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Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Bernard Malamud reads from his story,
“The Mourners”

This week’s Story of the Week selection is Bernard Malamud’s “The Mourners,” first published in 1955 and collected in The Magic Barrel (1957), which would win the first of his two National Book Awards.

Thanks to Calliope Audio Readings, we can hear Malamud himself read his story. We’ve include the text below this three-minute excerpt, so you can read along while you listen to one of America’s master storytellers.

This free excerpt is provided by Calliope Audio Readings, which offers recordings of Malamud, Nelson Algren, James Baldwin, James Jones, Philip Roth, William Styron, and John Updike reading from their own works.

*   *   *

Arriving at the top floor he banged his fist on Kessler’s door. “Gruber, the landlord. Open up here.”

There was no answer, no movement within, so Gruber inserted his key into the lock and twisted. Kessler had barricaded the door with a chest and some chairs. Gruber had to put his shoulder to the door and shove before he could step into the hallway of the badly lit two-and-a-half-room flat. The old man, his face drained of blood, was standing in the kitchen doorway.

“I warned you to scram outa here,” Gruber said loudly. “Move out or I’ll telephone the city marshal.”

“Mr. Gruber—” began Kessler.

“Don’t bother me with your lousy excuses, just beat it.” He gazed around. “It looks like a junk shop and it smells like a toilet. It’ll take me a month to clean up here.”

“This smell is only cabbage that I am cooking for my supper. Wait, I’ll open a window and it will go away.”

“When you go away, it’ll go away.” Gruber took out his bulky wallet, counted out twelve dollars, added fifty cents, and plunked the money on top of the chest. “You got two more weeks till the fifteenth, then you gotta be out or I will get a dispossess. Don’t talk back talk. Get outa here and go somewhere that they don’t know you and maybe you’ll get a place.”

“No, Mr. Gruber,” Kessler cried passionately. “I didn’t do nothing, and I will stay here.”

“Don’t monkey with my blood pressure,” said Gruber. “If you’re not out by the fifteenth, I will personally throw you on your bony ass.”

Then he left and walked heavily down the stairs.

The fifteenth came and Ignace found the twelve-fifty in his letter box. He telephoned Gruber and told him.

“I’ll get a dispossess,” Gruber shouted. He instructed the janitor to write out a note saying to Kessler that his money was refused, and to stick it under his door. This Ignace did. Kessler returned the money to the letter box, but again Ignace wrote a note and slipped it, with the money, under the old man’s door.

After another day Kessler received a copy of his eviction notice. It said to appear in court on Friday at 10 a.m. to show cause why he should not be evicted for continued neglect and destruction of rental property. The official notice filled Kessler with great fright because he had never in his life been to court. He did not appear on the day he had been ordered to.

That same afternoon the marshal came with two brawny assistants. Ignace opened Kessler’s lock for them and as they pushed their way into the flat, the janitor hastily ran down the stairs to hide in the cellar. Despite Kessler’s wailing and carrying on, the two assistants methodically removed his meager furniture and set it out on the sidewalk. After that they got Kessler out, though they had to break open the bathroom door because the old man had locked himself in there. He shouted, struggled, pleaded with his neighbors to help him, but they looked on in a silent group outside the door. The two assistants, holding the old man tightly by the arms and skinny legs, carried him, kicking and moaning, down the stairs. They sat him in the street on a chair amid his junk. Upstairs, the marshal bolted the door with a lock Ignace had supplied, signed a paper which he handed to the janitor’s wife, and then drove off in an automobile with his assistants.

Kessler sat on a split chair on the sidewalk. It was raining and the rain soon turned to sleet, but he still sat there. People passing by skirted the pile of his belongings. They stared at Kessler and he stared at nothing. He wore no hat or coat, and the snow fell on him, making him look like a piece of his dispossessed goods.

Copyright © 1955, 1958, renewed 1977, 1986 by Bernard Malamud. Used by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. CAUTION: Users are warned that this work is protected under copyright laws and downloading is strictly prohibited. The right to reproduce or transfer the work via any medium must be secured with Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC.

Friday, November 21, 2014

An interview with Laurence Maslon on one of America’s “great, optimistic, ebullient, indigenous art forms”

The Library of America has just published the two-volume boxed set American Musicals, gathering sixteen of the best librettos, with their lyrics, from Broadway’s “Golden Age.” Laurence Maslon, who edited the collection, discusses the significance of the era and the joys of assembling an anthology celebrating the enduring qualities of these box-office successes.

A professor in the Graduate Acting Program at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, Maslon is the author of several books about musical theater and popular culture; he also co-wrote (with Michael Kantor) the companion volume to the Emmy-winning documentary Broadway: The American Musical and is the host of the weekly radio program Broadway to Main Street.

What’s the aim of this collection, and what sorts of pleasures and insights do you hope readers will find?

The American musical is one of our culture’s great, optimistic, ebullient, indigenous art forms. But it’s an elusive one because like most theatrical events, it’s transient; it leaves behind a cast album, or a badly made film version, and some happy memories. This is the first attempt to memorialize the theater experience by putting all of the major books and lyrics to the seminal musicals of the medium’s Golden Age into one collection. In this way, American Musicals will be both a great reference source and a road map, as it were, for the evolution of this art form.

What makes for a great book/libretto for a musical? How do they compare with “straight” theatrical literature?

Writing the book for a musical is one of the trickiest and least appreciated jobs in the theater (or literature, for that matter). A book has to be economical, pointed, and streamlined in order to allow for songs, and yet still provide a sense of setting, structure and narrative. Not to mention the jokes! One of my favorite things about any musical is the “tipping point”: that moment when “mere” dialogue can’t handle the intensity of the moment and the character must burst into song. It takes a very skilled writer to find that transition and make it work.

What show or writer do you think readers of the collection will find most surprising?

That’s a trick question: any musical you don’t yet know will be a surprise to you. Still, the collection puts Moss Hart and Irving Berlin’s wonderful revue As Thousands Cheer in print for the first time; it makes the preoccupations of Americans during the Depression seem both fresh and timeless. Readers may also be amused at how risqué Pal Joey is and how politically provocative Finian’s Rainbow is; these may be your grandfather’s musicals, but they don’t read that way.

What was the most interesting discovery you made while putting the collection together?

The early days of musical theater writing—the 1920s through the end of World War II, actually—were not kind to later curators of posterity—editors and publishers. Since no one imagined the shows would last as important cultural artifacts, versions were prepared for performance, but no definitive final version was readied for print. In the case of the first three shows in the collection (Show Boat, As Thousands Cheer, Pal Joey), it was often a bit of puzzle to derive the authors’ intention from the manuscript alone; I had to use sheet music, programs, vocal scores—even photos to put the texts together.

What drew you to the American musical?

What wouldn’t? I saw 1776 when I was eight, and it changed me forever. As I grew up—and collected original cast albums and the like—it occurred to me that the American musical says as much about who we are as a people as does a “straight play.” Perhaps more so, as it folds in our characteristic music, dance, performance, personality and so on.

Why the focus on these particular four decades?

Show Boat (1927) is the first great narrative musical. The next four decades saw the stage musical bloom and grow in so many different venues: songs on the radio, cast recordings, film adaptations, national tours, and, of course, on Broadway itself, which was, in its day, a very potent laboratory for experimentation of a popular form. Critics refer to the well-crafted, largely narrative, and highly accessible shows from this period as exemplars of Broadway’s “Golden Age.” The musicals that have lasted and become an affectionate part of our culture come from this period. The closing parenthesis is a matter of taste; certainly by 1970 (with Sondheim’s Company), the style and tone of the musical changed. I also like the felicity of the fact that the last musical in our collection, 1776, is the most American of all.

What parallels/contrasts would you draw with Broadway musicals today?

Today, the American musical has diversified as much from its late 1960s world as the primetime television broadcast schedule has from its late 1960s format. Musicals today have developed into more atomized forms and they are constructed and produced for niche audiences: rock fans, cartoon fans, families, and so on. Once upon a time, the American musical spoke to all audiences.

Do you have a favorite scene or lyric in the collection?

My filthy mind has always been tickled by a lyric in “Den of Iniquity” from Rodgers and Hart’s Pal Joey, sung by a couple intoxicated by their mutual erotic satisfaction:
The radio I used to hate,
But now when it is dark and late,
Ravel’s Bolero works just great—

In putting together the libretto for this collection, it was clear that this lyric was actually a change from the original 1940 song (which referred to Tchaikovsky’s 1812 “sounding” great); it was altered for the 1952 revival—by which time Lorenz Hart had died. So who made the change? Richard Rodgers? John O’Hara? We’ll never know—but the Library of American anthology, with its copious backmatter, gives us both versions.

