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StoryWeb – a celebration of the stories all around us – is brought to you by Dr. Linda Tate, a former English professor who loves stories of all kinds.

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136: Alfred Stieglitz: "The Terminal" and "Winter, Fifth Avenue"

Sun, Apr 23, 2017

This week on StoryWeb: Alfred Stieglitz’s photographs The Terminal and Winter, Fifth Avenue.

In the 1890s, as Alfred Stieglitz was beginning his career, photographers were fighting for artistic recognition. Photographers who wanted to go beyond “mere” journalism or documentary photography had to show their critics the value of their “mechanistic” art. Photographers like Stieglitz were trying to prove to skeptics that the camera could be used not only as a journalistic tool (as Jacob Riis used it in How the Other Half Lives) but that photographs could also have value as art. Stieglitz was unquestionably the leader of the movement to gain artistic recognition for photography.

A pioneer in subject matter, technique, and treatment, Stieglitz shot many “firsts,” among them the first snow photograph, Winter, Fifth Avenue (shot in 1893), the first rain photo, A Wet Day on the Boulevard [Paris] (taken in 1894), and the first night shot, Reflections – Night [New York] (created in 1896). In 1897, Stieglitz published Picturesque Bits of New York, a volume of his New York scenes; it sold for the then-whopping price of $15.

Stieglitz was concerned with both seeing life as it was and interpreting it morally. Scholar Doris Bry says of him: “To define and fix a moment of reality, to realize the potential of black and white, through photography, fascinated Stieglitz.” But objectivity to Stieglitz was not enough. In a 1908 article in the New York Herald, Stieglitz stressed the importance of the “personal touch” and the “individual expression” of the artist. He said, “I saw what others were doing was to make hard, cold copies of hard, cold subjects in hard, cold light. . . . I did not see why a photograph should not be a work of art, and I studied to make it one.”

Though Stieglitz hailed from Hoboken, New Jersey, New York was his adopted city. As Bry says, “he came to love [the city], it became home to him.” Art critic Neil Leonard says, “Stieglitz’s photographs of these years held strong emotional meaning for him, yet they realistically captured . . . the sights, rhythms, and moods of the city.”

Two of Stieglitz’s New York photos are particularly compelling to me, both shot in 1893: The Terminal and Winter, Fifth Avenue. Stieglitz said, “From 1893 to 1895 I often walked the streets of New York downtown, near the East River, taking my hand camera with me.” According to The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Stieglitz’s small Folmer and Schwing 4 x 5 plate film camera was “an instrument not considered at the time to be worthy of artistic photography.” Stieglitz threw away his “unwieldy” 8 x 10 view camera and its tripod, choosing the 4 x 5 camera, which, says The Met, “gave [him] greater freedom and mobility to roam the city and respond quickly to the ever-changing street life around him.”

The Terminal was captured at the southern end of the Harlem streetcar line, which traveled up and down Fifth Avenue. One day, said Stieglitz, “I found myself in front of the old Post Office. . . . It was extremely cold. Snow lay on the ground. A driver in a rubber coat was watering his steaming car horses. How fortunate the horses seemed, having a human being to tend them. The steaming horses being watered on a cold winter day, the snow-covered streets . . . [expressed] my own sense of loneliness in my own country.” In another description of The Terminal, Stieglitz said, “I used to walk around the streets disconsolately, until one night during a blizzard, I happened to see a man, watering a couple of horse-car horses, and I thought, ‘Well, there at any rate is the human touch; ‘ that made me feel better.” Of the same incident, Stieglitz told biographer Dorothy Norman, “There seemed to me to be something closely related to my deepest feeling in what I saw . . . and I decided to photograph what was within me.”

Winter, Fifth Avenue was taken the same year, also with a 4 x 5 box camera. Journalist and novelist Theodore Dreiser, who was heavily influenced by Stieglitz, said of this photograph: “The driving sleet and uncomfortable atmosphere issued out of the picture with uncomfortable persuasion. It had the tone of reality.” What seems to have impressed Dreiser most about Stieglitz’s photography, however, was the huge amount of time and effort Stieglitz took in making the final prints. Patience was necessary at all stages: setting up the scene, working with the negative, making the print. Indeed, according to The Art Story website, Stieglitz “stalked Fifth Avenue for three frigid hours waiting for the perfect moment.” Stieglitz himself told the story this way:

On Washington’s birthday in 1893, a great blizzard raged in New York. I stood on a corner of Fifth Avenue, watching the lumbering stagecoaches appear through the blinding snow and move northward on the avenue. The question formed itself: could what I was experiencing, seeing, be put down with the slot plates and lenses available? The light was dim. Knowing that where there is light, one can photograph, I decided to make an exposure. After three hours of standing in the blinding snow, I saw the stagecoach come struggling up the street with the driver lashing his horses onward. At that point, I was nearly out of my head, but I got the exposure I wanted.

Often, the negatives produced were discouraging. Such was the case with Winter, Fifth Avenue, the original negative of which was so blurry that a fellow photographer said, “For God’s sake, Stieglitz, throw that thing away.” But Stieglitz focused on a portion of the negative that he felt was usable and managed to manipulate it in the darkroom until he got what he wanted. The result is a stunning photograph indeed.

Good overviews of Stieglitz’s work can be found at The Metropolitan Museum of Art website and the PBS American Masters website. The New York Times review of “Alfred Stieglitz New York,” a 2010 exhibit at the Seaport Museum, offers additional insights into Stieglitz’s depictions of his adopted city.

Books you might want to add to your collection include Alfred Stieglitz: Masters of Photography Series (which features The Terminal on the cover) and Alfred Stieglitz: Photographs & Writings. Alfred Stieglitz: A Biography offers a comprehensive look at Stieglitz’s immense influence on photography.

To explore the artistic connections between Stieglitz and his wife, painter Georgia O’Keeffe, check out Two Lives: A Conversation in Paintings and Photographs – and to learn more about their personal lives, dip into My Faraway One: Selected Letters of Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz.

Visit thestoryweb.com/Stieglitz for links to all these resources and to watch the PBS American Masters episode: “Alfred Stieglitz: The Eloquent Eye.”

Tune in next week for an exploration of Stephen Crane and his journalistic essays about New York life during the 1890s.

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135: Jacob Riis: "How the Other Half Lives"

Sun, Apr 16, 2017

This week on StoryWeb: Jacob Riis’s book How the Other Half Lives.

Photojournalism can be an extraordinarily powerful way to raise the public’s concern about extreme situations. An early pioneer in this realm was Jacob Riis, whose 1890 book, How the Other Half Lives, exposed the underbelly of life in New York City during the Gilded Age, with a particular focus on the Lower East Side.

Though Riis has been occasionally criticized for asking some of his subjects to pose for the photographs, the truth of their surroundings and the veracity of the degradation they faced on a daily basis cannot be denied. Along with the photographs is Riis’s text – chapters about the various ethnic groups that lived together on the mean, intensely crowded streets of Manhattan.

The book achieved its purpose as it successfully provoked a public outcry about living and working conditions in the slums of New York. Most notably, Theodore Roosevelt, then the city’s police commissioner, answered Riis’s call to address the dire situations in which newly arrived immigrants found themselves. In fact, so taken was Roosevelt with Riis and his work that he dubbed Riis “the most useful citizen of New York” and “the best American I ever knew.” Roosevelt said Riis had “the great gift of making others see what he saw and feel what he felt.”

Riis’s book stripped the gilding off the era of extreme wealth and conspicuous consumption to reveal the extreme poverty and squalid living conditions that lay underneath. No longer could upper- and middle-class New Yorkers ignore the “other half” who lived just a few short miles from the Fifth Avenue mansions of the Upper East Side. The title of the book is taken from a quote from French writer Fran?ois Rabelais: “one half of the world does not know how the other half lives.”

Riis himself was an immigrant (he hailed from Denmark) and lived for a time in the slums of the Lower East Side. Getting a job as a police reporter for the New York Tribune, he began to photograph crime scenes to augment his reporting. “I was a writer and a newspaper man,” Riis said, “and I only yelled about the conditions which I saw. My share in the work of the slums has been that. I have not had a ten-thousandth part in the fight, but I have been in it.”

In addition to facing charges of staging his photos, Riis also comes in for some criticism for indulging in ethnic slurs and stereotypes in his text. But very importantly, Riis saw that it was the conditions surrounding the immigrants that made their lives wretched – their ill-fated position in New York City was not due to their ethnicity or nationality but to unscrupulous tenement landlords and sweatshop bosses.

To learn more about life in the Lower East Side tenements, visit the Tenement Museum online or – better yet! – in person. And to learn more about Riis, take a look at an exhibit from the Library of Congress and the Museum of the City of New York: “Jacob Riis: Revealing How the Other Half Lives” offers a deep exploration of and numerous resources related to this groundbreaking book. An article in the Smithsonian Magazine explains how innovations in flash photography helped Riis in his efforts to use photos as a tool for social reform. Finally, the third episode of Ric Burns’s outstanding series, New York: A Documentary Film, offers a great segment on Riis and his book.

If you’re ready to read this book that was so central in the history of U.S. social reform, you can check it out online on the History on the Net website. If you want a hard copy for your collection (highly recommended so that you can pore over the powerful photographs), there’s a special edition you’llwant to check out.

And finally if you’re curious about the ways another photographer was chronicling life in New York City at this same time, stay tuned for next week’s StoryWeb episode on Alfred Stieglitz.

Visit thestoryweb.com/riis for links to all these resources.

Listen now as I read Chapter IV: “The Down Town Back-Alleys.”


Jacob Riis, How the Other Half Lives, Chapter IV: “The Down Town Back-Alleys”


DOWN below Chatham Square, in the old Fourth Ward, where the cradle of the tenement stood, we shall find New York’s Other Half at home, receiving such as care to call and are not afraid. Not all of it, to be sure, there is not room for that; but a fairly representative gathering, representative of its earliest and worst traditions. There is nothing to be afraid of. In this metropolis, let it be understood, there is no public street where the stranger may not go safely by day and by night, provided he knows how to mind his own business and is sober. His coming and going will excite little interest, unless he is suspected of being a truant officer, in which case he will be impressed with the truth of the observation that the American stock is dying out for want of children. If he escapes this suspicion and the risk of trampling upon, or being himself run down by the bewildering swarms of youngsters that are everywhere or nowhere as the exigency and their quick scent of danger direct, he will see no reason for dissenting from that observation. Glimpses caught of the parents watching the youngsters play from windows or open doorways will soon convince him that the native stock is in no way involved.




  Leaving the Elevated Railroad where it dives under the Brooklyn Bridge at Franklin Square, scarce a dozen steps will take us where we wish to go. With its rush and roar echoing yet in our ears, we have turned the corner from prosperity to poverty. We stand upon the domain of the tenement. In the shadow of the great stone abutments the old Knickerbocker houses linger like ghosts of a departed day. Down the winding slope of Cherry Street—proud and fashionable Cherry Hill that was—their broad steps, sloping roofs, and dormer windows are easily made out; all the more easily for the contrast with the ugly barracks that elbow them right and left. These never had other design than to shelter, at as little outlay as possible, the greatest crowds out of which rent could be wrung. They were the bad after-thought of a heedless day. The years have brought to the old houses unhonored age, a querulous second childhood that is out of tune with the time, their tenants, the neighbors, and cries out against them and against you in fretful protest in every step on their rotten floors or squeaky stairs. Good cause have they for their fretting. This one, with its shabby front and poorly patched roof, what glowing firesides, what happy children may it once have owned? Heavy feet, too often with unsteady step, for the pot-house is next door—where is it not next door in these slums?—have worn away the brown-stone steps since; the broken columns at the door have rotted away at the base. Of the handsome cornice barely a trace is left. Dirt and desolation reign in the wide hallway, and danger lurks on the stairs. Rough pine boards fence off the roomy fire-places—where coal is bought by the pail at the rate of twelve dollars a ton these have no place. The arched gateway leads no longer to a shady bower on the banks of the rushing stream, inviting to day-dreams with its gentle repose, but to a dark and nameless alley, shut in by high brick walls, cheerless as the lives of those they shelter. The wolf knocks loudly at the gate in the troubled dreams that come to this alley, echoes of the day’s cares.

A horde of dirty children play about the dripping hydrant, the only thing in the alley that thinks enough of its chance to make the most of it: it is the best it can do. These are the children of the tenements, the growing generation of the slums; this their home. From the great highway overhead, along which throbs the life-tide of two great cities, one might drop a pebble into half a dozen such alleys.




   One yawns just across the street; not very broadly, but it is not to blame. The builder of the old gateway had no thought of its ever becoming a public thoroughfare. Once inside it widens, but only to make room for a big box-like building with the worn and greasy look of the slum tenement that is stamped alike on the houses and their tenants down here, even on the homeless cur that romps with the children in yonder building lot, with an air of expectant interest plainly betraying the forlorn hope that at some stage of the game a meat-bone may show up in the role of “It.” Vain hope, truly! Nothing more appetizing than a bare-legged ragamuffin appears. Meatbones, not long since picked clean, are as scarce in Blind Man’s Alley as elbow-room in any Fourth Ward back-yard. The shouts of the children come hushed over the housetops, as if apologizing for the intrusion. Few glad noises make this old alley ring. Morning and evening it echoes with the gentle, groping tap of the blind man’s staff as he feels his way to the street. Blind Man’s Alley bears its name for a reason. Until little more than a year ago its dark burrows harbored a colony of blind beggars, tenants of a blind landlord, old Daniel Murphy, whom every child in the ward knows, if he never heard of the President of the United States. “Old Dan” made a big fortune— he told me once four hundred thousand dollars— out of his alley and the surrounding tenements, only to grow blind himself in extreme old age, sharing in the end the chief hardship of the wretched beings whose lot he had stubbornly refused to better that he might increase his wealth. Even when the Board of Health at last compelled him to repair and clean up the worst of the old buildings, under threat of driving out the tenants and locking the doors behind them, the work was accomplished against the old man’s angry protests. He appeared in person before the Board to argue his case, and his argument was characteristic.


   “I have made my will,” he said. “My monument stands waiting for me in Calvary. I stand on the very brink of the grave, blind and helpless, and now (here the pathos of the appeal was swept under in a burst of angry indignation) do you want me to build and get skinned, skinned? These people are not fit to live in a nice house. Let them go where they can, and let my house stand.”


   In spite of the genuine anguish of the appeal, it was downright amusing to find that his anger was provoked less by the anticipated waste of luxury on his tenants than by distrust of his own kind, the builder. He knew intuitively what to expect. The result showed that Mr. Murphy had gauged his tenants correctly. The cleaning up process apparently destroyed the home-feeling of the alley; many of the blind people moved away and did not return. Some remained, however and the name has clung to the place.


   Some idea of what is meant by a sanitary “cleaning up” in these slums may be gained from the account of a mishap I met with once, in taking a flash-light picture of a group of blind beggars in one of the tenements down here. With unpractised hands I managed to set fire to the house. When the blinding effect of the flash had passed away and I could see once more, I discovered that a lot of paper and rags that hung on the wall were ablaze. There were six of us, five blind men and women who knew nothing of their danger, and myself, in an atticroom with a dozen crooked, rickety stairs between us and the street, and as many households as helpless as the one whose guest I was all about us.

The thought: how were they ever to be got out? made my blood run cold as I saw the flames creeping up the wall, and my first impulse was to bolt for the street and shout for help. The next was to smother the fire myself, and I did, with a vast deal of trouble. Afterward, when I came down to the street I told a friendly policeman of my trouble. For some reason he thought it rather a good joke, and laughed immoderately at my concern lest even then sparks should be burrowing in the rotten wall that might yet break out in flame and destroy the house with all that were in it. He told me why, when he found time to draw breath. “Why, don’t you know,” he said, “that house is the Dirty Spoon? It caught fire six times last winter, but it wouldn’t burn. The dirt was so thick on the walls, it smothered the fire!” Which, if true, shows that water and dirt, not usually held to be harmonious elements, work together for the good of those who insure houses.


  Sunless and joyless though it be, Blind Man’s Alley has that which its compeers of the slums vainly yearn for. It has a pay-day. Once a year sunlight shines into the lives of its forlorn crew, past and present. In June, when the Superintendent of Out-door Poor distributes the twenty thousand dollars annually allowed the poor blind by the city, in half-hearted recognition of its failure to otherwise provide for them, Blindman’s Alley takes a day off and goes to “see” Mr. Blake. That night it is noisy with unwonted merriment. There is scraping of squeaky fiddles in the dark rooms, and cracked old voices sing long-for-gotten songs. Even the blind landlord rejoices, for much of the money goes into his coffers.









From their perch up among the rafters Mrs. Gallagher’s blind boarders might hear, did they listen, the tramp of the policeman always on duty in Gotham Court, half a stone’s throw away. His beat, though it takes in but a small portion of a single block, is quite as lively as most larger patrol rounds. A double row of five-story tenements, back to back under a common roof, extending back from the street two hundred and thirty-four feet, with barred openings in the dividing wall, so that the tenants may see but cannot get at each other from the stairs, makes the “court.” Alleys—one wider by a couple of feet than the other, whence the distinction Single and Double Alley—skirt the barracks on either side. Such, briefly, is the tenement that has challenged public attention more than any other in the whole city and tested the power of sanitary law and rule for forty years. The name of the pile is not down in the City Directory, but in the public records it holds an unenviable place. It was here the mortality rose during the last great cholera epidemic to the unprecedented rate of 195 in 1,000 inhabitants. In its worst days a full thousand could not be packed into the court, though the number did probably not fall far short of it. Even now, under the management of men of conscience, and an agent, a King’s Daughter, whose practical energy, kindliness and good sense have done much to redeem its foul reputation, the swarms it shelters would make more than one fair-sized country village. The mixed character of the population, by this time about equally divided between the Celtic and the Italian stock, accounts for the iron bars and the policeman. It was an eminently Irish suggestion that the latter was to be credited to the presence of two German families in the court, who “made trouble all the time.”






A Chinaman whom I questioned as he hurried past the iron gate of the alley, put the matter in a different light. “Lem Ilish velly bad,” he said. Gotham Court has been the entering wedge for the Italian hordes, which until recently had not attained a foothold in the Fourth Ward, but are now trailing across Chatham Street from their stronghold in “the Bend” in ever increasing numbers, seeking, according to their wont, the lowest level.


  It is curious to find that this notorious block, whose name was so long synonymous with all that was desperately bad, was originally built (in 1851) by a benevolent Quaker for the express purpose of rescuing the poor people from the dreadful rookeries they were then living in. How long it continued a model tenement is not on record. It could not have been very long, for already in 1862, ten years after it was finished, a sanitary official counted 146 cases of sickness in the court, including “all kinds of infectious disease,” from small-pox down, and reported that of 138 children born in it in less than three years 61 had died, mostly before they were one year old. Seven years later the inspector of the district reported to the Board of Health that “nearly ten per cent. of the population is sent to the public hospitals each year.” When the alley was finally taken in hand by the authorities, and, as a first step toward its reclamation, the entire population was driven out by the police, experience dictated, as one of the first improvements to be made, the putting in of a kind of sewer-grating, so constructed, as the official report patiently puts it, “as to prevent the ingress of persons disposed to make a hiding-place” of the sewer and the cellars into which they opened. The fact was that the big vaulted sewers had long been a runway for thieves—the Swamp Angels—who through them easily escaped when chased by the police, as well as a storehouse for their plunder. The sewers are there to-day; in fact the two alleys are nothing but the roofs of these enormous tunnels in which a man may walk upright the full distance of the block and into the Cherry Street sewer—if he likes the fun and is not afraid of rats.

Could their grimy walls speak, the big canals might tell many a startling tale. But they are silent enough, and so are most of those whose secrets they might betray. The flood-gates connecting with the Cherry Street main are closed now, except when the water is drained off. Then there were no gates, and it is on record that the sewers were chosen as a short cut habitually by residents of the court whose business lay on the line of them, near a manhole, perhaps, in Cherry Street, or at the river mouth of the big pipe when it was clear at low tide. “Me Jimmy,” said one wrinkled old dame, who looked in while we were nosing about under Double Alley, “he used to go to his work along down Cherry Street that way every morning and come back at night.” The associations must have been congenial. Probably “Jimmy” himself fitted into the landscape.


  Half-way back from the street in this latter alley is a tenement, facing the main building, on the west side of the way, that was not originally part of the court proper. It stands there a curious monument to a Quaker’s revenge, a living illustration of the power of hate to perpetuate its bitter fruit beyond the grave. The lot upon which it is built was the property of John Wood, brother of Silas, the builder of Gotham Court. He sold the Cherry Street front to a man who built upon it a tenement with entrance only from the street. Mr. Wood afterward quarrelled about the partition line with his neighbor, Alderman Mullins, who had put up a long tenement barrack on his lot after the style of the Court, and the Alderman knocked him down. Tradition records that the Quaker picked himself up with the quiet remark, “I will pay thee for that, friend Alderman,” and went his way. His manner of paying was to put up the big building in the rear of 34 Cherry Street with an immense blank wall right in front of the windows of Alderman Mullins’s tenements, shutting out effectually light and air from them. But as he had no access to the street from his building for many years it could not be let or used for anything, and remained vacant until it passed under the management of the Gotham Court property.

Mullins’s Court is there yet, and so is the Quaker’s vengeful wall that has cursed the lives of thousands of innocent people since. At its farther end the alley between the two that begins inside the Cherry Street tenement, six or seven feet wide, narrows down to less than two feet. It is barely possible to squeeze through; but few care to do it, for the rift leads to the jail of the Oak Street police station, and therefore is not popular with the growing youth of the district.


  There is crape on the door of the Alderman’s court as we pass out, and upstairs in one of the tenements preparations are making for a wake. A man lies dead in the hospital who was cut to pieces in a “can racket” in the alley on Sunday. The sway of the excise law is not extended to these back alleys. It would matter little if it were. There are secret by-ways, and some it is not held worth while to keep secret, along which the “growler” wanders at all hours and all seasons unmolested. It climbed the stairs so long and so often that day that murder resulted. It is nothing unusual on Cherry Street, nothing to “make a fuss” about. Not a week before, two or three blocks up the street, the police felt called upon to interfere in one of these can rackets at two o’clock in the morning, to secure peace for the neighborhood. The interference took the form of a general fusillade, during which one of the disturbers fell off the roof and was killed. There was the usual wake and nothing more was heard of it. What, indeed, was there to say?


  The “Rock of Ages” is the name over the door of a low saloon that blocks the entrance to another alley, if possible more forlorn and dreary than the rest, as we pass out of the Alderman’s court. It sounds like a jeer from the days, happily past, when the “wickedest man in New York” lived around the corner a little way and boasted of his title.



One cannot take many steps in Cherry Street without encountering some relic of past or present prominence in the ways of crime, scarce one that does not turn up specimen bricks of the coming thief. The Cherry Street tough is all-pervading. Ask Suprintendent Murray, who, as captain of the Oak Street squad, in seven months secured convictions for theft, robbery, and murder aggregating no less than five hundred and thirty years of penal servitude, and he will tell you his opinion that the Fourth Ward, even in the last twenty years, has turned out more criminals than all the rest of the city together.


  But though the “Swamp Angels” have gone to their reward, their successors carry on business at the old stand as successfully, if not as boldly. There goes one who was once a shining light in thiefdom. He has reformed since, they say. The policeman on the corner, who is addicted to a professional unbelief in reform of any kind, will tell you that while on the Island once he sailed away on a shutter, paddling along until he was picked up in Hell Gate by a schooner’s crew, whom he persuaded that he was a fanatic performing some sort of religious penance by his singular expedition. Over yonder, Tweed, the arch-thief, worked in a brush-shop and earned an honest living before he took to politics. As we stroll from one narrow street to another the odd contrast between the low, old-looking houses in front and the towering tenements in the back yards grows even more striking, perhaps because we expect and are looking for it. Nobody who was not would suspect the presence of the rear houses, though they have been there long enough. Here is one seven stories high behind one with only three floors. Take a look into this Roosevelt Street alley; just about one step wide, with a five-story house on one side that gets its light and air—God help us for pitiful mockery!—from this slit between brick walls. There are no windows in the wall on the other side; it is perfectly blank. The fire-escapes of the long tenement fairly touch it; but the rays of the sun, rising, setting, or at high noon, never do.

It never shone into the alley from the day the devil planned and man built it. There was once an English doctor who experimented with the sunlight in the soldiers’ barracks, and found that on the side that was shut off altogether from the sun the mortality was one hundred per cent. greater than on the light side, where its rays had free access. But then soldiers are of some account, have a fixed value, if not a very high one. The people who live here have not. The horse that pulls the dirt-cart one of these laborers loads and unloads is of ever so much more account to the employer of his labor than he and all that belongs to him. Ask the owner; he will not attempt to deny it, if the horse is worth anything. The man too knows it. It is the one thought that occasionally troubles the owner of the horse in the enjoyment of his prosperity, built of and upon the successful assertion of the truth that all men are created equal.


   With what a shock did the story of yonder Madison Street alley come home to New Yorkers one morning, eight or ten years ago, when a fire that broke out after the men had gone to their work swept up those narrow stairs and burned up women and children to the number of a full half score. There were fire-escapes, yes! but so placed that they could not be reached. The firemen had to look twice before they could find the opening that passes for a thoroughfare; a stout man would never venture in. Some wonderfully heroic rescues were made at that fire by people living in the adjoining tenements. Danger and trouble— of the imminent kind, not the everyday sort that excites neither interest nor commiseration— run even this common clay into heroic moulds on occasion; occasions that help us to remember that the gap that separates the man with the patched coat from his wealthy neighbor is, after all, perhaps but a tenement. Yet, what a gap! and of whose making? Here, as we stroll along Madison Street, workmen are busy putting the finishing touches to the brown-stone front of a tall new tenement. This one will probably be called an apartment house.

They are carving satyrs’ heads in the stone, with a crowd of gaping youngsters looking on in admiring wonder. Next door are two other tenements, likewise with brown-stone fronts, fair to look at. The youngest of the children in the group is not too young to remember how their army of tenants was turned out by the health officers because the houses had been condemned as unfit for human beings to live in. The owner was a wealthy builder who “stood high in the community.” Is it only in our fancy that the sardonic leer on the stone faces seems to list that way? Or is it an introspective grin? We will not ask if the new house belongs to the same builder. He too may have reformed.


   We have crossed the boundary of the Seventh Ward. Penitentiary Row, suggestive name for a block of Cherry Street tenements, is behind us. Within recent days it has become peopled wholly with Hebrews, the overflow from Jewtown adjoining, pedlars and tailors, all of them. It is odd to read this legend from other days over the door: “No pedlars allowed in this house.” These thrifty people are not only crowding into the tenements of this once exclusive district— they are buying them. The Jew runs to real estate as soon as he can save up enough for a deposit to clinch the bargain. As fast as the old houses are torn down, towering structures go up in their place, and Hebrews are found to be the builders. Here is a whole alley nicknamed after the intruder, Jews’ Alley. But abuse and ridicule are not weapons to fight the Israelite with. He pockets them quietly with the rent and bides his time. He knows from experience, both sweet and bitter, that all things come to those who wait, including the houses and lands of their Persecutors.


   Here comes a pleasure party, as gay as any on the avenue, though the carry-all is an ash-cart. The father is the driver and he has taken his brown-legged boy for a ride. How proud and happy they both look up there on their perch! The queer old building they have halted in front of is “The Ship,” famous for fifty years as a ramshackle tenement filled with the oddest crowd.

No one knows why it is called “The Ship,” though there is a tradition that once the river came clear up here to Hamilton Street, and boats were moored along-side it. More likely it is because it is as bewildering inside as a crazy old ship, with its ups and downs of ladders parading as stairs, and its unexpected pitfalls. But Hamilton Street, like Water Street, is not what it was. The missions drove from the latter the worst of its dives. A sailors’ mission has lately made its appearance in Hamilton Street, but there are no dives there, nothing worse than the ubiquitous saloon and tough tenements.


  Enough of them everywhere. Suppose we look into one? No.—Cherry Street. Be a little careful, please! The hall is dark and you might stumble over the children pitching pennies back there. Not that it would hurt them; kicks and cuffs are their daily diet. They have little else. Here where the hall turns and dives into utter darkness is a step, and another, another. A flight of stairs. You can feed your way, if you cannot see it. Close? Yes! What would you have? All the fresh air that ever enters these stairs comes from the hall-door that is forever slamming, and from the windows of dark bedrooms that in turn receive from the stairs their sole supply of the elements God meant to be free, but man deals out with such niggardly hand. That was a woman filling her pail by the hydrant you just bumped against. The sinks are in the hallway, that all the tenants may have access—and all be poisoned alike by their summer stenches. Hear the pump squeak! It is the lullaby of tenement-house babes. In summer, when a thousand thirsty throats pant for a cooling drink in this block, it is worked in vain. But the saloon, whose open door you passed in the hall, is always there. The smell of it has followed you up. Here is a door. Listen! That short hacking cough, that tiny, helpless wail—what do they mean? They mean that the soiled bow of white you saw on the door downstairs will have another story to tell—Oh! a sadly familiar story—before the day is at an end. The child is dying with measles. With half a chance it might have lived; but it had none. That dark bedroom killed it.


  “It was took all of a suddint,” says the mother, smoothing the throbbing little body with trembling hands. There is no unkindness in the rough voice of the man in the jumper, who sits by the window grimly smoking a clay pipe, with the little life ebbing out in his sight, bitter as his words sound: “Hush, Mary! If we cannot keep the baby, need we complain—such as we?”


  Such as we! What if the words ring in your ears as we grope our way up the stairs and down from floor to floor, listening to the sounds behind the closed doors—some of quarrelling, some of coarse songs, more of profanity. They are true. When the summer heats come with their suffering they have meaning more terrible than words can tell. Come over here. Step carefully over this baby—it is a baby, spite of its rags and dirt—under these iron bridges called fire-escapes, but loaded down, despite the incessant watchfulness of the firemen, with broken house-hold goods, with wash-tubs and barrels, over which no man could climb from a fire. This gap between dingy brick-walls is the yard. That strip of smoke-colored sky up there is the heaven of these people. Do you wonder the name does not attract them to the churches? That baby’s parents live in the rear tenement here. She is at least as clean as the steps we are now climbing. There are plenty of houses with half a hundred such in. The tenement is much like the one in front we just left, only fouler, closer, darker—we will not say more cheerless. The word is a mockery. A hundred thousand people lived in rear tenements in New York last year. Here is a room neater than the rest. The woman, a stout matron with hard lines of care in her face, is at the wash-tub. “I try to keep the childer clean,” she says, apologetically, but with a hopeless glance around. The spice of hot soap-suds is added to the air already tainted with the smell of boiling cabbage, of rags and uncleanliness all about. It makes an overpowering compound. It is Thursday, but patched linen is hung upon the pulley-line from the window. There is no Monday cleaning in the tenements. It is wash-day all the week round, for a change of clothing is scarce among the poor.

They are poverty’s honest badge, these perennial lines of rags hung out to dry, those that are not the washerwoman’s professional shingle. The true line to be drawn between pauperism and honest poverty is the clothes-line. With it begins the effort to be clean that is the first and the best evidence of a desire to be honest.


  What sort of an answer, think you, would come from these tenements to the question “Is life worth living?” were they heard at all in the discussion? It may be that this, cut from the last report but one of the Association for the Improvement of the Condition of the Poor, a long name for a weary task, has a suggestion of it: “In the depth of winter the attention of the Association was called to a Protestant family living in a garret in a miserable tenement in Cherry Street. The family’s condition was most deplorable. The man, his wife, and three small children shivering in one room through the roof of which the pitiless winds of winter whistled. The room was almost barren of furniture; the parents slept on the floor, the elder children in boxes, and the baby was swung in an old shawl attached to the rafters by cords by way of a hammock. The father, a seaman, had been obliged to give up that calling because he was in consumption, and was unable to provide either bread or fire for his little ones.”


  Perhaps this may be put down as an exceptional case, but one that came to my notice some months ago in a Seventh Ward tenement was typical enough to escape that reproach. There were nine in the family: husband, wife, an aged grandmother, and six children; honest, hard-working Germans, scrupulously neat, but poor. All nine lived in two rooms, one about ten feet square that served as parlor, bedroom, and eating-room, the other a small hall-room made into a kitchen. The rent was seven dollars and a half a month, more than a week’s wages for the husband and father, who was the only bread-winner in the family.

That day the mother had thrown herself out of the window, and was carried up from the street dead. She was “discouraged,” said some of the other women from the tenement, who had come in to look after the children while a messenger carried the news to the father at the shop. They went stolidly about their task, although they were evidently not without feeling for the dead woman. No doubt she was wrong in not taking life philosophically, as did the four families a city missionary found housekeeping in the four corners of one room. They got along well enough together until one of the families took a boarder and made trouble. Philosophy, according to my optimistic friend, naturally inhabits the tenements. The people who live there come to look upon death in a different way from the rest of us—do not take it as hard. He has never found time to explain how the fact fits into his general theory that life is not unbearable in the tenements. Unhappily for the philosophy of the slums, it is too apt to be of the kind that readily recognizes the saloon, always handy, as the refuge from every trouble, and shapes its practice according to the discovery.





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134: Steve Nelson and Jack Rollins: "Here Comes Peter Cottontail"

Sun, Apr 09, 2017

This week on StoryWeb: Steve Nelson and Jack Rollins’s song “Here Comes Peter Cottontail.”

Every year as Easter approaches, I think of the perennial holiday classic, the beloved song “Here Comes Peter Cottontail.” Written in 1949 by Steve Nelson and Jack Rollins (who also wrote “Frosty, the Snowman”), the song was recorded by Gene Autry in 1950. It became an instant hit, reaching #5 on the Billboard charts.

It’s a much-beloved song for my mother and me, too, for I made my singing debut in first grade performing “Here Comes Peter Cottontail.”

My school – Boggstown Elementary School in rural Indiana – announced a talent competition. When I got wind of it, I hurried home to tell my mother the news. Could we get an act together? We hatched the idea of a girls’ trio. I and two of my friends would sing a song, and my mother, an accomplished pianist, would accompany us.

I asked my friends – they were in! But what song would we sing? The talent show would be the week before Easter, and Mom struck on the idea of “Here Comes Peter Cottontail.” Wouldn’t it be adorable to see three first-grade girls singing the famous Easter song? She got the sheet music at a local music store, my friends came over to practice, and we were set. I couldn’t wait for my debut!

On the night of the show, we got to the school gymnasium early. It doubled as a performance space, complete with a stage and a piano. My parents and I went to the elementary school version of the green room. Mom put a little makeup on me and my friends – just so we wouldn’t look “washed out” on stage. How thrilling – makeup! And I was wearing my brand-new flowered Easter dress, with a satiny ribbon tie at the waist. I felt glamorous indeed.

All of the other performers – many of them big sixth-graders – were backstage as well. Parents and teachers hovered around, getting everyone ready. My friends and I were the only first-graders who would be in the show. I was nervous and excited! We were going to sing for everyone at the school! Maybe we would win! I couldn’t help sharing my enthusiasm with my parents. Both of them were smiling and encouraging, but both said, “Now, Lin, there are lots of children performing. Don’t be disappointed if you don’t win.” Not win? How could they even think that? It didn’t occur to me that the odds were stacked against us – the older kids would undoubtedly have more talent, but as a six-year-old, I didn’t realize that.

It seemed like our names would never be called – we were last on the program. But finally, the announcer called our names. My friends and I went out on stage in our Easter dresses, and my mom took her seat at the piano. “Here comes Peter Cottontail,” we sang joyfully, “hoppin’ down the bunny trail.”

The performance went beautifully – all three of us remembered the words and sang right in tune together. At the end, we curtsied just as my mother had taught us.

Then we joined the audience, and it was time to hear the results. To my parents’ amazement and to my delight, we won first place! The cuteness factor – three little girls in new Easter dresses singing together just before the big holiday – probably won us that trophy even more than our singing talent. But we didn’t care. We’d sung “Here Comes Peter Cottontail,” and we’d won!

Now more than fifty years later, it’s time to get ready again for Easter. Visit thestoryweb.com/cottontail to hear Gene Autry sing “Here Comes Peter Cottontail.”

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133: Martin Sexton: "Happy"

Mon, Apr 03, 2017

This week on StoryWeb: Martin Sexton’s song “Happy.”

For Jim, celebrating twenty-four years of new life

Several years ago, my friend Virginia called to invite me to a concert. Martin Sexton, one of her favorite singer-songwriters, was playing that night at the Boulder Theater, and Virginia had an extra ticket. Would I like to go?

I asked Jim what he thought. I had vaguely heard of Martin Sexton, had seen his name, in fact, on the Boulder Theater marquee many times. But that’s all I knew. Jim said, “Oh, he puts on a great show. You’ll love him. You should go.”

So I joined Virginia that night, and am I glad I did! Martin Sexton came out on stage – a solo guitarist and singer – and launched into a song I immediately thought of as the “happy song.” I loved it! Such joy! Such a life-affirming song!

I sat spellbound through the rest of the two-hour concert. How had I not known about this talented songwriter and even more deeply gifted performer? His pyrotechnic singing (complete with an amazing and effortless falsetto) and his virtuoso guitar playing and phenomenal beat boxing were out of this world. I could not believe what I was seeing and hearing. Indeed, I thought that if I had merely heard a recording of Martin Sexton, I wouldn’t have believed one person alone could create such joyful music. But there I was seeing with my own eyes that he was the only one singing, playing guitar, and creating his own percussion section through beat boxing.

As soon as I got home that night, I found a great video clip of Martin Sexton performing the song “Happy” at a Colorado music festival. For days afterward, I sang the song around the house -- for I know of that joy and happiness with a mate that the song captures. The song rang – and still rings – so true to me.

“Happy” is a celebratory slice of life, as the singer revels in a moment of unbridled happiness with his mate. It’s a Sunday morning, and they’re enjoying coffee, breakfast, conversation, a dream of true love realized. “Hot damn, I’m a happy man!” Martin Sexton sings with gusto. I love it!

If you haven’t experienced his music already, you owe it to yourself to check it out. Start with the video clip featured on this week’s blog post, and if you like what you hear, consider buying one of his many albums. Live Wide Open is a great place to start. It features many of his own original compositions and one of his inimitable covers: “Amazing Grace.” Other recordings include Black Sheep, Solo, Falls Like Rain, and his most recent album, Mixtape of the Open Road.

The albums are great – but the absolutely best way to experience Martin Sexton is to see him live in concert. You can check out his tour schedule on his website – and when you see a concert near you, run (don’t walk) to get a ticket.

Hailing from Syracuse, New York, as the tenth of twelve children, Martin Sexton got his start as a street musician – a busker – in Harvard Square, where he sold 15,000 copies of his first self-produced album out of his guitar case. Slowly the word got out about this phenomenal musician – and now he tours nearly constantly, sharing his beautiful gift of song.

Learn more about Martin Sexton and his work at the NPR page featuring his work, including clips from his many performances on West Virginia’s Mountain Stage. You’ll be glad you did.

Visit thestoryweb.com/sexton for links to all these resources and to watch Martin Sexton perform “Happy” at a Colorado music festival.


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132: Kent Haruf: "Plainsong"

Sun, Mar 26, 2017

This week on StoryWeb: Kent Haruf’s novel Plainsong.

One of the pure delights in moving to Colorado eleven years ago was discovering a whole new crop of regional writers – in this case, Western writers. If you’ve followed StoryWeb for a while, you know I love American regional literature – especially Southern and Appalachian literature (but throw in a little Sarah Orne Jewett for the Maine coast, why don’t ya?).

I quickly discovered that the West is richly endowed with powerful, powerful writers. Willa Cather helped set the scene, and well-known later writers like Annie Proulx, Pam Houston, Kim Barnes, and Wallace Stegner followed in her footsteps. Up-and-coming writers like Julene Bair delve into issues of great concern to the region.

Among my favorite Western writers is Kent Haruf, whose novels are set on the flat plains of eastern Colorado. This is not a part of the country that gets much attention, and when people hear “Colorado,” they’re thinking Rocky Mountains, not hard-scrabble farming and small-town life on the high arid Plains.

Haruf – who was born in Pueblo, Colorado, and grew up in small towns in eastern Colorado – understood that this seemingly quiet region could be a deep mine of richly lived life. Where better to examine human character, to see what really makes people tick?

Published in 1999, Plainsong is the first novel in Haruf’s Plainsong trilogy set in the fictional community of Holt, Colorado, based on the town of Yuma, where Haruf spent part of his childhood. The novel is quiet indeed. Though the plot lines are unlikely, the characters always ring true. A newly single father struggles to raise his two young sons. Elderly unmarried brothers take in a pregnant teenager. Who knew life in a tiny Colorado town could be so complex and nuanced, so rich and provocative? Haruf knew – and he lets us in on the secrets of small-town life on the Plains.

I have long enjoyed walking in the twilight of the evening just as people are preparing their suppers and turning on their lights. Call me a voyeur if you must, but I love getting glimpses into private homes, seeing how people settle in and comfort themselves after a long day. It is this view of the world – spying (almost) on private lives – that draws me to Kent Haruf’s work. I purely love the way Plainsong opened up a new world to me, a world that, as it turns out, had been there all along.

To learn more about Haruf and Plainsong, read the New York Times’s fine review of the novel as well as the Times’s obituary of the acclaimed writer. Read the final interview with Haruf before his death from lung cancer in 2014. Watch a video tribute to Plainsong, and enjoy a pictorial exploration of Haruf’s fictional Holt County.

Ready to read the book itself? You can start by reading the opening of the book online. Of course, you’ll want a hard copy of Plainsong as this is a book you’ll want to curl up with in an armchair, a good cup of tea at hand.

Visit thestoryweb.com/haruf for links to all these resources and to watch Kent Haruf talk about his novel Plainsong.

The next time you drive through Kansas or Nebraska or eastern Colorado and think you’re passing through empty country, read Plainsong and be reminded of the rich lives people live everywhere.

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131: Hod Pharis: "I Heard the Bluebirds Sing"

Mon, Mar 20, 2017

This week on StoryWeb: Hod Pharis’s song “I Heard the Bluebirds Sing.”

In honor of the first day of spring

I first encountered Canadian songwriter Hod Pharis’s song “I Heard the Bluebirds Sing” on Pathway to West Virginia, the first album recorded by Ginny Hawker and Kay Justice.

It was 1989, and my good friend Rolf had just returned from a road trip that had taken him through West Virginia. Rolf was the quintessential lover of old-time and early country music. He and his sister had been at a rest stop, and he asked about the music being played.

The clerk said, “Oh, yes! Great album! Ginny Hawker and Kay Justice.” Rolf bought a cassette tape and brought it back to our group of grad school friends in Madison, Wisconsin.

We were all entirely captivated and mesmerized by these two singers – such beautiful voices, exquisite but often unusual harmonies, Ginny’s Primitive Baptist cadence blending with Kay’s alto.

“I Heard the Bluebirds Sing” quickly became our favorite cut from the album. Oh, how we loved the story of the young man who meets a girl in the hills. She sweetly steals his heart, and they plan to be married in the spring, which seems like it will never come. But eventually spring arrives, and their wedding is “just like a dream come true.” Such a lovely tale, such a sweet and joyous song. What was not to love?

We were so inspired by the song, in fact, that we figured out how to play and sing it. I played my violin – which I was learning to play more like a fiddle and less like the classical violin I’d grown up playing in school. Bill played guitar. Deb, Rolf, and Wendy joined in on the singing, and we memorized the intricate lyrics. We finally had it all together and “performed” it on my screened-in, second-floor porch one summer day. When we finished, we were surprised to hear applause erupt from outside – my neighbors had enjoyed hearing our rendition.

Within a couple of years, I had taken a job as an English professor in West Virginia and had met Ginny and Kay, both of whom I count among my beloved Appalachian friends. I love hearing them sing at festivals and in late-night jam sessions afterward.

And of course, I love listening to their many recordings. Together, they’ve recorded Come All You Tenderhearted and Bristol: A Tribute to the Carter Family. Ginny appears with Hazel Dickens and Carol Elizabeth Jones on Heart of a Singer. She also recorded The Family Reunion: Three Generations of Southern Singing with her father, Ben Hawker, and her daughter, Heidi Christopher. Ginny has also recorded solo albums, Letters from My Father and After It’s Gone, frequently backed by her husband, fiddler Tracy Schwarz. Ginny and Tracy together have released two albums, Good Songs for Hard Times and Draw Closer. Next week, Kay will release Tear Down the Fences, recorded with bluegrass pioneer Alice Gerrard. The first cut is – wait for it! – “I Heard the Bluebirds Sing.”

Though this will always be Ginny and Kay’s song to me, the composer is actually Alberta’s Hod Pharis, and the song – written in 1952 – has been recorded by numerous acts. Though Pharis recorded a couple of versions of the song in the 1950s, it did not become a hit until it was recorded in 1957 by The Browns (a trio comprised of Jim Ed Brown and his sisters, Maxine and Bonnie). The Browns took the song to number four on the U.S. Billboard country charts. After the song hit it big, many other acts recorded it, making it one of the most recorded songs written by a Canadian. Given its great success, “I Heard the Bluebirds Sing” was inducted into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2015.

Visit thestoryweb.com/pharis for links to all these resources and to get a taste of Ginny and Kay’s beautiful singing on a recording of “On the Rock Where Moses Stood.” You can also watch the Browns sing their chart-topping hit, “I Heard the Bluebirds Sing.” If you’ve been waiting for winter to end, you’ll enjoy this song about the joyous arrival of spring.

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130: Colin Higgins and Hal Ashby: "Harold and Maude"

Sun, Mar 12, 2017

This week on StoryWeb: Colin Higgins and Hal Ashby’s film, Harold and Maude.

The 1971 film Harold and Maude is a cult classic, a romantic dark comedy preserved in the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry and ranked number 45 on the American Film Institute’s list of 100 Funniest Movies of All Time. Written by Colin Higgins and directed by Hal Ashby, it deserves every bit of the love its enamored fans have showered on it over the years.

It’s an unlikely love story if ever there was one. Nineteen-year-old Harold meets his future paramour, seventy-nine-year-old Maude, at a funeral. You might expect me to say, “And not just any funeral.” But to both Harold and Maude, it is “any” funeral – for their shared joy, it turns out, is to attend funerals. Harold drives a Jaguar he’s converted into a hearse, and Maude quite literally zips around town in any car she can find. The pair hit it off, and before long, they’ve become lovers.

Now if you’ve never seen Harold and Maude, you’re thinking, “What a bizarre-sounding film,” or “Why is Linda recommending something so outlandish?” In fact, you’re probably thinking both!

But if you’ve seen Harold and Maude, you’re likely to have drunk the Kool-Aid, too. You’ve probably seen it more than once. You likely have fond memories of the whimsical passion Harold and Maude have for one another. And like me, you’re probably humming Cat Stevens’s song “If You Want to Sing Out, Sing Out” right now! Written and recorded for the film, the song perfectly sums up Harold and Maude’s quirky but loving relationship.

In short, I love Harold and Maude, and if you’ve seen it, I bet you do, too. Despite the fact that Harold and Maude love to go to funerals and despite the fact that Harold stages elaborate mock-suicides in his attempt to get his mother to notice him, the film is ultimately life-affirming. Though Maude is sixty years older than Harold, she teaches him about love and life – she is such a gift to this young man. And love, we are reminded, is a true gift in our lives, no matter when or where or how we find it.

The best way to see this iconic film is to purchase The Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray edition, complete with high-definition digital restoration, a remastered stereo soundtrack, audio commentary by Hal Ashby, Nick Dawson, and Charles B. Mulvehill, audio excerpts of seminars by Hal Ashby and screenwriter Colin Higgins, an interview with songwriter Yusuf Islam (formerly Cat Stevens), and a booklet featuring an essay by critic Michael Wood.

For more on this outstanding film, read Mental Floss’s list of ten fun facts about Harold and Maude. The Criterion Collection offers its own list of ten facts about the film as well as a number of other resources. James A. Davidson’s book Hal Ashby and the Making of Harold and Maude provides a behind-the-scenes peak into the filmmaking process. And if you just can’t get enough, check out screenwriter Colin Higgins’s novelization of the film’s script. It will give you even more insight into the couple’s story.

If you find you’ve fallen in love with the film, too, and want to fly your own freak flag, consider sporting a Harold and Maude T-shirt or using a Harold and Maude mouse pad! As Cat Stevens sings in the song and as Harold discovers when he meets Maude, there’s a million things to be, you know that there are!

Visit thestoryweb.com/haroldmaude for links to all these resources and to watch the original trailer for Harold and Maude. Then watch a video interview with Yusuf Islam about writing the music for the film.

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129: Helen Matthews Lewis: "Living Social Justice in Appalachia"

Mon, Mar 06, 2017

This week on StoryWeb: Helen Matthews Lewis’s book Living Social Justice in Appalachia.

In honor of International Women’s Day, coming up this Wednesday, I want to pay tribute to one of the great teachers of my life, Helen Matthews Lewis. Known fondly as the mother or grandmother of Appalachian studies by the many people whose personal and professional lives she has touched, Helen – as always – modestly denies this title, saying instead that other leaders gave birth to and shaped the interdisciplinary movement. But as her colleague Stephen L. Fisher points out, “there is little question that her program at Clinch Valley College [in Virginia] served as the major catalyst for the current Appalachian studies movement and that no one has done more over the years to shape its direction than Helen.”

For me, as for so many others, Helen set the standard for engaged scholarship, activist teaching, and pure regional enjoyment – whether that region is Appalachia or Wales or southern Africa. Helen weaves it all together: she revels in learning, delights in talking with and listening to everyone she meets, energetically taps her foot at bluegrass and sings gospel songs with unbridled glee.

It’s perfect, then, that her 2012 book, Living Social Justice in Appalachia, is a quilt of her writings (essays, articles, and poems), her reflections given through numerous interviews, pieces others wrote about her influence on them, photographs of Helen at key times in her life, and even her famous recipes (including instructions for making chowchow, one of my grandmother’s favorite foods). Longtime friends and colleagues Patricia D. Beaver and Judith Jennings edited the volume, working with Helen to bring to life the many facets of her career and her personal journey. How do you separate the lived self from the professional self? In Helen’s mind, you don’t – and Living Social Justice in Appalachia in its form and in its very title makes clear that the personal, professional, and political are tightly fused.

I’ve spoken before on StoryWeb of the special and powerful way I met Helen – in a series of visits to the Highlander Research and Education Center, founded by Myles Horton and located in New Market, Tennessee. In Appalachian studies circles, it is not at all uncommon to hear of the way Helen has touched someone’s life.

In my case, she actively encouraged me to embrace participatory, liberatory teaching and offered a much-needed critical and supportive eye to my memoir, Power in the Blood, when it was just starting to form in my mind. I thought I was writing a novel. Helen gently disagreed, telling me she thought I was writing “cultural and family history told in a narrative form.” We had that conversation one afternoon at her home in Highlander. Her comment crystallized the entire project for me and remains one of the most important discussions of my life.

The time I spent with Helen at Highlander was always special, whether we were tending to her garden, watching videotapes of Bill Moyers interviewing Myles Horton on the back porch of what was now Helen’s home, or chatting with friend after friend and colleague after colleague who stopped by to say hello. Helen can whip up a mean cocktail, and she was always at the ready to welcome her frequent visitors.

One of my favorite stories about Helen involves a leadership award she won in the 1990s. The organization giving her the award commissioned an artist to create a small sculpture in Helen’s honor. Rather than giving her a standard trophy, the organization wanted to capture the spirit of Helen’s example. The sculpture depicted a figure leading a line of figures behind her. Looking back over her shoulder at those following her, the figure’s face is a mirror: she understands that real leadership is about reflecting back to each “follower” her own image, her own potential. This small sculpture – which Helen displayed proudly in her home at Highlander – perfectly summed up Helen’s way of leading.

Helen has lived a lot of life in her ninety-plus years. She was born in rural Georgia and raised in Cumming (notorious for its extremely racist views and brutal treatment of African Americans), attended the Georgia State College for Women (along with her classmate and fellow yearbook editor, Mary Flannery O’Connor, who drew the illustrations to accompany Helen’s text), and became radicalized through the church and through state political activities.

Attending graduate school at Duke University, she met her future husband, Judd Lewis, and then moved with him to Virginia. After a teaching stint at East Tennessee State University and a PhD in sociology from the University of Kentucky, Helen was divorced from Judd.

From there, she traveled the world, exploring the connection between working people and participatory education in Appalachia, Wales, Nicaragua, Cuba, Holland, Belgium, France, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, and South Africa.

She’s been let go from more than one teaching position, no doubt due to the empowering, engaged pedagogy she practiced.

She’s directed Highlander and the Appalachian Center at Berea College. She’s worked at AppalShop in Whitesburg, Kentucky, and co-led community-based, participatory research in Ivanhoe, Virginia.

She’s received a commendation from the Kentucky state legislature and been the recipient of honorary degrees. She’s had awards, study experiences, and lecture series named in her honor.

And along the way, more than anything else, she has lifted up those she has met, provided that empowering mirror so that everyone in her field of vision sees all the potential they have inside.

If you know Helen or her work, reading Living Social Justice in Appalachia will be a real treat. It brings our colleague and friend to life in such vivid ways. If you don’t know Helen or her work, reading Living Social Justice in Appalachia will give you the chance to “meet” one of the great thinkers, teachers, and leaders of our time. The book is a fantastic read from beginning to end, whether you’re jotting down her notes for growing a great garden or mixing up an old fashioned from her recipe (which specifies that you should make just one glass at a time!), whether you’re learning about how she developed anti-racist consciousness or reading first-hand accounts of those whose lives she’s touched.

In the end, Helen understands that it all comes back to story. She believes strongly in telling the story of Appalachia, her region, and she believes in hearing and celebrating the stories of other folks in other regions. With StoryWeb, I celebrate stories of all kinds – and I owe a huge debt of gratitude to Helen Matthews Lewis for helping me see the value of stories.

“Why am I here?” she asks near the end of the book.

What is my story? Which story do I tell? Everybody and every community, place, and region needs stories, narratives, tales, and theories to serve as moral and intellectual frameworks. Without a “story,” we don’t know what things mean…. We are swamped by the volume of our own experience, adrift in a sea of facts. A story gives us a direction, a kind of theory of how the world works and how it needs to work if we are to survive. . . . We need to take back our stories.

Visit thestoryweb.com/lewis to view “Keep Your Eye Upon the Scale,” a short documentary film about Helen’s exploration of the connections between coal miners in Appalachia and those in Wales. A recent interview with Helen is woven throughout the film, and you’ll also see her collaborators on the project, John Gaventa (an American political sociologist) and Richard Greatex (a British filmmaker). Those who follow old-time and bluegrass music will be especially interested to see the appearance of the Strange Creek Singers: Hazel Dickens, Alice Gerrard, Mike Seeger, and Tracy Schwarz. They came from Appalachia to Wales to share American coal mining music with the Welsh miners.

Helen Matthews Lewis’s Living Social Justice in Appalachia is one good story. I highly recommend it.


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128: James Baldwin and Raoul Peck: "I Am Not Your Negro"

Mon, Feb 27, 2017

This week on StoryWeb: James Baldwin and Raoul Peck’s film, I Am Not Your Negro.

I want to close out African American History Month with a look at a new documentary directed by Raoul Peck. I Am Not Your Negro features a range of James Baldwin’s writings as well as rare television appearances and footage of Baldwin speaking at a variety of events.

Indeed, Baldwin’s writing and speaking are so central to this film that he is listed as the primary screenwriter, with Peck as compiler and editor. The words are powerful indeed – Baldwin at his peak of cultural commentary.

But as hard as it is to believe, the film is so much more even than Baldwin’s powerful writing and compelling speaking. Adding depth, complexity, nuance, and more than one emotional jolt is Peck’s expert direction. He achieves the seemingly impossible: collaborating with Baldwin thirty years after the famed writer’s death.

Here’s the story of I Am Not Your Negro.

In 1979, Baldwin wrote to his agent, Jay Acton, with a thirty-page proposal for a new book. It would offer commentary on the impact – both to Baldwin personally and to the nation collectively – of the successive murders of three of Baldwin’s friends: Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The book would be titled Remember This House.

Unfortunately, Baldwin never wrote that book – but Baldwin’s sister, Gloria, gave the proposal to Peck, who saw a way to shape the film he’d been trying to piece together based on Baldwin’s writing and speaking. Using the proposal as a frame, he located rare footage of Baldwin’s television spots and speaking appearances. Then he drew also from a number of other pieces of Baldwin’s writings, all commenting on the history of black-white relations in the United States.

So Peck had his script – a mash-up comprised solely of Baldwin’s words. Working with editor Alexandra Strauss and archivist Marie-H?l?ne Barb?ris, he then spliced together clips of Baldwin speaking with passages of his writing read by Samuel L. Jackson. Accompanying the verbal commentary are clips of influential films Baldwin mentions, still photos of lynchings, newspaper headlines, mug shots, footage of the police in riot gear in Ferguson, and video of the #BlackLivesMatter movement – and so much more. It is impossible to convey the sheer number of images and the vast amount of footage Peck and his team gathered. It is even harder to articulate the phenomenal cumulative impact they have on the viewer. In Strauss’s words, Peck succeeded in “bring[ing] into today’s context the brilliant thinking of James Baldwin.”

This is a film that definitely merits multiple viewings. It is dense and complex, both in the cultural critique Baldwin offers and the visual commentary Peck and his team add. If you are not able to see the film at your local cinema, it will be available on DVD starting on May 2. In addition, a helpful aid to reflecting on the film post-viewing is the companion book, which includes the film’s script, composed entirely of Baldwin’s interviews, speeches, and writing. The book also features a number of still photos used in the film.

The achievement here is, quite simply, stunning. At the opening of the companion book, Peck says, “I do not know of any other example of a film created strictly from the preexisting texts of one author.” From all that Baldwin left behind, the rich treasure trove of words and provocative ideas, Peck said he “wanted to make, as Baldwin wrote in his notes, ‘a funky dish of chitterlings.’” To cook up this funky dish, Peck “respect[ed] and preserv[ed] scrupulously the spirit, the philosophy, the pugnacity, the insight, the humor, the poetry, and the soul of the long-gone author.”

Baldwin says in the film (in the voice of Samuel L. Jackson) that he set himself to be a “witness” to what was happening to black America, especially in the 1960s. “The story of the negro in America,” he says, “is the story of America. It is not a pretty story.” And he adds a bit later in the film, speaking to white Americans, “You never had to look at me. I had to look at you. I know more about you than you know about me.”

Nominated for an Oscar for best feature-length documentary and made with the full cooperation and support of the Baldwin estate, I Am Not Your Negro is an opportunity – a challenging opportunity – for white Americans to look at African Americans and at themselves closely. I highly recommend it.

Visit thestoryweb.com/Baldwin to watch a featurette about I Am Not Your Negro.

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127: Beyonce: "Lemonade"

Sun, Feb 19, 2017

This week on StoryWeb: Beyonc?’s album Lemonade.

Beyonc? slays.

That’s the only word to describe her achievement on her most recent album, Lemonade.

Now I am not a big fan of hip hop or pop music or what the Grammys call urban contemporary music, but ever since Beyonc?’s performance of “Formation” at last year’s Super Bowl, I have been mightily intrigued by this powerhouse of a performer.

For Beyonc?’s songwriting and performance go well beyond hip-hop or pop music or urban contemporary or R&B. Indeed, it seems that any genre is just too narrow to contain Beyonc?. “I am large,” said Walt Whitman. “I contain multitudes.” The same might very well be said of Beyonc?. She slays precisely because she contains vast multitudes.

“Formation” – especially the video Beyonc? released the day before the Super Bowl – made me sit up and take notice. Indeed, it made an entire nation sit up and take notice. Like many Americans, I pored over the video, read the lyrics online, read analyses of the song and the video, talked with others about what they were hearing and seeing. So many layers of African American history – from Creole culture to New Orleans and Hurricane Katrina, from the Black Power movement to Ferguson and #blacklivesmatter. I continue to watch the video and listen to the song – and I continue to hear and see new cultural references every time I witness this powerful piece.

Two months later, Beyonc? released Lemonade, both as a “conventional” album (which in its release exclusively via the Tidal streaming service can hardly be called “conventional”) – and quite unconventionally, as a “visual album.” Back in the 1970s, we would have called this a “concept album” – but the term “visual album” refers to the fact that the entire album is also presented as a 65-minute film, which premiered on HBO in April 2016 the same day the album was released. It’s safe to say that Beyonc? and her husband, rapper Jay Z (who owns Tidal), likely earned considerable money from this album and film. As she says in “Formation,” “I might just be a black Bill Gates in the making.”

On the surface, Lemonade may tell the story of Jay Z’s infidelity, but to say that makes it sound as though you’re getting the latest issue of Us magazine or some other celebrity gossip rag.

Lemonade is not that. You couldn’t say Beyonc? slays on this album if this were merely a tell-all complaint.

No, Lemonade tells the story of marital infidelity in such a way that Beyonc? – as the narrator of these songs – becomes a stand-in for all women who have been betrayed, particularly all black women who have been denigrated as second-class citizens (or worse). The album’s title is drawn from Jay Z’s grandmother, who is shown in the film at her 90th birthday party: “I was served lemons, but I made lemonade.”

Spin magazine calls Lemonade “a visual tale of grief, resurrection, and black female empowerment” and goes on to say:

On first listen, Beyonc?’s new album Lemonade is all about Jay Z’s cheating. But the 65-minute film accompanying the music makes the personal political by visually empowering black women, celebrating Deep Southern culture, and referencing the Black Lives Matter movement, Malcolm X, and Hurricane Katrina. Beyonc? is not just a single woman scorned — she represents a scorned demographic, or as the film directly quotes Malcolm X: “The most neglected person in America is the black woman.”


The visual album features the work of British-Somali poet Warsan Shire; the mothers of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Eric Garner, who hold photos of their dead sons; and appearances and contributions from African American celebrities and artists from Serena Williams to Kendrick Lamar. Jay Z also appears near the end of the film, and Ivy Blue Carter, Beyonc? and Jay Z’s young daughter, makes more than one appearance.


The cinematography and some of the actual scenes in the visual album strongly echo Julie Dash’s revolutionary 1991 film, Daughters of the Dust. According to The Washington Post, Daughters of the Dust is “widely recognized as the cultural antecedent” to Lemonade. NPR interviewed Dash about last year’s rerelease of her film. When asked how she responded to Lemonade, Dash said:

I was, in a word, enthralled. I was stunned. My mouth was hanging open a gap. I was so taken by the music, the visuals, the non-linear story structure. I was – I was in heaven. . . . I was very pleased. I was very pleased.

To learn more about the album and to participate in a lively, ongoing discussion about it, go to Twitter and use LemonadeSyllabus as your hashtag. To read the lyrics to each song and learn the behind-the-scenes back story to the evolution and composition of each song, visit Genius.com. The Atlantic also offers a substantial and insightful analysis of the album.


If you want to get deep into the heart of what Lemonade represents and whether Beyonc? is contributing to the liberation of African American women, you might want to explore the debate started by the nuanced and not always positive view of the album and film offered by African American cultural and feminist critic bell hooks. Her commentary – “Moving Beyond Pain” – sparked considerable discussion. The website Feministing is a good place to explore this lively conversation and to peruse a variety of responses to hooks’s assessment.


Visit thestoryweb.com/beyonce for links to all these resources and to watch the video for “Formation.”


At the end of the day, Beyonc? slays. As she says at the end of the album, you know you’re it “when you cause all this conversation.”


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126: Henry Louis Gates, Jr.: "Colored People"

Mon, Feb 13, 2017

This week on StoryWeb: Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s memoir Colored People.

Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., is well known in the United States as a leading professor of African American Studies, director of Harvard’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research, and host of several PBS series, including Finding Your Roots. Many Americans also know him as the man who was arrested for breaking into his own home and then being invited to have a beer with President Obama.

What is less well known about Gates is that he hails from Piedmont, West Virginia, a small town on the Potomac River, two hours west of Washington, DC. The home of working people, many of them immigrants, Piedmont has a sizable African American population.

How did Gates come out of a small West Virginia town and ultimately land in Cambridge, Massachusetts, as a leading professor at Harvard University? Cambridge is a long way from Piedmont, but Gates traces the journey in his 1994 memoir, Colored People.

The book tells of Gates’s childhood growing up in the 1950s in a close-knit extended family and an equally close-knit small-town community. The book tells stories about Gates’s parents, his lifelong nickname, Skippy, and his brother, Rocky. It depicts the elders in his community, folks who always kept an eye on Skip and Rocky as well as all their cousins and friends. It describes Gates’s family upbringing, his grounding in the Episcopal church (and his time spent at the beloved Peterkin church camp), and his family’s emphasis on education. You’ll see what propelled young, inquisitive Skip to excel academically.

Gates opens the book with a letter to his daughters, Maggie and Liza. In the letter, he explains why he’s writing this memoir – wanting to show them a way of African American life that has largely vanished. “I have written to you,” he says in the letter’s opening sentence, “because a world into which I was born, a world that nurtured and sustained me, has mysteriously disappeared.”

In addition, as he explains in his 1994 C-SPAN Booknotes appearance, he wanted to show what black people thought and said when white people weren’t around. In the book’s first chapter, he refers to his neighborhood as the “Colored Zone” and says: “[I]t felt good in there, like walking around your house in bare feet and underwear, or snoring right out loud on the couch in front of the TV – swaddled by the comforts of home, the warmth of those you love.”

Why the title Colored People? Gates tells his daughters he chose this title because African Americans were referred to as “colored people” in the 1950s. This term is now considered outdated and, by some, offensive. But despite the history of this phrase, Gates confesses that he loves the term:

“[W]hen I hear the word [“colored”], I hear it in my mother’s voice and in the sepia tones of my childhood. As artlessly and honestly as I can, I have tried to evoke a colored world of the fifties, a Negro world of the early sixties, and the advent of a black world of the later sixties, from the point of view of the boy I was.”

Gates continues to be fascinated with family roots and ancestry and hosts the PBS series Finding Your Roots. The show features genealogical research about well-known Americans, including prominent African Americans such as John Lewis, Cory Booker, and Sean Combs and celebrities of other races such as Stephen King, Sandra Cisneros, and Maya Lin. A full list of episodes is available on Wikipedia. All three seasons are available on DVD. A companion book has also been published.

In addition to his work on family ancestry, Gates is an extremely prolific scholar, editor, and public intellectual. His first crucial book was The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African American Literary Criticism, a book that traces African American oral and written cultural traditions back to their origins in west African culture. If you have a scholarly bent at all, you will be entranced by The Signifying Monkey. It completely transformed the field of African American studies.

Gates is the co-editor of the Norton Anthology of African American Literature and editor of the fifty-volume series, The Schomburg Library of Nineteenth-Century Black Women Writers, which brought back into print many lost works by African American women.

Gates has also offered analysis of white American literature, most notably an annotated version of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which offers renewed appreciation of a novel that many believe helped bring about the end of slavery.

If you want just a taste of Gates’s work, you can read short excerpts from a variety of his writing at the National Endowment for the Humanities website. If you want to dig a bit deeper, consider adding The Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Reader to your collection. For a comprehensive overview of Gates’s career and many publications, take a look at the Wikipedia page about him.

And of course, to learn about Gates’s journey from West Virginia to Harvard, you must read the engaging, compelling, lively Colored People. Prepare to go back to that sepia time of the 1950s.

Visit thestoryweb.com/gates for links to all these resources and to watch C-SPAN’s Booknotes interview with Gates about Colored People. Then watch as Gates reads from Colored People.

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125: Solomon Northup: "Twelve Years a Slave"

Sun, Feb 05, 2017

This week on StoryWeb: Solomon Northup’s book Twelve Years a Slave.

Though slave narratives were widely read in the antebellum United States (and in fact were one of the most popular genres at that time), they are mostly read now primarily in American history and literature classes. My mother-in-law, Eileen Rebman, taught a variety of slave narratives for many years in her high school AP American history classes, and I regularly taught Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself as well as Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.

