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Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Sarah Weinman: Women Crime Writers anthology tells a new story about genre fiction

One week from today, The Library of America proudly publishes Women Crime Writers: Eight Suspense Novels of the 1940s & 50s, a two-volume collection of eight pioneering novels from the mid-twentieth century that are overdue for rediscovery. Sarah Weinman, widely recognized as an authority on crime fiction, edited the anthology; in the guest post below, she describes how the project came about, what it means for her personally, and its significance for our understanding of women writers in the American noir tradition.
Women Crime Writers:
Eight Suspense Novels
of the 1940s & 50s

(Sept. 2015)
Several years ago, I looked at my bookshelves and realized that the most compelling and creative American crime fiction was being written and published by women. One need only look at recent best seller and awards lists to see example after example, from Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn to The Fever by Megan Abbott, Coptown by Karin Slaughter, and Hush Hush by Laura Lippman. They explore American society, the desires and anxieties of women, and the ways in which anyone could be capable of murder with a surgeon’s precision, a psychologist’s understanding, and hidden reserves of empathy.

That got me to wonder: what of the women who preceded them? I started reading and researching and was floored by what I discovered: a rich trove of nerve-jangling suspense, thick with the fears and longings of women trapped in bad marriages, stuck between parents and children, who show steel and backbone in the most terrifying of circumstances. Here were stories borne out of and belonging to the post–World War II world, when women’s independent spirits, prized while fighting the enemy, were crushed by the return to traditional values. These stories, quite frankly, deserve to be recognized as the classics they are. (Much of that research led to Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives, the domestic suspense fiction anthology I edited a few years ago.)

Why weren’t these women getting their due? Why were their male counterparts, such as Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Ross Macdonald, and Elmore Leonard, showered with accolades and acclaim, and they were not? It is my greatest pleasure, as editor of Women Crime Writers: Eight Suspense Novels of the 1940s & 50s, to introduce twenty-first-century readers to eight masters of the genre, part of a literary heritage they may not have realized existed or are eager to learn much more about.

If you’ve seen the wonderful film noirs Laura and In a Lonely Place, prepare to be blown away by the original novels by Vera Caspary and Dorothy B. Hughes. After reading The Blank Wall by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding, you may wonder how far you’d go to protect your daughter from murderous ruin. And you’ll never look at a college campus in quite the same way once you’ve read The Horizontal Man, the Edgar Award–winning novel by Helen Eustis.

As for our choices from the 1950s, two of the mystery genre’s greatest practitioners, Charlotte Armstrong and Margaret Millar, present graduate-level clinics in madness and suspense with Mischief and Beast in View. Patricia Highsmith's The Blunderer is not only a major novel but an important precursor to her quintet of Ripley novels. Finally, we’re proud to introduce a new generation to Dolores Hitchens with Fools’ Gold, a tale of delinquent teens and a heist gone very, very wrong.

Women Crime Writers tells a story about crime fiction you may not have been aware of before. But it’s a story that needs to be told, and I am honored to be part of the telling.
Sarah Weinman
Sarah Weinman
(© Michael Lionstar)
Sarah Weinman is the editor of Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives: Stories from the Trailblazers of Domestic Suspense, which the Los Angeles Review of Books called “simply one of the most significant anthologies of crime fiction, ever.” She is the news editor for Publishers Marketplace, and her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, the National Post, and The Washington Post, among other publications. Click here for her Women Crime Writers book tour schedule.

Visit the special Women Crime Writers companion website for complete information on the eight novels and their authors, along with appreciations by contemporary writers and a wealth of contextual material.

Related posts:

Monday, August 24, 2015

Gordon S. Wood: How the American Revolution “infused into our culture our noblest ideals and highest aspirations”

In the summer of 1765, anti-tax riots roiled Great Britain’s North American colonies from Portsmouth, New Hampshire, to Charleston, South Carolina, the first stirrings of what became the American Revolution. This month, for the 250th anniversary of the Stamp Act Crisis, The Library of America is publishing The American Revolution: Writings from the Pamphlet Debate 1764–1776, a two-volume collection that captures the extraordinary political debate which led, in just twelve short years, to the Declaration of Independence and the end of the first British empire.

We recently interviewed acclaimed historian Gordon S. Wood, who edited the collection. Wood is Alva O. Way Professor of History Emeritus at Brown University and his books include the Pulitzer Prize–winning The Radicalism of the American Revolution and the Bancroft Prize–winning The Creation of the American Republic 1776–1787. In 2011 Wood was awarded the National Humanities Medal by President Barack Obama.