Also of Interest

• Which musicals are the best from Broadway’s Golden Age? Laurence Maslon discusses the selection process for collection in this online article for Slate.

• For a recent episode of his radio program Broadway to Main Street, Maslon played a sampling of the hit songs from the musicals included in the collection. Listen to the broadcast on the program’s site.

Friday, October 24, 2014

An interview with Jed Perl: how the lives of visual artists were “woven together with the lives of novelists, poets, and intellectuals”

The latest Library of America volume, Art in America 1945–1970, was published earlier this month to effusively glowing reviews in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and elsewhere. The nearly 150 selections in the volume capture the excitement and vitality of the creative explosion during the years following World War II, when the center of the art world shifted from Paris to New York. We recently interviewed Jed Perl, who edited the anthology. Jed Perl is the art critic for The New Republic and the author of New Art City: Manhattan at Mid-Century, Magicians and Charlatans: Essays on Art and Culture, and other books.

What’s the aim of this collection, what sorts of pleasures and insights do you hope readers will find?

With Art in America I want to show how the lives of visual artists in this country have been woven together with the lives of novelists, poets, and intellectuals of all stripes. That’s why it was so important to include—along with the writings of the painters and sculptors themselves and the terrific critics of the time—work by people ranging from the playwright Tennessee Williams to the novelist Mary McCarthy to the political and social critic Dwight Macdonald to the poet Randall Jarrell. One of my gripes about our cultural life in general is that everybody gets Balkanized—all too often poets are only conscious of other poets, novelists of other novelists, painters of other painters. I’ve always liked the idea of cultural cross-fertilization. As an art critic I’ve certainly learned a lot from critics of other art forms. And part of what’s so fascinating about the years just after the war is that the world of art and literature and culture was smaller, almost a village or a neighborhood—so that there was more communication across disciplines and media.

Why a book of writing about art? What’s the connection between writing/writers and art/artists in this period?

The connection between the visual and literary arts is a very ancient one—it goes back to the Latin phrase, from Horace, “ut pictura poesis.” Over the centuries the phrase has meant different things to different people—but basically it makes an analogy between what can happen in painting and poetry. Words can paint pictures and pictures can tell stories. Poets of the postwar years like John Ashbery and James Schuyler and Frank O’Hara were acutely aware of this. But more generally, I think there’s something exhilarating about seeing how words can explicate pictures—and the great variety of ways that words can be used to explain the work of an artist like Pollock or de Kooning, ranging from Clement Greenberg’s muscular formalist approach to Harold Rosenberg’s and Meyer Schapiro’s focus on the imaginative freedom of the artist.

Why the focus on this particular twenty-five-year period?

The quarter century after World War II was the time when American artists first took the world stage. The story goes from the moment right after the war when the Abstract Expressionists—who had struggled in obscurity during the Depression—were beginning to be widely known to the period in the late 1960s when American art was going global. There are many ways to tell this story. You can see how America’s economic success after the war fueled the success of American art. But you can also argue that in becoming more and more global and less and less local, American art risked losing some of its vigor and individuality. There are some pieces in Art in America—John Bernard Myers’s wonderful “Junkdump Fair Surveyed” and Thomas B. Hess’s “The Battle of Paris”—that begin to explore some of the troublesome aspects of American art’s success story.

What parallels/contrasts would you draw with the art world today?

Today’s art world is awash in a kind of money that was unknown fifty years ago. It is hard to remember that although Pollock and de Kooning were famous in the 1950s, they were not making an extraordinary amount of money. I think that many of the kinds of seriousness and playfulness that we encounter in the writing in Art in America are still alive in the studios of artists today—but more and more of the contemporary artists I know feel oppressed by the global art world, which has become a behemoth that casts a very long shadow over the lives of working artists. The publicity machines that keep Koons and Hirst and Murakami afloat take up much too much oxygen. And the frenzy in the art fairs and the auction houses has a pace that has nothing to do with the life of art—which is the life of the imagination. I don’t mean to romanticize the 1950s and 1960s; every period has its particular challenges. But there was a modesty about the art world back then—despite all the swaggering egos—that encouraged deep thought and deep feeling.

How did you decide which images to include?

I wanted Art in America to capture the wonderful heterogeneity of the years after World War II. So the images were selected to support this vision of a time when artists were working in many different ways—representationally and abstractly, with a ripe painterly brush or a cooler, maybe more Olympian, approach. People often imagine that pluralism in the arts is a new idea—a postmodern idea. Part of what I wanted to show with Art in America is that at any given time there are a wide range of different kinds of approaches being pursued. Art is intensely personal. Art is nothing if it’s not personal. We talk about period styles, and of course there may be some truth to such talk. But within a period style, each artist develops a personal style. Finally, it is because no two people are alike that no two artistic expressions can be alike.

Which piece or writer do you think readers will find most surprising?

I think most people who open Art in America are going to find some old friends (Greenberg, Rosenberg, O’Hara) mingling with writings that will surprise them—like the funny little poems that Dwight Ripley devoted to the art world in the 1950s, which I treasure for their gossipy charm, their buoyancy, their esprit.

What’s the most interesting discovery you made in the course of putting the volume together?

The letter about Pop Art by the wonderfully independent San Francisco artist Jess was a terrific discovery. So far as I know, it’s never been published. A friend of mine, the critic Michael Duncan in Los Angeles, suggested including it. Jess was as interested in pop culture allusions as the Pop Artists, but he wanted to give those allusions a magic and a mystery that he obviously didn’t see in much of the work that was emerging in New York in the 1960s.

Do you have a favorite piece?

One favorite piece? I can’t say I do. I like different pieces for different reasons. There will always be a special place in my heart for the writings of Edwin Denby and Fairfield Porter, which are simultaneously mystifying and exacting. Fielding Dawson’s “Emotional Memoir of Franz Kline” has a wonderful romantic atmosphere. And I’m especially pleased that I’ve been able to include the work of Sidney Tillim, whose spirited and now virtually forgotten criticism catches so much of the polemical excitement of the 1960s.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Marion Elizabeth Rodgers on the new, expanded edition of H. L. Mencken’s autobiographical trilogy

The latest Library of America volume, H. L. Mencken: The Days Trilogy, Expanded Edition, containing Happy Days, Newspaper Days, and Heathen Days, goes on sale in bookstores everywhere this week. It also includes Days Revisited—over 200 pages of material that Mencken stipulated could not be published until twenty-five years after his death.

We recently interviewed Marion Elizabeth Rodgers, who edited the volume. Rodgers is the author of Mencken: The American Iconoclast, and she previously edited the Library of America edition of Mencken’s Prejudices.

Where does the Days trilogy fit in H. L. Mencken’s life and work?

From 1930 to 1935, when Mencken was married to the writer Sara Haardt, they lived at 704 Cathedral Street in the Mount Vernon district of downtown Baltimore. As happy as he was during these years, Mencken very much missed his old home at 1524 Hollins Street in West Baltimore, which he said was “as much a part of me as my two hands.” In the spring of 1936, after Sara’s death, Mencken moved back to his old home and began systematically exploring the house and neighborhood. He started writing a series of autobiographical essays about his childhood and early youth. Two pieces about colorful neighborhood characters were published in The New Yorker in 1936 and 1937, but he didn’t really get going on the book until 1939. Even then his progress was not always steady or smooth, since he was also traveling, working on his column, covering the presidential conventions, and writing “The Sunpapers of Baltimore,” “The Charlatanry of the Learned,” “A New Dictionary of Quotations,” and the fourth edition of The American Language. He also fell ill. But Blanche Knopf kept at Mencken with such steady encouragement that Mencken remarked to her, "I really should call it ‘Blanche’s Days.’”

Why do you think Mencken claimed Newspaper Days was his favorite book?

Mencken was writing Newspaper Days at a time when he was disillusioned with the state of journalism, and especially with his own newspaper (The Baltimore Sun and Evening Sun). Always an advocate of limited federal government, Mencken opposed FDR’s restrictions on the press, so much so that he resigned from writing for the Sunpapers on January 16, 1941. Escaping into the past—his salad days as a young newspaperman, when, as he put it, the human race could spend “weeks, months and even years without being badgered, bilked or alarmed”—was such a joy that he wrote Newspaper Days at a rate of 3,000 words a day, an all-time high for him. When it was finished, he worried that it would only be of interest to newspapermen; on the contrary, it is probably the volume that has the most resonance for modern readers.

