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Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Photos: At Edith Wharton’s House, James Baldwin Receives His Due

Kate Bolick and Darryl Pinckney
at The Mount in Lenox, Massachusetts on Sept. 17, 2015.

In a moment of literary serendipity last Thursday, one writer in The Library of America series was honored at the home of another when James Baldwin was the subject of a public program at The Mount, Edith Wharton’s former estate in western Massachusetts. Darryl Pinckney, editor of the forthcoming LOA collection James Baldwin: Later Novels, joined journalist and critic Kate Bolick for a talk on contemporary race relations and how Baldwin’s writings continue to resonate in twenty-first-century America. The conversation kicked off the latest season of “Touchstones at the Mount,” an ongoing series of author talks hosted by Bolick.

By coincidence, James Baldwin: Later Novels will be published one week from today–on the same day as Edith Wharton: Four Novels of the 1920s, the fifth installment in The Library of America edition of Wharton’s collected works.

In addition to editing the forthcoming Baldwin volume for The Library of America, Pinckney is the author of the novel High Cotton and the nonfiction works Out There: Mavericks of Black Literature and Blackballed: The Black Vote and US Democracy. Bolick, a contributing editor for The Atlantic, is the author of Spinster: Making a Life of One's Own, a combination of memoir and cultural criticism that includes a lengthy consideration of Edith Wharton’s life and work.

Darryl Pinckney (holding James Baldwin: Later Novels)
and Kate Bolick at The Mount
in Lenox, Massachusetts on Sept. 17, 2015.

Watch Readers’ Almanac in the weeks ahead for more on both James Baldwin: Later Novels and Edith Wharton: Four Novels of the 1920s.

Photographs courtesy of The Mount.

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Friday, September 11, 2015

Women Crime Writers: Forty books, four pen names, and one enigmatic author

Published last week, The Library of America’s two-volume collection Women Crime Writers of the 1940s and 50s has already won praise from the Washington Post and the Charlotte Observer, which says that the anthology “revives many a forgotten masterwork.”

Fools’ Gold author
Dolores Hitchens.
“Forgotten masterwork” is a helpful capsule description of the last novel collected in the set, 1958’s Fools’ Gold by Dolores Hitchens, which had effectively fallen off the cultural radar despite having been made into the film Band of Outsiders by Jean-Luc Godard in 1964. Readers may be curious to know more about Hitchens (1907–1973) beyond what’s contained in The Library of America’s biographical note, which lists the more than forty titles she published under four different names in a career that spanned thirty-five years.

So who was Dolores Hitchens, aka D. B. Olsen, aka Dolan Birkley, aka Noel Burke? Women Crime Writers editor Sarah Weinman has uncovered a 1952 letter from Hitchens to her editor at Doubleday, Isabelle Taylor, which explains at least one change of nom de plume and also serves as a witty miniature author bio. The letter originally saw the light of day in the privately published 1995 Doubleday Crime Club Compendium 1928–1991, edited by Ellen Nehr, and is here reprinted by permission of the Dolores Hitchens estate.
It’s no secret that I am also D. B. Olsen. In fact I’m glad to get away from the Olsen name for a change (not having been married to Mr. Olsen for some twelve years now makes the necessity of continuing to be D. B. Olsen literally a bit irksome). The books I do under the Hitchens label are not the same type. It gives me a fresh lease on life. A new reincarnation, book-wise.

The full name, and I’m not making this up as I go along, is Julia Clara Catherine Maria Dolores Robins Norton Birk Olsen Hitchens. The first five names have been whittled down to one—the only one I like. The five last names are accounted for by a series of step-fathers and two husbands.

I always hated the name Julia and the pay-off came, at a graduation party at High School, when names were used in rhymes on the place-cards, and some would-be poet rhymed Julia with fool-ya. That was the moment when I became, once and for all, Dolores. Wouldn’t you?