The new Library of America set collects thirty-nine of the more than one thousand pamphlets that appeared between 1764 and 1776. What were your main criteria for the selections you finally settled on?

The key criterion was the importance of the pamphlet in advancing the debate. The goal in assembling this collection was to provide readers with a clear sense of how the polemical contest over the relationship between the British government and the colonies emerged and escalated until the final rupture in 1776. To do this, it was essential to include pamphlets published in England as well as in America, because they often spoke directly to one another.

It is one of the ironies of the American Revolution that the colonies had closer ties to the mother country in this period than they had ever had before, and this is nowhere more evident than in the pamphlet debate. These texts were part of a lively transatlantic discourse in which pamphlets published in Boston or Philadelphia soon appeared in London and were quickly reprinted, and vice versa. Distinguishing these writers as “British” and “American” can be tricky, too. Englishman Thomas Paine had been resident in the colonies for only fourteen months when he wrote Common Sense, the most influential expression of the “American” position, while Massachusetts Governor Thomas Hutchinson, who in two pamphlets gathered here presents the “British” position as forcefully as any writer, had deep ancestral roots in the Bay Colony. Finally, I took into account the historical significance of the authors. For some writers, like Thomas Jefferson, the pamphlet debate marked their emergence on the scene; for others like Samuel Johnson and Edmund Burke, it afforded an opportunity to display their unique rhetorical gifts.

For a general reader, one of the discoveries here is a nuanced debate about “virtual” versus “actual” representation that sows the seeds for what became the American Revolution. What made that debate so important for later events in our history—and did it have consequences for Great Britain’s political development as well?

The pamphlet debate revealed the extent to which American ideas about representation had diverged from British. Because of the manifest impracticality of the colonies sending representatives to Parliament, defenders of parliamentary authority over the colonies were forced to clarify as never before the idea of virtual representation, which held that Parliament represents the interests of the empire regardless of how or from where its members were selected. This became the primary philosophical difference that animated the controversy. Americans going back to the colonial period have always thought of the electoral process as the principal criterion of representation, and we have generally believed that representation has to be in proportion to population. That is why we have usually placed great importance on expanding suffrage and on bringing electoral districts into some kind of rational relationship to population. To underscore the link between the representative and the represented, we have also required that elected officials be residents of their specific districts. Conversely, even today, such a residency requirement does not exist for British MPs.

The American Revolution: Writings from the Pamphlet Debate 1764–1776
The American Revolution:
Writings from the
Pamphlet Debate
Much of the debate turns on the history of the founding of the American colonies and of the long period during which the mother country’s imperial policy, as Edmund Burke famously characterized it in a pamphlet included in this collection, seemed to amount to “salutary neglect.” What did American writers who were arguing against parliamentary authority hope to gain by this resort to history? How did their opponents counter their claims?

History was always important to Englishmen in establishing rights. The common law is very much a history-based legal structure, so it was natural for the colonists to appeal to history, Magna Charta, the English Bill of Rights, and other important legal precedents to support their claims. Several American writers, particularly Edward Bancroft, the future British spy, turned to the seventeenth century, and the reign of the Stuarts, to make fascinating arguments about the nature of the relationship between the king and the parliament, and the underlying rationale for colonization in the first place. Their opponents likewise appealed to history, but their source material was much more recent, really only including the decades of the eighteenth century when parliamentary sovereignty developed. Because of the importance of historical references in the debate, the Library of America collection includes a 32-page chronology charting the history of the English and later British empire from its founding to 1776, when its greatest jewel was lost.

Contemporary readers may be surprised to find, among the British writers represented here, that Samuel Johnson is one of the most vociferous critics of the American position while Edmund Burke is one of the most conciliatory. What do we know about the motivations behind their respective positions?

Johnson, the older of the two, was always Toryish in his outlook and he never liked America. When he toured the Hebrides with Boswell he was stunned by the vacant villages in Scotland. He thought that Britain was becoming depopulated by the massive emigration of Brits to America in the middle decades of the eighteenth century. One gets the sense that when the British government came to him to enlist his pen in their defense in the pamphlet debate, he didn’t need much coaxing. Burke on the other hand was a fervent Whig, and as such opposed to Crown power. Since the empire had traditionally been viewed as under the king’s control, he and his party of Rockingham Whigs were suspicious of what George III was up to in the 1760s. At the same time the Rockingham Whigs were devoted to parliamentary sovereignty and thus could never be outright advocates of the American position. This left Burke in the position of urging the British government to, in effect, let sleeping dogs lie. He foresaw that by exposing certain fundamental differences in political theory between the British and the Americans, the government’s policies could only end in disaster.