What does this book from American journalism’s heyday tell us about newspapers and the media today?

Time and curiosity seem to be less on tap today—the tyranny of the instantaneous deadlines of social media, blogs, and websites is steadily encroaching upon thorough, quality work. As a young reporter, Mencken made it a point to study books on things he did not know much about; he interviewed his subjects, applying shoe leather to pavement as necessary. On the other hand, newspaper editors today would never tolerate an uncommunicative reporter or keep in their employment one who invented stories. Yet both of these were common enough in the early 1900s, during Mencken’s first years as a reporter. As Mencken wrote, “In my day a reporter who took an assignment was wholly on his own until he got back to the office . . . today he tends to become only a homunculus at the end of a telephone wire.” Part of this was a lack of technology—there were only two telephones in the office, “and no one ever used them if it could be avoided.” Also few papers had correspondents in the field, and wireless and ocean cables were undependable.

So after the Battle of Tsushima in the Russo-Japanese War of 1905, hoping to revive the circulation of his newspaper with some exciting war news, Mencken simply fabricated details of the battle. Mencken never gives any indication that he recognizes how outrageous his exercise in manufactured news had been; he recounts it with self-congratulation and humor here in Newspaper Days. He gloated that he had “guessed precisely right in every particular of the slightest importance.” (Yet in 1906, when asked about his views of journalistic responsibility, he stated “exaggeration and deliberate falsification will have to die.”)

What’s the story behind the Days Revisited material—when was it written, when did it come to light, what’s its significance? How does it change our view of Mencken?

The Days books proved to be so popular they revived Mencken’s reputation. They also struck a chord among men and women who had shared similar childhoods, who after the publication of Happy Days began sending Mencken letters with their thoughts and impressions. This correspondence triggered more memories, and, as was his wont, Mencken started keeping a careful record. His “Notes, Additions and Corrections” were written mainly between 1943 and 1946, with perhaps a few entries after that up to 1948. Because he was writing about people who were still alive, he sealed these papers under time lock, not to be opened until twenty-five years after his death, which turned out to be in 1981. As he put it, “the passage of time would release all confidences and the grave close over all tender feelings.”

Several biographers, including myself, had access to these typescripts, but they are published for the first time in The Library of America edition. They are important not only because any new writings from Mencken, and these are wonderful and characteristic, are a gift to American letters, but also because they provide context, a window onto race relations, for example, as well as cultural beliefs and other aspects of Mencken’s time and place. What I find so interesting is that from this heritage and this particular family, Mencken became a journalist and started breaking barriers from an early age.

Why did you decide to include photographs?

As a boy, Mencken was an amateur photographer before he became keenly interested in writing. The photos here are those that were taken by him as a boy, and again later, during 1939–1940 when he was revisiting the locations for the Days books. He loved Baltimore so much he wanted to keep a record of the buildings and places he had described. These photographs are wonderful period images of a Baltimore that once was—and, in a very few instances, still remains.

What’s your favorite passage or moment in Days Revisited?

The writing here is typical, classic Mencken, full of caustic observations and witty asides, displaying the ease of a highly skilled writer. There are many passages to choose from. I like this one: “The worst burden that a competent and ambitious young man can carry is a stupid wife. When . . . she is also egotistical and bossy, his case is almost hopeless.” Or this one, about the suicide of a young girl: if she had lived, Mencken wrote, “she’d be a grandmother, with her conscience long since worn to a stump and her old age lighted by sentimental memories of her first love affair.” Or his disappointment in the new residents who have moved into his neighborhood and have destroyed the park (Union Square) in front of his house: “I have sat at my office-window and watched their little children digging great holes in the lawns: the poor brats had never heard of lawns and regarded every spot of grassland as a mere field. The depredations of these yahoos inspired a saying in Baltimore: ‘There are now only 45 states in the Union. West Virginia and South Carolina have moved to Maryland, and Maryland has gone to Hell.’”

What’s your sense of how this new edition—and Mencken’s writing in general—will be received?

When the original Days trilogy was published (1940, 1941, 1943), it became such a sensation that the Armed Forces published a pocket edition that was a GI favorite. One copy actually went into Normandy after D-Day, was read by many soldiers and traveled through thirty cities in England, France, Belgium, Holland and Germany, before it was donated to the Mencken Collection at the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore. Mencken is enjoying another resurgence of popularity today, especially among millennials. They are studying him in classrooms, quoting him, and are keenly interested in his take on all kinds of subjects, like the Scopes Trial. Baltimore students show a tremendous amount of curiosity in his old house at 1524 Hollins Street.

Why is this so?

According to a study by the Pew Research Center (March 2014), this generation identifies itself as “independent libertarians” rather than conservatives or liberals; Mencken’s libertarian point of view strikes a chord. There is even a twitter account—@HLMenckenBot—with nearly 10,000 followers. The pendulum is swinging back toward Mencken!

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Lorenzo Carcaterra remembers how Elmore Leonard “brought his characters close enough to life they could be touched”

Photo by Kate Carcaterra
Last week The Library of America published Elmore Leonard: Four Crime Novels of the 1970s, which contains a quartet of crime novels set in Detroit: Fifty-Two Pickup, Swag, Unknown Man No. 89, and The Switch.

Lorenzo Carcaterra, the best-selling author of Sleepers and Gangster, whose most recent novel, The Wolf, was published earlier this summer by Random House, recalls what it was like learning the novelist’s trade from Leonard himself, whom he met thirty years ago.

The Master

Pete Hamill. George V. Higgins. Jack London. Alexandre Dumas. Harry Crews. Victor Hugo. Ernest Hemingway. Dashiell Hammett. John Irving. These are just a few of the writers whose works I have read, studied, and absorbed over the course of decades, as have thousands of others. They are the masters whose lessons never waver, who offer fresh insights with each new work and with every re-reading. At the very head of that distinguished group is Elmore “Dutch” Leonard, the dean of my writing university.

I was fortunate not only to have gone to school on Leonard’s work—learning as much as I could about pacing, using dialogue to not merely tell but describe, and realizing that not every hero need be painted with an unvarnished brush—but also to have spent time in his company.

I first met him on a People magazine assignment in 1984, flying to his home in Birmingham, Michigan, fresh off the success of his novel Stick. He was reed slender and soft spoken, never saying more than what needed to be said, his pristine office dominated by a large framed photo of Ernest Hemingway holding a fish nearly as tall as he was. “Got that in Key West,” Leonard said, catching me staring at the photo. “Didn’t pay much for it. Don’t think the fella who sold it to me knew that was Hemingway. Just another guy who caught another fish.”

He was in the early phase of the success that was to follow him for the rest of his writing life, but that didn’t seem to affect him much. He was a working writer before the media started glancing his way, before the accolades came pouring in, before books landed with yearly regularity on the bestseller lists. He had been working at his craft since selling his first short story in 1951, a western, and he didn’t stop until his death last August when he was just about halfway through yet another novel.

There were some bumps along the road but he kept at it, waking every morning at 5 and writing two pages of fiction before heading off to work at an advertising agency. Among those early works two stand out as classics: the short story “3:10 to Yuma” and the novel Hombre. Through those early years, he helped raise a family that would grow to five children, cave to the lure of drink and then come back to beat it, lose some jobs (he was dropped by one ad agency for copy he wrote about a pick-up truck—“It never breaks. You just get tired of looking at the S.O.B.”), wrote for movies and TV and kept at the novels. His turning point came when he signed with the legendary Hollywood talent agent, H. N. Swanson.

“I liked his westerns,” Swanson would tell me a few years after I met Leonard. “But no one was buying westerns anymore. I asked him two questions. Asked, ‘Do you like girls?’ He said yes to that. And then I asked if he could write a contemporary novel and get himself out of the west. He told me he could. I told him to get back to me when he did.”

A year later, a Leonard novel called The Big Bounce landed on Swanson’s desk. He read it and then called Leonard. “I kept the conversation simple,” Swanson told me. “I told Leonard he was going to be a very rich man.”

Leonard worked the writing hard, making certain that each word chosen mattered, each sentence written essential. And every character fully sketched and brought close enough to life they could be touched. His heroes were lawmen and criminals and none were drawn in simple black and white. They were, to quote former New York State Supreme Court Justice and novelist Edwin Torres (Carlito’s Way), “people who lived after midnight and at that hour there is no black and white. At that hour every cat is grey.”