In graduate school, I had the great fortune of taking a course on American autobiography taught by William L. Andrews, author of To Tell a Free Story: The First Century of Afro-American Autobiography, 1760-1865. In his class and in his book, Andrews provided outstanding insights into this genre unique to American letters. Slave narratives – written solely to end the practice of slavery – were not just polemical, says Andrews, but were also human, compelling, gripping. The best slave narratives made the reader sit up and take notice, care about the people whose stories were being told, and recognize their humanity. “Am I not a man and a brother?” asked one well-known abolitionist emblem. The ultimate goal of virtually every slave narrative was to inspire the reader to join the abolitionist cause.

One such slave narrative was Solomon Northup’s 1853 volume, Twelve Years a Slave. Northup, a free black man living in Saratoga Springs, New York, was kidnapped by slave catchers and sold into a particularly brutal slave system in Louisiana. Though Northup was not as wealthy as the 2013 film adaptation suggests, the contrast between his life as a free man and his life as a slave was stark indeed. His book – ghostwritten by David Wilson, a white abolitionist – depicts the horror of being captured and sold into slavery and the utter degradation of slavery as Northup experienced it.

Twelve Years a Slave was hugely popular in its day, selling 30,000 copies in three years. It followed quickly on the heels of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. In fact, Twelve Years a Slave is dedicated to Stowe. Northup was a slave on a plantation near the one owned by Stowe’s fictional Simon Legree. When Stowe followed up with a second volume, The Key to Uncle’s Tom Cabin, she cited Northup’s narrative as proof that slavery was indeed as bad as she had portrayed in her novel.

But in the years after his book was published, Northup disappeared from view, and nothing is known of how his life ended. After the Civil War, his book, like so many slave narratives, fell out of circulation. It was not until 1968 that the book resurfaced, in a scholarly version co-edited by Sue Eakin and Joseph Logsdon. Through their expert sleuthing, Eakin and Logsdon were able to verify the accuracy of Northup’s account. Scholars and teachers of American history and literature, like my mother-in-law, took note of Northup’s slave narrative and incorporated it in their classes.

But it was not until director Steve McQueen stumbled across the book that it would become well known to the general public. McQueen said: “I read this book, and I was totally stunned. At the same time I was pretty upset with myself that I didn't know this book. I live in Amsterdam where Anne Frank is a national hero, and for me this book read like Anne Frank's diary but written 97 years before – a firsthand account of slavery. I basically made it my passion to make this book into a film.”

In the film, Chiwetel Ejiofor, an English actor, plays Solomon Northup, bringing to life this man’s unusual story. Lupita Nyong’o, who hails from Kenya, won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her portrayal of Patsey, a slave on the plantation. Perhaps her most memorable scene is the one in which she risks everything to obtain and smuggle onto the plantation a small piece of soap. When she is caught, she pleads with her owner, saying, “I stink so much I make myself gag!” The punishment that is meted out to her is brutal indeed, brought to the screen powerfully by black British director Steve McQueen and cinematographer Sean Bobbitt.

This is a hard movie to watch, and I don’t recommend it lightly. But if you can stomach the graphic violence (which is always essential to the story, never gratuitous), I think you will find that the film does an outstanding job of portraying the bitter realities of slavery. Indeed, the film was shot on location at four Louisiana plantations, including Magnolia, which is located near the actual plantation where Northup was enslaved.

Aisha Harris’s Slate article “The Tricky Questions Raised by a Complicated Genre: The Slave Narrative” puts Twelve Years a Slave in a rich context. An outstanding article in Vanity Fair, “’What’ll Become of Me?’ Finding the Real Patsey of 12 Years a Slave,” traces author Katie Calautti’s journey to find out what ultimately happened to Patsey, whose story Northup tells with such depth in his book. Many additional resources on the slave narrative and the resulting film can be found at the Reel American History website; see the bottom of the page on “filmic context” for particularly useful links.

The National Endowment for the Humanities’ EDSITEment website offers a detailed series of lesson plans on Twelve Years a Slave and the genre of slave narratives. Even if you’re not a teacher, you’ll find these lesson plans and the related resources very helpful in understanding Northup’s book. Of special note is Andrews’s essay “Solomon Northup’s ‘Twelve Years a Slave’ and the Slave Narrative Tradition.” Andrews writes,

The autobiographies of people of African descent who were subjected to the peculiar injustices of American slavery testify to the best and the worst of which the United States of America as a nation is capable. Reading the great slave narratives of U.S. history, we discover unimaginable depravity in the institution and in many who perpetrated it—but we also find inspiration from the fortitude and faith of those who endured enslavement, overcame it, and wrote about it. The most powerful stories in the slave narrative tradition are invariably the ones that have been proven to be verifiably true. The fact that they reflect our nation’s history in a unique and compelling way makes these narratives essential reading for anyone who wants to know who we as Americans truly are.

He adds, “Although often dismissed as mere antislavery propaganda, the widespread consumption of slave narratives in the nineteenth-century U.S. and Great Britain and their continuing prominence today testify to the power of these texts to provoke reflection and debate.” You can hear more from Andrews by listening to Robert Siegel’s interview with him on All Things Considered, in which Andrews discusses the differences between Northup’s 1853 slave narrative and McQueen’s 2013 film.

If you’re ready to explore Twelve Years a Slave, you can read the entire narrative at the University of North Carolina’s Documenting the American South website, or you can buy Eakin and Logsdon’s excellent edition. And of course, McQueen’s film richly deserved the Best Picture and the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar awards it received.

The legacy of slavery – and the lingering wounds of racism – remain with us today. Perhaps this is a large part of why the film was both commercially successfully and critically acclaimed. It is a story we still don’t understand, still can’t bear to watch with eyes and hearts wide open.

Visit thestoryweb.com/northup for links to all these resources and to watch Lupita Nyong’o as the slave Patsey reveal that she has gone to another plantation to obtain soap to wash herself.

Listen now as I read the second chapter of Solomon Northup’s Twelve Years a Slave, in which he describes being kidnapped by slave catchers.


One morning, towards the latter part of the month of March, 1841, having at that time no particular business to engage my attention, I was walking about the village of Saratoga Springs, thinking to myself where I might obtain some present employment, until the busy season should arrive. Anne, as was her usual custom, had gone over to Sandy Hill, a distance of some twenty miles, to take charge of the Culinary department at Sherrill's Coffee House, during the session of the court. Elizabeth, I think, had accompanied her. Margaret and Alonzo were with their aunt at Saratoga.

On the corner of Congress street and Broadway near the tavern, then, and for aught I know to the contrary, still kept by Mr. Moon, I was met by two gentlemen of respectable appearance, both of whom were entirely unknown to me. I have the impression that they were introduced to me by some one of my acquaintances, but who, I have in vain endeavored to recall, with the remark that I was an expert player on the violin.

At any rate, they immediately entered into conversation on that subject, making numerous inquiries touching my proficiency in that respect. My responses being to all appearances satisfactory, they proposed to engage my services for a short period, stating, at the same time, I was just such a person as their business required. Their names, as they afterwards gave them to me, were Merrill Brown and Abram Hamilton, though whether these were their true appellations, I have strong reasons to doubt. The former was a man apparently forty years of age, somewhat short and thick-set, with a countenance indicating shrewdness and intelligence. He wore a black frock coat and black hat, and said he resided either at Rochester or at Syracuse. The latter was a young man of fair complexion and light eyes, and, I should judge, had not passed the age of twenty-five. He was tall and slender, dressed in a snuff-colored coat, with glossy hat, and vest of elegant pattern. His whole apparel was in the extreme of fashion. His appearance was somewhat effeminate, but prepossessing and there was about him an easy air, that showed he had mingled with the world. They were connected, as they informed me, with a circus company, then in the city of Washington; that they were on their way thither to rejoin it, having left it for a short time to make an excursion northward, for the purpose of seeing the country, and were paying their expenses by an occasional exhibition. They also remarked that they had found much difficulty in procuring music for their entertainments, and that if I would accompany them as far as New-York, they would give me one dollar for each day's services, and three dollars in addition for every night I played at their performances, besides sufficient to pay the expenses of my return from New-York to Saratoga.

I at once accepted the tempting offer, both for the reward it promised, and from a desire to visit the metropolis. They were anxious to leave immediately. Thinking my absence would be brief, I did not deem it necessary to write to Anne whither I had gone; in fact supposing that my return, perhaps, would be as soon as hers. So taking a change of linen and my violin, I was ready to depart. The carriage was brought round—a covered one, drawn by a pair of noble bays, altogether forming an elegant establishment. Their baggage, consisting of three large trunks, was fastened on the rack, and mounting to the driver's seat, while they took their places in the rear, I drove away from Saratoga on the road to Albany, elated with my new position, and happy as I had ever been, on any day in all my life.

We passed through Ballston, and striking the ridge road, as it is called, if my memory correctly serves me, followed it direct to Albany. We reached that city before dark, and stopped at a hotel southward from the Museum. This night I had an opportunity of witnessing one of their performances—the only one, during the whole period I was with them. Hamilton was stationed at the door; I formed the orchestra, while Brown provided the entertainment. It consisted in throwing balls, dancing on the rope, frying pancakes in a hat, causing invisible pigs to squeal, and other like feats of ventriloquism and legerdemain. The audience was extraordinarily sparse, and not of the selectest character at that, and Hamilton's report of the proceeds but a "beggarly account of empty boxes."

Early next morning we renewed our journey. The burden of their conversation now was the expression of an anxiety to reach the circus without delay. They hurried forward, without again stopping to exhibit, and in due course of time, we reached New-York, taking lodgings at a house on the west side of the city, in a street running from Broadway to the river. I supposed my journey was at an end, and expected in a day or two at least, to return to my friends and family at Saratoga. Brown and Hamilton, however, began to importune me to continue with them to Washington. They alleged that immediately on their arrival, now that the summer season was approaching, the circus would set out for the north. They promised me a situation and high wages if I would accompany them. Largely did they expatiate on the advantages that would result to me, and such were the flattering representations they made, that I finally concluded to accept the offer.

The next morning they suggested that, inasmuch as we were about entering a slave State, it would be well, before leaving New-York, to procure free papers. The idea struck me as a prudent one, though I think it would scarcely have occurred to me, had they not proposed it. We proceeded at once to what I understood to be the Custom House. They made oath to certain facts showing I was a free man. A paper was drawn up and handed us, with the direction to take it to the clerk's office. We did so, and the clerk having added something to it, for which he was paid six shillings, we returned again to the Custom House. Some further formalities were gone through with before it was completed, when, paying the officer two dollars, I placed the papers in my pocket, and started with my two friends to our hotel. I thought at the time I must confess, that the papers were scarcely worth the cost of obtaining them—the apprehension of danger to my personal safety never having suggested itself to me in the remotest manner. The clerk, to whom we were directed, I remember, made a memorandum in a large book, which, I presume, is in the office yet. A reference to the entries during the latter part of March, or first of April, 1841, I have no doubt will satisfy the incredulous, at least so far as this particular transaction is concerned.

With the evidence of freedom in my possession, the next day after our arrival in New-York, we crossed the ferry to Jersey City, and took the road to Philadelphia. Here we remained one night, continuing our journey towards Baltimore early in the morning. In due time, we arrived in the latter city, and stopped at a hotel near the railroad depot, either kept by a Mr. Rathbone, or known as the Rathbone House. All the way from New-York, their anxiety to reach the circus seemed to grow more and more intense. We left the carriage at Baltimore, and entering the cars, proceeded to Washington, at which place we arrived just at nightfall, the evening previous to the funeral of General Harrison, and stopped at Gadsby's Hotel, on Pennsylvania Avenue.

After supper they called me to their apartments, and paid me forty-three dollars, a sum greater than my wages amounted to, Which act of generosity was in consequence, they said, of their not having exhibited as often as they had given me to anticipate, during our trip from Saratoga. They moreover informed me that it had been the intention of the circus company to leave Washington the next morning, but that on account of the funeral, they had concluded to remain another day. They were then, as they had been from the time of our first meeting, extremely kind. No opportunity was omitted of addressing me in the language of approbation; while, on the other hand, I was certainly much prepossessed in their favor. I gave them my confidence without reserve, and would freely have trusted them to almost any extent. Their constant conversation and manner towards me—their foresight in suggesting the idea of free papers, and a hundred other little acts, unnecessary to be repeated— all indicated that they were friends indeed, sincerely solicitous for my welfare. I know not but they were. I know not but they were innocent of the great wickedness of which I now believe them guilty. Whether they were accessory to my misfortunes—subtle and inhuman monsters in the shape of men—designedly luring me away from home and family, and liberty, for the sake of gold—those these read these pages will have the same means of determining as myself If they were innocent, my sudden disappearance must have been unaccountable indeed; but revolving in my mind all the attending circumstances, I never yet could indulge, towards them, so charitable a supposition.

After receiving the money from them, of which they appeared to have an abundance, they advised me not to go into the streets that night, inasmuch as I was unacquainted with the customs of the city. Promising to remember their advice, I left them together, and soon after was shown by a colored servant to a sleeping room in the back part of the hotel, on the ground floor. I laid down to rest, thinking of home and wife, and children, and the long distance that stretched between us, until I fell asleep. But no good angel of pity came to my bedside, bidding me to fly—no voice of mercy forewarned me in my dreams of the trials that were just at hand.

The next day there was a great pageant in Washington. The roar of cannon and the tolling of bells filled the air, while many houses were shrouded with crape, and the streets were black with people. As the day advanced, the procession made its appearance, coming slowly through the Avenue, carriage after carriage, in long succession, while thousands upon thousands followed on foot—all moving to the sound of melancholy music. They were bearing the dead body of Harrison to the grave.

From early in the morning, I was constantly in the company of Hamilton and Brown. They were the only persons I knew in Washington. We stood together as the funeral pomp passed by. I remember distinctly how the window glass would break and rattle to the ground, after each report of the cannon they were firing in the burial ground. We went to the Capitol, and walked a long time about the grounds. In the afternoon, they strolled towards the President's House, all the time keeping me near to them, and pointing out various places of interest. As yet, I had seen nothing of the circus. In fact, I had thought of it but little, if at all, amidst the excitement of the day.

My friends, several times during the afternoon, entered drinking saloons, and called for liquor. They were by no means in the habit, however, so far as I knew them, of indulging to excess. On these occasions, after serving themselves, they would pour out a glass and hand it to me. I did not become intoxicated, as may be inferred from what subsequently occurred. Towards evening, and soon after partaking of one of these potations, I began to experience most unpleasant sensations. I felt extremely ill. My head commenced aching—a dull, heavy pain, inexpressibly disagreeable. At the supper table, I was without appetite; the sight and flavor of food was nauseous. About dark the same servant conducted me to the room I had occupied the previous night. Brown and Hamilton advised me to retire, commiserating me kindly, and expressing hopes that I would be better in the morning. Divesting myself of coat and boots merely, I threw myself upon the bed. It was impossible to sleep. The pain in my head continued to increase, until it became almost unbearable. In a short time I became thirsty. My lips were parched. I could think of nothing but water—of lakes and flowing rivers, of brooks where I had stooped to drink, and of the dripping bucket, rising with its cool and overflowing nectar, from the bottom of the well. Towards midnight, as near as I could judge, I arose, unable longer to bear such intensity of thirst. I was a stranger in the house, and knew nothing of its apartments. There was no one up, as I could observe. Groping about at random, I knew not where, I found the way at last to a kitchen in the basement. Two or three colored servants were moving through it, one of whom, a woman, gave me two glasses of water. It afforded momentary relief, but by the time I had reached my room again, the same burning desire of drink, the same tormenting thirst, had again returned. It was even more torturing than before, as was also the wild pain in my head, if such a thing could be. I was in sore distress—in most excruciating agony! I seemed to stand on the brink of madness! The memory of that night of horrible suffering will follow me to the grave.

In the course of an hour or more after my return from the kitchen, I was conscious of some one entering my room. There seemed to be several—a mingling of various voices,—but how many, or who they were, I cannot tell. Whether Brown and Hamilton were among them, is a mere matter of conjecture. I only remember with any degree of distinctness, that I was told it was necessary to go to a physician and procure medicine, and that pulling on my boots, without coat or hat, I followed them through a long passage-way, or alley, into the open street. It ran out at right angles from Pennsylvania Avenue. On the opposite side there was a light burning in a window. My impression is there were then three persons with me, but it is altogether indefinite and vague, and like the memory of a painful dream. Going towards the light, which I imagined proceeded from a physician's office, and which seemed to recede as I advanced, is the last glimmering recollection I can now recall. From that moment I was insensible. How long I remained in that condition— whether only that night, or many days and nights— I do not know; but when consciousness returned I found myself alone, in utter darkness, and in chains.

The pain in my head had subsided in a measure, but I was very faint and weak. I was sitting upon a low bench, made of rough boards, and without coat or hat. I was hand cuffed. Around my ankles also were a pair of heavy fetters. One end of a chain was fastened to a large ring in the floor, the other to the fetters on my ankles. I tried in vain to stand upon my feet. Waking from such a painful trance, it was some time before I could collect my thoughts. Where was I? What was the meaning of these chains? Where were Brown and Hamilton? What had I done to deserve imprisonment in such a dungeon? I could not comprehend. There was a blank of some indefinite period, preceding my awakening in that lonely place, the events of which the utmost stretch of memory was unable to recall. I listened intently for some sign or sound of life, but nothing broke the oppressive silence, save the clinking of my chains, whenever I chanced to move. I spoke aloud, but the sound of my voice startled me. I felt of my pockets, so far as the fetters would allow—far enough, indeed, to ascertain that I had not only been robbed of liberty, but that my money and free papers were also gone! Then did the idea begin to break upon my mind, at first dim and confused, that I had been kidnapped. But that I thought was incredible. There must have been some misapprehension—some unfortunate mistake. It could not be that a free citizen of New-York, who had wronged no man, nor violated any law, should be dealt with thus inhumanly. The more I contemplated my situation, however, the more I became confirmed in my suspicions. It was a desolate thought, indeed. I felt there was no trust or mercy in unfeeling man; and commending myself to the God of the oppressed, bowed my head upon my fettered hands, and wept most bitterly.



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124: "The Mary Tyler Moore Show"

Sun, Jan 29, 2017

This week on StoryWeb: The Mary Tyler Moore Show.

Who could turn the world on with her smile?

Mary Tyler Moore, of course!

Those of us who loved Mary Tyler Moore and her pioneering work as an actress and comedian were not surprised to hear of her passing last week – but we were sad nevertheless. Moore, who was 80 when she died, had fought Type 1 diabetes and its complications since she was 33.

Moore’s television career started with her role as “Happy Hotpoint,” a dancing elf on Hotpoint appliance commercials that ran during the Ozzie and Harriet TV series. She also had minor roles in television and movies during the 1950s.

Moore’s big breakthrough came in her role as Laura Petrie, wife to comedy writer Robert Petrie, on The Dick Van Dyke Show. As the show ran from 1961 to 1996, Moore became as famous for her portrayal of the dancer-turned-homemaker as she did for her fashion sense. Her form-fitting capri pants quickly became iconic, just as popular as Jackie Kennedy’s dresses.

But it was as TV newsroom associate producer Mary Richards that Mary Tyler Moore really made her mark. I was hooked from the first episode, which aired in 1970 when I was ten years old.

I can vividly recall watching that episode in my parents’ bedroom, where the extra TV was kept. My parents were watching something else out in the living room, but I had the good sense to be watching the premiere of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, which had been advertised heavily in the weeks leading up to its debut. I remember laughing out loud at Mr. Grant’s grilling of Mary during her job interview. I laughed so hard, in fact, that my mother came to see what was going on. Eventually, I convinced my parents to watch the show as well. Saturday nights would never be the same.

Like many girls and women across the United States, I loved everything that Mary represented. She was single and independent. She worked in the male-dominated world of TV news. And she had a way-too-groovy apartment. I grew into adolescence with Mary Tyler Moore, and I set my sights on the life she led. I longed to be a writer and live on my own – and there on TV was Mary Richards, making it after all.

My dear friend Jennifer Soule and I share a lifelong love of all things Mary Tyler Moore. In addition to visiting her Minneapolis haunts on one weekend getaway (complete with throwing our hats up in the air on a downtown street), we were also fortunate enough to meet her.

Moore’s ancestors were among the early residents of Shepherdstown, West Virginia, where Jennifer and I taught at Shepherd College. Moore’s great-great-great-grandfather, Conrad Shindler, owned a house on German Street (the main street in Shepherdstown). Like most of the other buildings in Shepherdstown, Shindler’s house took in wounded Confederate soldiers during 1862’s Battle of Antietam (across the Potomac River in Sharpsburg, Maryland).

In 1995, Mary Tyler Moore donated the house to Shepherd College for use as the George Tyler Moore Center for the Study of the Civil War. Of course, that meant that Moore needed to visit Shepherdstown to dedicate the house. She spoke at Shepherd’s 1996 commencement, hosted a signing of her autobiography, After All, in the Shindler house, and graced a reception at an estate outside of town. You can be sure that Jennifer, her mother, Leone, and I took every opportunity to meet and talk with Mary Tyler Moore. When it was my turn to have my book signed, I worked up my courage and said, “I know you probably hear this from women across the country, but you were my role model. You made me see that a life as a single, independent, career woman was possible.” She smiled and graciously said, “Yes, I do hear that often, but it means so much every time.”

So much has been written about Mary Tyler Moore and her show, but I’ll just point you to a few resources. A thorough history of the show is available in Jennifer Keishin Armstrong’s book Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted: And All the Brilliant Minds Who Made The Mary Tyler Moore Show a Classic. In her reflections on Mary Tyler Moore, Jane Pauley pays tribute to Mary Richards as her role model. Two New York Times features examine Moore’s impact on 1970s fashion and The Mary Tyler Moore Show “look.” “Sex and That ‘70s Single Woman” looks at the ways The Mary Tyler Moore Show addressed social issues of the day. The Washington Post points to “Five Ways The Mary Tyler Moore Show Revolutionized Women on Television,” and the LA Times tells the story of the show’s theme song, “Love Is All Around.” Video clips from an interview with Moore are available at the Archive of American Television. Numerous articles from The New York Times – published throughout her career as well as after her death – are available in a special collection. And to make sure you win your next Mary Tyler Moore trivia contest, check out Mental Floss’s “15 Awfully Big Facts About The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” And if you really can’t get enough Mary Tyler Moore, consider buying “her” Minneapolis mansion for $1.695 million!

In the end, there’s no substitute for seeing Mary Tyler Moore in action. Luckily, the entire run of The Dick Van Dyke Show is available on DVD – and so is the complete seven-season collection of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Both DVD sets are in my collection, and I highly recommend them. Mary Tyler Moore is classic and ageless. You’ll enjoy the shows just as much as you did in your youth.

Visit thestoryweb.com/moore for links to all these resources and to watch the first episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, which aired on September 19, 1970. No matter how many times I see it, this episode still makes me laugh out loud! “You’ve got spunk,” says Mr. Grant. “Well, yes,” Mary agrees sheepishly. After a pause, Mr. Grant says, “I hate spunk.” Gotta love it!

As we say goodbye to this beloved icon, join other fans in your own hat-tossing tribute to Mary Tyler Moore!

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123: Elton John and Bernie Taupin: "Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy"

Mon, Jan 23, 2017

This week on StoryWeb: Elton John and Bernie Taupin’s album Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy.

When I was fifteen years old, my favorite album was Elton John’s Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy. Even then, I knew it was something special, a truly unique album.

Recently, I listened to the album again – for the first time in over thirty years. Wow! It still holds together. Elton John himself – among numerous other musicians, producers, and critics – believes Captain Fantastic is his best album. The ninth formal studio release album for Elton John, Captain Fantastic was the first album to debut at number one on the US Billboard 200. Rolling Stone ranks it at number 158 on its list of the “500 Greatest Albums of All Time.” The album was recorded at Caribou Ranch outside of Nederland, Colorado – just a hop and a skip from our home in Boulder.

Taken in its totality, the album tells the powerful story of the growing relationship – both musically and personally – between Captain Fantastic (Elton John) and the Brown Dirt Cowboy (Bernie Taupin). The album follows their beginnings as a songwriting duo churning out songs in the late 1960s for a pop hits mill in London. Their managers have no thought in the least that they’re working with a lyricist and composer who have the potential to hit it big themselves. For this reason, Bernie Taupin (who wrote the lyrics to the songs) and Elton John (who wrote the music) say that they were writing with “bitter fingers” (the title of the third song on the album).

Also chronicled is Elton John’s narrow escape from what would have been a disastrous marriage to Linda Woodrow, who did not see the value of his music. “Someone Saved My Life Tonight” also tells of Elton John’s failed 1969 suicide attempt in response to the engagement. This song was, of course, the big hit from the album, but I think it’s important to put it next to “We All Fall in Love Sometimes,” which appears near the end of the album. Even as a fifteen-year-old, I thought – and still think – the song tells of Elton John and Bernie Taupin’s deepening personal relationship.

Elton John said in later years, “Captain Fantastic was written from start to finish in running order, as a kind of story about coming to terms with failure – or trying desperately not to be one. We lived that story." Accounts of the recording sessions indicate that the album was also recorded from start to finish, including the last two songs – “We All Fall in Love Sometimes” and “Curtains” – which were recorded in one continuous take.

Music critics laud the songwriting accomplishments of Elton John and Bernie Taupin, with one calling them “the most successful writing duo since Lennon and McCartney.” Unfortunately, the two men had a falling out starting in 1977 and didn’t resume working together again full-time until 1983’s Too Low for Zero album.

Even though the two men patched things up and began writing together again, they seem to have lost their mojo and have never quite gotten it back. Elton John and Bernie Taupin were at their best in the early years – from their first album, Empty Sky (an album that has never gotten nearly as much attention as it deserves), their follow-up classics, Madman Across the Water, Goodbye, Yellow Brick Road, and Don’t Shoot Me, I’m Only the Piano Player, and finally Caribou (also recorded in Colorado) and Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy.

Of course, in the decades since Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy came out in 1975, Elton John has gone from being a mega-hits pop star (Captain Fantastic) to being a beloved friend of Princess Diana, from marrying his long-time partner, David Furnish, to being knighted by Queen Elizabeth. Though the music he has written and recorded since the 1970s doesn’t come close to his early output, Sir Elton has come a very long way.

For more on Elton John and Bernie Taupin, read “From the End of the World to Your Town: The Decline and Fall of Captain Fantastic” or watch the 1991 film documentary Two Rooms: Celebrating the Songs of Elton John and Bernie Taupin. For insights into this particular album, visit Elton John’s official website and read “10 Things You Need to Know about Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy.” And to learn more about the legendary Elton John’s life and career, pick up a copy of the recently published Captain Fantastic: The Definitive Biography of Elton John in the ‘70s.

Rock music – especially rock music of the 1970s – has seen many concept albums, but this one is very much worth returning to. Give it a listen again . . . after all these years.

Visit thestoryweb.com/john for links to all these resources and to watch a clip of Elton John singing “Someone Saved My Life Tonight” in a 1976 concert. You can also watch the original television commercial for Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy and listen to the title song, which opens the album.

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122: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: "I Have a Dream"

Sun, Jan 15, 2017

This week on StoryWeb: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speech “I Have a Dream.”

“I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right temporarily defeated is stronger than evil triumphant.”

So said Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., on December 10, 1964, as he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize. At 35 years old, he was the youngest person ever to have been awarded the prize.

Sixteen months earlier on August 28, 1963, Dr. King had helped lead what is perhaps still the greatest people’s march on Washington – an iconic “mountaintop” moment in the centuries-long struggle for African American freedom, rights, and dignity. Over a quarter of a million black and white Americans gathered in the nation’s capital one hundred years after President Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves by issuing the Emancipation Proclamation.

The “I Have a Dream” speech Dr. King gave that day is equally iconic. Just twelve hours before he was going to give the speech, Dr. King didn’t yet know what he was going to say. But then as he took the stage, the words that had been simmering, brewing, and forming for the last several months finally took shape. The resulting impassioned speech is considered by many to be the greatest American speech of the twentieth century.

Dr. King was, of course, known as a powerful orator, a preacher who had found his way into being a spokesperson and leader for the Civil Rights Movement. In his sermons, speeches, essays, and letters, he drew upon multilayered rhetorical traditions, weaving together Biblical references and cadences, drawing from a rich African American oral culture, and signifying on key documents and speeches in American history, from the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution to the Emancipation Proclamation and the Gettysburg Address. What emerged from these many threads was Dr. King’s own uniquely powerful message and his stunning delivery.

But Dr. King hadn’t planned his “I Have a Dream” speech. In the hours before the address, he wrote some remarks. He began his speech, and it was powerful, effective. But near the end of his speech, African American gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, who had performed "I Been 'Buked and I Been Scorned" before Dr. King gave his speech, spoke up. As she listened to Dr. King talk, she thought back to a speech he had given in Detroit earlier that year, a speech in which he had sounded the “dream” refrain he had been preaching since 1960.

As Dr. King spoke from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Jackson called out, “Tell ‘em about the dream, Martin!” And thus the glorious, prophetic “I have a dream” riff was born. Dr. King said in part:

I say to you today, my friends, so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.”

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave-owners will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood.


I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state, sweltering with the heat of injustice – sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.


I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.


I have a dream today!


Then, as he evoked the lyrics of “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee,” he called out, “Let freedom ring”:


Let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia.

Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee.

Let freedom ring from every hill and every molehill of Mississippi, from every mountainside, let freedom ring!


“When this happens,” Dr. King said as he ended the speech, “when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: ‘Free at last! Free at last! thank God Almighty, we are free at last!’”

To learn more about the evolution, history, and creation of this iconic speech, check out The Guardian’s article “Martin Luther King: The Story Behind His ‘I Have a Dream’ Speech.” To learn more about Dr. King’s life, work, and legacy, visit The King Center website, where you can see other Americans’ dreams and add your own. If you’d like to add a volume of Dr. King’s work to your collection, you might purchase I Have a Dream: Writings and Speeches That Changed the World. And to share Dr. King’s speech with the children in your life, you’ll want to have a copy of the illustrated book I Have a Dream. For more on the March on Washington, visit the companion site to the PBS documentary series Eyes on the Prize, where you can also read the speech Civil Rights leader John Lewis gave that day.

In 2017, more than 50 years after that hot August day, as we celebrate Dr. King’s legacy on this important holiday, many of us are hurting, wondering if the nation will soon lose the loving ground we have worked so hard to claim for all American citizens.

As we listen to and reflect on King’s speech, we recognize that #blacklivesmatter, and we mourn that such a movement should still be so needed.

As we listen to Dr. King’s speech, we wonder how a lifelong freedom fighter like U.S. Representative John Lewis can be belittled for being “all talk, no action.”

As we listen to Dr. King’s speech, we anticipate the upcoming Women’s March on Washington and parallel marches in cities across the country.

As we listen to Dr. King’s speech, we hear the echoes of Langston Hughes’s poem “Harlem,” which asks “What happens to a dream deferred?” Hughes named the dream deferred in 1951. Dr. King called out a galvanizing vision of his dream more than a decade later.

Looked at in one way – with the events of recent years still unresolved, with racialized trauma in places like Ferguson, Baltimore, and Charleston, and with the names of Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, Sharon Bland, and Eric Garner on our minds and in our hearts – it might seem that Dr. King’s dream of full equality, full dignity, full opportunity for all God’s children is further than ever from being realized.

But as we are tempted to sink into despair over the changes our country is currently witnessing, I come back again and again to Dr. King’s statement in the Nobel Peace Prize speech:

“I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right temporarily defeated is stronger than evil triumphant.”

Dr. King’s words call us to stand together in that space of unarmed truth and unconditional love and to keep standing in that space in every way we can, knowing that love will have the final word in reality.

Visit thestoryweb.com/king for links to all these resources and to watch Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., give his “I Have a Dream” speech.

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121: Jean Ritchie: "Singing Family of the Cumberlands"

Sun, Jan 08, 2017

This week on StoryWeb: Jean Ritchie’s book Singing Family of the Cumberlands.

If you’re looking for bona fide old-time mountain music – the real deal, before bluegrass, before the Carter Family even – then look no further than Jean Ritchie. Perhaps more than any other performer of her generation, Jean Ritchie gives us the traditional old-time stories and songs and the story of the lived experience of growing up in a family in the Cumberland Mountains of Eastern Kentucky.

Many Americans know Jean Ritchie from her singing and songwriting career. In addition to songs she wrote (such as “The L & N Don’t Stop Here Anymore”), Ritchie took special delight in preserving, performing, and passing down traditional ballads and other old-time songs. She sings “play party” game songs, she sings murder ballads, and of course, like any mountain balladeer worth her salt, she has her own version of “Barbary Allen.” In her performances, she both told stories and sang songs, accompanying herself on lap dulcimer.

I had the great fortune of hosting Jean Ritchie at Shepherd University’s Appalachian Heritage Festival in 1997. That October I got to not only see and hear her perform (complete with “Skin and Bones,” a spooky game song), but I also had the privilege of spending time with her backstage. I found her to be shy, quiet, soft-spoken, completely unassuming. She seemed to know she was “the” Jean Ritchie, but she was remarkably humble about that – both proud of her heritage and her ability to share it and receptive to meeting new folks who appreciated that heritage.

If you want to experience Jean Ritchie as a performer, I highly recommend the following CDs: Jean Ritchie: Ballads from Her Appalachian Family Tradition; Jean Ritchie: The Most Dulcimer; Mountain Hearth & Home; Jean Ritchie: Singing the Traditional Songs of Her Kentucky Mountain Family; British Traditional Ballads in the Southern Mountains, Volumes 1 and 2 (both recorded for Smithsonian Folkways); and her fiftieth anniversary album, Mountain Born, which she recorded with her sons. Collaborations include Jean Ritchie and Doc Watson at Folk City; A Folk Concert in Town Hall, New York, featuring Ritchie along with Oscar Brand and David Sear; and American Folk Tales and Songs, recorded with Paul Clayton. Recordings of carols and children’s songs are also available.

If you want to try your hand at singing mountain ballads and playing dulcimer, check out Ritchie’s instructional album, The Appalachian Dulcimer, as well as The Dulcimer Book. A book/CD combo, Traditional Mountain Dulcimer, also provides instruction. Once you’ve gotten the hang of the dulcimer, you’ll want to buy the collection by famed folklorist Alan Lomax: Folk Songs of the Southern Appalachians as Sung by Jean Ritchie. The second edition of this volume features eighty-one songs, including “the Child ballads, lyric folksongs, play party or frolic songs, Old Regular Baptist lined hymns, Native American ballads, ‘hant’ songs, and carols” as passed down through the famous American ballad-singing family, the Ritchie family of Perry County, Kentucky.

To go deeper in your exploration of Jean Ritchie, consider reading her 1955 book, Singing Family of the Cumberlands, part autobiography, part family songbook. Born in 1922 as the youngest of fourteen children in the Singing Ritchie Family, Jean Ritchie tells the stories behind the songs, the rich family context that gave life and meaning to these songs. Be forewarned: once you pick up Singing Family of the Cumberlands, you won’t be able to put it down. Ritchie’s writing voice is engaging, sweet, light-hearted, even light-spirited in a way. She invites you in to share her world in the Cumberland Mountains.

Though she hailed from Kentucky, Jean Ritchie spent most of her adult life living in New York, both in New York City and in Port Washington. She was married to photographer and filmmaker George Pickow, who hailed from Brooklyn. Together, they raised two sons. George, too, was warm and unassuming – and completely devoted to Jean.

In the 1950s, she began to record albums and became friends with Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, and Alan Lomax, each of whom had an immense impact on American folk music. By the early 1960s, Greenwich Village was the site of a lively folk music revival. Alan Lomax gathered many of the leading musicians in 1961 and invited them to his apartment on West 3rd Avenue to swap songs. Ritchie’s husband, George Pickow, filmed the impromptu jam session. Of course, you’ll find Jean Ritchie in this rare film, but you’ll also see Roscoe Holcomb, Clarence Ashley, Doc Watson, Memphis Slim, Willie Dixon, Ramblin Jack Elliott, Guy Carawan, and the New Lost City Ramblers. And if you look closely in the film’s opening moments, you’ll spy Bob Dylan clogging in the audience.

In the 1960s, Jean Ritchie won a Fulbright scholarship to collect traditional songs in the United Kingdom and Ireland and to trace their links to American ballads. In preparation, Ritchie wrote down 300 songs she had learned from her mother. During her Fulbright travels, she spent eighteen months recording and interviewing British and Irish singers. Some of these recordings are collected on Field Trip.

In 2015, Jean Ritchie died at age 92 in Berea, Kentucky – and by that time, she had accumulated numerous awards and accolades, including a National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellowship, the United States’ highest honor for folk and traditional artists. A wonderful tribute to Jean Ritchie – including many outstanding recordings as well as photographs by George Pickow – is featured on the Library of Congress’s American Folklife Center website. Also notable are the New York Times and NPR obituaries.

Widely known as “The Mother of Folk,” Ritchie had an immeasurable impact on other musicians who came after her, as evidenced by the 2014 two-CD set titled Dear Jean: Artists Celebrate Jean Ritchie, which features Pete Seeger, Judy Collins, Janis Ian, Kathy Mattea, Tim O’Brien, John McCutcheon, Suzy Bogguss, and others. Her songs have also been recorded by the likes of Linda Ronstadt, Emmylou Harris, and Johnny Cash.

Awards, honors, and tributes aside, in the end it all comes back to Jean Ritchie singing a spare, simple ballad like “Barbary Allen.” Take my advice, and check out Jean Ritchie’s recordings and writing. You won’t be disappointed.

Visit thestoryweb.com/Ritchie for links to all these resources, to listen to recordings of Jean Ritchie singing “Barbry Allen,” “Shady Grove,” and “Skin and Bones,” and to listen to her talk about writing Singing Family of the Cumberlands.

Listen now as Jean Ritchie talks about and sings the song “Nottamun Town.”

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120: Neil Young: "Comes a Time"

Mon, Jan 02, 2017

This week on StoryWeb: Neil Young’s song “Comes a Time.”

StoryWeb celebrates stories of all kinds: novels and short stories and films and memoirs, of course, but also poems and songs and visual art that tell stories.

Neil Young’s song “Comes a Time” doesn’t tell a story – not by a long shot. There is no main character, no narrator, no plot, no action.

But sometimes a work of art lives with us in such a way that it takes on the role of story. It becomes a part of our personal story. For many of us, songs play this role, becoming part of the narrative of our lives.

“Comes a Time” is such a song for me. In fact, it is the song above all others that has become part of the soundtrack to my life.

I listened to it often in college. It was on one of the cassette tapes my boyfriend kept in his silver Fiat 128.

I listened to it at my friend Genia’s apartment, as she showed me how she was trying to teach herself to play Neil Young songs on her guitar.

I listened to it one long day in Alaska, as my college boyfriend slept in the passenger seat and I drove from Fairbanks to Anchorage. Our relationship was ending, and Neil Young knew just what to say: “There comes a time.”

Fast forward a few years.

“Comes a Time” was in my tape player as I pulled away from my apartment in Madison, Wisconsin, and headed for my new home in Shepherdstown, West Virginia. I was excited for my new adventure – my first job as a college professor – but I was heartbroken to be leaving my beloved Madison. “This old world keeps spinning ‘round,” crooned Neil.

And since then I’ve listened to it countless times – often when I’m going through a big change or facing a seemingly insurmountable challenge. I listened to it as I fell in love with my husband: “You and I, we were captured. / We took our souls and we flew away.” I listened to it as I faced another big move, as I left West Virginia for my new home in Boulder, Colorado. Most recently, I listened to it late one night during a family medical crisis. “It’s a wonder tall trees ain’t laying down,” I sang along.

Of course, Neil Young has written many amazing songs in his long career, even some story songs (including “Motorcycle Mama,” a great tune included on the 1978 Comes a Time album). I could write a long list of Neil Young songs I love, but none comes close to “Comes a Time.” It feels like it is my song – it has become such a part of the fabric of my life.

The story of the Comes a Time album is legendary in the history of rock music. Unhappy with the sound of the original LP mix, Neil Young purchased 200,000 copies to take them out of circulation. One story, told by Young’s son Scott in his book Neil & Me, holds that Neil Young shot bullet holes in every one of the 200,000 LPs, ensuring that no one would be able to play them. But in a March 2014 interview with Rolling Stone, Neil Young himself claimed that he used the 200,000 LPs as shingles for a barn roof. If you buy Comes a Time today, rest assured that you’ll get the version personally remixed by Young from the original master recording.

If you’re ready to learn more about Neil Young, visit the Neil Young article archive at Rolling Stone. There you’ll find a photographic retrospective of Young’s career. The New York Times Magazine features him in “Neil Young Comes Clean.” “Neil Young News” is an unofficial blog that lets fans track all the latest news about the musician. An excellent overview of Young’s career can be found at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame; he was inducted in 1995.

As we turn away from the difficulties of 2016 and look forward to what may be a challenging 2017, I sing along with Neil Young yet again: “Comes a light, feelin’s liftin’ / Lift that baby right up off the ground.” May we all find moments in 2017 when there’s light, when feelings are lifting.

Visit thestoryweb.com/young for links to all these resources and to listen to and watch Neil Young perform two versions of “Comes a Time.” You’ll hear the original studio recording (remixed as Young preferred it) and then watch him perform “Comes a Time” at Farm Aid in 1995.

What song is “your” song? What song has been the soundtrack to your life? What song will be your companion as you head into the new year?


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119: James Holman: "The Narrative of a Journey"

Mon, Dec 26, 2016

This week on StoryWeb: James Holman’s book The Narrative of a Journey.

For Jim, in honor of his birthday

In 2007, my husband, Jim, and I heard about Jason Roberts’s book, A Sense of the World: How a Blind Man Became History’s Greatest Traveler. It sounded fascinating: a biography of a British naval officer who completely lost his sight at age 25 and then proceeded to travel around the world – and in the most exotic and, often, dangerous places.

Born in 1786, James Holman rose to the rank of lieutenant in the British Royal Navy. When he fell ill and lost his sight in 1825, he was forced to give up his career as a naval officer. But in his time with the navy, he had been bitten by the travel bug – and travel became his life’s quest ever after. In 1832, he became the first blind person to circumnavigate the globe.

Our favorite expedition found Holman at the edge of the world’s most famous live volcano – Mount Vesuvius. As I read Roberts’s biography aloud (a way we sometimes share books), I could barely make it through this scene – it was that hair-raising! I could not imagine myself – a sighted person – going to the very precipice of a live volcano, yet here was 19th-century blind James Holman pushing the envelope about as far as anyone could.

Holman was a sensation in his time, and deservedly so. As one source says, “In a time when blind people were thought to be almost totally helpless, and usually given a bowl to beg with, Holman's ability to sense his surroundings by the reverberations of a tapped cane or horse's hoof-beats was unfathomable.”

Roberts’s biography of Holman is a great way into the story of this extraordinary man’s life – and if you want a peak into the book, visit Roberts’s website. You can also listen to NPR’s story on A Sense of the World. If you’re hungry for more, you might want to check out Holman’s books. The Narrative of a Journey is available on Google Books, and the first volume of A Voyage Round the World is available at Project Gutenberg.

Unfortunately, Holman’s life came to a sad end. Pensioned as a member of the Naval Knights of Windsor, he was required to live at Windsor Castle. Sounds grand, I know, but the reality was far different from what you might suppose. The accommodations were meager at best, and Holman – who longed to travel – chafed at the requirement that he live at Windsor Castle and attend religious services twice a day. He frequently applied for leaves of absence from his Windsor Castle duties and was granted such leaves from time to time, but not nearly as often as he desired. This active, still vital man hated to be confined to one place.

Jason Roberts, Holman’s biographer, sums up his legacy this way:

He was known simply as the Blind Traveler – a solitary, sightless adventurer who fought the slave trade in Africa, survived a frozen captivity in Siberia, hunted rogue elephants in Ceylon and helped chart the Australian outback. Once a celebrity, a bestselling author and inspiration to Charles Darwin and Sir Richard Francis Burton, the charismatic, witty James Holman outlived his fame, dying in . . . obscurity [in 1857]. . . .

Jim and I are thrilled that Roberts has worked so hard to resurrect interest in Holman’s extraordinary life. Whether you read The Narrative of a Journey, A Voyage Round the World, or A Sense of the World, you’ll be inspired by all that is possible for human beings who dare to tackle the impossible!

Visit thestoryweb.com/holman for links to all these resources. Listen now as I read an excerpt from James Holman’s 1822 book, The Narrative of a Journey. In this scene, Holman tells of going to the very edge of Mount Vesuvius.


We proceeded along a fair road, until we arrived at a house about half way to the hermitage, where we rested a short time, and refreshed ourselves with wine and water; after this the road gradually became worse, so that if I had not, on former occasions, witnessed the astonishing powers of asses and mules, I should have conceived it impossible for them to have advanced along it. We reached the hermitage about half after eight o’clock, and at the suggestion of our guide, recruited ourselves with some of the hermit’s bread and wine; and then began the more arduous part of our journey. The road soon became very soft, being constituted of the light dust which had been thrown out from the crater; interspersed, however, with large and sharp stones, ejected from the same source; some of which were of such immense size, that did we not bear in mind the astonishing powers of elementary fire, we could scarcely credit the possibility of such masses being hurled to this distance, from out of the bowels of the mountain.

One of the greatest inconveniences I found in this ascent, was from the particles of ashes insinuating themselves within my shoes, and which annoyed my feet so much, that I was repeatedly compelled to take them off, in order to get rid of the irritating matter. Hence I would recommend future travellers to ascend in white leathern boots.

At length we reached the only part of the mountain, which was at this time in a burning state, and which was throwing out flames and sulphurous vapour; when the guide taking me by the arm, conducted me over a place where the fire and smoke issued from apertures between the stones we walked upon, and which we could hear crackling under our feet every instant as if they were going to be separated, and to precipitate us into the bowels of the mountain. The sublime description of Virgil did not fail to occur to my recollection.

By turns a pitchy cloud she rolls on high
By turns hot embers from her entrails fly,
And flakes of mounting flames lick the sky;
Oft from her bowels massy rocks are thrown,
And shiver d from their force come piecemeal down.
Oft liquid fires of burning sulphur glow,
Nurs’d by the fiery spring that burns below.

My imagination, I admit, was actively alive to the possible accidents which might have occurred; I followed, however, with all the confidence which my conviction of being under the care of a cautious leader, did not fail to inspire. My guide appeared highly gratified with the incident, asserting that it was the first time one deprived of sight had ever ventured there; and adding, that he was sure it would much surprise the king, when the circumstance became known to him, in the report which is daily made of the persons who visit the mountain The ground was too hot under our feet, and the sulphurous vapour too strong to allow of our remaining long in this situation; and when he thought he had given us a sufficient idea of the nature of this part of the mountain, we retired to a more solid and a cooler footing; previous to which, however, he directed my walking-cane towards the flames, which shrivelled the ferrule, and charred the lower part; – this I still retain as a memorial.

From hence we were conducted to the edge of a small crater, now extinguished, from whence about two months before, the Frenchman, desirous of the glory of dying a death worthy of the great nation, plunged into the fiery abyss. The guide placed my hand on the very spot where he was stated to have last stood, before he thus rashly entered upon eternity.

I was anxious to have proceeded up the cone to the border of the superior and large crater, but our guide objected, indeed refused to conduct us to it, unless we awaited the dawn of morning; the moon, he said, was fast descending, so that we should be involved in darkness before we could attain it; and that consequently it would be attended with risk in the extreme to make the attempt.

This was a check to the completion of my anxious wishes, but our arrangements at Naples neither made it convenient to my friend, or myself, to remain until morning; nor would it have been pleasant to have spent some hours here without refreshment, more particularly as I had left my coat behind near the hermitage, and at this elevation we found it extremely cold.

After spending a short time in examining some of the immense masses of calcined rock, many of them forming solid cubes of twenty feet diameter, and which had been at different times thrown out by the volcanic power; we began to retrace our steps towards the hermitage, distant, as our guide informed us, four miles, but which must have been an over-rated estimate. As we approached this latter place, we met a party ascending the mountain, with an intention of waiting the break of day, so as to enable them to reach the very summit.


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118: David Sedaris: "The Santaland Diaries"

Mon, Dec 19, 2016

This week on StoryWeb: David Sedaris’s essay “The Santaland Diaries.”

For Julia and Jim, my favorite David Sedaris fans

My sister, Julia, is one of David Sedaris’s biggest fans. She and my husband, Jim, love giggling together over favorite passages from Sedaris’s droll radio essays.

While Sedaris is an accomplished writer, it is in his oral delivery of his essays – his readings – that he really makes his mark. Sure, you can recite a favorite line or try to imitate him doing “Away in a Manager” as Billie Holiday, but really, why try? Only David Sedaris can really do David Sedaris.

Sedaris’s breakout came when he recorded “The Santaland Diaries” for NPR’s Morning Edition in December 1992, his debut for national public radio. When the essay was broadcast, more people requested a tape of it than any Morning Edition story up to that time (except for the death of beloved NPR commentator Red Barber.) 

Small in stature, Sedaris recalls landing a gig (if you can call it that) as Crumpet the Elf in Macy’s Santaland. He played Crumpet for two seasons at the Macy’s store in New York’s Herald Square. If you are familiar with Sedaris’s work, you know that this bizarre set-up – small gay man meets American capitalist Christmas extravaganza – is the perfect vehicle for Sedaris’s storytelling.

How did Sedaris make it to the big time? Radio host Ira Glass discovered him in a Chicago club where Sedaris was reading from his diary. Glass invited Sedaris to appear on his weekly local program, The Wild Room. “I owe everything to Ira,” says Sedaris. “My life just changed completely, like someone waved a magic wand.” Since his big break on NPR, Sedaris has been a frequent contributor to Glass’s nationally distributed public radio program, This American Life.

Are Sedaris’s essays true? Alexander S. Heard – in an article for The New Republic – went to the trouble of fact-checking some of the essays and found holes (sometimes gaping holes) in Sedaris’s tales. He did work at Macy’s Santaland, and Bob Rutan, a Macy’s executive, recalls him as “an outstanding elf.” But given the controversy surrounding the factuality of the essays, NPR now clearly labels “The Santaland Diaries” – a perennial holiday favorite – as fiction. And Sedaris himself in a note in his 2009 book, When You Are Engulfed in Flames, acknowledged that his tales are “realish.” (For more on the controversy over the “truth” behind Sedaris’s essays, check out an article in the Washington Post.)

Ready to explore more of Sedaris’s work? Check out his 1994 collection, Barrel Fever, or his 1997 collection, Holidays on Ice, both of which include “The Santaland Diaries.” Other volumes include: Naked (1998), Me Talk Pretty One Day (2001), Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim (2005), and Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls (2014). These books are also available as audio recordings – and if you want the full David Sedaris experience, I recommend investing in The Ultimate David Sedaris Box Set.

To learn more, visit Sedaris’s official website – and if you want to stay up to date on all things David Sedaris, you can follow him on Facebook or sign up for his newsletter. You can also listen to and read excerpts from a 2013 Terry Gross interview with Sedaris on Fresh Air.

Visit thestoryweb.com/Sedaris for links to all these resources and to listen as David Sedaris reads “The Santaland Diaries” in its entirety. A shorter except is also available. This holiday season revisit David Sedaris’s “The Santaland Diaries” – or if you’ve never heard it before, sit back, buckle up, and get ready for some rip-roaring laughter.


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117: Albert and David Maysles: "Grey Gardens"

Mon, Dec 12, 2016

This week on StoryWeb: Albert and David Maysles’s film Grey Gardens

Watching the 1975 documentary film Grey Gardens is like slowing down to watch an accident in the next lane over. You know you shouldn’t, but you simply can’t help yourself. And if you’re really a rubbernecker like me (and apparently like tens of thousands of other Americans), you line up to watch the 2009 HBO Jessica Lange/Drew Barrymore biopic, which provides the backstory to the original film. Clearly, the 1975 documentary filmmakers Albert and David Maysles were on to something.

What is it about Big Edie and Little Edie, the mother-daughter duo who languished in squalor as their formerly grand Hamptons estate, Grey Gardens, fell into disrepair? Why do we want to watch mentally ill, codependent hoarders living out the exact opposite of The Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous? The Kardashians, they’re not.

The Maysles brothers’ idea for a documentary was spurred initially by their interest in the Bouvier family and then by national reports of the deplorable conditions in which the two women lived. In the summer of 1972, Big Edie’s niece Jacqueline Onassis intervened in an effort to make the house more habitable. When the Maysles brothers approached the two women – Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale and her daughter, Edith Bouvier Beale – about making the film, both Big Edie and Little Edie readily agreed. Ever ones for performing in the spotlight, the two women immediately fell in line, presumably because they thought this could finally be Little Edie’s big break into show business.

It’s true that Grey Gardens was once a truly lavish estate, a fourteen-room mansion that could hold its own among the other Long Island estates in the Hamptons. And yes, it’s true that Big Edie was aunt to Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis and had fond childhood memories of her niece. And it’s even true that Jackie came to Grey Gardens to visit Big Edie and Little Edie after their surroundings had begun to rot around them and that she stepped in with financial assistance to help rectify the situation. The Edies’ pretensions were grounded – at least in part – in some reality.

But they also fancied themselves performers, with their shared sights set on Little Edie making it as a showgirl. When Little Edie decides at the last minute not to pursue her audition with Max Gordon, a successful Broadway producer, Big Edie blames her severely for blowing her big chance – or perhaps Little Edie accuses Big Edie of pressuring her to move back to Grey Gardens. It’s something they never quite resolve between themselves, but both ultimately believe that Little Edie lost her chance at the big time.

Both women obviously have a flair for the dramatic, and Little Edie enjoys getting up outlandish costumes from scraps of clothing and fabric she finds around Grey Gardens. It is very much as if she is a four-year-old playing dress-up with the grown-up clothes and shoes. And even though she is in her thirties when she does this, she is – in her peculiar Little Edie way – provocative, charming, compelling. We can’t help but watch.

If watching the original documentary and the HBO film isn’t enough for you, you might want to visit Grey Gardens Online, a website devoted to Big Edie and Little Edie. You should also check out Sara and Rebekah Maysles’s book Grey Gardens, which includes illustrations, photographs, film stills, production notes, and the like along with transcripts of the two women’s stories. The book comes with a 60-minute CD, which contains conversations with the Beales and their friends, songs and poetry recited by the two Edies, and audio of the Beales during and after watching the film for the first time.

The New York Times provides an interesting account of the property itself, noting that Little Edie sold the mansion in 1979 to Sally Quinn and Benjamin C. Bradlee, former editor of The Washington Post. Quinn and Bradlee loved to entertain, and their summers at Grey Gardens found them hosting the likes of Lauren Bacall and Norman Lear. And if you visit the “5 Things You Didn’t Know About the Classic Documentary Grey Gardens,” you’ll even learn that, for a cool $250,000, you can rent out the restored mansion for the summer.

HBO’s official Grey Gardens page has links to short video clips and stills from the film, including a featurette on the making of the 2009 film.

Visit thestoryweb.com/Maysles for links to all these resources and to watch clips from the original 1975 documentary. Then watch some of the backstory from the 2009 HBO film, when the two Edies and Grey Gardens were in their prime.

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116: Leonard Cohen: "Hallelujah"

Mon, Dec 05, 2016

This week on StoryWeb: Leonard Cohen’s song “Hallelujah.”

Last month during the same week that saw the U.S. presidential election, Canadian musician Leonard Cohen died at age 82. He was one of the great songwriters – a songwriter’s songwriter. The composer of such songs as “Suzanne,” Cohen was perhaps best known for his 1984 song “Hallelujah.”

Apparently, it took Cohen years to write “Hallelujah,” to the point where he was once so frustrated that he banged his head on the floor as he sat to write the song. Even after he recorded the song on the album Various Positions in 1984, his subsequent world tour found him altering the lyrics, sometimes considerably. “Hallelujah” was a song that would undergo many revisions, both by Cohen and by others.

The song did not really achieve breakthrough status until it was recorded by Jeff Buckley in 1994. Though Buckley did not have a hit with “Hallelujah” while he was alive, by 2004 it was so well known that it ranked number 259 on Rolling Stone's "The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.”

Time magazine noted that Leonard Cohen “murmured the original like a dirge,” while “Buckley treated the . . . song like a tiny capsule of humanity, using his voice to careen between glory and sadness, beauty and pain.” “It's one of the great songs,” Time concluded.

Musician John Legend said that Buckley’s version is “as near perfect as you can get. The lyrics to ‘Hallelujah’ are just incredible and the melody’s gorgeous and then there’s Jeff’s interpretation of it. It’s one of the most beautiful pieces of recorded music I’ve ever heard.”

So iconic is Buckley’s recording that the Library of Congress announced in 2014 that it will be inducted into the National Recording Registry.

Since Buckley’s recording ultimately catapulted the song to fame, it has been performed and recorded by numerous musicians and included in many film and television soundtracks, with over 300 known versions.

Most recently, the song enjoyed another interpretation by Saturday Night Live comedian Kate McKinnon, who played Hillary Clinton throughout the 2016 campaign season. Four days after the presidential election, McKinnon – in character as Hillary Clinton – opened SNL with three verses from “Hallelujah.” Seemingly, Clinton was singing a requiem for her lost election as well as for the passing of the great Leonard Cohen. At the end of the performance, McKinnon turned to the camera and said, “I'm not giving up and neither should you.” I dare you to watch the clip and keep a dry eye.

The enigmatic song – which Cohen himself presented in multiple versions with different verses – has spawned a great variety of interpretations. Singer k.d. lang offers perhaps the most on-point analysis. In an interview after Cohen’s death, she said that the song is about “the struggle between having human desire and searching for spiritual wisdom. It’s being caught between those two places.”

Learn more about the history of the song in Alan Light’s book The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley, and the Unlikely Ascent of “Hallelujah.”

Visit thestoryweb.com/cohen for links to all these resources and for a variety of multimedia clips. Listen to Leonard Cohen sing “Hallelujah.” Watch the official video for Jeff Buckley’s recording of the song. Finally, take a few minutes to watch Kate McKinnon, in character as Hillary Clinton, sing several verses of “Hallelujah” as the opening to Saturday Night Live four days after the 2016 presidential election.

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115: Maya Angelou: "Still I Rise"

Mon, Nov 28, 2016

This week on StoryWeb: Maya Angelou’s poem “Still I Rise.”

As the year draws to a close and the dark deepens, I reflect on the difficult election season and look for glimmers of light. Maya Angelou’s poem “Still I Rise” – published in 1978 as part of Angelou’s poetry collection, And Still I Rise – speaks to me as a powerful antidote to despair.

Although she specifically speaks from and to the experience of being African American, acknowledging the “huts of history’s shame,” her poem also reaches out to anyone who has struggled, who has despaired of finding the way forward. “You may trod me in the very dirt,” she writes, “[b]ut still, like dust, I’ll rise.” I find her words to be a tonic, an inspiration, a beacon for the journey ahead.

Maya Angelou also wrote memoirs, including her most famous work, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, the first in a series of seven books that tell the story of her life. I featured I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings last year in honor of Banned Books Week. You can learn more about Angelou’s life and writing by revisiting that previous StoryWeb episode.

This winter, a feature-length documentary film, titled Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise, will be shown on PBS’s American Masters Series. At the time of her death in May 2014, Angelou was participating in the making of the film. You can view a trailer for the film at the PBS website.

Inspired by Angelou’s iconic poem, musician Ben Harper set the poem to music (with some slight adaptations to the lines) and recorded it as “I’ll Rise.” You can learn more about the connection between Angelou’s poem and Harper’s song in a post from Waylon Lewis, editor and publisher of the Boulder-based Elephant Journal.

Angelou’s poem also provides the title to a four-hour PBS series and companion book from Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., professor at Harvard University. Black America Since MLK: And Still I Rise is available as a DVD and as a book. Clearly, Angelou’s words ring true to many African Americans.

For links to all these resources, visit thestoryweb.com/rise. You’ll also be able to access key video clips of Maya Angelou and Ben Harper.

Are you weary and discouraged? Watch Maya Angelou read “Still I Rise” – or listen to Ben Harper sing “I’ll Rise.” I promise you’ll be uplifted. We’ll rise!

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114: Joseph Brackett, Jr.: "Simple Gifts"

Mon, Nov 21, 2016

This week on StoryWeb: Joseph Brackett, Jr.’s song “Simple Gifts.”

This week as we turn our thoughts to Thanksgiving, I am reminded of the beautiful Shaker song “Simple Gifts.” I have long loved the spare melody and the powerful lyrics.

Many think of “Simple Gifts” as an anonymous Shaker hymn – which is only partly correct. It is a Shaker song, but it was written as a dance song (note the repetition of the word “turn,” which would have been a way to call a figure in a dance). And the man who wrote both the melody and the words was Joseph Brackett, Jr., a Shaker elder, head of the society in Maine. Brackett lived at Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village. You can visit the community’s website to learn more about its long history and its continuance to this day, including its recent hosting of the Maine Festival of American Music.

Until 1944, “Simple Gifts” was known mostly inside Shaker communities. But in 1944, American composer Aaron Copland used Brackett’s melody in his composition Appalachian Spring, which served as the score to a ballet choreographed by Martha Graham.

As you get ready to celebrate Thanksgiving, reflect on the words to this quintessential American song:

’Tis the gift to be simple, 'tis the gift to be free

’Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,

And when we find ourselves in the place just right,

’Twill be in the valley of love and delight.


When true simplicity is gained,

To bow and to bend we shan't be ashamed,

To turn, turn will be our delight,

Till by turning, turning we come ’round right.


Want to add a recording of “Simple Gifts” to your collection? You might purchase Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring, performed by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra with Leonard Slatkin conducting. Or you might want to get a copy of “Simple Gifts” performed by the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center at Shaker Village or Joel Cohen’s historic collection, Simple Gifts: Shaker Chants and Spirituals. And finally, Classic Yo-Yo includes Yo-Yo Ma’s recording of “Simple Gifts” with Alison Krauss.


For another approach to Thanksgiving stories, listen to last year’s StoryWeb podcast episode on StoryCorps. This year, StoryCorps is once again hosting the Great Thanksgiving Listen. I hope some StoryWeb listeners will participate – and I hope that all of you find yourselves in “the valley of love and delight” this Thanksgiving.


Visit thestoryweb.com/brackett for links to all these resources, to watch the Martha Graham Dance Company perform a ballet to Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring, and to listen to the beautiful version from cellist Yo-Yo Ma and vocalist Alison Krauss.

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113: Rainer Maria Rilke: "Sunset"

Mon, Nov 14, 2016

This week on StoryWeb: Rainer Maria Rilke’s poem “Sunset.”

In memory of Dr. Kathryn Hobbs

On Saturday, I was privileged to attend the memorial service for Dr. Kathryn Hobbs, my beloved doctor and dear friend. A vital, vibrant, phenomenally alive woman, Kathryn was just six months younger than me. We first met ten years ago this month, when I had just moved to Colorado and needed a new doctor. I had done extensive research, and when I came across Kathryn’s professional online profile, I knew in some deep and intuitive way that I had found the one.

And oh, what a doctor she was! She was smart and caring, an internationally renowned practitioner in her specialty and a doctor who hugged her patients hello and goodbye at each visit. Outside of her practice, she was an accomplished pianist, vocalist, and equestrian (with a specialty in dressage). Kathryn rushed forward to embrace life. She lived deeply and with zest.

What a blow to everyone when Kathryn was diagnosed with a rare terminal disease. Of course, her diagnosis was a blow to Kathryn and her husband, Dr. Marc Cohen. But all who knew Kathryn, those who were fortunate enough to be her patients and those who joined her in her out-of-work pursuits, those who were part of her family and those who had been long-time friends – all of us were devastated by the news.

When Kathryn finally had to step away from her medical practice, I knew it was time to say goodbye. Kathryn and I shared a love of poetry. For her wedding to Marc, I had given them a copy of one of Roger Housden’s curated collections of poems. Now with her impending death, I sent another Housden collection, this one titled Ten Poems to Last a Lifetime.

Over this past summer, Kathryn and I struck up a brief email exchange, she writing to thank me for the book of poems and me writing to thank her – as I had so often in the past – for being such a wonderful doctor. We affirmed our deep affection for one another.

Not long after, she wrote to tell me she had selected one of the poems for her memorial service. Rev. Brian Henderson, who officiated at her service, said that Kathryn had been fully involved in planning all the details of her service. And in the remarks she made at the service, her friend Rena Bloom reported that Kathryn was planning the service while in her hospital bed, bedecked with her tennis bracelet. She was, Rena reported, living while she was dying.

The poem Kathryn selected was Rainer Maria Rilke’s “Sunset,” and Rena gave a beautiful reading of it. Since this summer when Kathryn told me the poem she had chosen and especially since the memorial service on Saturday, I have read and reread the poem many times. It is about the ordinary – but paradoxically the extraordinary and magical – happening of every day: a sunset.

As Rilke watches the sunset, watches as the sinking sun spreads its “new colors” on “a row of ancient trees,” he dips a toe both into this world, the heavy earth of stone, and into the other world, the heaven of stars.

Where do human beings belong? Are we part of the earth, the ancient trees, the stone? Or are we part of the eternal, the heavens, the stars? Rilke seems to want to have it both ways. As he says in the poem’s conclusion, “one moment your life is a stone in you, and the next, a star.”

As I reflect on this poem Kathryn chose for her service, I imagine how it must have spoken to her in these last months when she was both in this world – living with all her heart and might – and in the next world – preparing to die. To learn more about the wonderful Dr. Kathryn Hobbs, you can read her obituary.

To learn more about the masterful German poet Rainer Maria Rilke (who was born in 1875 and died in 1926), you can read his biography at the Poetry Foundation website. In addition to “Sunset,” you might want to check out The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke: Bilingual Edition. Also very much worth a read is his wonderful book Letters to a Young Poet, especially appropriate for anyone who pursues a creative life. Rachel Corbett’s brand-new book, You Must Change Your Life: The Story of Rainer Maria Rilke and Auguste Rodin, looks intriguing indeed. And if you just can’t make up your mind where to start with Rilke, consider buying A Year with Rilke: Daily Readings from the Best of Rainer Maria Rilke.

For links to all these resources, visit thestoryweb.com/rilke.

As the sheer beauty of coincidence would have it, as Kathryn leaves the stone of this world and becomes a star, Earth’s moon will be a super moon tonight. As I watch the sun set tonight and the moon rise, I’ll be looking to the heavens and thinking of my dear Kathryn Hobbs.

Listen now as I read Rainer Maria Rilke’s poem “Sunset.”

Slowly the west reaches for clothes of new colors
which it passes to a row of ancient trees.
You look, and soon these two worlds both leave you
one part climbs toward heaven, one sinks to earth.

leaving you, not really belonging to either,
not so hopelessly dark as that house that is silent,
not so unswervingly given to the eternal as that thing
that turns to a star each night and climbs--

leaving you (it is impossible to untangle the threads)
your own life, timid and standing high and growing,
so that, sometimes blocked in, sometimes reaching out,
one moment your life is a stone in you, and the next, a star.


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112: E.E. Cummings: "The Enormous Room"

Mon, Nov 07, 2016

This week on StoryWeb: E.E. Cummings’s book The Enormous Room.

While in graduate school at the University of Wisconsin, I was fortunate enough to take a class on literature of the 1920s. Taught by Professor Walter Rideout, the seminar featured both classics from the decade – such as Ernest Hemingway’s In Our Time and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby – as well as lesser-known works such as Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons and Elizabeth Madox Roberts’s The Time of Man.

I was captivated by the many literary works we studied throughout the course of the semester. One piece that completely captured my attention was E.E. Cummings’s autobiographical 1922 book, The Enormous Room. Before this time, e e cummings (with lower-case letters) had been to me “merely” a poet. As lovely and brilliant as his poetry is, I am a lover of prose, of story. (Why else would there be StoryWeb?!)

