StoryWeb: Storytime for Grownups (2023)

174: Chad Everett: "Medical Center"

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This week on StoryWeb: Chad Everett’s TV show, Medical Center.

If only I could start with the theme song to Medical Center! If I were telling you this story in person, I’d risk humming a few bars, complete with an ambulance-like scream of notes. But alas, I’m left with mere words to conjure up for you the magic that was Medical Center, an hour-long weekly hospital drama starring Chad Everett as the hip, young Dr. Joe Gannon.

Chad Everett and Medical Center were literally my claims to fame when I was in college in the early 1980s at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, commonly known as UMSL. By this time, the 1970s-era television show was in late-night reruns. My boyfriend and I got hooked on the show when we’d catch it after getting home from our night shifts at work. We got home about 12:30, and Medical Center came on at 1:00. That theme song was a siren call of another sort, calling to us to put away the cares of the day and join Chad in fighting for the welfare of yet another patient. It became a game between us to see who could guess the outcome of the episode first, and I learned to play the theme song on my violin.

Both of us were involved in student government, and as we sat in the Student Government Association office one day, we wondered aloud just how ridiculous a group could get recognized by Student Affairs and become eligible for student activity funding.

My boyfriend seized on an idea. “Let’s propose forming the Chad Everett Fan Club of UMSL,” he said. “You can be president, and I’ll be vice president.”

The rest, as they say, is history. In no time at all, we developed a patter, a shtick about why a university needed a fan club dedicated to Chad Everett. We emphasized Chad’s appeal to pre-med students, theater students, and history majors who might want to trace Chad’s role in the country’s transition from the wet look to the dry look. For it was true: in the first season of Medical Center, Chad sported hair full of Brill Cream, but in the second season, he had hair blown dry into a perfect coif. And when anyone questioned the sincerity of our club, we’d sum up by saying that even a third-world country had named itself after Chad.

The club was – as we had suspected it would be – quickly approved as a recognized student organization, and while we never applied for funding, we could have. In the ensuing months, we held club meetings at our apartment and even got the Dean of Student Affairs in on things. We’d say, “Hi, Dean, how’s it going?” He would respond correctly, “We won’t know until we run more tests.”

Soon a story about the Chad Everett Fan Club was published in the student newspaper. (You can still read the original article online.) Then a national publication for university students, Nutshell, got in on the action. Before I knew it, Rip and Read wire dispatch, known for its zany stories, had picked up the news. It seemed the Chad Everett Fan Club was a sensation.

A month or so before graduation, I got an unexpected phone call. The woman calling introduced herself as Mira Velimirovic, a researcher for Late Night with David Letterman. It was 1983, and Letterman was still a relative newcomer to late-night TV. His show was a huge hit, so I couldn’t believe it when Mira said that she’d read the Rip and Read article about my club and that she wanted to book me on the show.

Everything happened at lightning speed. I sent Mira all the clips I had about the Chad Everett Fan Club, and we talked another time or two on the phone, as I regaled her with one Chad joke after another. I told her that yes, we did have club meetings and that club members liked to sport surgical smocks. (Conveniently enough, they were also a quite popular fashion item at the time.) I told her we were all thinking of getting vanity plates so that when we lined up our cars, you’d see “I’m only thinking of the welfare of my patient,” a sentiment Chad as Dr. Joe Gannon expressed in virtually every episode.

I made arrangements for my boyfriend to fly out to New York with me, and two of our friends – also officers in the club – drove across country and met us in Manhattan. We stayed – all four of us – in my room at the Berkshire Place Hotel. It was my first time to New York, and I was on cloud nine.

But I was nervous, too. I was going to be on national TV! The morning after we arrived, I got a call from the producer of my segment (who shall remain nameless). He wanted to chat about the segment, which would be taped with the rest of the show that afternoon at 4:00. I immediately launched into my Chad banter. The producer was silent on the other end of the line. Finally, he said we’d have to talk more about my segment later and that he’d meet me while I was in makeup at the NBC studios.

My boyfriend and I went to the studio – and our friends made their plans to be in the studio audience. As I was finishing getting my makeup on, here came the segment producer, wearing – of all things! – a green surgical smock.

We chatted for a couple of minutes, with me inserting my one-liners along the way.

Finally, the producer looked me in the eye and said, “Wait. Be straight with me. You are the president of a legitimate fan club, aren’t you?”

I held his gaze, not blinking. “No, it’s a joke. I’ve been very clear in all the things I’ve sent Mira and all the conversations I’ve had with her.”

It became painfully obvious that he hadn’t looked at anything I’d sent. Apparently, he hadn’t even talked to Mira.

He walked my boyfriend and me to the green room – and then said pointedly, “I’ll leave you here to think about what you want to do.”

The producer had made it clear that I needed to go on the show and act like the president of an actual, straight-up fan club.

My boyfriend and I sat in the green room, joined by character actor Calvert DeForest, who played Larry “Bud” Melman, a regular on the show. Also on hand was actor Daniel Stern. They’d be on the show as well that day.

Together, my boyfriend and I talked about what to do. No way was I willing to be the butt of my own joke. We finally decided I’d try to play things in such a way that viewers wouldn’t quite be able to tell if I was the president of a bona fide fan club – or not.

Dave announced me in his opening monologue, so this was really going to happen. I was really in the NBC Studios in New York City, and I was about to appear on one of the most popular television shows at the time.

As the time for my segment approached, I grew more and more nervous. I had been anxious enough about appearing on national TV, but now I had the added worry of figuring out how to play things.

At long last, I was brought to the staging spot – the place where you stand until you are tapped on the shoulder and told to walk on the set. My heart pounded. My throat was in my mouth, which of course was completely dry. How was I going to do this?

Suddenly, without warning, the segment producer was at my side. “Look,” he said, “we don’t have people like you on the show to be funny. That’s Dave’s job.”

I looked at him, waited.

“I’m canceling the segment,” he said finally.

“Thank God!” I breathed a huge sigh of relief.

“Why did you say that? No one’s ever said that before!”

I didn’t bother to answer. I’d had enough of this guy.

I returned to the green room just in time to hear David Letterman say, “Linda Tate’s been taken out back and beaten senseless.” When the audience groaned, he said, “No, no. We’ve simply run out of time. We’ll have her on a future show.”

With that, the show was over. We posed for pictures with Larry “Bud” Melman and Paul Shaffer, the band leader. David Letterman came backstage to greet me. Somehow in our brief conversation, it came out that I went to college full time and worked full time. “That’s not possible,” he said, completely dismissing my reality.

After the taping was over, Mira sought me out to see what had happened. I wasn’t in tears, but I was shaken up. Mira was outraged on my behalf, completely blamed the producer for not doing his homework for the segment. She went into their music library and pulled the Chad Everett record album the show owned. It was eponymously titled Chad. My boyfriend and I owned All Strung Out, the other of Chad’s two albums. Mira was delighted to give me the show’s copy of Chad – so now we had a full Chad Everett discography. Let me just say that it’s a good thing Chad was a decent television actor because he surely wasn’t going to make it as a singer. My particular “favorite” was Chad’s cover of “Ain’t No Sunshine.” A classic!

Mira wanted to do more to make it up to me, so she told me to take a cab all over Manhattan to see the city and to send her the bill. She would see that the show reimbursed me.

Over the years, I followed Chad’s career until his death in 2012. Though Chad had guest star roles on a number of made-for-TV movies, shows such as Murder, She Wrote and Touched by an Angel, and Airplane II: The Sequel, he never again hit it as big as he did when he played Dr. Joe Gannon. Even today, I would enjoy pulling up a seat in front of a TV playing Medical Center. It would take me back to our digs at Lucas-Hunt Village Apartments in St. Louis, those late nights when classes and work were done and all we had left to do was figure out how Chad was going to save the patient.

There you have it – a true story of your StoryWeb host’s first foray into mass media – bringing her love for Chad to national TV.

Want to add a few Chad collectibles to your own celebrity collection? You can buy the complete Medical Center series on DVD, a publicity poster of Chad, and vinyl versions of his record albums, Chad and All Strung Out. For more on Chad, check out Warner’s “16 Facts About Medical Center’s Dr. Joe Gannon, Chad Everett.”

Visit for links to all these resources and to watch a clip from a typical episode of Medical Center and to hear the Medical Center theme song. Finally, no celebration of Chad’s career would be complete without listening to his rendition of “Ain’t No Sunshine.” Find it at too.

Mar 25, 2018

173: Cynthia Morris: "Chasing Sylvia Beach"

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This week on StoryWeb: Cynthia Morris’s novel, Chasing Sylvia Beach.