I stayed in touch with Leonard long after that profile ran in People, but I didn’t need to speak to him to keep learning about the writing life. All I needed to do was read his work—from the “Detroit novels” (four of which are included in the new Library of America collection) to his take on Hollywood with the brilliant Get Shorty down to Florida with LaBrava and into the world of music with Be Cool (where my son has the distinct honor of having a character named after him—Nick “Nicky Cadillac” Carcaterra). There are many lessons to be learned from reading an Elmore Leonard book and one cold hard fact that’s a take-away: he will never be topped.

He might have been the first to start a chapter in the middle of a conversation. “I thought George was,” Leonard told me, meaning George V. Higgins. When I asked Higgins the same question, he said, “I was pretty certain I lifted that from Dutch.” Others were watching as well. The opening scene of Lethal Weapon II begins in the middle of a car chase. “It’s nice to be read,” Leonard said.

He is gone now but the work will always remain, a reminder that for more than fifty years we were in the company of one of our greatest writers. There are the movie adaptations for those curious to see how they translate. They range from the horrible (both versions of The Big Bounce) to mediocre (Be Cool) to classic (Get Shorty and Hombre with Paul Newman and Richard Boone, one of Leonard’s favorite actors). “He’s got the look,” he said of Boone, “and he’s comfortable with the words.”

And then there’s Justified, sadly going into its final season. Every episode, practically every scene, is a tip of Timothy Olyphant’s hat to Leonard. Watching that show comes a close second to reading the work itself, it is that good and true. Raylen Givens may well end up being one of Leonard’s greatest gifts to us.

I miss Elmore Leonard. Miss hearing that sweet, humble voice that never surrendered to ego or brag, easy to smile, quick with a story, faster with a sharp line. It was an honor to be in his company, even for a short time. But he leaves behind a massive body of work that will age well with each passing year. The stories fresh, the characters memorable and the dialogue always true.

The lessons of the Master on the page, waiting to be learned.

Previously on Reader’s Almanac

Monday, August 25, 2014

An interview with Gregg Sutter on Elmore Leonard’s “dialogue-driven crime novels with an emphasis on character”

The latest Library of America volume, Elmore Leonard: Four Novels of the 1970s, recently arrived from the printer and will go on sale in bookstores everywhere this week.

We recently interviewed Gregg Sutter, who edited the volume. Sutter first met Leonard in 1979 and began working for him in 1981. He is currently at work on a biography of Leonard, from the unique perspective as his full-time researcher for more than thirty years.

What was Elmore Leonard’s greatest contribution to the post-Chandler tradition of American crime fiction?

Elmore did not come out of the Chandler tradition, which broadly includes the subgenres of detective, mystery, suspense, thriller, and crime fiction. Elmore’s writing school was Hemingway for the Westerns and George V. Higgins for the crime stories. He wrote dialogue-driven crime novels with an emphasis on character, from the point of view of both the good guys and the bad guys. Characters “auditioned” for their roles. If they couldn’t talk, they were in danger of getting bumped off. He frequently described the freedom he felt as a writer. “I make it up as I go along,” he said.

Who were the writers who influenced him?

Ernest Hemingway had the most profound influence on Elmore. He studied Hemingway intensely when learning to write and well beyond, saying he always could pick up a Hemingway story and be inspired. But Hemingway lacked a sense of humor, according to Elmore. He found the natural humor he sought in the work of Richard Bissell. Finally, in the early 1970s, he read the work of Higgins, which had a liberating effect on his writing, especially showing Elmore how to tell a story with dialogue alone.

What did Leonard accomplish in his Detroit novels from the 1970s and where did he go from there?

With his body of work in the 1970s, especially the four novels included in the Library of America volume, Elmore began to be noticed in publishing and crime fiction circles as a rising star, even though he had been writing for thirty years. He also developed and refined a style that has been often imitated. Starting in 1981, Elmore set novels in South Florida, where his characters—often with a Detroit connection—migrated and found new opportunities, mainly criminal. These works did not go unnoticed. By mid-decade, he was recognized as one of the greats of contemporary American fiction.

As a Detroit native yourself, do you feel a special connection to these books?

Absolutely. Detroit in the 60s into the 70s was known nationally for the auto industry, its sports teams, and Motown—and that was about it. I looked to New York and Los Angeles for cultural direction. By the mid-70s, it was Raymond Chandler’s Hollywood and Martin Scorsese’s New York that had my attention. Then in 1975, I read Fifty-Two Pickup by Elmore Leonard and that same devotion to place was bestowed on my hometown of Detroit, in novels, by an author who captured its sound and atmosphere.

You didn’t start working with him until the 1980s, but do you know of any anecdotes connected with the composition or reception of the four novels in the LOA collection?

Before Fifty-Two Pickup, Elmore was best known for his westerns and his film work. Five of his previous six novels had been in paperback, which didn’t exactly raise his profile. But he was back in hardcover with Fifty-Two Pickup and soon discovered by The New York Times, which sang his praises, especially for Unknown Man No. 89. They said, “he can write circles around almost anybody active in the crime novel today.” The Switch, released in paperback, failed to receive the same critical attention as the others, but it was every bit as significant.

What were the high points and low points of working with Elmore Leonard?

I’ll give an example of each. The low was when Elmore’s wife, Joan, died in 1993. She was his loving wife, smart friend and great editor. She was greatly missed, but Elmore quickly remarried and produced a string of great novels during the rest of the 1990s. The high points were the road trips with Dutch to exotic places like Cape Girardeau, Missouri, and Tishomingo, Mississippi. Hanging out with Dutch was always fun, and it brought me even closer to his work.

Do you see links between Leonard’s personal life and any of these four novels?

Plenty. He weaves into all four novels elements of his personal life, such as alcoholism in Unknown Man No. 89, his background in advertising and the auto industry in Fifty-Two Pickup and Swag. Then, in The Switch, the contrast of the world of the country club party crowd in Detroit’s northern suburbs, with the bleak landscape of the city and its marginal inhabitants.

There was a scene deleted from Swag. Who cut it and why do you think it was cut?

My feeling is that the scene, while entertaining to read, slowed down the fast-moving Swag a little, so the editor cut it. I’m not exactly sure who would have made the decision to cut it or Elmore’s reaction. In any event, it’s great that the deleted scene is included in the Notes for Elmore Leonard: Four Novels of the 1970s, so readers can enjoy this fun scene with Stick and Frank.

Did you make any personal discoveries or reassessments while preparing the LOA volume?

My discoveries are just rediscoveries. Fifty-Two Pickup was the first Elmore Leonard novel I read. For me, it was the start a lifelong interest in his work as a fan and scholar. For Elmore, it was the beginning of a new phase in his career that would have glorious results. These Detroit novels have the same effect on me now as when I first read them in the 1970s, bringing forth a deep understanding of the landscape of Detroit, its sound and certainly its characters.

Do you have a favorite in the collection?

That’s tough but if I had to pick one from the collection, it would be Unknown Man No. 89. This novel established Elmore as “a new and important writer,” as The New York Times put it in 1977. Its plot featured a shootout on Main St. in Rochester, Michigan, near where I had lived as a student. The unreality of Elmore’s fiction combined with the reality of my life, created a feeling of attachment with Elmore’s work that never left me.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Forty years ago: Nixon’s farewell remarks to the White House staff (August 9, 1974)

This week marks the 40th anniversary of the end of Richard Nixon’s presidency. Facing near-certain impeachment after the Watergate scandal, Nixon announced his resignation in a televised address and the following morning delivered an extemporaneous speech to the White House staff.

In the following guest blog post, Lary Wallace, a magazine writer and editor who did his graduate thesis on Nixon’s oratory, takes a new look at his farewell remarks from a distance of four decades.

* * *
Outside the White House gates, crowds spent the night chanting, “Jail to the Chief.” On August 8, 1974, Richard Nixon delivered his resignation speech via live broadcast and then managed a few hours’ sleep. At 4 a.m. his watch stopped, its battery at last run down on this, his very last day in the White House, the day he made his farewell remarks to the White House staff. It would be his final speech as a professional politician and, whether he knew it or not, his masterpiece. For sheer shamelessness, for raw naked honesty, for pathos and bathos, for autobiographical allusion and psychological revelation, there’d never been anything from a president quite like it, and there hasn’t been anything like it since.

Delivered in a moment of crisis, amidst a profound depression that would last for months, the emotion he exhibited in the speech was real. Everyone in the room felt it. Henry Kissinger in his memoirs would call the speech “one of the most dramatic moments in American history,” “an elegy of anguish,” “as rambling as the previous night’s had been disciplined.” His wife, Pat, was none too pleased “that after all the agony television had caused us,” as Nixon would write, “its prying eye should be allowed to intrude on this last and most intimate moment of all.”