The Enormous Room fit the bill for me. Whether you classify it as a memoir or as an autobiographical novel, it is beautifully written and magnificently illustrated with Cummings’s pen-and-ink drawings. The book tells of Cummings’s experiences as an American prisoner in a French detention camp during World War I.

After having delivered a “daring commencement address on modernist artistic innovations” at Harvard University and having thus declared the trajectory of his creative career, Cummings left for France with his college friend John Dos Passos and enlisted in the Norton-Harjes Ambulance Corps. Though he had been raised in a pacifist family (his father, Edward Cummings, was perhaps the best-known Unitarian minister in Boston), Cummings wanted the excitement of being near the front.

But things did not play out exactly as Cummings had planned. Through an administrative mix-up, he was not assigned to an ambulance unit for five weeks. Based in Paris while he awaited his assignment, he fell in love with the city and its women and, from all accounts, whiled away his time quite delightfully.

Eventually, he did get attached to an ambulance unit, where he befriended another American, William Slater Brown. Known as B. in The Enormous Room, Brown was a pacifist, and in letters back home, both he and Cummings wrote about their pacifist leanings. Both were arrested by the French military “on suspicion of espionage and undesirable activities.”

Cummings and Brown ended up at the D?p?t de Triage in La Fert?-Mac? in Orne, Normandy. They were imprisoned with other detainees in a large room – which Cummings dubbed “the enormous room.” In the resulting book, Cummings sketches characters, describes the prison barracks and the prison yard, and ultimately details his spiritual triumph over adversity, using John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress as his literary model. He does all this with his trademark quirky use of language, enriched here by his liberal use of French phrases, which he intersperses freely into the text. Woven throughout the text are Cummings’s pen-and-ink sketches of prison life and those other prisoners whose quirks and eccentricities he brings to life in words – and images.

Cummings ended up spending just three-and-a-half months at the prison camp, and he went on to become a great poet, painter, essayist, author, and playwright. In addition to his prose books, plays, and essays, he wrote approximately 2,900 poems and created numerous paintings and drawings.

The Library of American website has an insightful essay on The Enormous Room. Kelsey Osgood’s article on the creation of Cummings’s signature style in The Enormous Room is also helpful.

To learn more about Cummings and the rest of his literary career, visit the Poetry Foundation website. A wide variety of resources related to Cummings and his literary creations can be found at the Modern American Poetry website. An excellent article on Cummings and his rebellious legacy can be found at the alumni magazine for his alma mater, Harvard. His biographer, Susan Cheever, describes Cummings and his literary reputation in “The Prince of Patchin Place,” published in Vanity Fair. Poet Billy Collins contributed an article to Slate titled “Is That a Poem? The Case for E.E. Cummings.”

If you’re interested in Cummings’s impressive output as a cubist painter, visit the E.E. Cummings Art Gallery. You can learn more about his work as an artist at ArtFixx. A full roster of Cummings links – from literature to art – is available at the E.E. Cummings Society website.

Ready to add some of Cummings’s work to your library? Of course, you’ll want to have a copy of The Enormous Room (and you’ll want to make sure it’s the version Cummings intended, complete with his illustrations). If you want to delve into Cummings’s poetry, look no further than e.e. cummings: complete poems, 1904-1962 or, if you want something a bit more abbreviated, check out 100 Selected Poems.

Some have said that The Enormous Room is a sophomoric work, not reflective of the mature Cummings. But for me, The Enormous Room is vastly underrated: it is a sheer pleasure to read that most people miss. Yes, it is grim in places – but in its expression of spiritual joy, joy gained after much suffering, and struggle, it is exquisite. In his expression of boundless joy in the very midst of human suffering, Cummings reminds me of Ludwig van Beethoven and his composing of The Ninth Symphony, especially “Ode to Joy.” (See my post on Immortal Beloved, a biopic on Beethoven, to learn more about the transcendent “Ode to Joy” scene.)

It has been more than thirty years since I’ve read The Enormous Room, but I still remember the sorrow and the joy Cummings expressed in its pages. I’m so glad Professor Rideout included The Enormous Room in his course on the 1920s. F. Scott Fitzgerald – another American writer who was enamored of Paris – said, "Of all the work by young men who have sprung up since 1920 one book survives—The Enormous Room by e e cummings.” Unfortunately, the book has not survived in the way Fitzgerald thought that it would, but it’s very much a book worth reading. Cummings emerges as a person of great sensitivity: a poet of spiritual wonder shines through.

Visit thestoryweb.com/cummings for links to all these resources and to hear Cummings read his poems at the 92nd Street Y in 1949 and at YMHA Poetry Center in New York in 1959.

Listen now as I read an excerpt from Chapter 5, “A Group of Portraits,” from The Enormous Room.


With the reader's permission I beg, at this point of my narrative, to indulge in one or two extrinsic observations.

In the preceding pages I have described my Pilgrim's Progress from the Slough of Despond, commonly known as Section Sanitaire Vingt-et-Un (then located at Germaine) through the mysteries of Noyon, Gr? and Paris to the Porte de Triage de La Fert? Mac?, Orne. With the end of my first day as a certified inhabitant of the latter institution a definite progression is brought to a close. Beginning with my second day at La Fert? a new period opens. This period extends to the moment of my departure and includes the discovery of The Delectable Mountains, two of which---The 'Wanderer, and I shall not say the other---have already been sighted. It is like a vast grey box in which are laid helter-skelter a great many toys, each of which is itself completely significant apart from the always unchanging temporal dimension which merely contains it along with the rest. I make this point clear for the benefit of any of my readers who have not had the distinguished privilege of being in jail. To those who have been in jail my meaning is at once apparent; particularly if they have had the highly enlightening experience of being in jail with a perfectly indefinite sentence. How, in such a case, could events occur and be remembered otherwise than as individualities distinct from Time Itself? Or, since one day and the next are the same to such a prisoner, where does Time come in at all? Obviously, once the prisoner is habituated to his environment, once he accepts the fact that speculation as to when he will regain his liberty cannot possibly shorten the hours of his incarceration and may very well drive him into a state of unhappiness (not to say morbidity), events can no longer succeed each other: whatever happens, while it may happen in connection with some other perfectly distinct happening, does not happen in a scale of temporal priorities---each happening is self-sufficient, irrespective of minutes, months and the other treasures of freedom.

It is for this reason that I do not purpose to inflict upon the reader a diary of my alternative aliveness and nonexistence at La Fert?---not because such a diary would unutterably bore him, but because the diary or time method is a technique which cannot possibly do justice to timelessness. I shall (on the contrary) lift from their grey box at random certain (to me) more or less astonishing toys; which may or may not please the reader, but whose colours and shapes and textures are a part of that actual Present---without future and past-whereof they alone are cognizant who, so to speak, have submitted to an amputation of the world.

I have already stated that La Fert? was a Porte de Triage ---that is to say, a place where suspects of all varieties were herded by le gouvernement fran?ais preparatory to their being judged as to their guilt by a Commission. If the Commission found that they were wicked persons, or dangerous persons, or undesirable persons, or puzzling persons, or persons in some way insusceptible of analysis, they were sent from La Fert? to a 'regular' prison, called Pr?cign?, in the province of Sarthe. About Pr?cign? the most awful rumours were spread. It was whispered that it had a huge moat about it, with an infinity of barbed-wire fences thirty feet high, and lights trained on the walls all night to discourage the escape of prisoners. Once in Pr?cign? you were 'in' for good and all, pour la dur?e de la guerre, which dur?e was a subject of occasional and dismal speculation---occasional for reasons (as I have mentioned) of mental health; dismal for unreasons of diet, privation, filth, and other trifles. La Fert? was, then, a stepping-stone either to freedom or to Pr?cign?, the chances in the former case being---no speculation here---something less than the now celebrated formula made famous by the 18th amendment. But the excellent and inimitable and altogether benignant French government was not satisfied with its own generosity in presenting one merely with Pr?cign?---beyond that lurked a cauchemar called by the singularly poetic name, Isle de Groix. A man who went to Isle de Groix was done.

As the Surveillant said to us all, leaning out of a littlish window, and to me personally upon occasion

'You are not prisoners. Oh, no. No indeed. I should say not. Prisoners are not treated like this. You are lucky.'

I had de la chance all right, but that was something which pauvre M. le Surveillant wot altogether not of. As for my fellow-prisoners, I am sorry to say that he was---it seems to my humble personality---quite wrong. For who was eligible to La Fert?? Anyone whom the police could find in the lovely country of France (a) who was not guilty of treason, (b) who could not prove that he was not guilty of treason. By treason I refer to any little annoying habits of independent thought or action which en temps de guerre are put in a hole and covered over, with the somewhat na?ve idea that from their cadavers violets will grow whereof the perfume will delight all good men and true and make such worthy citizens forget their sorrows. Fort Leavenworth, for instance, emanates even now a perfume which is utterly delightful to certain Americans. Just how many La Fert?s France boasted (and for all I know may still boast) God Himself knows. At least, in that Republic, amnesty has been proclaimed, or so I hear.---But to return to the Surveillant's remark.

J'avais de la chance. Because I am by profession a painter and a writer. 'Whereas my very good friends, all of them deeply suspicious characters, most of them traitors, without exception lucky to have the use of their cervical vertebr?, etc., etc., could (with a few exceptions) write not a word and read not a word; neither could they faire la photographie as Monsieur Auguste chucklingly called it (at which I blushed with pleasure): worst of all, the majority of these dark criminals who bad been caught in nefarious plots against the honour of France were totally unable to speak French. Curious thing. Often I pondered the unutterable and inextinguishable wisdom of the police, who---undeterred by facts which would have deceived less astute intelligences into thinking that these men were either too stupid or too simple to be connoisseurs of the art of betrayal---swooped upon their helpless prey with that indescribable courage which is the prerogative of policemen the world over, and bundled same prey into the La Fert?s of that mighty nation upon some, at least, of whose public buildings it seems to me that I remember reading

Libert?. Egalit?. Fraternit?.

And I wondered that France should have a use for Monsieur Auguste, who had been arrested (because he was a Russian) when his fellow munition workers made la gr?ve, and whose wife wanted him in Paris because she was hungry and because their child was getting to look queer and white. Monsieur Auguste, that desperate ruffian exactly five feet tall who---when he could not keep from crying (one must think about one's wife or even one's child once or twice, I merely presume, if one loves them) 'et ma femme est tr?s gen-tille, elle est fran-?aise et tr?s belle, tr?s, tr?s belle, vrai-ment elle n'est pas comme moi, ---un pe-tit homme laid, ma femme est grande et belle, elle sait bien lire et ?crire, vrai-ment; et notre fils ... vous de-vez voir notre pe-tit fils . . .'----used to, start up and cry out, taking B. by one arm and me by the other:

'Al-lons, mes amis! Chan-tons "Quackquackquack."' Whereupon we would join in the following song, which Monsieur Auguste had taught us with great care, and whose renditions gave him unspeakable delight:

'Un canard, d?ployant ses ailes
II disait ? sa canarde fid?le
Il chantait (Quackquackquack)
Il faisait (Quackquackquack)
....Quand' (spelling mine)
'finirons nos desseins,

I suppose I will always puzzle over the ecstasies of That Wonderful Duck. And how Monsieur Auguste, the merest gnome of a man, would bend backwards in absolute laughter at this song's spirited conclusion upon a note so low as to wither us all.



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111: Ann McGovern: "The Velvet Ribbon"

Mon, Oct 31, 2016

This week on StoryWeb: Ann McGovern’s spooky story “The Velvet Ribbon.”

Like many pre-teens and teens, I played the same records over and over and over again. My poor mother! When I was ten, she had to listen repeatedly to The Beatles’ 1970 collection, The Beatles Again, – and in later years, she was subjected to endless repeats of The Best of Bread, Eric Carmen’s self-titled album, Elton John’s Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt County, and perhaps the album that sticks in her mind most notably, Albert Hammond’s It Never Rains in Southern California.

But one recording that still haunts her, I am sure, is “The Velvet Ribbon.” This spoken word track was part of a 1970 Scholastic record, The Haunted House and Other Spooky Poems and Tales. Read by Carole Danell, this version of “The Velvet Ribbon” was written by Ann McGovern.

Like “Bloody Mary” or “Hook Hand” or “The Ghostly Hitchhiker,” it’s an oft-told tale with many variations, especially in the color of the ribbon. Black? Red? Green? It doesn’t really matter: the outcome is the same for the woman every time. She warns her new husband that he must never remove the velvet ribbon from around her neck. But does he listen? Of course not! When the disastrous result occurs in Ann McGovern’s version, the woman wails, “I told you you’d be sorry!” Danell’s narration is powerful and chilling. I loved that line so much – “I told you you’d be sorry” – that I played it constantly.

Curious about the origins of this frequently told tale, I did some research (of course!). Many commentators believe that the tale started during the French Revolution. A notable written version of the tale is Washington Irving’s 1824 short story, “The Adventure of the German Student,” which indeed is set in Paris during the French Revolution.

Why the French Revolution? Well, there were many beheadings: heads did roll! (Listen to the story, and you’ll see the connection!) And according to one website, “some analysts have noted the French Revolution-era tradition for the widows and widowers of those killed by the guillotine to wear red ribbons and scarves around their necks.”

The history of choker necklaces is also fascinating. The StartUp Fashion website provides an interesting overview of the role choker necklaces have played in Native American, East African, and European traditions. In Europe as time went along, a black ribbon tied around the neck was often a signal that the woman wearing the ribbon was a prostitute. Buzzfeed’s article “The Secret (and Not So Secret) History of Choker Necklaces” notes that chokers were also popular in Chinese, Indian, and Egyptian cultures – and the article includes many images of choker necklaces through the ages right up to the present time.

If you grew up in the 1970s and want to rekindle your love of Scholastic books and records, you can buy a used copy of the Scholastic record at Discogs. A used copy of the accompanying paperback is available through Amazon.

Visit thestoryweb.com/mcgovern for links to all these resources and to listen to the 1970 Scholastic recording of “The Velvet Ribbon,” written by Ann McGovern and read by Carole Danell. You can follow along with the text at the Dreadful Dreary website.

As you get ready for all the ghosts and goblins tonight, you might want to take a listen again to last year’s spooky offering: Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart.” Visit the storyweb.com/poe to learn about the story and to hear me read it in its entirety.

Happy Halloween!

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110: T.S. Eliot: "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock"

Mon, Oct 24, 2016

This week on StoryWeb: T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.”

T.S. Eliot isn’t for everyone. His poetry is notoriously difficult to read – dense, packed, allusive, and elusive. I wrote my master’s thesis on his later-in-life series of poems, Four Quartets, and at the time, I reveled in the density, the opaqueness of his poetry. I can remember reading – sweating over, agonizing over – The Waste Land the first time I encountered it in graduate school. What to make of this puzzling – but absolutely central and defining – poem of the modernist movement?

But there’s something more accessible about “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” – and maybe part of its accessibility is that there’s a hint of a story in this lyric – or at least there’s a character.

Once you’ve read “Prufrock” and certainly once you’ve studied it, you find that it is eminently quotable. I can recite numerous lines from “Prufrock”: “Let us go then, you and I,” “in the room, the women come and go / talking of Michelangelo,” “there will be time,” “I have measured out my life with coffee spoons,” and most compelling to me, “Till human voices wake us, and we drown.” You probably have your own favorite line.

And at this time of year, I can’t help but think of Eliot’s wonderful description of an October night, which appears near the poem’s opening:

The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes, 

The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes, 

Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening, 

Lingered upon the pools that stand in drains, 

Let fall upon its back the soot that falls from chimneys, 

Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap, 

And seeing that it was a soft October night, 

Curled once about the house, and fell asleep. 

“Prufrock” is often held up as a prime example of modernist alienation, and many people equate modernism with the pain and loss of World War I and its aftermath. (See Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway and Ernest Hemingway’s In Our Time for stunning examples of post-World War I modernist literature.)

But Eliot actually began writing “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” in 1910, and it was published in 1915, just a year after the war began. Even in the early 1910s, cultural observers like T.S. Eliot were sensing the despair, the sense of meaninglessness in twentieth-century Western civilization that would ultimately erupt in the Great War. Prufrock notices the “lonely men in shirt-sleeves” and says “I should have been a pair of ragged claws / scuttling across the floors of silent seas.”

One of the real treats for literary nerds like me is to hear Eliot read his own poetry, and nowhere is he better than in reading “Prufrock.” When you listen to him read (as you can at thestoryweb.com/eliot), you can be forgiven for thinking he is a Brit, to the manner born. But despite that affected accent, he actually hailed from St. Louis, Missouri, my hometown. I can assure you that no one in St. Louis has ever spoken like T.S. Eliot, not even his famous grandfather, William Greenleaf Eliot, the founding minister of First Unitarian Church of St. Louis and the founder of Washington University.

So where did Eliot acquire this accent? After some university study in Europe, he moved to London in 1914 at age 25 and became a British citizen at age 39 in 1927, when he also renounced his American citizenship. Later in life, as seen most notably in Four Quartets, he made a kind of tentative peace with America and with his forebears, but he always saw himself as British. In fact, Eliot is considered by many (like me) to be an American writer but by many others (including Eliot himself) as a British writer.

After working as a banker at Lloyd’s of London, Eliot eventually took a position as an editor at Faber and Faber, where he published the likes of W.H. Auden, Stephen Spender, and Ted Hughes. Now Faber and Faber hosts an extensive interactive website on T.S. Eliot, including a beautifully annotated version of “Prufrock.”

For an ingenious take on J. Alfred Prufrock as the prototype of the modern hipster, visit the Atlantic Monthly. Poet Donald Hall interviewed Eliot in 1959: the results are definitely worth your time. And you won’t want to miss Julian Peters’s treatment of the poem as a series of comics!

To explore Eliot’s amazing collection of work (poetry, plays, and essays), check out The Complete Poems and Plays: 1909-1950, T.S. Eliot: Collected Poems, 1909-1962, and Selected Prose of T.S. Eliot.

Eliot was recognized for his huge contribution to modern literature when he won the 1948 Nobel Prize for Literature. He died in 1965 in London and is buried in Westminster Abbey.

Visit thestoryweb.com/eliot for links to all these resources and to listen as T.S. Eliot reads “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.”

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109: Arthur Miller: "The Crucible"

Mon, Oct 17, 2016

This week on StoryWeb: Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible.

Last week, I featured Kathleen Kent’s fascinating novel The Heretic’s Daughter, which tells the story of Martha Carrier, Kent’s ninth great-grandmother, who was hanged as a witch in 1692 as part of the Salem Witch Trials. Fourteen women and six men were executed as suspected witches, one by being “pressed” to death with large stones, the rest by hanging. Many theories have been offered over the centuries for this heinous treatment of Salemites by their neighbors. What originally began as hysterical accusations by young girls quickly swept Salem and surrounding villages. Neighbors pointed fingers at neighbors, often those whom against they had long held grudges. No one was safe.

American playwright Arthur Miller – who was born 101 years ago today – saw parallels between the Salem Witch Trials and the McCarthy communism hearings of the 1950s, which came to be known as “witch hunts.” Led by Senator Joseph McCarthy, the hearings targeted numerous people McCarthy claimed were Communists and Soviet spies and sympathizers inside the U.S. federal government and in other circles.

Miller – himself convicted of contempt of Congress for refusing to name others who had been at meetings he had attended – knew all too well how accusers could band together, circle the wagons, and exclude and point fingers at those whom they feared. As Americans from all walks of life were called in to testify before the House of Representatives Committee on Un-American Activities, they were grilled not only about their own suspected Communist activities but – even more frighteningly – asked to name names. Who among their relatives, friends, and acquaintances did they suspect of being disloyal to the United States?

The McCarthy witch hunts particularly targeted Hollywood and other areas of the arts. Producers, directors, screenwriters, composers, writers, and far too many actors to name were accused of being Communist sympathizers. And in 1950s America, branding someone as a Communist sympathizer was indeed equivalent to the Puritans targeting a neighbor as a witch. Well-known performers and artists who were “blacklisted” include Charlie Chaplin, Burl Ives, Langston Hughes, Aaron Copland, Paul Robeson, Will Geer (of “The Waltons”), and even Arthur Miller himself. In many cases, their careers were destroyed forever. You can see a full list of the many creatives who were blacklisted on Wikipedia.

It was impossible not to see the striking similarities between the Salem Witch Trials and the McCarthy hearings. So when Arthur Miller sat down to write The Crucible in the early 1950s, he set himself the task of uncovering the reasons why human beings would turn on each other in such a brutal way. Why point the finger at a neighbor or friend, knowing full well that doing so could cost the neighbor her life or land the friend in prison?

To his credit, Miller never says in his play that he has the McCarthy hearings in mind or that he is drawing parallels between his time and the Puritan era. Instead, The Crucible is presented entirely as a historical piece. But given the time and world in which Miller wrote, it is impossible not to see the stark connection. You can learn more about the background to the writing of the play in Arthur Miller’s outstanding New Yorker article, “Why I Wrote The Crucible: An Artist’s Answers to Politics.” Writing The Crucible was, Miller says, “an act of desperation.” He says:

By 1950, when I began to think of writing about the hunt for Reds in America, I was motivated in some great part by the paralysis that had set in among many liberals who, despite their discomfort with the inquisitors' violations of civil rights, were fearful, and with good reason, of being identified as covert Communists if they should protest too strongly.

To create the play, Miller read Charles W. Upham's 1867 two-volume study of the 1692 Salem Witch Trials. In 1952, Miller went to Salem and read transcripts of the trials. He discovered in John Proctor an outspoken critic of the Salem court, which had decided to admit "spectral evidence" as proof of guilt. Miller saw parallels: as in his own time, he said, “the question was not the acts of an accused but his thoughts and intentions.”

Despite his extensive historical research, Miller’s dramatization of the Salem Witch Trials is just that – a dramatization. Much of the play is based on historical research, but some of the key dramatic elements are fictionalized. The protagonist of the play is John Proctor, one of the men who was executed in 1692, and his wife, Elizabeth Proctor, was also accused of practicing witchcraft. It is unlikely, however, that John Proctor had an affair with Abigail Williams. In 1692, she was eleven or twelve years old, while Proctor was sixty when he was hung. What rings true, however, is John Proctor’s vocal opposition to the witch trials: the historical John Proctor was strongly opposed to the trials and was especially dismissive of the “spectral evidence” used in the trials.

To learn more about the 1692 Salem Witch Trials, you can visit the Salem Witch Museum or explore an interactive online exhibit at National Geographic. An extensive collection of historical resources can be found at the 17th Century Colonial New England website.

For a critical view of The Crucible and its questionable presentation of historical fact, see Margo Burns’s essay “Arthur Miller’s The Crucible: Fact and Fiction (or Picky, Picky, Picky).” You can learn more about Arthur Miller’s personal experience with the McCarthy hearings at the BBC’s “On This Day” website.

Ready to experience the play for yourself? If there’s not currently a production near you, you might consider reading the stage play. Better yet, check out the 1996 film adaptation of The Crucible, which was written by Arthur Miller himself. It is an excellent way to experience the play. Daniel Day-Lewis’s portrayal of John Proctor is compelling indeed, bringing to vivid life Miller’s hero who must decide, in the end, what his name and reputation mean.

Visit thestoryweb.com/miller for links to all these resources and to watch a clip from the film adaptation of The Crucible. The featured scene shows the hysteria of the court, the pressure to point fingers at others, and John Proctor’s refusal to confess himself to be in league with the Devil.

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108: Kathleen Kent: "The Heretic's Daughter"

Mon, Oct 10, 2016

This week on StoryWeb: Kathleen Kent’s novel The Heretic’s Daughter.

Those who know me or know my work understand that I am compelled by family histories. I especially love it when contemporary writers delve into their family pasts to unearth secret stories and bring those hidden stories to life for modern readers. Think Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior – one of my key inspirations when I wrote Power in the Blood: A Family Narrative. I am always on the lookout for similar projects.

Imagine my delight, then, when I met author Kathleen Kent. We’d both just flown into Lexington, Kentucky, and had been picked up by the executive director of the Kentucky Book Fair, being held in nearby Frankfort, the state capital. Kathleen and I struck up what became a very animated conversation as we discovered that we were both promoting books relating to our families’ histories.

My book is about a decidedly obscure family – a poor, rural, hardscrabble family of Cherokee descent. My goal in writing Power in the Blood was to shine a light on the invisible past, to give voice to the voiceless.

But Kathleen’s family was famous – or perhaps, in some circles, infamous. For Kathleen is a tenth-generation direct descendant of Martha Carrier, arguably the most well-known of the people hung in 1692 in the village of Salem in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Carrier – like 19 other women and men – was falsely accused of witchcraft and executed as a result. She was hanged on August 19, 1692, the same day John Proctor was hung. Proctor became the inspiration for Arthur Miller’s 1953 play, The Crucible. (Stay tuned: next week I’ll discuss John Proctor and The Crucible.)

Long intrigued by this family legacy, Kathleen set out to write Martha’s tale and to show the impact of this heinous period in American history on the Carrier family.

So far, so good. I had met a writer whose work was simpatico with my own. But would the resulting novel – The Heretic’s Daughter – be any good? I am happy to answer with a resounding and unequivocal “YES!”

In The Heretic’s Daughter, her debut novel, Kathleen Kent reveals herself as a first-rate storyteller. She breathes life into the historical figure of Martha Carrier and the entire Carrier family, including her daughter Sarah from whose vantage point the story is told. Kathleen makes us care deeply about this Puritan family and the woman who was so wronged by the Massachusetts Bay Colony’s “justice” system.

Kathleen explains that she was raised hearing the story of her courageous ancestor:

I was told about the 19 men and women hanged, who went to their deaths rather than confess and live. And about how my great-grandmother, back nine generations, not only professed her innocence, but harshly admonished her judges not to listen to “these girls who are out of their wits.” It was my mother who first told me that Cotton Mather, one of the greatest theologians of his days, named Martha Carrier “The Queen of Hell,” not for her evil character, but because of her bold and assertive manner. . . . As my grandmother was fond of saying, with not a little pride, “Martha was not a witch. Merely a ferocious woman!”

To learn more about the 1692 Salem Witch Trials, visit the University of Virginia’s comprehensive Documentary Archive and Transcription Project. The website tells us that at least twenty-five people died as a result of the trials: nineteen were executed by hanging, one was tortured to death by being “pressed” with large stones, and at least five died in jail due to harsh conditions. In all, “over 160 people were accused of witchcraft, most were jailed, and many deprived of property and legal rights.” Those accused lived in the town of Salem, in Salem Village (now Danvers), and in Andover, where Martha Carrier and her family lived. Kathleen’s website also provides a good (and brief) overview of the Salem Witch Trials.

You can learn more about Kathleen Kent and her first novel, The Heretic’s Daughter, at the book’s official website. You can explore the Carrier family tree and learn about the Carrier family reunion Kathleen helped to organize in 2010. You can also listen to an audio interview with Kathleen, in which she explains the research she conducted as she wrote the novel, including spending time in Salem and surrounding areas. A New York Times book review of The Heretic’s Daughter provides a good introduction to the novel, as does the review in The Guardian, which calls the book “an exceptionally accomplished debut novel.” Best of all, you can read the first chapter online for free and listen to an audio excerpt from the novel.

And if you fall in love with The Heretic’s Daughter (as I know you will!), you can read more of Kathleen’s work. Of special note is another historical novel, The Traitor’s Wife, a prequel to The Heretic’s Daughter. It tells the story of Thomas and Martha Carrier in the years before the Salem Witch Trials. Kathleen has written two additional novels: The Outcasts and The Dime.

Visit thestoryweb.com/kent for links to all these resources and to watch as Kathleen Kent reads a short excerpt from The Heretic’s Daughter and talks about the family legacy of her ninth great-grandmother, Martha Carrier.

Join me next week when I’ll continue my exploration of the Salem Witch Trials with a look at Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible.


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107: Allen Ginsberg: "Howl"

Mon, Oct 03, 2016

This week on StoryWeb: Allen Ginsberg’s poem “Howl.”

On October 7, 1955, Allen Ginsberg made the literary world sit up and listen to his “Howl.” It premiered at the Six Gallery in San Francisco, with Ginsberg doing a reading of the long poem. After Ginsberg’s “howl” (his answer to Walt Whitman’s “barbaric yawp”), the literary world would never be the same again.

Michael McClure, another poet who read that evening, said, “Ginsberg read on to the end of the poem, which left us standing in wonder, or cheering and wondering, but knowing at the deepest level that a barrier had been broken, that a human voice and body had been hurled against the harsh wall of America.”

A few months later, in 1956, “Howl” was published along with other Ginsberg poems by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who ran City Lights Bookstore.

Truly, Allen Ginsberg was one of the great twentieth-century American poets, the literary heir to the nineteenth-century American bard Walt Whitman.

Whitman and Ginsberg shared so much in common. The first edition of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass came out in 1855, precisely one hundred years before Ginsberg first read “Howl” in public. Leave of Grass also had a rather notorious publication, and it, too, captured the attention of the literary establishment – in the person of Ralph Waldo Emerson, America’s most influential thinker and writer of the day.

Like Whitman, Ginsberg favored the extremely long poetic line. Like Whitman, he could not be contained.

Like Ginsberg, Whitman celebrated all Americans – from the prostitute to the President, including those from the nearly invisible underbelly of the United States. Whitman gloried in – sang the song of – laborers, immigrants, slaves, Native Americans, women, men, everyone.

Like Ginsberg, Whitman was a gay man in a dangerous time to be gay, though Ginsberg’s Beat contemporaries were likely much more accepting of Ginsberg’s sexuality than Whitman’s peers were. But as Ginsberg knew, the world of the Beat Generation was relatively small, and he faced a larger America deeply hostile to and extremely fearful of homosexuality.

But where Whitman celebrates Americans of every stripe, of every region, every race, both sexes, Ginsberg is howling, rending his clothes in anguish and despair. “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,” Ginsberg writes in the poem’s shocking opening.

Where Whitman was strongly encouraged by Emerson to tone down the frank sexuality of Leaves of Grass and where Whitman was shunned by polite society for the graphic nature of his poetry, Ginsberg was actually taken to court on obscenity charges for “Howl.” It was fifty-nine years ago today that a judge finally ruled that the poem was not obscene.

Of course, Whitman was not Ginsberg’s only influence. As you read “Howl,” you can pick up strains of Hebrew cadences, rhythms of Herman Melville’s epic voice, echoes of William Carlos Williams, inspirations from Jack Kerouac, and so much more.

But Ginsberg was explicit more than once that he saw Whitman as one of his primary influences. Ginsberg’s 1955 poem “A Supermarket in California” pays homage to Whitman, as Ginsberg imagines walking the grocery store aisles with Whitman, whom he addresses as “dear father, graybeard, lonely old courage-teacher.” Particularly moving is the Voices and Visions episode on Walt Whitman, which features Allen Ginsberg discussing his poetic and personal debt to Whitman. If you don’t want to watch the video, you can read a transcript of Ginsberg’s comments at the Allen Ginsberg Project website.

You can read “Howl” online at Poets.org or buy a copy of Howl and Other Poems. You can also buy the original draft facsimile of the poem. “This annotated version of Ginsberg's classic,” says the book’s cover, “is the poet's own re-creation of the revolutionary work's composition process—as well as a treasure trove of anecdotes, an intimate look at the poet's writing techniques, and a veritable social history of the 1950s”

To learn a great deal more about the famous poem and the obscenity trial, watch the film Howl, written and directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman and starring James Franco as Ginsberg. You might also want to read the outstanding New Yorker article “Bob Dylan, the Beat Generation, and Allen Ginsberg’s America.”

I’m proud to live in Boulder, Colorado, where Allen Ginsberg and Anne Waldman, another Beat poet, founded the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University, the nation’s only accredited Buddhist-inspired university. The Jack Kerouac School adds to the literary liveliness of Boulder.

Visit thestoryweb.com/Ginsberg for links to all these resources and to hear Allen Ginsberg read “Howl.”

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106: Richard Attenborough: "Shadowlands"

Mon, Sep 26, 2016

This week on StoryWeb: Richard Attenborough’s film Shadowlands.

“The pain then is part of the happiness now. That’s the deal.”

So says Joy Lewis to her husband, Jack, as they are enjoying their honeymoon in Herefordshire, England’s Golden Valley. Joy’s terminal cancer is in a brief remission, and Joy and Jack are reveling in their love and in their precious time together. Jack is better known to the world as C.S. Lewis, the author of a series of books on Christian theology as well as the famous Chronicles of Narnia children’s books.

Joy’s line – about the inextricable intermingling of pain and happiness, sorrow and joy – comes near the end of Richard Attenborough’s film Shadowlands, which tells the unlikely love story between American poet Joy Davidman Gresham and the Oxford University professor C.S. Lewis. The screenplay was written by William Nicholson, based on his stage play of the same name. Nicholson’s work was influenced in part by Douglas Gresham’s book Lenten Lands: My Childhood with Joy Davidman and C.S. Lewis.

A staid and confirmed bachelor, Jack – as he is known to his friends – has lived throughout his adult life with his brother, Warnie, also a staid and confirmed bachelor. They have friendly but distant relationships with the other professors at Oxford (virtually all men). They tutor students, dine at the university, smoke their pipes in convivial pubs, sip sherry in the evenings at their quiet home, maintained for them by their housekeeper, Mrs. Young.

When Joy Gresham appears on the scene, she arrives in full living color. “Anybody here called Lewis?” she practically shouts at the hotel when she goes to meet Jack and Warnie for the first time.

Jack will never be quite the same after meeting Joy. It takes him an inordinately long time to realize he’s in love with Joy – much longer than it takes the viewer to see his growing feelings for her. It is a delight to see their love and tenderness for each other unfold, especially to see Jack succumb to this late-in-life explosion of feeling, unsettling his predictable, safe life.

To learn more about C.S. Lewis, visit the official C.S. Lewis website, which includes a timeline of Lewis’s life. At the C.S. Lewis Foundation website, you can tour Lewis’s home (known as The Kilns) and explore a walking tour of Oxford. An interesting chapter of Lewis’s life is explored in Colin Duriez’s book Tolkien and C.S. Lewis: The Gift of Friendship. You may be particularly interested in Lewis’s book A Grief Observed, which was written under a pseudonym and which tells of his struggle to come to terms with Joy’s death.

To learn more about Joy Davidman (also known as Joy Gresham), a remarkable writer in her own right, you can visit the Wikipedia page on her and the Modern American Poetry page on her work. A biography of Davidman and an overview of her work can also be found at the C.S. Lewis Institute website. You might also want to read Lyle Dorsett’s biography of her, And God Came In: The Extraordinary Story of Joy Davidman, and Abigail Santamaria’s biography, Joy: Poet, Seeker, and the Woman Who Captivated C.S. Lewis.

Shadowlands is very much worth watching, starring Anthony Hopkins as C.S. Lewis and Debra Winger as Joy Gresham. You can explore Jack and Joy’s story even more fully by reading Brian Sibley’s book Through the Shadowlands: The Love Story of C.S. Lewis and Joy Davidman.

I first saw the film when it came out in 1993 – and the line about the marriage of pain and happiness has stayed with me these many years since. I watched the film again last week and was as deeply moved again as I had been the first time I heard those words. As the film ends, we witness Jack – the famed C.S. Lewis – transformed from the boy who chose safety in response to loss to the man who chooses suffering – the price for a great and true love.

“Why love if losing hurts so much?” Jack asks at the end of the film. That’s the deal – joy and sorrow, love and loss – all bound up together, no having one without the other. “The pain now is part of the happiness then.”

Visit thestoryweb.com/Attenborough for links to all these resources and to watch the clip from Shadowlands in which Joy and Jack talk together during their honeymoon in the Golden Valley.


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105: Michael Cunningham: "The Hours"

Mon, Sep 19, 2016

This week on StoryWeb: Michael Cunningham’s novel The Hours.

In her fascinating book Virginia Woolf Icon, Brenda Silver examines all the ways Woolf has become a potent international symbol. You can buy a Barnes and Noble canvas bag featuring Woolf’s face, and the British National Portrait Gallery sells thousands of Woolf postcards a month. And of course, the great American playwright Edward Albee famously asked Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

American novelist Michael Cunningham is clearly not afraid of Virginia Woolf. He says of Woolf’s novel Mrs. Dalloway:

I suspect any serious reader has a first great book, just the way anybody has a first kiss. For me it was this book. It stayed with me in a way no other book ever has. And it felt like something for me to write about very much the way you might write a novel based on the first time you fell in love.

Cunningham’s 1998 novel, The Hours, is a kind of homage to and deep exploration of Mrs. Dalloway, which I discussed in last week’s StoryWeb episode. The Hours is not a rewriting of her 1935 novel per se, but a reimagining, a fractured retelling, both a sequel of sorts to Mrs. Dalloway and a wholly new work on its own. Cunningham says, “I think it’s like the way a jazz musician might do a riff on an older established piece of music. It doesn’t claim or conceal the older piece of music, but it takes that music and turns it into something else.”

The Hours weaves together the stories of three women – Laura Brown, an American housewife who is reading Mrs. Dalloway in 1949; Clarissa Vaughn, a late-twentieth century American whose friend Richard, a prominent writer, is dying of AIDS; and Virginia Woolf herself in 1923 as she begins to write Mrs. Dalloway. All three women are presented on one key day in their lives. The novel’s prologue, which you can read online, tells the story of Woolf’s suicide in 1941. The women’s stories comment on each other in provocative ways, and the reader is in for some unexpected plot twists.

Though some of have seen The Hours as a derivative knock-off of Woolf’s masterpiece, others see it as a postmodern tour de force, a bold intertextual response to Mrs. Dalloway. As it riffs on one of the most important modernist novels, The Hours is, I believe, a great postmodernist novel.

Wondering just what I mean by postmodern? I won’t go all academic on you, but if you take the time to read Mrs. Dalloway and then The Hours, I think you’ll be fascinated by two key features of postmodernism -- intertextuality and palimpsest – and how they apply to Cunningham’s novel.

Intertextuality, says Roland Barthes, recognizes that “[a]ny text is a new tissue of past citations.” A new piece of writing builds on the text of works that have come before. A writer cannot write anything wholly original, and as T.S. Eliot noted in “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” even the original work shifts and changes when a new piece of writing comes into the world. Mrs. Dalloway isn’t quite Mrs. Dalloway anymore, now that The Hours has been written.

The notion of palimpsest also applies to The Hours. A palimpsest is “a manuscript on which an earlier text has been effaced and the . . . parchment reused for another [text].” In medieval religious circles, writers would “rub out an earlier piece of writing by . . . washing or scraping the manuscript, in order to prepare it for a new text.” The historical practice of creating palimpsests fascinates postmodernists, who self-consciously write their “new” words on the face of words that have gone before. Michael Cunningham symbolically writes The Hours on the manuscript of Mrs. Dalloway.

If you want to dig deeper into what Cunningham was up to in creating this unique homage to a previous novel, check out John Mullan’s pieces in The Guardian: “Imitation” (on Cunningham’s take on Mrs. Dalloway), “Separate Reels” (on the parallel narratives between Woolf’s novel and Cunningham’s novel), and “Who’s Afraid of Rewriting Woolf?” (on intertextuality).

And if you’re ready to learn more about Cunningham, read about his reaction to winning the Pulitzer Prize for The Hours or read the transcript of the PBS Online NewsHour interview with him just after the award was announced.

Of course, Cunningham’s novel was made into an outstanding film, also titled The Hours. It stars Julianne Moore as Laura Brown, Meryl Streep as Clarissa Vaughn, and Nicole Kidman as Virginia Woolf. Kidman won the Academy Award for Best Actress.

To learn more about the film, check out the New York Times’ excellent resource, “Virginia Woolf and The Hours,” which includes a slide show of the film. Be sure to read Matt Wolf's essay on the film, “Clarissa Dalloway in a Hall of Mirrors.” Carol Iannone’s reflective essay, “Woolf, Women, and The Hours,” is also insightful. You might also want to take a look at the BBC’s web project on the film. Finally, you can check out Cunningham’s reflections on the film. If you just can’t get enough of the film, you can learn about screenplay writer David Hare, director Stephen Daldry, and composer Philip Glass.

Should we be afraid of Virginia Woolf and the darkness she confronts in her writing, the darkness she confronted in herself? Michael Cunningham doesn’t think so. He says:

I can’t imagine wanting to write a novel that wasn’t about darkness in some way. I don’t feel like we need much help with our happiness. The Kodak moments we can manage on our own – I don’t mean to dismiss happiness. We can manage our happiness on our own. I feel like what we need art for is a little bit of solace, a little bit of company in trying to deal with the darker stuff. At the same time, I would never write a pessimistic book. I think writing is, by definition, an optimistic act.

Or as Clarissa Vaughn asks herself in The Hours, “Why else do we struggle to go on living, no matter how compromised, no matter how harmed?” Her answer? “[W]e want desperately to live.”

Ultimately, Mrs. Dalloway and The Hours are works of great optimism, strength, and courage – despite Septimus Warren Smith’s profound struggle with shell shock, despite Woolf’s ultimate decision to commit suicide, despite Richard’s AIDS and its outcome. Read these novels, watch these films, and see if you, too, aren’t reaffirmed in the celebration of life, its happiness – and its darkness.

Visit thestoryweb.com/Cunningham for links to all these resources and to listen to Michael Cunningham read from The Hours. You can also watch the opening sequence from The Hours, which depicts Virginia Woolf’s suicide in 1941.


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104: Virginia Woolf: "Mrs. Dalloway"

Mon, Sep 12, 2016

This week on StoryWeb: Virginia Woolf’s novel Mrs. Dalloway.

“Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.” Has there ever been a more graceful first line of a novel than that? Virginia Woolf’s 1925 novel, Mrs. Dalloway, is graceful and poised, like her title character, ever one to have things “just so.” Her dinner party – toward which the whole novel rushes – is sumptuous, elegant, and in every possible way, “just so.”

But of course, there’s much more here than meets the eye. Old bonds as well as old rifts and hurts swirl through the party as Clarissa Dalloway confronts Sally Seton (with whom she’d had a flirtation in her youth) and Peter Walsh (whose marriage proposal she had rejected in that same youth). In this modernist novel, all time is present at once, and as Clarissa, Sally, and Peter meet at the dinner party, they’re each – individually – transported three decades into the past, reliving the scintillating and very nearly risqu? time at the country estate of Bourton when Clarissa kissed Sally, broke Peter’s heart, and met her future husband, Richard Dalloway.

And yet there is even more seething underneath the surface of these upper-middle-class concerns. For this is London, 1923, post-World War I, a devastated London trying to pick up its bombed-out shards and rebuild itself. Running parallel to Clarissa, Sally, Peter, and Richard’s story is the plotline belonging to Septimus Warren Smith, a shell-shocked veteran. His Italian wife, Lucrezia, takes him on quiet walks in London parks and tries to soothe him. But Septimus won’t be soothed – just as Woolf seems to be saying that London, Europe, indeed the entire world won’t be soothed. As Septimus’s story makes abundantly clear, Septimus and his fellow veterans are not the walking wounded. They are very nearly the hobbling dead, passing time in a twilight evening.

Woolf’s ability to pull Clarissa Dalloway together with Septimus Warren Smith is nothing short of miraculous. These two worlds – that of the privileged, moneyed class and that of the barely surviving veterans, the fodder for the aristocracy’s war – weave in and out of each other’s lives.

Mrs. Dalloway is definitely worth reading – both on its own merits and as a way into American novelist Michael Cunningham’s 1998 retelling of it in The Hours. Clarissa Dalloway is a character you will not soon forget, whether you meet her as she was first conceived in the pages of Woolf’s novel or on the screen in Vanessa Redgrave’s portrayal of her or whether you meet permutations of Clarissa in Cunningham’s The Hours or watch Julianne Moore, Meryl Streep, and Nicole Kidman present their own takes on shades of Mrs. Dalloway and Virginia Woolf herself.

If this is your first time reading Virginia Woolf, be gently forewarned. She is every bit the stream-of-consciousness modernist, playing, as she did, a central role in dismantling the traditional novel and then completely reinventing it. As Woolf said, “[It is] precisely the task of the writer to go beyond the ‘formal railway line of sentence' and to show how people ‘feel or think or dream . . . all over the place.’” British novelist E.M. Forster, a contemporary of Woolf’s, agreed with her description of what she was trying to do in Mrs. Dalloway. He said, “It is easy for a novelist to describe what a character thinks of. . . . But to convey the actual process of thinking is a creative feat, and I know of no one except Virginia Woolf who has accomplished it.”

Given Woolf’s startling, groundbreaking, narrative-shattering approach to fiction, how does one actually set about reading Mrs. Dalloway? My advice is much the same as the advice I offered for reading William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury: simply let Woolf’s prose wash over you. Little by little, you’ll begin to grasp the story. And if you’re wondering what Woolf had in mind as she wrote Mrs. Dalloway, read excerpts from her diary!

Much of the novel focuses on London walks taken by various characters. The Mrs. Dalloway Mapping Project is an excellent website, as is Clarissa Dalloway’s London. And if you ever find yourself in London and wish to retrace Mrs. Dalloway’s steps on her famous walk, you can download a written walking tour guide as well as an audio walking tour. You’ll also want to have with you Jean Moorcroft Wilson’s indispensable volume, Virginia Woolf's London: A Guide to Bloomsbury and Beyond. Numerous other resources tracing Woolf’s relationship to London and its outskirts can be found at the Blogging Woolf website. Learn more about Virginia Woolf by visiting the Virginia Woolf Society of Great Britain’s website. The Virginia Woolf Blog features an interactive timeline of Woolf’s life, complete with links to information about important people and events in her life. The New York Times also has a treasure trove of archived articles about Woolf.

Of course, Woolf was a central figure in the Bloomsbury Group, which also had a country home in Charleston. A key part of Bloomsbury was Hogarth Press, which Woolf and her husband, Leonard, established as a vehicle for publishing modernist literature, including the poetry of T.S. Eliot. Learn more about the press at Yale University’s Modernism Lab website.

In addition to her outstanding collection of writing, Virginia Woolf is also well known for her profound struggles with mental illness, which led her to commit suicide in 1941. An excellent multimedia website – Woolf, Creativity, and Madness – provides deep insight into this aspect of Woolf’s life.

Ready to read Mrs. Dalloway? You’ll definitely want a hard copy of this complex novel (and besides, since the novel is still under copyright in the United States, there are no legal, free online versions). You might also find it interesting to read more of Woolf’s work. I recommend The Virginia Woolf Reader, edited by Mitchell A. Leaska.

Whether you read the novel or not, you’ll definitely want to watch the outstanding film based on it. Vanessa Redgrave plays Mrs. Dalloway, and screenplay writer Eileen Atkins is known for her portrayal of Virginia Woolf in British theatrical productions. She has played Woolf in the one-woman show, A Room of One's Own, and she also played Woolf in Vita and Virginia, a play which Atkins herself wrote. In the New York production of Vita and Virginia, Redgrave played Vita Sackville-West opposite Atkins's Woolf.

Visit thestoryweb.com/woolf for links to all these resources and to watch an excerpt from the film. The video clip features Clarissa and Peter at Bourton and moves ahead thirty years as Clarissa, Peter, and Sally reflect on that summer during Clarissa’s dinner party. You can then listen to the only known recording of Virginia Woolf’s voice. Recorded in 1937 as part of a BBC radio broadcast, the clip features Woolf’s thoughts on craftsmanship and language.

Tune in next week, when StoryWeb will feature Michael Cunningham’s novel The Hours and the film based on it. The Hours will shift and deepen your understanding of Virginia Woolf and Mrs. Dalloway.

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103: Rebecca Harding Davis: "Life in the Iron Mills"

Mon, Sep 05, 2016

This week on StoryWeb: Rebecca Harding Davis’s short story “Life in the Iron Mills.”

In honor of Labor Day, StoryWeb focuses this week on a groundbreaking piece of American fiction that brought to national attention the plight of industrial workers. Rebecca Harding Davis’s 1861 short story, “Life in the Iron Mills,” is one of the first pieces of literature written about what is now West Virginia. The story takes place near Wheeling, in the state’s northern panhandle, a region that actually has more in common with nearby Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, than with the coal mines of West Virginia.

Nevertheless, “Life in the Iron Mills” is a hard, gritty story of industrialization in what we might call the greater Appalachian region. The story brings to mind Thomas Hobbes’s observation that life is “nasty, brutish, and short” – as well as Charles Dickens’s 1854 novel of industrialization, Hard Times.

The story’s characters – Hugh Wolfe and his cousin, Deborah Wolfe, both of whom are Welsh immigrants – are not as vividly drawn as, say, Harriette Simpson Arnow’s heroine, Gertie Nevels, in The Dollmaker. Wolfe and Deborah are not characters we come to know deeply. But their situation is riveting and compelling. We feel – as Davis intended us to feel – outrage at the way the mill owners chew up and spit out their workers.

For my money, it is the story’s opening that stands out. The town is so gritty, so dingy, so smoky that even a caged canary is gray, rather than yellow. The unnamed narrator says as the story opens:

A cloudy day: do you know what that is in a town of iron-works? The sky sank down before dawn, muddy, flat, immovable. The air is thick, clammy with the breath of crowded human beings.

The idiosyncrasy of this town is smoke. It rolls sullenly in slow folds from the great chimneys of the iron-foundries, and settles down in black, slimy pools on the muddy streets. Smoke on the wharves, smoke on the dingy boats, on the yellow river.

Davis’s story is one of the earliest examples of the “local color movement” in which writers from regions across the United States focused on the dialect, mannerisms, and customs of particular locales. Most of the local color writers – such as Sarah Orne Jewett and Kate Chopin – featured “slice-of-life” sketches. But Davis, importantly, uses what would become stock-in-trade local color techniques to expose the brutality of the mill system. For this reason, she is considered one of the early pioneers of social realist fiction and proletariat fiction.

Davis can also be linked to another American writer who exposed the dehumanizing effects of the industrial revolution. In his 1853 short story, “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” Herman Melville looks at the toll mind-numbing, soulless, bureaucratic work can have on the clerks, lawyers, and paper-pushers of Wall Street. At first glance, Bartleby, the scrivener (or human copy machine) and Huge Wolfe, the iron mill worker, may seem to have nothing in common. But read together, read against each other, read in tandem, it becomes clear that these two stories were written in nearly the same moment in time. Hugh Wolfe dies from the ravages of his life in the iron mills, and Bartleby dies as a nearly forgotten pawn in the legal machine that keeps the industrial system going.

Ready to read Davis’s story yourself? Read it in the archives of the Atlantic Monthly, where it was originally published to much acclaim. If you want to go further in your exploration of Davis’s work, be sure to check out A Rebecca Harding Davis Reader. You may also want to read Sharon M. Harris’s book, Rebecca Harding Davis and American Realism.

For links to all these resources, visit thestoryweb.com/davis. Listen now as I read the opening paragraphs from Rebecca Harding Davis’s story “Life in the Iron Mills.”


A cloudy day: do you know what that is in a town of iron-works? The sky sank down before dawn, muddy, flat, immovable. The air is thick, clammy with the breath of crowded human beings. It stifles me. I open the window, and, looking out, can scarcely see through the rain the grocer's shop opposite, where a crowd of drunken Irishmen are puffing Lynchburg tobacco in their pipes. I can detect the scent through all the foul smells ranging loose in the air.

The idiosyncrasy of this town is smoke. It rolls sullenly in slow folds from the great chimneys of the iron-foundries, and settles down in black, slimy pools on the muddy streets. Smoke on the wharves, smoke on the dingy boats, on the yellow river,—clinging in a coating of greasy soot to the house-front, the two faded poplars, the faces of the passers-by. The long train of mules, dragging masses of pig-iron through the narrow street, have a foul vapor hanging to their reeking sides. Here, inside, is a little broken figure of an angel pointing upward from the mantel-shelf; but even its wings are covered with smoke, clotted and black. Smoke everywhere! A dirty canary chirps desolately in a cage beside me. Its dream of green fields and sunshine is a very old dream,—almost worn out, I think.

From the back-window I can see a narrow brick-yard sloping down to the river-side, strewed with rain-butts and tubs. The river, dull and tawny-colored, (la belle riviere!) drags itself sluggishly along, tired of the heavy weight of boats and coal-barges. What wonder? When I was a child, I used to fancy a look of weary, dumb appeal upon the face of the negro-like river slavishly bearing its burden day after day. Something of the same idle notion comes to me to-day, when from the street-window I look on the slow stream of human life creeping past, night and morning, to the great mills. Masses of men, with dull, besotted faces bent to the ground, sharpened here and there by pain or cunning; skin and muscle and flesh begrimed with smoke and ashes; stooping all night over boiling caldrons of metal, laired by day in dens of drunkenness and infamy; breathing from infancy to death an air saturated with fog and grease and soot, vileness for soul and body. What do you make of a case like that, amateur psychologist? You call it an altogether serious thing to be alive: to these men it is a drunken jest, a joke,—horrible to angels perhaps, to them commonplace enough. My fancy about the river was an idle one: it is no type of such a life. What if it be stagnant and slimy here? It knows that beyond there waits for it odorous sunlight, quaint old gardens, dusky with soft, green foliage of apple-trees, and flushing crimson with roses,—air, and fields, and mountains. The future of the Welsh puddler passing just now is not so pleasant. To be stowed away, after his grimy work is done, in a hole in the muddy graveyard, and after that, not air, nor green fields, nor curious roses.

Can you see how foggy the day is? As I stand here, idly tapping the windowpane, and looking out through the rain at the dirty back-yard and the coalboats below, fragments of an old story float up before me,—a story of this house into which I happened to come to-day. You may think it a tiresome story enough, as foggy as the day, sharpened by no sudden flashes of pain or pleasure.—I know: only the outline of a dull life, that long since, with thousands of dull lives like its own, was vainly lived and lost: thousands of them, massed, vile, slimy lives, like those of the torpid lizards in yonder stagnant water-butt.—Lost? There is a curious point for you to settle, my friend, who study psychology in a lazy, dilettante way. Stop a moment. I am going to be honest. This is what I want you to do. I want you to hide your disgust, take no heed to your clean clothes, and come right down with me,—here, into the thickest of the fog and mud and foul effluvia. I want you to hear this story. There is a secret down here, in this nightmare fog, that has lain dumb for centuries: I want to make it a real thing to you. You, Egoist, or Pantheist, or Arminian, busy in making straight paths for your feet on the hills, do not see it clearly,—this terrible question which men here have gone mad and died trying to answer. I dare not put this secret into words. I told you it was dumb. These men, going by with drunken faces and brains full of unawakened power, do not ask it of Society or of God. Their lives ask it; their deaths ask it. There is no reply. I will tell you plainly that I have a great hope; and I bring it to you to be tested. It is this: that this terrible dumb question is its own reply; that it is not the sentence of death we think it, but, from the very extremity of its darkness, the most solemn prophecy which the world has known of the Hope to come. I dare make my meaning no clearer, but will only tell my story. It will, perhaps, seem to you as foul and dark as this thick vapor about us, and as pregnant with death; but if your eyes are free as mine are to look deeper, no perfume-tinted dawn will be so fair with promise of the day that shall surely come.




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102: Emily Bronte: Wuthering Heights

Mon, Aug 29, 2016

This week on StoryWeb: Emily Bront?’s novel, Wuthering Heights.

Ooh! Heathcliff! That’s who I think of when I think of Emily Bront?’s 1847 novel, Wuthering Heights.

Sure, there’s Catherine and Nelly Dean and the moors and the intricately layered story within a story, but for me, it is all about Heathcliff, the quintessential dark, brooding, fiery, untamed Romantic hero. We know we shouldn’t be drawn to the rough-and-tumble Heathcliff. But, oh, how can we can help it?

I love the novel’s opening – as Mr. Lockwood, Heathcliff’s new tenant at the lofty estate Thrushcross Grange, recounts his “welcome” by Heathcliff and his hearth-side dogs, surlier even than their master. This scene is quickly followed by Lockwood’s haunting night spent at Wuthering Heights – the nightmares to which he succumbs, the tree branch banging incessantly against the window, the ghostly appearance of Catherine. If those scenes don’t draw you into a novel, you might as well give up, dear reader.

In a way, I guess you could say Wuthering Heights is a ghost story – for certainly Catherine haunts Heathcliff throughout the novel. Indeed, it is a spooky but thoroughly compelling experience to read Wuthering Heights, drawn in as we are by the Lockwood’s mysterious visits to Wuthering Heights.

As Nelly (the very definition of an “unreliable narrator”) begins to weave her yarn for Lockwood, we’re drawn in further still, yearning to know who Catherine Earnshaw is, to unlock the puzzle of the forbidding Heathcliff.

I first read Wuthering Heights when I was in junior high. It was one of the classics my mother and I read together one summer. I’d read a book first – Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Charlotte Bront?’s Jane Eyre, her sister’s Wuthering Heights – and when I had finished, my mother would take her turn.

At that young age and at that first reading, I fell for Nelly’s version of events – hook, line, and sinker. It wasn’t until I read the novel again (and again) and began to really study it that I discovered just how untrustworthy Nelly was, how she was not just an innocent bystander to Catherine and Heathcliff’s doomed romance but perhaps the cause of the bitter outcome. Perhaps if Nelly had not played the role she did, Catherine and Heathcliff – those ill-fated lovers – would have fulfilled their love.

But then we wouldn’t have Wuthering Heights, would we?

Wuthering Heights is Emily Bront?’s only novel, published under the pseudonym “Ellis Bell.” Bront? died the following year at age thirty from tuberculosis. After she died, her sister Charlotte edited Wuthering Heights and had a second edition published in 1850.

The novel sparked strong reactions from nineteenth-century readers. The English poet and painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti called it “A fiend of a book – an incredible monster. . . . The action is laid in hell, – only it seems places and people have English names there.”

The book is indeed fiendish, from its brooding hero and vexing heroine to the wild moors they call home. When the novel opens and Lockwood visits Heathcliff at Wuthering Heights and encounters the wild curs, it’s as if he is face to face with Cerberus, the hound of Hades. What an introduction to Wuthering Heights – the place and the novel!

You can read Wuthering Heights online at Project Gutenberg, but you’ll definitely want to have a hard copy of this marvelous, enduring novel. As you read, it can help to consult a family tree, a relationships map, or a timeline.

Want to know more about Emily Bront?, Wuthering Heights, and the Yorkshire moors? Check out Mental Floss’s “10 Things You May Not Know about ‘Wuthering Heights.’” For links to numerous scholarly resources on Emily Bront? and Wuthering Heights, visit The Victorian Web. For more on Emily Bront? and her family, read the StoryWeb post on her sister’s novel Jane Eyre. You’ll definitely understand why their brother, Branwell, has often been said to be the inspiration for Hindley Earnshaw, Catherine’s older brother. And finally, you’ll want to visit the moors.

When Emily Bront? died just a year after Wuthering Heights’ first publication, she thought the book had been a failure. Little could she have known that it would go on to become one of the best-known and, unlikely as it seems given its haunting, “fiendish” qualities, one of the most beloved novels in the English language. Long live Heathcliff!

For links to all these resources, visit thestoryweb.com/emilybronte.

Listen now as I read Chapter I of Emily Bront?’s Wuthering Heights.


1801.—I have just returned from a visit to my landlord—the solitary neighbour that I shall be troubled with.  This is certainly a beautiful country!  In all England, I do not believe that I could have fixed on a situation so completely removed from the stir of society.  A perfect misanthropist’s heaven: and Mr. Heathcliff and I are such a suitable pair to divide the desolation between us.  A capital fellow!  He little imagined how my heart warmed towards him when I beheld his black eyes withdraw so suspiciously under their brows, as I rode up, and when his fingers sheltered themselves, with a jealous resolution, still further in his waistcoat, as I announced my name.

‘Mr. Heathcliff?’ I said.

A nod was the answer.

‘Mr. Lockwood, your new tenant, sir.  I do myself the honour of calling as soon as possible after my arrival, to express the hope that I have not inconvenienced you by my perseverance in soliciting the occupation of Thrushcross Grange: I heard yesterday you had had some thoughts—’

‘Thrushcross Grange is my own, sir,’ he interrupted, wincing.  ‘I should not allow any one to inconvenience me, if I could hinder it—walk in!’

The ‘walk in’ was uttered with closed teeth, and expressed the sentiment, ‘Go to the Deuce:’ even the gate over which he leant manifested no sympathising movement to the words; and I think that circumstance determined me to accept the invitation: I felt interested in a man who seemed more exaggeratedly reserved than myself.

When he saw my horse’s breast fairly pushing the barrier, he did put out his hand to unchain it, and then sullenly preceded me up the causeway, calling, as we entered the court,—‘Joseph, take Mr. Lockwood’s horse; and bring up some wine.’

‘Here we have the whole establishment of domestics, I suppose,’ was the reflection suggested by this compound order.  ‘No wonder the grass grows up between the flags, and cattle are the only hedge-cutters.’

Joseph was an elderly, nay, an old man: very old, perhaps, though hale and sinewy.  ‘The Lord help us!’ he soliloquised in an undertone of peevish displeasure, while relieving me of my horse: looking, meantime, in my face so sourly that I charitably conjectured he must have need of divine aid to digest his dinner, and his pious ejaculation had no reference to my unexpected advent.

Wuthering Heights is the name of Mr. Heathcliff’s dwelling.  ‘Wuthering’ being a significant provincial adjective, descriptive of the atmospheric tumult to which its station is exposed in stormy weather.  Pure, bracing ventilation they must have up there at all times, indeed: one may guess the power of the north wind blowing over the edge, by the excessive slant of a few stunted firs at the end of the house; and by a range of gaunt thorns all stretching their limbs one way, as if craving alms of the sun.  Happily, the architect had foresight to build it strong: the narrow windows are deeply set in the wall, and the corners defended with large jutting stones.

Before passing the threshold, I paused to admire a quantity of grotesque carving lavished over the front, and especially about the principal door; above which, among a wilderness of crumbling griffins and shameless little boys, I detected the date ‘1500,’ and the name ‘Hareton Earnshaw.’  I would have made a few comments, and requested a short history of the place from the surly owner; but his attitude at the door appeared to demand my speedy entrance, or complete departure, and I had no desire to aggravate his impatience previous to inspecting the penetralium.

One stop brought us into the family sitting-room, without any introductory lobby or passage: they call it here ‘the house’ pre-eminently.  It includes kitchen and parlour, generally; but I believe at Wuthering Heights the kitchen is forced to retreat altogether into another quarter: at least I distinguished a chatter of tongues, and a clatter of culinary utensils, deep within; and I observed no signs of roasting, boiling, or baking, about the huge fireplace; nor any glitter of copper saucepans and tin cullenders on the walls.  One end, indeed, reflected splendidly both light and heat from ranks of immense pewter dishes, interspersed with silver jugs and tankards, towering row after row, on a vast oak dresser, to the very roof.  The latter had never been under-drawn: its entire anatomy lay bare to an inquiring eye, except where a frame of wood laden with oatcakes and clusters of legs of beef, mutton, and ham, concealed it.  Above the chimney were sundry villainous old guns, and a couple of horse-pistols: and, by way of ornament, three gaudily-painted canisters disposed along its ledge.  The floor was of smooth, white stone; the chairs, high-backed, primitive structures, painted green: one or two heavy black ones lurking in the shade.  In an arch under the dresser reposed a huge, liver-coloured bitch pointer, surrounded by a swarm of squealing puppies; and other dogs haunted other recesses.

The apartment and furniture would have been nothing extraordinary as belonging to a homely, northern farmer, with a stubborn countenance, and stalwart limbs set out to advantage in knee-breeches and gaiters.  Such an individual seated in his arm-chair, his mug of ale frothing on the round table before him, is to be seen in any circuit of five or six miles among these hills, if you go at the right time after dinner.  But Mr. Heathcliff forms a singular contrast to his abode and style of living.  He is a dark-skinned gipsy in aspect, in dress and manners a gentleman: that is, as much a gentleman as many a country squire: rather slovenly, perhaps, yet not looking amiss with his negligence, because he has an erect and handsome figure; and rather morose.  Possibly, some people might suspect him of a degree of under-bred pride; I have a sympathetic chord within that tells me it is nothing of the sort: I know, by instinct, his reserve springs from an aversion to showy displays of feeling—to manifestations of mutual kindliness.  He’ll love and hate equally under cover, and esteem it a species of impertinence to be loved or hated again.  No, I’m running on too fast: I bestow my own attributes over-liberally on him.  Mr. Heathcliff may have entirely dissimilar reasons for keeping his hand out of the way when he meets a would-be acquaintance, to those which actuate me.  Let me hope my constitution is almost peculiar: my dear mother used to say I should never have a comfortable home; and only last summer I proved myself perfectly unworthy of one.

While enjoying a month of fine weather at the sea-coast, I was thrown into the company of a most fascinating creature: a real goddess in my eyes, as long as she took no notice of me.  I ‘never told my love’ vocally; still, if looks have language, the merest idiot might have guessed I was over head and ears: she understood me at last, and looked a return—the sweetest of all imaginable looks.  And what did I do?  I confess it with shame—shrunk icily into myself, like a snail; at every glance retired colder and farther; till finally the poor innocent was led to doubt her own senses, and, overwhelmed with confusion at her supposed mistake, persuaded her mamma to decamp.  By this curious turn of disposition I have gained the reputation of deliberate heartlessness; how undeserved, I alone can appreciate.

I took a seat at the end of the hearthstone opposite that towards which my landlord advanced, and filled up an interval of silence by attempting to caress the canine mother, who had left her nursery, and was sneaking wolfishly to the back of my legs, her lip curled up, and her white teeth watering for a snatch.  My caress provoked a long, guttural gnarl.

‘You’d better let the dog alone,’ growled Mr. Heathcliff in unison, checking fiercer demonstrations with a punch of his foot.  ‘She’s not accustomed to be spoiled—not kept for a pet.’  Then, striding to a side door, he shouted again, ‘Joseph!’

Joseph mumbled indistinctly in the depths of the cellar, but gave no intimation of ascending; so his master dived down to him, leaving me vis-?-vis the ruffianly bitch and a pair of grim shaggy sheep-dogs, who shared with her a jealous guardianship over all my movements.  Not anxious to come in contact with their fangs, I sat still; but, imagining they would scarcely understand tacit insults, I unfortunately indulged in winking and making faces at the trio, and some turn of my physiognomy so irritated madam, that she suddenly broke into a fury and leapt on my knees.  I flung her back, and hastened to interpose the table between us.  This proceeding aroused the whole hive: half-a-dozen four-footed fiends, of various sizes and ages, issued from hidden dens to the common centre.  I felt my heels and coat-laps peculiar subjects of assault; and parrying off the larger combatants as effectually as I could with the poker, I was constrained to demand, aloud, assistance from some of the household in re-establishing peace.

Mr. Heathcliff and his man climbed the cellar steps with vexatious phlegm: I don’t think they moved one second faster than usual, though the hearth was an absolute tempest of worrying and yelping.  Happily, an inhabitant of the kitchen made more despatch: a lusty dame, with tucked-up gown, bare arms, and fire-flushed cheeks, rushed into the midst of us flourishing a frying-pan: and used that weapon, and her tongue, to such purpose, that the storm subsided magically, and she only remained, heaving like a sea after a high wind, when her master entered on the scene.

‘What the devil is the matter?’ he asked, eyeing me in a manner that I could ill endure, after this inhospitable treatment.

‘What the devil, indeed!’ I muttered.  ‘The herd of possessed swine could have had no worse spirits in them than those animals of yours, sir.  You might as well leave a stranger with a brood of tigers!’

‘They won’t meddle with persons who touch nothing,’ he remarked, putting the bottle before me, and restoring the displaced table.  ‘The dogs do right to be vigilant.  Take a glass of wine?’

‘No, thank you.’

‘Not bitten, are you?’

‘If I had been, I would have set my signet on the biter.’  Heathcliff’s countenance relaxed into a grin.

‘Come, come,’ he said, ‘you are flurried, Mr. Lockwood.  Here, take a little wine.  Guests are so exceedingly rare in this house that I and my dogs, I am willing to own, hardly know how to receive them.  Your health, sir?’