I’m taking psychology courses at the local college in my spare (joke) time with the ultimate aim of outfitting my characters with the latest in psychoses and fixations. Last time I wrote you we lived in Eureka but are now back in southern California on the outskirts of Long Beach in a district called Lakewood where the houses are laid overnight, like eggs. An estimated 3,500 people are moving in. We’re in an older district, however, and miss much of the excitement.
Fools’ Gold by Dolores Hitchens is also available as a Library of America e-book and audiobook. Click here (scroll down) for more information on both formats.

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

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Tuesday, September 8, 2015

The long, hard-fought campaign that led to The Library of America’s founding

September/October 2015
An origin story that is near and dear to us reached the public last week with the publication of “Edmund Wilson’s Big Idea,” a detailed history of The Library of America’s founding by David Skinner that appears in the September/October issue of Humanities, the magazine of the National Endowment for the Humanities, and online at neh.gov.

Skinner’s intricate, inside-baseball account makes it clear that the LOA had a long gestation period, stretching across decades—which perhaps isn’t surprising for a nonprofit literary enterprise. What may grab readers’ attention, though, is how close the Library came to not happening at all.

The original inspiration dates back to the 1950s, and to the critic Edmund Wilson, who had long complained of the lack of authoritative, readily available editions of seminal American authors. Wilson had in mind a U.S. equivalent to the French Bibliothèque de la Pléiade: reference editions of the classics in an inexpensive format. While he was able to recruit influential allies for his venture, his efforts to secure the necessary funding never came to fruition, despite the founding of the National Endowment for the Humanities in 1965. After that, years of competing proposals and various forms of academic and institutional politics kept his dream from becoming reality until the late 1970s, well after Wilson himself passed away in 1972. And even then, as Skinner shows, launching the project was a close-fought battle.

Skeptics argued that the proposed books would be too bulky. They would be too uncommercial—or they wouldn’t be scholarly enough. But years of tireless advocacy and shrewd politicking by the team who succeeded Wilson—“a rough synthesis of scholarship and New York City publishing brio,” in Skinner’s words—finally led to a Ford Foundation grant of $600,000 and a National Endowment for the Humanities grant of $1.2 million in early 1979.

The Library of America's first print ad, May 1982.

The rest, as they say, is literary history, and it would take an article at least as long as Skinner’s to do justice to the Library of America story since then. Its first four titles—collections of Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Walt Whitman, and Harriet Beecher Stowe—went on sale in early 1982, and years later Edmund Wilson himself entered the pantheon, via a two-volume set that amasses his essays and reviews from the 1920s through ‘40s. Perhaps the happiest note to conclude on is to mention that while in 1982 the first Library of America print ad [above] proudly predicted, “eventually the series will number more than one hundred volumes,” our upcoming James Baldwin: Later Novels, publishing later this month, is number #272 in the series.

Read “Edmund Wilson’s Big Idea” at neh.gov

(Note: since its founding The Library of America has not received regular funding from any foundation or government agency. Instead, it relies on grants and charitable contributions every year to supplement its revenue from sales.)

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Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Alexandra Kleeman: Philip K. Dick’s “gnostic logic” and other influences on You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine

You Too Can Have a
Body Like Mine
Alexandra Kleeman
(Harper, 2015)
Our series of guest posts by writers of fiction, history, essays, and poetry continues today with a contribution from Alexandra Kleeman, whose just-published debut novel You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine, a seriocomic foray into consumerism and a uniquely contemporary kind of anomie, is drawing comparisons to DeLillo and Pynchon and, in the words of a Slate reviewer, “may be our best novel about the weirdness of being female in a culture that is obsessed with women’s bodies.” Below, Kleeman shares some of her formative influences as a writer.