Johnson’s pamphlet contains the unforgettable line “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?” Did anyone writing for the American side have a rejoinder to that—and does slavery figure anywhere else in the pamphlet debate?

Slavery was always a latent issue for many in the debate, but by today’s standards what is amazing is how little it was raised, especially since the colonists talked constantly of being “enslaved” by the British policies. Many took African slavery for granted as the lowest form of dependency in a hierarchy of dependencies, and used the imagery without any sense of the inherent hypocrisy. But others like James Otis did see the inconsistency and spoke out against slavery, as when he memorably wrote: “The colonists are by the law of nature freeborn, as indeed all men are, white or black. . . . Does it follow that ’tis right to enslave a man because he is black?”

It’s interesting that two of the most prominent “patriot” writers in the first volume of this collection, Daniel Dulany and John Dickinson, later had qualms about independence—Dulany becoming a Loyalist and Dickinson leading the opposition to the Declaration in Congress in 1776. What accounts for this apparent change of heart?

In the 1760s many colonists were opposed to the new British policies, but certainly did not anticipate breaking up the empire. All of them had a respect for English traditions of law and rights. In the end most of them revolted not against the English constitution but on behalf of it, in what they often characterized as a conservative attempt to retain their traditional rights. Dulany was a member of the council in Maryland and had a vested interest in the empire. Dickinson sincerely believed that America’s breaking free of England would lead to America’s bleeding from every vein. England after all was the bastion of liberty in a hostile world.

Title page of
Common Sense (1776)
by Thomas Paine
How would you describe the role that Thomas Paine’s Common Sense plays in the debate? Does his famous pamphlet seem more or less revolutionary when viewed in this context?

Paine’s pamphlet really was different, and its extraordinary character only becomes clearer when seen in the context of this collection. Most of the other writers in the pamphlet debate were elites, with positions of authority in society. Paine was different. He was our first public intellectual, and unlike the other pamphleteers, he lived solely by his pen. As such, he aimed at a much broader audience than did the others, one encompassing the middling class of artisans, tradesmen, and tavern-goers. Unlike the elite writers who bolstered their arguments with legal citations and references to the whole of Western culture going back to the ancients, Paine did not expect his readers to know more than the Bible and the English Book of Common Prayer. Everyone knew that Paine was violating the conventional rules of rhetoric and were awed by his pamphlet. More substantively, Paine’s aggressive anti-royalism marked a major turn in the debate. Recognizing the need to shock his readers out of their reflexive loyalty to the Crown, Paine employed a pungent style unlike any other, referring to George III as “the Royal Brute.”

New histories of the American Revolution and the Founding Fathers appear with ever greater frequency. Why do you feel it is important for readers to return to the original writings of the era?

The Revolution is the most important event in our history. It not only legally created the United States but it infused into our culture our noblest ideals and highest aspirations, our beliefs in liberty, equality, and the happiness of ordinary people. Since there is no American ethnicity, these ideals and values are the only thing holding us together as a nation. As valuable as secondary works about the period are, or can be, it’s essential that we continually go back to the original writings of the Founders for nourishment and renewal of what it means to be an American.

John Adams:
Writings from the
New Nation 1784-1826

(March 2016)
These are the third and fourth volumes you’ve edited for The Library of America, joining your two-volume edition John Adams: Revolutionary Writings 1755–1783, published in 2011. And a third and final volume of Adams’s writings is forthcoming in the spring. What is it about The Library of America that keeps you coming back?

The Library of America is a non-profit cultural institution that is dedicated to preserving America’s literary heritage. It makes the great works of American writings available to the general reader in modestly priced editions; at the same time, Library of America editions provide enough editorial apparatus to be useful to students and scholars. One certainly doesn’t engage in these editorial projects for the money, but rather for the opportunity to make some great writings available to future generations. For the editors, they have to be projects of love, as this one was for me.

Friday, August 14, 2015

James Baldwin, resurgent on screen and on the page in 2015

Library of America fans in the greater New York City area will want to know that the Film Society of Lincoln Center has just announced a comprehensive four-day film series dedicated to James Baldwin. “The Devil Finds Work: James Baldwin on Film” runs from September 11 through 14 and will include compilations of Baldwin’s TV appearances as well as documentaries about him and in which he appeared, including a remastered edition of James Baldwin: The Price of the Ticket, Karen Thorsen’s much-lauded biographical portrait from 1989.