I bowed and returned the pledge; beginning to perceive that it would be foolish to sit sulking for the misbehaviour of a pack of curs; besides, I felt loth to yield the fellow further amusement at my expense; since his humour took that turn.  He—probably swayed by prudential consideration of the folly of offending a good tenant—relaxed a little in the laconic style of chipping off his pronouns and auxiliary verbs, and introduced what he supposed would be a subject of interest to me,—a discourse on the advantages and disadvantages of my present place of retirement.  I found him very intelligent on the topics we touched; and before I went home, I was encouraged so far as to volunteer another visit to-morrow.  He evidently wished no repetition of my intrusion.  I shall go, notwithstanding.  It is astonishing how sociable I feel myself compared with him.



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101: Tim Burton: "Big Fish"

Mon, Aug 22, 2016

This week on StoryWeb: Tim Burton’s film Big Fish.


A witch. A giant. A werewolf. Conjoined twins. Daring feats of strength. A magical town.


Tim Burton’s 2003 film, Big Fish, has it all.


Based on Daniel Wallace’s 1998 novel of the same name, the film stars Albert Finney, Ewan McGregor, Steve Buscemi, Danny DeVito, Jessica Lange, and a large cast of other actors. It is a delightful, fantastic, over-the-top spectacle of a small Southern traveling circus, complete with “freaks,” as they are often known. It also tells the story of Spectre, a fairy-tale, utopian version of a small town in Alabama.


Big Fish is also a tale within a tale, the story of a young man, Will Bloom, saying goodbye to his elderly, dying father, Edward. When Will was a boy, Edward regaled him with one fantastic story after another – and he continues the outlandish tall tales on his deathbed. Will, who had been caught in the tales as a child, eventually came to believe his father was a liar, that he’d spun crazy yarns to make himself look larger than life and perhaps to hide the secrets of his real life.


Most of the film is the reconstructed telling of Edward’s fantastic, dreamlike world, the stuff of myth and legend. Swept along with the story, the viewer – as Will had as a boy – wants to believe, but it all just seems so far-fetched. Is it real? Is it make-believe? Or is it something in between? You’ll have to watch the film – all the way through to the end – and then decide for yourself.


In the meantime, I will say that – true or not – Big Fish is a marvelous, wonderful tale of an unlikely cast of characters you won’t soon forget. It’s also a beautiful, if emotionally challenging exploration of a father-son relationship. Will Edward and Will come to an understanding of each other in time? Will Will forgive his father’s tall tales, his penchant for what can only be called Southern gothic storytelling?


StoryWeb, of course, celebrates all things storytelling – and Edward Bloom is a storyteller par excellence. His tales raise the age-old question: Is the story true – or is it “just” a story? By film’s end, you may be inclined to believe, as Edward clearly does, that truth and imagination, story and fact are inextricably tied up together. As Will says, “In telling the story of my father’s life, it’s impossible to separate the fact from the fiction, the man from the myth. It doesn’t always make sense, but that’s the kind of story this is.”


The film is available on DVD, and the entire script is online. You might find it fun to explore the locations used in the filming of Big Fish. And of course, you’ll want to stop by Tim Burton’s official website. (Be forewarned: it’s tricky to navigate this one-of-a-kind website!)


As Edward tells Will, “Most men will tell you a story straight through. It won’t be complicated, but it won’t be interesting either.” Big Fish is delightfully complicated and very, very interesting. Watch it – you won’t be disappointed!


Visit the storyweb.com/burton for links to all these resources and to watch the trailer for Big Fish. It will give you a taste of the fantastical yarns Edward Bloom spins.

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100: Ernest Gaines: "The Sky Is Gray"

Mon, Aug 15, 2016

This week on StoryWeb: Ernest Gaines’s short story “The Sky Is Gray.”

I was first introduced to southern literature in 1978, when I was a first-year university student in Martha Baker’s Honors Writing class. The course focused on southern writers. I had no idea at the time that I would go on to become a scholar of southern literature or to write A Southern Weave of Women: Fiction of the Contemporary South.

All I knew in the fall of 1978 was that I loved the literature Martha had us read: Eudora Welty, Carson McCullers, Flannery O’Connor, Alice Walker, and of course, William Faulkner. I was especially struck by Ernest Gaines’s moody, but compelling, short story “The Sky Is Gray,” so much so that the story has stuck with me for nearly forty years.

Later, like many readers, I would come to associate Gaines most closely with his 1971 novel, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. Later still he’d gain an even larger audience with his 1983 novel, A Gathering of Old Men, and especially his 1993 novel, A Lesson Before Dying, which was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize and won the National Books Critics Circle Award.

But it was “The Sky Is Gray” that first drew me in and that still evokes a certain atmosphere in my mind. The narrator is James, an eight-year-old black boy living in rural Louisiana. The unrelenting cold and hunger he experiences throughout the story stay with me so many years later.

For the sky is, indeed, gray in this story. James and his mother, Octavia, set out for the town near them, take the bus so that the boy can have a tooth pulled. They are headed to Bayonne, a town in Louisiana where they can get services like the dentist but not nearly as large as Baton Rouge, where the boy has also traveled. Octavia heads the household now that her husband has left to serve in World War II.

But the sky is gray not just because of the cold and sleet but also because James and Octavia must confront Bayonne during the pre-Civil Rights era of World War II. Small-town Louisiana is harshly marked by Jim Crow laws, which keep them out of restaurants and force them to walk the town’s streets in the grim weather as they wait for the dentist’s office to reopen after lunch.

While James witnesses an extended conversation in the dentist’s waiting room between a black preacher and a young student about the right way to challenge (or not challenge) the racist social system, the lessons he learns from his mother are even more pronounced. As they walk the streets of Bayonne, his mother conveys to him – nearly without words – how to act so as to defer to the Jim Crow system and at the same time stand up straight and proudly in the face of it. In the story’s famous ending, James pulls his coat collar up around his neck to block out the cold. His mother admonishes him, telling him to wear the coat properly. “You not a bum,” she says. “You a man.”

Gaines’s prose is stark, spare, unrelenting in its precision and honesty. Where The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman gives us a grand, sweeping epic of a black woman and her slave community, “The Sky Is Gray” zeroes in on a moment in time, one crucial afternoon in a black child’s development. Regardless of the scope, however, Gaines forces us to consider the personal in the historical. What was it like to be a slave and move into “freedom” and eventually into the Civil Rights Movement? The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman will tell you. What is it like to be a black boy coming into awareness of the way his dark skin, his “race,” marks him as other? “The Sky Is Gray” will give you insights into that.

Gaines published “The Sky Is Gray” in 1963 when he was thirty and then included it in his 1968 volume of short stories, Bloodline. Here, as elsewhere, Gaines writes about the world he knew intimately from his upbringing. A fifth-generation descendant of plantation slaves, he grew up on the River Lake plantation in Pointe Coupee Parish, Louisiana, where he set most of his fiction. Though Gaines had limited schooling while living in Louisiana, his family’s move to California exposed him to greater education and to a passionate exploration of the library. As one source says, “Gaines sought books about Southern blacks, but found few, and decided, ‘If the book you want doesn't exist, you try to make it exist.’”

Gaines has been a MacArthur Foundation fellow, held a Guggenheim Foundation fellowship, and been awarded the National Humanities Medal. An excellent biography and overview of Gaines’s work can be found at the Academy of Achievement website; an interview – with transcript and video clips – is also available at the Academy of Achievement. The Missouri Review offers an insightful interview with Gaines. For more resources, visit the Ernest J. Gaines Center at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.

Finally, you might want to read an article about Gaines’s return to Louisiana, where he now lives on part of the plantation where he and his ancestors lived. There’s also a great CNN piece on his return to Louisiana.

Visit thestoryweb.com/gaines for links to all these resources and to listen as Ernest Gaines reads the ending lines from “The Sky Is Gray.” You can also watch a 1979 film adaptation of the short story. Finally, take some time to watch as Ernest Gaines talks about his background and discusses his novel A Lesson Before Dying (part of the National Endowment for the Arts’ program The Big Read).

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099: Anzia Yezierska: "America and I"

Mon, Aug 08, 2016

This week on StoryWeb: Anzia Yezierska’s essay “America and I.”

Every American has heard stories of Eastern European and Southern European immigration to the United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Indeed, I’m sure that many StoryWeb listeners are descended from those immigrants.

The stories are legion, the images unforgettable. Without a doubt, every American needs to visit Ellis Island at least once. (If you’re going for the first time, plan to spend the entire day. There is so much to see, touch, feel, explore – and so many, many stories to hear as you listen to the headphones on your self-guided tour.)

Likewise, everyone should make it a point to visit the Tenement Museum at 97 Orchard Street on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. This outstanding, award-winning museum was created when construction workers uncovered a boarded-up, untouched tenement building. The tenement was home to nearly 7,000 immigrants. Visitors to the museum tour the four apartments, each telling the story of a different family who actually lived in the building. Neighborhood walking tours and “Tenement Talks” are also available.

Another source for learning the powerful history of immigration, tenements, and sweatshops is Ric Burns’s series New York: A Documentary Film. You’ll find episodes 3 and 4 especially relevant.

All of these resources are great ways to learn about immigration, but this week I want to pay homage to one particular immigrant: writer Anzia Yezierska, who hailed from Russian Poland. Yezierska immigrated with her Jewish family to the United States in the early 1890s. Her 1923 essay, “American and I,” tells the story of her struggle to move beyond working as a domestic servant and as a shirtwaist maker in sweatshops to working with her “head.”

When she goes to a vocational counselor, she is told that she should become the best shirtwaist maker she can be and slowly rise from job to job. But she counters with, “I want to do something with my head, my feelings. All day long, only with my hands I work.” Yezierska feels she is “different,” that she has more to offer.

Ultimately, Yezierska was able to work with her head, her feelings. She mastered the English language and began to write novels, short stories, and autobiographical essays. As works like “America and I” demonstrate, she wrote in a dialect of Yiddish-flavored English. We hear the Polish immigrant: she comes through on the page.

Like many others, I have often bemoaned the plight of the immigrants who flooded through Ellis Island, crowded into the tenements of the Lower East Side, and toiled in sweatshops like the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory (the site of the worst industrial accident in American history). How wretched their lives must have been, I have thought more than once.

But a dear friend who is descended from Italian immigrants to New York tells me that he thinks the immigrants were quite successful. In just two generations, his family moved out of the Lower East Side to Little Italy in the Bronx and then to White Plains, New York. Their great-grandson is now a professor at a liberal arts college in New York City. Such rapid success is, to my friend, mind-boggling!

If you want to hear firsthand what the journey was like for one immigrant, be sure to read Anzia Yezierska’s essay “America and I.” You can read the short essay online – or buy the collection, How I Found America, which includes the essay. If you’re ready to read more of Yezierska’s writing, you’ll definitely want to check out her 1925 novel, The Bread Givers, widely considered to be her masterpiece.

You might also want to explore a bit of Yezierska’s biography. She ended up earning a scholarship to Columbia University and was later involved in a romantic relationship with Columbia professor John Dewey. You can read about their relationship in Love in the Promised Land: The Story of Anzia Yezierska and John Dewey. Yezierska’s only child, Louise Levitas Henriksen, wrote a biography of her mother, Anzia Yezierska: A Writer’s Life. In From Hester Street to Hollywood: The Life and Work of Anzia Yezierska, biographer Bettina Berch looks at Yezierska’s written works as well as her work as a screenwriter for Hollywood. An excellent student paper, “Anzia Yezierska: Being Jewish, Female, and New in America,” Is a great (and short!) introduction to Yezierska and her work. Other useful overviews of Yezierska and her work can be found at Jewish Women’s Archive and My Jewish Learning.

Visit thestoryweb.com/yezierska for links to all these resources. Listen now as I read Anzia Yezierska’s essay “America and I” in its entirety.


As one of the dumb, voiceless ones I speak. One of the millions of immigrants beating, beating out their hearts at your gates for a breath of understanding.

Ach! America! From the other end of the earth from where I came, America was a land of living hope, woven of dreams, aflame with longing and desire.

Choked for ages in the airless oppression of Russia, the Promised Land rose up—wings for my stifled spirit— sunlight burning through my darkness—freedom singing to me in my prison—deathless songs tuning prison-bars into strings of a beautiful violin.

I arrived in America. My young, strong body, my heart and soul pregnant with the unlived lives of generations clamoring for expression.

What my mother and father and their mother and father never had a chance to give out in Russia, I would give out in America. The hidden sap of centuries would find release; colors that never saw light—songs that died unvoiced—romance that never had a chance to blossom in the black life of the Old World.

In the golden land of flowing opportunity I was to find my work that was denied me in the sterile village of my forefathers. Here I was to be free from the dead drudgery for bread that held me down in Russia. For the first time in America, I’d cease to be a slave of the belly. I’d be a creator, a giver, a human being! My work would be the living job of fullest self-expression.

But from my high visions, my golden hopes, I had to put my feet down on earth. I had to have food and shelter. I had to have the money to pay for it.

I was in America, among the Americans, but not of them. No speech, no common language, no way to win a smile of understanding from them, only my young, strong body and my untried faith. Only my eager, empty hands, and my full heart shining from my eyes!

God from the world! Here I was with so much richness in me, but my mind was not wanted without the language. And my body, unskilled, untrained, was not even wanted in the factory. Only one of two chances was left open to me: the kitchen, or minding babies.

My first job was as a servant in an Americanized family. Once, long ago, they came from the same village from where I came. But they were so well-dressed, so well-fed, so successful in America, that they were ashamed to remember their mother tongue.

“What were to be my wages?” I ventured timidly, as I looked up to the well-fed, well-dressed “American” man and woman.

They looked at me with a sudden coldness. What have I said to draw away from me their warmth? Was it so low for me to talk of wages? I shrank back into myself like a low-down bargainer. Maybe they’re so high up in well-being they can’t any more understand my low thoughts for money.

From his rich height the man preached down to me that I must not be so grabbing for wages. Only just landed from the ship and already thinking about money when I should be thankful to associate with “Americans.”

The woman, out of her smooth, smiling fatness assured me that this was my chance for a summer vacation in the country with her two lovely children. My great chance to learn to be a civilized being, to become an American by living with them.

So, made to feel that I was in the hands of American friends, invited to share with them their home, their plenty, their happiness, I pushed out from my head the worry for wages. Here was my first chance to begin my life in the sunshine, after my long darkness. My laugh was all over my face as I said to them: “I’ll trust myself to you. What I’m worth you’ll give me.” And I entered their house like a child by the hand.

The best of me I gave them. Their house cares were my house cares. I got up early. I worked till late. All that my soul hungered to give I put into the passion with which I scrubbed floors, scoured pots, and washed clothes. I was so grateful to mingle with the American people, to hear the music of the American language, that I never knew tiredness.

There was such a freshness in my brains and such a willingness in my heart I could go on and on—not only with the work of the house, but work with my head—learning new words from the children, the grocer, the butcher, the iceman. I was not even afraid to ask for words from the policeman on the street. And every new word made me see new American things with American eyes. I felt like a Columbus, finding new worlds through every new word.

But words alone were only for the inside of me. The outside of me still branded me for a steerage immigrant. I had to have clothes to forget myself that I’m a stranger yet. And so I had to have money to buy these clothes.

The month was up. I was so happy! Now I’d have money. My own, earned money. Money to buy a new shirt on my back—shoes on my feet. Maybe yet an American dress and hat!

Ach! How high rose my dreams! How plainly I saw all that I would do with my visionary wages shining like a light over my head!

In my imagination I already walked in my new American clothes. How beautiful I looked as I saw myself like a picture before my eyes! I saw how I would throw away my immigrant rags tied up in my immigrant shawl. With money to buy—free money in my hands—I’d show them that I could look like an American in a day.

Like a prisoner in his last night in prison, counting the seconds that will free him from his chains, I trembled breathlessly for the minute I’d get the wages in my hand.

Before dawn I rose.

I shined up the house like a jewel-box.

I prepared breakfast and waited with my heart in my mouth for my lady and gentleman to rise. At last I heard them stirring. My eyes were jumping out of my head to them when I saw them coming in and seating themselves by the table.

Like a hungry cat rubbing up to its boss for meat, so I edged and simpered around them as I passed them the food. Without my will, like a beggar, my hand reached out to them.

The breakfast was over. And no word yet from my wages.

“Gottuniu!” I thought to myself. “Maybe they’re so busy with their own things, they forgot it’s the day for my wages. Could they who have everything know what I was to do with my first American dollars? How could they, soaking in plenty, how could they feel the longing and the fierce hunger in me, pressing up through each visionary dollar? How could they know the gnawing ache of my avid fingers for the feel of my own, earned dollars? My dollars that I could spend like a free person. My dollars that would make me feel with everybody alike!”

Lunch came. Lunch passed.

Oi-i weh! Not a word yet about my money.

It was near dinner. And not a word yet about my wages.

I began to set the table. But my head—it swam away from me. I broke a glass. The silver dropped from my nervous fingers. I couldn’t stand it any longer. I dropped everything and rushed over to my American lady and gentleman.

Oi weh! The money—my money—my wages!” I cried breathlessly.

Four cold eyes turned on me.

“Wages? Money?” The four eyes turned into hard stone as they looked me up and down. “Haven’t you a comfortable bed to sleep, and three good meals a day? You’re only a month here. Just came to America. And you already think about money. Wait till you’re worth any money. What use are you without knowing English? You should be glad we keep you here. It’s like a vacation for you. Other girls pay money yet to be in the country.”

It went black for my eyes. I was so choked no words came to my lips. Even the tears went dry in my throat.

I left. Not a dollar for all my work.

For a long, long time my heart ached and ached like a sore wound. If murderers would have robbed me and killed me it wouldn’t have hurt me so much. I couldn’t think through my pain. The minute I’d see before me how they looked at me, the words they said to me—then everything began to bleed in me. And I was helpless.

For a long, long time the thought of ever working in an “American” family made me tremble with fear, like the fear of wild wolves. No—never again would I trust myself to an “American” family, no matter how fine their language and how sweet their smile.

It was blotted out in me all trust in friendship from “Americans.” But the life in me still burned to live. The hope in me still craved to hope. In darkness, in dirt, in hunger and want, but only to live on!

There had been no end to my day—working for the “American” family.

Now rejecting false friendships from higher-ups in America, I turned back to the Ghetto. I worked on a hard bench with my own kind on either side of me. I knew before I began what my wages were to be. I knew what my hours were to be. And I knew the feeling of the end of the day.

From the outside my second job seemed worse than the first. It was in a sweatshop of a Delancey Street basement, kept up by an old, wrinkled woman that looked like a black witch of greed. My work was sewing on buttons. While the morning was still dark I walked into a dark basement. And darkness met me when I turned out of the basement.



Day after day, week after week, all the contact I got with America was handling dead buttons. The money I earned was hardly enough to pay for bread and rent. I didn’t have a room to myself. I didn’t even have a bed. I slept on a mattress on the floor in a rat-hole of a room occupied by a dozen other immigrants. I was always hungry—oh, so hungry! The scant meals I could afford only sharpened my appetite for real food. But I felt myself better off than working in the “American” family where I had three good meals a day and a bed to myself. With all the hunger and darkness of the sweat-shop, I had at least the evening to myself. And all night was mine. When all were asleep, I used to creep up on the roof of the tenement and talk out my heart in silence to the stars in the sky.

“Who am I? What am I? What do I want with my life? Where is America? Is there an America? What is this wilderness in which I’m lost?”

I’d hurl my questions and then think and think. And I could not tear it out of me, the feeling that America must be somewhere, somehow—only I couldn’t find it—my America, where I would work for love and not for a living. I was like a thing following blindly after something far off in the dark!

Oi weh.” I’d stretch out my hand up in the air. “My head is so lost in America. What’s the use of all my working if I’m not in it? Dead buttons is not me.”

Then the busy season started in the shop. The mounds of buttons grew and grew. The long day stretched out longer. I had to begin with the buttons earlier and stay with them till later in the night. The old witch turned into a huge greedy maw for wanting more and more buttons.

For a glass of tea, for a slice of herring over black bread, she would buy us up to stay another and another hour, till there seemed no end to her demands. One day, the light of self-assertion broke into my cellar darkness. “I don’t want the tea. I don’t want your herring,” I said with terrible boldness “I only want to go home. I only want the evening to myself!”

“You fresh mouth, you!” cried the old witch. “You learned already too much in America. I want no clockwatchers in my shop. Out you go!”

I was driven out to cold and hunger. I could no longer pay for my mattress on the floor. I no longer could buy the bite in my mouth. I walked the streets. I knew what it is to be alone in a strange city, among strangers.

But I laughed through my tears. So I learned too much already in America because I wanted the whole evening to myself? Well America has yet to teach me still more: how to get not only the whole evening to myself, but a whole day a week like the American workers.

That sweat-shop was a bitter memory but a good school. It fitted me for a regular factory. I could walk in boldly and say I could work at something, even if it was only sewing on buttons.

Gradually, I became a trained worker. I worked in a light, airy factory, only eight hours a day. My boss was no longer a sweater and a blood-squeezer. The first freshness of the morning was mine. And the whole evening was mine. All day Sunday was mine.

Now I had better food to eat. I slept on a better bed. Now, I even looked dressed up like the American-born. But inside of me I knew that I was not yet an American. I choked with longing when I met an American-born, and I could say nothing.

Something cried dumb in me. I couldn’t help it. I didn’t know what it was I wanted. I only knew I wanted. I wanted. Like the hunger in the heart that never gets food.

An English class for foreigners started in our factory. The teacher had such a good, friendly face, her eyes looked so understanding, as if she could see right into my heart. So I went to her one day for an advice:

“I don’t know what is with me the matter,” I began. “I have no rest in me. I never yet done what I want.”

“What is it you want to do, child?” she asked me.

“I want to do something with my head, my feelings. All day long, only with my hands I work.”

“First you must learn English.” She patted me as if I was not yet grown up. “Put your mind on that, and then we’ll see.”

So for a time I learned the language. I could almost begin to think with English words in my head. But in my heart the emptiness still hurt. I burned to give, to give something, to do something, to be something. The dead work with my hands was killing me. My work left only hard stones on my heart.

Again I went to our factory teacher and cried out to her: “I know already to read and write the English language, but I can’t put it into words what I want. What is it in me so different that can’t come out?”

She smiled at me down from her calmness as if I were a little bit out of my head.

“What do you want to do?”

“I feel. I see. I hear. And I want to think it out. But I’m like dumb in me. I only know I’m different— different from everybody.”

She looked at me close and said nothing for a minute. “You ought to join one of the social clubs of the Women’s Association,” she advised.

“What’s the Women’s Association?” I implored greedily.

“A group of American women who are trying to help the working-girl find herself. They have a special department for immigrant girls like you.”

I joined the Women’s Association. On my first evening there they announced a lecture: “The Happy Worker and His Work,” by the Welfare director of the United Mills Corporation.

“Is there such a thing as a happy worker at his work?” I wondered. Happiness is only by working at what you love. And what poor girl can ever find it to work at what she loves? My old dreams about my America rushed through my mind. Once I thought that in America everybody works for love. Nobody has to worry for a living. Maybe this welfare man came to show me the real America that till now I sought in vain.

With a lot of polite words the head lady of the Women’s Association introduced a higher-up that looked like the king of kings of business. Never before in my life did I ever see a man with such a sureness in his step, such power in his face, such friendly positiveness in his eye as when he smiled upon us.

“Efficiency is the new religion of business,” he began. “In big business houses, even in up-to-date factories, they no longer take the first comer and give him any job that happens to stand empty. Efficiency begins at the employment office. Experts are hired for the one purpose, to find out how best to fit the worker to his work. It’s economy for the boss to make the worker happy.” And then he talked a lot more on efficiency in educated language that was over my head.

I didn’t know exactly what it meant—efficiency—but if it was to make the worker happy at his work, then that’s what I had been looking for since I came to America. I only felt from watching him that he was happy by his job. And as I looked on the clean, well-dressed, successful one, who wasn’t ashamed to say he rose from an office-boy, it made me feel that I, too, could lift myself up for a person.

He finished his lecture, telling us about the Vocational-Guidance Center that the Women’s Association started.

The very next evening I was at the Vocational Guidance Center. There I found a young, college-looking woman. Smartness and health shining from her eyes! She, too, looked as if she knew her way in America. I could tell at the first glance: here is a person that is happy by what she does.

“I feel you’ll understand me,” I said right away.

She leaned over with pleasure in her face: “I hope I can.”

“I want to work by what’s in me. Only, I don’t know what’s in me. I only feel I’m different.”

She gave me a quick, puzzled look from the corner of her eyes. “What are you doing now?”

“I’m the quickest shirtwaist hand on the floor. But my heart wastes away by such work. I think and think, and my thoughts can’t come out.”

“Why don’t you think out your thoughts in shirtwaists? You could learn to be a designer. Earn more money.”

“I don’t want to look on waists. If my hands are sick from waists, how could my head learn to put beauty into them?”

“But you must earn your living at what you know, and rise slowly from job to job.”

I looked at her office sign: “Vocational Guidance.” “What’s your vocational guidance?” I asked. “How to rise from job to job—how to earn more money?”

The smile went out from her eyes. But she tried to be kind yet. “What do you want?” she asked, with a sigh of last patience.

“I want America to want me.”

She fell back in her chair, thunderstruck with my boldness. But yet, in a low voice of educated self-control, she tried to reason with me:

“You have to show that you have something special for America before America has need of you.”

“But I never had a chance to find out what’s in me, because I always had to work for a living. Only, I feel it’s efficiency for America to find out what’s in me so different, so I could give it out by my work.”

Her eyes half closed as they bored through me. Her mouth opened to speak, but no words came from her lips. So I flamed up with all that was choking in me like a house on fire:

“America gives free bread and rent to criminals in prison. They got grand houses with sunshine, fresh air, doctors and teachers, even for the crazy ones. Why don’t they have free boarding-schools for immigrants—strong people— willing people? Here you see us burning up with something different, and America turns her head away from us.”

Her brows lifted and dropped down. She shrugged her shoulders away from me with the look of pity we give to cripples and hopeless lunatics. “America is no Utopia. First you must become efficient in earning a living before you can indulge in your poetic dreams.”

I went away from the vocational guidance office with all the air out of my lungs. All the light out of my eyes. My feet dragged after me like dead wood.

Till now there had always lingered a rosy veil of hope over my emptiness, a hope that a miracle would happen. I would open up my eyes some day and suddenly find the America of my dreams. As a young girl hungry for love sees always before her eyes the picture of lover’s arms around her, so I saw always in my heart the vision of Utopian America.

But now I felt that the America of my dreams never was and never could be. Reality had hit me on the head as with a club. I felt that the America that I sought was nothing but a shadow—an echo—a chimera of lunatics and crazy immigrants.



Stripped of all illusion, I looked about me. The long desert of wasting days of drudgery stared me in the face. The drudgery that I had lived through, and the endless drudgery still ahead of me rose over me like a withering wilderness of sand. In vain were all my cryings, in vain were all frantic efforts of my spirit to find the living waters of understanding for my perishing lips. Sand, sand was everywhere. With every seeking, every reaching out I only lost myself deeper and deeper in a vast sea of sand.

I knew now the American language. And I knew now, if I talked to the Americans from morning till night, they could not understand what the Russian soul of me wanted. They could not understand me any more than if I talked to them in Chinese. Between my soul and the American soul were worlds of difference that no words could bridge over. What was that difference? What made the Americans so far apart from me?

I began to read the American history. I found from the first pages that America started with a band of Courageous Pilgrims. They had left their native country as I had left mine. They had crossed an unknown ocean and landed in an unknown country, as I.

But the great difference between the first Pilgrims and me was that they expected to make America, build America, create their own world of liberty. I wanted to find it ready made.

I read on. I delved deeper down into the American history. I saw how the Pilgrim Fathers came to a rocky desert country, surrounded by Indian savages on all sides. But undaunted, they pressed on—through danger— through famine, pestilence, and want—they pressed on. They did not ask the Indians for sympathy, for understanding. They made no demands on anybody, but on their own indomitable spirit of persistence.

And I—I was forever begging a crumb of sympathy, a gleam of understanding from strangers who could not understand.

I, when I encountered a few savage Indian scalpers, like the old witch of the sweat-shop, like my “Americanized” countryman, who cheated me of my wages—I, when I found myself on the lonely, untrodden path through which all seekers of the new world must pass, I lost heart and said: “There is no America!”

Then came a light—a great revelation! I saw America—a big idea—a deathless hope—a world still in the making. I saw that it was the glory of America that it was not yet finished. And I, the last comer, had her share to give, small or great, to the making of America, like those Pilgrims who came in the Mayflower.

Fired up by this revealing light, I began to build a bridge of understanding between the American-born and myself. Since their life was shut out from such as me, I began to open up my life and the lives of my people to them. And life draws life. In only writing about the Ghetto I found America.

Great chances have come to me. But in my heart is always a deep sadness. I feel like a man who is sitting down to a secret table of plenty, while his near ones and dear ones are perishing before his eyes. My very joy in doing the work I love hurts me like secret guilt, because all about me I see so many with my longings, my burning eagerness, to do and to be, wasting their days in drudgery they hate, merely to buy bread and pay rent. And America is losing all that richness of the soul.

The Americans of tomorrow, the America that is every day nearer coming to be, will be too wise, too open-hearted, too friendly-handed, to let the least lastcomer at their gates knock in vain with his gifts unwanted.


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098: June Carter and Johnny Cash: "Ring of Fire"

Mon, Aug 01, 2016

This week on StoryWeb: June Carter and Johnny Cash’s song “Ring of Fire.”

For the bride and groom

“Ring of Fire” – written by June Carter and Merle Kilgore and recorded by Johnny Cash – is no ordinary love song. For it tells not only of the sweetness of new love but even more so the all-consuming, burning nature of a deeply passionate love.

According to the most widely accepted account of the song’s composition, June Carter came across a phrase in a book of Elizabethan poetry that had belonged to her uncle, the famed A.P. Carter. He had underlined the words “Love is like a burning ring of fire.” June suggested to songwriter Merle Kilgore that they write a song based on those words. June said, “There is no way to be in that kind of hell, no way to extinguish a flame that burns, burns, burns.”

Apparently, June Carter knew what she was talking about. In 1962, when she wrote the song with Kilgore, she was touring with Johnny Cash for the first time, and theirs was a burning new love indeed. Kilgore was also on that tour, and Rolling Stone reports that whenever they were on tour together, June Carter and Merle Kilgore would often write songs together.

The first person to record the song was June’s sister Anita Carter, but it failed to hit big on the charts. Johnny Cash claimed that, after hearing Anita’s version, he had a dream with the mariachi-style horns added to the song. Recorded in March 1963 and released the following month, Cash’s version features Mother Maybelle and the Carter sisters singing harmony. The song remains the most recognizable and most enduring of Johnny Cash’s many hits.

Perhaps Cash's daughter Rosanne put it best when she said, "The song is about the transformative power of love and that's what it has always meant to me and that's what it will always mean to the Cash children.”

Learn more about Johnny Cash in his books Man in Black and Cash: The Autobiography. The fine film, Walk the Line, is also well worth your time. John Carter Cash’s book, Anchored in Love: An Intimate Portrait of June Carter Cash, is a wonderful tribute to his mother. Beth Harrington’s book, The Winding Stream: An Oral History of the Carter and Cash Family, provides key insights into this influential musical family.

To my friends who are celebrating their wedding today, may the transformative power of love be with you in the years to come.

Visit thestoryweb.com/cartercash for links to all these resources and to watch Johnny Cash perform “Ring of Fire.”

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097: Jimmy Santiago Baca: "A Place to Stand"

Mon, Jul 25, 2016

This week on StoryWeb: Jimmy Santiago Baca’s memoir and film, A Place to Stand.

For Karen Bowen

If you want a gritty, raw, punch-in-the-face but ultimately optimistic and life-affirming story, look no further than Jimmy Santiago Baca’s memoir, A Place to Stand, and the documentary film based on that memoir.

I had the great fortune of attending a screening of A Place to Stand at the Boulder International Film Festival. My dear friend Karen Bowen, the coordinator of the BoulderReads literacy program, invited me to join her and dozens of other literacy professionals, volunteers, and activists from around Colorado. What a powerful setting to see this amazing film!

Though I had heard Baca’s name and though I knew he was a prominent Native American and Chicano poet, I did not know his work firsthand nor did I know his story.

Baca’s story is as unbelievable as it is inspiring. Abandoned by his parents at a young age and left by his grandmother to fend for himself in orphanages and detention centers, Baca turned to a life of violence and crime. At age 21, he found himself sentenced to mandatory no-parole for five to ten years, the harshest sentence allowed by law for his particular crime. Because his childhood had been so sketchy, he’d had little schooling, and when he went to prison, he was functionally illiterate with almost no reading ability.

Baca’s memoir and the documentary movie (which he narrates through filmed interviews) tell the story of a young man consumed by hate, anger, and rage, a man capable of and guilty of unspeakable and horrific acts of violence against his fellow inmates. The film pulls no punches, and parts are hard to watch, as Baca and other interviewees describe his degradation and brutality.

Ultimately, Baca was put into isolation for years, widely considered to be an inhumane way to treat prisoners. But in solitary, Baca begins little by little to find a way out of his degradation: he starts to share words with a fellow prisoner. Painstakingly, Baca teaches himself to read, then eventually to write. He quite literally learns reading and writing from scratch.

Spurred on by the heady rush of learning, Baca begins to pour out his soul on paper – and slowly he begins to write poetry. How unlikely this birth of a poet in the walls of the infamous Arizona State Prison!

If you want to know how Baca’s quest for literacy, poetry, and freedom turned out, you’ll have to read his memoir, A Place to Stand, or watch the documentary film, produced by his son Gabriel Baca. (The film is available for streaming at Amazon and many other online video services.)

I found A Place to Stand to be riveting, compelling, outstanding filmmaking based on the true story of a real American hero. In his journey to become literate, Baca reminds me of Frederick Douglass, who also taught himself to read and write and who also achieved his freedom as a result. Where Douglass used his literacy to fight for the abolitionist movement, Baca has become a tireless fighter for prison literacy programs. His essay “Making the Rounds” is a powerful account of this work.

To learn more about Baca and his journey, you might enjoy listening to the NPR piece on Baca: “Jimmy Santiago Baca, From Prison to Poetry.” To get a taste of Baca’s memoir, you can read an excerpt at The Sun magazine – a publication that has championed Baca’s work for many years.

Seeing A Place to Stand was a powerful experience indeed, and how much more amazing it was to have Jimmy Santiago Baca and his son Gabriel at the theater that day! They spoke to us at the conclusion of the film, and I had the wonderful opportunity to speak with them in the book-signing line afterward. It’s a day I will not soon forget.

Deep thanks to Karen and all the other folks who support literacy programs around the United States – and thanks to Jimmy Santiago Baca for his inspiring example.

Visit thestoryweb.com/baca for links to all these resources and to watch the extended trailer for the documentary film A Place to Stand, which includes clips of Jimmy Santiago Baca reading from his work.

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096: Muriel Barbery: "The Elegance of the Hedgehog"

Mon, Jul 18, 2016

This week on StoryWeb: Muriel Barbery’s novel The Elegance of the Hedgehog.

Oh, how I love this quiet novel! Written in France in 2006 by philosopher Muriel Barbery, The Elegance of the Hedgehog is itself quite elegant.

Initially only 4,000 copies of the novel were published – and only 12 copies were sold the first week it was on the market. But then through an amazing wave of word-of-mouth recommendations, The Elegance of the Hedgehog rocketed to the top of the French bestsellers’ list. Two million copies were sold in France, and another six million were sold throughout the world. It has been a bestseller not only in France but also in Italy, Germany, Spain, South Korea, the United States, and many other countries. (The English translation is by Alison Anderson.)

The novel is set in an upper-middle-class apartment building on Paris’s Left Bank: 7 Rue de Grenelle, known as one of the most elegant streets in the famed French city. The apartment building is a world unto itself, not a microcosm of French society but instead its own complete world.

The three main characters – the school girl (Paloma Josse), the concierge (Ren?e Michel), and the Japanese businessman (Kakuro Ozu) – are each exquisitely drawn. For a good portion of the novel, Paloma and Ren?e are the focal points; Kakuro Ozu doesn’t come along until later.

Though we are slowly drawn in by Barbery’s characterizations of both the young, wealthy, privileged twelve-year-old girl and the 54-year-old widow who works as the apartment building’s concierge, it is hard to see how they will come together even though they live in the same apartment building. The class chasm between them is so deep: Paloma and her family are rich, and Ren?e works as the building’s concierge – the custodian or “super.” How on earth will Paloma and Ren?e cross this divide?

What do I love about The Elegance of the Hedgehog? I love that the characters – including 12-year-old Paloma – are smart. I love that the novel is smart, that Barbery expects the reader to be smart. Not just smart in the sense of being culturally literate (though it does help to be familiar with Leo Tolstoy’s epic novel Anna Karenina) but also smart in the ways of being, in habits of thinking, of quiet sensitivity to the world, and most particularly smart in the nuances and subtleties of human relationships.

At first, I was frustrated by the novel’s slow pace. The book was boring, I thought. But then I found myself eagerly anticipating each evening’s reading time, as I would once again get to be with Paloma and Ren?e and Kakuro Ozu. Slowly but surely, Barbery drew me into their lives just as slowly but surely as they had become intertwined in each other’s lives.

Though it received awful reviews in France and though Barbery said she was displeased with the screenplay, I believe the film adaptation – The Hedgehog – is every bit as good as the novel. Directed by Mona Achache and released in 2009, to my mind the film is a rarity in that the film may be even better than the novel, a tour de force indeed. Beautifully shot, exquisitely and perfectly acted, balanced and careful in its unfolding and pacing, the film is just right. It pays fitting homage to the book.

If you’re interested in learning more, you might check out a list of discussion questions and short interview with Barbery. Other interviews can be found at Bookstore People, BookBrowse, and TimesUnion. And if you read French, you might want to visit Barbery’s website.

Visit thestoryweb.com/barbery for links to all these resources and to watch the trailer for The Hedgehog.

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095: Jane Austen: "Pride and Prejudice"

Mon, Jul 11, 2016

This week on StoryWeb: Jane Austen’s novel Pride and Prejudice.

For my mother, Bonnie Burrows, in honor of her birthday

“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”

There are few opening lines to novels as famous as this one.

The novel in question is, of course, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Published in 1813, the novel spins out from this opening line. Indeed, Pride and Prejudice is a classic – maybe the classic – example of a “marriage plot” novel. This type of novel drives forward to marriage, a wedding (or two!) by novel’s end. It will seem in a marriage plot novel (or marriage plot film) that the star-crossed lovers will never find, meet, and/or reconcile with each other – but inevitably they do, and by definition, they marry. (For a thoughtful take on the marriage plot, see Adelle Waldman’s New Yorker article, “Why the Marriage Plot Need Never Get Old.”)

While Austen didn’t invent the marriage plot, she is perhaps the greatest creator of novels in this genre. The fun of Jane Austen is in seeing the challenges she subjects her characters to, what twists and turns they’ll confront as they make their way to the altar. In this case, will Elizabeth marry Collins, or will she fall for that haughty, opinionated Darcy? And if you cast your vote for Darcy, how on earth will Austen ever get these two headstrong characters together at the same time?

Though Austen’s novels were first published anonymously and though they did not bring her fame in her lifetime, she is practically a cottage industry now. More than a cottage industry – more like an industry giant. She is an institution, and a money-making one at that. One of the most beloved novels in the English language, Pride and Prejudice has sold over 20 million copies, and Austen’s five other major novels are still read and enjoyed by many as well.

There have been too many film and television adaptations to count (though Colin Firth’s portrayal of Darcy is so good that we may as well stop, don’t you think?). There have been inventive rewrites, such as Helen Fielding’s 1996 novel, Bridget Jones’s Diary (my favorite of the modern takes on Pride and Prejudice), and even the 2009 parody, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.

What are your favorite scenes from Pride and Prejudice? What moments stand out to you? Of course, the scene where Elizabeth reads Darcy’s letter is at the heart of the novel, as Elizabeth realizes she must confront both her pride and her prejudice. At the end of this podcast, I’ll read one of my other favorite moments, this one near the novel’s opening as Elizabeth races across fields that are wet and dirty after a downpour, determined to tend to her ailing sister. It is the perfect introduction to this delightfully spirited heroine. She’s been with us for over two hundred years, but she still leaps off the page and seems every bit as bold, new, and fresh as she must have seemed when Austen created her.

Ready to meet or reacquaint yourself with Elizabeth Bennet? You can read the novel for free online – but of course, this is one book you’ll just want to curl up with in hard copy with a cup of tea at your side. If you need help keeping track of the novel’s many characters and their intricate relationships with each other, you might consult a diagram of their relationships or a family tree.

If you want to delve a little deeper into all things Austen, visit Jane Austen’s House Museum, which bills itself as the “heart of Hampshire,” or the Jane Austen Centre in Bath. And if you’re really a devoted fan, you might want to travel to Bath for the annual ten-day Jane Austen Festival held each September. The festival features Regency reenactors, “theatre, music, food, a ball, workshops, readings, dances and the famous Regency Promenade.” You’ll also find Austen resources at the Jane Austen Society of North America and the Jane Austen Society of the United Kingdom.

For links to all these resources, visit thestoryweb.com/austen.

Listen now as I read Chapter Seven from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.



Mr. Bennet's property consisted almost entirely in an estate of two thousand a year, which, unfortunately for his daughters, was entailed, in default of heirs male, on a distant relation; and their mother's fortune, though ample for her situation in life, could but ill supply the deficiency of his. Her father had been an attorney in Meryton, and had left her four thousand pounds.

She had a sister married to a Mr. Phillips, who had been a clerk to their father and succeeded him in the business, and a brother settled in London in a respectable line of trade.

The village of Longbourn was only one mile from Meryton; a most convenient distance for the young ladies, who were usually tempted thither three or four times a week, to pay their duty to their aunt and to a milliner's shop just over the way. The two youngest of the family, Catherine and Lydia, were particularly frequent in these attentions; their minds were more vacant than their sisters', and when nothing better offered, a walk to Meryton was necessary to amuse their morning hours and furnish conversation for the evening; and however bare of news the country in general might be, they always contrived to learn some from their aunt. At present, indeed, they were well supplied both with news and happiness by the recent arrival of a militia regiment in the neighbourhood; it was to remain the whole winter, and Meryton was the headquarters.

Their visits to Mrs. Phillips were now productive of the most interesting intelligence. Every day added something to their knowledge of the officers' names and connections. Their lodgings were not long a secret, and at length they began to know the officers themselves. Mr. Phillips visited them all, and this opened to his nieces a store of felicity unknown before. They could talk of nothing but officers; and Mr. Bingley's large fortune, the mention of which gave animation to their mother, was worthless in their eyes when opposed to the regimentals of an ensign.

After listening one morning to their effusions on this subject, Mr. Bennet coolly observed:

"From all that I can collect by your manner of talking, you must be two of the silliest girls in the country. I have suspected it some time, but I am now convinced."

Catherine was disconcerted, and made no answer; but Lydia, with perfect indifference, continued to express her admiration of Captain Carter, and her hope of seeing him in the course of the day, as he was going the next morning to London.

"I am astonished, my dear," said Mrs. Bennet, "that you should be so ready to think your own children silly. If I wished to think slightingly of anybody's children, it should not be of my own, however."

"If my children are silly, I must hope to be always sensible of it."

"Yes—but as it happens, they are all of them very clever."

"This is the only point, I flatter myself, on which we do not agree. I had hoped that our sentiments coincided in every particular, but I must so far differ from you as to think our two youngest daughters uncommonly foolish."

"My dear Mr. Bennet, you must not expect such girls to have the sense of their father and mother. When they get to our age, I dare say they will not think about officers any more than we do. I remember the time when I liked a red coat myself very well—and, indeed, so I do still at my heart; and if a smart young colonel, with five or six thousand a year, should want one of my girls I shall not say nay to him; and I thought Colonel Forster looked very becoming the other night at Sir William's in his regimentals."

"Mamma," cried Lydia, "my aunt says that Colonel Forster and Captain Carter do not go so often to Miss Watson's as they did when they first came; she sees them now very often standing in Clarke's library."

Mrs. Bennet was prevented replying by the entrance of the footman with a note for Miss Bennet; it came from Netherfield, and the servant waited for an answer. Mrs. Bennet's eyes sparkled with pleasure, and she was eagerly calling out, while her daughter read,

"Well, Jane, who is it from? What is it about? What does he say? Well, Jane, make haste and tell us; make haste, my love."

"It is from Miss Bingley," said Jane, and then read it aloud.


"If you are not so compassionate as to dine to-day with Louisa and me, we shall be in danger of hating each other for the rest of our lives, for a whole day's tete-a-tete between two women can never end without a quarrel. Come as soon as you can on receipt of this. My brother and the gentlemen are to dine with the officers.—Yours ever,


"With the officers!" cried Lydia. "I wonder my aunt did not tell us of that."

"Dining out," said Mrs. Bennet, "that is very unlucky."

"Can I have the carriage?" said Jane.

"No, my dear, you had better go on horseback, because it seems likely to rain; and then you must stay all night."

"That would be a good scheme," said Elizabeth, "if you were sure that they would not offer to send her home."

"Oh! but the gentlemen will have Mr. Bingley's chaise to go to Meryton, and the Hursts have no horses to theirs."

"I had much rather go in the coach."

"But, my dear, your father cannot spare the horses, I am sure. They are wanted in the farm, Mr. Bennet, are they not?"

"They are wanted in the farm much oftener than I can get them."

"But if you have got them to-day," said Elizabeth, "my mother's purpose will be answered."

She did at last extort from her father an acknowledgment that the horses were engaged. Jane was therefore obliged to go on horseback, and her mother attended her to the door with many cheerful prognostics of a bad day. Her hopes were answered; Jane had not been gone long before it rained hard. Her sisters were uneasy for her, but her mother was delighted. The rain continued the whole evening without intermission; Jane certainly could not come back.

"This was a lucky idea of mine, indeed!" said Mrs. Bennet more than once, as if the credit of making it rain were all her own. Till the next morning, however, she was not aware of all the felicity of her contrivance. Breakfast was scarcely over when a servant from Netherfield brought the following note for Elizabeth:


"I find myself very unwell this morning, which, I suppose, is to be imputed to my getting wet through yesterday. My kind friends will not hear of my returning till I am better. They insist also on my seeing Mr. Jones—therefore do not be alarmed if you should hear of his having been to me—and, excepting a sore throat and headache, there is not much the matter with me.—Yours, etc."

"Well, my dear," said Mr. Bennet, when Elizabeth had read the note aloud, "if your daughter should have a dangerous fit of illness—if she should die, it would be a comfort to know that it was all in pursuit of Mr. Bingley, and under your orders."

"Oh! I am not afraid of her dying. People do not die of little trifling colds. She will be taken good care of. As long as she stays there, it is all very well. I would go and see her if I could have the carriage."

Elizabeth, feeling really anxious, was determined to go to her, though the carriage was not to be had; and as she was no horsewoman, walking was her only alternative. She declared her resolution.

"How can you be so silly," cried her mother, "as to think of such a thing, in all this dirt! You will not be fit to be seen when you get there."

"I shall be very fit to see Jane—which is all I want."

"Is this a hint to me, Lizzy," said her father, "to send for the horses?"

"No, indeed, I do not wish to avoid the walk. The distance is nothing when one has a motive; only three miles. I shall be back by dinner."

"I admire the activity of your benevolence," observed Mary, "but every impulse of feeling should be guided by reason; and, in my opinion, exertion should always be in proportion to what is required."

"We will go as far as Meryton with you," said Catherine and Lydia. Elizabeth accepted their company, and the three young ladies set off together.

"If we make haste," said Lydia, as they walked along, "perhaps we may see something of Captain Carter before he goes."

In Meryton they parted; the two youngest repaired to the lodgings of one of the officers' wives, and Elizabeth continued her walk alone, crossing field after field at a quick pace, jumping over stiles and springing over puddles with impatient activity, and finding herself at last within view of the house, with weary ankles, dirty stockings, and a face glowing with the warmth of exercise.

She was shown into the breakfast-parlour, where all but Jane were assembled, and where her appearance created a great deal of surprise. That she should have walked three miles so early in the day, in such dirty weather, and by herself, was almost incredible to Mrs. Hurst and Miss Bingley; and Elizabeth was convinced that they held her in contempt for it. She was received, however, very politely by them; and in their brother's manners there was something better than politeness; there was good humour and kindness. Mr. Darcy said very little, and Mr. Hurst nothing at all. The former was divided between admiration of the brilliancy which exercise had given to her complexion, and doubt as to the occasion's justifying her coming so far alone. The latter was thinking only of his breakfast.

Her inquiries after her sister were not very favourably answered. Miss Bennet had slept ill, and though up, was very feverish, and not well enough to leave her room. Elizabeth was glad to be taken to her immediately; and Jane, who had only been withheld by the fear of giving alarm or inconvenience from expressing in her note how much she longed for such a visit, was delighted at her entrance. She was not equal, however, to much conversation, and when Miss Bingley left them together, could attempt little besides expressions of gratitude for the extraordinary kindness she was treated with. Elizabeth silently attended her.

When breakfast was over they were joined by the sisters; and Elizabeth began to like them herself, when she saw how much affection and solicitude they showed for Jane. The apothecary came, and having examined his patient, said, as might be supposed, that she had caught a violent cold, and that they must endeavour to get the better of it; advised her to return to bed, and promised her some draughts. The advice was followed readily, for the feverish symptoms increased, and her head ached acutely. Elizabeth did not quit her room for a moment; nor were the other ladies often absent; the gentlemen being out, they had, in fact, nothing to do elsewhere.

When the clock struck three, Elizabeth felt that she must go, and very unwillingly said so. Miss Bingley offered her the carriage, and she only wanted a little pressing to accept it, when Jane testified such concern in parting with her, that Miss Bingley was obliged to convert the offer of the chaise to an invitation to remain at Netherfield for the present. Elizabeth most thankfully consented, and a servant was dispatched to Longbourn to acquaint the family with her stay and bring back a supply of clothes.



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094: Elizabeth Bishop: "The Moose"

Mon, Jul 04, 2016

This week on StoryWeb: Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “The Moose.”

This episode is dedicated to Patricia Dwyer, whose love of Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry inspires my own.

Nova Scotia. Just the sound of those two words conjures up evocative images for me. I’ve never been there, but I have always wanted to go.

Maybe the fact that poet Elizabeth Bishop – born in 1911 and died in 1979 – spent some of her childhood there is part of what draws me to her and her poetry. After all, as so many critics and scholars have observed, Bishop was fairly obsessed with place, with geography. Indeed, one of her volumes of poetry was titled Questions of Travel, another Geography III.

Nova Scotia is one of those places that called to Bishop in her poetry – and her poem “The Moose,” set in the Canadian province, is my favorite of Bishop’s poems. I love how Bishop isolates a specific, transformative moment in time – a moose on the macadam in front of a Boston-bound bus late at night.

The poem opens with Bishop’s evocation of Nova Scotia:

                  From narrow provinces,
                  of fish and bread and tea,
                  home of the long tides
                  where the bay leaves the sea
                  twice a day and takes
                  the herrings long rides.

Bishop continues as she describes “red, gravelley roads,” “rows of sugar maples,” “clapboard farmhouses and neat, clapboard churches.”

Just as she brings Nova Scotia to life, she also captures the ordinariness of murmured conversation as the bus travels those red, gravelley roads. We hear the dailiness, the thinginess of human concerns -- “what he said, what she said, who got pensioned.”

Then the moose, suddenly, swiftly, appears in the middle of the macadam road on a dark Nova Scotia night, brings the busload of people to a screeching halt. Contact between our lived lives and the nearly magical animal kingdom! Not magical in the sense of unicorns or other mythical creatures but magical in the sense that they coexist with us, live lives of majesty and beauty, power and terror parallel to our own. Bishop writes,               

Taking her time,
she looks the bus over,
grand, otherworldly.
Why, why do we feel
(we all feel) this sweet
sensation of joy?

                  “Curious creatures,”
                  says our quiet driver,
                  rolling his r’s.
                  “Look at that, would you.”

I know that sweet sensation of joy. I always marvel at seeing a deer on the urban street on which I live, and a couple of years ago, my husband and I were captivated (then irritated) by the mama raccoon and baby that made our window well their home. How, I wonder, do these wild creatures manage to survive – live their lives – in the midst of so much human encroachment?

Of course, Boulder, Colorado, in 2016 is a far cry from rural Nova Scotia in the 1910s. It was more likely that Nova Scotians would encounter wildlife, even moose. But, oh, how marvelous it is any time there is that cross-species meeting!

Curious about Bishop’s childhood home? It was for sale recently – at just under $100,000. It was purchased late last year by Nova Scotia visual artist Catherine MacLean. Previously, it was used as an artist’s retreat but has now been become once again a single-family home.

Bishop traveled all over the world and, in fact, spent a great deal of her time in Brazil. But for me, Nova Scotia is among her most powerful places. To learn more about Elizabeth Bishop and her connection to the Canadian province, visit the Elizabeth Bishop Society of Nova Scotia website. Other outstanding resources are the Elizabeth Bishop Centenary blog and the Elizabeth Bishop page on My Poetic Side, which features a great gallery of Bishop portraits.

If you want to read more of Bishop’s poetry, you’ll want to take a look at The Complete Poems: 1927-1979 as well as the Library of America volume, Elizabeth Bishop: Poems, Prose, and Letters. In addition, One Art, a volume of Bishop’s letters, is indispensable reading for those who like to get the inside skinny on writers and their lives – and you’ll also love Lorrie Goldensohn’s outstanding book, Elizabeth Bishop: The Biography of a Poetry.

Visit thestoryweb.com/bishop for links to all these resources and to hear Elizabeth Bishop read “The Moose.”

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093: Mary Oliver: "The Summer Day"

Mon, Jun 27, 2016

This week on StoryWeb: Mary Oliver’s poem “The Summer Day.”

for Jim

Nine years ago this week, I and my groom, Jim, listened as our dear friend Jennifer Soule read Mary Oliver’s poem “The Summer Day.” We’d selected the poem for our wedding because the ending lines had spoken to us throughout our courtship: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life?” It’s a question that has moved many a reader of Oliver’s well-known poem, perhaps the most beloved of her poems.

The poem is quintessential Oliver. A lover of the natural world, Oliver writes of encountering a grasshopper on a summery day and spending time closely observing the insect – so closely, in fact, that she notices that it moves its jaws “back and forth instead of up and down” as it eats sugar out of her hand. As in many other of her poems, the close encounter with the natural world leads Oliver to reflect on her own life and, more largely, the human condition. Hence the question at the end of the poem. In her movement from the natural world to the spiritual world, Oliver more than a little resembles the Transcendentalists. She has often acknowledged her debt to writers such as Henry David Thoreau and Walt Whitman.

Oliver is not one to give many interviews or to offer commentary on her poems, but she did just that in a rare interview with Krista Tippett on her radio show, “On Being.” In her conversation with Tippett, Oliver notes that “the grasshopper actually existed.” Indeed, “the sugar he was eating was part of frosting from a Portuguese lady’s birthday cake.” Oliver says, “seeing that little creature come to my plate and say, I’d like a little helping of that. It somehow fascinates me that — that’s just personal for me that it was Mrs. Segura, probably her 90th birthday cake or something.” I love knowing that detail! From a seemingly insignificant moment with a grasshopper at a birthday party, Oliver is able to leap beyond this plane to worlds beyond. You can listen to the whole interview or read a transcript of it at the program’s website.

To learn more about Mary Oliver and her poetry, visit her official website. The New York Times describes her as “far and away, this country’s best-selling poet.” She has received the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, a Guggenheim Fellowship, the National Book Award, and numerous other accolades.

If you’re ready to explore more of Oliver’s poems, you can find many of them online. The Poetry Foundation features thirty of them – and you can also find many, many volumes of her poetry for purchase. If you’re an aspiring poet, you’ll want to check out her book on the craft of poetry, A Poetry Handbook: A Prose Guide to Understanding and Writing Poetry.

Jim and I know how we answered and still answer Oliver’s question: we intend to spend our wild and precious life loving each other and being together. But I can’t help but ask you: “what is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life?”

Visit thestoryweb.com/oliver for links to all these resources and to listen as Mary Oliver reads “The Summer Day.” 


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092: Willa Cather: "O Pioneers!"

Mon, Jun 20, 2016

This week on StoryWeb: Willa Cather’s novel O Pioneers!

for Amy Young

For many of us, certain books immediately release a flood of memories – where we were when we first read them, friends and relatives who read the books with us. Such is the case for me with Willa Cather’s 1913 novel, O Pioneers!

This wonderful book calls to mind Shepherdstown, West Virginia, almost twenty-five years ago. My new friend Amy and I were sharing book after book, poem after poem, film after film with each other. We’d met in Shepherdstown’s just-opened independent bookstore, Four Seasons Books, where Amy was a sales clerk and I was a customer. Since the beautiful October day that first brought us together, we’d been reveling in our shared love of literature.

So it was inevitable that we’d be plopped in front of Amy’s TV when Jessica Lange’s made-for-TV adaptation of Willa Cather’s O Pioneers! premiered as a Hallmark Hall of Fame special. Perhaps the Hallmark branding should have tipped us off. It’s not that the movie was terrible. It’s more that it made us laugh – and O Pioneers! is most certainly not a comedy. Of special note was Lange’s feigned Nebraska accent, the overdone quality of which sent Amy and I into fits of laughter. Every three minutes, it seemed, Lange – who was playing the heroine, Alexandra Bergson – sang the praises of “the land.”

But this nails-on-a-chalkboard television adaptation didn’t diminish our love of Cather or her marvelous novel. Both Amy and I had read a lot of Cather’s work – My ?ntonia, A Lost Lady, Death Comes for the Archbishop, The Song of the Lark, My Mortal Enemy, Sapphira and the Slave Girl, and of course, O Pioneers!, which is perhaps the great work of the prairie.

Even if she was a bit tone deaf in her accent, Lange was nevertheless right to emphasize “the land,” for the sheer fact of the land – the huge, sprawling, open, expansive prairie land – is indeed the heart of everything on the Great Plains.

Unlikely as it would be in prairie culture and as unpleasant as it is to her brothers, Alexandra Bergson is the primary architect of her family’s land. It falls to her to take their inherited land and shape it into something robust, fertile, productive, rich. That she does just that is the proof Cather offers that a fully realized female protagonist can be a full-on hero of the story, that she can be identified with the land and bring it to its full fruition.

Ready to read O Pioneers? You can do so for free at Project Gutenberg, but you’ll probably want a hard copy of this magnificent book. And if you like geeking out on literary criticism, then exploring Willa Cather scholarship will yield significant rewards. I especially recommend my friend Janis Stout’s extensive work on Cather. She has written a biography – Willa Cather: The Writer and Her World – and has edited The Selected Letters of Willa Cather. You might also find her critical study of Cather and Mary Austin interesting: it’s titled Picturing a Different West: Vision, Illustration, and the Tradition of Cather and Austin. Another of my favorites is Judith Fryer’s completely imaginative response to Cather’s work in Felicitous Space, which looks also at the work of Edith Wharton. For more on Cather, check out the earlier StoryWeb post on My ?ntonia. For links to all these resources, visit thestoryweb.com/pioneers.

When I think of Willa Cather, I think of my dear friend Amy. What books take you back in time?

Listen now as I read Chapter Two of Willa Cather’s O Pioneers! In this scene, the dying patriarch, John Bergson, bequeaths the family land to his daughter, Alexandra.


On one of the ridges of that wintry waste stood the low log house in which John Bergson was dying. The Bergson homestead was easier to find than many another, because it overlooked Norway Creek, a shallow, muddy stream that sometimes flowed, and sometimes stood still, at the bottom of a winding ravine with steep, shelving sides overgrown with brush and cottonwoods and dwarf ash. This creek gave a sort of identity to the farms that bordered upon it. Of all the bewildering things about a new country, the absence of human landmarks is one of the most depressing and disheartening. The houses on the Divide were small and were usually tucked away in low places; you did not see them until you came directly upon them. Most of them were built of the sod itself, and were only the unescapable ground in another form. The roads were but faint tracks in the grass, and the fields were scarcely noticeable. The record of the plow was insignificant, like the feeble scratches on stone left by prehistoric races, so indeterminate that they may, after all, be only the markings of glaciers, and not a record of human strivings.

In eleven long years John Bergson had made but little impression upon the wild land he had come to tame. It was still a wild thing that had its ugly moods; and no one knew when they were likely to come, or why. Mischance hung over it. Its Genius was unfriendly to man. The sick man was feeling this as he lay looking out of the window, after the doctor had left him, on the day following Alexandra's trip to town. There it lay outside his door, the same land, the same lead-colored miles. He knew every ridge and draw and gully between him and the horizon. To the south, his plowed fields; to the east, the sod stables, the cattle corral, the pond,—and then the grass.

Bergson went over in his mind the things that had held him back. One winter his cattle had perished in a blizzard. The next summer one of his plow horses broke its leg in a prairiedog hole and had to be shot. Another summer he lost his hogs from cholera, and a valuable stallion died from a rattlesnake bite. Time and again his crops had failed. He had lost two children, boys, that came between Lou and Emil, and there had been the cost of sickness and death. Now, when he had at last struggled out of debt, he was going to die himself. He was only forty-six, and had, of course, counted upon more time.

Bergson had spent his first five years on the Divide getting into debt, and the last six getting out. He had paid off his mortgages and had ended pretty much where he began, with the land. He owned exactly six hundred and forty acres of what stretched outside his door; his own original homestead and timber claim, making three hundred and twenty acres, and the half-section adjoining, the homestead of a younger brother who had given up the fight, gone back to Chicago to work in a fancy bakery and distinguish himself in a Swedish athletic club. So far John had not attempted to cultivate the second half-section, but used it for pasture land, and one of his sons rode herd there in open weather.

John Bergson had the Old-World belief that land, in itself, is desirable. But this land was an enigma. It was like a horse that no one knows how to break to harness, that runs wild and kicks things to pieces. He had an idea that no one understood how to farm it properly, and this he often discussed with Alexandra. Their neighbors, certainly, knew even less about farming than he did. Many of them had never worked on a farm until they took up their homesteads. They had been HANDWERKERS at home; tailors, locksmiths, joiners, cigar-makers, etc. Bergson himself had worked in a shipyard.

For weeks, John Bergson had been thinking about these things. His bed stood in the sitting-room, next to the kitchen. Through the day, while the baking and washing and ironing were going on, the father lay and looked up at the roof beams that he himself had hewn, or out at the cattle in the corral. He counted the cattle over and over. It diverted him to speculate as to how much weight each of the steers would probably put on by spring. He often called his daughter in to talk to her about this. Before Alexandra was twelve years old she had begun to be a help to him, and as she grew older he had come to depend more and more upon her resourcefulness and good judgment. His boys were willing enough to work, but when he talked with them they usually irritated him. It was Alexandra who read the papers and followed the markets, and who learned by the mistakes of their neighbors. It was Alexandra who could always tell about what it had cost to fatten each steer, and who could guess the weight of a hog before it went on the scales closer than John Bergson himself. Lou and Oscar were industrious, but he could never teach them to use their heads about their work.

Alexandra, her father often said to himself, was like her grandfather; which was his way of saying that she was intelligent. John Bergson's father had been a shipbuilder, a man of considerable force and of some fortune. Late in life he married a second time, a Stockholm woman of questionable character, much younger than he, who goaded him into every sort of extravagance. On the shipbuilder's part, this marriage was an infatuation, the despairing folly of a powerful man who cannot bear to grow old. In a few years his unprincipled wife warped the probity of a lifetime. He speculated, lost his own fortune and funds entrusted to him by poor seafaring men, and died disgraced, leaving his children nothing. But when all was said, he had come up from the sea himself, had built up a proud little business with no capital but his own skill and foresight, and had proved himself a man. In his daughter, John Bergson recognized the strength of will, and the simple direct way of thinking things out, that had characterized his father in his better days. He would much rather, of course, have seen this likeness in one of his sons, but it was not a question of choice. As he lay there day after day he had to accept the situation as it was, and to be thankful that there was one among his children to whom he could entrust the future of his family and the possibilities of his hard-won land.

The winter twilight was fading. The sick man heard his wife strike a match in the kitchen, and the light of a lamp glimmered through the cracks of the door. It seemed like a light shining far away. He turned painfully in his bed and looked at his white hands, with all the work gone out of them. He was ready to give up, he felt. He did not know how it had come about, but he was quite willing to go deep under his fields and rest, where the plow could not find him. He was tired of making mistakes. He was content to leave the tangle to other hands; he thought of his Alexandra's strong ones.

"DOTTER," he called feebly, "DOTTER!" He heard her quick step and saw her tall figure appear in the doorway, with the light of the lamp behind her. He felt her youth and strength, how easily she moved and stooped and lifted. But he would not have had it again if he could, not he! He knew the end too well to wish to begin again. He knew where it all went to, what it all became.

His daughter came and lifted him up on his pillows. She called him by an old Swedish name that she used to call him when she was little and took his dinner to him in the shipyard.

"Tell the boys to come here, daughter. I want to speak to them."

"They are feeding the horses, father. They have just come back from the Blue. Shall I call them?"

He sighed. "No, no. Wait until they come in. Alexandra, you will have to do the best you can for your brothers. Everything will come on you."

"I will do all I can, father."

"Don't let them get discouraged and go off like Uncle Otto. I want them to keep the land."

"We will, father. We will never lose the land."

There was a sound of heavy feet in the kitchen. Alexandra went to the door and beckoned to her brothers, two strapping boys of seventeen and nineteen. They came in and stood at the foot of the bed. Their father looked at them searchingly, though it was too dark to see their faces; they were just the same boys, he told himself, he had not been mistaken in them. The square head and heavy shoulders belonged to Oscar, the elder. The younger boy was quicker, but vacillating.

"Boys," said the father wearily, "I want you to keep the land together and to be guided by your sister. I have talked to her since I have been sick, and she knows all my wishes. I want no quarrels among my children, and so long as there is one house there must be one head. Alexandra is the oldest, and she knows my wishes. She will do the best she can. If she makes mistakes, she will not make so many as I have made. When you marry, and want a house of your own, the land will be divided fairly, according to the courts. But for the next few years you will have it hard, and you must all keep together. Alexandra will manage the best she can."

Oscar, who was usually the last to speak, replied because he was the older, "Yes, father. It would be so anyway, without your speaking. We will all work the place together."

"And you will be guided by your sister, boys, and be good brothers to her, and good sons to your mother? That is good. And Alexandra must not work in the fields any more. There is no necessity now. Hire a man when you need help. She can make much more with her eggs and butter than the wages of a man. It was one of my mistakes that I did not find that out sooner. Try to break a little more land every year; sod corn is good for fodder. Keep turning the land, and always put up more hay than you need. Don't grudge your mother a little time for plowing her garden and setting out fruit trees, even if it comes in a busy season. She has been a good mother to you, and she has always missed the old country."

When they went back to the kitchen the boys sat down silently at the table. Throughout the meal they looked down at their plates and did not lift their red eyes. They did not eat much, although they had been working in the cold all day, and there was a rabbit stewed in gravy for supper, and prune pies.

John Bergson had married beneath him, but he had married a good housewife. Mrs. Bergson was a fair-skinned, corpulent woman, heavy and placid like her son, Oscar, but there was something comfortable about her; perhaps it was her own love of comfort. For eleven years she had worthily striven to maintain some semblance of household order amid conditions that made order very difficult. Habit was very strong with Mrs. Bergson, and her unremitting efforts to repeat the routine of her old life among new surroundings had done a great deal to keep the family from disintegrating morally and getting careless in their ways. The Bergsons had a log house, for instance, only because Mrs. Bergson would not live in a sod house. She missed the fish diet of her own country, and twice every summer she sent the boys to the river, twenty miles to the southward, to fish for channel cat. When the children were little she used to load them all into the wagon, the baby in its crib, and go fishing herself.