Nixon allowed it to intrude nevertheless, and our understanding of this profoundly peculiar man is only the richer for it. On the speech’s fortieth anniversary, it’s well worth highlighting a few of those moments that make it a sui generis piece of political theater—those places where the speech achieves its transcendent strangeness, becoming literature writ historical, and history writ literary.

Nixon shared some wisdom remarkable in its lack of self-awareness: “[T]here are many fine careers. This country needs good farmers, good businessmen, good plumbers, good carpenters.” It was, of course, a want of good Plumbers—if not plumbers—that led to Watergate and its fallout, the most recent manifestation of which was Nixon delivering this very speech in farewell. It was an obliviously allusive line, perfectly naked in its grim humor and subliminal diagnostic accuracy.

He recalled his humble origins in Orange County, California, his father “sort of a little man, common man,” and yet “he was a great man, because he did his job, and every job counts up to the hilt.” But his father was nothing compared to his mother: “[M]y mother was a saint. And I think of her, two boys dying of tuberculosis, nursing four others in order that she could take care of my older brother for three years in Arizona, and seeing each of them die, and when they died, it was like one of her own.”

It was at this point in the speech that friend and former counsel Leonard Garment thought to himself, “Oh, my God, he’s beginning to break down. A binge of free association. Money, father, mother, brothers, death. The man is unraveling right before us. He will be the first person to go over the edge on live television.” David Eisenhower, too, thought his father-in-law was about to crack. He stood beside him along with Nixon’s two daughters, Julie and Tricia, and Tricia’s husband, Ed Cox. And of course, as ever, there was Pat. Except that Nixon would not mention Pat even once during the speech.

Wiping sweat from his upper lip, Nixon put on his glasses and read at length from a famous passage in the journals of Theodore Roosevelt (always something of a hero to Nixon), in which Roosevelt writes of his wife and baby daughter dying on the same day, and of how “the light went from my life forever.” Having finished his reading, Nixon choked up and fought back sobs and sniffling. There were plenty in the audience who’d given up the fight. Kissinger, for one, “was at the same time moved to tears and outraged at being put through the wringer once again”; “the anguish on the platform engulfed us all. In defeat and disgrace Nixon had at last prevailed; he had stripped us of our reserve; we were naked before these elemental feelings and our hearts went out to this man who transcended his extremity by refusing to act as if he were defeated.”

Pat stood by him with that same tight smile, pained and painful, that television viewers had known since Nixon’s Checkers speech, more than twenty years earlier. Kissinger did not approve of Pat’s omission from Nixon’s remarks—after all, “without his capacity for make-believe,” she “must have suffered the most grievously of all”—and he was not alone. Stephen Ambrose in his triple-decker biography of Nixon opines, “It was odd that Nixon could have given this speech without mentioning Pat, could have been so insensitive as to read another man’s description of his wife. It made many of those present, and those watching on television, wince.” Yet Julie, in a biography she wrote of her mother, responded to such criticism, “[T]hat would have been asking too much of any man. We were standing so close to my father that he could reach out and touch us if he wanted. . . . [M]uch of the regret he felt at that moment, yet left unspoken, was that he had let his family down.”

Winding toward his peroration, Nixon prescribed some enlightenment wisdom even less self-aware than the “plumbers” line: “Always give your best, never get discouraged, never be petty; always remember, others may hate you, but those who hate you don’t win unless you hate them, and then you destroy yourself.”

These weren’t the last words of the speech, but they were close. There could have been no more-appropriate way for Nixon to end his political career, vexing and perplexing, leaving us to wonder, as ever, just how much of his obliviousness was in fact self-destructive canniness.

* * *
Nixon’s farewell remarks and his Checkers speech are two of the 83 texts included in The Library of America collection American Speeches: Political Oratory from Abraham Lincoln to Bill Clinton.

Video of Nixon’s farewell remarks to the White House staff
The speech begins at the 3:00 mark

Friday, July 25, 2014

Susan Cheever on Louisa May Alcott: “a writer who refused conventional ideas of women’s roles”

The latest Library of America volume, Louisa May Alcott: Work, Eight Cousins, Rose in Bloom, Stories & Other Writings, has just arrived from the printer and is available now exclusively from the LOA Web Store. (It will be released in bookstores at the end of August.)

We recently interviewed Susan Cheever, who edited the volume. Cheever is the author of thirteen books, including Louisa May Alcott: A Personal Biography and American Bloomsbury: Louisa May Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry David Thoreau.

This second Library of America volume of Alcott’s fiction collects three novels published in the 1870s, along with a number of short works. What is the relation of this collection to the Jo March trilogy?

When I read Alcott’s Little Women as a girl, I thought I was Jo March—romantic, rebellious but lovable, ready to marry but only for true love. What did I know? Alcott was a writer who refused conventional ideas of women’s roles—ideas as tenacious today as they were in the 1860s. In fiction she settled Jo March with an unconventional conventional marriage. In real life Alcott said, “liberty is a better husband than love.”

The novel Work addresses women’s issues head on. The other novels and stories in this collection are inspired by different aspects of women’s lives in nineteenth-century America. In Eight Cousins and its sequel Rose in Bloom, Alcott uses Rose Campbell—an orphaned heiress with seven male cousins—to show the absurdity of the customs of dress and education which hampered her own young life. The stories “Anna’s Whim”—her “whim” is that men should talk to women the way they talk to other men—and “Kate’s Choice” also feature young women at social and emotional crossroads.

What personal discoveries did you make while at work on the volume?

Alcott was sharply aware of what made money and what did not make money, and her careful accounting of her earnings is one of the most interesting aspects of her journal. The more I have learned about Alcott’s work and her life, the deeper and less girlish my connection to her has become. As a writer who makes a living from my work, I also keep careful accounts, worry about my ability to support myself and my family, and struggle to balance what my heart wants to write with what my financial situation requires me to write. Alcott had a difficult life as a writer in a family where she was often the only breadwinner. These later books reflect that reality with grit and honesty. They may be less popular because they are less sentimental, but because they are less sentimental, they all the more important.

Do you have a favorite piece in the collection?

My favorite piece in the collection, and one of my favorite works of Alcott’s, is Work, a novel which directly addresses the principal question of Alcott’s life, a question we still ask today, how can we reconcile the needs of our professional and domestic lives? How can we find a way to support ourselves financially and still be good daughters and sisters?

Written over the ten most important years of Alcott’s life, Work was begun in 1861 as an autobiographical novel when she was still an unknown writer of potboilers from sleepy little Concord, Massachusetts. In 1868, urged by her editor, Thomas Niles, and her father, Bronson Alcott, she reluctantly took time out to write a book about girls. That book was the extraordinarily successful Little Women. As a result, by the time Work was finished in 1872, Alcott had gone from obscurity to fame as one of the best-loved and best-selling authors of the nineteenth century.

Any notable biographical anecdotes in connection with the works in this Library of America volume?

One of the origins of Work was Alcott’s early essay “How I Went Out to Service” [also in this volume] in which she tells the horrid story of being hired out as a companion to the family of a man who seemed elegant and educated—James Richardson of Dedham—but who turned out to be brutish, unreasonable, and cheap. Trapped in the job for four weeks, the eighteen-year-old Alcott fumed and took notes. Richardson insultingly paid her a total of four dollars, but Alcott hoped the resulting essay would launch her career as a serious writer. She took it to the great editor James T. Fields of Ticknor & Fields in Boston. Fields, ensconced in his office above the Old Corner Bookstore, read the essay while Alcott waited, looked up at the author, and pronounced: “Stick to your teaching. You can’t write.” Alcott’s determination to prove him wrong was one of her many sources of inspiration.

How autobiographical is Work?

Drawing on her essay about Rev. Richardson, as well as her own experience with jobs in nineteenth-century Boston—Alcott worked as a seamstress, a governess, a teacher and an actress—she wrote a powerful indictment of the way women are bullied by society—this was in the years when women were owned by their fathers and husbands and did not have the right to vote. The second half of the novel introduces a love affair with a man based on Alcott’s close friend Henry David Thoreau—his death scene is taken from Alcott’s own memoir Hospital Sketches, written after she served as a Civil War nurse in the Union Hospital in Washington, D.C. Alcott was in her forties when she published Work. The book’s advance enabled her to give her sister May money to study art in London and to help care for her aging mother—and she poured all of her hard won experience and insight into the story of Work’s heroine Christie Devon.