What do you get when you combine time travel, intriguing literary history, Paris, and romance? Why, Cynthia Morris’s novel, Chasing Sylvia Beach, of course!

I know Cynthia from participating regularly in what she previously called Free Write Flings, month-long excursions that have “flingers” writing freely for fifteen minutes each day in response to various “prompts.” I’ve dipped into Cynthia’s Free Write Flings twice a year for the last several years – every October and February – to generate ideas for StoryWeb. Go behind the scenes with us to see how it works at Beth Hayden’s website. Note that Cynthia has just launched a new version of this month-long experience. It’s called The Devoted Writer.

Cynthia is a well-known and expert writing and creativity coach. Through her business, Original Impulse, she offers online workshops, individual coaching, books to help your creative practice, and travel opportunities. Based in Denver, Cynthia leads courses in Paris quite often, leading other creative spirits through the streets of her favorite city as they create illustrated journals.

But Cynthia is very much a writer in her own right. Can’t travel to Paris with Cynthia? No worries. You can get an intimate look at the City of Light through Cynthia’s 2012 novel, Chasing Sylvia Beach.

Sylvia Beach was, of course, the owner of the famed Parisian bookstore, Shakespeare and Company. Cynthia makes Beach’s 1930s Paris accessible to us nearly a century later with the magical twists and turns of highly delightful time travel.

When Denver bookstore clerk Lily Heller visits Paris in the present day, she’s captivated by the history of the city, especially all the literary lore. She imagines all of the ex-pat Americans writing and mingling on the Left Bank, often at Shakespeare and Company.

How perfect, then, when Lily slips through a crack in time and finds herself in the 1930s Paris she’s been dreaming of. As she clatters around Paris on her bicycle, we hold our breath with her as she encounters one amazing historical person after another and let it out again when she lands a job at Sylvia Beach’s bookstore.

Before long, Lily’s got a romance on her hands with Paul and a mentor in Sylvia Beach. Will she ever want to step back through the crack in time and return to her life in twenty-first century Denver?

You’ll have to read Chasing Sylvia Beach to find out where Lily’s adventures lead her. As you join her on the streets of Paris, you’ll feel like you’ve been transported back in time as well.

Learn more about Sylvia Beach at the Shakespeare and Company website. You can also learn why Cynthia has been obsessed with Sylvia Beach for years – be sure to check out the video of Cynthia talking about Beach!

And if you’re an aspiring or experienced writer, artist, or some other kind of creative spirit, consider joining Cynthia for one of her many offerings. Visit Amazon to buy your own copy of Chasing Sylvia Beach or stop in at Cynthia’s online shop and the Original Impulse library for resources that will nurture your creative life.

Visit for links to all these resources.

Listen now as Cynthia Morris reads from Chasing Sylvia Beach.

Mar 12, 2018

172: James H. Cone: "Martin & Malcolm & America: A Dream or a Nightmare"

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This week on StoryWeb: James H. Cone’s book Martin & Malcolm & America: A Dream or a Nightmare.

It has been more than 25 years since I read Rev. James H. Cone’s book Martin & Malcolm & America: A Dream or a Nightmare. I was teaching an English 101 course focused on the writing of the Civil Rights Movement, and I wanted to learn more about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X and to understand better the relationship between them, the intersection points, if any, between them. Of course, I’d already read Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech and his landmark “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” and I’d read The Autobiography of Malcolm X.

But it was James H. Cone’s 1991 book, Martin & Malcolm & America, that helped me to deeply understand how the two seemingly diametrically opposed civil rights leaders were actually two sides of the same coin. There was so much more to say than that Dr. King preached nonviolence and that Malcolm X advocated violence. Indeed, it was not even accurate to say that Malcolm X “advocated violence.” It was more that he advocated or understood the need for self-defense. Particularly in his softened views after his pilgrimage to Africa and to Mecca, Malcolm X embraced a position of love as much as Dr. King did.

Cone’s book tells the full story of Dr. King and the full story of Malcolm X and the story of their evolving relationship with each other’s viewpoints. It helped me to realize fully and deeply the important and crucial role both of these leaders played in the Civil Rights Movement as their messages resonated against each other, as they responded to each other’s critique and moved closer to each other’s ways of thinking.

It is far too easy for Americans today to embrace King’s words, to share in his vision of an American dream of racial justice and equality. Americans find King’s words inspiring – but also in many ways palatable, manageable, acceptable.

But many of us are still rattled by Malcolm X’s direct, hard-hitting, even harsh ideas, his assessment that blacks were living in a nightmare realized. In his earlier days, he denounced whites as the devil, though in later days he brought more love to his view of white Americans. Still, his words – both pre- and post-Mecca – are raw and unfiltered. They do give African Americans the right to fight back in self-defense. After reading and absorbing Malcolm X’s teachings, it is impossible not to see Frederick Douglass’s fight against the slave breaker Mr. Covey in any other light. He was fighting back in self-defense, just as Malcolm X would have called him to do. He was literally fighting for his life.

Rev. James H. Cone, who was a minister during the Civil Rights era, has been a professor at Union Theological Seminary in New York City since 1970. Though you might not know his name, rest assured he is a recognized intellectual leader in the fight for justice for African Americans. In a 2008 interview with Terry Gross on Fresh Air, Cone explains his theory of “black liberation theology,” which draws inspiration from both Dr. King and Malcolm X, as "mainly a theology that sees God as concerned with the poor and the weak."

Dr. King and Malcolm X met only once – and that was quite accidentally when they ran into each other in the halls of the U.S. Capitol building in March 1964. But their lives and philosophies and teachings influenced each other more than most of us know. If you want an excellent introduction to and exploration of the Civil Rights Movement and its two seemingly different leaders, I encourage you to read Martin & Malcolm & America, an outstanding comparative intellectual biography in every way. It changed my thinking and understanding profoundly and fundamentally more than a quarter century ago.

Visit for links to all these resources and to watch Rev. James H. Cone in conversation with Dr. Cornel West as they discuss West’s book Black Prophetic Fire. West’s book – written in dialogue with and edited by Christa Buschendorf – looks at the work of six revolutionary black leaders: Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. DuBois, Martin Luther King, Jr., Ella Baker, Malcolm X, and Ida B. Wells. You’ll also find a photograph of the only time Dr. King and Malcolm X met in person on March 26, 1964.

Feb 25, 2018

171: Malcolm X and Alex Haley: "The Autobiography of Malcolm X"

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This week on StoryWeb: Malcolm X and Alex Haley’s book, The Autobiography of Malcolm X.

Malcolm X wrote his famed autobiography in collaboration with African American journalist Alex Haley (most famous for his epic book Roots: The Saga of an American Family). If you are one of the many Americans who believe Malcolm X espoused violence, even hate, I urge you to read this compelling book. It reveals Malcolm X as a much more nuanced thinker and leader than depicted in mainstream media.

The Autobiography of Malcolm X resonates with so much other American literature before and after its publication in 1965 after Malcolm X was assassinated on February 21 of that year. Writing his first slave narrative more than a century earlier, Frederick Douglass emphasized literacy as the crucial key to freedom. Malcolm X, too, speaks of the transformation he experienced in prison when he came under the influence of a fellow inmate who inspired him to read voraciously and thereby educate himself. But Douglass also indicates that the physical act of fighting back against the slave breaker Mr. Covey was a turning point in his life as well. Similarly, Malcolm X, rather than promoting violence, reserved the right to self-defense, to fight back physically if pushed into a corner. Douglass’s story of transformation is pivotal not only because it tells how his journey to literacy liberated him but also because it was at the moment he defeated Covey that Douglass became a man – and Malcolm X builds on the tradition Douglass established.

The Autobiography of Malcolm X also looks forward to Jimmy Santiago Baca’s memoir, A Place to Stand. In this book and in the film based on it, Baca tells a similar story of slowly, methodically, hungrily learning to read and write bit by bit while incarcerated in the infamous Arizona State Prison. Baca literally learns to read and write from scratch. Although Malcolm X was already literate when he entered prison, he had not finished school, and his passion for reading, learning, and gaining knowledge grew exponentially during his imprisonment. Both men were deeply changed when their prison time opened them up to larger ideas via the written word.

Malcolm X has usually been portrayed as the polar opposite of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. It is true that Malcolm X, who espoused self-defense, even if that self-defense is violent, disagreed for most of his life with Dr. King, who espoused nonviolent direct action. But after his trip to Africa and to Mecca in 1964, Malcolm X repudiated the Nation of Islam and spoke out against racism while continuing to call for black self-determination and black self-defense.