Baldwin fans will of course recognize the series’ title as a nod to The Devil Finds Work, his book-length 1976 meditation on American cinema and the myriad ways it shapes and embodies national attitudes on race. In tribute to that book, the Film Society will screen Ingmar Bergman’s Sawdust and Tinsel, for which he expressed great admiration in his 1960 essay on Bergman, as well as Stanley Kramer’s The Defiant Ones, the subject of some of Baldwin’s most withering commentary.

The Film Society’s retrospective arrives at a moment when Baldwin, who died in 1987, suddenly seems an all but ubiquitous presence in American cultural life. Readers can judge for themselves the extent to which current events in the U.S. confirm the enduring relevance of Baldwin’s critiques, but it’s clear the publication earlier this summer of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me has prompted a renewed interest in his work. (A blurb from Toni Morrison on the jacket of Between the World and Me names Coates as Baldwin’s intellectual heir.) The Library of America itself, for instance, has recently seen a dramatic spike in sales of its edition of Baldwin’s Collected Essays.

James Baldwin:
Later Novels

(September 2015)
Two weeks after the Film Society series, LOA makes another contribution to the Baldwin resurgence with the publication of James Baldwin: Later Novels, which collects three titles from the late ’60s and ’70s—Tell Me How Long the Train's Been Gone, If Beale Street Could Talk, and Just Above My Head—that are overdue for reassessment by critics and general readers alike. If these books can be granted the kind of consideration that has long been given to earlier Baldwin novels like Go Tell It on the Mountain—and with the larger culture clearly more ready to engage with Baldwin’s explorations of sexual identity than it was in decades past—then it seems safe to assert that Baldwin isn’t so much enjoying a cultural “moment” as he is assuming his rightful position as one of the central American writers of the second half of the twentieth century.

The complete screening schedule for The Film Society of Lincoln Center series "The Devil Finds Work: James Baldwin on Film" is available at filmlinc.com. The Library of America publishes James Baldwin: Later Novels on September 29, 2015.

Related posts:

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Forthcoming from The Library of America (Winter–Spring 2016)

Abigail Adams: Letters
(forthcoming March 2016)
The Library of America series ushers in 2016 with a slate of familiar names alongside one notable newcomer. Henry James: Autobiographies is the sixteenth volume in the LOA edition of James’s collected works, its publication timed to coincide with the 100th anniversary of his death on February 28, 1916. Ross Macdonald and Virgil Thomson also return, and we conclude our Kurt Vonnegut edition with Novels 1987–1997, which collects three satirical novels from the twilight years of the American century.

With Abigail Adams: Letters, America’s second First Lady becomes the first woman from the founding era to have a Library of America volume devoted entirely to her writings. That book will appear in tandem with the third and final collection of her husband John Adams’s writings.

Two paperback reprints, Shakespeare in America: An Anthology from the Revolution to Now and Farber on Film: The Complete Film Writings of Manny Farber, round out our winter–spring list.


Kurt Vonnegut
Novels 1987–1997

Sidney Offit, Editor
Bluebeard • Hocus Pocus • Timequake
January 2016
Library of America #273 / ISBN 978-1-59853-464-1

Henry James

Philip Horne, Editor
A Small Boy and Others • Notes of a Son and Brother • The Middle Years • Other Writings
February 2016
Library of America #274 / ISBN 978-1-59853-471-9

Abigail Adams

Edith Gelles, Editor
March 2016
Library of America #275 / ISBN 978-159853-465-8

John Adams
Writings from the New Nation 1784–1826

Gordon S. Wood, Editor
March 2016
Library of America #276 / ISBN 978-159853-466-5

Virgil Thomson
The State of Music & Other Writings

Tim Page, Editor
The State of Music • Virgil Thomson • American Music Since 1910 • Music with Words • Other Writings
March 2016
Library of America #277 / ISBN 978-159853-467-2

Ross Macdonald
Three Novels of the Early 1960s

Tom Nolan, Editor
The Zebra-Striped Hearse • The Chill • The Far Side of the Dollar
April 2016
Library of America #279 / ISBN 978-159853-479-5


Shakespeare in America: An Anthology from the Revolution to Now
James Shapiro, editor
January 2016
ISBN 978-159853-462-7

Manny Farber
Farber on Film

Robert Polito, Editor
February 2016
ISBN 978-159853-469-6

Previously on Reader’s Almanac
Forthcoming from The Library of America (Fall 2015)