How closely connected was Louisa May Alcott with the early women’s movement?
For Louisa May Alcott women’s issues were not a political cause but a personal necessity. She rejected the conventional nineteenth-century role of wife and mother and instead embraced the possibility of liberty and control over her own economic fate. As a result Alcott collided with society’s rules about the place of women in the world. Her first novels had to be published under an assumed name. Her first earnings were far less than her male contemporaries might have made. Alcott was an abolitionist and a temperance crusader, but her great political cause was the women’s equal rights amendment and women’s suffrage—“the cause of women is the cause of civilization,” she wrote. She supported Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony in their statement of the Rights of Women published on July 4th of 1876: “Yet, we cannot forget, even in this glad hour, that while all men of every race, and clime, and condition, have been invested with the full rights of citizenship, under our hospitable flag, all women still suffer the degradation of disfranchisement.” Alcott jubilantly concurred and wrote: “Three cheers for the girls of 1876!”

Read Alcott’s autobiographical story “How I Went Out to Service” at Story of the Week.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Forthcoming from The Library of America (Winter–Spring 2015)

The Library of America will open the new year (which is closer than one might think) by completing its editions of the novels of Saul Bellow and the plays of Arthur Miller, both of whom will be celebrating their centenaries in 2015. We’ll also welcome two authors new to the series: Ross Macdonald (yet another centenarian ) and Reinhold Niebuhr. And a two-volume collection of pamphlets from the American Revolution—from both sides of the conflict—will restore to print an abundance of material that has been unavailable to general readers for 250 years.


Saul Bellow
Novels 1984–2000

James Wood, editor
More Die of Heartbreak • What Kind of Day Did You Have? • A Theft • The Bellarosa Connection • The Actual • Ravelstein
January 2015
Library of America #260 / ISBN 978-1-59853-352-1

Arthur Miller
Collected Plays 1987–2004

Tony Kushner, editor
Danger: Memory • The Ride Down Mt. Morgan • The Last Yankee • Broken Glass • Mr. Peters’ Connections • Resurrection Blues • Finishing the Picture • more
February 2015
Library of America #261 / ISBN 978-1-59853-353-8

Jack Kerouac
Visions of Cody, Visions of Gerard, Big Sur

Todd Tietchen, editor
March 2015
Library of America #262 / ISBN 978-1-59853-374-3

Reinhold Niebuhr
Major Works on Religion and Politics

Elisabeth Sifton, editor
Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic • Moral Man and Immoral Society • The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness • The Irony of American History • writings on current events 1928–1967 • prayers, sermons, and lectures
April 2015
Library of America #263 / ISBN 978-1-59853-375-0

Ross Macdonald
Four Novels of the 1950s

Tom Nolan, editor
The Way Some People Die • The Barbarous Coast • The Doomsters • The Galton Case • other writings
May 2015
Library of America #264 / ISBN 978-1-59853-376-7

The American Revolution
Writings from the Pamphlet Debate
(two volumes)
Gordon S. Wood, editor
May 2015
Volume One: 1764–1772 / Library of America #265 / ISBN 978-1-59853-377-4
Volume Two: 1773–1776 / Library of America #266 / ISBN 978-1-59853-378-1
Boxed set: 978-1-59853-410-8


President Lincoln Assassinated!!
The Firsthand Story of the Murder, Manhunt, Trial, and Mourning

Compiled and introduced by Harold Holzer
March 2015
ISBN 978-1-59853-373-6

The Top of His Game
The Best Sportswriting of W. C. Heinz

Bill Littlefield, editor
March 2015
ISBN 978-1-59853-372-9


The Collected Plays of Arthur Miller (three volumes)
Tony Kushner, editor
The complete Library of America edition: 33 plays, a novella, rare shorter works, and Miller’s own notes and introductions
February 2015
ISBN 978-1-59853-379-8

The Debate on the Constitution (two volumes)
Bernard Bailyn, editor
Federalist and Anti-Federalist speeches, articles, and letters from the struggle over ratification (September 1787–August 1788)
May 2015
ISBN 978-1-59853-411-5

Previously on Reader's Almanac
Forthcoming from The Library of America (Fall 2014)

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Dan Wakefield on Kurt Vonnegut: “If anything he was a counter-counter-culture hero”

The Library of America has just published Kurt Vonnegut: Novels 1976–1985, the third volume of the definitive edition of Vonnegut’s fiction. We recently interviewed his longtime friend, the novelist and journalist Dan Wakefield (Going All the Way, Starting Over), who  recently edited and wrote the introductions for If This Isn’t Nice, What Is?: Advice to the Young (a selection of Vonnegut’s speeches published by Seven Stories Press) and Kurt Vonnegut: Letters (Random House).

How did you come to be friends with Kurt Vonnegut?

I went to the same high school in Indianapolis as Kurt Vonnegut, ten years after he graduated. We both wrote for our high school paper, The Shortridge Daily Echo, and the year after I graduated in 1950, Vonnegut’s short stories began to be published in Collier’s, The Saturday Evening Post, and other popular weekly magazines of the era. I read everything he wrote that I could get my hands on, and met him in 1963 at the home of a mutual friend when he was living on Cape Cod and I was on a Nieman Fellowship in Journalism at Harvard. He was friendly, open, and funny, and we had a great time—not talking about writing, but about high school. Our special bond was that we both confessed to being failures in high school sports!

Vonnegut reviewed my first novel, Going All The Way, for Life Magazine, and his words were instrumental in making the book a best seller. I always think of him as “The Godfather” of my work.

During the period 1976–1985, what was Kurt like when he was writing Slapstick, Jailbird, Deadeye Dick, and Galápagos?

During that period I had lunch with Kurt whenever I went to New York, and it was always an entertaining occasion. Earlier, in the years of early struggle and rejections, when Kurt was living on The Cape and helping to raise his family of three children and three of his sister’s orphaned sons, he had had few occasions to meet and socialize with other writers. Now that he had the chance, he really enjoyed being involved in the PEN Club in New York and helping writers in other countries, being a part of The National Academy of Arts and Letters, and getting to know and socialize with his peers.

At lunch we talked about mutual writer friends, like Richard Yates, and our hometown of Indianapolis, and he often suggested after lunch we go back to his house and make phone calls to people we knew in common. He loved calling information in different cities and tracking down people he had known in the past, just for the fun he had in re-connecting. He also enjoyed showing his support to writer friends and former students, cheering them on. He was one of the most loyal friends I ever had.

What is your favorite of these later novels?

I have always especially loved Jailbird. There is a first-person, essay-like opening in which Kurt tells of meeting an Indianapolis man who became a well-known labor organizer and activist named Powers Hapgood. Hapgood had been arrested and jailed for picketing and leading strikes and the Judge asked him why a man from such a distinguished Indianapolis family would engage in such activities.

“Why?” said Hapgood. . . . “Because of the Sermon on the Mount, sir.”

Vonnegut cites The Sermon on the Mount throughout his work, and in his sermon “Palm Sunday,” given to St. Clement’s Episcopal Church in New York City in 1980, he said “I am enchanted by the Sermon on the Mount. Being merciful, it seems to me, is the only good idea we have received so far. Perhaps we will get another idea that good by and by—and then we will have two good ideas.”

Mercy, in fact, is the basic theme of all Kurt Vonnegut’s work.

Why do you think Vonnegut’s work has always appealed to young people?

Kurt always had a fresh way of looking at things, a way to make great issues accessible, and to point out phoniness and pretentiousness wherever he saw it, no matter how sacred the cow. He was the “truth teller,” the person who points out the elephant in the room. He said the truth was shocking because we so rarely hear it. Even before Slaughterhouse-Five made him famous, I used to see college students in Boston carrying around dog-eared paperback copies of Cat’s Cradle, a satire about an invented religion whose fake dogma was expressed in rhyming couplets.

He has sometimes been dismissed as a hero to the counterculture but if anything he was a counter-counter-culture hero.” He dismissed the pop guru to the stars, Maharishi Mahesh Yoga, in the article “Yes, We Have No Nirvanas.” When Zen meditation was all the rage, he said we have a system in the West that also slows the heart rate and clears the mind—it’s called “reading short stories.” He called reading short stories “Buddhist Catnaps.”

What was his favorite anecdote?

He was honorary president of the American Humanist Association (he came from a long line of German freethinkers) and he loved to tell how he “slipped” while giving a eulogy of Isaac Asimov, the science fiction writer who was former president of The Humanist Association. “I said I was sure that Isaac was up in heaven now. That was the funniest thing I could have said to an audience of Humanists. I rolled them in the aisles!”