Malcolm X and Alex Haley worked on The Autobiography of Malcolm X between 1963 and 1965, before and after the trip to Africa and Mecca. That time span gives readers the opportunity to witness a spiritual conversion of sorts, as Malcolm X ultimately calls for black pride. Moreover, he calls for white allies to be “out on the battle lines of where America’s racism really is—and that’s their own home communities.... That’s where the sincere whites who really mean to accomplish something have got to work.”

The transformative experience of gaining literacy and thus gaining a kind of inner freedom, the tale of an incomparable man’s role in the Civil Rights Movement, the story of a journey from the Nation of Islam to Mecca to an embracing of nonracist black pride – The Autobiography of Malcolm X is this and so much more.

Too often, Americans, especially white Americans, equate Dr. King with love and Malcolm X with hate, Dr. King with nonviolence and Malcolm X with violence. But as James H. Cone shows in Martin & Malcolm & America, the two men’s journeys brought them closer together in their thinking toward the end of their lives, both of which were cut short by assassination. Next week, I’ll offer a look at Cone’s book.

To learn more about Malcolm X, read his autobiography – and also make time to watch Spike Lee’s 1992 biopic, Malcolm X, starring Denzel Washington. You may also want to watch all or part of PBS’s outstanding Eyes on the Prize documentary series; the episode titled “The Time Has Come (1964-1965)” features Malcolm X. The book, the biopic, and the documentary will all give you insights into this fearless civil rights leader.

Visit for links to all these resources and to watch a Great Books episode on The Autobiography of Malcolm X.

Feb 11, 2018

170: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: "Letter from Birmingham Jail"

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This week on StoryWeb: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s essay “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”

In April 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was in Birmingham, Alabama, protesting racism and racial segregation in the city. He was arrested on Good Friday for demonstrating, which a circuit court judge had prohibited. While he was in solitary confinement, Dr. King wrote what is arguably the most important letter in American history. It was addressed to the white clergy of Birmingham, who had publicly criticized Dr. King for getting involved in a matter far from his home in Atlanta. Dr. King began drafting his responses on the very newspaper in which the eight white ministers had published their “call for unity.” According to the Washington Post, he continued writing on “scraps of paper, paper towels and slips of yellow legal paper smuggled into his cell.”

The justly famous letter – now known as “Letter from Birmingham Jail” – draws both from the early Christian tradition of letter writing (often from jails) and the African American preaching tradition. Following Paul’s strategy of writing epistles while incarcerated for his beliefs (the origin of several books in the New Testament), Dr. King reaches out to his fellow brethren of the clergy, appealing to them on the basis of their shared faith. At the same time, Dr. King draws on the rich oratory of the black church. While this letter was printed in a variety of publications and was therefore meant to be read, it bears reading aloud to hear the cadence of the prose.

Dr. King acknowledges his debt to many thinkers before him, among them Socrates, St. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, Thomas Jefferson, T.S. Eliot, Martin Buber, and Paul Tillich. A particular influence here and throughout the entire civil rights movement is Henry David Thoreau. When he addresses unjust laws and the responsibility of people of good conscience to protest such laws, Dr. King echoes Thoreau’s essay “Resistance to Civil Government.” This essay, also known as “Civil Disobedience,” was composed after Thoreau spent one night in the Concord, Massachusetts, jail for failure to pay a poll tax. The tax would have gone, in part, to support the Mexican-American War, which Thoreau and other abolitionists believed was being waged to expand the practice of slavery in the United States. Thoreau was an ardent supporter of the abolitionist cause. In fact, his cabin at Walden Pond was sometimes used as a stop on the Underground Railroad. Thoreau welcomed runaway slaves at his cabin during the day and took them to safe houses in Concord at night.

Dr. King looked to Thoreau, among others, for inspiration for his theory of nonviolent direct action, a practice he outlines and defends in “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” So closely linked are Thoreau’s essay and Dr. King’s letter that they have even been published together. Dr. King wrote in his autobiography:

During my student days I read Henry David Thoreau’s essay “On Civil Disobedience” for the first time. Here, in this courageous New Englander’s refusal to pay his taxes and his choice of jail rather than support a war that would spread slavery’s territory into Mexico, I made my first contact with the theory of nonviolent resistance. Fascinated by the idea of refusing to cooperate with an evil system, I was so deeply moved that I reread the work several times. I became convinced that noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good. No other person has been more eloquent and passionate in getting this idea across than Henry David Thoreau. As a result of his writings and personal witness, we are the heirs of a legacy of creative protest. The teachings of Thoreau came alive in our civil rights movement. . . . Whether expressed in a sit-in at lunch counters, a freedom ride into Mississippi, a peaceful protest in Albany, Georgia, a bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, these are outgrowths of Thoreau’s insistence that evil must be resisted and that no moral man can patiently adjust to injustice.

King’s major claim in “Letter from Birmingham Jail” – that white moderates are standing idly by, telling black civil rights activists to “wait” – is a message that resonates today. In the wake of the Ferguson uprising and in the energy of #BlackLivesMatter, many in the white community have remained silent, and indeed many – both white and black civil rights leaders of an older generation – have criticized young activists for their seemingly aggressive, in-your-face protests. I can imagine Dr. King pushing back and telling the older whites and blacks, “’Wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never.’” Dr. King had been criticized by the white Birmingham clergy and by many others as being “extreme.” He willingly accepted this label, aligning himself with Jesus and other great reformers who King said could be seen as extremists. “[T]he question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be,” writes Dr. King. “Will we be extremists for hate or for love?”

In one of the letter’s most powerful passages, Dr. King explains why African Americans cannot “wait.” The passage contains an extraordinary sentence, exceptional not only in its length but also in the power of its message and argument. Dr. King writes,

We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God given rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward gaining political independence, but we still creep at horse and buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter. Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, "Wait." But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six year old daughter why she can't go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five year old son who is asking: "Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?"; when you take a cross country drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading "white" and "colored"; when your first name becomes "nigger," your middle name becomes "boy" (however old you are) and your last name becomes "John," and your wife and mother are never given the respected title "Mrs."; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of "nobodiness" – then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.

You’ll find it moving and inspiring to read Dr. King’s letter. You can do so online at the University of Pennsylvania’s African Studies Center website. If you want to add Dr. King’s works to your library, consider buying A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches. Two book-length considerations of Dr. King’s letter are also available: Jonathan Rieder’s Gospel of Freedom: Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham Jail and the Struggle That Changed a Nation and Jonathan Bass’s Blessed Are the Peacemakers: Martin Luther King, Jr., Eight White Religious Leaders, and the “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”

Visit for links to all these resources and to hear Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., read “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”

Feb 04, 2018

169: Susan Glaspell: "Trifles"

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This week on StoryWeb, Susan Glaspell’s play Trifles.

Born in 1876, Susan Glaspell was a prominent novelist, short story writer, journalist, biographer, actress, and, most notably, playwright, winning the 1931 Pulitzer Prize for Drama for her play Alison’s House. She and her husband, George Cram Cook, founded the ground-breaking Provincetown Players, widely known as the first modern American theater company. In fact, it was Glaspell who discovered dramatist Eugene O’Neill as she was searching for a new playwright to feature at the theater.

Though she was a widely acclaimed author during her lifetime, with pieces in Harper’s and Ladies’ Home Journal and with books on the New York Times bestsellers list, Glaspell is little known today. She comes down to us for two related works: her one-act play Trifles, written in 1916, and a short story based on the play, “A Jury of Her Peers,” written in 1917. The play and the story were based on Margaret Hossack’s murder trial, which Glaspell covered as a young reporter for the Des Moines Daily News in her home state of Iowa.

Trifles ­­– which she wrote in just ten days – is a masterful account of the way two housewives successfully unravel the mystery of another housewife’s murder of her husband. Mr. Wright has been found dead in his bedroom, strangled with a rope. His wife, Mrs. Wright, is in the kitchen, acting “queer,” according to Mr. Hale, the neighbor who initially discovers the murder.

The play takes place the day after the murdered man is discovered and after his wife has been taken to jail. Three prominent men of the community – Sheriff Peters, County Attorney Henderson, and Mr. Hale – go to investigate the murder scene. Sheriff Peters and Mr. Hale bring their wives along with them, just in case they can discover any clues to the murder.

It is widely assumed that Mrs. Wright killed her husband, but what is her motive? The three men are truly stumped. What would cause an ordinary housewife in a seemingly calm and tidy home to kill her husband?

As the detectives are investigating the murder scene in the bedroom upstairs, Mrs. Peters and Mrs. Hale look around the kitchen and the parlor. Little by little, they begin to spy clues to Mrs. Wright’s emotional state. Erratic stitches in a piece of quilting when all the other needlework was straight, beautiful, unblemished. An empty birdcage with a broken door. A dead canary – its neck twisted – hidden in Mrs. Wright’s sewing basket in a piece of silk. The women realize without even speaking to each other that Mr. Wright had killed the bird and driven his wife to murder. And with silent, knowing looks at each other, they decide not to tell the men what they’ve discovered.