VALIS, Philip K. Dick. People often think of Dick as a bad writer with an amazing set of concepts he’s trying to convey, but it’s not until you try to perform a Dickian act of narrative inversion or reality-shifting that you see how much skill and craft goes into what can look superficially like clunky writing. VALIS aims to make the reader perceive distinct entities as existentially or spiritually unitary—beneath surface differences lies a gnostic equivalence. Hence VALIS’s unfortunately-named protagonist Horselover Fat (an etymological equivalent for Philip K. Dick’s own name) can have a friend named Phil Dick, and later discover that he and Phil Dick are one and the same person. It would be easier (though still somewhat impossible) to tell this story from the outside, narrating and explaining this discovery. But Dick embeds you in Horselover Fat’s consciousness, forcing you to experience the contradictions of this gnostic logic as a visceral assault on your own individuality. It’s one of the strangest and most mysterious books out there, and I think it’s more radical in its structure than Pynchon or DeLillo because Dick allows not just inconsistencies but full-blown paradoxes to crop up in his world. The reader becomes a site for the resolution of these unresolvables, the effect often being that you find yourself thinking an impossible thing that you’ve never thought before, or experiencing something that feels like it could tear you in half.

Letters to Wendy’s, Joe Wenderoth. This book takes the form a series of direct-address poems written on [the fast-food restaurant] Wendy’s comment cards—a uniquely modern constraint on composition if there ever was one. Shifting between exhortation, reflection, abuse, Wenderoth did a sort of postmodern take on “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”—you could call it “500 Ways That Wendy’s Looks Back at You.” Lines like “People eating toward eternity! People looking nice toward eternity! It is terrible to be real, I know, but it is more terrible to be long” abut vivid descriptions of ground meat and factory farming. Wenderoth challenges the idea that the American lyric voice died with the obsolesce of the circumstances and landscapes that gave birth to it originally: in his poems there are pathos, tenderness, rage, and above all 100% real emotion, not from concentrate. I first read these when I was eighteen, and they rooted in me a belief that the unexceptional suburban places that surrounded me were not boring and sterile even though they were built to be—there was ample emotion, only that emotion was made wilder and stranger because it couldn’t find a place to settle itself.

The Member of the Wedding
, Carson McCullers. A slew of books and movies out there aim to represent the transitional point at which the world stops engaging with you as a girl and begins engaging you, whether you like it or not, as a woman. None of them do it as well as Carson McCullers does. Frankie Addams is a twelve-year-old tomboy who “wishes that people could change back and forth from boys to girls”—we follow her over the course of a few days as she fantasizes about leaving town with her brother and his new bride, who are due to get married and then go on a honeymoon. By the end of the book, she’s narrowly escaped a disturbing encounter with a soldier and has learned what the reader knew all along: Her life is fixed insofar as her gender is fixed. She’ll learn to navigate the world with her newly sexualized body, she’ll learn unpleasant lessons about other people, she’ll age and if she does leave town it’s likely to be through a conventional, gendered channel rather than the escape she had imagined with her brother and his new wife, in a role she had dreamed up herself. This is a dark book, but funny, and true to a form of becoming a woman that I’ve known myself.

Breakfast of Champions
by Kurt Vonnegut
(Delacorte Press, 1973)
Breakfast of Champions, or Goodbye Blue Monday, Kurt Vonnegut. Vonnegut is a good prescription for anyone who’s suffering from loneliness or sadness, which is why I read him in high school and why I consider him something like a personal friend to this day, even though obviously we never met. What he does so well in this book is depict people who are alone in their loneliness, together. Dwayne Hoover is a successful car salesman who’s on the brink of going insane and just looking for the right idea to fixate upon, Kilgore Trout is a published but more or less ignored author with a fictional premise that will end up driving Hoover mad. Threaded through their story are victims of racism and injustice, syphilitic microbes, cows and the hamburgers they are made into. From the perspective of narrator or reader, the sadness of each of these individual characters becomes visible as a sad but sympathetic web that connects us all invisibly. Even if the problems are terrible and unresolved, Vonnegut gives you a taste of what it’s like to empathize not just with individual others, but for the whole painful system.