He loved to tell that story—I heard it more than once!

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Aaron Sheehan-Dean on how Civil War observers “didn’t know when the end was coming”

Aaron Sheehan-Dean, author of Why Confederates Fought: Family and Nation in Civil War Virginia, recently edited The Civil War: The Final Year Told by Those Who Lived It, the final installment in the landmark four-volume series published by The Library of America. Sheehan-Dean is Fred C. Frey Professor of Southern Studies at Louisiana State University.

What does the experience of reading these contemporary, eyewitness accounts offer readers that standard narrative histories don't, particularly with regard to this final year of the war?

I think readers will be surprised by the continuing uncertainty about the course of the war. The popular Civil War narrative peaks at Gettysburg in July 1863. But the characters who populate this book didn’t know when the end was coming—Confederates remained optimistic and Unionists quite skeptical until very late in 1864. And even when the end did come, people didn’t know what to make of the war. The closing scenes allow us to see how Americans, North and South, tried to work out the war’s meaning, something that we’re continuing to do.

What does the volume tell us about the role of African Americans in the war?

In 1864, enslaved people in the South confronted the true risks of seeking freedom. White owners pursued every means to deter their flight, Union officials often proved unhelpful and unreliable, and even the environment seemed to conspire against them: Joseph Miller, an escaped slave from Unionist Kentucky, describes losing his entire family when they were expelled from Camp Nelson in the midst of freezing weather. But despite all of these dangers, southern African Americans fled slavery by the hundreds of thousands. And they did so partly because free men of color, fighting under the U.S. flag, led the way into the South destroying slavery as they went. Thomas Morris Chester’s dispatches covering the U.S. Colored Troops in the Army of the James eloquently argued that this military service earned black people full citizenship in the United States.

What do the pieces tell us about the diversity of experiences and outlooks in the North and the South?

They remind us of the huge scope and scale of this conflict. The South alone was larger than continental Europe, and although Napoleon crossed more borders in his campaigns I don’t think he encountered a broader range of people than Grant and Sherman did on their campaigns. So while we speak of this as an American conflict, the range of human experience in it was tremendous. That’s part of what makes it eternally fascinating. It would be hard to find two more conflicting views of the war than those between C. Chauncey Burr, an anti-war Democratic newspaper editor, and Wilbur Fisk, a Republican soldier from Vermont. Burr denounced Lincoln for leading “a war against a great principle—the principle of liberty and self-government” while for Fisk, “slavery and despotism have challenged war with us.”

Are there particular writers you grew closer to, or came particularly to admire, while working on the book?

It’s always a treat to find common diarists and letter writers who did not prepare their works for publication but who write with a brilliant pen. Catherine Edmondston, a plantation mistress in North Carolina, is one of those writers whose range of learning, wit, and clever invective should charm even the most skeptical readers. She tracked the armies’ movements carefully, but expended her sharpest barbs for those Confederate politicians whose failures doomed her nation. She thundered against the Richmond Enquirer’s advocacy of enlisting slaves as soldiers in January 1865: “it offers to sell the birthright of the South, not for a mess of pottage, but only for the hope of obtaining one.”

Most interesting discovery you made while assembling the book?

Given the discussion of “big data” these days, I am always surprised to find nineteenth-century Americans who make the most astute judgments based on nothing more than watching and listening. Charles Francis Adams Jr., whose father served as American minister to Great Britain (and whose grandfather and great-grandfather had each served as president), offered one of the sharpest assessments of Ulysses S. Grant ever recorded. Adams’s unit guarded Grant’s field headquarters in 1864 and he regarded Grant as physically undistinguished but uniquely capable at leading the northern armies. “He handles those around him so quietly & well,—he so evidently has the faculty of disposing of work & managing men,” Adams observed. “He is cool & quiet, almost stolid & as if stupid,—in danger & in crisis he is one against whom all around, whether few in number or a great army as here, would instinctively lean. He is a man of the most exquisite judgment & tact.” The pieces in this volume from Adams Jr. and his brother Henry, and father, all bristle with intelligence and wit.

Piece you think readers will find most surprising?

The story of Appomattox is so well known that we assume every northern soldier reacted with euphoria. That’s why Stephen Minot Weld’s letter to his sister always stops me cold. Weld came from a privileged Boston background and retained a skeptical view of his experiences, but his slow comprehension of Lee’s surrender reminds us of how completely the war had swallowed him. “I had a sort of impression that we should fight him all our lives,” Weld wrote. “He was like a ghost to children, something that haunted us so long that we could not realize that he and his army were really out of existence to us.”

Do you have a favorite piece in the collection?

I often quote Spottswood Rice when speaking with students about slavery and emancipation. Rice escaped from bondage and set out to reclaim his children. His steadfastness and confidence reveals how radically the war upended the southern social order. He warned the children’s owner, “when I get ready to come after mary I will have bout a powrer and autherity to bring hear away and to exacute vengencens on them that holds my Child . . . I have no fears about getting mary out of your hands  this whole Government give chear to me and you cannot help your self.”

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Setting Samuel Menashe’s poetry to music

Composer Ben Yarmolinsky is a professor of music at the Bronx Community College of the City University of New York and a founding member and director of Friends and Enemies of New Music, an organization that has been presenting concerts of contemporary music in New York since 1989. Recently he released the CD, Paradise: Songs on Poems of Samuel Menashe, and he explains how he came to set Samuel’s poetry to music.

I knew Samuel Menashe for the last seven years of his life. We were introduced in the spring of 2004, at the cocktail party following the annual awards ceremony of the American Academy of Arts & Letters. Samuel did not receive an award from the Academy on that day—nor on any other day.

In the years 2005 through 2010, I set many of Samuel’s poems to music, usually for solo voice accompanied by guitar or piano. Eventually, I accumulated almost forty Menashe songs. Samuel attended every performance of these songs, and was generous in his praise of them. He wrote: “Yarmolinsky takes note of my poems. His settings make each word a note.” One of my most prized souvenirs of our friendship is a printed card of his poem “Hallelujah” underneath which he wrote “For Ben Yarmolinsky who set my poems to music, lifted me to his level. De la musique avant toute chose.”

In December of 2013, I released a CD of my settings of 37 of Samuel’s poems. Here is one of the songs from the CD, sung by baritone Randall Scarlata:

Night Music

Why am I so fond
Of the double bass
Of bull frogs
(Or do I hear the prongs
Of a tuning fork,
Not a bull fiddle)
In perfect accord—
To one another
Across this pond
How does each frog know
He is not his brother
Which frog to follow
Who was his mother
(Or is it a jew’s harp
I hear in the dark?)

This poem presents a wonderful opportunity for text painting. In my arrangement the left hand “ribbet” motive of the piano is imitated closely by the bass notes of the cello, and echoed by the strings and percussion, so that the listener has the sense of many frogs “responding in perfect accord to one another.” I like to think of my songs as a kind of response to Samuel’s harping.
  • Paradise: Songs on Poems by Samuel Menashe is available as a CD or music download from cdbaby.com, iTunes, Amazon, cdUniverse.com, or directly from the composer, at benyarmolinsky.com.
  • The e-book edition of Samuel Menashe: New and Selected Poems is on sale for the month of April, for as low as $3.82 for Kindle, Kobo, Google Books, Nook, and iBooks (via iTunes).
  • Watch “Samuel: The Concise Poet,” a three-minute episode of WNYC’s Know Your Neighbor featuring Samuel Menashe and his dilapidated West Village walk-up apartment.

Lyrics copyright © Literary Classics of the U.S., Inc. Music copyright © Ben Yarmolinsky.
All rights reserved.

Friday, April 4, 2014

James Shapiro on how American attitudes toward Shakespeare keep changing

Photograph by Mary Cregan
James Shapiro, best-selling author of Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? and 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare, recently edited Shakespeare in America: An Anthology from the Revolution to Now, published this week by The Library of America. Shapiro is Larry Miller Professor of English at Columbia University.

Why this book? And why now?

An extraordinary range of Americans—including poets, presidents, actors, and novelists—have written compellingly about Shakespeare over the past two hundred years: short stories, essays, musicals, sci-fi, burlesques, parodies, and, as this anthology shows, much else besides. Yet surprisingly little of this rich material has been collected before. Taken together, this writing tells a powerful story of the past two hundred years in our national culture. As attention increasingly turns to “Global Shakespeare,” it’s important to reflect on what has been a distinctly American engagement with Shakespeare.

What was the strangest or most surprising thing that you learned in the course of your research for this book?