For an outstanding reworking of Glaspell’s play, see Kaye Gibbons’s 1991 novel, A Cure for Dreams. Gibbons, a North Carolina writer, obviously had Trifles in mind as she depicts ##, a character who “hides” her crime in her quilting. You can learn more about the connections between Trifles and A Cure for Dreams in my first book, A Southern Weave of Women: Fiction of the Contemporary South. (Check out Chapter 6, “The Southern Wild Zone: Voices on the Margins.” My discussion of A Cure for Dreams begins on page 194, and I explore the links between Glaspell and Gibbons on pages 201-202.)

Trifles also make me think of Adrienne Rich’s early poem “Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers.” The elderly Aunt Jennifer has spent her adult life being “mastered” by her husband. His ring – that is, her wedding band – weighs heavy on her hand. But that weight doesn’t stop her from creating scenes of liberation, power, and strength in her needlepoint. In her tapestry, Aunt Jennifer depicts tigers – “prancing, proud and unafraid.” There’s a story there, Rich seems to say, a sign for those who are adept enough to read it.

Finally, Trifles reminds me of African American women quilters who sewed into their quilts messages about the underground railroad. The classic study of these quilts is Hidden in Plain View: A Secret Story of Quilts and the Underground Railroad. Something seemingly so simply and utilitarian as a quilt has the power to be subversive. As Alice Walker notes in her landmark essay “In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens,” women’s creativity – and the clues it provides to women’s lives – can be found everywhere if one simply knows where to look. Quilts, gardens, kitchens – “just” women’s work – can illuminate the secrets of women’s lives.

One thing’s for sure: Glaspell’s work deserves more attention. Oxford University Press published Linda Ben-Zvi’s biography of Glaspell in 2005, and both Trifles and “A Jury of Her Peers” are widely anthologized and frequently taught in classrooms across the country. If you want to join me in learning more about Glaspell, visit the website of the International Susan Glaspell Society. They even offer a timeline of Glaspell’s writing of Trifles. And to learn about Glaspell’s most enduring legacy, the Provincetown Players, visit the Provincetown Playhouse website, dedicated to preserving the history of this truly revolutionary theater.

Listen now as I read Susan Glaspell’s short story “A Jury of Her Peers” in its entirety.

When Martha Hale opened the storm-door and got a cut of the north wind, she ran back for her big woolen scarf. As she hurriedly wound that round her head her eye made a scandalized sweep of her kitchen. It was no ordinary thing that called her away—it was probably farther from ordinary than anything that had ever happened in Dickson County. But what her eye took in was that her kitchen was in no shape for leaving: her bread all ready for mixing, half the flour sifted and half unsifted.

She hated to see things half done; but she had been at that when the team from town stopped to get Mr. Hale, and then the sheriff came running in to say his wife wished Mrs. Hale would come too—adding, with a grin, that he guessed she was getting scarey and wanted another woman along. So she had dropped everything right where it was.

"Martha!" now came her husband's impatient voice. "Don't keep folks waiting out here in the cold."

She again opened the storm-door, and this time joined the three men and the one woman waiting for her in the big two-seated buggy.

After she had the robes tucked around her she took another look at the woman who sat beside her on the back seat. She had met Mrs. Peters the year before at the county fair, and the thing she remembered abouther was that she didn't seem like a sheriff's wife. She was small and thin and didn't have a strong voice. Mrs. Gorman, sheriff's wife before Gorman went out and Peters came in, had a voice that somehow seemed to be backing up the law with every word. But if Mrs. Peters didn't look like a sheriff's wife, Peters made it up in looking like a sheriff. He was to a dot the kind of man who could get himself elected sheriff—a heavy man with a big voice, who was particularly genial with the law-abiding, as if to make it plain that he knew the difference between criminals and non-criminals. And right there it came into Mrs. Hale's mind, with a stab, that this man who was so pleasant and lively with all of them was going to the Wrights' now as a sheriff.

"The country's not very pleasant this time of year," Mrs. Peters at last ventured, as if she felt they ought to be talking as well as the men.

Mrs. Hale scarcely finished her reply, for they had gone up a little hill and could see the Wright place now, and seeing it did not make her feel like talking. It looked very lonesome this cold March morning. It had always been a lonesome-looking place. It was down in a hollow, and the poplar trees around it were lonesome-looking trees. The men were looking at it and talking about what had happened. The county attorney was bending to one side of the buggy, and kept looking steadily at the place as they drew up to it.

"I'm glad you came with me," Mrs. Peters said nervously, as the two women were about to follow the men in through the kitchen door.

Even after she had her foot on the door-step, her hand on the knob, Martha Hale had a moment of feeling she could not cross that threshold. And the reason it seemed she couldn't cross it now was simply because she hadn't crossed it before. Time and time again it had been in her mind, "I ought to go over and see Minnie Foster"—she still thought of her as Minnie Foster, though for twenty years she had been Mrs. Wright. And then there was always something to do and Minnie Foster would go from her mind. Butnowshe could come.

The men went over to the stove. The women stood close together by the door. Young Henderson, the county attorney, turned around and said, "Come up to the fire, ladies."

Mrs. Peters took a step forward, then stopped. "I'm not—cold," she said.

And so the two women stood by the door, at first not even so much as looking around the kitchen.

The men talked for a minute about what a good thing it was the sheriff had sent his deputy out that morning to make a fire for them, and then Sheriff Peters stepped back from the stove, unbuttoned his outer coat, and leaned his hands on the kitchen table in a way that seemed to mark the beginning of official business. "Now, Mr. Hale," he said in a sort of semi-official voice, "before we move things about, you tell Mr. Henderson just what it was you saw when you came here yesterday morning."

The county attorney was looking around the kitchen.

"By the way," he said, "has anything been moved?" He turned to the sheriff. "Are things just as you left them yesterday?"

Peters looked from cupboard to sink; from that to a small worn rocker a little to one side of the kitchen table.

"It's just the same."

"Somebody should have been left here yesterday," said the county attorney.

"Oh—yesterday," returned the sheriff, with a little gesture as of yesterday having been more than he could bear to think of. "When I had to send Frank to Morris Center for that man who went crazy—let me tell you, I had my hands fullyesterday. I knew you could get back from Omaha by to-day, George, and as long as I went over everything here myself—"

"Well, Mr. Hale," said the county attorney, in a way of letting what was past and gone go, "tell just what happened when you came here yesterday morning."

Mrs. Hale, still leaning against the door, had that sinking feeling of the mother whose child is about to speak a piece. Lewis often wandered along and got things mixed up in a story. She hoped he would tell this straight and plain, and not say unnecessary things that would just make things harder for Minnie Foster. He didn't begin at once, and she noticed that he looked queer—as if standing in that kitchen and having to tell what he had seen there yesterday morning made him almost sick.

"Yes, Mr. Hale?" the county attorney reminded.

"Harry and I had started to town with a load of potatoes," Mrs. Hale's husband began.

Harry was Mrs. Hale's oldest boy. He wasn't with them now, for the very good reason that those potatoes never got to town yesterday and he was taking them this morning, so he hadn't been home when the sheriff stopped to say he wanted Mr. Hale to come over to the Wright place and tell the county attorney his story there, where he could point it all out. With all Mrs. Hale's other emotions came the fear now that maybe Harry wasn't dressed warm enough—they hadn't any of them realized how that north wind did bite.

"We come along this road," Hale was going on, with a motion of his hand to the road over which they had just come, "and as we got in sight of the house I says to Harry, 'I'm goin' to see if I can't get John Wright to take a telephone.' You see," he explained to Henderson, "unless I can get somebody to go in with me they won't come out this branch road except for a priceIcan't pay. I'd spoke to Wright about it once before; but he put me off, saying folks talked too much anyway, and all he asked was peace and quiet—guess you know about how much he talked himself. But I thought maybe if I went to the house and talked about it before his wife, and said all the women-folks liked the telephones, and that in this lonesome stretch of road it would be a good thing—well, I said to Harry that that was what I was going to say—though I said at the same time that I didn't know as what his wife wanted made much difference to John—"

Now, there he was!—saying things he didn't need to say. Mrs. Hale tried to catch her husband's eye, but fortunately the county attorney interrupted with:

"Let's talk about that a little later, Mr. Hale. I do want to talk about that, but I'm anxious now to get along to just what happened when you got here."