Alexandra often said that if her mother were cast upon a desert island, she would thank God for her deliverance, make a garden, and find something to preserve. Preserving was almost a mania with Mrs. Bergson. Stout as she was, she roamed the scrubby banks of Norway Creek looking for fox grapes and goose plums, like a wild creature in search of prey. She made a yellow jam of the insipid ground-cherries that grew on the prairie, flavoring it with lemon peel; and she made a sticky dark conserve of garden tomatoes. She had experimented even with the rank buffalo-pea, and she could not see a fine bronze cluster of them without shaking her head and murmuring, "What a pity!" When there was nothing more to preserve, she began to pickle. The amount of sugar she used in these processes was sometimes a serious drain upon the family resources. She was a good mother, but she was glad when her children were old enough not to be in her way in the kitchen. She had never quite forgiven John Bergson for bringing her to the end of the earth; but, now that she was there, she wanted to be let alone to reconstruct her old life in so far as that was possible. She could still take some comfort in the world if she had bacon in the cave, glass jars on the shelves, and sheets in the press. She disapproved of all her neighbors because of their slovenly housekeeping, and the women thought her very proud. Once when Mrs. Bergson, on her way to Norway Creek, stopped to see old Mrs. Lee, the old woman hid in the haymow "for fear Mis' Bergson would catch her barefoot."



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091: Laird Hunt: "Neverhome"

Mon, Jun 13, 2016

This week on StoryWeb: Laird Hunt’s novel Neverhome.

Last week’s StoryWeb episode featured Mary Chesnut’s Civil War, a rare, behind-the-scenes look at the inner workings of the Confederacy. This week, I am delighted to share Laird Hunt’s 2014 novel, Neverhome, a very rare look at the Civil War from the point of view of one of the 400 women who disguised themselves as male soldiers. Neverhome comes as a refreshing new take on a subject we all think we know: the Civil War.

Hunt, a graduate of the MFA program at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado, and a faculty member in the University of Denver’s creative writing program, has written several other laudable novels, among them Indiana, Indiana, and Kind One. But with Neverhome, he hit it out of the park. The book was quite favorably reviewed in the Sunday Book Review of the New York Times, being named as an Editor’s Choice.

His protagonist/narrator is Gallant Ash, AKA Constance Thompson. Before the Civil War, Constance is living in rural Indiana, married to Bartholomew Thompson. As the novel unfolds through flashbacks, we learn that theirs is a marriage of two gender-ambiguous individuals. Certainly, neither meets the stereotype of what a “real man” or a “true woman” should be according to 19th-century ideals. Bartholomew is gentle and soft, where Constance is the firm leader in their marriage and most definitely the one who would head out to war. As Constance/Ash says, Bartholomew was “made out of wool and I was made out of wire.”

As the war gets underway, Constance enlists, taking the name of Ash. In a memorable scene near the beginning of the novel, he/she is dubbed “Gallant Ash” and is known by that moniker for the remainder of his service in the Union Army.

When I read Neverhome, the story definitely drew me in. Would Gallant Ash pass as a male soldier? How would he/she handle physical necessities? And how would his/her courage stand the trials of the war? Adding to my interest in the novel was the fact that it is modeled loosely on Homer’s Odyssey. As I became aware of that structural element, I began to look for the ways Hunt would play on that epic of a warrior trying to make his way home.

But to me, Gallant Ash’s voice was even more compelling than the story. The dialect Laird Hunt creates is rarely heard and is completely captivating. Anyone who knows my work knows that I absolutely love dialect done well. Whether it’s Huck Finn’s rural Missouri dialect or Granny Younger’s rhythmic speech in Lee Smith’s Oral History, Mrs. Todd’s coastal Maine accent in Sarah Orne Jewett’s The Country of the Pointed Firs or Kate Chopin’s capturing of Cajun dialect in Bayou Folk, I love authors who help us hear the way Americans from all regions speak.

Until I read Neverhome, I hadn’t thought of rural folks from Indiana as having a dialect – but Hunt brings Gallant Ash’s manner of speaking to life so well that I found it almost impossible to put the book down. And how Gallant Ash spins a yarn! From the first page of this first-person narrative, I was hooked.

Hunt says that “the seed for Neverhome was planted . . . when my wife bought me a copy of An Uncommon Soldier: The Civil War Letters of Sarah Rosetta Wakeman.” You can learn more about “Lyons” Wakeman and the hundreds of women who fought on both sides of the Civil War by visiting the Civil War Trust website. See also the Smithsonian’s interview with Bonnie Tsui, who wrote She Went to the Field: Women Soldiers in the Civil War. You’ll also find DeAnne Blanton’s three-part article for the National Archives interesting and compelling. And if you want more, read the book Blanton wrote with Lauren M. Cook, They Fought Like Demons: Women Soldiers in the Civil War. A reading group guide to Neverhome provides additional insight and questions for consideration.

Want to get a taste of Neverhome? There’s a lengthy preview at the publisher’s website. If you’re like me, you’ll want to get a copy of the book so you can hear all of Gallant Ash’s story.

Visit thestoryweb.com/hunt for links to all these resources and to watch as Laird Hunt reads a scene in which Gallant Ash encounters another woman disguised as a soldier.


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090: "Mary Chesnut's Civil War"

Mon, Jun 06, 2016

This week on StoryWeb: Mary Chesnut’s Civil War.

In her book on the American Civil War, Mary Boykin Chesnut, the wife of a Confederate general, describes a woman seeking a pardon for her husband: “She was strong, and her way of telling her story was hard and cold enough. She told it simply, but over and over again, with slight variations as to words – never as to facts. She seemed afraid we would forget.”

This passage is but one of many in the book that signals Chesnut’s desire to tell the story of the South during the Civil War. She wants to document history so that her readers won’t forget. At the same time, she wants to record more than just the facts of history, by telling her story over and over again artfully.

Thirty years ago, I first encountered Chesnut’s writing and fell in love (total love!) with her firsthand, play-by-play accounts of the Civil War. Chesnut lived in or visited various locations throughout the South, most notably Montgomery, Alabama, Columbia, South Carolina, and Richmond, Virginia, where she came into regular contact with the Jefferson Davises and the Robert E. Lees. In every location, she opened her home to others as a social gathering place. Visiting did not end for Chesnut and the other gentile Southern ladies of her community, but now their conversations turned to war.

It was widely known throughout the community that Chesnut kept a detailed diary about her society’s comings and goings and the ladies’ conversations. Because she had had a ringside seat to the Confederacy, friends pressed her to publish the diary after the war. From 1881 to 1884, she worked on a version for publication. She deleted and moved sections, added dialogue and other novel-like detail to create a hybrid of diary, memoir, autobiography, and even to some extent, novel. She wove together accounts of her own experiences with stories that others have told her and created an anthology of anecdotes about members of the Confederate society, a crazy quilt of Civil War lore.

Chesnut writes, “History reveals men’s deeds – their outward characters but not themselves. There is a secret self that hath its own life ‘rounded by a dream’ – unpenetrated, unguessed.” What she attempted to give us in her revision was the “unpenetrated, unguessed” “secret self” of the women in the Confederacy. To be sure, her diary gives us an intimate glimpse into the history of the day – the official, public activities of the men of the Confederacy – but it also brings to vivid life the stories and concerns of the women of the Confederacy. Her revised diary is filled with hundreds of pages of women’s talk, gossip, and conversation, suggesting that to understand the true story of the Confederacy one need only listen more attentively to women’s voices.

Unfortunately, when Chesnut died in 1886, her manuscript was unfinished. A heavily edited and abridged version was published in 1905 as A Diary from Dixie. Gone are the scenes, the dialogue, much of the story Chesnut tried to bring to life in her 1880s revision.

Fast forward to 1981. Eminent Southern historian C. Vann Woodward decided to resurrect the original diaries, creating the Pulitzer-Prize-winning volume, Mary Chesnut’s Civil War. This book is, quite simply, amazing – long and rambling but amazing! Woodward has been praised for meticulously bringing to life an historical account that otherwise would have been lost. He has also been criticized for not honoring Chesnut’s authorial intent. Though I have some misgivings about Woodward’s decision to reinsert passages Chesnut clearly meant to cut, I nevertheless love the more thorough eavesdropping I get to do when reading his version.

Suffice it to say, if you want a gripping account of the Civil War from the perspective of the Confederacy, read Mary Chesnut. If you want to learn more about the ideal of the “Southern lady” (the white upper-class Southern lady on her pedestal), read Mary Chesnut. And if you just plain want to listen in on other people’s conversations, read Mary Chesnut.

Should you read A Diary from Dixie or Mary Chesnut’s Civil War? Despite my quibbles with Woodward’s editing, I’d recommend reading his version. It’s full, lively, dynamic – and if you are a Civil War buff or a fan of Southern history, you’ll be in heaven!

Stay tuned next week for another take on the Civil War, this one also from a woman’s perspective. Laird Hunt’s novel Neverhome features an Indiana woman who disguises herself as a soldier and fights for the Union Army.

Listen now as I read Mary Boykin Chesnut’s diary entries from April 1861. These excerpts – which describe the beginning of the Civil War when the Confederates fired on Fort Sumter in South Carolina – are taken from Mary Chesnut’s Civil War (edited by C. Vann Woodward and published in 1981).


April 12, 1861. Anderson will not capitulate.


Yesterday was the merriest, maddest dinner we have had yet. Men were more audaciously wise and witty. We had an unspoken foreboding it was to be our last pleasant meeting. Mr. Miles dined with us today. Mrs. Henry King rushed in: “The news, I come for the latest news – all of the men of the King family are on the island” – of which fact she seemed proud.

While she was here, our peace negotiator – or envoy – came in. That is, Mr. Chesnut returned – his interview with Colonel Anderson had been deeply interesting – but was not inclined to be communicative, wanted his dinner. Felt for Anderson. Had telegraphed to President Davis for instructions.

What answer to give Anderson, etc. He has gone back to Fort Sumter, with additional instructions.

When they were about to leave the wharf, A.H. Boykin sprang into the boat, in great excitement; thought himself ill-used. A likelihood of fighting – and he to be left behind!


I do not pretend to go to sleep. How can I? If Anderson does not accept terms – at four – the orders are – he shall be fired upon.

I count four – St. Michael chimes. I begin to hope. At half-past four, the heavy booming of a cannon.

I sprang out of bed. And on my knees – prostrate – I prayed as I never prayed before.

There was a sound of stir all over the house – pattering of feet in the corridor – all seemed hurrying one way. I put on my double gown and a shawl and went, too. It was to the housetop.

The shells were bursting. In the dark I heard a man say “waste of ammunition.”

I knew my husband was rowing about in a boat somewhere in that dark bay. And that the shells were roofing it over – bursting toward the fort. If Anderson was obstinate – he was to order the forts on our side to open fire. Certainly fire had begun. The regular roar of the cannon – there it was. And who could tell what each volley accomplished of death and destruction.

The women were wild, there on the housetop. Prayers from the women and imprecations from the men, and then a shell would light up the scene. Tonight, they say, the forces are to attempt to land.

The Harriet Lane had her wheelhouse smashed and put back to sea.


We watched up there – everybody wondered. Fort Sumter did not fire a shot.


Today Miles and Manning, colonels now – aides to Beauregard – dined with us. The latter hoped I would keep the peace. I give him only good words, for herwas to be under fire all day and night, in the bay carrying orders, etc.

Last night – or this morning truly – up on the housetop I was so weak and weary I sat down on something that looked like a black stool.

“Get up, you foolish woman – your dress is on fire,” cried a man. And he put me out. It was a chimney, and the sparks caught my clothes. Susan Preston and Mr. Venable then came up. But my fire had been extinguished before it broke out into a regular blaze.


Do you know, after all that noise and our tears and prayers, nobody has been hurt. Sound and fury, signifying nothing. A delusion and a snare.

Louisa Hamilton comes here now. This is a sort of news center. Jack Hamilton, her handsome young husband, has all the credit of a famous battery which is made of RR iron. Mr. Petigru calls it the boomerang because it throws the balls back the way they came – so Lou Hamilton tells us. She had no children during her first marriage. Hence the value of this lately achieved baby. To divert Louisa from the glories of “the battery,” of which she raves, we asked if the baby could talk yet.

“No – not exactly – but he imitates the big gun. When he hears that, he claps his hands and cries ‘Boom boom.’” Her mind is distinctly occupied by three things – Lieutenant Hamilton, whom she calls Randolph, the baby, and “the big gun” – and it refuses to hold more.

Pryor of Virginia spoke from the piazza of the Charleston Hotel.

I asked what he said, irreverent woman. “Oh, they all say the same thing, but he made great play with that long hair of his, which is always tossing aside.”


Somebody came in just now and reported Colonel Chesnut asleep on the sofa in General Beauregard’s room. After two such nights he must be so tired as to be able to sleep anywhere.


Just bade farewell to Langdon Cheves. He is forced to go home, to leave this interesting place. Says he feels like the man who was not killed at Thermopylae. I think he said that unfortunate had to hang himself when he got home for very shame. Maybe fell on his sword, which was a strictly classic way of ending matters.


I do not wonder at Louisa Hamilton’s baby. We hear nothing, can listen to nothing. Boom, boom, goes the cannon – all the time. The nervous strain is awful, alone in this darkened room.

“Richmond and Washington ablaze,” say the papers. Blazing with excitement. Why not? To use these last days’ events seem frightfully great.

We were all in that iron balcony. Women – men we only see at a distance now. Stark Means, marching under the piazza at the head of his regiment, held his cap in his hand all the time he was in sight.

Mrs. Means leaning over, looking with tearful eyes.

“Why did he take his hat off?” said an unknown creature. Mrs. Means stood straight up.

“He did that in honor of his mother – he saw me.” She is a proud mother – and at the same time most unhappy. Her lovely daughter Emma is dying in there, before her eyes – consumption. At that moment I am sure Mrs. Means had a spasm of the heart. At least, she looked as I feel sometimes. She took my arm, and we came in.


April 13, 1861. Nobody hurt, after all. How gay we were last night.

Reaction after the dread of all the slaughter we thought those dreadful cannons were making such a noise in doing.

Not even a battery the worse for wear.

Fort Sumter has been on fire. He has not yet silenced any of our guns. So the aides – still with swords and red sashes by way of uniform – tell us.

But the sound of those guns makes regular meals impossible. None of us go to table. But tea trays pervade the corridors, going everywhere.

Some of the anxious hearts lie on their beds and moan in solitary misery. Mrs. Wigfall and I solace ourselves with tea in my room.

These women have all a satisfying faith. “God is on our side,” they cry. When we are shut in, we (Mrs. Wigfall and I) ask, “Why?” We are told: “Of course He hates the Yankees.”

“You’ll think that well of Him.”

Not by one word or look can we detect any change in the demeanor of these negro servants. Laurence sits at our door, as sleepy and as respectful and as profoundly indifferent. So are they all. They carry it too far. You could not tell that they hear even the awful row that is going on in the bay, though it is dinning in their ears night and day. And people talk before them as if they were chairs and tables. And they make no sign. Are they stolidly stupid or wiser than we are, silent and strong, biding their time?

So tea and toast come. Also came Colonel Manning, A.D.C. – red sash and sword – to announce that he has been under fire and didn’t mind. He said gaily, “It is one of those things – a fellow never knows how he will come out of it until he is tried. Now I know. I am a worthy descendant of my old Irish hero of an ancestor who held the British officer before him as a shield in the Revolution. And backed out of danger gracefully.” Everybody laughs at John Manning’s brag. We talked of St. Valentine’s Eve; or, The Maid of Perth and the drop of the white doe’s blood that sometimes spoiled all.

The war steamers are still there, outside the bar. And there were people who thought the Charleston bar “no good” to Charleston. The bar is our silent partner, sleeping partner, and yet in this fray he is doing us yeoman service.

April 15, 1861. I did not know that one could live such days of excitement.

They called, “Come out – there is a crowd coming.”

A mob indeed, but it was headed by Colonels Chesnut and Manning.

The crowd was shouting and showing these two as messengers of good news. They were escorted to Beauregard’s headquarters. Fort Sumter had surrendered.

Those up on the housetop shouted to us, “The fort is on fire.” That had been the story once or twice before.


When we had calmed down, Colonel Chesnut, who had taken it all quietly enough – if anything, more unruffled than usual in his serenity – told us how the surrender came about.

Wigfall was with them on Morris Island when he saw the fire in the fort, jumped in a little boat and, with his handkerchief as a white flag, rowed over to Fort Sumter. Wigfall went in through a porthole.

When Colonel Chesnut arrived shortly after and was received by the regular entrance, Colonel Anderson told him he had need to pick his way warily, for it was all mined.

As far as I can make out, the fort surrendered to Wigfall.

But it is all confusion. Our flag is flying there. Fire engines have been sent to put out the fire.

Everybody tells you half of something and then rushes off to tell something else or to hear the last news. Manning, Wigfall, John Preston, etc., men without limit, beset us at night.

In the afternoon, Mrs. Preston, Mrs. Joe Heyward, and I drove round the Battery. We were in an open carriage. What a changed scene. The very liveliest crowd I think I ever saw. Everybody talking at once. All glasses still turned on the grim old fort.

Saw William Gilmore Simms, and did not recognize him in his white beard. Trescot is here with his glasses on top of the house.


Russell, the English reporter for the Times, was there. They took him everywhere. One man got up Thackeray, to converse with him on equal terms. Poor Russell was awfully bored, they say. He only wanted to see the forts, etc., and news that was suitable to make an interesting article. Thackeray was stale news over the water.


Mrs. Frank Hampton and I went to see the camp of the Richland troops. South Carolina had volunteered to a boy. Professor Venable (The Mathematical) intends to raise a company from among them for the war, a permanent company. This is a grand frolic. No more. For the students, at least.

Even the staid and severe-of-aspect Clingman is here. He says Virginia and North Carolina are arming to come to our rescue – for now U.S.A. will swoop down on us. Of that we may be sure.

We have burned our ships – we are obliged to go on now. He calls us a poor little hot-headed, headlong, rash, and troublesome sister state.

General McQueen is in a rage because we are to send troops to Virginia.

There is a frightful yellow flag story. A distinguished potentate and militia power looked out upon the bloody field of battle, happening to stand always under the waving of the hospital flag. To his numerous other titles they now add Y.F.

Preston Hampton in all the flush of his youth and beauty, his six feet in stature – and after all, only in his teens – appeared in lemon-colored kid gloves to grace the scene. The camp, in a fit of horseplay, seized him and rubbed them in the mud. He fought manfully but took it all naturally as a good joke.

Mrs. Frank Hampton knows already what civil war means. Her brother was in the New York Seventh Regiment, so roughly received in Baltimore. Frank will be in the opposite camp.


[No date.] Home again. In those last days of my stay in Charleston I did not find time to write a line.

And so we took Fort Sumter. We – Mrs. Frank Hampton etc., in the passageway of the Mills House between the reception room and the drawing room. There we held a sofa against all comers. And indeed, all the agreeable people South seemed to have flocked to Charleston at the first gun. That was after we found out that bombarding did not kill anybody. Before that we wept and prayed – and took our tea in groups, in our rooms, away from the haunts of men.

Captain Ingraham and his kind took it (Fort Sumter) from the battery with field glasses and figures made with three sticks in the sand to show what ought to be done.

Wigfall, Chesnut, Miles, Manning, etc., took it, rowing about in the harbor in small boats, from fort to fort, under the enemies’ guns, bombs bursting in air, etc.

And then the boys and men who worked those guns so faithfully at the forts. They took it, too – their way.

Old Col. Beaufort Watts told me this story and many more of the jeunesse dor?e under fire. They took it easily as they do most things. They had cotton-bag bombproofs at Fort Moultrie, and when Anderson’s shot knocked them about, someone called out, “Cotton is falling.” Down went the kitchen chimney, and loaves of bread flew out. They cheered gaily, “Breadstuffs are rising.”

Willie Preston fired the shot which broke Anderson’s flagstaff.

Mrs. Hampton, from Columbia, telegraphed him, “Well done, Willie!”

She is his grandmother, the wife or widow of General Hampton of the Revolution, and the mildest, sweetest, gentlest of old ladies.

It shows how the war is waking us all up.



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089: Sherman Alexie: "Smoke Signals"

Mon, May 30, 2016

This week on StoryWeb: Sherman Alexie’s film Smoke Signals.

Smoke Signals is the first – and as far as I know, only – feature-length, commercially distributed film written and directed by Native Americans with a fully Native American cast. Written by Sherman Alexie and directed by Chris Eyre, the 1998 film is loosely based on Alexie’s first collection of short stories, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, published in 1993. The film also includes characters who recur throughout Alexie’s other literary works.

Is it a comedy? Is it a drama? I suppose it is predominantly a drama, as Victor Joseph and his friend Thomas Builds-the-Fire travel from the Coeur d’Alene reservation in Washington to Phoenix, Arizona, to pick up his father’s remains. In that sense, it is a coming-of-age story of sorts – or perhaps more accurately, a coming-to-terms story.

But there are also many comic elements to the film, and the wry humor emerges in part because Smoke Signals is also a classic buddy road trip movie. Victor and Thomas, as mismatched as they ever were as children, spar and play off each other – Victor the cool, stoic Indian, Thomas the geeky, ever-chatty storyteller who smiles too much. As they ride the bus to Arizona, Victor tutors Thomas in how to present himself as a “real Indian.” He needs to let his hair flow freely as a symbol of his warrior status, and he needs to wipe the goofy grin off his face. Thomas returns wearing a Fry Bread Power T-shirt, his braids unfurled, his gaze serious, and his walk a swagger. While this scene is funny, it is also searing, as Alexie deftly skewers the stereotypes white Americans have of Indian people.

Alexie pulls off this double-edged humor again and again in the film. One of my favorite scenes is the one in which Victor and Thomas ask two young women on the reservation for a ride. The women say they’ll consider the request but first need to hear a story. Ever one to spin a yarn, Thomas launches into an account of Victor’s father, Arnold Joseph, being arrested for protesting against the Vietnam War. He plea bargained, and his ultimate charge was “being an Indian in the twentieth century.” When Victor asks the women what they think and whether this story is good enough to catch them a ride, one of the women says, “I think it is a fine example of the oral tradition.” Academics who teach Native American storytelling and literature are caught up short – they’re forever celebrating the Native American oral tradition – but those in the audience can’t help but laugh. The scene ends with Victor and Thomas climbing into the backseat and with the car taking off in reverse – the only direction in which it goes.

But the film is much more than jokes, funny thought they may be. No, the film is much more a drama. Called to retrieve his dead father’s ashes, Victor goes on a quest to find his father, to make peace – if he can – with the legacy of an alcoholic, sometimes violent father who abandoned Victor and his mother. At the end of the film, Victor calls to his father, Arnold, from the bridge over a river, and we feel his release as he lets his father’s ashes go.

Like all of Alexie’s writing, Smoke Signals is self-aware, self-conscious, self-referential, perhaps one could say postmodern and not go too far. In Smoke Signals, there is a strong, clear story. But there are also “meta” references, where it’s clear that Alexie, as screenwriter, and Eyre, as director, are very well aware of the tropes they are using and overturning. Buddy film? Check. Road film? Check. Coming-of-age story? You got it. Western? You just might have something there.

Developed at Sundance Labs, Smoke Signals won the Filmmaker’s Trophy at Sundance. Provocative insights into the film can be found in Filmmaker Magazine’s interview with Alexie and Eyre – and background on the making of the film and its impact on other Native American filmmakers can be found in an interview with Eyre. As the New York Times says, it is also more than a “first” in Native American film: “it is a step by a new generation of Indian artists toward finding an idiom for exploring their individual and cultural identities without resorting to self-pity, political correctness or Hollywood cliches.” For those of you who are teachers, check out the University of Michigan Press’s curriculum guide to Smoke Signals as well as the Teach with Movies supplemental lesson materials.

If you haven’t seen Smoke Signals, you owe it to yourself to get a copy and take a look. And when you get hooked on Alexie’s work (as I know you will), you’ll want to delve into his print writing as well. Alexie is absolutely one of the best American Indian writers today (along with N. Scott Momaday, among others). His first novel, Reservation Blues, was published in 1996. His young adult novel, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, won the 2007 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. War Dances, a collection of Alexie’s short stories and poems, won the 2010 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction. This year, he published a picture book for children, Thunder Boy Jr. In addition to his fiction, poetry, screenplays, and books for young adults and children, you’ll also want to check out his poem “How to Write the Great American Indian Novel.”

Visit thestoryweb.com/alexie for links to all these resources and to watch a short clip from Smoke Signals.

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088: Herman Melville: "Moby-Dick"

Sun, May 22, 2016

This week on StoryWeb: Herman Melville’s novel Moby-Dick.

This episode is dedicated to the memory of Tim Kamer.

Here is a book whose fortunes have gone down and up, down and maybe up again. When Herman Melville’s epic novel Moby-Dick was published in 1851, much (if not most) of the reading public began to suspect that he had gone insane. The popular author of best-selling travel books seemed to have gone off the deep end (as it were). Dedicated to Nathaniel Hawthorne, whose friendship had inspired Melville throughout the writing of the novel, Moby-Dick sold only about 3,200 copies during Melville’s lifetime.

To Melville’s way of thinking – and to subsequent generations of American literary scholars in the 20th century – he had found his true calling with the psychologically and philosophically complex Moby-Dick. The year 1919 saw the centennial of Melville’s birth, igniting the “Melville Revival.” In the 1920s and following, Melville became an established part of the literary “canon,” and it seemed that his literary genius was finally getting the acclaim it deserved.  

But in later decades of the 20th century, long, ponderous, 19th-century novels lost their appeal. No one (fortunately) read James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans anymore, and while some people claimed to have read Moby-Dick, it was more likely that most of them had not actually read the tome.

I have read, studied, and taught Moby-Dick several times – and my estimation of it deepens and grows every time I do. By no means is every part of the novel a page turner (parts of the long, drawn-out quest to find and kill the infamous white whale could serve as an insomnia aid). By no means is it all narrative, all story (the cetology chapters come to mind). And by absolutely no means is it clear what Melville wants us to think about this loose and baggy monster of a book.

But there is so very much about the book that is amazing, even breath-taking.

First, there are the marvelous opening chapters, in which Ishmael (for so he tells us to call him) goes to New Bedford, Massachusetts, to look for employment on a whaling ship, work Melville himself had done for some years (hence the popularity of his South Sea travel books). The third chapter – “The Spouter Inn” – tells of his night spent with the cannibal Queequeg. To my mind, these chapters represent the best storytelling in the book.

Second, there is Melville’s literally encyclopedic knowledge of whales and the study of whales (cetology). While many readers are tempted to skim (or even skip) the cetology chapters so they can “get back to the story,” Melville includes meaty, essential material here, as well as in the justly famous chapter titled “The Whiteness of the Whale.” In short, you’ll learn a lot about whales from reading this book, though at a slower pace than you might fancy.

A third fascinating facet of Moby-Dick is the expos? it offers of the whale oil industry, which is quite akin to the oil industry today. Melville describes the dangerous working conditions, shows the greed of the captains of industry, not just Ahab’s monomaniacal pursuit of Moby-Dick but the greed of the entire industry. Directed by Ric Burns, the PBS series Into the Deep: America, Whaling, and the World provides careful insight into the largest global industry of the 19th century. The series’ biography of Melville shows how skillfully Melville washed the gum from his readers’ eyes as to what was going on in this destructive industry. Another good, basic overview of the whaling industry can be found at the Awesome Stories website. And you might also find it fun to explore the New Bedford Whaling Museum website, including information about the museum’s Melville-related workshop, tours, and lecture.

Need another reason to read Moby-Dick? Read it as a postmodern novel! Yes, you heard that right. Though modernist scholars loved it back in the 1920s, ‘30s, ’40, and ‘50s, it’s more a postmodern novel than it is a modern one. It blends genres, defies rules, goes all “meta” on us, as when Ishmael tries to interpret the painting in the New Bedford bar. But it’s “The Doubloon” chapter near the end of the novel that shows us the pre-postmodern tricks Melville was up to.

Pip, the black cabin boy, has gone mad, having fallen overboard and been rescued from the depths of the ocean. Though he has physically survived his near-drowning, he has been changed forever mentally. But in Chapter 99, “The Doubloon,” Melville shows us that Pip does make some sense if you know how to listen to him.

Ahab has nailed a golden doubloon to the ship’s mast. It’s worth a fortune. The first man to spot Moby-Dick can have the coin. In this chapter, Ahab, Starbuck, Stubb, Flask, and other characters walk up to the doubloon, give their explanations of what the coin’s engraving means, and walk away. The explanations range from the astrological to the very practical (the coin is worth $16, which would buy 960 cigars).

But it is Pip, who in his topsy-turvy mental state, truly sees what is going on. “I look, you look, he looks; we look, ye look, they look,” he says. “I look, you look, he looks; we look, ye look, they look.” In other words, we all have a piece of the truth, and we all try to make sense of the world from our particular vantage point. This subjectivity is a hallmark of the postmodern enterprise.

Now of course, Melville wasn’t a postmodernist. After all, Moby-Dick precedes the postmodern movement by more than a century. But maybe Melville was that far ahead of his contemporaries. Maybe he could see and embrace radical subjectivity – and maybe that it is a key reason why American readers thought Melville, like Pip, had lost his mind.

When you look at Moby-Dick from all these angles, it’s hard not to appreciate and applaud Melville for his stunning achievement. Yes, the novel is hard to read. Yes, it’s long and dense. And yes, some of its lengthier passages are boring. But taken in its totality, it is a masterwork.

Though Melville was immensely popular at the beginning of his writing career with the publication of several travelogues, he ultimately fell into utter obscurity. Deeply disappointed over the failure of American readers to embrace his more complex work, Melville quit writing by the end of the 1850s and spent the rest of his life working as a customs inspector in Manhattan. By 1876, all of his books were out of print, and near the end of his life, a New York newspaper – located just a few blocks from Melville’s residence – speculated about whether the now-minor figure in American literature was still alive! When Melville died in 1891, he was working on a new story, Billy Budd: Sailor. It would not be published until 1924. In all, Melville earned just over $10,000 for his writing during his lifetime.

There’s so much more to say about Melville, about Moby-Dick, and about his other novels and short stories – but I’ll leave it there for now. Suffice it to say that Moby-Dick rewards careful reading. It’s not for the faint of heart or for those who like their fiction to be short and sweet. In fact, if you work up the courage to dive into this leviathan of a book, you may find it helpful to have Robert A. diCurcio’s chapter-by-chapter companion reader at your side. Titled “Nantucket’s Tried-Out Moby-Dick,” it’s available for free online. The novel itself is also available for free online, but for this hefty volume, you might be better off with a hard copy. Multiple editions are available, but I like the Modern Library edition. Finally, if you want to learn more about Melville’s life, check out Andrew Delbanco’s biography, Melville: His World and Work, or Hershel Parker’s famous two-volume biography. And when you have the time, indulge yourself in the rare treat of listening to more than 140 individuals as they read the novel’s 135 chapters and the epilogue. Titled “The Moby-Dick Big Read,” the project features such luminaries as Mary Oliver, Sir David Attenborough, Tony Kushner, and Benedict Cumberbatch. Each reading is accompanied by an original work of art that illustrates the chapter. What a great way to experience this American epic!

Visit thestoryweb.com/mobydick for links to all these resources.

Listen now as I read Chapter 3, “The Spouter Inn.” The chapter describes Ishmael’s attempts to understand the inn’s inscrutable painting and relates the tale of Ishmael and Queequeg’s night together in the inn. You can follow along with Chapter 3 at Project Gutenberg.


Entering that gable-ended Spouter-Inn, you found yourself in a wide, low, straggling entry with old-fashioned wainscots, reminding one of the bulwarks of some condemned old craft. On one side hung a very large oilpainting so thoroughly besmoked, and every way defaced, that in the unequal crosslights by which you viewed it, it was only by diligent study and a series of systematic visits to it, and careful inquiry of the neighbors, that you could any way arrive at an understanding of its purpose. Such unaccountable masses of shades and shadows, that at first you almost thought some ambitious young artist, in the time of the New England hags, had endeavored to delineate chaos bewitched. But by dint of much and earnest contemplation, and oft repeated ponderings, and especially by throwing open the little window towards the back of the entry, you at last come to the conclusion that such an idea, however wild, might not be altogether unwarranted.

But what most puzzled and confounded you was a long, limber, portentous, black mass of something hovering in the centre of the picture over three blue, dim, perpendicular lines floating in a nameless yeast. A boggy, soggy, squitchy picture truly, enough to drive a nervous man distracted. Yet was there a sort of indefinite, half-attained, unimaginable sublimity about it that fairly froze you to it, till you involuntarily took an oath with yourself to find out what that marvellous painting meant. Ever and anon a bright, but, alas, deceptive idea would dart you through.—It's the Black Sea in a midnight gale.—It's the unnatural combat of the four primal elements.—It's a blasted heath.—It's a Hyperborean winter scene.—It's the breaking-up of the icebound stream of Time. But at last all these fancies yielded to that one portentous something in the picture's midst. That once found out, and all the rest were plain. But stop; does it not bear a faint resemblance to a gigantic fish? even the great leviathan himself?

In fact, the artist's design seemed this: a final theory of my own, partly based upon the aggregated opinions of many aged persons with whom I conversed upon the subject. The picture represents a Cape-Horner in a great hurricane; the half-foundered ship weltering there with its three dismantled masts alone visible; and an exasperated whale, purposing to spring clean over the craft, is in the enormous act of impaling himself upon the three mast-heads.

The opposite wall of this entry was hung all over with a heathenish array of monstrous clubs and spears. Some were thickly set with glittering teeth resembling ivory saws; others were tufted with knots of human hair; and one was sickle-shaped, with a vast handle sweeping round like the segment made in the new-mown grass by a long-armed mower. You shuddered as you gazed, and wondered what monstrous cannibal and savage could ever have gone a death-harvesting with such a hacking, horrifying implement. Mixed with these were rusty old whaling lances and harpoons all broken and deformed. Some were storied weapons. With this once long lance, now wildly elbowed, fifty years ago did Nathan Swain kill fifteen whales between a sunrise and a sunset. And that harpoon—so like a corkscrew now—was flung in Javan seas, and run away with by a whale, years afterwards slain off the Cape of Blanco. The original iron entered nigh the tail, and, like a restless needle sojourning in the body of a man, travelled full forty feet, and at last was found imbedded in the hump.

Crossing this dusky entry, and on through yon low-arched way—cut through what in old times must have been a great central chimney with fireplaces all round—you enter the public room. A still duskier place is this, with such low ponderous beams above, and such old wrinkled planks beneath, that you would almost fancy you trod some old craft's cockpits, especially of such a howling night, when this corner-anchored old ark rocked so furiously. On one side stood a long, low, shelf-like table covered with cracked glass cases, filled with dusty rarities gathered from this wide world's remotest nooks. Projecting from the further angle of the room stands a dark-looking den—the bar—a rude attempt at a right whale's head. Be that how it may, there stands the vast arched bone of the whale's jaw, so wide, a coach might almost drive beneath it. Within are shabby shelves, ranged round with old decanters, bottles, flasks; and in those jaws of swift destruction, like another cursed Jonah (by which name indeed they called him), bustles a little withered old man, who, for their money, dearly sells the sailors deliriums and death.

Abominable are the tumblers into which he pours his poison. Though true cylinders without—within, the villanous green goggling glasses deceitfully tapered downwards to a cheating bottom. Parallel meridians rudely pecked into the glass, surround these footpads' goblets. Fill to this mark, and your charge is but a penny; to this a penny more; and so on to the full glass—the Cape Horn measure, which you may gulp down for a shilling.

Upon entering the place I found a number of young seamen gathered about a table, examining by a dim light divers specimens of skrimshander. I sought the landlord, and telling him I desired to be accommodated with a room, received for answer that his house was full—not a bed unoccupied. "But avast," he added, tapping his forehead, "you haint no objections to sharing a harpooneer's blanket, have ye? I s'pose you are goin' a-whalin', so you'd better get used to that sort of thing."

I told him that I never liked to sleep two in a bed; that if I should ever do so, it would depend upon who the harpooneer might be, and that if he (the landlord) really had no other place for me, and the harpooneer was not decidedly objectionable, why rather than wander further about a strange town on so bitter a night, I would put up with the half of any decent man's blanket.

"I thought so. All right; take a seat. Supper?—you want supper? Supper'll be ready directly."

I sat down on an old wooden settle, carved all over like a bench on the Battery. At one end a ruminating tar was still further adorning it with his jack-knife, stooping over and diligently working away at the space between his legs. He was trying his hand at a ship under full sail, but he didn't make much headway, I thought.

At last some four or five of us were summoned to our meal in an adjoining room. It was cold as Iceland—no fire at all—the landlord said he couldn't afford it. Nothing but two dismal tallow candles, each in a winding sheet. We were fain to button up our monkey jackets, and hold to our lips cups of scalding tea with our half frozen fingers. But the fare was of the most substantial kind—not only meat and potatoes, but dumplings; good heavens! dumplings for supper! One young fellow in a green box coat, addressed himself to these dumplings in a most direful manner.

"My boy," said the landlord, "you'll have the nightmare to a dead sartainty."

"Landlord," I whispered, "that aint the harpooneer is it?"

"Oh, no," said he, looking a sort of diabolically funny, "the harpooneer is a dark complexioned chap. He never eats dumplings, he don't—he eats nothing but steaks, and he likes 'em rare."

"The devil he does," says I. "Where is that harpooneer? Is he here?"

"He'll be here afore long," was the answer.

I could not help it, but I began to feel suspicious of this "dark complexioned" harpooneer. At any rate, I made up my mind that if it so turned out that we should sleep together, he must undress and get into bed before I did.

Supper over, the company went back to the bar-room, when, knowing not what else to do with myself, I resolved to spend the rest of the evening as a looker on.

Presently a rioting noise was heard without. Starting up, the landlord cried, "That's the Grampus's crew. I seed her reported in the offing this morning; a three years' voyage, and a full ship. Hurrah, boys; now we'll have the latest news from the Feegees."

A tramping of sea boots was heard in the entry; the door was flung open, and in rolled a wild set of mariners enough. Enveloped in their shaggy watch coats, and with their heads muffled in woollen comforters, all bedarned and ragged, and their beards stiff with icicles, they seemed an eruption of bears from Labrador. They had just landed from their boat, and this was the first house they entered. No wonder, then, that they made a straight wake for the whale's mouth—the bar—when the wrinkled little old Jonah, there officiating, soon poured them out brimmers all round. One complained of a bad cold in his head, upon which Jonah mixed him a pitch-like potion of gin and molasses, which he swore was a sovereign cure for all colds and catarrhs whatsoever, never mind of how long standing, or whether caught off the coast of Labrador, or on the weather side of an ice-island.

The liquor soon mounted into their heads, as it generally does even with the arrantest topers newly landed from sea, and they began capering about most obstreperously.

I observed, however, that one of them held somewhat aloof, and though he seemed desirous not to spoil the hilarity of his shipmates by his own sober face, yet upon the whole he refrained from making as much noise as the rest. This man interested me at once; and since the sea-gods had ordained that he should soon become my shipmate (though but a sleeping-partner one, so far as this narrative is concerned), I will here venture upon a little description of him. He stood full six feet in height, with noble shoulders, and a chest like a coffer-dam. I have seldom seen such brawn in a man. His face was deeply brown and burnt, making his white teeth dazzling by the contrast; while in the deep shadows of his eyes floated some reminiscences that did not seem to give him much joy. His voice at once announced that he was a Southerner, and from his fine stature, I thought he must be one of those tall mountaineers from the Alleghanian Ridge in Virginia. When the revelry of his companions had mounted to its height, this man slipped away unobserved, and I saw no more of him till he became my comrade on the sea. In a few minutes, however, he was missed by his shipmates, and being, it seems, for some reason a huge favourite with them, they raised a cry of "Bulkington! Bulkington! where's Bulkington?" and darted out of the house in pursuit of him.

It was now about nine o'clock, and the room seeming almost supernaturally quiet after these orgies, I began to congratulate myself upon a little plan that had occurred to me just previous to the entrance of the seamen.

No man prefers to sleep two in a bed. In fact, you would a good deal rather not sleep with your own brother. I don't know how it is, but people like to be private when they are sleeping. And when it comes to sleeping with an unknown stranger, in a strange inn, in a strange town, and that stranger a harpooneer, then your objections indefinitely multiply. Nor was there any earthly reason why I as a sailor should sleep two in a bed, more than anybody else; for sailors no more sleep two in a bed at sea, than bachelor Kings do ashore. To be sure they all sleep together in one apartment, but you have your own hammock, and cover yourself with your own blanket, and sleep in your own skin.

The more I pondered over this harpooneer, the more I abominated the thought of sleeping with him. It was fair to presume that being a harpooneer, his linen or woollen, as the case might be, would not be of the tidiest, certainly none of the finest. I began to twitch all over. Besides, it was getting late, and my decent harpooneer ought to be home and going bedwards. Suppose now, he should tumble in upon me at midnight—how could I tell from what vile hole he had been coming?

"Landlord! I've changed my mind about that harpooneer.—I shan't sleep with him. I'll try the bench here."

"Just as you please; I'm sorry I can't spare ye a tablecloth for a mattress, and it's a plaguy rough board here"—feeling of the knots and notches. "But wait a bit, Skrimshander; I've got a carpenter's plane there in the bar—wait, I say, and I'll make ye snug enough." So saying he procured the plane; and with his old silk handkerchief first dusting the bench, vigorously set to planing away at my bed, the while grinning like an ape. The shavings flew right and left; till at last the plane-iron came bump against an indestructible knot. The landlord was near spraining his wrist, and I told him for heaven's sake to quit—the bed was soft enough to suit me, and I did not know how all the planing in the world could make eider down of a pine plank. So gathering up the shavings with another grin, and throwing them into the great stove in the middle of the room, he went about his business, and left me in a brown study.

I now took the measure of the bench, and found that it was a foot too short; but that could be mended with a chair. But it was a foot too narrow, and the other bench in the room was about four inches higher than the planed one—so there was no yoking them. I then placed the first bench lengthwise along the only clear space against the wall, leaving a little interval between, for my back to settle down in. But I soon found that there came such a draught of cold air over me from under the sill of the window, that this plan would never do at all, especially as another current from the rickety door met the one from the window, and both together formed a series of small whirlwinds in the immediate vicinity of the spot where I had thought to spend the night.

The devil fetch that harpooneer, thought I, but stop, couldn't I steal a march on him—bolt his door inside, and jump into his bed, not to be wakened by the most violent knockings? It seemed no bad idea; but upon second thoughts I dismissed it. For who could tell but what the next morning, so soon as I popped out of the room, the harpooneer might be standing in the entry, all ready to knock me down!

Still, looking round me again, and seeing no possible chance of spending a sufferable night unless in some other person's bed, I began to think that after all I might be cherishing unwarrantable prejudices against this unknown harpooneer. Thinks I, I'll wait awhile; he must be dropping in before long. I'll have a good look at him then, and perhaps we may become jolly good bedfellows after all—there's no telling.

But though the other boarders kept coming in by ones, twos, and threes, and going to bed, yet no sign of my harpooneer.

"Landlord!" said I, "what sort of a chap is he—does he always keep such late hours?" It was now hard upon twelve o'clock.

The landlord chuckled again with his lean chuckle, and seemed to be mightily tickled at something beyond my comprehension. "No," he answered, "generally he's an early bird—airley to bed and airley to rise—yes, he's the bird what catches the worm. But to-night he went out a peddling, you see, and I don't see what on airth keeps him so late, unless, may be, he can't sell his head."

"Can't sell his head?—What sort of a bamboozingly story is this you are telling me?" getting into a towering rage. "Do you pretend to say, landlord, that this harpooneer is actually engaged this blessed Saturday night, or rather Sunday morning, in peddling his head around this town?"

"That's precisely it," said the landlord, "and I told him he couldn't sell it here, the market's overstocked."

"With what?" shouted I.

"With heads to be sure; ain't there too many heads in the world?"

"I tell you what it is, landlord," said I quite calmly, "you'd better stop spinning that yarn to me—I'm not green."

"May be not," taking out a stick and whittling a toothpick, "but I rayther guess you'll be done brown if that ere harpooneer hears you a slanderin' his head."

"I'll break it for him," said I, now flying into a passion again at this unaccountable farrago of the landlord's.

"It's broke a'ready," said he.

"Broke," said I—"broke, do you mean?"

"Sartain, and that's the very reason he can't sell it, I guess."

"Landlord," said I, going up to him as cool as Mt. Hecla in a snow-storm—"landlord, stop whittling. You and I must understand one another, and that too without delay. I come to your house and want a bed; you tell me you can only give me half a one; that the other half belongs to a certain harpooneer. And about this harpooneer, whom I have not yet seen, you persist in telling me the most mystifying and exasperating stories tending to beget in me an uncomfortable feeling towards the man whom you design for my bedfellow—a sort of connexion, landlord, which is an intimate and confidential one in the highest degree. I now demand of you to speak out and tell me who and what this harpooneer is, and whether I shall be in all respects safe to spend the night with him. And in the first place, you will be so good as to unsay that story about selling his head, which if true I take to be good evidence that this harpooneer is stark mad, and I've no idea of sleeping with a madman; and you, sir, you I mean, landlord, you, sir, by trying to induce me to do so knowingly, would thereby render yourself liable to a criminal prosecution."

"Wall," said the landlord, fetching a long breath, "that's a purty long sarmon for a chap that rips a little now and then. But be easy, be easy, this here harpooneer I have been tellin' you of has just arrived from the south seas, where he bought up a lot of 'balmed New Zealand heads (great curios, you know), and he's sold all on 'em but one, and that one he's trying to sell to-night, cause to-morrow's Sunday, and it would not do to be sellin' human heads about the streets when folks is goin' to churches. He wanted to, last Sunday, but I stopped him just as he was goin' out of the door with four heads strung on a string, for all the airth like a string of inions."

This account cleared up the otherwise unaccountable mystery, and showed that the landlord, after all, had had no idea of fooling me—but at the same time what could I think of a harpooneer who stayed out of a Saturday night clean into the holy Sabbath, engaged in such a cannibal business as selling the heads of dead idolators?

"Depend upon it, landlord, that harpooneer is a dangerous man."

"He pays reg'lar," was the rejoinder. "But come, it's getting dreadful late, you had better be turning flukes—it's a nice bed; Sal and me slept in that ere bed the night we were spliced. There's plenty of room for two to kick about in that bed; it's an almighty big bed that. Why, afore we give it up, Sal used to put our Sam and little Johnny in the foot of it. But I got a dreaming and sprawling about one night, and somehow, Sam got pitched on the floor, and came near breaking his arm. Arter that, Sal said it wouldn't do. Come along here, I'll give ye a glim in a jiffy;" and so saying he lighted a candle and held it towards me, offering to lead the way. But I stood irresolute; when looking at a clock in the corner, he exclaimed "I vum it's Sunday—you won't see that harpooneer to-night; he's come to anchor somewhere—come along then; do come; won't ye come?"

I considered the matter a moment, and then up stairs we went, and I was ushered into a small room, cold as a clam, and furnished, sure enough, with a prodigious bed, almost big enough indeed for any four harpooneers to sleep abreast.

"There," said the landlord, placing the candle on a crazy old sea chest that did double duty as a wash-stand and centre table; "there, make yourself comfortable now, and good night to ye." I turned round from eyeing the bed, but he had disappeared.

Folding back the counterpane, I stooped over the bed. Though none of the most elegant, it yet stood the scrutiny tolerably well. I then glanced round the room; and besides the bedstead and centre table, could see no other furniture belonging to the place, but a rude shelf, the four walls, and a papered fireboard representing a man striking a whale. Of things not properly belonging to the room, there was a hammock lashed up, and thrown upon the floor in one corner; also a large seaman's bag, containing the harpooneer's wardrobe, no doubt in lieu of a land trunk. Likewise, there was a parcel of outlandish bone fish hooks on the shelf over the fire-place, and a tall harpoon standing at the head of the bed.

But what is this on the chest? I took it up, and held it close to the light, and felt it, and smelt it, and tried every way possible to arrive at some satisfactory conclusion concerning it. I can compare it to nothing but a large door mat, ornamented at the edges with little tinkling tags something like the stained porcupine quills round an Indian moccasin. There was a hole or slit in the middle of this mat, as you see the same in South American ponchos. But could it be possible that any sober harpooneer would get into a door mat, and parade the streets of any Christian town in that sort of guise? I put it on, to try it, and it weighed me down like a hamper, being uncommonly shaggy and thick, and I thought a little damp, as though this mysterious harpooneer had been wearing it of a rainy day. I went up in it to a bit of glass stuck against the wall, and I never saw such a sight in my life. I tore myself out of it in such a hurry that I gave myself a kink in the neck.

I sat down on the side of the bed, and commenced thinking about this head-peddling harpooneer, and his door mat. After thinking some time on the bed-side, I got up and took off my monkey jacket, and then stood in the middle of the room thinking. I then took off my coat, and thought a little more in my shirt sleeves. But beginning to feel very cold now, half undressed as I was, and remembering what the landlord said about the harpooneer's not coming home at all that night, it being so very late, I made no more ado, but jumped out of my pantaloons and boots, and then blowing out the light tumbled into bed, and commended myself to the care of heaven.

Whether that mattress was stuffed with corn-cobs or broken crockery, there is no telling, but I rolled about a good deal, and could not sleep for a long time. At last I slid off into a light doze, and had pretty nearly made a good offing towards the land of Nod, when I heard a heavy footfall in the passage, and saw a glimmer of light come into the room from under the door.

Lord save me, thinks I, that must be the harpooneer, the infernal head-peddler. But I lay perfectly still, and resolved not to say a word till spoken to. Holding a light in one hand, and that identical New Zealand head in the other, the stranger entered the room, and without looking towards the bed, placed his candle a good way off from me on the floor in one corner, and then began working away at the knotted cords of the large bag I before spoke of as being in the room. I was all eagerness to see his face, but he kept it averted for some time while employed in unlacing the bag's mouth. This accomplished, however, he turned round—when, good heavens! what a sight! Such a face! It was of a dark, purplish, yellow colour, here and there stuck over with large blackish looking squares. Yes, it's just as I thought, he's a terrible bedfellow; he's been in a fight, got dreadfully cut, and here he is, just from the surgeon. But at that moment he chanced to turn his face so towards the light, that I plainly saw they could not be sticking-plasters at all, those black squares on his cheeks. They were stains of some sort or other. At first I knew not what to make of this; but soon an inkling of the truth occurred to me. I remembered a story of a white man—a whaleman too—who, falling among the cannibals, had been tattooed by them. I concluded that this harpooneer, in the course of his distant voyages, must have met with a similar adventure. And what is it, thought I, after all! It's only his outside; a man can be honest in any sort of skin. But then, what to make of his unearthly complexion, that part of it, I mean, lying round about, and completely independent of the squares of tattooing. To be sure, it might be nothing but a good coat of tropical tanning; but I never heard of a hot sun's tanning a white man into a purplish yellow one. However, I had never been in the South Seas; and perhaps the sun there produced these extraordinary effects upon the skin. Now, while all these ideas were passing through me like lightning, this harpooneer never noticed me at all. But, after some difficulty having opened his bag, he commenced fumbling in it, and presently pulled out a sort of tomahawk, and a seal-skin wallet with the hair on. Placing these on the old chest in the middle of the room, he then took the New Zealand head—a ghastly thing enough—and crammed it down into the bag. He now took off his hat—a new beaver hat—when I came nigh singing out with fresh surprise. There was no hair on his head—none to speak of at least—nothing but a small scalp-knot twisted up on his forehead. His bald purplish head now looked for all the world like a mildewed skull. Had not the stranger stood between me and the door, I would have bolted out of it quicker than ever I bolted a dinner.

Even as it was, I thought something of slipping out of the window, but it was the second floor back. I am no coward, but what to make of this head-peddling purple rascal altogether passed my comprehension. Ignorance is the parent of fear, and being completely nonplussed and confounded about the stranger, I confess I was now as much afraid of him as if it was the devil himself who had thus broken into my room at the dead of night. In fact, I was so afraid of him that I was not game enough just then to address him, and demand a satisfactory answer concerning what seemed inexplicable in him.

Meanwhile, he continued the business of undressing, and at last showed his chest and arms. As I live, these covered parts of him were checkered with the same squares as his face; his back, too, was all over the same dark squares; he seemed to have been in a Thirty Years' War, and just escaped from it with a sticking-plaster shirt. Still more, his very legs were marked, as if a parcel of dark green frogs were running up the trunks of young palms. It was now quite plain that he must be some abominable savage or other shipped aboard of a whaleman in the South Seas, and so landed in this Christian country. I quaked to think of it. A peddler of heads too—perhaps the heads of his own brothers. He might take a fancy to mine—heavens! look at that tomahawk!

But there was no time for shuddering, for now the savage went about something that completely fascinated my attention, and convinced me that he must indeed be a heathen. Going to his heavy grego, or wrapall, or dreadnaught, which he had previously hung on a chair, he fumbled in the pockets, and produced at length a curious little deformed image with a hunch on its back, and exactly the colour of a three days' old Congo baby. Remembering the embalmed head, at first I almost thought that this black manikin was a real baby preserved in some similar manner. But seeing that it was not at all limber, and that it glistened a good deal like polished ebony, I concluded that it must be nothing but a wooden idol, which indeed it proved to be. For now the savage goes up to the empty fire-place, and removing the papered fire-board, sets up this little hunch-backed image, like a tenpin, between the andirons. The chimney jambs and all the bricks inside were very sooty, so that I thought this fire-place made a very appropriate little shrine or chapel for his Congo idol.

I now screwed my eyes hard towards the half hidden image, feeling but ill at ease meantime—to see what was next to follow. First he takes about a double handful of shavings out of his grego pocket, and places them carefully before the idol; then laying a bit of ship biscuit on top and applying the flame from the lamp, he kindled the shavings into a sacrificial blaze. Presently, after many hasty snatches into the fire, and still hastier withdrawals of his fingers (whereby he seemed to be scorching them badly), he at last succeeded in drawing out the biscuit; then blowing off the heat and ashes a little, he made a polite offer of it to the little negro. But the little devil did not seem to fancy such dry sort of fare at all; he never moved his lips. All these strange antics were accompanied by still stranger guttural noises from the devotee, who seemed to be praying in a sing-song or else singing some pagan psalmody or other, during which his face twitched about in the most unnatural manner. At last extinguishing the fire, he took the idol up very unceremoniously, and bagged it again in his grego pocket as carelessly as if he were a sportsman bagging a dead woodcock.

All these queer proceedings increased my uncomfortableness, and seeing him now exhibiting strong symptoms of concluding his business operations, and jumping into bed with me, I thought it was high time, now or never, before the light was put out, to break the spell in which I had so long been bound.

But the interval I spent in deliberating what to say, was a fatal one. Taking up his tomahawk from the table, he examined the head of it for an instant, and then holding it to the light, with his mouth at the handle, he puffed out great clouds of tobacco smoke. The next moment the light was extinguished, and this wild cannibal, tomahawk between his teeth, sprang into bed with me. I sang out, I could not help it now; and giving a sudden grunt of astonishment he began feeling me.

Stammering out something, I knew not what, I rolled away from him against the wall, and then conjured him, whoever or whatever he might be, to keep quiet, and let me get up and light the lamp again. But his guttural responses satisfied me at once that he but ill comprehended my meaning.

"Who-e debel you?"—he at last said—"you no speak-e, dam-me, I kill-e." And so saying the lighted tomahawk began flourishing about me in the dark.

"Landlord, for God's sake, Peter Coffin!" shouted I. "Landlord! Watch! Coffin! Angels! save me!"

"Speak-e! tell-ee me who-ee be, or dam-me, I kill-e!" again growled the cannibal, while his horrid flourishings of the tomahawk scattered the hot tobacco ashes about me till I thought my linen would get on fire. But thank heaven, at that moment the landlord came into the room light in hand, and leaping from the bed I ran up to him.

"Don't be afraid now," said he, grinning again, "Queequeg here wouldn't harm a hair of your head."

"Stop your grinning," shouted I, "and why didn't you tell me that that infernal harpooneer was a cannibal?"

"I thought ye know'd it;—didn't I tell ye, he was a peddlin' heads around town?—but turn flukes again and go to sleep. Queequeg, look here—you sabbee me, I sabbee—you this man sleepe you—you sabbee?"

"Me sabbee plenty"—grunted Queequeg, puffing away at his pipe and sitting up in bed.

"You gettee in," he added, motioning to me with his tomahawk, and throwing the clothes to one side. He really did this in not only a civil but a really kind and charitable way. I stood looking at him a moment. For all his tattooings he was on the whole a clean, comely looking cannibal. What's all this fuss I have been making about, thought I to myself—the man's a human being just as I am: he has just as much reason to fear me, as I have to be afraid of him. Better sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian.

"Landlord," said I, "tell him to stash his tomahawk there, or pipe, or whatever you call it; tell him to stop smoking, in short, and I will turn in with him. But I don't fancy having a man smoking in bed with me. It's dangerous. Besides, I ain't insured."

This being told to Queequeg, he at once complied, and again politely motioned me to get into bed—rolling over to one side as much as to say—"I won't touch a leg of ye."

"Good night, landlord," said I, "you may go."

I turned in, and never slept better in my life.

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087: Carson McCullers: "The Member of the Wedding"

Mon, May 16, 2016

This week on StoryWeb: Carson McCullers’s novel The Member of the Wedding.

This episode is dedicated to Suzanne Custer.

Here’s a writer whose work has much too unfortunately fallen out of popularity. Carson McCullers made a splash in the literary world in 1940 with her first novel, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, and her 1951 novella, The Ballad of the Sad Caf?, has also gotten lots of attention. But my favorite of her books is her 1946 novel, The Member of the Wedding.

  1. Jasmine Addams – or Frankie, as she is known by her family – is 12 years old, right on the brink of young adulthood. She is literally poised between childhood and adulthood. During the summer the novel takes place, Frankie is very much in that liminal space. McCullers says, “This was the summer when for a long time she had not been a member. She belonged to no club and was a member of nothing in the world. Frankie had become an unjoined person who hung around in doorways, and she was afraid.”

I love the upstart Frankie. She is what my friend Amy would call “fresh.” She is in everybody’s business. She is incessantly worried about where she belongs, ever fretful about being an unjoined person. And she is not afraid to say what she thinks. Frankie has no filters.

The crisis that confronts Frankie at this juncture in her life is her older brother’s impending marriage. She and her brother are close, and Frankie enjoys being the rough-and-tumble kid sister. Lucky for her, she loves her soon-to-be sister-in-law, too.

But what Frankie can’t fathom is that the two of them will marry and create a new life of their own. Such a separation is unthinkable to Frankie, whose frequent refrain throughout the novel is “They are the we of me.” In a letter to playwright Tennessee Williams, McCullers said that as she was writing The Member of the Wedding, she had “a divine spark: Suddenly I said: Frankie is in love with her brother and the bride. . . . The illumination focused the whole book.”

Frankie’s confidante in all things is her family’s black housekeeper, Berenice Sadie Brown. Here, again, we see Frankie straddling childhood and adulthood. White children in the South were often raised by black women. Their relationships were very intimate, yet by the very definition of white-black relationships in the South, such intimacy had to end when a child matured into adolescence and moved into adulthood. Indeed, this is probably the last summer Frankie will spend in Berenice’s kitchen.

Curious to know how everything turns out and how Frankie and her family navigate this emotional transition? You’ll have to read the novel! In addition, McCullers worked with Tennessee Williams on a stage adaptation of The Member of the Wedding; it opened on Broadway in 1950 and was a critical and commercial success. It won the Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Best Play that year. In 1952, a film adaptation was made, with Julie Harris and Ethel Waters reprising their Broadway roles as Frankie and Berenice, respectively. Harris was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress for her film debut.

Despite the fact that her work is not as popular as it once was, McCullers’s legacy endures. Her childhood home in Columbus, Georgia, is owned by Columbus State University and houses their Carson McCullers Center for Writers and Musicians. The home is part of the Southern Literary Trail, and the center offers fellowships for writers and composers who live for periods of time in the Smith-McCullers home in Columbus. In addition, Columbus State University owns McCullers’s house in Nyack, New York, where she lived off and on until she died in 1967. The Center also inherited many artifacts and documents from the last ten years of McCullers’s life.

For an outstanding biography of McCullers, you must read Virginia Spencer Carr’s The Lonely Hunter. It not only brings McCullers to vivid life, but it also sets a standard for literary biography. If you’re looking for something shorter, check out McCullers’s biography on the New Georgia Encyclopedia website. For more on McCullers’s fiction, visit the Carson McCullers Project. You can also get lost in the New York Times collection of articles that mention McCullers.

Visit thestoryweb.com/mccullers for links to all these resources and to watch two outstanding video clips. You can watch a 3-minute clip from the screen adaptation of The Member of the Wedding. The clip features actress Julie Harris as Frankie Addams as she says of her brother and his bride: “they are the we of me.” In addition, a documentary film about Carson McCullers and her husband, Reeves McCullers, is in progress, and excerpts from the film can be viewed as well. The beginning of this clip features Carson McCullers speaking about the initial idea for The Member of the Wedding.

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086: Nathaniel Hawthorne: "The Scarlet Letter"

Mon, May 09, 2016

This week on StoryWeb: Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel “The Scarlet Letter.”

“What we did had a consecration of its own.”

So says Hester Prynne to Arthur Dimmesdale in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1850 novel, The Scarlet Letter. When I was 15 and reading the novel for the first time in my high school American literature class, I had no idea what Hester – she of the scarlet letter – meant. But as I got older, as I experienced my own deep connections with others, I came to understand Hester very well. In her view, her forest rendezvous with Dimmesdale was not lustful fornication but sacred, holy lovemaking, lovemaking that honored both of them.

If you read (or read about) The Scarlet Letter in high school and haven’t touched it since, I highly encourage you to give it another chance. I don’t think it is a book for teenagers, for they do not have nearly enough life experience to understand the bond between Hester and Dimmesdale. They can’t fathom what each gives up – or considers giving up – for the other. (Other teachers, however, report some success with teaching the complex moral novel in high school. See Brenda Wineapple’s essay “The Scarlet Letter and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s America,” and David Denby’s piece “Is It Still Possible to Teach The Scarlet Letter in High School?”)

If you’re ready to read The Scarlet Letter for the first time or if you’re ready to read it again, you can read the book online for free or buy a hard copy for your collection. Don’t bother with any of the wretched film adaptations (especially the 1995 version starring Demi Moore as Hester). Just stick with the novel itself. Your own imagination will bring the book to life!

Once you’ve got the book in hand, it’s best to start with Hawthorne’s opening essay, “The Custom House.” Many readers skip it, wanting to move ahead to the story. But “The Custom House” is key to the novel in so many ways. It tells of Hawthorne’s years working as the chief executive officer of the Salem, Massachusetts, Custom House. Salem, of course, was the site of the heinous Salem Witch Trials. In 1692, the Puritans “pressed” one man to death and hung fourteen women and five men, all of them falsely convicted of witchcraft. Salem was Hawthorne’s hometown, his long-time ancestral home. In fact, one of his direct ancestors was Justice John Hathorne; he was the chief interrogator of the accused witches. So distressed and estranged was Hawthorne by his family’s participation in the Salem Witch Trials that he changed the spelling of his surname, thereby distancing himself from the family legacy.

In “The Custom House,” Hawthorne tells of his struggle to come to terms with his family’s past. He says,

This long connection of a family with one spot, as its place of birth and burial, creates a kindred between the human being and the locality, quite independent of any charm in the scenery or moral circumstances that surround him. It is not love, but instinct. . . . It is no matter that the place is joyless for him; that he is weary of the old wooden houses, the mud and dust, the dead level of site and sentiment, the chill east wind, and the chillest of social atmospheres. . . . The spell survives, and just as powerfully as if the natal spot were an earthly paradise. So has it been in my case. I felt it almost as a destiny to make Salem my home. . . . Nevertheless, this very sentiment is an evidence that the connection, which has become an unhealthy one, should at last be severed.

Later in the essay, Hawthorne tells of poking around one day in the “heaped-up rubbish” of the Custom House and finding a beautifully embroidered, red letter A, “a certain affair of fine red cloth, much worn and faded.” It had been wrought,” Hawthorne says, “with wonderful skill of needlework; and the stitch . . . gives evidence of a now forgotten art.” While puzzling over the meaning of the scarlet letter, Hawthorne places it on his chest. “I experienced a sensation not altogether physical, yet almost so, as of burning heat,” he writes. “as if the letter were not of red cloth, but red-hot iron.” Accompanying the scarlet letter, Hawthorne finds a “small roll of dingy paper,” which reveals that Hester Prynne had been the wearer of the letter. Hawthorne’s story of discovering the scarlet letter and finding out about Hester Prynne is completely fabricated as far as we know, but the reader is hooked. The novel that follows promises to tell the story of the infamous Hester Prynne and her even more infamous scarlet letter.

While the story of the scarlet letter may be a figment of Hawthorne’s imagination, what is real is the harsh legacy of the 17th-century Puritans and Hawthorne’s own Transcendentalist-touched life in the 19th century. In a surprising and quite interesting turn of events, it was the descendants of the 17th-century Puritans who became the Transcendentalists – those fervent free thinkers – in the 19th century. I always imagine that the Puritans would have rolled over in their graves had they known what their heirs espoused.

In fact, Hester can easily be seen as a Transcendentalist heroine set smack dab in a Puritan world. As Hawthorne created his heroine, he made her much more a product of the 19th century than the 17th century. As she “stand[s] alone in the world” and “cast[s] away the fragments of a broken chain,” she determines that “[t]he world’s law was no law for her mind.” Wearing her scarlet letter, “[i]n her lonesome cottage, by the sea-shore, thoughts visited her, such as dared to enter no other dwelling in New England.” In fact, says Hawthorne, “she might have come down to us in history, hand in hand with Anne Hutchinson, as the foundress of a religious sect. She might, in one of her phases, have been a prophetess.” No wonder Hester is ostracized from her community: she was much too dangerous for the small community of Boston!

Ready to explore Hawthorne and The Scarlet Letter further? Start with an overview of Hawthorne’s relationship to his ancestral hometown, created by one of my students at Shepherd University and illustrated with photos of our 2002 trip to Salem. “Hawthorne in Salem” is another great website that helps the scene and the context for Hawthorne’s writing of The Scarlet Letter. For links to these resources, visit thestoryweb.com/hawthorne.

Listen now as I read excerpts from the first three chapters of The Scarlet Letter. You’ll see Hester Prynne as she leaves the prison, walks to the scaffold to receive her punishment, and returns to her cell.


A THRONG of bearded men, in sad-colored garments and gray, steeple-crowned hats, intermixed with women, some wearing hoods, and others bareheaded, was assembled in front of a wooden edifice, the door of which was heavily timbered with oak, and studded with iron spikes.

  The founders of a new colony, whatever Utopia of human virtue and happiness they might originally project, have invariably recognized it among their earliest practical necessities to allot a portion of the virgin soil as a cemetery, and another portion as the site of a prison. In accordance with this rule, it may safely be assumed that the forefathers of Boston had built the first prison-house, somewhere in the vicinity of Cornhill, almost as seasonably as they marked out the first burial-ground, on Isaac Johnson’s lot, and round about his grave, which subsequently became the nucleus of all the congregated sepulchres in the old church-yard of King’s Chapel. Certain it is, that, some fifteen or twenty years after the settlement of the town, the wooden jail was already marked with weather-stains and other indications of age, which gave a yet darker aspect to its beetle-browed and gloomy front. The rust on the ponderous iron-work of its oaken door looked more antique than any thing else in the new world. Like all that pertains to crime, it seemed never to have known a youthful era. Before this ugly edifice, and between it and the wheel-track of the street, was a grass-plot, much overgrown with burdock, pig-weed, apple-peru, and such unsightly vegetation, which evidently found something congenial in the soil that had so early borne the black flower of civilized society, a prison. But, on one side of the portal, and rooted almost at the threshold, was a wild rose-bush, covered, in this month of June, with its delicate gems, which might be imagined to offer their fragrance and fragile beauty to the prisoner as he went in, and to the condemned criminal as he came forth to his doom, in token that the deep heart of Nature could pity and be kind to him.