Monday, August 10, 2015

Amitava Kumar: Philip Roth teaches me to be a bit more honest

Lunch with a Bigot by Amitava Kumar
Lunch with a Bigot by
Amitava Kumar
(Duke University Press, 2015)
Our series of guest blog posts by writers of fiction, poetry, essays, and history continues today with a contribution by Amitava Kumar, whose new collection Lunch with a Bigot: The Writer in the World (Duke University Press, 2015) encompasses memoir, reportage, and criticism. Below, Kumar expresses his admiration for Philip Roth's ability to combine detailed observation with “the voluble, expressive sharing of rage, and sorrow, and befuddled despair.”
On the right side of my writing desk in my study is a black wooden bookshelf with thick, box-like sections where I keep books I need for my current projects. But on the wall in front, the wall that I face while I write, is a bookshelf on which are kept the books I know I will return to regularly. Those are the books that have made me who I am: they hold the key to the kind of writer I want to become. These titles are my personal classics. On the top of the shelf there is a boxed set of Paris Review interviews and the framed photographs of my two children, and below them, in the first row, a line of hardbound books in their white cardboard cases. These are the Library of America editions of Philip Roth’s writings.

I must have already read three or four novels of Roth’s before he became central to my thinking. Why did this happen? Perhaps the change occurred one night in Delhi. I was in my late thirties. By then I had published books of criticism, reportage, and a literary memoir. During a visit to India, the country of my birth, a young writer I admired took down Roth’s American Pastoral from his crowded bookshelf. We were sitting on the floor in his living room, drinking rum and coke. This writer is a man of unusual sensitivity and, although he downplays this part in conversation, he is a powerful editor of a national newspaper. He also stammers. From the page he had opened in American Pastoral, my friend began to read a passage which ended with the following words: “The fact remains that getting people right is not what living is all about anyway. It’s getting them wrong that is living, getting them wrong and wrong and wrong and then, on careful reconsideration, getting them wrong again. That’s how we know we’re alive: we’re wrong.”

American Pastoral
by Philip Roth
(Houghton Mifflin, 1997)
I remember asking my friend to read the entire page again and, for my sake, he did so with many pauses. When I came back to the U.S., I bought a paperback copy of the novel. The lines that had been read to me in Delhi appear early in American Pastoral and what they catch quite effectively is a kind of shocked bewilderment in the face of angry social change. I’m talking now of the late 1960s in America. Roth’s novel is about the unsettling of middle-class notions of success and stability. But the above passage also presents a literary credo. Its essence was captured by Grace Paley when she argued that the writer, in contrast to the critic, writes not out of expertise but out of bafflement and urgent, unfailing interest. In an essay called “The Value of Not Understanding Everything,” Paley distinguished criticism from literature with disarming lucidity: “What I’m saying is that in areas in which you are very smart you might try writing history or criticism, and then you can know and tell how all the mystery of America flows out from under Huck Finn’s raft; where you are kind of dumb, write a story or novel, depending on the depth and breath of your dumbness.”

I like Roth for his monumental dumbness. His lack of understanding of the mystery that is his life—this also explains why he sometimes seems to be writing the same book again and again—is interesting because it is paired with a particularly male, even arrogant, set of certainties. The struggle for understanding is examined with great frankness. Roth generates enormous energy in American Pastoral by putting beside the voluble, expressive sharing of rage, and sorrow, and befuddled despair, an impressive array of precise observations. Think, for instance, of the detailed description of glove-making in Newark.

It’s not just that Roth’s characters can be so completely sure, and then so incredibly filled with doubt. Very few writers are capable of showing how they get things wrong, how they get themselves wrong. But let me make this argument by using Roth’s own words. Here is an anarchic poet named Ralph Baumgarten talking to Roth’s narrator, David Kepesh, in the novel The Professor of Desire: “For me the books count—my own included—where the writer incriminates himself. Otherwise, why bother? To incriminate the other guy? Best leave that to our betters, don’t you think. . . .”

English departments in this country are full of our betters. Roth teaches me to be a bit more honest.
Writer and journalist Amitava Kumar is Helen D. Lockwood Professor of English at Vassar College and a contributing editor at Guernica and Caravan. The author of several books of nonfiction and one novel, he sits on the board of the Asian American Writers Workshop and was recently awarded a residency at Yaddo. Geoff Dyer praised Lunch with a Bigot as “stimulating, wide-ranging, learned, and funny—exactly what one wants from a book of essays,” and Edmund White has called Kumar “a sensitive, probing, erudite writer, always ready to question others and himself.”