When he began this time, it was very deliberately and carefully:

"I didn't see or hear anything. I knocked at the door. And still it was all quiet inside. I knew they must be up—it was past eight o'clock. So I knocked again, louder, and I thought I heard somebody say, 'Come in.' I wasn't sure—I'm not sure yet. But I opened the door—this door," jerking a hand toward the door by which the two women stood, "and there, in that rocker"—pointing to it—"sat Mrs. Wright."

Every one in the kitchen looked at the rocker. It came into Mrs. Hale's mind that that rocker didn't look in the least like Minnie Foster—the Minnie Foster of twenty years before. It was a dingy red, with wooden rungs up the back, and the middle rung was gone, and the chair sagged to one side.

"How did she—look?" the county attorney was inquiring.

"Well," said Hale, "she looked—queer."

"How do you mean—queer?"

As he asked it he took out a note-book and pencil. Mrs. Hale did not like the sight of that pencil. She kept her eye fixed on her husband, as if to keep him from saying unnecessary things that would go into that note-book and make trouble.

Hale did speak guardedly, as if the pencil had affected him too.

"Well, as if she didn't know what she was going to do next. And kind of—done up."

"How did she seem to feel about your coming?"

"Why, I don't think she minded—one way or other. She didn't pay much attention. I said, 'Ho' do, Mrs. Wright? It's cold, ain't it?' And she said, 'Is it?'—and went on pleatin' at her apron.

"Well, I was surprised. She didn't ask me to come up to the stove, or to sit down, but just set there, not even lookin' at me. And so I said: 'I want to see John.'

"And then she—laughed. I guess you would call it a laugh.

"I thought of Harry and the team outside, so I said, a little sharp, 'Can I see John?' 'No,' says she—kind of dull like. 'Ain't he home?' says I. Then she looked at me. 'Yes,' says she, 'he's home.' 'Then why can't I see him?' I asked her, out of patience with her now. ''Cause he's dead,' says she, just as quiet and dull—and fell to pleatin' her apron. 'Dead?' says I, like you do when you can't take in what you've heard.

"She just nodded her head, not getting a bit excited, but rockin' back and forth.

"'Why—where is he?' says I, not knowingwhatto say.

"She just pointed upstairs—like this"—pointing to the room above.

"I got up, with the idea of going up there myself. By this time I—didn't know what to do. I walked from there to here; then I says: 'Why, what did he die of?'

"'He died of a rope round his neck,' says she; and just went on pleatin' at her apron."

Hale stopped speaking, and stood staring at the rocker, as if he were still seeing the woman who had sat there the morning before. Nobody spoke; it was as if every one were seeing the woman who had sat there the morning before.

"And what did you do then?" the county attorney at last broke the silence.

"I went out and called Harry. I thought I might—need help. I got Harry in, and we went upstairs." His voice fell almost to a whisper. "There he was—lying over the—"

"I think I'd rather have you go into that upstairs," the county attorney interrupted, "where you can point it all out. Just go on now with the rest of the story."

"Well, my first thought was to get that rope off. It looked—"

He stopped, his face twitching.

"But Harry, he went up to him, and he said, 'No, he's dead all right, and we'd better not touch anything.' So we went downstairs.

"She was still sitting that same way. 'Has anybody been notified?' I asked. 'No,' says she, unconcerned.

"'Who did this, Mrs. Wright?' said Harry. He said it businesslike, and she stopped pleatin' at her apron. 'I don't know,' she says. 'You don'tknow?' says Harry. 'Weren't you sleepin' in the bed with him?' 'Yes,' says she, 'but I was on the inside.' 'Somebody slipped a rope round his neck and strangled him, and you didn't wake up?' says Harry. 'I didn't wake up,' she said after him.

"We may have looked as if we didn't see how that could be, for after a minute she said, 'I sleep sound.'

"Harry was going to ask her more questions, but I said maybe that weren't our business; maybe we ought to let her tell her story first to the coroner or the sheriff. So Harry went fast as he could over to High Road—the Rivers' place, where there's a telephone."

"And what did she do when she knew you had gone for the coroner?" The attorney got his pencil in his hand all ready for writing.

"She moved from that chair to this one over here"—Hale pointed to a small chair in the corner—"and just sat there with her hands held together and looking down. I got a feeling that I ought to make some conversation, so I said I had come in to see if John wanted to put in a telephone; and at that she started to laugh, and then she stopped and looked at me—scared."

At sound of a moving pencil the man who was telling the story looked up.

"I dunno—maybe it wasn't scared," he hastened; "I wouldn't like to say it was. Soon Harry got back, and then Dr. Lloyd came, and you, Mr. Peters, and so I guess that's all I know that you don't."

He said that last with relief, and moved a little, as if relaxing. Every one moved a little. The county attorney walked toward the stair door.

"I guess we'll go upstairs first—then out to the barn and around there."

He paused and looked around the kitchen.

"You're convinced there was nothing important here?" he asked the sheriff. "Nothing that would—point to any motive?"

The sheriff too looked all around, as if to re-convince himself.

"Nothing here but kitchen things," he said, with a little laugh for the insignificance of kitchen things.

The county attorney was looking at the cupboard—a peculiar, ungainly structure, half closet and half cupboard, the upper part of it being built in the wall, and the lower part just the old-fashioned kitchen cupboard. As if its queerness attracted him, he got a chair and opened the upper part and looked in. After a moment he drew his hand away sticky.

"Here's a nice mess," he said resentfully.

The two women had drawn nearer, and now the sheriff's wife spoke.

"Oh—her fruit," she said, looking to Mrs. Hale for sympathetic understanding. She turned back to the county attorney and explained: "She worried about that when it turned so cold last night. She said the fire would go out and her jars might burst."

Mrs. Peters' husband broke into a laugh.

"Well, can you beat the women! Held for murder and worrying about her preserves!"

The young attorney set his lips.

"I guess before we're through with her she may have something more serious than preserves to worry about."

"Oh, well," said Mrs. Hale's husband, with good-natured superiority, "women are used to worrying over trifles."

The two women moved a little closer together. Neither of them spoke. The county attorney seemed suddenly to remember his manners—and think of his future.

"And yet," said he, with the gallantry of a young politician, "for all their worries, what would we do without the ladies?"

The women did not speak, did not unbend. He went to the sink and began washing his hands. He turned to wipe them on the roller towel—whirled it for a cleaner place.

"Dirty towels! Not much of a housekeeper, would you say, ladies?"

He kicked his foot against some dirty pans under the sink.

"There's a great deal of work to be done on a farm," said Mrs. Hale stiffly.

"To be sure. And yet"—with a little bow to her—"I know there are some Dickson County farm-houses that do not have such roller towels." He gave it a pull to expose its full length again.

"Those towels get dirty awful quick. Men's hands aren't always as clean as they might be."

"Ah, loyal to your sex, I see," he laughed. He stopped and gave her a keen look. "But you and Mrs. Wright were neighbors. I suppose you were friends, too."

Martha Hale shook her head.

"I've seen little enough of her of late years. I've not been in this house—it's more than a year."

"And why was that? You didn't like her?"

"I liked her well enough," she replied with spirit. "Farmers' wives have their hands full, Mr. Henderson. And then—" She looked around the kitchen.

"Yes?" he encouraged.

"It never seemed a very cheerful place," said she, more to herself than to him.

"No," he agreed; "I don't think any one would call it cheerful. I shouldn't say she had the home-making instinct."

"Well, I don't know as Wright had, either," she muttered.

"You mean they didn't get on very well?" he was quick to ask.

"No; I don't mean anything," she answered, with decision. As she turned a little away from him, she added: "But I don't think a place would be any the cheerfuler for John Wright's bein' in it."

"I'd like to talk to you about that a little later, Mrs. Hale," he said. "I'm anxious to get the lay of things upstairs now."

He moved toward the stair door, followed by the two men.

"I suppose anything Mrs. Peters does'll be all right?" the sheriff inquired. "She was to take in some clothes for her, you know—and a few little things. We left in such a hurry yesterday."

The county attorney looked at the two women whom they were leaving alone there among the kitchen things.

"Yes—Mrs. Peters," he said, his glance resting on the woman who was not Mrs. Peters, the big farmer woman who stood behind the sheriff's wife. "Of course Mrs. Peters is one of us," he said, in a manner of entrusting responsibility. "And keep your eye out Mrs. Peters, for anything that might be of use. No telling; you women might come upon a clue to the motive—and that's the thing we need."

Mr. Hale rubbed his face after the fashion of a show man getting ready for a pleasantry.

"But would the women know a clue if they did come upon it?" he said; and, having delivered himself of this, he followed the others through the stair door.