THE GRASS-PLOT before the jail, in Prison Lane, on a certain summer morning, not less than two centuries ago, was occupied by a pretty large number of the inhabitants of Boston; all with their eyes intently fastened on the iron-clamped oaken door. Amongst any other population, or at a later period in the history of New England, the grim rigidity that petrified the bearded physiognomies of these good people would have augured some awful business in hand. It could have betokened nothing short of the anticipated execution of some noted culprit, on whom the sentence of a legal tribunal had but confirmed the verdict of public sentiment. But, in that early severity of the Puritan character, an inference of this kind could not so indubitably be drawn. It might be that a sluggish bond-servant, or an undutiful child, whom his parents had given over to the civil authority, was to be corrected at the whipping-post. It might be, that an Antinomian, a Quaker, or other heterodox religionist, was to be scourged out of the town, or an idle and vagrant Indian, whom the white man’s fire-water had made riotous about the streets, was to be driven with stripes into the shadow of the forest. It might be, too, that a witch, like old Mistress Hibbins, the bitter-tempered widow of the magistrate, was to die upon the gallows. In either case, there was very much the same solemnity of demeanour on the part of the spectators; as befitted a people amongst whom religion and law were almost identical, and in whose character both were so thoroughly interfused, that the mildest and the severest acts of public discipline were alike made venerable and awful. Meagre, indeed, and cold, was the sympathy that a transgressor might look for, from such bystanders at the scaffold. On the other hand, a penalty which, in our days, would infer a degree of mocking infamy and ridicule, might then be invested with almost as stern a dignity as the punishment of death itself.

  The door of the jail being flung open from within, there appeared, in the first place, like a black shadow emerging into sunshine, the grim and grisly presence of the town-beadle, with a sword by his side and his staff of office in his hand. This personage prefigured and represented in his aspect the whole dismal severity of the Puritanic code of law, which it was his business to administer in its final and closest application to the offender. Stretching forth the official staff in his left hand, he laid his right upon the shoulder of a young woman, whom he thus drew forward until, on the threshold of the prison-door, she repelled him, by an action marked with natural dignity and force of character, and stepped into the open air, as if by her own free-will. She bore in her arms a child, a baby of some three months old, who winked and turned aside its little face from the too vivid light of day; because its existence, heretofore, had brought it acquainted only with the gray twilight of a dungeon, or other darksome apartment of the prison.

  When the young woman—the mother of this child—stood fully revealed before the crowd, it seemed to be her first impulse to clasp the infant closely to her bosom; not so much by an impulse of motherly affection, as that she might thereby conceal a certain token, which was wrought or fastened into her dress. In a moment, however, wisely judging that one token of her shame would but poorly serve to hide another, she took the baby on her arm, and, with a burning blush, and yet a haughty smile, and a glance that would not be abashed, looked around at her townspeople and neighbours. On the breast of her gown, in fine red cloth, surrounded with an elaborate embroidery and fantastic flourishes of gold thread, appeared the letter A. It was so artistically done, and with so much fertility and gorgeous luxuriance of fancy, that it had all the effect of a last and fitting decoration to the apparel which she wore; and which was of a splendor in accordance with the taste of the age, but greatly beyond what was allowed by the sumptuary regulations of the colony.

  The young woman was tall, with a figure of perfect elegance, on a large scale. She had dark and abundant hair, so glossy that it threw off the sunshine with a gleam, and a face which, besides being beautiful from regularity of feature and richness of complexion, had the impressiveness belonging to a marked brow and deep black eyes. She was lady-like, too, after the manner of the feminine gentility of those days; characterized by a certain state and dignity, rather than by the delicate, evanescent, and indescribable grace, which is now recognized as its indication. And never had Hester Prynne appeared more lady-like, in the antique interpretation of the term, than as she issued from the prison. Those who had before known her, and had expected to behold her dimmed and obscured by a disastrous cloud, were astonished, and even startled, to perceive how her beauty shone out, and made a halo of the misfortune and ignominy in which she was enveloped. It may be true, that, to a sensitive observer, there was something exquisitely painful in it. Her attire, which, indeed, she had wrought for the occasion, in prison, and had modelled much after her own fancy, seemed to express the attitude of her spirit, the desperate recklessness of her mood, by its wild and picturesque peculiarity. But the point which drew all eyes, and, as it were, transfigured the wearer,—so that both men and women, who had been familiarly acquainted with Hester Prynne, were now impressed as if they beheld her for the first time,—was that SCARLET LETTER, so fantastically embroidered and illuminated upon her bosom. It had the effect of a spell, taking her out of the ordinary relations with humanity, and inclosing her in a sphere by herself.

  “She hath good skill at her needle, that’s certain,” remarked one of the female spectators; “but did ever a woman, before this brazen hussy, contrive such a way of showing it! Why, gossips, what is it but to laugh in the faces of our godly magistrates, and make a pride out of what they, worthy gentlemen, meant for a punishment?”

  “It were well,” muttered the most iron-visaged of the old dames, “if we stripped Madam Hester’s rich gown off her dainty shoulders; and as for the red letter, which she hath stitched so curiously, I’ll bestow a rag of mine own rheumatic flannel, to make a fitter one!”

  “O, peace, neighbours, peace!” whispered their youngest companion. “Do not let her hear you! Not a stitch in that embroidered letter, but she has felt it in her heart.”

  The grim beadle now made a gesture with his staff.

  “Make way, good people, make way, in the King’s name,” cried he. “Open a passage; and, I promise ye, Mistress Prynne shall be set where man, woman, and child may have a fair sight of her brave apparel, from this time till an hour past meridian. A blessing on the righteous Colony of the Massachusetts, where iniquity is dragged out into the sunshine! Come along, Madam Hester, and show your scarlet letter in the market-place!”

  A lane was forthwith opened through the crowd of spectators. Preceded by the beadle, and attended by an irregular procession of stern-browed men and unkindly-visaged women, Hester Prynne set forth towards the place appointed for her punishment. A crowd of eager and curious schoolboys, understanding little of the matter in hand, except that it gave them a half-holiday, ran before her progress, turning their heads continually to stare into her face, and at the winking baby in her arms, and at the ignominious letter on her breast. It was no great distance, in those days, from the prison-door to the market-place. Measured by the prisoner’s experience, however, it might be reckoned a journey of some length; for, haughty as her demeanour was, she perchance underwent an agony from every footstep of those that thronged to see her, as if her heart had been flung into the street for them all to spurn and trample upon. In our nature, however, there is a provision, alike marvellous and merciful, that the sufferer should never know the intensity of what he endures by its present torture, but chiefly by the pang that rankles after it. With almost a serene deportment, therefore, Hester Prynne passed through this portion of her ordeal, and came to a sort of scaffold, at the western extremity of the market-place. It stood nearly beneath the eaves of Boston’s earliest church, and appeared to be a fixture there.

  In fact, this scaffold constituted a portion of a penal machine, which now, for two or three generations past, has been merely historical and traditionary among us, but was held, in the old time, to be as effectual an agent in the promotion of good citizenship, as ever was the guillotine among the terrorists of France. It was, in short, the platform of the pillory; and above it rose the framework of that instrument of discipline, so fashioned as to confine the human head in its tight grasp, and thus hold it up to the public gaze. The very ideal of ignominy was embodied and made manifest in this contrivance of wood and iron. There can be no outrage, methinks, against our common nature,—whatever be the delinquencies of the individual,—no outrage more flagrant than to forbid the culprit to hide his face for shame; as it was the essence of this punishment to do. In Hester Prynne’s instance, however, as not unfrequently in other cases, her sentence bore, that she should stand a certain time upon the platform, but without undergoing that gripe about the neck and confinement of the head, the proneness to which was the most devilish characteristic of this ugly engine. Knowing well her part, she ascended a flight of wooden steps, and was thus displayed to the surrounding multitude, at about the height of a man’s shoulders above the street.

  Had there been a Papist among the crowd of Puritans, he might have seen in this beautiful woman, so picturesque in her attire and mien, and with the infant at her bosom, an object to remind him of the image of Divine Maternity, which so many illustrious painters have vied with one another to represent; something which should remind him, indeed, but only by contrast, of that sacred image of sinless motherhood, whose infant was to redeem the world. Here, there was the taint of deepest sin in the most sacred quality of human life, working such effect, that the world was only the darker for this woman’s beauty, and the more lost for the infant that she had borne.

  The scene was not without a mixture of awe, such as must always invest the spectacle of guilt and shame in a fellow-creature, before society shall have grown corrupt enough to smile, instead of shuddering, at it. The witnesses of Hester Prynne’s disgrace had not yet passed beyond their simplicity. They were stern enough to look upon her death, had that been the sentence, without a murmur at its severity, but had none of the heartlessness of another social state, which would find only a theme for jest in an exhibition like the present. Even had there been a disposition to turn the matter into ridicule, it must have been repressed and overpowered by the solemn presence of men no less dignified than the Governor, and several of his counsellors, a judge, a general, and the ministers of the town; all of whom sat or stood in a balcony of the meeting-house, looking down upon the platform. When such personages could constitute a part of the spectacle, without risking the majesty or reverence of rank and office, it was safely to be inferred that the infliction of a legal sentence would have an earnest and effectual meaning. Accordingly, the crowd was sombre and grave. The unhappy culprit sustained herself as best a woman might, under the heavy weight of a thousand unrelenting eyes, all fastened upon her, and concentrated at her bosom. It was almost intolerable to be borne. Of an impulsive and passionate nature, she had fortified herself to encounter the stings and venomous stabs of public contumely, wreaking itself in every variety of insult; but there was a quality so much more terrible in the solemn mood of the popular mind, that she longed rather to behold all those rigid countenances contorted with scornful merriment, and herself the object. Had a roar of laughter burst from the multitude,—each man, each woman, each little shrill-voiced child, contributing their individual parts,—Hester Prynne might have repaid them all with a bitter and disdainful smile. But, under the leaden infliction which it was her doom to endure, she felt, at moments, as if she must needs shriek out with the full power of her lungs, and cast herself from the scaffold down upon the ground, or else go mad at once.

  Yet there were intervals when the whole scene, in which she was the most conspicuous object, seemed to vanish from her eyes, or, at least, glimmered indistinctly before them, like a mass of imperfectly shaped and spectral images. Her mind, and especially her memory, was preternaturally active, and kept bringing up other scenes than this roughly hewn street of a little town, on the edge of the Western wilderness; other faces than were lowering upon her from beneath the brims of those steeple-crowned hats. Reminiscences, the most trifling and immaterial, passages of infancy and school-days, sports, childish quarrels, and the little domestic traits of her maiden years, came swarming back upon her, intermingled with recollections of whatever was gravest in her subsequent life; one picture precisely as vivid as another; as if all were of similar importance, or all alike a play. Possibly, it was an instinctive device of her spirit to relieve itself, by the exhibition of these phantasmagoric forms, from the cruel weight and hardness of the reality.

  Be that as it might, the scaffold of the pillory was a point of view that revealed to Hester Prynne the entire track along which she had been treading, since her happy infancy. Standing on that miserable eminence, she saw again her native village, in Old England, and her paternal home; a decayed house of gray stone, with a poverty-stricken aspect, but retaining a half-obliterated shield of arms over the portal, in token of antique gentility. She saw her father’s face, with its bold brow, and reverend white beard, that flowed over the old-fashioned Elizabethan ruff; her mother’s, too, with the look of heedful and anxious love which it always wore in her remembrance, and which, even since her death, had so often laid the impediment of a gentle remonstrance in her daughter’s pathway. She saw her own face, glowing with girlish beauty, and illuminating all the interior of the dusky mirror in which she had been wont to gaze at it. There she beheld another countenance, of a man well stricken in years, a pale, thin, scholar-like visage, with eyes dim and bleared by the lamp-light that had served them to pore over many ponderous books. Yet those same bleared optics had a strange, penetrating power, when it was their owner’s purpose to read the human soul. This figure of the study and the cloister, as Hester Prynne’s womanly fancy failed not to recall, was slightly deformed, with the left shoulder a trifle higher than the right. Next rose before her, in memory’s picture-gallery, the intricate and narrow thoroughfares, the tall, gray houses, the huge cathedrals, and the public edifices, ancient in date and quaint in architecture, of a Continental city; where a new life had awaited her, still in connection with the misshapen scholar; a new life, but feeding itself on time-worn materials, like a tuft of green moss on a crumbling wall. Lastly, in lieu of these shifting scenes, came back the rude market-place of the Puritan settlement, with all the townspeople assembled and levelling their stern regards at Hester Prynne,—yes, at herself,—who stood on the scaffold of the pillory, an infant on her arm, and the letter A, in scarlet, fantastically embroidered with gold thread, upon her bosom!

  Could it be true? She clutched the child so fiercely to her breast, that it sent forth a cry; she turned her eyes downward at the scarlet letter, and even touched it with her finger, to assure herself that the infant and the shame were real. Yes!—these were her realities,—all else had vanished!

  Hester Prynne had been standing on her pedestal, still with a fixed gaze towards the stranger; so fixed a gaze, that, at moments of intense absorption, all other objects in the visible world seemed to vanish, leaving only him and her. Such an interview, perhaps, would have been more terrible than even to meet him as she now did, with the hot, mid-day sun burning down upon her face, and lighting up its shame; with the scarlet token of infamy on her breast; with the sin-born infant in her arms; with a whole people, drawn forth as to a festival, staring at the features that should have been seen only in the quiet gleam of the fireside, in the happy shadow of a home, or beneath a matronly veil, at church. Dreadful as it was, she was conscious of a shelter in the presence of these thousand witnesses. It was better to stand thus, with so many betwixt him and her, than to greet him, face to face, they two alone. She fled for refuge, as it were, to the public exposure, and dreaded the moment when its protection should be withdrawn from her. Involved in these thoughts, she scarcely heard a voice behind her, until it had repeated her name more than once, in a loud and solemn tone, audible to the whole multitude.

  “Hearken unto me, Hester Prynne!” said the voice.

  It has already been noticed, that directly over the platform on which Hester Prynne stood was a kind of balcony, or open gallery, appended to the meeting-house. It was the place whence proclamations were wont to be made, amidst an assemblage of the magistracy, with all the ceremonial that attended such public observances in those days. Here, to witness the scene which we are describing, sat Governor Bellingham himself, with four sergeants about his chair, bearing halberds, as a guard of honor. He wore a dark feather in his hat, a border of embroidery on his cloak, and a black velvet tunic beneath; a gentleman advanced in years, and with a hard experience written in his wrinkles. He was not ill fitted to be the head and representative of a community, which owed its origin and progress, and its present state of development, not to the impulses of youth, but to the stern and tempered energies of manhood, and the sombre sagacity of age; accomplishing so much, precisely because it imagined and hoped so little. The other eminent characters, by whom the chief ruler was surrounded, were distinguished by a dignity of mien, belonging to a period when the forms of authority were felt to possess the sacredness of divine institutions. They were, doubtless, good men, just, and sage. But, out of the whole human family, it would not have been easy to select the same number of wise and virtuous persons, who should he less capable of sitting in judgment on an erring woman’s heart, and disentangling its mesh of good and evil, than the sages of rigid aspect towards whom Hester Prynne now turned her face. She seemed conscious, indeed, that whatever sympathy she might expect lay in the larger and warmer heart of the multitude; for, as she lifted her eyes towards the balcony, the unhappy woman grew pale and trembled.

  The voice which had called her attention was that of the reverend and famous John Wilson, the eldest clergyman of Boston, a great scholar, like most of his contemporaries in the profession, and withal a man of kind and genial spirit. This last attribute, however, had been less carefully developed than his intellectual gifts, and was, in truth, rather a matter of shame than self-congratulation with him. There he stood, with a border of grizzled locks beneath his skull-cap; while his gray eyes, accustomed to the shaded light of his study, were winking, like those of Hester’s infant, in the unadulterated sunshine. He looked like the darkly engraved portraits which we see prefixed to old volumes of sermons; and had no more right than one of those portraits would have, to step forth, as he now did, and meddle with a question of human guilt, passion, and anguish.

  “Hester Prynne,” said the clergyman, “I have striven with my young brother here, under whose preaching of the word you have been privileged to sit,”—here Mr. Wilson laid his hand on the shoulder of a pale young man beside him,—“I have sought, I say, to persuade this godly youth, that he should deal with you, here in the face of Heaven, and before these wise and upright rulers, and in hearing of all the people, as touching the vileness and blackness of your sin. Knowing your natural temper better than I, he could the better judge what arguments to use, whether of tenderness or terror, such as might prevail over your hardness and obstinacy; insomuch that you should no longer hide the name of him who tempted you to this grievous fall. But he opposes to me, (with a young man’s oversoftness, albeit wise beyond his years,) that it were wronging the very nature of woman to force her to lay open her heart’s secrets in such broad daylight, and in presence of so great a multitude. Truly, as I sought to convince him, the shame lay in the commission of the sin, and not in the showing of it forth. What say you to it, once again, brother Dimmesdale? Must it be thou or I that shall deal with this poor sinner’s soul?”

  There was a murmur among the dignified and reverend occupants of the balcony; and Governor Bellingham gave expression to its purport, speaking in an authoritative voice, although tempered with respect towards the youthful clergyman whom he addressed.

  “Good Master Dimmesdale,” said he, “the responsibility of this woman’s soul lies greatly with you. It behooves you, therefore, to exhort her to repentance, and to confession, as a proof and consequence thereof.”

  The directness of this appeal drew the eyes of the whole crowd upon the Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale; young clergyman, who had come from one of the great English universities, bringing all the learning of the age into our wild forest-land. His eloquence and religious fervor had already given the earnest of high eminence in his profession. He was a person of very striking aspect, with a white, lofty, and impending brow, large, brown, melancholy eyes, and a mouth which, unless when he forcibly compressed it, was apt to be tremulous, expressing both nervous sensibility and a vast power of self-restraint. Notwithstanding his high native gifts and scholar-like attainments, there was an air about this young minister,—an apprehensive, a startled, a half-frightened look,—as of a being who felt himself quite astray and at a loss in the pathway of human existence, and could only be at ease in some seclusion of his own. Therefore, so far as his duties would permit, he trode in the shadowy by-paths, and thus kept himself simple and childlike; coming forth, when occasion was, with a freshness, and fragrance, and dewy purity of thought, which, as many people said, affected them like the speech of an angel.

  Such was the young man whom the Reverend Mr. Wilson and the Governor had introduced so openly to the public notice, bidding him speak, in the hearing of all men, to that mystery of a woman’s soul, so sacred even in its pollution. The trying nature of his position drove the blood from his cheek, and made his lips tremulous.

  “Speak to the woman, my brother,” said Mr. Wilson. “It is of moment to her soul, and therefore, as the worshipful Governor says, momentous to thine own, in whose charge hers is. Exhort her to confess the truth!”

  The Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale bent his head, in silent prayer, as it seemed, and then came forward.

  “Hester Prynne,” said he, leaning over the balcony, and looking down stedfastly into her eyes, “thou hearest what this good man says, and seest the accountability under which I labor. If thou feelest it to be for thy soul’s peace, and that thy earthly punishment will thereby be made more effectual to salvation, I charge thee to speak out the name of thy fellow-sinner and fellow-sufferer! Be not silent from any mistaken pity and tenderness for him; for, believe me, Hester, though he were to step down from a high place, and stand there beside thee, on thy pedestal of shame, yet better were it so, than to hide a guilty heart through life. What can thy silence do for him, except it tempt him—yea, compel him, as it were—to add hypocrisy to sin? Heaven hath granted thee an open ignominy, that thereby thou mayest work out an open triumph over the evil within thee, and the sorrow without. Take heed how thou deniest to him—who, perchance, hath not the courage to grasp it for himself—the bitter, but wholesome, cup that is now presented to thy lips!”

  The young pastor’s voice was tremulously sweet, rich, deep, and broken. The feeling that it so evidently manifested, rather than the direct purport of the words, caused it to vibrate within all hearts, and brought the listeners into one accord of sympathy. Even the poor baby, at Hester’s bosom, was affected by the same influence; for it directed its hitherto vacant gaze towards Mr. Dimmesdale, and held up its little arms, with a half pleased, half plaintive murmur. So powerful seemed the minister’s appeal, that the people could not believe but that Hester Prynne would speak out the guilty name; or else that the guilty one himself, in whatever high or lowly place he stood, would be drawn forth by an inward and inevitable necessity, and compelled to ascend the scaffold.

  Hester shook her head.

  “Woman, transgress not beyond the limits of Heaven’s mercy!” cried the Reverend Mr. Wilson, more harshly than before. “That little babe hath been gifted with a voice, to second and confirm the counsel which thou hast heard. Speak out the name! That, and thy repentance, may avail to take the scarlet letter off thy breast.”

  “Never!” replied Hester Prynne, looking, not at Mr. Wilson, but into the deep and troubled eyes of the younger clergyman. “It is too deeply branded. Ye cannot take it off. And would that I might endure his agony, as well as mine!”

  “Speak, woman!” said another voice, coldly and sternly, proceeding from the crowd about the scaffold. “Speak; and give your child a father!”

  “I will not speak!” answered Hester, turning pale as death, but responding to this voice, which she too surely recognized. “And my child must seek a heavenly Father; she shall never know an earthly one!”

  “She will not speak!” murmured Mr. Dimmesdale, who, leaning over the balcony, with his hand upon his heart, had awaited the result of his appeal. He now drew back, with a long respiration. “Wondrous strength and generosity of a woman’s heart! She will not speak!”

  Discerning the impracticable state of the poor culprit’s mind, the elder clergyman, who had carefully prepared himself for the occasion, addressed to the multitude a discourse on sin, in all its branches, but with continual reference to the ignominious letter. So forcibly did he dwell upon this symbol, for the hour or more during which his periods were rolling over the people’s heads, that it assumed new terrors in their imagination, and seemed to derive its scarlet hue from the flames of the infernal pit. Hester Prynne, meanwhile, kept her place upon the pedestal of shame, with glazed eyes, and an air of weary indifference. She had borne, that morning, all that nature could endure; and as her temperament was not of the order that escapes from too intense suffering by a swoon, her spirit could only shelter itself beneath a stony crust of insensibility, while the faculties of animal life remained entire. In this state, the voice of the preacher thundered remorselessly, but unavailingly, upon her ears. The infant, during the latter portion of her ordeal, pierced the air with its wailings and screams; she strove to hush it, mechanically, but seemed scarcely to sympathize with its trouble. With the same hard demeanour, she was led back to prison, and vanished from the public gaze within its iron-clamped portal. It was whispered, by those who peered after her, that the scarlet letter threw a lurid gleam along the dark passage-way of the interior.




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085: "Glen Campbell: I'll Be Me"

Mon, May 02, 2016

This week on StoryWeb: the documentary film Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me.

Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me is a powerful, compelling, utterly gripping documentary in every way. It traces the famed pop country singer’s journey from an Alzheimer’s diagnosis to his final deterioration. As it does so, it also documents his farewell tour and the struggles Campbell and his family faced as he performed frequently for a full year and a half after his diagnosis. Campbell, born in 1936, turned 80 last month. He now lives in a memory care facility and is attended every day by his wife and children.

This is a well-made film and an honest, courageous story. After learning of his Alzheimer’s diagnosis, Campbell, with the support of his wife and children, decided to go public with the diagnosis and to allow the documentary to be made. They also decided that Campbell would go on an extended “Goodbye Tour” for as long as his illness would permit.

The documentary is chock full of private footage in the Campbells’ home, in dressing rooms, and on the tour bus. The viewer sees Campbell as a human being, laughs along with his goofy sense of humor (complete with his trademark duck quack), and cries with Campbell, his wife, and his children as Campbell forgets the most basic facts of his life, including – frequently – the fact that he’s about to play a show or has just played a show.

Amazingly, the other half of the film features concert footage from the farewell tour. There are numerous nail-biting moments as his children (who play in his band) wait to see if he’ll remember how to play and sing his best-known songs. A giant telecaster displays the lyrics, but Campbell – playing lead guitar – has to remember how to start each song and how to play it through to the end. That he is able to do so for so many months – despite the fact that he may not remember later that night that he played a show – is nothing short of remarkable.

Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me is a sad and heart-wrenching film. It is difficult to watch anyone – much less a beloved pop icon – deteriorate and fade away. But there’s something inspiring about the film as well. In the face of a certain and fierce diagnosis, Glen Campbell stands up and says he will go out doing what he has always done best, what he loves so well. Courageously, he vows to share the entire journey with his fans as a way of shattering the silence surrounding Alzheimer’s.

Fans of Campbell’s music won’t be disappointed. He performs all the great hits: “Wichita Lineman,” “Gentle on My Mind,” and “Rhinestone Cowboy.” A new song, “I’m Not Gonna Miss You,” is also featuredl. It is Campbell’s final studio recording. A soundtrack CD is available as well.

To learn more about Glen Campbell as well as the film, stop by Campbell’s official website, and check out the Rolling Stone article that appeared when the film was released in October 2014. To learn more about Alzheimer’s and to contribute to research on the devastating disease, visit the I’ll Be Me Alzheimer’s Fund.

Visit thestoryweb.com/glencampbell for links to all these resources and to watch the official trailer for Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me. You’ll also find a link to the video for “I’m Not Gonna Miss You.”


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084: Prince: "Raspberry Beret"

Mon, Apr 25, 2016

This week on StoryWeb: Prince’s song “Raspberry Beret.”

For all his musical genius, Prince was not much of a storyteller. Think of any number of his songs – “1999,” “Delirious,” “Purple Rain,” “When Doves Cry,” “Kiss,” “Let’s Go Crazy,” or “D.M.S.R.” (a particular favorite of my gang in graduate school) – and you’ll be hard pressed to find much of a story line.

Since StoryWeb celebrates stories of all kinds and since I wanted to pay tribute to an artist whose work I love, I set about identifying a story song in Prince’s discography. And then it hit me: the delicious, lush pop song “Raspberry Beret”! One music critic calls it “as perfect a pop song as Prince ever wrote.”

I have tried –without luck – to determine whether the song is based on Prince’s actual experience. Rumor has it that he was due to release an autobiography next year, and maybe he would have shed some light on the truth of this song. Now we’ll never know, and “Raspberry Beret” must be enjoyed solely for the up-tempo, catchy tune that it is.

From working leisurely at Mr. McGee’s five-and-dime store to experiencing his first romantic rendezvous with the woman who wears the raspberry beret, the singer carries us along. It’s almost as if we, too, start keeping an eye out for raspberry berets, especially those bought in second-hand stores.

Some fun facts about “Raspberry Beret”:

  • It could be argued that the song was Prince’s first, full-on pop song (and indeed it is virtually the only Prince song I still hear played regularly on classic rock stations).
  • The song featured Middle Eastern finger cymbals and stringed instruments, giving it a world music sound that was appropriate for the album on which it appeared, 1985’s Around the World in a Day.
  • The song reached number 2 on the U.S. Billboard charts (second only to Duran Duran’s “A View to a Kill”).
  • There’s a funky consignment shop in the Boston area named Raspberry Beret. It sells vintage and modern fashion.

Want to learn more about Prince? Start by reading the New York Times obituary of the music icon. Then turn to Ronin Ro’s 2011 book, Prince: Inside the Music and the Masks, or Matt Thorne’s recent volume, Prince: The Man and His Music. Both books trace Prince Rogers Nelson’s journey from his childhood in Minneapolis to worldwide stardom.

But really, why read about Prince when you can listen to his music? My favorite Prince albums are 1999, Purple Rain, and Parade (which contains the best “whoo!” in all of rock music on the track “Anotherloverholenyohead”). But of course, there are so many, many Prince albums from which to choose. Whatever you do, just put some Prince on and dance (as if you haven’t already been doing that these last few days!).

Want to extend the tribute to Prince? In the comments below, share your favorite Prince story. Where were you when you first heard Prince? What song stays with you the most? What are your favorite memories of dancing to Prince or singing along with his tunes on the radio? Let’s celebrate the sheer, unbridled talent of one phenomenal human being.

And if you find you need your own raspberry beret, you can purchase one online!

Visit thestoryweb.com/prince for links to all these resources and to watch two great Prince videos. First, you can watch the original video for “Raspberry Beret.” Prince was fiercely protective of the copyrights to his music and insisted that YouTube and other video sites take down his work. But the blog post includes a link to a clip of the 1985 video, which was posted in the days following his death and may still be viewable for a while. If you decide to watch it, notice Prince’s cough just before he starts singing. Apparently, Prince meant to cough. He told MTV, "I just did it to be sick, to do something no one else would do."

And if you’re looking for a little more Prince, check out the second video clip, which features his amazing guitar solo on “When My Guitar Gently Weeps.” Recorded at the 2004 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Inductions, the video plods along for the first three minutes, as Tom Petty and other rockers perform the classic George Harrison song in tribute to the fallen Beatle. But things take a different turn at 3:28 when Prince takes the stage.

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083: Adrienne Rich: "Diving into the Wreck"

Mon, Apr 18, 2016

This week on StoryWeb: Adrienne Rich’s poem “Diving into the Wreck.”


I suppose you could say that Adrienne Rich’s iconic poem “Diving into the Wreck” is about scuba diving, but that’s like saying Homer’s Odyssey is about a trip.


Sure the narrator is a diver. She – or he – “put[s] on / the body-armor of black rubber / the absurd flippers / the grave and awkward mask” and prepares to descend.


But the narrator is not a typical diver. For one thing, the narrator is alone, no one on deck to supervise or assist with the dive. Even the ladder that goes down the side of the schooner would go unnoticed to the unknowing eye. As the narrator says, this is no Jacques Cousteau expedition.


The narrator, however, is intrepid and steps down the ladder, “[r]ung after rung” until the ocean “begin[s].” Leaving behind the familiar world of oxygen, “the blue light / the clear atoms / of our human air,” the narrator goes deep into an unknown world.


In the blue, then green, then black water, the narrator quickly realizes that “the sea is not a question of power,” that she or he will “have to learn alone / to turn my body without force / in the deep element.”


Soon, the narrator reaches the destination: the wreck. The narrator tells us at the start that she or he has “read the book of myths, / and loaded the camera.” The narrator is ready to “explore the wreck” and uses “the words,” perhaps from the “book of myths,” to find and investigate the wreck.


By the time the narrator has made it to the wreck, the reader has come to understand that this is no ordinary dive, no run-of-the-mill journey. No, this is a plunge into the human psyche, perhaps even into what Carl Jung called the “collective unconscious.”


The narrator says, “This is the place”: “I came to see the damage that was done / and the treasures that prevail.” “The thing I came for,” says the narrator, “the wreck and not the story of the wreck / the thing itself and not the myth.”


What parts of the collective unconscious, the human psyche are accessible to this diver? Can she – or he – move beyond the word maps others have left behind in the book of myths? Will she or he be able to see the wreck, not just the story or record of the wreck that others have left behind? It is the original contact with the actual world that the diver seeks.


By this point, the reader realizes that the diver represents everyone, all who dare to plunge beneath the surface of experience. The narrator speaks in the singular first person (“I”) and the plural first person (“We”), in the feminine third person (“she”), and in the masculine third person (“he”).


Near the end of the poem, the idea of the diver as stand-in for all searchers becomes clear when the narrator says, “We circle silently / about the wreck / we dive into the hold. / I am she: I am he[.]”


The poem concludes:


We are, I am, you are

by cowardice or courage

the one who find our way

back to this scene

carrying a knife, a camera

a book of myths

in which

our names do not appear.


What is the wreck? Who is the diver? What is the book of myths? What is the damage that was done, and what are the treasures that prevail? Much ink has been spilled speculating on what Rich “means” in this poem. For a sampling of how various readers, writers, and critics have interpreted this poem, visit the Modern American Poetry website. An especially powerful and personal reflection on the poem is offered by poet Rigoberto Gonz?les; he wrote the essay on the occasion of Rich’s death in 2012.


To my mind, the poem is an invocation and an invitation to exploration. Yes, the diver goes alone, and she or he confronts the wreck on its own terms. But in that final stanza when the narrator says, “We are, I am, you are / by cowardice or courage / the one who find our way back to this scene,” I believe that Rich is heralding others who have had the courage to dive down five miles or more (as Herman Melville said of Ralph Waldo Emerson) and that she is beckoning other seekers to join the journey into the depths.


When Adrienne Rich published this poem in 1973 in a collection of the same title, women’s voices were suppressed in the literary world. The next year, her book won the National Book Award (along with Allen Ginsberg’s The Fall of America). Rich, however, refused to accept the award as an individual and instead accepted it with fellow-nominees Audre Lorde and Alice Walker in the name of all unknown women writers. Much as Walker called for the recognition of African American women creators in her essay “In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens,” Rich was calling for the literary world to make room for more women’s voices. As Rich said, “When a woman tells the truth she is creating the possibility for more truth around her.”


Learn more about Rich at Modern American Poetry, at the Poetry Foundation, and at the Jewish Women’s Archive. The New York Times obituary – “Adrienne Rich, Influential Feminist Poet, Dies at 82” – is insightful. More resources can be found on the Modern American Poetry website.


If you’re ready to explore this poem in its entirety, you can read it online at Poets.org. If you’re interested in the entire book from which it comes, considered by many to be Rich’s masterpiece, you’ll want to have your own hard copy. A new volume – Collected Poems, 1950-2012 – is due out in June 2016. (Hint: time to preorder!)


Visit thestoryweb.com/rich for links to all these resources and to hear Adrienne Rich read her most influential poem, “Diving into the Wreck.”


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082: Leo Tolstoy: "The Death of Ivan Ilyich"

Mon, Apr 11, 2016

This week on StoryWeb: Leo Tolstoy’s novella The Death of Ivan Ilyich.

Leo Tolstoy, the great Russian writer and philosopher, is known for his epic, huge-canvas novels, War and Peace and Anna Karenina. But I am also a fan of his much shorter work, The Death of Ivan Ilyich, a novella that has deeply moved me every time I have read it.

The work is titled The Death of Ivan Ilyich because it is precisely not about Ivan’s living but about his passing from life (limited as his was) to death. The reader knows from the start – from the very title – that Ivan Ilyich will die. Indeed, the opening scene includes the announcement of his death to his former colleagues and is followed immediately by the scene of his funeral. Freed from that suspense, the reader can focus, as Tolstoy does, on Ivan Ilyich’s experience of dying.

After the funeral scene, Tolstoy backs up 30 years and briefly tells the story of Ivan Ilyich’s life as a lawyer in the Russian Court of Justice. He went to law school as expected, married as expected, had children as expected, and moved up through the career ranks as expected. Ivan Ilyich at all times did what was expected of a man from his background. As Tolstoy writes, “Ivan Ilyich’s life had been most simple and most ordinary and therefore most terrible.”


One day when hanging curtains in his new home, he falls and injures his side. Over time, the injury does not subside but instead becomes worse, until the pain is unbearable. Finally, Ivan Ilyich has no choice but to leave his job as a magistrate and take to his sick bed.


By far my favorite scene is the one in which Ivan Ilyich’s servant, Gerasim, comes in to Ivan’s sickroom and holds his master’s legs up for him. It is the only position in which Ivan does not feel pain.

Ivan’s wife and children can hardly be bothered to visit Ivan at his deathbed. They are always in a hurry, ready to move back into their “real” lives as soon as possible. God help them if they had smart phones!

But Gerasim stays with Ivan, sits with him, listens to him, but most importantly reaches out to him with the healing power of human touch. It is supremely intimate: one person being fully present with another human being, one person bearing witness to another’s life . . . and death.

I described Leo Tolstoy at the beginning of this episode as a writer and philosopher. I suppose that many people think of him only as a writer and that those who know of his philosophy may dismiss it. It did have some rather outlandish components. Tolstoy declared his celibacy even though he was still married, much to his wife’s surprise and profound disappointment. He gave away virtually all of his inherited fortune so that he could live a life of poverty. And he renounced the copyrights to his earlier works, assigning them instead to his increasingly estranged wife. In addition, the constant presence of spiritual disciples in the Tolstoy household deeply angered Tolstoy’s wife. One source says that the Tolstoys’ later life as a couple was “one of the unhappiest in literary history,” because “Tolstoy's relationship with his wife deteriorated as his beliefs became increasingly radical.”

Despite the unorthodox nature of Tolstoy’s philosophy, it proved influential, especially to 20th-century leaders such as Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I especially admire his deep, abiding emphasis on love. Eschewing the trappings of conventional religion, Tolstoy developed his own version of Christianity. He very much subscribed to Jesus’s primary teaching, which held that the old commandments had now been replaced with one overarching commandment: “Love one another.” In fact, so deeply did Tolstoy embrace Christ’s teachings (especially those in the Sermon on the Mount) that he has been described as a Christian anarchist and pacifist.

It is important to note that The Death of Ivan Ilyich was written after Tolstoy’s deep and profound spiritual conversion. Indeed, Gerasim represents the highest calling: he loves Ivan. He reaches out to another human being with love, compassion, caring.

You can read the full novella online – or buy a hard copy for your collection. You can gain insights into Tolstoy’s last days by watching the film The Last Station, based on the novel by Jay Parini. For links to these resources, visit thestoryweb.com/Tolstoy.

Listen now as I read Chapter VII from The Death of Ivan Ilyich. This is the scene in which Gerasim takes care of Ivan Ilyich tenderly and holds his master’s legs.

How it happened it is impossible to say because it came about step by step, unnoticed, but in the third month of Ivan Ilych's illness, his wife, his daughter, his son, his acquaintances, the doctors, the servants, and above all he himself, were aware that the whole interest he had for other people was whether he would soon vacate his place, and at last release the living from the discomfort caused by his presence and be himself released from his sufferings. He slept less and less. He was given opium and hypodermic injections of morphine, but this did not relieve him. The dull depression he experienced in a somnolent condition at first gave him a little relief, but only as something new, afterwards it became as distressing as the pain itself or even more so.

Special foods were prepared for him by the doctors' orders, but all those foods became increasingly distasteful and disgusting to him. For his excretions also special arrangements had to be made, and this was a torment to him every time—a torment from the uncleanliness, the unseemliness, and the smell, and from knowing that another person had to take part in it.

But just through his most unpleasant matter, Ivan Ilych obtained comfort. Gerasim, the butler's young assistant, always came in to carry the things out. Gerasim was a clean, fresh peasant lad, grown stout on town food and always cheerful and bright. At first the sight of him, in his clean Russian peasant costume, engaged on that disgusting task embarrassed Ivan Ilych.

Once when he got up from the commode too weak to draw up his trousers, he dropped into a soft armchair and looked with horror at his bare, enfeebled thighs with the muscles so sharply marked on them. Gerasim with a firm light tread, his heavy boots emitting a pleasant smell of tar and fresh winter air, came in wearing a clean Hessian apron, the sleeves of his print shirt tucked up over his strong bare young arms; and refraining from looking at his sick master out of consideration for his feelings, and restraining the joy of life that beamed from his face, he went up to the commode.

"Gerasim!" said Ivan Ilych in a weak voice.

"Gerasim started, evidently afraid he might have committed some blunder, and with a rapid movement turned his fresh, kind, simple young face which just showed the first downy signs of a beard.

"Yes, sir?"

"That must be very unpleasant for you. You must forgive me. I am helpless."

"Oh, why, sir," and Gerasim's eyes beamed and he showed his glistening white teeth, "what's a little trouble? It's a case of illness with you, sir."

And his deft strong hands did their accustomed task, and he went out of the room stepping lightly. Five minutes later he as lightly returned. Ivan Ilych was still sitting in the same position in the armchair. "Gerasim," he said when the latter had replaced the freshly-washed utensil. "Please come here and help me." Gerasim went up to him. "Lift me up. It is hard for me to get up, and I have sent Dmitri away."



Gerasim went up to him, grasped his master with his strong arms deftly but gently, in the same way that he stepped—lifted him, supported him with one hand, and with the other drew up his trousers and would have set him down again, but Ivan Ilych asked to be led to the sofa. Gerasim, without an effort and without apparent pressure, led him, almost lifting him, to the sofa and placed him on it. "Thank you. How easily and well you do it all!"

Gerasim smiled again and turned to leave the room. But Ivan Ilych felt his presence such a comfort that he did not want to let him go.

"One thing more, please move up that chair. No, the other one—under my feet. It is easier for me when my feet are raised."

Gerasim brought the chair, set it down gently in place, and raised Ivan Ilych's legs on it. It seemed to Ivan Ilych that he felt better while Gerasim was holding up his legs.

"It's better when my legs are higher," he said. "Place that cushion under them."

Gerasim did so. He again lifted the legs and placed them, and again Ivan Ilych felt better while Gerasim held his legs. When he set them down Ivan Ilych fancied he felt worse.

"Gerasim," he said. "Are you busy now?"

"Not at all, sir," said Gerasim, who had learnt from the townsfolk how to speak to gentlefolk.

"What have you still to do?"

"What have I to do? I've done everything except chopping the logs for tomorrow."

"Then hold my legs up a bit higher, can you?"

"Of course I can. Why not?" and Gerasim raised his master's legs higher and Ivan Ilych thought that in that position he did not feel any pain at all.

"And how about the logs?"

"Don't trouble about that, sir. There's plenty of time."

Ivan Ilych told Gerasim to sit down and hold his legs, and began to talk to him. And strange to say it seemed to him that he felt better while Gerasim held his legs up.

After that Ivan Ilych would sometimes call Gerasim and get him to hold his legs on his shoulders, and he liked talking to him. Gerasim did it all easily, willingly, simply, and with a good nature that touched Ivan Ilych. Health, strength, and vitality in other people were offensive to him, but Gerasim's strength and vitality did not mortify but soothed him.

What tormented Ivan Ilych most was the deception, the lie, which for some reason they all accepted, that he was not dying but was simply ill, and that he only need keep quiet and undergo a treatment and then something very good would result. He however knew that do what they would nothing would come of it, only still more agonizing suffering and death. This deception tortured him—their not wishing to admit what they all knew and what he knew, but wanting to lie to him concerning his terrible condition, and wishing and forcing him to participate in that lie. Those lies—lies enacted over him on the eve of his death and destined to degrade this awful, solemn act to the level of their visitings, their curtains, their sturgeon for dinner—were a terrible agony for Ivan Ilych. And strangely enough, many times when they were going through their antics over him he had been within a hairbreadth of calling out to them: "Stop lying! You know and I know that I am dying. Then at least stop lying about it!" But he had never had the spirit to do it. The awful, terrible act of his dying was, he could see, reduced by those about him to the level of a casual, unpleasant, and almost indecorous incident (as if someone entered a drawing room defusing an unpleasant odour) and this was done by that very decorum which he had served all his life long. He saw that no one felt for him, because no one even wished to grasp his position. Only Gerasim recognized it and pitied him. And so Ivan Ilych felt at ease only with him. He felt comforted when Gerasim supported his legs (sometimes all night long) and refused to go to bed, saying: "Don't you worry, Ivan Ilych. I'll get sleep enough later on," or when he suddenly became familiar and exclaimed: "If you weren't sick it would be another matter, but as it is, why should I grudge a little trouble?" Gerasim alone did not lie; everything showed that he alone understood the facts of the case and did not consider it necessary to disguise them, but simply felt sorry for his emaciated and enfeebled master.

Once when Ivan Ilych was sending him away he even said straight out: "We shall all of us die, so why should I grudge a little trouble?"—expressing the fact that he did not think his work burdensome, because he was doing it for a dying man and hoped someone would do the same for him when his time came.

Apart from this lying, or because of it, what most tormented Ivan Ilych was that no one pitied him as he wished to be pitied. At certain moments after prolonged suffering he wished most of all (though he would have been ashamed to confess it) for someone to pity him as a sick child is pitied. He longed to be petted and comforted. He knew he was an important functionary, that he had a beard turning grey, and that therefore what he longed for was impossible, but still he longed for it. And in Gerasim's attitude towards him there was something akin to what he wished for, and so that attitude comforted him. Ivan Ilych wanted to weep, wanted to be petted and cried over, and then his colleague Shebek would come, and instead of weeping and being petted, Ivan Ilych would assume a serious, severe, and profound air, and by force of habit would express his opinion on a decision of the Court of Cassation and would stubbornly insist on that view. This falsity around him and within him did more than anything else to poison his last days.



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081: Bernard Rose: "Immortal Beloved"

Mon, Apr 04, 2016

This week on StoryWeb: Bernard Rose’s film Immortal Beloved.

This episode is dedicated to Jim.

Ever since I was a teenager trying to play Beethoven’s classic piano sonatas, I have loved the thundering, passionate, soaring thrill of his music. While I mostly succeeded in butchering “Sonata Path?tique” and “Sonata Appassionata,” I nevertheless became quite enamored of his Romantic-era compositions.

But what of Ludwig van Beethoven, the man? Like most people, I knew that he had lost his hearing at some point in his life but that he had – unbelievably, inconceivably, almost miraculously – continued to compose music. And if the tempestuous chords of his compositions were any indication, he surely must have had a raging soul.

How then, I wondered, did a breath-taking, awe-inspiring piece like “Ode to Joy” come to cap his final symphony?

Bernard Rose’s 1994 biopic, Immortal Beloved, offers some insights. The film focuses a good deal of attention on Beethoven’s secret romance, the unnamed woman whom Beethoven addressed in a letter as “immortal beloved.” Beethoven really did leave behind such a letter, and biographers have speculated ever since as to her identity. By way of the film, Rose claims to have solved the puzzle, but other biographers and historians seriously doubt the accuracy of his conclusion.

While the identity of Beethoven’s “immortal beloved” is an intriguing (if flawed) storyline, the appeal of the film for me, the image that stays with me, is the unveiling in 1824 of the Ninth Symphony and its rousing final chorus, “Ode to Joy.”

The lyrics to the final chorus were based on a 1785 poem, “Ode to Joy,” written by Friedrich Schiller. Beethoven made some additions. In 1907, Henry van Dyke wrote “Joyful, joyful, we adore thee,” the now-familiar English lyrics to “Ode to Joy.” But I prefer the lyrics Beethoven adapted, which you can read both in the original German and the English translation. I love the reference to “joy” as the “beautiful spark of divinity.”

Without giving anything away, I can say that the “Ode to Joy” sequence at the end of the film – with Beethoven’s spirit seemingly floating and spinning in its complete fusion with the universe – is one of the greatest moments in films about musicians.

Not only does the sequence thrill me as it brings “Ode to Joy” fully to life, but it also speaks to the triumph of the human spirit. Beethoven – a battered, haunted, tortured human being, a great composer who has lost his hearing – soars above everything to create the triumphant praise of human life. This is nothing short of amazing.

“Ode to Joy” has special meaning to my husband, Jim, and me. I imagine that it does to many other people as well. We play it every year on the anniversary of Jim’s organ transplant, which we’ll do again a few days from now. And because it is such an important piece of music to us, we had a bagpiper play it as we walked out of our wedding. “Ode to Joy” indeed!

Though it has its detractors, Immortal Beloved is definitely worth viewing. Gary Oldman is magnificent as Beethoven, and the music carries you through the film. The ending sequence moves back and forth between the young Beethoven’s ecstatic merge with the universe and the inaugural performance of the Ninth Symphony, which the completely deaf Beethoven himself conducted. At the end of the symphony, the crowd went absolutely wild. One witness said, "the public received the musical hero with the utmost respect and sympathy, listened to his wonderful, gigantic creations with the most absorbed attention and broke out in jubilant applause, often during sections, and repeatedly at the end of them." Beethoven received five standing ovations. Says Wikipedia, “there were handkerchiefs in the air, hats, raised hands, so that Beethoven, who could not hear the applause, could at least see the ovation gestures.” The film captures the triumphant moment perfectly.

Visit thestoryweb.com/rose for links to these resources and to watch the “Ode to Joy” sequence from the film.

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080: Earl Hamner, Jr.: "The Waltons"

Mon, Mar 28, 2016

This week on StoryWeb: Earl Hamner, Jr.’s television series “The Waltons.”

When I was growing up, I wanted to either marry John-Boy Walton or be John-Boy Walton. Mostly, I wanted to be him, wanted to write stories of my family.

Loving “The Waltons” as I do, I was sad to learn that Earl Hamner, Jr., died last Thursday at the age of 92. Hamner, of course, was the original John-Boy Walton and the creator of the hit television series based on his experiences growing up in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia.

A novelist, television writer, and screenplay writer, Hamner was behind many well-known TV shows and movies. He wrote episodes of “The Twilight Zone” and wrote the screenplays for Charlotte’s Web, Heidi, and Where the Lilies Bloom. After “The Waltons,” he developed the long-running, prime-time soap opera “Falcon Crest.”

“The Waltons” grew out of a television special titled “The Homecoming: A Christmas Story,” which was based on Hamner’s 1961 novel, Spencer’s Mountain. The television special did so well that CBS decided to develop the special movie into what became an extremely successful series. It ran from 1972 (when I was 12) to 1981. I’ll admit that by the time I was 21, I had lost interest in “The Waltons,” and as it grew further afield from its origins, I suspect other Americans had lost some of their interest in the program as well.

It’s those first few seasons – set in Appalachia during the Great Depression – that I recall so well. Though Hamner wrote only a few episodes, he continued to be involved as a creative director for the series, and he recorded the voice-over narration at the beginning and end of each episode.

Is the series based on Hamner’s real life? Many viewers have asked that question.

Born in 1923, Hamner was the oldest of eight children, rather than the seven children featured on the television show. The family lived in Schuyler, Virginia, but the television family lived on Walton’s Mountain. I traveled to Schuyler 25 years ago, and indeed there were parts of the small town that felt familiar. But the television show took liberties. The Hamners did not live in a house far from its neighbors but rather lived in a house right in town. If you want to see it yourself, you can take a virtual video tour of their home! Hamner’s father – Earl Hamner, Sr. – worked for a soapstone company, while the father in the television series owns his own lumbering operation. Hamner’s mother was descended from Italian immigrants, while Olivia Walton is very much of Anglo-Saxon stock. Despite these differences, the series stayed close to the spirit of Hamner’s experiences growing up in the close-knit family.

Ready to revisit “The Waltons” yourself? If you’re dying to remember a particular episode, you’ll love the Wikipedia page that includes a synopsis of every single show – and you can buy DVD sets of each season. If you want to learn more about the man behind the scenes, you can watch a 4.5-minute trailer for Earl Hamner: Storyteller, a film available on DVD. Other trailers and sneak peeks for the documentary are also available.

The last week has seen plenty of obituaries for Hamner. The official Earl Hamner, Jr., website features one by Hamner’s friend James Person. It includes the following narration, which bookended one episode of “The Waltons”:

Some men are drawn to oceans, they cannot breathe unless the air is scented with a salty mist. Others are drawn to land that is flat, and the air is sullen and is leaden as August. My people were drawn to mountains. They came when the country was young and they settled in the upland country of Virginia that is still misted with a haze of blue which gives those mountains their name. . . . In my time, I have come to know them. . . . I have walked the land in the footsteps of all my fathers. I saw yesterday and now look to tomorrow.

Though I’m sad to see Earl Hamner go, I’m happy to say that he and his character John-Boy Walton ended up being true role models for me. I ended up becoming a writer, telling tales of my family. And like John-Boy, I can most frequently be found with a notebook, penning my stories. Thanks, Earl, thanks John-Boy, for the inspiration.

Visit thestoryweb.com/hamner for links to all these resources and to access numerous video treats related to Hamner and “The Waltons.” In one clip, Hamner answers the question “Am I John-Boy?” There’s also a four-hour oral interview with Hamner on the Archive of American Television website. And finally, there’s just no substitute for watching “The Waltons.” On StoryWeb, you’ll find a link to a clip from a 1975 episode in which John-Boy and Grandpa have a heart-to-heart up on the mountain.

I join the Washington Post in saying, “Good night, John-Boy. Good night, Earl Hamner, Jr.”

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079: Kate Chopin: "The Awakening"

Mon, Mar 21, 2016

This week on StoryWeb: Kate Chopin’s novel The Awakening.


Kate Chopin initially made her literary name as a writer of “local color fiction.” Writers around the United States were focusing careful attention on the customs, dialects, folkways, and geography of distinct regions in the U.S. For example, Sarah Orne Jewett focused on life in coastal Maine, perhaps most famously in The Country of the Pointed Firs, and her literary heir, Willa Cather, took the local color impulse further in her fully realized novels, such as My Antonia, O Pioneers!, and The Song of the Lark.


Chopin was particularly adept at crafting local color fiction, and she published two volumes of sketches and short stories set in the Cajun bayous of Louisiana. Though she was born and raised in my hometown of St. Louis and though she would return to the Lou after her husband died, she lived with her husband first in New Orleans, then in a rural Louisiana parish. It was there in Cloutierville in Nachitoches Parish that she found the inspiration for her short fiction. You can learn about the Chopins’ home, now designated as a National Historic Landmark, and follow in the footsteps of the Literary Traveler, Linda McGovern, as she visits Cloutierville.


In 1899, she took what she had learned about local color writing and used it to create The Awakening, a novel set in New Orleans and nearby Grand Isle – a place of summer retreat for the wives and children of wealthy New Orleans businessmen. A woman’s retelling of Gustave Flaubert’s 1857 novel, Madame Bovary, Chopin’s The Awakening teeters on the edge between the nineteenth century and the twentieth.


The novel’s heroine, Edna Pontellier, has been raised to be a good New Orleans wife, with the tacit assumption that she’ll simply don her duties like the proper dresses she wears and become like her friend, Madame Ratignolle, whom Edna calls one of the “mother women.”


But Edna doesn’t assume the mantle of respectable wife and doting mother as easily as her society tells her she should. Instead, she dips a toe in the burgeoning possibilities of the twentieth century. Actually, she dips more than a toe. After tentative beginnings, she learns to swim and plunges into the Gulf of Mexico headlong.


Her twentieth-century role model is Mademoiselle Reisz, an unmarried pianist who has dedicated her life to her music.


As Edna “awakens” throughout the novel, the question is constantly posed: can she fly above convention, or is she, as Mademoiselle Reisz says, a bird with a broken wing, hampered by the expectations of her society?


The similarities between Madame Bovary and The Awakening are striking. In Chopin’s novel, the heroine Emma is renamed Edna; other character names are echoed as well. Both Emma Bovary and Edna Pontellier commit adultery, and to make matters worse, in Chopin’s novel, the heroine’s downfall – or “sin” – is that she commits adultery solely for passion, rather than for love. Each novel ends with the heroine’s demise.


But where Emma Bovary is a shallow child-woman lost in Romantic fantasies, there is more depth to Edna Pontellier. Her deepest desire is to be an artist. She recoils from the identity of the “mother-woman,” which she sees so fully realized in her friend Madame Ratignolle. Edna does not want to be bound by her children, by motherhood. At the same time, she is drawn to her asexual friend, Mademoiselle Reisz. She loves the fact that Mademoiselle Reisz has devoted her entire life to music, and she dreams that she, too, could make a life of her art, her painting.


Perhaps the most controversial aspect of The Awakening is how to read what is undeniably an ambiguous ending. It often makes me think of the ending to the film Thelma and Louise. At first, we’re cheering as Thelma and Louise drive off the cliff: they’re liberated, they’re free, they’re triumphant. But almost instantly, we’re devastated: for in that moment of triumph, they also die.


So too with the ending of The Awakening. Edna has finally learned to swim – “she wanted to swim far out, where no woman had swum before.” She does so naked, stripped of all social conventions and mores. She is free and triumphant at last. But it’s also true that she has swum out past the point of no return: she’s dead. She is the bird with the broken wing, the woman who could not succeed in breaking free of convention.


What happened to Kate Chopin herself is telling. By any measure and at any time, The Awakening would be considered a bold novel. That it was published in 1899 is nearly unbelievable. It is no surprise, then, to learn that Chopin came in for sharp criticism. Newspaper reviews around the country were immediately and unmistakably harsh. The St. Louis Republic deemed the novel "poison" and "too strong a drink for moral babes,” and the Chicago Times Herald chastised her for entering “the overworked field of sex fiction.”


What caused the outrage about the book? Edna’s bold, unconventional choices, including an extramarital affair with someone she did not love. But worse than that was the fact that Chopin, as author, did not punish or condemn her character for the affair.


The vitriolic reviews were one thing. But what was of much more devastating to Chopin was the resounding silence she was met with immediately and permanently from upper-crust St. Louis society, of which she had been a mainstay. Chopin had hosted a famous and well-loved “salon” – Thursday afternoon soirees that gathered the literary, artistic, cultural, and intellectual luminaries of her time. She was also the first woman in St. Louis to become a professional fiction writer.


Chopin’s prominence meant nothing, however, when The Awakening was published. Quite literally, no one ever darkened her doorway again.


So strong was the response against The Awakening that it caused her publisher to pull the contract on her forthcoming collection of stories, A Vocation and a Voice (which was finally published posthumously decades later). Chopin wrote nothing further between the publishing of The Awakening in 1899 and her death after a hot August day at the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904.


After her death, Kate Chopin – the writer once heralded for her ability to capture the essence of Cajun culture – fell into nearly complete literary obscurity. It would take a Norwegian scholar, Per Seyersted, to rediscover her work in the 1960s and convince an American publisher to reissue her work.


Now The Awakening is taught in college classrooms across the country and is included in its entirety in the venerated Norton Anthology of American Literature.


Ready to learn more about Chopin? Of course, you’ll want to start by reading The Awakening – either in a free, online version or in an inexpensive Dover Thrift Edition. Per Seyersted edited an outstanding volume, The Complete Works of Kate Chopin, and Emily Toth has written the definitive biography, Unveiling Kate Chopin. For my take on Toth’s biography, visit the American Literature website, and for more of my thoughts on The Awakening, read the first chapter of my 1994 book, A Southern Weave of Women: Fiction of the Contemporary South. If you still haven’t had enough of Chopin’s work, you might want to take a look at Kate Chopin’s Private Papers, co-edited by Seyersted and Toth. In addition, the Kate Chopin International Society has a useful website. PBS has a transcript of its great documentary, Kate Chopin: A Re-Awakening, and Literary Traveler Linda McGovern takes you to Grand Isle, the setting of The Awakening. Finally, if you want to see just how far Chopin could take her depiction of passion, read her posthumously published story “The Storm,” in which the two characters get swept away by the power of a raucous thunderstorm.


For links to all these resources, visit thestoryweb.com/chopin.


Listen now as I read the scene where Edna Pontellier learns to swim.


The people walked in little groups toward the beach. They talked and laughed; some of them sang. There was a band playing down at Klein's hotel, and the strains reached them faintly, tempered by the distance. There were strange, rare odors abroad—a tangle of the sea smell and of weeds and damp, new-plowed earth, mingled with the heavy perfume of a field of white blossoms somewhere near. But the night sat lightly upon the sea and the land. There was no weight of darkness; there were no shadows. The white light of the moon had fallen upon the world like the mystery and the softness of sleep.

Most of them walked into the water as though into a native element. The sea was quiet now, and swelled lazily in broad billows that melted into one another and did not break except upon the beach in little foamy crests that coiled back like slow, white serpents.

Edna had attempted all summer to learn to swim. She had received instructions from both the men and women; in some instances from the children. Robert had pursued a system of lessons almost daily; and he was nearly at the point of discouragement in realizing the futility of his efforts. A certain ungovernable dread hung about her when in the water, unless there was a hand near by that might reach out and reassure her.

But that night she was like the little tottering, stumbling, clutching child, who of a sudden realizes its powers, and walks for the first time alone, boldly and with over-confidence. She could have shouted for joy. She did shout for joy, as with a sweeping stroke or two she lifted her body to the surface of the water.

A feeling of exultation overtook her, as if some power of significant import had been given her to control the working of her body and her soul. She grew daring and reckless, overestimating her strength. She wanted to swim far out, where no woman had swum before.

Her unlooked-for achievement was the subject of wonder, applause, and admiration. Each one congratulated himself that his special teachings had accomplished this desired end.

"How easy it is!" she thought. "It is nothing," she said aloud; "why did I not discover before that it was nothing. Think of the time I have lost splashing about like a baby!" She would not join the groups in their sports and bouts, but intoxicated with her newly conquered power, she swam out alone.

She turned her face seaward to gather in an impression of space and solitude, which the vast expanse of water, meeting and melting with the moonlit sky, conveyed to her excited fancy. As she swam she seemed to be reaching out for the unlimited in which to lose herself.

Once she turned and looked toward the shore, toward the people she had left there. She had not gone any great distance—that is, what would have been a great distance for an experienced swimmer. But to her unaccustomed vision the stretch of water behind her assumed the aspect of a barrier which her unaided strength would never be able to overcome.

A quick vision of death smote her soul, and for a second of time appalled and enfeebled her senses. But by an effort she rallied her staggering faculties and managed to regain the land.


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078: Bill Pohlad: "Love and Mercy"

Mon, Mar 14, 2016

This week on StoryWeb: Bill Pohlad’s film “Love and Mercy.”

Virtually all of us know and recognize any number of hits by the Beach Boys: “Fun, Fun, Fun,” “Surfin’ U.S.A.,” and perhaps most of all, “Good Vibrations.”

Somewhat less well known is the name of Brian Wilson, the genius behind the Beach Boys sound and the band’s enormous success. Say you’ve seen a film about Brian Wilson, and some folks will look at you with a bit of confusion.

Some people, however, will say, “Really? Brian Wilson!?” For not only is Wilson legendary for creating an entirely new approach to music and to recording engineering (especially with the Beach Boys’ 1966 album, Pet Sounds), but he is just as legendary – if not more so – for his spectacular descent into drug addiction and mental illness. For those in the know, the prospect of a biopic about Brian Wilson warily calls up the image of a train wreck. Who would want to watch that?

And yet Bill Pohlad’s 2014 film, Love and Mercy, does an amazing job of not delivering a train wreck. It pulls no punches – Wilson’s life wasn’t pretty, and Pohlad makes no effort to pretend that it was.

But the film is enlightening, gripping, absorbing. In flashbacks, we learn about the rise of the Beach Boys and Brian Wilson’s role in pushing the band to true artistry. The “current” story is set in the 1980s. It features the story of Wilson’s romance with Melissa Ledbetter and her role in helping him escape from the clutches of his bizarre and unethical psychotherapist, Eugene Landy. Both portions of the film move seamlessly back and forth; both are riveting.

As we learn about Wilson’s lifelong struggle with mental illness, we see him not as a train wreck but as a human being confronting enormous pain. That he manages to escape that pain is ultimately life-affirming. This is, indeed, a story of redemption and healing, a tale of love and mercy.

Paul Dano is outstanding as the younger Brian Wilson, and John Cusack is equally adept at playing the older Wilson. But my favorite part of the movie is, without a doubt, the closing credit sequence, which features a clip of the real-life Brian Wilson singing his 1988 song, “Love and Mercy.” Finally, you understand where the film gets its title – and after seeing the film, you’re sure to be deeply moved by Wilson’s performance.

To learn more about the film, visit the official website, and to delve even deeper, take a look at the extensive Wikipedia page on the movie.

In the end, there’s no substitute for watching the film or listening to the soundtrack. And if you just can’t get enough of Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys, give a listen to their seminal album, Pet Sounds.

Visit thestoryweb.com/pohlad for links to all these resources and to view several great clips from the film. Start by watching a short featurette about the film. Then watch Paul Dano as the younger Brian Wilson as he first performs “God Only Knows” for his father and John Cusack as the older Wilson as he composes an impromptu piano riff for Melissa Ledbetter. Take a look at director Bill Pohlad’s discussion of what went into shooting the studio scenes for the Pet Sounds album. Finally, check out ABC World News Tonight’s interview with Brian Wilson and Melissa Ledbetter Wilson about the film.

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077: Janet Frame: "An Angel at My Table"

Mon, Mar 07, 2016

This week on StoryWeb: Janet Frame’s memoir “An Angel at My Table.”

If you haven’t read Janet Frame’s work and if you haven’t seen Jane Campion’s film An Angel at My Table, you must rectify these oversights immediately.

You’ve likely heard of New Zealand film director Jane Campion – or at least seen one of her films. Probably the best known of them is The Piano, starring Holly Hunter. It won Campion the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay in 1994. And you may have seen Campion’s adaptation of Henry James’s novel The Portrait of a Lady, a film that starred Nicole Kidman.

But to my mind and sensibility, An Angel at My Table – based on New Zealand writer Janet Frame’s three-volume memoir – is a too-often-overlooked masterpiece. Reading Janet Frame’s work – whether the three-volume memoir or her short fiction – is a treat in and of itself. But Jane Campion’s film brings New Zealand to vivid life and immerses us viscerally in Frame’s difficult but ultimately triumphant and redemptive life.

Three actresses play Frame at various ages, from her childhood in a poor, working class family in Dunedin to her adolescence marked by devastating loss to her adult years, which take Frame to a psychiatric hospital, to England and Spain, and eventually back to New Zealand.

I won’t give away any more of Frame’s life story – you must watch Campion’s film or read Frame’s memoirs (or both!). But I will tell you this. Since An Angel at My Table is one of my favorite films (along with Walt Disney’s Mary Poppins and Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust), I insisted that my book and movie club watch it. As we watched the film together, my friend Karin kept exclaiming as Janet Frame endured one tragedy after another. Karin felt the film was unrelenting in its bleakness and sorrow.

But for me, Janet Frame’s story is ultimately one of triumph, redemption, and even celebration. The ending is my favorite part of the film: Janet Frame dancing in her father’s shoes, typing her work in a small trailer outside her sister’s house, and most of all, remembering how she and her sisters would sing the Robert Burns poem “Ah, ah! the wooing o’it.” Just typing those words – “Ah, ah! the wooing o’it” – makes me smile, as I reflect on what Janet Frame made of her life.

To learn more about this wonderful writer, visit the website of the Janet Frame Literary Trust or the multipage exhibit about Frame at the Encyclopedia of New Zealand website. You also might want to read Michael King's book-length biography, Wrestling with the Angel: A Life of Janet Frame, or The Oxford Companion to New Zealand Literature’s biography of her. The Guardian published an excellent obituary of Frame when she died in 2004, as did the New York Times.

Visit thestoryweb.com/frame for links to all these resources and to watch a six-part New Zealand television documentary about Janet Frame. It features interviews with this wonderful writer. You’ll also want to watch the trailer to Jane Campion’s film and the short 30-second scene when the young Janet and her sisters sing “Ah, ah! the wooing o’it.”


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076: Zora Neale Hurston: "Their Eyes Were Watching God"

Mon, Feb 29, 2016

This week on StoryWeb: Zora Neale Hurston’s novel Their Eyes Were Watching God.

Zora Neale Hurston, who hailed from the all-black town of Eatonville, Florida, is probably best known for her 1937 novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God.

But what many readers don’t know is that Hurston was first and foremost an anthropologist and folklorist. After she left Florida, she studied at Barnard College with the great anthropologist Franz Boas. He helped her understand that her subject matter, her field of study, should be her own people – the working African Americans of Florida.

Hurston immersed herself in her fieldwork, traveling to and spending lots of time in the turpentine camps of Florida. She was very much a participant-observer anthropologist, an approach some say she took to an extreme when she went into training as a voodoo priestess in New Orleans and Haiti so that she could fully document this secretive subculture. If you’re curious about her anthropological experiences in Florida and New Orleans, her 1935 book, Mules and Men, is a must read.

Despite the fascinating work she was doing, Hurston wasn’t satisfied being solely an anthropologist. She knew there must be more she could do with the rich African American culture, stories, and songs that she was documenting and that she had been immersed in as she was growing up.