Previously in this series:
“Influences” posts by Jabari Asim, Deborah Baker, Kate Christensen, Jennifer Gilmore, Lauren Groff, Lev Grossman, Jane Hirschfield, Alan Heathcock, Adam Levin, Annie Liontas, Dawn McGuire, Dinaw Mengestu, Jim Moore, Manuel Muñoz, Maggie Nelson, Viet Thanh Nguyen, Geoffrey O’Brien, Arthur Phillips, Carl Phillips, Karen Russell, Timothy Schaffert, Philip Schultz, Mark Statman, Emma Straub, J. Courtney Sullivan, Ellen Ullman, and Adam Wilson

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Video: Talented New York trio finds the music in Jack Kerouac’s poetry and prose

In honor of The Library of America’s just-published third volume of Jack Kerouac’s writings, and on the heels of our interview earlier this week with that book’s editor, Todd Tietchen, we’ve now reached into the video vault for a program related to our previous Kerouac title, 2012’s Collected Poems.

Peter Francis James, Loren Schoenberg, and Aaron Diehl in
New York City on Nov. 14, 2012. (Star Black)

The date was November 14, 2012, the location a private residence in New York City. The Library of America brought together actor Peter Francis James, tenor saxophonist Loren Schoenberg, and pianist Aaron Diehl for a jazz-inflected reading of Kerouac’s poetry and prose that paid homage to Poetry for the Beat Generation, the spoken-word LP Kerouac recorded in 1959, accompanied by Steve Allen on piano.

If viewers familiar with the original album occasionally suspect that James, Schoenberg, and Diehl surpass Kerouac’s own renderings of his works, that’s understandable given the credentials the trio brought to their collaboration. Among his many other credits James has appeared on Broadway opposite Al Pacino in The Merchant of Venice, had recurring roles on TV’s Oz and Law and Order, and made a name for himself as a reader of audiobooks. In addition to being a sax player, Schoenberg is the Founding Director and Senior Scholar of the National Jazz Museum in Harlem and the author of The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Jazz (2002). Diehl is the recipient of the 2011 Cole Porter Fellowship from the American Pianists Association and was named the 2014 Monterey Jazz Festival Commission Artist—one of the youngest artists to receive that honor.

Enjoy the clips below, and watch the complete video of the trio’s performance here.

Video: Three choruses from Mexico City Blues (3:49)

Video: Excerpts from On the Road and Visions of Cody (4:21)

Monday, August 3, 2015

An interview with Todd Tietchen: “It took a while for literary culture to catch up with what Kerouac had accomplished.”

The Library of America’s just-published third collection of Jack Kerouac’s writings brings together three works—Visions of Cody, Visions of Gerard, and Big Sur—distinguished by both their intense engagement with autobiographical materials and their restless formal experimentation. In the following interview, volume editor Todd Tietchen explains why all three titles are ripe for reappraisal by scholars and general readers alike.

Tietchen is Assistant Professor of English at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell, where he teaches classes in post-WWII American literature and culture. His 2010 book The Cubalogues: Beat Writers in Revolutionary Havana explores the attraction Fidel Castro’s Cuba initially held for writers like Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Allen Ginsberg, and Amiri Baraka, and he edited Jack Kerouac’s The Haunted Life and Other Writings in 2014.

The Note on the Texts in the new volume makes it clear these three works had a complicated publication history. For one thing, they were published in the reverse order in which Kerouac wrote them. Can you shed some light on why that was the case?

Kerouac’s works have a complicated publication history in general. Many are well aware that six years passed between the completion of On the Road and its publication by Viking. There are a couple of ways of explaining Kerouac’s complex relationship with the publishing establishment of his time. First, there’s the fact that Kerouac’s subject matter was often considered too transgressive, and indeed he made some significant edits in order to see On the Road published.

Second is the issue of formal experimentation, an aspect of Kerouac’s work that perhaps remains least understood by readers even today. In the wake of On the Road, Kerouac was branded an intuitive talent—someone who just sat down before the keys and followed his guts, refusing outright the notions of editing and craft. That image is largely false and severs Kerouac from his roots within the twentieth-century experimental arts.

Visions of Cody
(McGraw-Hill, 1972)
Visions of Cody, for example, is more a collage of textual experiments than it is a novel per se, and it took a while for literary culture to catch up with what Kerouac had accomplished in his typescript from early 1952. Although James Laughlin’s New Directions published an abridged version of Cody in 1960, the book wouldn’t be publicly available in its full form until 1972.