Empathy, Mei-mei Berssenbrugge. This is the poetry that I open up whenever I want to feel calmer and wiser, or like I am with a calm wise friend whose emotions absorb me while allowing me to be myself, separate. These are intricately detailed etchings of an internal landscape, or a seismograph registering the peak and fall of one single emotional thread. Everything in them is an analogue for feeling, or every feeling in them is an analogue for unadulterated space and air and light. I love this book too much.
Though relations with oneself and with other people seem negotiated in terms secretly confirmed
by representation, her idea of the person’s visibility was not susceptible to representation. No matter
how emphatically a person will control his demeanor, there will be perspectives she cannot foresee or
direct, because there is no assignable end to the depth of us to which representation can reach,
the way part of a circle can be just the memory of a depth. The surface inside its contour,
like the inside of a body emits more feeling than its surroundings, as if
the volume or capacity of relations would only refer to something inside, that I can’t see,
that the other person and I keep getting in the way of, or things in the landscape while they are driving,
instead of the capacity being of your person. The volume of a bright cottonwood could be almost
a lack of volume or lack of space inside the tree, the way a membrane is the entrance of an organism.
—from “Honeymoon”
Alexandra Kleeman’s fiction has been published in The Paris Review, Zoetrope: All-Story, Conjunctions, Guernica, and Gulf Coast, among others, while her nonfiction has appeared in Tin House, n+1, and The Guardian. Vogue has praised You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine as “Fight Club for girls,” while the Chicago Tribune called it “a satirical and searing critique of modern-day womanhood.”

Previously in this series:
“Influences” posts by Jabari Asim, Deborah Baker, Kate Christensen, Jennifer Gilmore, Lauren Groff, Lev Grossman, Jane Hirschfield, Alan Heathcock, Amitava Kumar, 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

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Library of America launches fall season with a double-barreled blast of classic crime

Women Crime Writers: Eight
Suspense Novels of the 1940s & 50s
September’s here—and though it’s not officially fall for three more weeks, today The Library of America’s fall season gets underway with a bang—the bang of a pistol shot, one might say, with the rollout of a veritable bonanza for fans of crime and suspense fiction. The two-volume anthology Women Crime Writers of the 1940s and 50s restores to print eight long-out-of-print or hard-to-find titles from the middle of the last century, while Elmore Leonard: Four Novels of the 1980s collects four key works by an acknowledged master working at the height of his powers.

Readers in the greater New York City area should know that an official launch event for Women Crime Writers will be held next Wednesday, September 9, at The Mysterious Bookshop in Manhattan. The anthology’s editor, crime fiction authority Sarah Weinman, will be joined by one of the genre’s leading contemporary practitioners, bestselling author Megan Abbott, for a talk on the role of women authors in the American crime/suspense canon.

If you can’t make it to next Wednesday’s launch event, don't despair—Weinman will be discussing Women Crime Writers at bookstores around the country (and also in Toronto) this fall. Click here for her complete tour schedule. Curious readers are also directed to Weinman’s recent Reader’s Almanac post in which she discussed the collection’s origins, its significance for the genre, and what working on it has meant to her personally. Last but far from least, our Women Crime Writers mini-site features extensive contextual information about the eight novels in the collection and their authors, along with appreciations by a range of contemporary talents in the field.

Elmore Leonard:
Four Novels of the 1980s
Jumping ahead a few decades, Elmore Leonard: Four Novels of the 1980s, the second volume in LOA’s Leonard edition, brings together four titles—City Primeval, LaBrava, Glitz, and Freaky Deaky—from the era in which Leonard became an above-ground phenomenon and, as Jeff Simon recently wrote in The Buffalo News, “his mastery was a matter of widespread affirmation.”

As an added enticement to fans, Four Novels of the 1980s also includes early drafts of passages from City Primeval and LaBrava, an account by editor Gregg Sutter of the research that went into all four books, and, perhaps most intriguingly, “Impressions of Murder,” a November 1978 Detroit News Sunday Magazine article in which Leonard relates his experiences shadowing Detroit homicide detectives. (“Impressions of Murder” subsequently provided the inspiration for 1980’s City Primeval.)

Watch this space for more material related to the above titles, and for news of 2015 LOA titles still to come, which include late James Baldwin and Edith Wharton and a deluxe, diverse collection of writings by Frederick Law Olmsted.

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