As luck would have it, Hurston was at Barnard College (in New York City) in the 1920s just as the Harlem Renaissance was at its peak. She befriended poet Langston Hughes, and it could be argued that her friendship with Hughes was every bit as influential in her creative and professional life as was her relationship with Boas. In fact, until they had a deep, permanent falling out, Hurston and Hughes were collaborators, creating together The Mule-Bone, a play that was never produced.

Of all her work – memoir, short stories, plays, anthropology, and novels – none stands out nearly as much as Their Eyes Were Watching God. When it was first published, the compelling story of Janie Crawford was criticized and dismissed, primarily by male reviewers. Hurston and her work eventually fell into obscurity. She died in 1960, penniless and alone, in the St. Lucie County Welfare Home. She was buried in an unmarked grave in Fort Pierce, Florida.

In the early 1970s, Alice Walker – an outstanding African American writer in her own right – went on a journey to rediscover the great Zora Neale Hurston. She wrote about her literary inspiration in her 1975 Ms. magazine essay, “In Search of Zora Neale Hurston.” Through this essay, Walker almost singlehandedly brought back interest in Hurston’s work.

In 1978, with Hurston’s literary reputation on the upswing again, the University of Illinois Press reissued Their Eyes Were Watching God. Now the novel is frequently taught in classrooms around the country and is widely recognized as one of the defining classics of African American literature.

Before I come to the end of this episode, I want to give you just a taste of this marvelous novel. What follows is the “pear tree” scene, which appears in the novel’s second chapter. Hurston is writing about the young Janie, who has just had her first kiss.

It was a spring afternoon in West Florida. Janie had spent most of the day under a blossoming pear tree in the back-yard. She had been spending every minute that she could steal from her chores under that tree for the last three days. That was to say, ever since the first tiny bloom had opened. It had called her to come and gaze on a mystery. From barren brown stems to glistening leaf-buds; from the leaf-buds to snowy virginity of bloom. It stirred her tremendously. How? Why? It was like a flute song forgotten in another existence and remembered again. What? How? Why? This singing she heard that had nothing to do with her ears. The rose of the world was breathing out smell. It followed her through all her waking moments and caressed her in her sleep. It connected itself with other vaguely felt matters that had struck her outside observation and buried themselves in her flesh. Now they emerged and quested about her consciousness.

She was stretched on her back beneath the pear tree soaking in the alto chant of the visiting bees, the gold of the sun and the panting breath of the breeze when the inaudible voice of it all came to her. She saw a dustbearing bee sink into the sanctum of a bloom; the thousand sister-calyxes arch to meet the love embrace and the ecstatic shiver of the tree from root to tiniest branch creaming in every blossom and frothing with delight. So this was a marriage! She had been summoned to behold a revelation.

From there, the novel goes on to trace Janie’s lifelong search for the bee to her own blossom, which she finally discovers when she meets Tea Cake Woods.

Ready to explore Hurston’s work yourself? If you haven’t done so already, you simply must read Their Eyes Were Watching God. It’s available online in a free PDF – but of course, this is a book you’ll love so much that you’ll want to buy a hard copy to keep in your collection. To explore Zora’s work and life fully, you’ll want to visit the Zora Neale Hurston Digital Archive, which is chock full of great resources. Also fun are the Hurston-related collections available online at the Library of Congress’s American Memory Project. Her work as a folklorist for the Federal Writers’ Project in Florida is featured in the Florida Folklife collection. And in Zora Neale Hurston Plays at the Library of Congress, you’ll find ten plays written by Hurston but mostly unpublished and unproduced. Finally, you’ll definitely want to take a virtual tour of the Zora Neale Hurston Dust Tracks Heritage Trail.

Visit thestoryweb.com/hurston for links to all these resources and to watch a video of Alice Walker talking about her journey to discover Zora Neale Hurston.

I’ll close this episode with a recording of Zora Neale Hurston singing “Halimuhfack,” a “jook” song she learned on the east coast of Florida as part of her work for the Federal Writers’ Project in Florida. In the clip, Hurston also explains how she collected this type of song. The clip runs just over two minutes and ends rather abruptly (so don’t be surprised!). To listen to Hurston sing other songs and tell other stories, visit the Library of Congress’s Florida Folklife collection and enter “Hurston” as your search term.

Without further ado, here’s Zora Neale Hurston singing “Halimuhfack.”


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075: Lorraine Hansberry: "A Raisin in the Sun"

Mon, Feb 22, 2016

This week on StoryWeb: Lorraine Hansberry’s play “A Raisin in the Sun.”

Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 play, A Raisin in the Sun, was a groundbreaking play in so many ways. Hansberry was the first African American woman to write a Broadway play, and the New York Drama Critics' Circle named it the best play of 1959. The play tells the story of an ordinary African American family, warts and all, and addresses an all-too-common challenge faced by black families in the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s – housing discrimination.

In the play, the Younger family lives in a cold water flat on the south side of Chicago. Lena Younger – the widowed matriarch of the family, known as Mama – has had a lifelong dream of buying a home of her own. When her husband dies, she decides to use part of the life insurance money as a down payment on a house in Clybourne Park, an all-white neighborhood. Though there are other plot lines involving her daughter, Beneatha, her son, Walter, and her daughter-in-law, Ruth, the major focus of the play is Mama’s decision to buy the house and the pushback the family gets from white residents in what is to be the Youngers’ new neighborhood.

In a scene that might seem a bit heavy-handed but was unfortunately all too real, a Mr. Lindner – a white man – is sent as the representative of the Clybourne Park Improvement Association. On behalf of the neighborhood’s other white residents, he offers to buy the house from the Youngers at a premium – more than what the house is worth. In sweet-talking words, he says that “most of the trouble in the world . . . exists because people don’t just sit down and talk to each other . . . that we don’t try hard enough in this world to understand the other fellow’s problem. The other guy’s point of view.” After that preamble, he finally gets to the point:

Well – you see our community is made up of people who’ve worked hard as the dickens for years to build up that little community. They’re not rich and fancy people; just hard-working, honest people who don’t really have much but those little homes and a dream of the kind of community they want to raise their children in. . . . [T]he overwhelming majority of our people out there feels that people get along better, take more of a common interest in the life of the community, when they share a common background. I want you to believe me when I tell you that race prejudice simply doesn’t enter into it. It is a matter of the people of Clybourne Park believing, rightly or wrongly, that for the happiness of all concerned that our Negro families are happier when they live in their own communities.

When the Younger family balks at his offer to buy the house from them, he says, “What do you think you are going to gain by moving into a neighborhood where you just aren’t wanted? . . . People can get awful worked up when they feel that their whole way of life and everything they’ve worked for is threatened.”

A Raisin in the Sun has been popular since it was first produced on Broadway in 1959, and it is a perennial favorite in high school English classes. What many people do not know, however, is that the play is based in part on Hansberry’s own family history. In 1935, her parents, Carl and Nannie Hansberry, bought a house in the all-white Washington Park neighborhood on the south side of Chicago. Anna Lee, a white homeowner in the neighborhood, sued the Hansberrys on the grounds that a restrictive covenant prohibited blacks from buying property in the neighborhood. The case – Hansberry v. Lee – ultimately went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Though the Court’s 1940 finding hinged on a technicality and not on the issue of whether racially based restrictive covenants were legal or constitutional, the decision nevertheless paved the way for making such covenants illegal.

Lorraine Hansberry herself seems to have had mixed feelings about the court case and her father’s fight for housing fairness. In a letter to the editor of The New York Times, she said,

My father was typical of a generation of Negroes who believed that the “American way” could successfully be made to work to democratize the United States. Thus, twenty-five years ago, he spent a small personal fortune, his considerable talents, and many years of his life fighting, in association with NAACP attorneys, Chicago’s “restrictive covenants” in one of this nation’s ugliest ghettos. That fight also required our family to occupy disputed property in a hellishly hostile “white neighborhood” in which literally howling mobs surrounded our house. . . . My memories of this “correct” way of fighting white supremacy in America include being spat at, cursed and pummeled in the daily trek to and from school. And I also remember my desperate and courageous mother, patrolling our household all night with a loaded German Luger, doggedly guarding her four children, while my father fought the respectable part of the battle in the Washington court.

So powerful and hard-hitting was Hansberry’s play in its depiction of the insidious practice of racially based housing discrimination that the FBI tracked Hansberry’s activities – both before and after the play’s Broadway production. Learn more at F.B. Eyes Digital Archive.

Curious about the play’s title? It comes from Langston Hughes’s famous poem “Harlem,” which opens with the lines: “What happens to a dream deferred? / Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?” And that raises the question: will the Younger family accept the substantial amount of cash Mr. Lindner offers – or will they move into Clybourne Park anyway, risking possible violence from their new neighbors? Indeed, the play refers to another black family whose new home in a white neighborhood was bombed in an attempt to scare them away. With the promise of more money on one hand and in the face of possible violence on the other, what will the Youngers do?

You’ll have to read the play or – better yet – watch the original film adaptation to see what the Youngers ultimately decide to do. Do they achieve their dream or does it continue to dry up like a raisin in the sun? The original film stars Sidney Poitier and Ruby Dee, both of whom starred in the Broadway production as well. It doesn’t get much better than that!

Visit thestoryweb.com/hansberry for links to these resources and to watch Sidney Poitier and Ruby Dee as Walter and Ruth Younger in a three-minute scene near the beginning of the 1961 film adaptation of A Raisin in the Sun. You can also watch the three-minute original trailer for the 1961 film.

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074: John Steinbeck: "The Grapes of Wrath"

Mon, Feb 15, 2016

This week on StoryWeb: John Steinbeck’s novel “The Grapes of Wrath.”

Last week, I spoke about Kentuckian James Still’s 1940 novel, River of Earth, which chronicles the lives of a southern Appalachian family who must leave their subsistence farm to seek work in the coal mines. Just one year earlier, John Steinbeck – born and raised in Salinas, California – wrote The Grapes of Wrath, without a doubt the novel of the Great Depression.

Steinbeck, who had been raised by his parents to have great compassion and empathy for his fellow human beings, was horrified by what he saw happening in his home county and throughout the Central Valley of California. During the 1930s, up to half a million migrants came to California from Texas, Missouri, Arkansas, and especially Oklahoma. When they arrived in California, they discovered a glut of laborers – migrants like them who had fled west to look for work when their farms back home had dried up and blown away in the Dust Bowl. As a result, it was hard indeed to find work in California – and when migrants did find employment, wages were very low, and living conditions were terrible.

Steinbeck set out to write a novel that would depict not just one family but also the whole mass of people who were displaced and hungry. As he tells the story of one Oklahoma family – the Joads – losing their farm, packing up their worldly possessions, and traveling Route 66 to look for work in California, Steinbeck weaves in what he called “interchapters” to show that the Joads are a microcosm of what was happening on a much larger scale.

Steinbeck said, “I’ve done my damndest to rip a reader’s nerves to rags” – and he succeeded. In her My Day column for June 28, 1939, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt wrote, “The Grapes of Wrath . . . both repels and attracts you. The horrors of the picture, so well drawn, make you dread sometimes to begin the next chapter, and yet you cannot lay the book down or even skip a page.”

ER was not the only reader who found The Grapes of Wrath compelling. It was the bestselling book of 1939 and won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. When Steinbeck was awarded the 1962 Nobel Prize for Literature, it was largely due to the impact of The Grapes of Wrath. In 1940, the book was made into a successful film, directed by John Ford and starring Henry Fonda as Tom Joad. Though the film tones down Steinbeck’s political messages and gives the story a more upbeat ending, it has nevertheless become a classic in its own right. That same year, Woody Guthrie wrote a two-part song – “Tom Joad, Parts 1 and 2”; it appeared on his album Dust Bowl Ballads.

Despite – or perhaps because of – its success, The Grapes of Wrath was widely banned and burned, including in Kern County, California, the county where the Joads end up at the novel’s conclusion. Some people – including the Associated Farmers of California – labeled the novel “Communist propaganda.” For more on the backlash against the novel, check out Rick Wartzman’s book, Obscene in the Extreme: The Burning and Banning of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. An excellent NPR piece on the topic includes an excerpt from Wartzman’s book. Sadly, even the citizens of Steinbeck’s hometown of Salinas turned on him after the novel’s publication, branding him a traitor to the middle class. Salinas is now home to the National Steinbeck Center, but the town was not especially friendly to Steinbeck while he was alive.

If you haven’t read The Grapes of Wrath or if it’s been years since you have, I highly recommend it. Though it is dismissed by some as an “issue” novel, I believe it is a grand, sweeping, epic story of the American people. While you’re at it, pair it with James Still’s River of Earth. The two novels will give you glimpses into two outcomes of the economic crises that gripped America in the 1930s. The novels were published within a year of each other by the same publisher, bringing to light the desperation of Americans who were losing ties to their own land and who were, as a result, rootless, homeless, displaced.

For more on Steinbeck and The Grapes of Wrath, watch C-SPAN’s American Writers episode on the author and the book. These two-hour episodes are always so very well done – complete with on-site expert interviews.

Visit thestoryweb.com/steinbeck for links to all these resources and to watch Henry Fonda, in his portrayal of Tom Joad, as he gives his “I’ll be there” speech near the end of John Ford’s film adaptation of The Grapes of Wrath.

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073: James Still: "River of Earth"

Mon, Feb 08, 2016

This week on StoryWeb: James Still’s novel, “River of Earth.”

James Still’s beautiful 1940 novel, River of Earth, is one of the defining works in Appalachian literature. It tells the story of the Baldridge family right at the moment they are leaving their home place in the mountains of eastern Kentucky to seek work in the coal mines.

Though the family has been struggling to live off the land, Alpha, the mother – much like Gertie Nevels in Harriette Arnow’s The Dollmaker – sees what her family is losing as it leaves behind subsistence farming and a life in the mountains. “I had a notion of staying on here,” she tells her husband, Brack. This sad, searching book makes clear that the Baldridge family will never quite find its way again. As Alpha says,

Forever moving yon and back, setting down nowhere for good and all, searching for God knows what. Where air we expecting to draw up to? Forever I’ve wanted to set us down in a lone spot, a place certain and enduring, with room to swing arm and elbow, a garden-piece for fresh victuals, and a cow to furnish milk for the baby. So many places we’ve lived – the far side of one mine camp and next the slap pile of another. Hardburly. Lizzyblue. Tribbey. I’m longing to set me down shorely and raise my chaps proper.

But Brack falls for the lure of working in the mines, always certain that the next mine will prove their fortune. He says, “It was never meant for a body to be full content on the face of this earth. Against my wont it is to be treading the camps, but its bread I'm hunting, regular bread with a mite of grease on it. To make and provide, it's the only trade I know, and I work willing.”

“Write what you know,” writing teachers tell their apprentices. “Tell what you see.” James Still was not a coal miner – far from it. Born and raised near Lafayette, Alabama, in the Buckalew Mountains in the northern part of the state, Still was one of ten children in a poor farming family. Eventually, Still left home and ultimately earned a master’s degree in English from Vanderbilt University. He spent time selling Bibles, riding the railroads, and picking cotton, and in 1932 at the age of 26, he moved to Kentucky, where he took the job of volunteer librarian at the Hindman Settlement School. As part of that job, he traveled throughout Knott County, “carrying books to remote one-room schools that did not have libraries.”

Though Still had been raised among farmers and though he himself was a bookish man, he nevertheless knew those who were being drawn into the coal mines. At Hindman, he lived among those who were losing their home places, who were becoming coal miners. They were very much his adopted kin. In this way, Still was writing what he knew, documenting what he saw.

River of Earth documents this community at a critical time in its history. It is rich with the “thinginess” of the world – first the home place and the garden patch, then the coal camps. When Still wrote the book in 1940, the vast majority of Americans knew little to nothing about Appalachians beyond caricatures and stereotypes. Through his loving and sensitive portrayal of mountain people, he legitimized them, respected them, and in recognizing and displaying their humanity, he makes us care about their loss, their suffering, their plight.

Still fell in love with the people of Knott County and ended up staying there the rest of his life. He settled in a cabin between Wolfpen Creek and Dead Mare Branch and lived alone in the cabin for more than half a century. He continued his association with Hindman Settlement School until his death in 2001 at age 94.

Last week, I talked about the impact River of Earth had on the young Lee Smith, a budding writer enrolled at Hollins College in Virginia. When she got to the end of the novel and saw that the family was moving to her hometown of Grundy, Virginia, a lightbulb went on. This is what her professors meant by “write what you know.”

What Lee couldn’t have known then was that discovering James Still’s novel would prove to be the watershed moment for her. Through River of Earth, she found herself as a writer. She also couldn’t have known then that she would herself become an acclaimed Appalachian novelist, a colleague, peer, and friend of James Still.

For eventually, James Still and Lee Smith did meet and did become close friends. Decades after she’d pulled River of Earth off the library shelves at Hollins College, Lee Smith started doing her own stints at Hindman, teaching in both the famed Hindman Settlement School Writers Workshop and in the school’s community literacy program. I imagine there were many nights when Lee Smith and her husband, Hal Crowther, joined James Still in his cabin on Wolfpen Creek.

River of Earth is an elegy of sorts, a hymn to and a lamentation for a disappearing way of life. But it is also an opening, a gateway to the many riches of Appalachian literature it ushered in. James Still led to Lee Smith, who led to Silas House and Lou Crabtree, among so many others.

Ready to explore James Still’s work? Begin by reading River of Earth. You can stream a free, hour-long Kentucky Educational Television documentary about James Still and River of Earth. You’ll see Still at his cabin on Wolfpen Creek, and you’ll hear him read the first paragraph of River of Earth. You’ll also see plenty of the outstanding Appalachian poet Jim Wayne Miller and Kentucky’s current poet laureate, George Ella Lyon. Appalshop – the great preserver of Appalachian culture – has a marvelous recording of James Still and Randy Wilson. James Still reads from his work, and Randy Wilson accompanies him by playing traditional music on hammer dulcimer, lap dulcimer, and fretless banjo. Finally, for a great collection of James Still resources, visit Professor Sandy Hudock’s webpage hosted by Colorado State University at Pueblo. You might also want to check out Still: The Journal, which features contemporary Appalachian writing. It is named in honor of James Still.

Visit thestoryweb.com/still for links to all these resources.

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072: Lee Smith: "Fair and Tender Ladies"

Mon, Feb 01, 2016

This week on StoryWeb: Lee Smith’s novel “Fair and Tender Ladies.”


Lee Smith – Appalachian novelist extraordinaire – is one of my all-time favorite writers. If you follow StoryWeb closely, you know that I have a soft spot for Appalachian stories. Lee Smith was a key player in the Appalachian Renaissance of the 1970s and 1980s – so it’s fitting that I love her work, too. Now it seems somewhat peculiar to speak of an Appalachian Renaissance, for there are so many excellent writers publishing throughout the region. But in the ’70s and ‘80s, there was precious little literature being published in the mountains.


Lee Smith changed that – and she did so in two ways.


First and most obviously, she wrote first-rate novels and stories about southern Appalachia. Foremost among them is her 1983 novel, Oral History, which on its own nearly defines Appalachian literature. I wrote about this novel in my 1994 book, A Southern Weave of Women: Fiction of the Contemporary South. Other Smith novels – like The Devil’s Dream and Saving Grace – focus on particular aspects of Appalachian history and culture: the region’s music and its impact on the development of popular country music and the practice of snake handling.


But without a doubt, my enduring Lee Smith favorite is Fair and Tender Ladies, published in 1988. The story of Ivy Rowe – from her childhood on Blue Star Mountain to her marriage to Oakley and her relationship with her daughter Joli – is a story like no other. As she writes letters to her sister Silvaney and others, her story unfolds so beautifully, so tenderly. I remember when Lee came to Shepherd College as part of the Appalachian Heritage Festival. She knew how much I loved Ivy Rowe and Fair and Tender Ladies. On stage, she read the following passage. It’s taken from a letter the young Ivy writes introducing herself to a new pen pal:


My Chores are many but sometimes we have some fun too, as when we go hunting chestnuts away up on the mountain beyond Pilgrim Knob which we done yesterday, Victor taken us. . . . We start out walking by the tulip tree and the little rocky-clift ther on Pilgrim Knob when the chickens runs but ther we keep rigt on going follering Sugar Fork for a while, you get swallered up in ivy to where it is just like nigt, but direckly you will come out in the clear. You will be so high then it gives you a stitch in your side you have to stop then and rest, and drink some water from Sugar Fork which is little up there and runs so gayly. And so you go along the footpath where the trees grow few and the grass is everywhere like a carpet in the spring but now in winter the grass is all froze and you can feel it crunch down when you step, you can hear it too. We was having a big time crunching it down. When the sun shined on it, it looked like diamond sticks, a million million strong.


In addition to her exquisite writing, Lee Smith has spurred on Appalachian literature in another way as well. She has actively mentored, supported, encouraged, and championed other emerging writers in the region. Through her work at the Hindman Settlement School in Kentucky, she has helped those who couldn’t read or write – such as Florida Slone – learn to put their stories and songs to paper. She has mentored the likes of Lou Crabtree (author of Sweet Hollow) and Silas House, the author of five powerful novels about Appalachia. In his role as NEH Chair of Appalachian Literature at Berea College, Silas is paying it forward, nurturing another generation of Appalachian writers. I am especially grateful to Lee for being the first reader of my book Power in the Blood: A Family Narrative. I can’t express how much it meant to me to have one of my favorite writers read the manuscript and give her careful, insightful critique as she has done for so many others.


There are many great stories about Lee as well. I especially love the tale of how she decided to turn her attention to writing about Appalachia. She had grown up as a town girl in Grundy, Virginia. Her father owned the Ben Franklin dime store there. She knew she wanted to be a writer and began by writing fantastic stories about, as she says, “stewardesses living in Hawaii and evil twins.”


When she left Grundy to go to Hollins College, she began to supplement her required class readings with trips to the library. One day, seemingly at random, she pulled James Still’s outstanding 1940 novel, River of Earth, off the shelf. As she read it, Lee was spellbound – and nearly cried “Eureka!” when she got to the end and discovered that a coal miner and his family were pulling up stakes and moving to Grundy, Virginia. Lee could not believe her small hometown was mentioned in a novel. From then on, she had discovered her material, and she has never looked back.


Want to learn more about Lee Smith? By all means, you must start with her fiction. You can find a comprehensive list on her website. Then take a look at the information about “Good Ol’ Girls,” a musical stage production based partly on Lee’s writing. When you’re ready for more, check out Conversations with Lee Smith, a collection of interviews with Lee, edited by yours truly. Reading the interviews is like sitting on the front porch listening to your long-lost cousin spinning yarns. And of course, all Lee Smith fans are eagerly awaiting her forthcoming memoir, Dime Store, due out this spring.


If you’re ready to explore more stories from Appalachia, check out previous StoryWeb posts on Hazel Dickens’s “Mama’s Hand,” Betty Smith’s ballad singing, Kirk Judd’s “On Cranberry,” George Ella Lyon’s “Where I’m From,” Louise McNeill’s Gauley Mountain, Doug Van Gundy’s “What a Beautiful Jar of Jelly,” Myles Horton’s The Long Haul, and Harriette Arnow’s The Dollmaker. And stay tuned – there will be more Appalachian stories on StoryWeb in the months to come!


Visit thestoryweb.com/leesmith for links to all these resources and to watch Barbara Bates Smith bring Ivy Rowe to life in a one-woman play.


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071: Anthony Doerr: "All the Light We Cannot See"

Mon, Jan 25, 2016

This week on StoryWeb: Anthony Doerr’s novel “All the Light We Cannot See.”


This episode is dedicated to Darlene Fackleman, who radiates light wherever she goes.


A few people I know have resisted reading Anthony Doerr’s 2014 novel, All the Light We Cannot See, because it is set during World War II. It would be too depressing, they said. World War II was too horrific, they said. The events in Nazi Germany, in particular, were too harrowing.


How could I disagree? The Second World War was a terrible, terrible tragedy, and with this novel set in Germany and France, it is bound to include some rough stuff.


Yes, the main characters – Werner Pfennig and Marie-Laure LeBlanc -- do very much encounter hardship, heart-breaking loss, sorrow, deprivation, even – nearly – in Werner’s case, degradation.


How could I convey to my friends what compelling stories this novel tells? How could I convince them that we come to care deeply about Werner and Marie-Laure? How could I possibly explain that the book – despite (or perhaps because of its World War II setting – is ultimately life-affirming? For to me, this novel says loud and clear that people are good, people care and want to care, that “unconditional love” – as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., said – “will have the final word.”


This novel – the second by American writer Anthony Doerr – has so much going for it. There’s a mystery at the heart of the story: a stone that is cursed – or magical – or both. There are two parallel stories of children growing up in pre-war, then war-torn Europe. These children – Werner, the German orphan, and Marie-Laure, the blind French girl – are exceptional human beings, though part of Doerr’s purpose seems to be to suggest that they are not exceptional. Rather, he seems to say that as they live their lives with love and good intentions, they are brought forward to the good, the right. Even when we think Werner will lose his soul in the Nazi training school and later as part of the Nazi military, his irrepressible self shines forth. He is part of the light we cannot see – even though, as Doerr suggests, that light is everywhere.


Doerr pulls so much together, so seamlessly, so effortlessly in this dazzling breakthrough novel, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, was a #1 New York Times bestseller, and a finalist for the National Book Award. Electrical engineering, radio technology, the experiences of the blind, German, French, and Russian geography, natural history, mineralogy – there’s so much here. Yet you never feel as if Doerr is trotting out his research. Even though a good deal of the plot hinges on physics and mathematics, it’s so easy to understand and grasp.


For background on some of the geography and history of this beautiful book, check out resources on the Zollverein Coal Mine Industrial Complex (one of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites), the National Museum of Natural History in Paris (where Marie-Laure’s father works), and the burning of Saint-Malo (the walled city is where Marie-Laure and her father take refuge). You can learn more about Anthony Doerr at his website.


I loved reading every single word of this marvelous novel. It’s the kind of book I very much hated to have end, the kind of book that makes me want to hurry up and find another magnificent book, so I can plunge myself into a created world again, and the kind of book that makes me despair of ever finding another one as good.


Visit thestoryweb.com/doerr for links to all these resources and to watch Anthony Doerr read the chapter “Radio.”

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070: David Bowie: "Space Oddity"

Mon, Jan 18, 2016

This week on StoryWeb: David Bowie’s song “Space Oddity.”

In 1969, Davy Jones – who had recently renamed himself David Bowie – released what would become his breakthrough hit: “Space Oddity.” The song tells the story of an astronaut, Major Tom, who blasts out into space and loses contact with Ground Control.

As Bowie’s decades-long career evolved, he would take on other characters – Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, the Thin White Duke, and at the end of his life, Lazarus – but he would always be most associated with Major Tom. Indeed, when he died earlier this month at the age of 69, social media, online news outlets, and television and radio broadcasts were filled with references to Major Tom and “Space Oddity.”

“Space Oddity” is, without a doubt, classic David Bowie. It was his first single for Philips/Mercury, his first Top 10 hit, the lead-off and title track for the LP; and the lead-off track for every greatest hits compilation (starting with ChangesOneBowie).

There are many theories about the meaning of “Space Oddity.”

Because the song was released the same year the U.S. put the first man on the moon, many have assumed Bowie was prompted by that historic event. One Bowie historian says that, rather than commemorating the moon landing, the “disaster that befalls Major Tom . . . reflects the general, if unspoken, fear at the time that the Apollo missions could go terribly wrong, with gruesome death or exile shown on live global television.”

But Bowie said that the song was actually inspired by Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film, 2001: A Space Odyssey. “It was really a revelation to me,” Bowie said. “It got the song flowing.” Says one source, “Bowie saw the film (stoned ‘off my gourd’ he recalled) several times that summer and was especially struck by the final images of a ‘child’ floating in space over the Earth.” And of course, once you know the film connection, the play on words in the title becomes obvious.

There’s also an ongoing, somewhat underground theory that the song is actually about a heroin overdose. As one source says, “The lyrics describe the fictional Major Tom who blasts off into space, but then loses connection with ground control, and gets lost. Bowie was a known drug user at the time, so many have speculated that the song could be a metaphor for a drug overdose.” The source adds, “During 1968 Bowie also had ‘a flirtation with smack,’ he admitted years later, and some have argued the icy majesty of ‘Space Oddity’ suggests it’s really a heroin song, the ‘liftoff’ section marking when the needle hits the vein.”

Another theory is that the song is about “withdrawal and resignation,” as Nicholas Pegg argues in his excellent book, The Complete David Bowie. The day before Bowie recorded his first studio version of the song, his relationship with Hermione Farthingale abruptly ended. David Bowie once said that “Space Oddity” was about “alienation.” According to Chris O’Leary, publisher of an extensive and excellent website on David Bowie and his music, “biographers . . . speculate that Bowie’s state of mind at the time reflected Major Tom’s blissful sense of isolation, a desire to free himself entirely from human entanglements and just drift off into the void.”


Speaking of the song’s many meanings, O’Leary adds:

“Space Oddity” has come to define Bowie, perhaps because it’s as protean as its creator has tried to be. It’s a breakup song, an existential lullaby, consumer tie-in, product test, an alternate space program history, calculated career move, and a symbolic end to the counterculture dream – the “psychedelic astronaut” drifting off impotently into space; it’s a kid’s song, drug song, death song, and it marks the birth of the first successful Bowie mythic character, one whose motives and fate are still unknown to us.

More theories about the song’s meaning as well as extensive background on its composition and various recordings can also be found on O’Leary’s website (titled “Pushing the Dame”).

Of all the tributes to Bowie over the years, perhaps most compelling is Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield’s 2013 video recording of “Space Oddity” from aboard the International Space Station, a performance Bowie himself called “possibly the most poignant version of the song ever created.” Hadfield was the first Canadian to walk in space – and he was also the first astronaut to record music in space. After learning of Bowie’s death, Hadfield wrote that Bowie’s passing

leaves me and, I suspect, millions around the world, with an instant feeling of loss and emptiness – and yet also a wistful joy, a sense of how creative and inspirational just one of us can be. His art defined an image of outer space, inner self, and a rapidly changing world for a generation finding themselves at the confluence. Ashes to ashes, dust to stardust. Your brilliance inspired us all. Goodbye Starman.

Thanks to my sister, Julia Burrows, for her assistance in doing the research for this edition of StoryWeb. A devoted Bowie fan, Julia recommends the following books if you want to know more about this powerful artist’s life and work: Paul Trynka’s David Bowie: Starman, Marc Spitz’s Bowie: A Biography, David Buckley’s Strange Fascination: David Bowie: The Definitive Story, and Victoria Broackes and Geoffrey Marsh’s David Bowie Is (the companion guide for the 2013 Bowie exhibit at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum). If you’ve got a chunk of change to spend, check out Moonage Daydream: The Life and Times of Ziggy Stardust, written by David Bowie with photographs by Mick Rock.

And of course, you absolutely can’t go wrong with Bowie’s own website and the other resources highlighted above (Pegg’s biography and O’Leary’s website, in particular).

If you’re looking to add to your music collection, consider the album Space Oddity or Best of Bowie. ChangesOneBowie, released in 1976, was an album I listened to repeatedly in my youth, but it is now hard to find. Other recordings Julia recommends are Hunky Dory, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, Aladdin Sane, Young Americans, Lodger, Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps), and Earthling. Blackstar, of course, was released on January 8, 2016, Bowie’s 69th birthday, just two days before his death. Many believe it was his swan song, his parting gift to his fans.

Bowie’s genius went beyond music – and you might want to watch his films: The Man Who Fell to Earth, The Hunger, Labyrinth, and Ziggy Stardust: The Motion Picture. David Bowie: In His Own Words is due to be released on DVD next month. He also starred as The Elephant Man on Broadway, and you can see a clip of his performance on YouTube.

Visit thestoryweb.com/bowie for links to all these resources and to watch three video versions of “Space Oddity.” You’ll find David Bowie’s original, 1969 video for “Space Oddity”; a live, 1973 recording, in which you can hear how Bowie has slowed the song’s tempo considerably; and finally, Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield’s revised version of “Space Oddity,” filmed aboard the International Space Station.

With equal measures of sadness, admiration, and gratitude, Julia and I say farewell to David Bowie – and to Major Tom.


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069: Ted Kooser: "The Blizzard Voices"

Mon, Jan 11, 2016

This week on StoryWeb: Ted Kooser’s book “The Blizzard Voices.”


This episode is dedicated to my dear friend Jennifer Soule, whose birthday marks the anniversary of the Children’s Blizzard.


Every year at this time, I am reminded of the Children’s Blizzard. On January 12, 1888, an Alberta clipper swooped down from the north suddenly and unexpectedly onto the Great Plains. “What made this storm so deadly,” says one source, “was the timing (during work and school hours), the suddenness, and the brief spell of warmer weather that preceded it. . . . People ventured from the safety of their homes to do chores, go to town, attend school. . . . As a result, thousands of people – including many schoolchildren – got caught in the blizzard.” Omaha.com features a wealth of information about the blizzard, and David Laskin's 2005 book, The Children’s Blizzard, goes into great depth to tell the story.


This year, in doing a bit of research about this historic event, I learned that former U.S. Poet Laureate Ted Kooser has written a book of poems on the topic. First published in 1986 and reprinted in 2006, The Blizzard Voices is based on stories told to Kooser as a boy in Iowa and as an adult in Nebraska as well as local histories that feature the blizzard. Of particular help to Kooser was W.H. O’Gara’s 1947 book, In All Its Fury.


The result is Kooser’s crystallized distillation of shards of memory. Told in his trademark spare, straightforward, accessible style, The Blizzard Voices alternates short snippets from women’s voices and men’s voices. “These poems,” says Kooser, “are wholly mine, trimmed and shaped and imagined by me. I took the straws snagged on the fence and froze my own stories around them.”


One of the women in the book – a teacher – describes walking with her pupils, “holding each other’s hands.” “It was impossible to see,” she says, “but we followed a row / of dead sunflower stalks / all the way to a nearby farm. / I never see a sunflower now / that I don’t count my lucky stars.”


A man tells of walking home from school with his older brother, Billy. Unable to make it home, they dug down into a drift. He recalls that Billy


died in the night. I thought he
was only asleep. At dawn,
I dug out, finding that we
were in sight of the home place.
They had to cut my feet off.


Another man relates his teacher’s decision to keep her students at the school. “Through the night,” he says,


we kept that cannonball stove
as red as a cherry
by burning coal and corncobs,
while the little children slept
covered with coats on benches.
The teacher told us stories
and read from the Bible
until our parents came for us.


The book has also been made into a play and an oratorio (performed at Carnegie Hall). Kooser writes in his introduction to the 2006 reprint edition that one of the highlights of his poetic career was attending a performance of the play and hearing audience members reminisce afterward about the Children’s Blizzard memories passed down to them. He says:


Somehow my poems and a handful of talented actors had set memory free, and as I walked through the crowd . . . I overheard things like, “Well, my grandmother told me . . .” and “Great Uncle Harry once said that. . . .” [W]hat I’d written was being put to service, and a community was awakening to a history they’d misplaced until those costumed figures in lantern light showed how to find it again.


The slim volume is definitely one you’ll want to have in your collection. I was incredibly fortunate to find a copy at Boulder’s Innisfree Poetry Bookstore, one of only three bookstores in the U.S. devoted exclusively to poetry. Brian Buckley, the store’s owner, gave me a fist bump when he heard that there was a perfect match between my urgent need for Kooser’s words and the book that was just waiting on his store’s shelves for me to come along. If you’re in Colorado, stop by Innisfree, now located in Buchanan’s Coffee Pub on Pennsylvania Avenue on the Hill (just across Broadway from the University of Colorado).


Want to learn more about Ted Kooser? His website is rich with poems and numerous interviews. Many other websites – such as the Library of Congress, Academy of American Poets, and The Poetry Foundation – feature his poetry. The Library of Congress even has a video of a conversation between Kooser and American singer/songwriter John Prine. As Poet Laureate, Kooser started the “American Life in Poetry” project, which provides a free weekly column to newspapers across the country, each column featuring a poem. The project is still going strong. Finally, if you’re an aspiring poet (or any kind of wordsmith), you’ll want to check out Kooser’s 2006 book, Writing Brave and Free: Encouraging Words for People Who Want to Start Writing, and his 2007 book, The Poetry Home Repair Manual: Practical Advice for Beginning Poets.


Visit thestoryweb.com/kooser for links to all these resources and to watch Ted Kooser read the powerful closing poem from The Blizzard Voices.

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068: N. Scott Momaday: "The Way to Rainy Mountain"

Mon, Jan 04, 2016

This week on StoryWeb: N. Scott Momaday’s book The Way to Rainy Mountain.


  1. Scott Momaday doesn’t tell a story in the “conventional” way in his 1969 book, The Way to Rainy Mountain – not by a long shot. The book is like a long prose poem or a collage, shards of memory pasted together in an ongoing triptych of sorts. There’s definitely no beginning, no middle, no end, no “once upon a time.”


But to me, there is certainly a story here – or multiple stories really. On one hand, it’s the story of the Kiowa people, their migration from the Yellowstone River to Devil’s Tower in Wyoming to the Rainy Mountain area of Oklahoma – their “way to Rainy Mountain.” On the other hand, it’s the story of author N. Scott Momaday’s journey to discover, understand, and honor his own way back to Rainy Mountain, the home of his grandmother Aho. At the same time, it’s the story of the way forward, to identify and embrace his future relationship with Rainy Mountain and the Kiowa people. Momaday writes in the “Prologue”:


In one sense . . . the way to Rainy Mountain is preeminently the history of an idea, man’s idea of himself, and it has old and essential being in language. The verbal tradition by which it has been preserved has suffered a deterioration in time. What remains is fragmentary: mythology, legend, lore, and hearsay – and of course the idea itself, as crucial and complete as it ever was. That is the miracle.


Illustrated with drawings by his father, Al Momaday, The Way to Rainy Mountain is a beautifully crafted, deeply thoughtful book, an extended meditation on the past, memory, place, and existence. Comprised of 24 vignettes, the book features fragments and snapshots of Kiowa history, family history, personal history, and more.


The first time you encounter The Way to Rainy Mountain, it is definitely like trying to solve a puzzle. What are these sections? What do they signify? Why is each section made up of three short text pieces – vignettes – presented across two facing pages? Does the order mean something? Does the three-part structure of each section signify something? I have my own theories about how to read the book – its weaving together of anthropology and scholarly history, of tribal memory and a grandmother’s storytelling, of a father’s guidance and a son’s gazing into the distance. But I think I should keep my theories to myself and let you – if you haven’t already read this magnificent book – figure it out for yourself.


My favorite passage comes near the end of the book. A woman is buried near the spot where Momaday stands, but her grave is unmarked. Indeed, there is no evidence at all that there is a grave. She was buried in a cabinet in a beautiful beaded dress, say the elders, but now no one knows where she was buried. There is no way to find her. But Momaday makes clear that this doesn’t matter. Whether we remember or don’t remember, the woman is still there in the beautiful beaded dress. “That dress is still there,” he writes, “under the ground.”


I had the great and wonderful pleasure of hearing and seeing N. Scott Momaday read at Hood College in Frederick, Maryland. I was teaching a course on American Ethnic Literature at the time, and as good luck would have it, there was a last-minute news story that Momaday’s reading would be open to the public the very week we were scheduled to discuss The Way to Rainy Mountain. I drove my class in a van over South Mountain Road the 40 minutes from Shepherd University to Hood College. We got there very early so as to get good seats – and we were rewarded with a front-row vantage point. You can hear Momaday’s magnetic, magical, booming voice in a video of a reading he gave at the University of California or listen to him tell stories at the Academy of Achievement website – but these recordings are but pale representations of the charisma and light he brings to a room. He talked a great deal at Hood about The Way to Rainy Mountain and the companion book, The Man Made of Words. Both works had a tremendous influence on my writing of Power in the Blood: A Family Narrative, and it was a “lifetime moment” indeed to hear him speak, to talk with him one on one after the reading, and to have him sign my copy of The Way to Rainy Mountain.


Momaday’s whole collection of work speaks to me deeply and profoundly, but the words near the end of the “Prologue” to The Way to Rainy Mountain perhaps sum up most powerfully his message:


The journey herein recalled continues to be made anew each time the miracle comes to mind, for that is peculiarly the right and responsibility of the imagination. It is a whole journey, intricate with motion and meaning; and it is made with the whole memory, that experience of the mind which is legendary as well as historical, personal as well as cultural. . . . The imaginative experience and the historical express equally the traditions of man’s reality.


If you want to sample The Way to Rainy Mountain, you can read the powerful “Prologue” to the book online. But you really must experience the book itself, and there is no substitute for that than to purchase the paperback edition from the University of New Mexico Press. And if you’re as taken with Momaday as I am, you might want to read his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, House Made of Dawn, which ushered in the Native American Renaissance in written literature; The Names: A Memoir; and The Man Made of Words, a collection of essays, stories, and autobiographical remembrances.


There’s more to come from N. Scott Momaday! You’ll want to watch the seven-minute video trailer about Return to Rainy Mountain, a documentary-in-the-making about Momaday’s journey with his daughter to revisit Kiowa sacred places, the places that figured so prominently in The Way to Rainy Mountain.


For links to all of these resources, visit thestoryweb.com/momaday.



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067: Abraham Verghese: "Cutting for Stone"

Mon, Dec 28, 2015

This week on StoryWeb: Abraham Verghese’s novel, “Cutting for Stone.”


If you haven’t already read Abraham Verghese’s 2009 novel, Cutting for Stone, you must run right out, buy it, and read it now. Really! It’s that good!


Born in Addis Ababa in 1955, Verghese was raised by his Indian parents, who had been recruited by Emperor Haile Selassie to teach in Ethiopia. Verghese left Ethiopia when Selassie was deposed and, after a brief stint in the United States, went to medical school in India.


Cutting for Stone draws on Verghese’s life in interesting ways. The novel is set primarily in Addis Ababa. It takes place during the coup in the 1970s and tells the story of conjoined, identical twin brothers, Marion and Shiva Stone, born joined at the head. It also tells the tale of their most unlikely parents – both their biological parents as well as their adoptive parents. All four of the parents work at Mission Hospital (known locally as Missing Hospital), and three of them are doctors at the hospital. Their twin sons grow up to become surgeons themselves.


This sketch, of course, doesn’t begin to capture the depth and breadth and sheer beauty of the novel. I was swept up by the compelling story (and it’s a very long book, so it’s a good thing it’s a page turner). But I also found myself stopping frequently to marvel at a well-crafted sentence. This is a rare occurrence for me. Even though I have a PhD in English and was an English professor for many years, I tend to read for story, not craft. I want to go on the magic carpet ride of a good tale (and Verghese certainly doesn’t disappoint in this regard). Though I can be a close reader with the best of them and analyze fiction at the sentence level, it’s not something I tend to do when I’m reading for pleasure. But saying “ooh!” and “ahh!” in response to Verghese’s splendid prose was part of the pleasure.


Adding to the delight of reading Cutting for Stone is discovering and learning a great deal about the practice of medicine, especially surgery. Verghese is a physician by training: he is currently on the faculty of Stanford University School of Medicine. But he’s also nurtured and honed his talents as a writer over the years. In fact, he took a sabbatical from medicine to study at the very prestigious Iowa Writers Workshop at the University of Iowa, without a doubt the preeminent writing program in the country.


Verghese’s first two books were memoirs. My Own Country: A Doctor’s Story of a Town and Its People in the Age of AIDS tells the story of his work as the first physician in eastern Tennessee to treat patients with HIV and AIDS. His second book, The Tennis Partner: A Doctor’s Story of Friendship and Loss, focuses on his love of tennis and his friendship with a medical resident fighting a losing battle to break a drug addiction (and Verghese emphasizes that many physicians face drug addiction).


Published in the 1990s, these first two books are interesting enough in their own right, but in 2009 it seemed that Cutting for Stone had suddenly come out of nowhere. It was far and away the best writing Verghese had ever done. It’s no wonder it stayed on the New York Times bestseller list for over two years and is now on Amazon’s list of 100 books to read in a lifetime. To read an excerpt from Cutting for Stone, visit the novel’s Barnes & Noble page. And to learn more about Verghese’s take on Addis Ababa and Ethiopia, listen to Public Radio International’s interview with him. For links to other interviews with and features on Verghese, visit his website.


For links to these resources and to watch a rare recording of Verghese reading two short excerpts from Cutting for Stone, visit thestoryweb.com/verghese.


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066: John Mason Neale: "Good King Wenceslas"

Mon, Dec 21, 2015

This week on StoryWeb: John Mason Neale’s song “Good King Wenceslas.”


For my mother, Bonnie Burrows


Many is the Christmas my mother and I have sat at her piano and sung “Good King Wenceslas” together. It tells the simple story of a poor man and the “good king” who feeds him. It seems we have always loved this song and the story it tells, love reveling in the simple but compelling story of the interaction between the poor man and the king.


“Good King Wenceslas” is a simple, plaintive song. It is not a “ho ho,” jolly Christmas carol, but instead it is a song that gets more to the true spirit of Christmas: giving, loving, caring. Listen to the opening lyrics:


Good King Wenceslas went out

On the feast of Stephen

When the snow lay round about

Deep and crisp and even.


Brightly shone the moon that night

Though the frost was cruel –

When a poor man came in sight

Gathering winter fuel.


Written in 1853 by English hymnwriter John Mason Neale and set to the melody of a 13th-century spring carol, the lyrics tell the real-life story of Saint Wenceslas, Duke of Bohemia, who lived in Czech in the tenth century A.D. His name was actually Vaclav. He was assassinated by his brother, who then succeeded him as Duke. A “cult of Wenceslas” came into existence in Bohemia and England, and by the eleventh century, Bohemia had come to honor him as its patron saint, recognizing his goodness. In fact, numerous hagiographies – or “saints’ lives” – were penned about Vaclav. A 12th century preacher said,


[H]is deeds I think you know better than I could tell you; for, as is read in his Passion, no one doubts that, rising every night from his noble bed, with bare feet and only one chamberlain, he went around to God’s churches and gave alms generously to widows, orphans, those in prison and afflicted by every difficulty, so much so that he was considered, not a prince, but the father of all the wretched.


Nine centuries later, when Neale took up his pen to write the story of Vaclav, many legends had sprung up around Bohemia’s patron saint. Saint Vaclav – or Saint Wenceslas – was known to aid the poor on Christmas and especially on St. Stephen’s Day, celebrated on December 26, the day after Christmas. Neale wove the story of the poor man, the “king,” and the king’s page into the carol “Good King Wenceslas.”


Oh, how we love singing this story song together. It’s been a long time since my mother and I have spent a Christmas together, but we always remind each other – by phone – of our love of this Christmas carol.


To learn more about this wonderful song and to read the full lyrics, visit the “Good King Wenceslas” page at “The Hymns and Carols of Christmas” website. You’ll also want to check out the very informative Wikipedia page on the song. You might also want to own a good printed volume, complete with original illustrations.


Visit www.thestoryweb.com/neale for links to these resources and to listen to the Irish Rovers sing “Good King Wenceslas.”


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065: Julene Bair: "The Ogallala Road: A Story of Love, Family, and the Fight to Keep the Great Plains from Running Dry"

Mon, Dec 14, 2015

This week on StoryWeb: Julene Bair’s memoir “The Ogallala Road: A Story of Love, Family, and the Fight to Keep the Great Plains from Running Dry.”

For many Americans, Kansas is the ultimate fly-over state, and God help you if you have to drive through Kansas.

Or so I always thought until 2006 when I was driving across country from my former home in West Virginia to my new home in Colorado. It’s true: Kansas is flat, and it seems to go on forever. Not even Colby, the self-proclaimed “Oasis of the Plains,” did much to break up the miles.

But I discovered something on that trip: Kansas is beautiful, especially its spectacular sky, stretching out, indeed, forever.

A month after I had arrived in Boulder, I shared a stage at a literary reading with memoirist Julene Bair, who had herself just moved to the Front Range. I still remember vividly – in a visceral way – the selection she read. She told of swimming in her family’s tail-water pit and stock tank, a setting that was as unfamiliar to me as anything someone could possibly conjure up.

For Julene was a western Kansas farm girl. That night, I bought her 2000 book, One Degree West: Reflections of a Plainsdaughter, a collection of essays about her childhood in western Kansas. I read the book quickly. In fact, it might be more accurate to say I inhaled it. I love memoir, and Julene’s writing was just so good. I drank in every word.

After that first meeting, Julene and I became friends, sharing tales of the writing life, and I loved hearing how her new book – a full-blown memoir – was developing. It would tell of her and her family’s long, complex, and difficult relationship with the Ogallala Aquifer. Part family memoir, part personal journey, part historical and environmental treatise, The Ogallala Road: A Story of Love, Family, and the Fight to Keep the Great Plains from Running Dry would bring together virtually all of the major threads in Julene’s life.

The book – published by Viking Press in 2014 – beautifully fulfilled its promise. And I was so pleased to see the scene of the adult Julene, the prodigal daughter returned home to the family farm after years away, swimming in the tail-water pit.

The reader keeps turning the pages to see what Julene and her family ultimately decide to do with the family farm. As her parents age, then die, will Julene – who is completely at home with dirt under her nails and at the wheel of a tractor – stay and try to make a go of things? Or will she and her surviving brother decide to sell and move on to their modern lives?

I suppose the fact that I met Julene in 2006 after she had moved to urban Colorado and that I met her when she was writing about Kansas rather than living in Kansas tells you something about what she decided.

But it’s not as easy as that – and indeed, where she ended up in relationship to her Kansas roots is a surprise, perhaps most of all to Julene.

I strongly recommend both of Julene Bair’s beautiful books – lyrical and gritty at the same time. One Degree West won the prestigious WILLA Award for Women Writing the West (named in honor of Willa Cather), and The Ogallala Road has won the Booklist Editors’ Choice Award, Colorado Authors’ League Award for Creative Nonfiction, and the Kansas Notable Book Award. It has been reviewed in the New York Times and was an Elle Magazine Readers’ Pick. For links to radio and television interviews with Julene, visit her website.

Listen now as Julene Bair reads the scene from The Ogallala Road in which she swims in the tail-water pit and remembers swimming in the stock tank.


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064: Elvis Costello: "Veronica"

Mon, Dec 07, 2015

This week on StoryWeb: Elvis Costello’s song “Veronica.”

This episode is dedicated to my sister, Julia Burrows, in honor of her birthday.

It was my sister, Julia, who recently pointed out to me that Elvis Costello’s “Veronica” is not just a light-hearted pop song. I had never paid the song much mind, and I had assumed Costello was singing about a girl, the object of his desire.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Written by Costello in collaboration with Paul McCartney, “Veronica” – Costello’s first big hit in the United States – is actually the story of his grandmother’s slide into Alzheimer’s. In interviews, Costello – a British rocker known for other hits, such as “Alison” and “Watching the Detectives” – has described spending time with his ailing grandmother and wondering what was happening for her in her mind as he was visiting with her.

If you read the song’s lyrics closely, you’ll see that he captures his grandmother at various stages in her life, including her youth 65 years prior to the song. In an interview with the BBC, Costello said,

I wanted to write a song about this old person sitting there and appearing to be completely gone, as we say, but really coming and going and sometimes being completely lucid — but not making it a sentimental song. I wanted it to be sort of defiant and happy, as if it was about a very young girl who was just starting out her life. I really took a lot of it from when I was talking with my grandmother, when I went to visit her during the last few years of her life. It’s like a love song in a way for her, but written as if it’s about a young girl. The pop music thing bears that up — people will hear the song and maybe say, “Oh yeah, it’s about this young girl Veronica,” and then maybe listen a little bit more. I’m not making any big point, it’s just a little bit of hope and a love song from me.

Several commentators point out that, given the topic, the lyrics could easily have been maudlin or sad – but instead they seem to me to stay life-affirming. I have always thought that our names, how we prefer to be known to the world, are precious, something to be cherished, used by others as a kind of talisman when they want to engage us. Elvis Costello captures this so beautifully at the end of the song: “You can call me anything you like, / But my name is Veronica.” I understand this completely. I am Linda, and my sister is Julia.

There’s a Paul McCartney story song that does devolve into the maudlin. I know many people love the song “Eleanor Rigby,” but it has always seemed to me to be overdone, too full of pity. But in “Veronica,” Paul McCartney and Elvis Costello get it just right. Though the dementia is there, though we see a once-vibrant woman in decline, there is also a celebration of her life, her Veronica-ness The upbeat music certainly underscores the life-affirming nature of the song. You can learn even more about the song at the “American Songwriter” website.

Costello released “Veronica” on his 1989 album, Spike. I also love Costello’s 1977 debut album, My Aim Is True, and of course, you can’t go wrong with The Best of Elvis Costello. To go even further in your exploration of Elvis Costello, you’ll want to read his new memoir, Unfaithful Music and Disappearing Ink, and listen to the companion two-CD set, Unfaithful Music (which includes “Veronica”).

For links to all these resources and to watch Elvis Costello’s award-winning video for “Veronica” – which begins with a monologue from Costello about his grandmother – visit www.thestoryweb.com/costello.


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063: Malik Bendjelloul: "Searching for Sugar Man"

Mon, Nov 30, 2015

This week on StoryWeb: Malik Bendjelloul’s film “Searching for Sugar Man.”

If you haven’t seen Malik Bendjelloul’s 2012 documentary, Searching for Sugar Man, run right out, buy it, and watch it now! Not surprisingly, this incredible film won numerous awards, including the 2013 Oscar for Best Documentary Feature.

Searching for Sugar Man tells the nearly unknown story of Sixto Diaz Rodriguez, a Mexican-American singer/songwriter born in Detroit. He recorded albums in the late 1960s and early 1970s. While his recordings soared to popularity in South Africa, his music fell into utter obscurity in the United States. In fact, unless you’ve seen Bendjelloul’s documentary, you likely haven’t heard of Rodriguez. When you do learn about him in this film (which showcases plenty of his phenomenal music), I believe you’ll be as taken with him as I am and as millions of people outside America have been for almost 50 years.

But beyond the powerful personal story of Rodriguez, this film also shines due to the outstanding direction, writing, and filmmaking of first-time Swedish filmmaker Malik Bendjelloul. Layered in its telling, Searching for Sugar Man moves back and forth between two plots. Along with two Cape Town fans (Stephen “Sugar” Segerman and Craig Bartholomew Strydon), Bendjelloul goes on a seemingly insurmountable quest to find Rodriguez. The other plot traces the story of Rodriguez’s life, rise to fame, and fall into obscurity. I can’t say enough about how beautifully this film is made. It is both captivating and awe-inspiring.

By the end of the film, you’ll have not only a new favorite musician (Rodriguez!), but you’ll be in on a great mystery – and you’ll have followed along as the mystery is solved. Bendjelloul’s quest is global. From Sweden to South Africa to Detroit, he travels the world, leaving no stone unturned in his journey to find the elusive Rodriguez.

A musician and a mystery – how can you go wrong?

Ready for the film? Buy the DVD! Learn more about it at the film’s official website and in the New York Times review of the film. A particularly insightful article was published by The Hollywood Reporter after Bendjelloul’s suicide in 2014.

Ready to hear Rodriguez’s music for yourself? Buy the film’s soundtrack CD, or better yet, add the CD reissue of Cold Fact to your collection. Once “Sugar Man” gets in your head, you’ll be humming it all the time! Learn more about the revival of Rodriguez’s career at his official website – and check out Rolling Stone’s article “Rodriguez: 10 Things You Don’t Know about the ‘Searching for Sugar Man’ Star.”

And if you just can’t get enough of this amazing story, you’ll want to read the new book from Segerman and Bartholomew Strydon, Sugar Man: The Life, Death, and Resurrection of Sixto Rodriguez.

For links to all these resources, to watch the trailer for the film, and to hear Rodriguez sing “Sugar Man,” visit www.thestoryweb.com/bendjelloul.


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062: Doug Van Gundy: "A Beautiful Jar of Jelly"

Mon, Nov 23, 2015

This week on StoryWeb: Doug Van Gundy’s poem “A Beautiful Jar of Jelly.”

I have so many beautiful memories of my fifteen years in West Virginia. Among them are listening to friends play old-time music, sharing stories and poems with them, sitting with them on front porches and back porches and in kitchens, eating rhubarb crisp made from their grandmother’s recipe. Indeed, some of my most beloved storytellers are folks I met when I lived in West Virginia.

In past issues of StoryWeb, I’ve sung the praises of other West Virginians – Hazel Dickens, Louise McNeill, and Kirk Judd. But one of my absolute favorite storytellers is poet and musician Doug Van Gundy. Doug is an integral part of my West Virginia memories – and it is his beautiful wife, Melissa, who made the rhubarb crisp with the recipe passed down through her family. When I met Doug, he lived in Marlinton, West Virginia, in stunningly beautiful Pocahontas County. He now lives in his hometown of Elkins, West Virginia, and teaches in Buckhannon in both the BA and MFA writing programs at West Virginia Wesleyan College.

Doug’s music and Doug’s words are woven through the fabric of West Virginia culture life.

He is an outstanding old-time fiddler – and can hold his own with anyone on this quintessential West Virginia instrument. He apprenticed with Mose Coffman, played with NEA National Heritage Fellow Melvin Wine and with the acclaimed musician Dwight Diller, and he recorded a 1999 CD with the young fiddler Jake Krack. He now plays fiddle, guitar, mandolin, and harmonica with Paul Gartner in Born Old, an old-time string band. He has been featured on two other CDs, in several short films, and on National Public Radio’s outstanding show, Mountain Stage, recorded in West Virginia. You can hear clips of Doug’s music on his website.

Doug is also well known and well loved as a poet. His poems, essays, and reviews have appeared in The Oxford American, Poems & Plays, Ecotone, Appalachian Heritage, and Poetry Salzburg Review. His poems have been included in Wild Sweet Notes: Fifty Years of West Virginia Poetry (edited by Kirk Judd and Barbara Smith), and Doug is currently co-editing a forthcoming anthology of contemporary writing from West Virginia.

Doug’s greatest claim to literary fame is his first collection of poems, A Life Above Water, published in 2007 by Red Hen Press. This fine book includes my favorite of Doug’s poems, “A Beautiful Jar of Jelly.”

Though it tells of sitting on a porch in summertime (calling to my mind memories of sitting on Melvin Wine’s porch as he played the fiddle), “A Beautiful Jar of Jelly” seems appropriate for Thanksgiving, too. There’s just something about preserving family memories that links us to the past and helps us find our way forward. Doug’s poem reminds me of Kentuckian George Ella Lyon’s poem “Where I’m From,” but the voice in “A Beautiful Jar of Jelly” is powerfully, uniquely his own.

For links to all these resources and to find a link to his website, visit www.thestoryweb.com/vangundy.

Listen now as Doug Van Gundy reads “A Beautiful Jar of Jelly,” recorded just for StoryWeb!

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061: Dave Isay: "Listening Is an Act of Love"

Mon, Nov 16, 2015

This week on StoryWeb: Dave Isay’s book “Listening Is an Act of Love.”


“. . . [I]f we take the time to listen, we’ll find wisdom, wonder, and poetry in the lives and stories of the people all around us. . . . [W]e all want to know our lives have mattered and we won’t ever be forgotten.”


So says radio producer Dave Isay in his 2008 book, Listening Is an Act of Love: A Celebration of American Life from the StoryCorps Project. The book highlights just fifty of the more than sixty thousand stories that have been recorded through the StoryCorps Project since it began in 2003. StoryCorps is the largest single collection of human voices ever recorded.


The idea is simple: ask someone you love to tell you stories from her life and record the stories as she tells them.


So simple yet so powerful.


StoryCorps is the brainchild of Dave Isay, a legendary figure in radio documentary. Isay has received five Peabody Awards for his work and has also been a MacArthur Fellow and a Guggenheim Fellow. Recently, he won the tenth anniversary TED Prize, which came with a million-dollar award.


Inspired by the 1930s Works Progress Administration recordings of oral history interviews with Americans from all walks of life, Isay wanted to make it possible for contemporary Americans to tell their stories – with a twist.


Another dimension could be added, he felt, if close relatives and friends interviewed each other rather than having professional ethnographers collect the stories. Husbands interviewing wives, children interviewing parents, neighbors interviewing neighbors – anyone who has an interest in learning the story of someone in his life can bring that person to a StoryCorps booth and record a forty-minute, one-on-one conversation.


“Citizen interviews,” as they’re called, have an immediacy and intimacy that listeners everywhere find compelling. In fact, the stories that are played each Friday on NPR’s Morning Edition are among the show’s most popular features.


To ensure that the StoryCorps projects will be preserved, volunteers are asked to sign releases to have their recordings archived at the Library of Congress. More than ninety-five percent have said yes.


The impact, says Isay, is incalculable: “I’ve come to believe that there’s something of the soul captured in the human voice and that an audio recording is one of the most intimate and powerful records one can leave behind.”


Listening Is an Act of Love features a history of the StoryCorps project, fifty interviews representing a range of experiences from family and work to stories of 9/11, and an easy-to-follow set of instructions for recording your own StoryCorps-style interview.


Wondering how you can participate in StoryCorps? Next week is your chance. Friday, November 27, will be the annual, StoryCorps-hosted National Day of Listening. It was created as an alternative to Black Friday. What better way to spend Thanksgiving weekend than listening to a loved one tell you the story of his life! Learn more about the event – also known as the Great Thanksgiving Listen – and find out how to download the app and upload your story to the “Wall of Listening.”


Other volumes of StoryCorps interviews include Ties That Bind: Stories of Love and Gratitude from the First Ten Years of StoryCorps, Mom: A Celebration of Mothers from StoryCorps, All There Is: Love Stories from StoryCorps, and Callings: The Purpose and Passion of Work.


The epigraph to Listening Is an Act of Love comes from the great American folklorist Alan Lomax: “The essence of America lies not in the headlined heroes . . . but in the everyday folks who live and die unknown, yet leave their dreams as legacies.” StoryCorps is a fantastic way to honor and preserve the lives of those around us, our everyday heroes.


For links to all these resources and to watch the TED talk Dave Isay gave when he won the TED Prize for 2015, visit www.thestoryweb.com/isay.



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060: Tim O'Brien: "The Things They Carried"

Mon, Nov 09, 2015

This week on StoryWeb: Tim O’Brien’s book “The Things They Carried.”

In any war story, but especially a true one, it's difficult to separate what happened from what seemed to happen. What seems to happen becomes its own happening and has to be told that way. The angles of vision are skewed. . . . The pictures get jumbled; you tend to miss a lot. And then afterward, when you go to tell about it, there is always that surreal seemingness, which makes the story seem untrue, but which in fact represents the hard and exact truth as it seemed.

 This excerpt from “How to Tell a True War Story” appears in Tim O’Brien’s 1990 book, The Things They Carried.

Like Ernest Hemingway’s 1925 book In Our Time, which tells the pre-story, story, and post-story of World War I and its “time” in America and Europe, Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried tells the before, during, and after of America and the Vietnam War. Last week, I talked about In Our Time. This week, as we mark Veterans Day, I appreciate both In Our Time and The Things They Carried and the way they challenge us to think about the horrors of war.

There are so many clues that O’Brien had Hemingway’s book in mind.

Like Hemingway, O’Brien uses a semi-autobiographical recurring main character throughout the book. Is it live, or is it Memorex? Is this Tim O’Brien speaking – or Tim O’Brien? An actual person named Tim O’Brien or a fictional character who happens to be named Tim O’Brien?

Like Hemingway, O’Brien shatters his book into fragments – but while Hemingway was inspired by the modernist movement, O’Brien was quite obviously influenced by the postmodernist movement. So in addition to being fragmented, O’Brien’s book is also “about” itself, about war stories and what makes them, about how we construct our sense of who we are. To use a word that came to the fore during the postmodern movement, The Things They Carried is very “meta.”

Like In Our Time, The Things They Carried has pieces that stand fully on their own (read the title story, for example, to see what I mean), but when taken all together, the pieces have a much deeper resonance.

And where Hemingway brought World War I to life in all its horror, O’Brien vividly makes us see and experience the horrors of Vietnam. In fact, The Things They Carried has really become the classic statement about and exploration of the Vietnam War – from those who contemplated dodging the draft to privates who slogged through the jungle with far too much to “carry.”

Two stories stand out for me: “The Things They Carried” and “On the Rainy River,” about O’Brien’s experience of nearly escaping to Canada so he could dodge the draft. Both are certainly worth your time – but then again, the entire book is worth a careful read.

I also want to give a shout-out to my former student and friend Chris Shugrue, whose 2014 chapbook, Straw Writes, is deeply influenced by The Things They Carried. It’s great to look back on the course I taught on the Modern Novel and the Postmodern Novel, our pairing in the course of In Our Time and The Things They Carried, and the way Chris built on our explorations in that course. In a recent interview, Chris said,

Straw Writes is a response to Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, which I think is a response to Hemingway’s In Our Time. So Straw Writes is a response to both those works, an attempt to continue the conversation started by Hemingway and picked up by O’Brien. I’m fascinated by the idea of writers speaking to each other through the written word across time and space, and Straw Writes is definitely infused with that spirit. Scrape away the text and you’ll see I’m attempting to conjure up conversation with quite a few writers, alive or otherwise.

Those who know Chris won’t be surprised to discover strong echoes of Walt Whitman and Allen Ginsberg in his book as well.

Ready to read The Things They Carried and to learn more about it? You can read it for free online – or take the plunge and buy a hard copy. The National Endowment for the Arts focused one of its Big Reads on The Things They Carried – and you won’t be disappointed at the rich resources they provide. Mental Floss offers “12 Harrowing Facts about ‘The Things They Carried.’” You might want to visit the Pen America website to learn why The Things They Carried has been a banned book. (You can read about other banned books on StoryWeb: see the Maya Angelou post for more on this topic.) If you want to explore the Hemingway/O’Brien connection in depth, check out Alex Vernon’s 2004 book, Soldiers Once and Still: Ernest Hemingway, James Salter, and Tim O’Brien. An excellent discussion of In Our Time and The Things They Carried can be found in a special edition of the War, Literature, and the Arts journal.

For links to all these resources and to watch Tim O’Brien read “Ambush,” one of the stories in The Things They Carried, visit www.thestoryweb.com/obrien.

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059: Ernest Hemingway: "In Our Time"

Mon, Nov 02, 2015

This week on StoryWeb: Ernest Hemingway’s book “In Our Time.”


Ernest Hemingway’s 1925 book, In Our Time, is a powerful collection of short stories and vignettes. I think of it as the first “composite novel” (or “short story cycle”) – the prototype of a genre that would become increasingly popular throughout the 20th century.


Composed and published over a period of years, both in England and in the United States, In Our Time is a fragmented montage, a modernist take on the experiences of Americans, Brits, and Europeans in the 1910s and 1920s. In fact, some people claim it is the prose equivalent of T.S. Eliot’s 1922 modernist poem, “The Waste Land.”


Although In Our Time can be accurately described as a book about World War I, it begins far before the war does when the recurring main character, Nick Adams, is a boy living on the upper peninsula of Michigan (the very area where an Oak Park, Illinois, born-and-bred Hemingway spent his boyhood summers). An alter ego for Hemingway (or a semi-autobiographical stand-in for him), Nick Adams comes into his young manhood, presumably serves in the war, and then comes home to try to pick up the pieces.


But the narrative arc isn’t as simple and straightforward as that. For along the way, other characters – completely unconnected to Nick Adams and appearing in widely varying places – take turns on center stage. There are alienated expatriates in Europe after the war, and perhaps most memorably, there is Krebs, a soldier returned home to Oklahoma. He flounders in his unsuccessful attempt to return to small-town life.


For my money, perhaps the most powerful aspect of In Our Time is the series of brief, often violent and graphic vignettes spliced between the stories. Even as we meet the young Nick, who travels by canoe with his physician father in “Indian Camp” to deliver an Indian woman of her baby, we’re jolted forward into a harrowing scene of mass evacuation in Turkey. No sooner do we learn of a refugee giving birth during the evacuation than we’re back to an adolescent Nick observing the tense relationship between his mother and father in “The Doctor and the Doctor’s Wife.”


Back and forth we go, from Nick to expats to Krebs and back to Nick, all the while getting glimpses of the horrors of the war.