The women stood motionless and silent, listening to the footsteps, first upon the stairs, then in the room above them.

Then, as if releasing herself from something strange, Mrs. Hale began to arrange the dirty pans under the sink, which the county attorney's disdainful push of the foot had deranged.

"I'd hate to have men comin' into my kitchen," she said testily—"snoopin' round and criticizin'."

"Of course it's no more than their duty," said the sheriff's wife, in her manner of timid acquiescence.

"Duty's all right," replied Mrs. Hale bluffly; "but I guess that deputy sheriff that come out to make the fire might have got a little of this on." She gave the roller towel a pull. "Wish I'd thought of that sooner! Seems mean to talk about her for not having things slicked up, when she had to come away in such a hurry."

She looked around the kitchen. Certainly it was not "slicked up." Her eye was held by a bucket of sugar on a low shelf. The cover was off the wooden bucket, and beside it was a paper bag—half full.

Mrs. Hale moved toward it.

"She was putting this in there," she said to herself—slowly.

She thought of the flour in her kitchen at home—half sifted, half not sifted. She had been interrupted, and had left things half done. What had interruptedMinnie Foster? Why had that work been left half done? She made a move as if to finish it,—unfinished things always bothered her,—and then she glanced around and saw that Mrs. Peters was watching her—and she didn't want Mrs. Peters to get that feeling she had got of work begun and then—for some reason—not finished.

"It's a shame about her fruit," she said, and walked toward the cupboard that the county attorney had opened, and got on the chair, murmuring: "I wonder if it's all gone."

It was a sorry enough looking sight, but "Here's one that's all right," she said at last. She held it toward the light. "This is cherries, too." She looked again. "I declare I believe that's the only one."

With a sigh, she got down from the chair, went to the sink, and wiped off the bottle.

"She'll feel awful bad, after all her hard work in the hot weather. I remember the afternoon I put up my cherries last summer."

She set the bottle on the table, and, with another sigh, started to sit down in the rocker. But she did not sit down. Something kept her from sitting down in that chair. She straightened—stepped back, and, half turned away, stood looking at it, seeing the woman who had sat there "pleatin' at her apron."

The thin voice of the sheriff's wife broke in upon her: "I must be getting those things from the front room closet." She opened the door into the other room, started in, stepped back. "You coming with me, Mrs. Hale?" she asked nervously. "You—you could help me get them."

They were soon back—the stark coldness of that shut-up room was not a thing to linger in.

"My!" said Mrs. Peters, dropping the things on the table and hurrying to the stove.

Mrs. Hale stood examining the clothes the woman who was being detained in town had said she wanted.

"Wright was close!" she exclaimed, holding up a shabby black skirt that bore the marks of much making over. "I think maybe that's why she kept so much to herself. I s'pose she felt she couldn't do her part; and then, you don't enjoy things when you feel shabby. She used to wear pretty clothes and be lively—when she was Minnie Foster, one of the town girls, singing in the choir. But that—oh, that was twenty years ago."

With a carefulness in which there was something tender, she folded the shabby clothes and piled them at one corner of the table. She looked up at Mrs. Peters and there was something in the other woman's look that irritated her.

"She don't care," she said to herself. "Much difference it makes to her whether Minnie Foster had pretty clothes when she was a girl."

Then she looked again, and she wasn't so sure; in fact, she hadn't at any time been perfectly sure about Mrs. Peters. She had that shrinking manner, and yet her eyes looked as if they could see a long way into things.

"This all you was to take in?" asked Mrs. Hale.

"No," said the sheriff's wife; "she said she wanted an apron. Funny thing to want," she ventured in her nervous little way, "for there's not much to get you dirty in jail, goodness knows. But I suppose just to make her feel more natural. If you're used to wearing an apron—. She said they were in the bottom drawer of this cupboard. Yes—here they are. And then her little shawl that always hung on the stair door."

She took the small gray shawl from behind the door leading upstairs, and stood a minute looking at it.

Suddenly Mrs. Hale took a quick step toward the other woman.

"Mrs. Peters!"

"Yes, Mrs. Hale?"

"Do you think she—did it?"

A frightened look blurred the other thing in Mrs. Peters' eyes.

"Oh, I don't know," she said, in a voice that seemed to shrink away from the subject.

"Well, I don't think she did," affirmed Mrs. Hale stoutly. "Asking for an apron, and her little shawl. Worryin' about her fruit."

"Mr. Peters says—." Footsteps were heard in the room above; she stopped, looked up, then went on in a lowered voice: "Mr. Peters says—it looks bad for her. Mr. Henderson is awful sarcastic in a speech, and he's going to make fun of her saying she didn't—wake up."

For a moment Mrs. Hale had no answer. Then, "Well, I guess John Wright didn't wake up—when they was slippin' that rope under his neck," she muttered.

"No, it'sstrange," breathed Mrs. Peters. "They think it was such a—funny way to kill a man."

She began to laugh; at sound of the laugh, abruptly stopped.

"That's just what Mr. Hale said," said Mrs. Hale, in a resolutely natural voice. "There was a gun in the house. He says that's what he can't understand."

"Mr. Henderson said, coming out, that what was needed for the case was a motive. Something to show anger—or sudden feeling."

"Well, I don't see any signs of anger around here," said Mrs. Hale. "I don't—"

She stopped. It was as if her mind tripped on something. Her eye was caught by a dish-towel in the middle of the kitchen table. Slowly she moved toward the table. One half of it was wiped clean, the other half messy. Her eyes made a slow, almost unwilling turn to the bucket of sugar and the half empty bag beside it. Things begun—and not finished.

After a moment she stepped back, and said, in that manner of releasing herself:

"Wonder how they're finding things upstairs? I hope she had it a little more red up up there. You know,"—she paused, and feeling gathered,—"it seems kind ofsneaking: locking her up in town and coming out here to get her own house to turn against her!"

"But, Mrs. Hale," said the sheriff's wife, "the law is the law."

"I s'pose 'tis," answered Mrs. Hale shortly.

She turned to the stove, saying something about that fire not being much to brag of. She worked with it a minute, and when she straightened up she said aggressively:

"The law is the law—and a bad stove is a bad stove. How'd you like to cook on this?"—pointing with the poker to the broken lining. She opened the oven door and started to express her opinion of the oven; but she was swept into her own thoughts, thinking of what it would mean, year after year, to have that stove to wrestle with. The thought of Minnie Foster trying to bake in that oven—and the thought of her never going over to see Minnie Foster—.

She was startled by hearing Mrs. Peters say: "A person gets discouraged—and loses heart."

The sheriff's wife had looked from the stove to the sink—to the pail of water which had been carried in from outside. The two women stood there silent, above them the footsteps of the men who were looking for evidence against the woman who had worked in that kitchen. That look of seeing into things, of seeing through a thing to something else, was in the eyes of the sheriff's wife now. When Mrs. Hale next spoke to her, it was gently:

"Better loosen up your things, Mrs. Peters. We'll not feel them when we go out."

Mrs. Peters went to the back of the room to hang up the fur tippet she was wearing. A moment later she exclaimed, "Why, she was piecing a quilt," and held up a large sewing basket piled high with quilt pieces.

Mrs. Hale spread some of the blocks out on the table.

"It's log-cabin pattern," she said, putting several of them together. "Pretty, isn't it?"

They were so engaged with the quilt that they did not hear the footsteps on the stairs. Just as the stair door opened Mrs. Hale was saying:

"Do you suppose she was going to quilt it or just knot it?"

The sheriff threw up his hands.

"They wonder whether she was going to quilt it or just knot it!"

There was a laugh for the ways of women, a warming of hands over the stove, and then the county attorney said briskly:

"Well, let's go right out to the barn and get that cleared up."

"I don't see as there's anything so strange," Mrs. Hale said resentfully, after the outside door had closed on the three men—"our taking up our time with little things while we're waiting for them to get the evidence. I don't see as it's anything to laugh about."

"Of course they've got awful important things on their minds," said the sheriff's wife apologetically.

They returned to an inspection of the block for the quilt. Mrs. Hale was looking at the fine, even sewing, and preoccupied with thoughts of the woman who had done that sewing, when she heard the sheriff's wife say, in a queer tone:

"Why, look at this one."

She turned to take the block held out to her.

"The sewing," said Mrs. Peters, in a troubled way. "All the rest of them have been so nice and even—but—this one. Why, it looks as if she didn't know what she was about!"

Their eyes met—something flashed to life, passed between them; then, as if with an effort, they seemed to pull away from each other. A moment Mrs. Hale sat her hands folded over that sewing which was sounlike all the rest of the sewing. Then she had pulled a knot and drawn the threads.