I think that with this particular text Kerouac was subject to what John Ashbery has termed the “doubt element.” In his essay “The Invisible Avant-Garde,” Ashbery points out that experimental art is often initially rejected on conditioned impulse. When first encountering a painting by Basquiat or Haring, many instantly balk, “That’s not art!”—which really means “That’s not what I understand art to be!” In such instances, it takes time for our judgment or taxonomic criteria to catch up.

That’s the significance I think of Truman Capote’s oft-quoted dismissal of Kerouac: “that’s not writing, it’s typing.” Capote didn’t understand, or sympathize with, what Kerouac was after, and I think a similar sort of misapprehension is behind Kerouac’s complicated publication history. As time goes on, Kerouac’s reputation continues to grow in spite of the initial “doubt element.”

The line “Cody is the brother I lost” recurs several times in Visions of Cody, which seems like a natural lead-in to Visions of Gerard. Comment?

The death of Gerard Kerouac of rheumatic fever at age nine when Kerouac was four years old imprinted itself on his worldview in a substantial way. One of the defining features of his work is the search for male role models or surrogate brothers, like Neal Cassady or Gary Snyder. Kerouac’s lifelong literary project, which he titled the Duluoz Legend, was largely an attempt at memorializing the people he encountered in the face of life’s transience. The early death of Gerard seems to have played a formative role in that aspect of his work as well.

A good quarter of Visions of Cody is given over to transcripts of recorded conversations between Kerouac and Neal Cassady. What was Kerouac after artistically with this technique—is there a connection to the “spontaneous bop prosody” of On the Road?

The connection with spontaneous prose is exactly right. Kerouac had been interested in recording technology since the mid-1940s and there are numerous instances in his journals in which he wishes he were a recording engineer. Some of this desire might again be attributed to Kerouac seeing his artistic project as a memory project—or as a memory prosthesis, as I’ve become fond of saying. At the same time, he’s working through problems related to mimesis: how to represent reality and human involvements in the most convincing fashion.

Tim Hunt’s recent book The Textuality of Soulwork has done important work in retrieving Kerouac’s relationship to recording technology. In “The Great Rememberer,” Allen Ginsberg likens Kerouac’s transcripts of recorded conversations to Warhol’s work on films such as Empire (1964) a decade later. I think that comparison is not only valid, but again reveals the experimental motivations of Kerouac’s aesthetic that many have missed.

Visions of Cody draws on the same material as does On the Road. (Kerouac’s famous reading from On the Road on The Steve Allen Show interpolated passages from Visions.) How is the treatment of that material different in the two books—and are they comparable as achievements?

Kerouac believed that Visions of Cody was his masterpiece—the superior telling of On the Road. In his introductory comments to Cody, Kerouac describes it as a “character study” of Cassady, a “vertical” treatment as opposed to the “horizontal” treatment in Road. While writers can’t always be trusted to provide an account of their work and intentions, Kerouac in this case offers a helpful key. On the Road situates Neal in a narrative spanning several years of friendship that is chronological and propulsive. Visions of Cody supplements that treatment with a mosaic of visions of Neal, a multi-perspectival rendering that doesn’t adhere to chronology but instead attempts to provide a more detailed mythology of Cassady’s life from his boyhood years to the time of Cody’s composition. Another way of explaining the differences would be to say that Road presents Neal within a kind of landscape painting, while Cody situates him in a series of aesthetic gestures closer to impressionism, cubism, and montage.

The other thing that Visions of Cody does—though Kerouac doesn’t hint at this in his introductory comments—is to ask whether an accurate representation of Cassady is even possible. Kerouac’s experiments in narrative come animated by a sense of descriptive doubt that anticipates postmodern literature, in which authors (John Barth, Joan Didion, and Paul Auster among others) compose narratives while at the same time reflecting on what it means to engage in such an effort. Storytelling becomes not just storytelling but a sustained reflection on the stakes involved in storytelling.

For a first-time reader, one of the major discoveries in Visions of Cody is “Joan Rawshanks in the Fog,” Kerouac’s hallucinatory account of watching a Joan Crawford movie being shot on location in San Francisco. It’s strong enough to work as a standalone vignette. What’s its function in the overall scheme of the book?

Transatlantic Review #9,
I think the function of the Joan Rawshanks section, which was published as standalone vignette in Transatlantic Review 9 (1962), is related to the post-modern aspects of Visions of Cody. The point of departure for the section was Kerouac’s observation of Crawford filming a scene for Sudden Fear (1952), directed by David Miller, on location on Russian Hill.