In taking us through this hell, Hemingway illustrates – vividly, powerfully – his “time.” It’s as if he saying, “In our time this is what we are experiencing, what we are facing. These are our ghosts, our demons.”


Will we be able to recover from the ravages of the war to end all wars? Hemingway offers Nick Adams as a test case. In a two-part story at the end of the book (“Big Two-Hearted River,” Parts I and II), Nick returns to the upper peninsula of Michigan, to his favorite camping and fishing spot on the Big Two-Hearted River. Nick clearly hopes a return to the natural world will set him right, but even here, far from the battlefields of Europe, the landscape is scorched, burned. Even the grasshoppers have turned black, as if charred. Will Nick recover from his war wounds? Hemingway doesn’t answer the question. He leaves us hanging, Nick poised to catch – or not catch – more fish in the swamp.


It is easy in hindsight to look at the violent end of Hemingway’s own life, to say that his suicide is proof that shell-shocked veterans did not recover. (Of course, Hemingway was not actually a soldier in World War I; instead, he was an ambulance driver on the Italian front. Nevertheless, he is perhaps the writer we associate more than any other with the Great War.)


But as with so much of Hemingway, it is too pat an answer to say that shell-shocked veterans did not recover. Does Nick recover? Did Hemingway recover? Did his compatriots recover? Did the western world ever get set “right” again?


Hemingway didn’t answer these questions – he couldn’t answer these questions. Instead, he asks the questions, leaves us to reach our own conclusions about “in our time.”


If you’re a long-time fan of In Our Time, you may want to learn more about its composition and development throughout the early 1920s. You can peruse the full text of the 1924 edition (warning: it’s quite a bit different than the 1925 American edition) or read the original 1925 New York Times review of the book.


More recent reflections on In Our Time can be found in The Guardian’s online book club, in the BBC Radio’s piece on In Our Time, Hemingway, and masculinity, and in the New York Times’ special feature on Hemingway.


For more on Hemingway, start by visiting the Hemingway Society’s website. No exploration of Hemingway is complete without a stop at his birthplace in Oak Park, Illinois, and a trip to his Key West home. Want to hear Papa Hemingway’s voice? Listen to his 1954 Nobel Prize acceptance speech.


For links to all of these resources, visit www.thestoryweb.com/hemingway.


Stay tuned next week for a StoryWeb feature on a writer who followed in Hemingway’s footsteps: Vietnam veteran Tim O’Brien and his composite novel, The Things They Carried. Together, In Our Time and The Things They Carried stand as StoryWeb’s two-part observation of Veterans Day.


Listen now as I read all of “Big Two-Hearted River,” both Parts I and II.

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058: Edgar Allen Poe: "The Tell-Tale Heart"

Mon, Oct 26, 2015

This week on StoryWeb: Edgar Allen Poe’s short story “The Tell-Tale Heart.”


Last Halloween, as the light was fading into dusk and the ghouls and goblins were getting ready to take to the streets, I re-read the first spooky story I ever remember reading: Edgar Allen Poe’s 1843 piece, “The Tell-Tale Heart.”


Curled up and cozy warm in my house on a chilly October night, I thrilled once again – as I had so many, many times as a 12-year-old – to the story of the “nervous” narrator obsessed with the old man’s “vulture eye.”


I hadn’t read the story in decades, but on that Halloween night, the story was still just as scary and riveting as it had been when I was a young reader. Sure, there were other stories at the time that captivated me – the recording I had of the story about the young woman with the black velvet ribbon around her neck, the thick volume of ghost stories I pored over again and again – but I always came back to “The Tell-Tale Heart” when I wanted to experience true terror.


Surely you, too, have read this short masterpiece – a perfect example of Poe’s philosophy of composition. A story or poem, Poe believed, should create one overarching effect – and every word should contribute to that effect. In “The Tell-Tale Heart,” the narrator’s obsession with the vulture eye and his mounting terror over hearing the old man’s beating heart drive the story to the wild confession at the end of the tale. It is a tour de force, every word building to the incredible end.


If you haven’t read “The Tell-Tale Heart” (or if it’s been years since you have), take a listen below. It will make you remember just how well Poe can spin a scary yarn, and you’ll want to read more. A great volume to have in your collection is Complete Stories and Poems of Edgar Allen Poe. If you still haven’t had enough Poe, check out Poe Illustrated, a collection of more than 100 images inspired by Poe’s work.


This Halloween, I’ll be diving into Poe’s work once again – and I hope you will, too!


For links to these resources, visit www.thestoryweb.com/poe.


Listen now as I read “The Tell-Tale Heart” by Edgar Allen Poe.


TRUE! --nervous --very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad? The disease had sharpened my senses --not destroyed --not dulled them. Above all was the sense of hearing acute. I heard all things in the heaven and in the earth. I heard many things in hell. How, then, am I mad? Hearken! and observe how healthily --how calmly I can tell you the whole story.

It is impossible to say how first the idea entered my brain; but once conceived, it haunted me day and night. Object there was none. Passion there was none. I loved the old man. He had never wronged me. He had never given me insult. For his gold I had no desire. I think it was his eye! yes, it was this! He had the eye of a vulture --a pale blue eye, with a film over it. Whenever it fell upon me, my blood ran cold; and so by degrees --very gradually --I made up my mind to take the life of the old man, and thus rid myself of the eye forever.

Now this is the point. You fancy me mad. Madmen know nothing. But you should have seen me. You should have seen how wisely I proceeded --with what caution --with what foresight --with what dissimulation I went to work! I was never kinder to the old man than during the whole week before I killed him. And every night, about midnight, I turned the latch of his door and opened it --oh so gently! And then, when I had made an opening sufficient for my head, I put in a dark lantern, all closed, closed, that no light shone out, and then I thrust in my head. Oh, you would have laughed to see how cunningly I thrust it in! I moved it slowly --very, very slowly, so that I might not disturb the old man's sleep. It took me an hour to place my whole head within the opening so far that I could see him as he lay upon his bed. Ha! would a madman have been so wise as this, And then, when my head was well in the room, I undid the lantern cautiously-oh, so cautiously --cautiously (for the hinges creaked) --I undid it just so much that a single thin ray fell upon the vulture eye. And this I did for seven long nights --every night just at midnight --but I found the eye always closed; and so it was impossible to do the work; for it was not the old man who vexed me, but his Evil Eye. And every morning, when the day broke, I went boldly into the chamber, and spoke courageously to him, calling him by name in a hearty tone, and inquiring how he has passed the night. So you see he would have been a very profound old man, indeed, to suspect that every night, just at twelve, I looked in upon him while he slept.

Upon the eighth night I was more than usually cautious in opening the door. A watch's minute hand moves more quickly than did mine. Never before that night had I felt the extent of my own powers --of my sagacity. I could scarcely contain my feelings of triumph. To think that there I was, opening the door, little by little, and he not even to dream of my secret deeds or thoughts. I fairly chuckled at the idea; and perhaps he heard me; for he moved on the bed suddenly, as if startled. Now you may think that I drew back --but no. His room was as black as pitch with the thick darkness, (for the shutters were close fastened, through fear of robbers,) and so I knew that he could not see the opening of the door, and I kept pushing it on steadily, steadily.

I had my head in, and was about to open the lantern, when my thumb slipped upon the tin fastening, and the old man sprang up in bed, crying out --"Who's there?"

I kept quite still and said nothing. For a whole hour I did not move a muscle, and in the meantime I did not hear him lie down. He was still sitting up in the bed listening; --just as I have done, night after night, hearkening to the death watches in the wall.

Presently I heard a slight groan, and I knew it was the groan of mortal terror. It was not a groan of pain or of grief --oh, no! --it was the low stifled sound that arises from the bottom of the soul when overcharged with awe. I knew the sound well. Many a night, just at midnight, when all the world slept, it has welled up from my own bosom, deepening, with its dreadful echo, the terrors that distracted me. I say I knew it well. I knew what the old man felt, and pitied him, although I chuckled at heart. I knew that he had been lying awake ever since the first slight noise, when he had turned in the bed. His fears had been ever since growing upon him. He had been trying to fancy them causeless, but could not. He had been saying to himself --"It is nothing but the wind in the chimney --it is only a mouse crossing the floor," or "It is merely a cricket which has made a single chirp." Yes, he had been trying to comfort himself with these suppositions: but he had found all in vain. All in vain; because Death, in approaching him had stalked with his black shadow before him, and enveloped the victim. And it was the mournful influence of the unperceived shadow that caused him to feel --although he neither saw nor heard --to feel the presence of my head within the room.

When I had waited a long time, very patiently, without hearing him lie down, I resolved to open a little --a very, very little crevice in the lantern. So I opened it --you cannot imagine how stealthily, stealthily --until, at length a simple dim ray, like the thread of the spider, shot from out the crevice and fell full upon the vulture eye.

It was open --wide, wide open --and I grew furious as I gazed upon it. I saw it with perfect distinctness --all a dull blue, with a hideous veil over it that chilled the very marrow in my bones; but I could see nothing else of the old man's face or person: for I had directed the ray as if by instinct, precisely upon the damned spot.

And have I not told you that what you mistake for madness is but over-acuteness of the sense? --now, I say, there came to my ears a low, dull, quick sound, such as a watch makes when enveloped in cotton. I knew that sound well, too. It was the beating of the old man's heart. It increased my fury, as the beating of a drum stimulates the soldier into courage.

But even yet I refrained and kept still. I scarcely breathed. I held the lantern motionless. I tried how steadily I could maintain the ray upon the eve. Meantime the hellish tattoo of the heart increased. It grew quicker and quicker, and louder and louder every instant. The old man's terror must have been extreme! It grew louder, I say, louder every moment! --do you mark me well I have told you that I am nervous: so I am. And now at the dead hour of the night, amid the dreadful silence of that old house, so strange a noise as this excited me to uncontrollable terror. Yet, for some minutes longer I refrained and stood still. But the beating grew louder, louder! I thought the heart must burst. And now a new anxiety seized me --the sound would be heard by a neighbour! The old man's hour had come! With a loud yell, I threw open the lantern and leaped into the room. He shrieked once --once only. In an instant I dragged him to the floor, and pulled the heavy bed over him. I then smiled gaily, to find the deed so far done. But, for many minutes, the heart beat on with a muffled sound. This, however, did not vex me; it would not be heard through the wall. At length it ceased. The old man was dead. I removed the bed and examined the corpse. Yes, he was stone, stone dead. I placed my hand upon the heart and held it there many minutes. There was no pulsation. He was stone dead. His eve would trouble me no more.

If still you think me mad, you will think so no longer when I describe the wise precautions I took for the concealment of the body. The night waned, and I worked hastily, but in silence. First of all I dismembered the corpse. I cut off the head and the arms and the legs.

I then took up three planks from the flooring of the chamber, and deposited all between the scantlings. I then replaced the boards so cleverly, so cunningly, that no human eye --not even his --could have detected any thing wrong. There was nothing to wash out --no stain of any kind --no blood-spot whatever. I had been too wary for that. A tub had caught all --ha! ha!

When I had made an end of these labors, it was four o'clock --still dark as midnight. As the bell sounded the hour, there came a knocking at the street door. I went down to open it with a light heart, --for what had I now to fear? There entered three men, who introduced themselves, with perfect suavity, as officers of the police. A shriek had been heard by a neighbour during the night; suspicion of foul play had been aroused; information had been lodged at the police office, and they (the officers) had been deputed to search the premises.

I smiled, --for what had I to fear? I bade the gentlemen welcome. The shriek, I said, was my own in a dream. The old man, I mentioned, was absent in the country. I took my visitors all over the house. I bade them search --search well. I led them, at length, to his chamber. I showed them his treasures, secure, undisturbed. In the enthusiasm of my confidence, I brought chairs into the room, and desired them here to rest from their fatigues, while I myself, in the wild audacity of my perfect triumph, placed my own seat upon the very spot beneath which reposed the corpse of the victim.

The officers were satisfied. My manner had convinced them. I was singularly at ease. They sat, and while I answered cheerily, they chatted of familiar things. But, ere long, I felt myself getting pale and wished them gone. My head ached, and I fancied a ringing in my ears: but still they sat and still chatted. The ringing became more distinct: --It continued and became more distinct: I talked more freely to get rid of the feeling: but it continued and gained definiteness --until, at length, I found that the noise was not within my ears.

No doubt I now grew very pale; --but I talked more fluently, and with a heightened voice. Yet the sound increased --and what could I do? It was a low, dull, quick sound --much such a sound as a watch makes when enveloped in cotton. I gasped for breath --and yet the officers heard it not. I talked more quickly --more vehemently; but the noise steadily increased. I arose and argued about trifles, in a high key and with violent gesticulations; but the noise steadily increased. Why would they not be gone? I paced the floor to and fro with heavy strides, as if excited to fury by the observations of the men --but the noise steadily increased. Oh God! what could I do? I foamed --I raved --I swore! I swung the chair upon which I had been sitting, and grated it upon the boards, but the noise arose over all and continually increased. It grew louder --louder --louder! And still the men chatted pleasantly, and smiled. Was it possible they heard not? Almighty God! --no, no! They heard! --they suspected! --they knew! --they were making a mockery of my horror!-this I thought, and this I think. But anything was better than this agony! Anything was more tolerable than this derision! I could bear those hypocritical smiles no longer! I felt that I must scream or die! and now --again! --hark! louder! louder! louder! louder!

"Villains!" I shrieked, "dissemble no more! I admit the deed! --tear up the planks! here, here! --It is the beating of his hideous heart!"




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057: Robert Frost: "After Apple-Picking"

Mon, Oct 19, 2015

This week on StoryWeb: Robert Frost’s poem “After Apple-Picking.”


Every fall, my family would make its annual pilgrimage to Eckert’s Farm in Grafton, Illinois, just across the Mississippi River from the St. Louis metro area. We’d drive over the river to Alton, Illinois, then take the Great River Road north to Grafton and the farm, where we’d pick apples to our heart’s content. At most, this usually meant a bag or two for each of us – just enough to enjoy the crisp, sweet, juicy fruit. After apple picking, we’d pile back in the car and return to Missouri via the Golden Eagle Ferry. Oh, how we loved crossing the river on the ferry! I can still smell that river air, can still call to mind the feel of the brisk October breeze on my face.


In his 1914 poem “After Apple-Picking,” Robert Frost features a farmer (perhaps himself) whose harvest of apples upon apples is far greater than the small u-pick harvest my family would gather. Frost’s farmer is overwhelmed by the sheer number of apples he must pick. As he falls into an unsettled sleep later that night, he dreams endlessly about apples:


Magnified apples appear and disappear,

Stem end and blossom end,

And every fleck of russet showing clear.

. . . I keep hearing from the cellar bin

The rumbling sound

Of load on load of apples coming in.


Indeed, so strong is his body memory that he not only dreams all night of continuing to pick apples but his “instep arch . . . keeps the ache, / It keeps the pressure of a ladder-round.”


I love this poem. As is so often the case with Frost’s poetry, it seems on the surface to be such a simple story – the farmer so “overtired” that he dreams of bringing in the harvest all night long. But when you dig deeper, there is so much more there. Near the opening of the poem, the farmer says:


I cannot rub the strangeness from my sight

I got from looking through a pane of glass

I skimmed this morning from the drinking trough

And held against the world of hoary grass.

It melted, and I let it fall and break.


Through this skim of ice, the farmer’s familiar world is distorted, made strange. As the farmer reflects on his day of picking apples and his unsettled night of picking still more apples in his sleep, the poem moves quickly and seamlessly from the daily, physical task at hand to larger questions of mortality. The farmer says: “I have had too much / Of apple-picking: I am overtired / Of the great harvest I myself desired.” What is enough? What is too much?


This wonderful poem, so appropriate for this time of year, was first published in Frost’s 1914 book, North of Boston. This second collection of Frost’s poetry put him on the literary map and established his reputation as a major poet. The definitive collection of Frost’s poetry is The Poetry of Robert Frost.


To learn more about Frost, take a virtual tour of places associated with his life. (Ten years ago, I spent a lovely day at Frost’s cabin in Ripton, Vermont, with my friends Kevin and TC Williams.) A good introduction to Frost’s work and philosophy can be found at the Poetry Foundation. If you really want to delve into everything Frost, read Jay Parini’s outstanding biography, Robert Frost: A Life – and check out the Robert Frost postage stamp (along with other U.S. stamps dedicated to American poets!).


As you approach the dark nights of October and November yourself, you may find it comforting to cozy up with a tasty cocktail. My friends Kathy Shambaugh and Deidre Morrison invented this cocktail, and my husband and I named it in honor of Frost. To make your own “After Apple-Picking” cocktail, mix 4 ounces of ice-cold apple cider with 1 ounce of caramel vodka and one-half ounce of vanilla vodka. Shake in a cold martini shaker filled with ice. Serve “neat” (no ice!). Yum!


For links to all these resources and to hear Frost read the poem, visit www.thestoryweb.com/frost.


Listen now as I read “After Apple-Picking.”


My long two-pointed ladder's sticking through a tree

Toward heaven still,

And there's a barrel that I didn't fill

Beside it, and there may be two or three

Apples I didn't pick upon some bough.

But I am done with apple-picking now.

Essence of winter sleep is on the night,

The scent of apples: I am drowsing off.

I cannot rub the strangeness from my sight

I got from looking through a pane of glass

I skimmed this morning from the drinking trough

And held against the world of hoary grass.

It melted, and I let it fall and break.

But I was well

Upon my way to sleep before it fell,

And I could tell

What form my dreaming was about to take.

Magnified apples appear and disappear,

Stem end and blossom end,

And every fleck of russet showing clear.

My instep arch not only keeps the ache,

It keeps the pressure of a ladder-round.

I feel the ladder sway as the boughs bend.

And I keep hearing from the cellar bin

The rumbling sound

Of load on load of apples coming in.

For I have had too much

Of apple-picking: I am overtired

Of the great harvest I myself desired.

There were ten thousand thousand fruit to touch,

Cherish in hand, lift down, and not let fall.

For all

That struck the earth,

No matter if not bruised or spiked with stubble,

Went surely to the cider-apple heap

As of no worth.

One can see what will trouble

This sleep of mine, whatever sleep it is.

Were he not gone,

The woodchuck could say whether it's like his

Long sleep, as I describe its coming on,

Or just some human sleep.

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056: Dorothy Allison: "Bastard Out of Carolina"

Mon, Oct 12, 2015

This week on StoryWeb: Dorothy Allison’s novel Bastard Out of Carolina.


The heroine of Dorothy Allison’s 1992 novel, Bastard Out of Carolina, says: “I sang to myself as I walked, sometimes out loud. Ruth Brown’s ‘Mama, He Treats Your Daughter Mean.’ Patsy Cline’s ‘Walking After Midnight.’ . . . Singing kept me from crying. Singing kept me walking. The spirit of meanness that had come up in me broke out in song and movement. I felt hateful but strong; mean but powerful.”


Powerful indeed. Sexually abused by her stepfather since the age of five, Dorothy Allison breaks the devastating silence of incest in her debut novel.


Ruth Anne Boatwright – called Bone by her family – is the novel’s heroine, but the novel is based in large part on Allison’s own childhood experiences. As it tells the story of the sexual abuse Bone suffers at the hands of her stepfather, the novel looks unflinchingly at the physical and psychological brutality and destruction such abuse leaves in its wake.


But though her stepfather, Daddy Glen, tries to silence and control Bone, it is through finding her voice that she ultimately claims her own life. By novel’s end, it’s clear that Bone’s healing will come through talking and singing with family members.


The Boatwrights – Bone’s mother’s family – are a raucous, quick-tempered, violent, passionate, and intensely loving family. Though the outside world defines them as “white trash,” the Boatwrights know that they are strong, “mean,” “powerful,” and “smart.” They weave their communal sense of themselves through telling stories, gossiping, cooking, and canning, visiting on each other’s porches and in each other’s kitchens, and above all, by listening to country music.


But everything changes when Bone’s mother, Anney, marries Glen Waddell. Threatened by the Boatwright family legacy, Daddy Glen doesn’t want his wife and stepdaughters “listening to all those stories Granny and Aunt Alma were always telling over and over again.” Instead, he demands silence from his new family – and as he beats Bone, he hisses, “Don’t say a word. . . . Don’t you dare.”


For a while, Daddy Glen succeeds in silencing Bone. She resolves not to say one word, not to scream. Perhaps, she thinks, it is her voice that causes the beatings. So desperate is she to remain silent that, in one scene when the pain and anger become too much, she puts her fingers in her mouth and bites down.


But if Bone is to heal and, ultimately, to survive, she must find her voice, tell her story – and she does this by talking and singing with her mother’s family. Taken away from her mother and Daddy Glen, Bone is held by a symphony of family sound. Uncle Earle tells family stories incessantly, “music, reminiscing, talking on and on.” Granny tells “legendary” tales in “her rough, drawling whisper,” “lilting songs, ballads of family, love, and disappointment.” And Aunt Ruth – Bone’s namesake – tells her family stories “to make sure I understood who our people were and what they had done.”


Ultimately, Bone finds her voice most strongly in the country music that plays on the radio, that forms the soundtrack to her life. A number of legendary male musicians pepper the novel – Hank Williams, Marty Robbins, Johnny Cash, Stonewall Jackson, Johnny Horton, Conway Twitty, the Monroe Brothers, and Elvis Presley. But it is the women Bone comes back to again and again – Ruth Brown, June Carter, Kitty Wells, Patsy Cline.


Living at her Aunt Ruth’s, Bone gets up every morning before anyone else and listens to the gospel hour, then the country hits. As she listens, she sings along: “I sang so quietly I could barely hear my own voice, but in my imagination my song soared out strong and beautiful.”


As Bone discovers her voice, so too does Bastard Out of Carolina serve as a final, empowering step in Allison’s own healing. The novel breaks the silence of incest and allows Allison, as survivor, to take narrative control over her own life.


Allison has published one other novel (Cavedweller) as well a collection of short stories (Trash), a memoir (Two or Three Things I Know for Sure), a collection of essays (Skin: Talking about Sex, Class, and Literature), and a collection of poetry (The Women Who Hate Me: Poetry, 1980-1990). All are well worth reading, but Bastard Out of Carolina – capturing as it does the power of the silenced voice breaking through – remains her masterpiece. Reading this novel when it first appeared in 1992 was transformative for me, and many years later I would come to break my own silence in my 2009 memoir, Power in the Blood: A Family Narrative.


To learn more about Allison, check out Conversations with Dorothy Allison, a collection of interviews with the South Carolina writer. You might also want to read “The Roseanne of Literature” (the New York Times feature on Allison) as well as Allison’s essay, “A Question of Class” (at the History Is a Weapon website).


For links to all of these resources and to watch a video of Allison reading a five-minute excerpt from Bastard Out of Carolina, visit www.thestoryweb.com/allison.


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055: Kirk Judd: "On Cranberry"

Mon, Oct 05, 2015

This week on StoryWeb: Kirk Judd’s poem “On Cranberry.”


October 1996.


Rachael Meads and I were producing what we thought would be Shepherd College’s one-time only Appalachian Heritage Festival. We knew it would be a great event, a dream come true, because we had so many of our heroes of Appalachian music scheduled to perform. Mike Seeger would emcee, and Hazel Dickens, Ginny Hawker, Tracy Schwarz, Dave Bing, and Jim Costa – all outstanding West Virginia musicians – would join Mike on the stage. We wisely decided to add literature as well. We invited two West Virginia poets whose work we had come to know and love – Sherrell Wigal and Kirk Judd.


As it turned out, the festival went so well that on the closing night Mike said from the stage, “Let’s make this an annual event.” And that’s just what we did!


This coming weekend, Rachael will produce the 20th Annual Appalachian Heritage Festival. Over the years, under Rachael’s consummate leadership, the festival has hosted both legendary musicians and those who are up and coming: Jean Ritchie, John Lilly, Gerry Milnes, Melvin Wine, Walker Calhoun, Kay Justice, Nat Reese, Jake Krack, Betty Smith, Sparky Rucker, Nora Jane Struthers, Carol Elizabeth Jones. The festival has become a veritable Who’s Who of Appalachian musicians.


Along the way, the festival has continued its celebration of Appalachian literature as well. Lee Smith, Doug Van Gundy, Rita Quillen, Sharyn McCrumb, Jane Hicks, George Ella Lyon, Denise Giardina, Silas House, Ron Rash, Homer Hickham, and many others have graced the stage. This year, the festival is hosting Nikki Giovanni and Sheila Kay Adams.


But I always hearken back to that first festival in October 1996 – and I remember vividly how taken I was with Sherrell Wigal’s poetry (especially her poem about her love of the word “linoleum”) and with Kirk Judd’s work as well. Kirk “performed” his poetry accompanied by fiddler Dave Bing.


Now I am pleased to see that Kirk will serve as the emcee for the 20th annual festival and even more excited to celebrate his recent publication of My People Was Music, a collection of his poetry that spans more than two decades. Included is a CD featuring Kirk’s spoken-word performances of his poetry along with acclaimed mountain musicians playing acoustic instruments on traditional mountain songs, as well as original tunes. Featured performers include The Bing Brothers, Danny Arthur, Dave Bing, Mike Bing, Tim Bing, Bob Shank, Pops Walker, and Sherrell Wigal.


Kirk is also the co-editor (along with Barbara Smith) of Wild Sweet Notes: Fifty Years of West Virginia Poetry, 1950-1999, the acting president of the Pearl S. Buck Birthplace Foundation, and a creative writing instructor at Allegheny Echoes. In 1998, I took the Allegheny Echoes creative writing class with Kirk and Sherrell and helped to create the group poem, “Sacred in Green.”


I have so many favorite Kirk Judd poems, but chief among them are “Visitin’ Charleston (for a Poetry Reading),” “The High Country Remembers Her Heritage,” and “On Cranberry,” which spoke to me when I was in the depths of a dark despair. In fact, I included several lines from “On Cranberry” in my memoir, Power in the Blood: A Family Narrative. Kirk’s ending lines – “God, I am alive! / I am shining in the everywhere, / the always of this world” – called me back to my place on this earth.


Visit www.thestoryweb.com/judd to learn more about Kirk and all of the other Appalachian musicians and writers who have been part of Shepherd University’s Appalachian Heritage Festival. And be sure to check out the link to Kirk reading his poem “On Cranberry,” with banjo player Tim Bing providing the musical accompaniment. The clip runs one short, but beautiful, minute!


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054: Maya Angelou: "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings"

Mon, Sep 28, 2015

This week on StoryWeb: Maya Angelou’s autobiography “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.”


Perched on a bluff overlooking the confluence of the Missouri River and the Mississippi River, I sat reading, immersed in a book that was brand new to me. Maya Angelou’s first autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, was published in 1969, and I was reading it in 1984. The book – the first in a seven-volume memoir – is set partly in my hometown of St. Louis (where Angelou was born in 1928), and I reveled in seeing my city brought to life. Though Angelou was black and I was white, I would ultimately discover that she and I shared more than a hometown.


Little did I know that Angelou’s book, so compelling and so honest, would become one of the most frequently banned books in America. As we celebrate Banned Books Week (which runs from September 27 through October 3), I want to sing the praises of this marvelous book, so often kept from the teenagers who would benefit from hearing Angelou’s story. In fact, according to the American Library Association, so notorious was the banning of Angelou’s book that “the display of . . . I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings in [a] miniature prison cell at the American Booksellers Association 1982 annual convention catalyzed the advent of Banned Books Week.”

According to New African magazine, “Efforts to ban Angelou’s book got it placed on the American Library Association’s list of the top banned books in the US. Between 1990 and 2000, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings was ranked number three on the list. Between 2001 and 2010, the book was ranked number six on the list of the most challenged and banned books.”

Why was this truthful, gripping, beautifully written book banned by so many schools and libraries? It’s a coming-of-age story, says New African magazine, that “details how the author survived rape, teen pregnancy and racism in America.” Here are some of the reasons the book has been banned.

Stopping young people reading I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is why the conservative Parents Against Bad Books in Schools group in Fairfax, Virginia, was formed.

Claiming it encouraged “profanity” and was filled with “descriptions of drug abuse, sexually explicit conduct and torture,” the group succeeded in having Angelou’s book banned from a Virginia school district.

Book banners were successful elsewhere in the US’s deep South. In Alabama, four members of the State Textbook Committee, which decides what books are allowed in local schools, asked that the book be rejected because, they said, it preached “bitterness and hatred against whites.”

And, in Poolesville, Maryland, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings was removed from the local high school reading list because, protestors charged, it was “likely to corrupt minors.” . . .

Despite the honours Angelou’s work received, the book banners have been relentless. In 2009 – in Huntington Beach, California – John Briscoe, a school board trustee, called for Angelou’s book to be removed from the school curriculum.

“It contains child molestation scenes, lesbian scenes, teen sex scenes and teen pregnancy scenes,” complained the Ocean View school board trustee at a city council meeting. “And these are not matters for children in middle school or any elementary school,” Briscoe added.


But of Angelou herself? Despite the pushback against her debut autobiography, she was one of the nation’s most celebrated authors. The “Banned Books Awareness” website reminds us that


I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings was nominated for a National Book Award, and in 1972, she was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for a collection of poetry. She’s won Tony and Emmy awards; and Grammy Awards for Best Spoken Word album in 1993, 1995, and 2002. At the request of President Bill Clinton, Angelou wrote “On the Pulse of Morning,” which she recited live at his 1993 inauguration as US President. She [was] awarded the National Medal of Arts in 2000 and the Lincoln Medal in 2008. President Barack Obama awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom to her in 2011.


Many people, throughout the US and, indeed, across the globe, mourned when she died in 2014.


In an interview near the end of her life, Angelou said, “Let me tell so much truth, I want to tell the truth in my work. The truth will lead me to all.” I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings was one of my influences when I decided to write about childhood trauma in my 2009 memoir, Power in the Blood: A Family Narrative. Oh, how I understand her desire to speak truth!


Curious about the book’s title? It is the closing line in Paul Laurence Dunbar’s 1899 poem, “Sympathy.” An important African American poet, Dunbar was just one of the many black writers, thinkers, and leaders who inspired Angelou throughout her life. She was particularly close to James Baldwin, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (who was assasinated on her 40th birthday), Malcolm X, and Oprah Winfrey.


If you want to read a riveting tale that has rocked the nation, look no further than I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Her other six autobiographies are great reading as well, but I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is a perfect starting point. And if you want to learn more about this “Phenomenal Woman,” check out the lengthy Wikipedia entry, the Poetry Foundation’s page on Angelou, The New Yorker’s article “Songbird,” and the Smithsonian Magazine’s interview with her. These are just a few of the many, many great resources about this esteemed African American writer.


Finally, if you want to explore other banned books this week, check out Frederick Douglass’s Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself (which was banned at the US prison in Guant?namo Bay), Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, and Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts.

Visit www.thestoryweb.com/angelou for links to all these resources as well as a link to a clip of Angelou reading the book’s Prologue and its first chapter.

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053: Myles Horton: "The Long Haul: An Autobiography"

Mon, Sep 21, 2015

This week on StoryWeb: Myles Horton’s book The Long Haul: An Autobiography.


I first encountered Myles Horton and his amazing work and teaching the first time I went to the Highlander Research and Education Center. Brand new to Appalachian Studies – and totally ignorant of most of the radical history of the region – I thought that Highlander was a folk school, that it taught arts and crafts. I was traveling with my friend Rolf Samuels, and I can remember getting to the tiny stop in the road called New Market, Tennessee. I thought we’d see signs to the school, but there was absolutely no evidence that it existed. We stopped at a gas station to ask for directions, but no one there had ever heard of a folk school in the area. Finally, either one of the men realized what we meant and gave us directions or we called Highlander and got directions, but somehow we found our way up a winding road to the modest sign for Highlander.


Candie Carawan met us and gave us a tour. Again, I was so unaware of social justice history that I had no idea she and her husband, Guy Carawan, had been the ones to popularize “We Shall Overcome” as a Civil Rights anthem. Nor did I know that Rosa Parks had gotten her activist training at Highlander or that, when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was accused of studying at a communist training school, it was Highlander  to which his accusers were referring.


For Highlander is not a folk arts school after all. It is a folk school, in the Danish sense – a school where the “folk” teach other and themselves. And folk have been doing that since Myles Horton started Highlander in 1932 as a place for labor unions to organize. Initially committed to the cause of the labor movement, Highlander eventually became one of the centers of the Civil Rights Movement. And in recent years, it has worked for environmental and social justice throughout the world.


The story Candie told as we walked from building to building took my breath away: how a young white man – Myles Horton – radicalized by his studies at New York’s Union Theological Seminary, had a vision to create a place where ordinary people could come together, share their experiences, learn from each other, and organize. Key to the Highlander method is cultural sharing: lots of music has rung out over the Tennessee hills. And the symbol of Highlander really got me: a rocking chair. For when activists gather at Highlander, they sit in rocking chairs in a circle, no one person higher in the pecking order than any other, and they talk and sing and rock.


But the highlight of that visit – as so many visits after – was seeing Myles Horton’s house at the top of the hill. Horton’s house has a wide, expansive view – but I was equally taken with the interior of the house. Horton, it appeared, had collected folk art from all over the world, particularly Africa, and I was fascinated by a man who had reveled in so many cultures. By the time I went there in 1995, Myles had been gone for years, but his spirit still lived on in his home.


Fast forward one year to 1996. I was taking a professional development class at Berea College. Taught by Helen Matthews Lewis, the three-week intensive course was for teachers and professors who wanted to understand and then teach the multicultural heritage of Appalachia. This class was utterly transformative for me – it opened my eyes to so much, not just to content but to an entirely different way of teaching.


Part of our class was a ten-day field trip through Appalachia – through eastern Kentucky, over to Cherokee, North Carolina, and back through eastern Tennessee. As we were crossing through the Great Smoky Mountains (where I had worked as a cook at LeConte Lodge eight years earlier), Helen asked if anyone would mind if we took a detour to Highlander. By this point, I knew that Helen lived most of the time at Highlander and that she had, in fact, been the acting director for two years after Horton’s retirement. Of course, all of us who were in the van said we’d love to go to Highlander.


Imagine my stunned surprise when Helen pulled the van up to Myles Horton’s house, which I immediately recognized from my visit the year before. “Why are we at Horton’s house?” I asked. “It’s my house now,” Helen said. It turned out that all the folk art in the house had been collected by Helen, not Horton.


After that first visit with Helen, I went back to spend time with her there on at least two occasions – and to learn more about Myles Horton and his legacy.


Helen gave me a video of Bill Moyers’s two-hour interview with Myles Horton. Titled “The Adventures of a Radical Hillbilly,” it brings to life many of the stories he tells in his 1990 book, The Long Haul: An Autobiography. The Moyers interview is powerful and compelling – and watching it in Horton’s house was made even sweeter when I realized it had been filmed on one of the house’s porches.

So what is all this about Myles Horton? Who was he, and why does he matter? He was a poor white boy from Savannah, Tennessee, who had the opportunity to go to Union Theological Seminary in New York City, where he studied with such luminaries as Reinhold Niebuhr. It is safe to say that Horton was radicalized at this seminary.


Horton came back to Appalachia determined to make a difference – and oh, what a difference he made! He began as a labor union organizer. In fact, my favorite story from The Long Haul is about the night a group of killers hired by a mill owner came to his Lumberton, North Carolina, hotel room intending to shoot Horton. In his inimitable way, Horton “organized” the killers and convinced them to go away.  


Ultimately, Horton’s most important work came through his co-founding of Highlander, an activist leadership school. First located in Monteagle, Tennessee, the school was eventually shut down by the state of Tennessee. It reopened in Knoxville, Tennessee, and then moved to its current location in New Market, outside of Knoxville. Starting with a focus on labor organizing, the school then moved on to supporting the Civil Rights Movement. An excellent history is available at Highlander’s website.


Horton’s autobiography – The Long Haul – is a great starting point for learning about his life and work. It’s an easy-to-read, accessible book, embodying the approachable spirit of Horton and his work at Highlander. After all, it’s all about sitting in a circle of rocking chairs, telling stories of our lives, playing and singing our music.


Another fantastic way to learn about Myles Horton is to watch “The Adventures of a Radical Hillbilly.” Nobody conducts an interview like Bill Moyers, and Myles Horton – progressive activist and teacher – was tailor-made for the equally progressive Moyers. Their 1981 conversation is rich, engaging, thoughtful. You can watch the entire two-hour interview on YouTube – or buy the DVD to have for your own collection. If you want to get just a taste of the interview and Horton’s organizing and storytelling, there’s a 7-minute clip in which Horton recounts the story of mill owners hiring a group of men to kill him when he was in Lumberton, North Carolina, supporting a textile workers’ strike. You can read the same story in Chapter Ten from The Long Haul.


If you want to dig a little deeper into Horton’s work, political theory, and liberation pedagogy, you should definitely check out We Make the Road by Walking: Conversations on Education and Social Change, a series of conversations between Horton and the great Brazilian teacher and thinker Paulo Freire.


Links to all these resources, including the Bill Moyers interview, are available at www.thestoryweb.com/horton.



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052: P.L. Travers: "Mary Poppins"

Mon, Sep 14, 2015

This week on StoryWeb: P.L. Travers’s “Mary Poppins.”


Ask my family, and they’ll tell you that my favorite movie of all time is Mary Poppins. I have watched it many, many times with my mother and sister – and have treasured it every time.


Yes, I know it’s a children’s movie. Yes, I know Dick Van Dyke puts on a terrible Cockney accent. Yes, I know the film departs radically from P.L. Travers’s series of Mary Poppins books (published between 1934 and 1988). And yes, I know Travers detested the film Walt Disney made in 1964.


Nevertheless, to me Mary Poppins is practically perfect in every way!


Let’s start with the last two criticisms. As made evident in the 2013 film, Saving Mr. Banks, Travers was horrified by what Walt Disney and the Sherman Brothers did “to” Mary Poppins. If you read any of Travers’s Mary Poppins books, you’ll quickly see the huge discrepancy between Travers’s nanny and Disney’s. Travers’s Mary Poppins is firm, no-nonsense, almost taciturn. Yes, she’s magical – but sometimes she doesn’t seem to be any better than the stern nannies she blows away at the start of the Disney film.


As far as Dick Van Dyke’s Cockney accent goes, yes, it’s horrible – but his singing and dancing and his physical humor all more than make up for his butchered Cockney. As a child, I relished the viewing during which I finally realized that Dick Van Dyke also played Mr. Dawes, Sr. He is simply brilliant as the tottering old man.


Finally, there’s the issue of this just being a children’s film. Like all good children’s literature, the Mary Poppins novels work for adults, too – and the same can be said of the film. It’s magical and compelling, fun and uplifting. Many of the film’s jokes – such as Mrs. Banks’s suffragette protests – are surely lost on children. Don’t get me wrong: there’s plenty here for children to love (and they do love it!). But there’s quite a bit of depth for adults to enjoy as well. And of course, Julie Andrews – in her film debut – is just outstanding as Mary Poppins!


Now there’s a new generation enjoying the Mary Poppins industry, this time around via the stage musical. Produced by Cameron Mackintosh and Walt Disney Theatrical, the stage show opened in London’s West End theater district in 2004; and from 2006 to 2011, the show ran on Broadway. The musical features some of the Sherman Brothers original songs from the 1964 film but adds some new music and lyrics by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe. As I discovered when I recently saw the Boulder Dinner Theater’s production with my nephews, Spencer and Trevor, the musical sticks a bit more closely to Travers’s books – though even here, Mary Poppins is jollier than Travers’s character.


Though I’ve read the Travers novels, enjoyed the musical adaptation, and seen Saving Mr. Banks, for my money the Disney film is still the version of Mary Poppins I like best. P.L. Travers is probably rolling over in her grave as I say that – but as Bert says in the film, “cream of the crop, tip of the top it's Mary Poppins, and there we stop!”


If you want to revisit your childhood, there are so many ways to learn more about Mary Poppins. Of course, you simply must watch the 1964 Disney film if you haven’t seen it in a while. (Want to be reminded of some of your favorite bits of dialogue? Visit the IMDB website!) There’s also a 3-CD set of the film’s soundtrack and additional goodies, including demos, newly recorded songs, and excerpts from interviews and meetings between P.L. Travers and the Sherman Brothers, along with storyboards, newly illustrated artwork, and an informational booklet. The original Broadway cast soundtrack from Mary Poppins: The Supercalifragilistic Musical is a must-listen. Believe it or not, Duke Ellington recorded songs from the 1964 film, and there’s even a karaoke sing-along CD!


Then if you want to discover the original Mary Poppins, read the P.L. Travers series: Mary Poppins (published in 1934), Mary Poppins Comes Back (1935), Mary Poppins Opens the Door (1943), and Mary Poppins in the Park (1952). There’s a wonderful 80th anniversary collection of these first four Mary Poppins books, and there’s also a boxed set of the first three.


Curious about P.L. Travers herself? I highly recommend The New Yorker’s article “Becoming Mary Poppins: P.L. Travers, Walt Disney, and the Making of a Myth.” And if you can stand a little more of the Disney take on Travers and her famous nanny, you might want to watch Saving Mr. Banks, starring Tom Hanks as Walt Disney and Emma Thompson as P.L. Travers. Keep in mind that the film was made by Disney, so you might want to dig a little deeper to learn more about P.L. Travers, especially since she was – to say the least – not a fan of Disney productions.


But no matter what version of Mary Poppins you explore, you’ll have to admit that she’s supercalifragilisticexpialidocious!


For links to all of these Mary Poppins resources and for a clip from the 1964 film (Mary’s initial arrival at 17 Cherry Tree Lane!), visit www.thestoryweb.com/travers.

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051: John Sayles: "Matewan"

Mon, Sep 07, 2015

This week on StoryWeb: John Sayles’s film Matewan.


“If storytelling has a positive function, it’s to put us in touch with other people’s lives, to help us connect and draw strength or knowledge from people we’ve never met, to help us see beyond our own experience. The people I read about in the history books and the people I met in the hills of Kentucky and West Virginia had important stories to tell and I wanted to pass them on.”


So says John Sayles, director of the 1987 film Matewan, in his book Thinking in Pictures: The Making of the Movie “Matewan.”


Based on a real event that took place in Matewan, West Virginia, on May 19, 1920, Sayles’s film is a fictional telling of this important event in labor union history. As we celebrate Labor Day, it seems fitting to remember this armed conflict between members of the United Mine Workers of America and Baldwin-Felts private “detectives” who were working on behalf of the mine owners to stamp out the union.


Sayles’s film is not a documentary – and he deviates from historical fact both in the characters he introduces (such as Joe Kenehan, the outside union organizer, played by Chris Cooper) and in the focus he places on the debate between violence and pacifism as a strategy for winning the union wars. Indeed, some viewers, such as historian Eric Foner, have criticized the film’s “absence of context, both historical and political.”


These viewers rightly point out that the “Matewan Massacre” was “only one episode, and by no means the most dramatic, in the long bloody struggle to organize West Virginia.” As John Newsinger points out in International Socialism Journal,


This particular phase, immediately after the First World War, was to culminate in the march on company-controlled Logan County by over 15,000 armed miners in the week-long battle for Blair Mountain, which only came to an end with the intervention of federal troops.


Even though Sayles’s film doesn’t tell the whole story of Mingo County and the mining wars, it nevertheless brings this important – but little-known – chapter in American history to life. Foner says,


. . . [T]he film’s greatest strength [is] its evocation of the texture of the miner’s world. Through music, regional accents, and numerous local characters, Sayles successfully creates a sense of the Matewan community. Visually, too, the film is remarkably effective, thanks to Haskell Wexler’s careful and deliberate cinematography. . . . It succeeds admirably in creating a sense of time and place.


And says Newsinger, Matewan is “a powerful fictional celebration of working class struggle and solidarity that made dramatic use of the historic Matewan episode.”


After you watch Matewan, you’ll likely want to learn more about the actual historical event, including the role played by Matewan chief of police, Sid Hatfield (played by David Strathairn in the film) and including the Battle of Blair Mountain. You might to visit www.matewan.com, the website maintained by the town. You might want to read Denise Giardina’s 1987 novel, Storming Heaven, which tells the story of the mine wars, with a particular focus on the Battle of Blair Mountain. And you’ll surely want to explore the music of West Virginia singer-songwriter Hazel Dickens, whose song “Fire in the Hole” is the theme song for the film and who is featured in the film as a Freewill Baptist singer. And when you want to learn more about the later history of coal miners’ labor activism, you’ll want to watch Barbara Kopple’s 1976 documentary, Harlan County, USA.


This week, I’ve got several video clips for you to view. In the first clip from the film, Joe Kenehan (played by Chris Cooper) explains the purpose of a union. He tells the miners: “There ain’t but two sides to this world: them that work, and them that don’t. You work. They don’t. That’s all you got to know about the enemy.” The second clip from the film features Hazel Dickens singing “Gathering Storm” at the funeral of a young miner who lost his life in the conflict. Finally, I highly recommend watching a short excerpt of John Sayles being interviewed by Amy Goodman on Democracy Now! He talks about Matewan and reflects on the current labor union movement.


For links to these video clips and all of the other resources I’ve mentioned, visit www.thestoryweb.com/sayles.


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050: Harriette Simpson Arnow: "The Dollmaker"

Mon, Aug 31, 2015

This week on StoryWeb: Harriette  Simpson Arnow’s novel “The Dollmaker.”

Chances are you may have seen the Jane Fonda made-for-TV adaptation of Harriette Simpson Arnow’s 1954 novel, The Dollmaker. It’s a decent adaptation, as far as made-for-TV movies go. But if you haven’t read the novel itself, you’re missing out on an often-overlooked masterpiece of American literature.

Arnow brings to vivid life what singer-songwriter Steve Earle dubbed the “Hillbilly Highway,” what scholars call “Appalachian out-migration” or the “Appalachian diaspora.” (See, for example, my friend Chad Berry’s book, Southern Migrants, Northern Exiles.)

Simply put, many southern Appalachians found they could not survive economically by staying in the mountains, and many of them moved to northern industrialized cities to look for factory work. Cincinnati, Baltimore, Detroit, and other cities became prime destinations for these mountaineers, especially during World War II, when they could get jobs in the defense industry. (You may also recall an earlier StoryWeb post on bluegrass singer-songwriter Hazel Dickens and her song “Mama’s Hand,” which tells of leaving home in West Virginia to seek work in Baltimore.)

Arnow’s heroine, Gertie Nevels, hails from the hills of eastern Kentucky. The novel opens with a scene in which Gertie, desperate to get her sick child to a doctor, flags down a car on the road near her house. From this gripping opener all the way through to the end of this long, rich novel, Gertie faces one heart-wrenching ordeal after another.

Not long after the child survives, Gertie and her husband make the difficult decision to leave their Kentucky home to move to Detroit, where relatives and friends have found work in the factories. They set up housekeeping in a company house – though “house” is too lofty a word for the structure they find themselves living in. A row house of sorts, the thin walls barely give them any privacy from their neighbors, and the “home” is situated in an industrialized setting. Cut off from the natural world they had loved so well in Kentucky, they and their five children are forced to pursue their lives in a barren, mechanized world. It will lead to heartbreak for all of them, especially Gertie.

I don’t want to give away the story, but I can share a few teasers. Gertie is a dollmaker, excelling at the traditional craft of the mountains. Given her artistic sensibilities, it comes as no surprise when she goes one step further and begins to carve a beautiful block of wood.  You’ll have to read the novel to find out what Gertie discovers in that block of wood.

The Dollmaker is a gripping, if emotionally difficult, novel to read. Arnow pulls no punches in her depiction of the Nevels’s life in Detroit, and her commentary about Appalachian out-migration is sad indeed. But the book is so well written and so compelling that it’s worth the tears you’ll shed reading it.

Visit www.thestoryweb.com/arnow to find a link to a five-minute clip from the opening of the TV adaptation of The Dollmaker, starring Jane Fonda as Gertie Nevels. (And if you want to read the opening chapter on which this scene is based, you’ll find a link to a page where you can read that excerpt. Finally, as a bonus, I’ve included a link to a video of a young Steve Earle singing “Hillbilly Highway” on “Austin City Limits.”

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049: Michael Radford: "Il Postino"

Mon, Aug 24, 2015

This week on StoryWeb: Michael Radford’s film “Il Postino.”


One of the world’s truly great poets, Chilean writer Pablo Neruda, serves as a supporting character in Michael Radford’s 1994 film, Il Postino (The Postman). The main character in this Italian love story is, as the title suggests, the postman, Mario Ruoppolo.


But for me, Neruda – who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1971 – was my initial draw to the film. Loving his poetry, I made sure to see the film as soon as it played the Shepherdstown Opera House (one of the best art-house cinemas in the D.C. metro area). That was more than 20 years ago, but the memory still comes back vividly.


I’ve seen the movie again since then, and each time, I am struck not only by Neruda’s poetry but even more so by Mario and Beatrice’s love story. Sweet and life affirming, their romance is the stuff of, well, the movies. Though it’s a fictional tale (with Neruda’s political exile to an Italian island the only factual part of the movie), it nevertheless brings Neruda to life and makes me long to travel to the Mediterranean.


One of the real treats in the film is watching Neruda coach Mario on how to write love poetry for Beatrice, the woman of his dreams. Neruda doesn’t write Il Postino’s poetry for him. Rather, he encourages Mario, mentors him, draws out his poet’s soul and poet’s sensibility.


If you are usually put off by foreign films with subtitles, don’t let that stop you from watching Il Postino. The story, the music, the scenery, the poetry are all spectacular in this gem of a film. After watching the DVD, be sure to check out the original motion picture soundtrack, complete with more than a dozen celebrities reading Neruda’s poetry. You’ll find spoken-word performances by Sting, Samuel L. Jackson, Madonna, and others. (If you want a cheat sheet, there’s a webpage where you can find the text of all the Neruda poems featured on the soundtrack CD.)


Has Il Postino left you wanting to explore more of Neruda’s poetry? Here are a few recommendations. Poetry Foundation features a number of Neruda’s poems – and if you’re looking to add to your book collection, consider purchasing Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair or The Essential Neruda: Selected Poems, published by City Lights.


While very much a revolutionary, Neruda was perhaps best known for his exquisite love poetry. How perfect, then, that he helps usher Il Postino’s love poetry into the world – and helps him win the heart of Beatrice.


If you want a beautiful and captivating love story, look no further than Il Postino. It’s no wonder it is one of the most popular international films of all time! Massimo Troisi, one of Italy’s most beloved actors, literally dedicated his life to playing Il Postino. He suffered from a life-threatening heart condition throughout the filming of the movie but was so committed to making the story (which he had originally brought to the attention of British director Michael Radford) that he risked his life to do so. Troisi died the day after the filming was completed.


Pablo Neruda, true love, the Mediterranean, and an actor’s heartfelt dedication – what more could you ask!


Visit www.thestoryweb.com/radford for links to these resources, a recording of Sting reading Neruda’s poem “Naked,” and six clips from Il Postino.


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048: Annie Proulx, "The Shipping News"

Mon, Aug 17, 2015

This week on StoryWeb: Annie Proulx’s novel, “The Shipping News.”

This episode is dedicated to Henry and Pam.

Annie Proulx is a master storyteller, and her work ranges widely – both geographically and thematically. Many will know her from her short-story-turned-feature-film, Brokeback Mountain, and associate her with Wyoming and the hard grittiness of the West. But Proulx explores other locales, most notably Newfoundland, in her work – and she looks closely at family dysfunction, love for the seemingly unlovable, and reclamation of the human heart.

At the core of all her work, whether in Wyoming or Newfoundland, is her willingness – indeed her zeal – to look unflinchingly at the human condition. Proulx’s work is not light reading: it calls for a dedicated, thoughtful reader, one willing to join Proulx in that unblinking examination of often unattractive characters.

For my money, Proulx’s 1993 novel, The Shipping News, is her great masterwork. I first encountered the book when I was visiting my uncle Henry Tate and his wife, my aunt Pam Tate. At their home in Marshall, California, just across the bay from Point Reyes National Seashore, we talked intimately and honestly about our family’s travails, challenges that would later come to life in my memoir, Power in the Blood. Henry and Pam were loving and open in what they shared, but there was such a history of family pain that it threatened to swallow us up.

Both of them insisted that I needed to read The Shipping News. They wouldn’t tell me why – but insisted I would understand once I read the book. I dove into the novel on the flight back to my home in West Virginia, and I was hooked immediately.

I loved Quoyle, the one-named protagonist. I loved his aunt, Agnis Hamm. And I loved Wavey Prowse, the fellow misfit he discovers walking the roads of Killick-Claw.

I loved the headlines Quoyle writes for The Gammy Bird. And later, when I reread the novel with my husband, I came to appreciate the sailor’s knots that open each chapter. I loved the Newfoundland setting, loved being immersed so thoroughly in a different place.

But mainly I loved the way Quoyle confronts the dark family past of the Quoyles (his famil’s surname) – and of course, I knew precisely why Henry and Pam wanted me to read it.

Near the end of the sprawling novel, Quoyle tells his aunt that he has determined he’s going to become a new kind of Quoyle. Inspired by his redemptive quest, I called Henry and said, “Let’s be a new kind of Tate.” We’ve been happily engaged in that journey ever since – and I am so glad to have Henry and Pam as fellow travelers on that journey.

While I highly recommend reading the novel, there’s also a good film adaptation, starring Kevin Spacey as Quoyle, Dame Judi Densch as Agnis, and Julianne Moore as Wavey. Spacey and Moore aren’t as homely as I had envisioned Quoyle and Wavey from the book, aren’t quite the sad-sack misfits Proulx paints – it is Hollywood after all. But the film nevertheless captures the spirit of the novel.

Ready to get started? Of course, you’ll want to buy a copy of The Shipping News, but while you’re waiting for your book to arrive, you can read Chapter 1 online. You might also enjoy a photographic tour of Newfoundland, created by The Guardian to accompany Proulx’s great novel.

You can find links to all these resources – and to Annie Proulx reading a two-minute excerpt from the novel – at www.thestoryweb.com/proulx.

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047: Flannery O'Connor: "A Good Man Is Hard to Find"

Mon, Aug 10, 2015

This week on StoryWeb: Flannery O’Connor’s short story “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.”


Flannery O’Connor may be an acquired taste. After all, the first time you read a short story like “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” you may find yourself so shocked by the turn of events that it will be nearly impossible to find the humor. In my favorite O’Connor short story, “Good County People,” the humor may be a little more evident – but again, the turn of events is so macabre that you don’t know whether to hide your eyes in horror or bust a gut laughing.


I vote for laughing out loud every time I read O’Connor – and I once struggled (gaily) through a classroom lecture on “Good Country People.” As I read the world’s funniest lines, I didn’t even bother to restrain my mirth. The students simply stared at me dumbfounded. They’d already been horrified once, when they’d read the story’s ending. Now here was proof that their professor was a sociopathic nut just like O’Connor. Horrified again.


But there’s more to O’Connor than precociously cute girls dancing like Shirley Temple or Bible salesmen named Manley Pointer (really, how can you not laugh at that?!). And there’s more to her than psychopaths shooting grandmothers and virginal 32-year-olds having their artificial legs stolen.


No, what O’Connor was ultimately after wasn’t simply humor (though she seemed to revel in her wit). Nor was she after gore for the sake of gore. No, what she was after was finding and then showing the reader “moments of grace.” A devout Roman Catholic, O’Connor was dismayed, even distresed, by what seemed to her the rather casual Christianity of her fellow southerners. “While the South is hardly Christ-centered,” she once said, “it is most certainly Christ-haunted.”


Again and again, she puts her characters in situations where they have to face their own mortality, their own existential hell, where they can either step up to the plate for a moment of spiritual grace or fail utterly in their quest for humanity.

Let me put it to you this way. Read O’Connor’s famous short story, “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” – or reread it if it’s been years since you’ve encountered it. When you get to the end, think about the Misfit and the grandmother – and see if her statement, “Why you’re one of my babies! You’re one of my own children,” doesn’t show the grandmother growing and expanding spiritually in the moment just before the Misfit shoots her. She achieves a kind of grace, a kind of salvation, despite herself.


Still not convinced? Read several of O’Connor’s short stories – “Good Country People” and “Revelation” are the ones I’d recommend – and see if you can’t spot the moment of grace in those stories as well.


O’Connor died when she was 39 from lupus. In her short life, she wrote two novels (Wise Blood and The Violent Bear It Away), two short story collections (A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Everything That Rises Must Converge), and hundreds of letters, marvelously collected in The Habit of Being (a book I highly recommend). In addition to her writing, she is known for her flock of peacocks, kept at her family farm, Andalusia, in Milledgeville, Georgia. She also raised ducks, ostrich, emus, toucans, and any sort of exotic bird she could obtain.


If you want to acquire the Flannery O’Connor taste, there are so many different ways to get started. First is the Library of America edition of O’Connor’s work. In fact, O'Connor was only the second twentieth-century writer (after William Faulkner) to have her work collected for the Library of America, the definitive edition of American authors. You’ll also want to visit the New York Times page on O’Connor, with links to tons of great resources about the southern author, and “Comforts of Home: The Flannery O’Connor Repository,” a fantastic website that highlights all things O’Connor. And check this out: the U.S. Postal Service just released a Flannery O’Connor postage stamp! When you’ve finally acquired a taste for Flannery O’Connor, you can show off your love for the southern author by sporting a Flannery O’Connor T-shirt.


You can listen to Flannery O’Connor read “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” The 38-minute recording is from her 1959 appearance at Vanderbilt University. You’ll find the link to the recording as well as to the other O’Connor resources at www.thestoryweb.com/oconnor.


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046: Charlotte Bronte: "Jane Eyre"

Mon, Aug 03, 2015

This week on StoryWeb: Charlotte Bront?’s novel “Jane Eyre.”


Charlotte Bront?’s 1847 novel, Jane Eyre, needs no introduction – you’ve likely read it or at least seen one of the film adaptations.


But oh, Jane Eyre needs to be celebrated, and it just needs to be part of StoryWeb – for isn’t it an all-time great story? The sad and lonely orphan girl turned governess becomes a woman of great compassion and spirit.


Who can forget the orphan Jane cast on the whims of distant relatives who don’t want her, escaping their scorn with a book in the window-seat? Who can forget Jane’s friendship with Helen Burns at Lowood? Though her friend is dying, Jane is steadfast. Who can forget Jane’s first meeting with Mr. Rochester? And who can ever forget their first kiss during the thunderstorm? Who can forget the wedding scene and all that happens after?


For those who haven’t read or seen Jane Eyre, I won’t share my favorite line as it far too easily gives away the novel’s ending. Suffice it to say, it’s an entirely satisfying end to a story of great passion. (And it’s one of the most famous lines in British literature. Guess you’ll have to read the book to get to its best line!)


Curious about the Bront? sisters, their brother, Branwell, and their father, Patrick? Visit The Victorian Web for a short history of the family. To explore in depth, check out the Haworth Village website, which features a full section on the Bront? family. You’ll learn about the gifted sisters who transcended the harshness of the surrounding moors by escaping into rich fantasy worlds. You’ll learn about Branwell’s unfortunate descent into alcoholism and opium addiction. And you’ll learn the amazing story of Charlotte, Emily, and Anne broke into the literary world – by publishing their works under the male pseudonyms of Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell.


If you’re looking for a good edition of Jane Eyre, try the Norton Critical Edition. Of course, if you can’t wait for your book to arrive, you can read it for free at Project Gutenberg. And if you’re curious about some of the “backstory” to Jane Eyre, you might want to read Jean Rhys’s 1966 novel, Wide Sargasso Sea, about Rochester and his first wife, Bertha, who hailed from Jamaica. It’s an imaginative “prequel” to Bront?’s classic work.


And finally, if you’d like to know more about the significance of Jane Eyre to 20th-century feminist interpretations of 19th-century women’s literature, you must read Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar’s 1979 study, The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination. You’ll discover that Bertha Rochester is not just a classic phantom character straight out of any good Gothic horror story – but that she also symbolizes so much more.


For links to these resources, visit www.thestoryweb.com/bronte.


Listen now as I read one of my favorite scenes from Charlotte Bront?’s Jane Eyre. The excerpt comes from Chapter 12.


One afternoon in January, Mrs. Fairfax had begged a holiday for Adele, because she had a cold; and, as Adele seconded the request with an ardour that reminded me how precious occasional holidays had been to me in my own childhood, I accorded it, deeming that I did well in showing pliability on the point. It was a fine, calm day, though very cold; I was tired of sitting still in the library through a whole long morning: Mrs. Fairfax had just written a letter which was waiting to be posted, so I put on my bonnet and cloak and volunteered to carry it to Hay; the distance, two miles, would be a pleasant winter afternoon walk. Having seen Adele comfortably seated in her little chair by Mrs. Fairfax's parlour fireside, and given her her best wax doll (which I usually kept enveloped in silver paper in a drawer) to play with, and a story-book for change of amusement; and having replied to her "Revenez bientot, ma bonne amie, ma chere Mdlle. Jeannette," with a kiss I set out.

The ground was hard, the air was still, my road was lonely; I walked fast till I got warm, and then I walked slowly to enjoy and analyse the species of pleasure brooding for me in the hour and situation. It was three o'clock; the church bell tolled as I passed under the belfry: the charm of the hour lay in its approaching dimness, in the low-gliding and pale-beaming sun. I was a mile from Thornfield, in a lane noted for wild roses in summer, for nuts and blackberries in autumn, and even now possessing a few coral treasures in hips and haws, but whose best winter delight lay in its utter solitude and leafless repose. If a breath of air stirred, it made no sound here; for there was not a holly, not an evergreen to rustle, and the stripped hawthorn and hazel bushes were as still as the white, worn stones which causewayed the middle of the path. Far and wide, on each side, there were only fields, where no cattle now browsed; and the little brown birds, which stirred occasionally in the hedge, looked like single russet leaves that had forgotten to drop.

This lane inclined up-hill all the way to Hay; having reached the middle, I sat down on a stile which led thence into a field. Gathering my mantle about me, and sheltering my hands in my muff, I did not feel the cold, though it froze keenly; as was attested by a sheet of ice covering the causeway, where a little brooklet, now congealed, had overflowed after a rapid thaw some days since. From my seat I could look down on Thornfield: the grey and battlemented hall was the principal object in the vale below me; its woods and dark rookery rose against the west. I lingered till the sun went down amongst the trees, and sank crimson and clear behind them. I then turned eastward.

On the hill-top above me sat the rising moon; pale yet as a cloud, but brightening momentarily, she looked over Hay, which, half lost in trees, sent up a blue smoke from its few chimneys: it was yet a mile distant, but in the absolute hush I could hear plainly its thin murmurs of life. My ear, too, felt the flow of currents; in what dales and depths I could not tell: but there were many hills beyond Hay, and doubtless many becks threading their passes. That evening calm betrayed alike the tinkle of the nearest streams, the sough of the most remote.

A rude noise broke on these fine ripplings and whisperings, at once so far away and so clear: a positive tramp, tramp, a metallic clatter, which effaced the soft wave-wanderings; as, in a picture, the solid mass of a crag, or the rough boles of a great oak, drawn in dark and strong on the foreground, efface the aerial distance of azure hill, sunny horizon, and blended clouds where tint melts into tint.

The din was on the causeway: a horse was coming; the windings of the lane yet hid it, but it approached. I was just leaving the stile; yet, as the path was narrow, I sat still to let it go by. In those days I was young, and all sorts of fancies bright and dark tenanted my mind: the memories of nursery stories were there amongst other rubbish; and when they recurred, maturing youth added to them a vigour and vividness beyond what childhood could give. As this horse approached, and as I watched for it to appear through the dusk, I remembered certain of Bessie's tales, wherein figured a North-of-England spirit called a "Gytrash," which, in the form of horse, mule, or large dog, haunted solitary ways, and sometimes came upon belated travellers, as this horse was now coming upon me.

It was very near, but not yet in sight; when, in addition to the tramp, tramp, I heard a rush under the hedge, and close down by the hazel stems glided a great dog, whose black and white colour made him a distinct object against the trees. It was exactly one form of Bessie's Gytrash — a lion-like creature with long hair and a huge head: it passed me, however, quietly enough; not staying to look up, with strange pretercanine eyes, in my face, as I half expected it would. The horse followed, — a tall steed, and on its back a rider. The man, the human being, broke the spell at once. Nothing ever rode the Gytrash: it was always alone; and goblins, to my notions, though they might tenant the dumb carcasses of beasts, could scarce covet shelter in the commonplace human form. No Gytrash was this, — only a traveller taking the short cut to Millcote. He passed, and I went on; a few steps, and I turned: a sliding sound and an exclamation of "What the deuce is to do now?" and a clattering tumble, arrested my attention. Man and horse were down; they had slipped on the sheet of ice which glazed the causeway. The dog came bounding back, and seeing his master in a predicament, and hearing the horse groan, barked till the evening hills echoed the sound, which was deep in proportion to his magnitude. He snuffed round the prostrate group, and then he ran up to me; it was all he could do, — there was no other help at hand to summon. I obeyed him, and walked down to the traveller, by this time struggling himself free of his steed. His efforts were so vigorous, I thought he could not be much hurt; but I asked him the question —

"Are you injured, sir?"

I think he was swearing, but am not certain; however, he was pronouncing some formula which prevented him from replying to me directly.

"Can I do anything?" I asked again.

"You must just stand on one side," he answered as he rose, first to his knees, and then to his feet. I did; whereupon began a heaving, stamping, clattering process, accompanied by a barking and baying which removed me effectually some yards' distance; but I would not be driven quite away till I saw the event. This was finally fortunate; the horse was re-established, and the dog was silenced with a "Down, Pilot!" The traveller now, stooping, felt his foot and leg, as if trying whether they were sound; apparently something ailed them, for he halted to the stile whence I had just risen, and sat down.

I was in the mood for being useful, or at least officious, I think, for I now drew near him again.

"If you are hurt, and want help, sir, I can fetch some one either from Thornfield Hall or from Hay."

"Thank you: I shall do: I have no broken bones, — only a sprain;" and again he stood up and tried his foot, but the result extorted an involuntary "Ugh!"

Something of daylight still lingered, and the moon was waxing bright: I could see him plainly. His figure was enveloped in a riding cloak, fur collared and steel clasped; its details were not apparent, but I traced the general points of middle height and considerable breadth of chest. He had a dark face, with stern features and a heavy brow; his eyes and gathered eyebrows looked ireful and thwarted just now; he was past youth, but had not reached middle-age; perhaps he might be thirty-five. I felt no fear of him, and but little shyness. Had he been a handsome, heroic- looking young gentleman, I should not have dared to stand thus questioning him against his will, and offering my services unasked. I had hardly ever seen a handsome youth; never in my life spoken to one. I had a theoretical reverence and homage for beauty, elegance, gallantry, fascination; but had I met those qualities incarnate in masculine shape, I should have known instinctively that they neither had nor could have sympathy with anything in me, and should have shunned them as one would fire, lightning, or anything else that is bright but antipathetic.

If even this stranger had smiled and been good-humoured to me when I addressed him; if he had put off my offer of assistance gaily and with thanks, I should have gone on my way and not felt any vocation to renew inquiries: but the frown, the roughness of the traveller, set me at my ease: I retained my station when he waved to me to go, and announced —

"I cannot think of leaving you, sir, at so late an hour, in this solitary lane, till I see you are fit to mount your horse."

He looked at me when I said this; he had hardly turned his eyes in my direction before.

"I should think you ought to be at home yourself," said he, "if you have a home in this neighbourhood: where do you come from?"

"From just below; and I am not at all afraid of being out late when it is moonlight: I will run over to Hay for you with pleasure, if you wish it: indeed, I am going there to post a letter."

"You live just below — do you mean at that house with the battlements?" pointing to Thornfield Hall, on which the moon cast a hoary gleam, bringing it out distinct and pale from the woods that, by contrast with the western sky, now seemed one mass of shadow.

"Yes, sir."

"Whose house is it?"

"Mr. Rochester's."

"Do you know Mr. Rochester?"