"Oh, what are you doing, Mrs. Hale?" asked the sheriff's wife, startled.

"Just pulling out a stitch or two that's not sewed very good," said Mrs. Hale mildly.

"I don't think we ought to touch things," Mrs. Peters said, a little helplessly.

"I'll just finish up this end," answered Mrs. Hale, still in that mild, matter-of-fact fashion.

She threaded a needle and started to replace bad sewing with good. For a little while she sewed in silence. Then, in that thin, timid voice, she heard:

"Mrs. Hale!"

"Yes, Mrs. Peters?"

"What do you suppose she was so—nervous about?"

"Oh,Idon't know," said Mrs. Hale, as if dismissing a thing not important enough to spend much time on. "I don't know as she was—nervous. I sew awful queer sometimes when I'm just tired."

She cut a thread, and out of the corner of her eye looked up at Mrs. Peters. The small, lean face of the sheriff's wife seemed to have tightened up. Her eyes had that look of peering into something. But next moment she moved, and said in her thin, indecisive way:

"Well, I must get those clothes wrapped. They may be through sooner than we think. I wonder where I could find a piece of paper—and string."

"In that cupboard, maybe," suggested Mrs. Hale, after a glance around.

One piece of the crazy sewing remained unripped. Mrs. Peters' back turned, Martha Hale now scrutinized that piece, compared it with the dainty, accurate sewing of the other blocks. The difference was startling. Holding this block made her feel queer, as if the distracted thoughts of the woman who had perhaps turnedto it to try and quiet herself were communicating themselves to her.

Mrs. Peters' voice roused her.

"Here's a bird-cage," she said. "Did she have a bird, Mrs. Hale?"

"Why, I don't know whether she did or not." She turned to look at the cage Mrs. Peter was holding up. "I've not been here in so long." She sighed. "There was a man round last year selling canaries cheap—but I don't know as she took one. Maybe she did. She used to sing real pretty herself."

Mrs. Peters looked around the kitchen.

"Seems kind of funny to think of a bird here." She half laughed—an attempt to put up a barrier. "But she must have had one—or why would she have a cage? I wonder what happened to it."

"I suppose maybe the cat got it," suggested Mrs. Hale, resuming her sewing.

"No; she didn't have a cat. She's got that feeling some people have about cats—being afraid of them. When they brought her to our house yesterday, my cat got in the room, and she was real upset and asked me to take it out."

"My sister Bessie was like that," laughed Mrs. Hale.

The sheriff's wife did not reply. The silence made Mrs. Hale turn round. Mrs. Peters was examining the bird-cage.

"Look at this door," she said slowly. "It's broke. One hinge has been pulled apart."

Mrs. Hale came nearer.

"Looks as if some one must have been—rough with it."

Again their eyes met—startled, questioning, apprehensive. For a moment neither spoke nor stirred. Then Mrs. Hale, turning away, said brusquely:

"If they're going to find any evidence, I wish they'd be about it. I don't like this place."

"But I'm awful glad you came with me, Mrs. Hale," Mrs. Peters put the bird-cage on the table and sat down. "It would be lonesome for me—sitting here alone."

"Yes, it would, wouldn't it?" agreed Mrs. Hale, a certain determined naturalness in her voice. She had picked up the sewing, but now it dropped in her lap, and she murmured in a different voice: "But I tell you what Idowish, Mrs. Peters. I wish I had come over sometimes when she was here. I wish—I had."

"But of course you were awful busy, Mrs. Hale. Your house—and your children."

"I could've come," retorted Mrs. Hale shortly. "I stayed away because it weren't cheerful—and that's why I ought to have come. I"—she looked around—"I've never liked this place. Maybe because it's down in a hollow and you don't see the road. I don't know what it is, but it's a lonesome place, and always was. I wish I had come over to see Minnie Foster sometimes. I can see now—" She did not put it into words.

"Well, you mustn't reproach yourself," counseled Mrs. Peters. "Somehow, we just don't see how it is with other folks till—something comes up."

"Not having children makes less work," mused Mrs. Hale, after a silence, "but it makes a quiet house—and Wright out to work all day—and no company when he did come in. Did you know John Wright, Mrs. Peters?"

"Not to know him. I've seen him in town. They say he was a good man."

"Yes—good," conceded John Wright's neighbor grimly. "He didn't drink, and kept his word as well as most, I guess, and paid his debts. But he was a hard man, Mrs. Peters. Just to pass the time of day with him—." She stopped, shivered a little. "Like a raw wind that gets to the bone." Her eye fell upon the cage on the table before her, and she added, almost bitterly: "I should think she would've wanted a bird!"

Suddenly she leaned forward, looking intently at thecage. "But what do you s'pose went wrong with it?"

"I don't know," returned Mrs. Peters; "unless it got sick and died."

But after she said it she reached over and swung the broken door. Both women watched it as if somehow held by it.

"You didn't know—her?" Mrs. Hale asked, a gentler note in her voice.

"Not till they brought her yesterday," said the sheriff's wife.

"She—come to think of it, she was kind of like a bird herself. Real sweet and pretty, but kind of timid and—fluttery. How—she—did—change."

That held her for a long time. Finally, as if struck with a happy thought and relieved to get back to every-day things, she exclaimed:

"Tell you what, Mrs. Peters, why don't you take the quilt in with you? It might take up her mind."

"Why, I think that's a real nice idea, Mrs. Hale," agreed the sheriff's wife, as if she too were glad to come into the atmosphere of a simple kindness. "There couldn't possibly be any objection to that, could there? Now, just what will I take? I wonder if her patches are in here—and her things."

They turned to the sewing basket.

"Here's some red," said Mrs. Hale, bringing out a roll of cloth. Underneath that was a box. "Here, maybe her scissors are in here—and her things." She held it up. "What a pretty box! I'll warrant that was something she had a long time ago—when she was a girl."

She held it in her hand a moment; then, with a little sigh, opened it.

Instantly her hand went to her nose.


Mrs. Peters drew nearer—then turned away.

"There's something wrapped up in this piece of silk," faltered Mrs. Hale.

"This isn't her scissors," said Mrs. Peters, in a shrinking voice.

Her hand not steady, Mrs. Hale raised the piece of silk. "Oh, Mrs. Peters!" she cried. "It's—"

Mrs. Peters bent closer.

"It's the bird," she whispered.

"But, Mrs. Peters!" cried Mrs. Hale. "Lookat it! Itsneck—look at its neck! It's all—other sideto."

She held the box away from her.

The sheriff's wife again bent closer.

"Somebody wrung its neck," said she, in a voice that was slow and deep.

And then again the eyes of the two women met—this time clung together in a look of dawning comprehension, of growing horror. Mrs. Peters looked from the dead bird to the broken door of the cage. Again their eyes met. And just then there was a sound at the outside door.

Mrs. Hale slipped the box under the quilt pieces in the basket, and sank into the chair before it. Mrs. Peters stood holding to the table. The county attorney and the sheriff came in from outside.

"Well, ladies," said the county attorney, as one turning from serious things to little pleasantries, "have you decided whether she was going to quilt it or knot it?"

"We think," began the sheriff's wife in a flurried voice, "that she was going to—knot it."

He was too preoccupied to notice the change that came in her voice on that last.

"Well, that's very interesting, I'm sure," he said tolerantly. He caught sight of the bird-cage. "Has the bird flown?"

"We think the cat got it," said Mrs. Hale in a voice curiously even.

He was walking up and down, as if thinking something out.

"Is there a cat?" he asked absently.

Mrs. Hale shot a look up at the sheriff's wife.

"Well, notnow," said Mrs. Peters. "They're superstitious, you know; they leave."

She sank into her chair.

The county attorney did not heed her. "No sign at all of any one having come in from the outside," he said to Peters, in the manner of continuing an interrupted conversation. "Their own rope. Now let's go upstairs again and go over it, piece by piece. It would have to have been some one who knew just the—"

The stair door closed behind them and their voices were lost.

The two women sat motionless, not looking at each other, but as if peering into something and at the same time holding back. When they spoke now it was as if they were afraid of what they were saying, but as if they could not help saying it.

"She liked the bird," said Martha Hale, low and slowly. "She was going to bury it in that pretty box."

"When I was a girl," said Mrs. Peters, under her breath, "my kitten—there was a boy took a hatchet, and before my eyes—before I could get there—" She covered her face an instant. "If they hadn't held me back I would have"—she caught herself, looked upstairs where footsteps were heard, and finished weakly—"hurt him."

Then they sat without speaking or moving.