Easily the strangest thing I researched in the course of putting together this anthology was the amateur production of Othello in 1846 in Corpus Christi, Texas, staged by American troops on the eve of war with Mexico. A young officer named Ulysses S. Grant was cast to play the role of Desdemona. I’m still wrestling with what it meant for a future Civil War general and president of the United States to see this play about racial division through the eyes of its tragic heroine.

What is your favorite piece in collection?

My absolute favorite (among many) in the collection is Jane Addams’s 1895 essay, “A Modern Lear.” It’s brilliant, passionate, one of the finest things written about the play, and, in choosing to view Shakespeare’s tragedy through the lens of the bloody Pullman Strike, a hundred years ahead of its time. The powerful (and Lear-like) industrialist George Pullman made sure that it wasn’t published at the time, and it didn’t appear in print until 1912. I’m proud that The Library of America has anthologized it and hope that it reaches the wide audience it deserves.

Which plays have been favorites for American readers and theatergoers? Which have been neglected—and why?

Americans have had their own mini-canon of plays taught and staged over the past two hundred years. The great tragedies—Hamlet, Lear, Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, and especially Othello (not surprisingly, given our long preoccupation with race) top the list. Comedies such as Much Ado about Nothing and A Midsummer Night’s Dream have held their own. But the history plays, with the exception of Richard III, have fared less well; these plays about national identity seem to matter far more to the English, whose past they recount, than to us.

President Bill Clinton, who wrote the foreword to the collection, joins a long line of presidents fascinated with Shakespeare. What is it about presidents and Shakespeare?

Shakespeare had a particular gift for creating plays that put individuals under incredible pressure—in his tragedies, to the breaking point. It’s no surprise to me that those among us who experience the most intense pressure day in, day out—the presidents of the United States—have been drawn to his plays, from George Washington and Abraham Lincoln up to the present day. I am deeply grateful to President Clinton, a particularly astute reader of the plays, for sharing his thoughts about Shakespeare.

What American production do you most wish you could have seen?

I’m torn on this one. I really wish that I could have seen Orson Welles’s anti-fascist production of Julius Caesar at the Mercury Theatre in New York in 1937. But if I could choose only one it would have to be watching Paul Robeson play Othello on Broadway in 1943.

What is your favorite Shakespeare-inspired musical?

It’s strange that the English never managed to create a great Shakespeare musical; Americans did, including The Boys from Syracuse and Kiss Me, Kate. But my favorite, and surely the best, is that exhilarating rewrite of Romeo and Juliet: West Side Story (1957).

Have American attitudes or ideas about Shakespeare changed over the years?

Attitudes toward Shakespeare evolve because America itself keeps on changing—and literary and theatrical responses to Shakespeare are particularly sensitive to these cultural shifts. In anthologizing over two hundred years of that history—by sharing some first-rate writing—I hope to offer an alternative history of America, one that casts light not only on our long struggles with issues like race and immigration, but also on what it means to be an American.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

The Grapes of Wrath at Seventy-Five:

On April 14, 1939, The Viking Press published John Steinbeck’s most famous and enduring work, The Grapes of Wrath. This month, to commemorate the novel’s seventy-fifth anniversary, Penguin has just published On Reading The Grapes of Wrath by Susan Shillinglaw. A professor of English at San Jose State University and Scholar in Residence at the National Steinbeck Center, Shillinglaw has been director of the Steinbeck Research Center at San Jose State for eighteen years. Her previous publications include Carol and John Steinbeck: Portrait of a Marriage (U of Nevada Press, 2013).

In the following guest post, Professor Shillinglaw examines how Steinbeck’s investigative journalism laid the foundation for writing The Grapes of Wrath and how the novel still resonates today.

Seventy-five years after it was first published, John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath remains as relevant—its cry for equity as sharp and insistent—as ever. The bruising honesty of the novel owes much to its journalistic roots. From August 1936 to February 1938, off and on for eighteen months, John Steinbeck conducted on-the-ground research, driving an old bakery truck from his Northern California home to the Central Valley, to Fresno and Button Willow and Bakersfield and Weedpatch. He bore witness to migrant woe, initially as an investigative reporter for the liberal San Francisco News.

In the summer of 1936, as Steinbeck was completing Of Mice and Men, the editor asked him to write a series of articles on migrant housing in California. A few months earlier, a federal government camp program had been launched to provide decent housing for migratory field workers. The plan was to build a dozen or more model migrant camps up and down the state. Two were open in 1936, one in Marysville near Sacramento and another in Arvin, near Bakersfield. Both enclaves faced strong opposition by local growers: if field workers came together in these government-run, safe and clean little communities, who knew what might happen. Strikes? Labor organizing? Protests?

Steinbeck’s assignment was to sway public opinion, soften hearts and minds steeled against the government camp program; illuminate the deplorable conditions in squatters’ camps; and break down “Okie” prejudice. “The migrants are hated for the following reasons,” he wrote in his first article of what became “The Harvest Gypsies” series: “that they are ignorant and dirty people, that they are carriers of disease, that they increase the necessity for police and the tax bill for schooling in a community, and that if they are allowed to organize they can, simply by refusing to work, wipe out the season’s crops. They are never received into a community nor into the life of a community. Wanderers in fact, they are never allowed to feel at home in the communities that demand their services.”

Change a few words and that might describe twenty-first-century resistance to illegal immigrants or the angry push-back on passage of the DREAM Act. Steinbeck’s assignment for the San Francisco News was to move readers to an empathetic recognition that those folks are our folks.

Some of Steinbeck’s research for “The Harvest Gypsies” series is embedded in The Grapes of Wrath in the Weedpatch camp chapters (22 and into 26), which describe an oasis of dignity for migrant families. Camp director Jim Rawley nudges the Joads to renewed self-respect, and his kindness was drawn closely on that of Tom Collins, the director of the Arvin camp that Steinbeck visited in the late summer of 1936. Steinbeck read Tom’s detailed camp reports, running some 30 pages per week and carefully recording the number of campers, their jobs, their sicknesses and songs and troubles. Steinbeck traveled with Tom and interviewed migrants with him. He and Tom brought food to the destitute and helped with the sick. “To Tom who lived it,” the dedication to The Grapes of Wrath reads, in part.

Rereading the novel in 2014 sparks countless moments of recognition all over again, context shifted, impact fresh. The Grapes of Wrath continues to speak so powerfully in our era because Steinbeck dug in so deeply and with such passionate conviction into his own.

In some ways the book feels more timely than ever this year, as we in California emerge from a very discontented winter. As I write a green skin stretches over the state, pale shoots that belie what we know: that aquifers are depleted; that this winter’s rainfall was late and brief; that the parched Central Valley soil might not, as in past decades, produce 50% of the nation’s fruits and vegetables—or 99% of the country’s artichokes, dates, olives, walnuts and (water-thirsty) almonds. “The spring is beautiful in California,” Steinbeck writes in Chapter 25 of The Grapes of Wrath. “Valleys in which the fruit blossoms are fragrant pink and white waters in a shallow sea. . . . And on the level vegetable lands are the mile-long rows of pale green lettuce and the spindly little cauliflowers, the gray-green unearthly artichoke plants.”

All that is still visible in Monterey County, Steinbeck country, even in a drought year. Other California stories, however, aren’t pink or gray-green or lovely.

Steinbeck’s terrain was unlovely stories—of what happens when the green promise does not deliver or the fecund earth does not produce—be it in Oklahoma or in California. The soil dries and poor people get tractored off—or laid off, the threat this harvest season, when many fewer workers will be needed. Houses are repossessed and families move on, to more fragile homes. Or, as in Chapter 25, California growers burn surplus crops to keep prices high “and in the eyes of the hungry there is a growing wrath.”

John Steinbeck startles readers to attention, then and now. Another drought. Banks foreclosing—yet again. Angry workers demanding fair wages—$10.10 an hour as a living wage. Decent housing and safe working conditions for fieldworkers still making news, today’s stories about women who are sexually vulnerable in the fields. His saga of land use and workers’ anguish is as poignant, maybe more so, in this year of “exceptional” drought in much of California; in this decade where the voices of the “98%”—the wide swath of Americans that interested John Steinbeck throughout his career—are muted. Power versus powerlessness was his narrative arc. And it’s ours as well.

“Communication between two humans even under the best of circumstances is staggeringly difficult. When I am able to get through to establish a contact I have a sense of joy. That is the real base of all the arts—they are kind of frantic signals like mirror flashes between mountains. . . .”
—John Steinbeck

Of related interest:
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