Kerouac focused much of his attention on the work of film technicians who are highly adept at producing a foggy moonlit night where none in fact exists. He also asks us to consider the distinctions between the “real” Joan Crawford stalking around the set and Crawford the film icon and actress. Again, what seems to be at stake here is the issue of mimesis (and its limitations): to what degree can an aesthetic gesture capture/evoke the real/lived experience?

As an extended exercise in montage, Visions of Cody poses this question by juxtaposing Kerouac’s literary portrayals of Cassady, the transcripts of the tape recordings, and this meditation on Hollywood film production. In a sense, the text is engaged in a comparative exploration of media forms and how they produce meaning differently—and at what cost for the subjects being portrayed. Furthermore, as a textual collage it bears some similarity to modernist works such as William Carlos Williams’s Spring and All and Jean Toomer’s Cane. When you consider Cody’s mosaic qualities, along with the surrealist (or “hallucinatory”) vibe of sections such as “Joan Rawshanks,” it becomes clear that Kerouac was attempting to synthesize and advance some of the animating concerns of twentieth-century experimentation in art and literature. This is all to say that Kerouac was interested in expressive forms other than jazz.

In 2015 “Joan Rawshanks in the Fog” reads like an early harbinger of today’s celebrity-mad culture. Is it fair to suggest it also anticipates the situation of Big Sur, when Kerouac seems virtually imprisoned by his own literary fame? (Interestingly, it’s the one book where the Kerouac character is a successful writer and not a traveler/bohemian.)

Part of the psychic pain portrayed by Kerouac in Big Sur is obviously attributable to the way in which he’d been branded. To be transformed into an icon is always to be reduced—and the persistent conception of him as the Dionysian, unpolished artist writing a novel a week seems to have cut Kerouac deeply. As should be evident from the above discussion of Visions of Cody, Kerouac’s work was in dialogue with a number of aesthetic movements and concerns that were not properly understood in his time, and remain in need of acknowledgment. I see the Library of America editions of his work as just that sort of acknowledgement.

The Chronology in the new Library of America volume notes that Visions of Gerard received “poor reviews” when it was published in 1963. Has its critical standing evolved in subsequent decades?

Visions of Gerard
(Farrar, Straus,
and Cudahy, 1963)
While it might have been identified as a minor work when it was released, it’s starting to attract more and more scholarly attention. One of the reasons for that attention is that Visions of Gerard (along with Dr. Sax and Maggie Cassidy) opens an ethnographic window on French-Canadian life in New England during the 1920s and 1930s. The extent to which those texts preserve that particular immigrant culture and its life ways makes them a unique contribution to American literature.

One of the things that strikes me most about Visions of Gerard is that it’s the opposite of the road narratives on which Kerouac’s reputation had been built (for better or worse). Much of it unfolds within the intimate domestic space of a French-Canadian family dealing with the trauma of Gerard’s death. While Dean Moriarty and Sal Paradise searched for meaning on the road, Gerard and Ti Jean [Kerouac’s French-Canadian nickname] discover an entire universe searching through the purse of their mother.

A startling Christian symbol appears to the narrator near the end of Big Sur. Do we know if Kerouac ever consciously reconciled his Catholic faith with his devotion to Buddhism? Or maybe he felt they didn’t need to be reconciled?

Religious and mystical questing is an animating feature of Kerouac’s novels, poems, journals, and correspondence. For the past two years, I’ve read a great deal of Kerouac’s archive in the Berg Collection at New York Public Library and have found myself increasingly struck by the seriousness with which he approached his study of Buddhism. Just this past week I read a manuscript titled Bodhi, which is essentially a collection of Buddhist texts selected and typed by Kerouac in 1954. I believe that he retyped these texts with the hope of committing Buddhist principles and precepts to memory. It’s also clear from the selections—which include the Dhammapada, a collection of the Buddha’s teachings in verse form—that he’d become familiar enough with the Buddhist canon to discern its major works.

One of the interesting features about Visions of Gerard is that it attempts to reconcile what Kerouac had learned about Buddhist conceptions of existence with his Roman Catholicism. That’s no easy task, as the ways in which Buddhist traditions and Catholic theology approach the meaning of selfhood and the concept of repentance (or contrition) seem irreconcilable to me, completely divergent. The nature of those differences can’t possibly be fully explored in my answer to your question, other than to say that Kerouac ultimately discovered more comfort in Catholicism’s answers to the issues of existence, ego, and repentance. That certainly comes across in the vision of the cross in Big Sur, and in many of his other late writings.

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