writer as renowned as Steinbeck knew the tricks of putting off writing. I’ve found myself paying bills—and that might’ve been, un- or sub-consciously, an incentive to get to work. It encourages me that it was part of writing and not a disease.

But what encouraged me much more is in the prologue of Sweet Thursday. A character, Mack from Cannery Row, says he was never satisfied with that book. He says,
I would of went about it different. . . . I like a lot of talk in a book, and I don’t like to have nobody tell me what the guy that’s talking looks like. I want to figure out what he looks like from the way he talks. And another thing—I kind of like to figure out what he’s thinking by what he says. I like some description too . . . I like to know what color a thing is, how it smells and maybe how it looks, and maybe how a guy feels about it—but not too much of that . . . Sometimes I want a book to break loose with a bunch of hooptedoodle. The guy’s writing it, give him a chance to spin up some pretty words maybe, or sing a little song with language. That’s nice. But I wish it was set aside so I don’t have to read it. I don’t want hooptedoodle to get mixed up in the story.
He suggests putting it right at first or in chapters, which Steinbeck did in Sweet Thursday. Chapters 3 and 38 have headings: Hooptedoodle one and two.

That became the backbone of my tendrils for success and happiness in writing fiction: mainly don’t describe too much, unless you really know what you’re doing. In my rules, I say “These are rules I picked up along the way to help me remain invisible while I’m writing a book, to help me show rather than tell what’s taking place in the story.” And if you have a facility for language and imagery and the sound of your voice pleases you, invisibility is not what you are after and you can skip the rules. Still, you might look them over. For me that is what John Steinbeck inspired, the simplicity that if you can’t do it well, don’t do it. If you can do something well . . . from that time on, 1954, I concentrated on telling my stories in dialogue so I wouldn’t have to describe the characters.
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