"I wonder how it would seem," Mrs. Hale at last began, as if feeling her way over strange ground—"never to have had any children around?" Her eyes made a slow sweep of the kitchen, as if seeing what that kitchen had meant through all the years. "No, Wright wouldn't like the bird," she said after that—"a thing that sang. She used to sing. He killed that too." Her voice tightened.

Mrs. Peters moved uneasily.

"Of course we don't know who killed the bird."

"I knew John Wright," was Mrs. Hale's answer.

"It was an awful thing was done in this house that night, Mrs. Hale," said the sheriff's wife. "Killing a man while he slept—slipping a thing round his neck that choked the life out of him."

Mrs. Hale's hand went out to the bird-cage.

"His neck. Choked the life out of him."

"We don'tknowwho killed him," whispered Mrs. Peters wildly. "We don'tknow."

Mrs. Hale had not moved. "If there had been years and years of—nothing, then a bird to sing to you, it would be awful—still—after the bird was still."

It was as if something within her not herself had spoken, and it found in Mrs. Peters something she did not know as herself.

"I know what stillness is," she said, in a queer, monotonous voice. "When we homesteaded in Dakota, and my first baby died—after he was two years old—and me with no other then—"

Mrs. Hale stirred.

"How soon do you suppose they'll be through looking for the evidence?"

"I know what stillness is," repeated Mrs. Peters, in just that same way. Then she too pulled back. "The law has got to punish crime, Mrs. Hale," she said in her tight little way.

"I wish you'd seen Minnie Foster," was the answer, "when she wore a white dress with blue ribbons, and stood up there in the choir and sang."

The picture of that girl, the fact that she had lived neighbor to that girl for twenty years, and had let her die for lack of life, was suddenly more than she could bear.

"Oh, IwishI'd come over here once in a while!" she cried. "That was a crime! That was a crime! Who's going to punish that?"

"We mustn't take on," said Mrs. Peters, with a frightened look toward the stairs.

"I might 'a'knownshe needed help! I tell you, it'squeer, Mrs. Peters. We live close together, and we live far apart. We all go through the same things—it's all just a different kind of the same thing! If it weren't—why do you and Iunderstand? Why do weknow—what we know this minute?"

She dashed her hand across her eyes. Then, seeing the jar of fruit on the table, she reached for it and choked out:

"If I was you I wouldn'ttellher her fruit was gone! Tell her itain't. Tell her it's all right—all of it. Here—take this in to prove it to her! She—she may never know whether it was broke or not."

She turned away.

Mrs. Peters reached out for the bottle of fruit as if she were glad to take it—as if touching a familiar thing, having something to do, could keep her from something else. She got up, looked about for something to wrap the fruit in, took a petticoat from the pile of clothes she had brought from the front room, and nervously started winding that round the bottle.

"My!" she began, in a high, false voice, "it's a good thing the men couldn't hear us! Getting all stirred up over a little thing like a—dead canary." She hurried over that. "As if that could have anything to do with—with—My, wouldn't theylaugh?"

Footsteps were heard on the stairs.

"Maybe they would," muttered Mrs. Hale—"maybe they wouldn't."

"No, Peters," said the county attorney incisively; "it's all perfectly clear, except the reason for doing it. But you know juries when it comes to women. If there was some definite thing—something to show. Something to make a story about. A thing that would connect up with this clumsy way of doing it."

In a covert way Mrs. Hale looked at Mrs. Peters. Mrs. Peters was looking at her. Quickly they lookedaway from each other. The outer door opened and Mr. Hale came in.

"I've got the team round now," he said. "Pretty cold out there."

"I'm going to stay here awhile by myself," the county attorney suddenly announced. "You can send Frank out for me, can't you?" he asked the sheriff. "I want to go over everything. I'm not satisfied we can't do better."

Again, for one brief moment, the two women's eyes found one another.

The sheriff came up to the table.

"Did you want to see what Mrs. Peters was going to take in?"

The county attorney picked up the apron. He laughed.

"Oh, I guess they're not very dangerous things the ladies have picked out."

Mrs. Hale's hand was on the sewing basket in which the box was concealed. She felt that she ought to take her hand off the basket. She did not seem able to. He picked up one of the quilt blocks which she had piled on to cover the box. Her eyes felt like fire. She had a feeling that if he took up the basket she would snatch it from him.

But he did not take it up. With another little laugh, he turned away, saying:

"No; Mrs. Peters doesn't need supervising. For that matter, a sheriff's wife is married to the law. Ever think of it that way, Mrs. Peters?"

Mrs. Peters was standing beside the table. Mrs. Hale shot a look up at her; but she could not see her face. Mrs. Peters had turned away. When she spoke, her voice was muffled.

"Not—just that way," she said.

"Married to the law!" chuckled Mrs. Peters' husband. He moved toward the door into the front room, and said to the county attorney:

"I just want you to come in here a minute, George. We ought to take a look at these windows."

"Oh—windows," said the county attorney scoffingly.

"We'll be right out, Mr. Hale," said the sheriff to the farmer, who was still waiting by the door.

Hale went to look after the horses. The sheriff followed the county attorney into the other room. Again—for one final moment—the two women were alone in that kitchen.

Martha Hale sprang up, her hands tight together, looking at that other woman, with whom it rested. At first she could not see her eyes, for the sheriff's wife had not turned back since she turned away at that suggestion of being married to the law. But now Mrs. Hale made her turn back. Her eyes made her turn back. Slowly, unwillingly, Mrs. Peters turned her head until her eyes met the eyes of the other woman. There was a moment when they held each other in a steady, burning look in which there was no evasion nor flinching. Then Martha Hale's eyes pointed the way to the basket in which was hidden the thing that would make certain the conviction of the other woman—that woman who was not there and yet who had been there with them all through that hour.

For a moment Mrs. Peters did not move. And then she did it. With a rush forward, she threw back the quilt pieces, got the box, tried to put it in her handbag. It was too big. Desperately she opened it, started to take the bird out. But there she broke—she could not touch the bird. She stood there helpless, foolish.

There was the sound of a knob turning in the inner door. Martha Hale snatched the box from the sheriff's wife, and got it in the pocket of her big coat just as the sheriff and the county attorney came back into the kitchen.

"Well, Henry," said the county attorney facetiously, "at least we found out that she was not going to quiltit. She was going to—what is it you call it, ladies?"

Mrs. Hale's hand was against the pocket of her coat.

"We call it—knot it, Mr. Henderson."

Jan 30, 2018

168: Elizabeth Strout: "Olive Kitteridge"

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This week on StoryWeb: Elizabeth Strout’s book Olive Kitteridge.

Has there ever been a grimmer, more taciturn main character in a book than Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge? We’ve all known someone like Olive, someone who looks like she’s just bitten into a lemon, someone for whom a kind of self-righteous grumpiness rules the day. What’s so unlikely is to have such a Gloomy Gus serve as the focal point of a book.

And it must be said: Olive Kitteridge is not a sympathetic character. As readers, we don’t like her. Those around her – most notably her son – don’t like her either. Her husband is long-suffering. Perhaps in years past, he saw something redeeming in Olive, but even he has to brush off and walk away from her brusqueness.

Why, then, would I recommend a book like this? While we don’t like Olive, we do come to understand her – and maybe we come to understand a bit more about those unpleasant people who cross our own paths from time to time. For Strout seems to be saying: everyone has a story; there’s a reason everyone ticks the way they do. As novelist Melissa Bank says of the book in her review for NPR, who says you have to like a character?

Strout’s approach to this book and this character is highly innovative and very intriguing. Strictly speaking, Olive Kitteridge is a very loosely connected collection of short stories. Yes, Olive shows up in every story – but sometimes she merely walks across the stage or, perhaps, walks across one corner of the stage. In other stories, she is definitively the main character, and those stories help the reader plumb Olive’s depths.

This kaleidoscope of stories reveals the many facets of a character who at first seems the very definition of the term “flat.” Olive, it appears initially, has one note, which might go something like “Go to hell.” But as Strout turns Olive this way and that, puts her in or near one extreme situation after another, we begin to know her. If we don’t exactly sympathize with her, we do begin to care to some degree what happens to her. The ending – which I won’t give away – gives us as readers a modicum of comfort, as it does Olive, too.

In addition to painting a portrait of Olive Kitteridge, Strout also brings to life the world of Crosby, a small town in Maine. When we leave Olive behind – as we do in several stories – we stay in Crosby, and we learn the many ways the community hurts, then marches on despite this hurt.

Is Olive Kitteridge more than a collection of short stories? Can it be called a composite novel in the vein of, say, Ernest Hemingway’s In Our Time? To my mind, it does very much work as a composite novel. Like Hemingway, Strout doesn’t keep a steady, straight-ahead focus on her main character – but the stories, taken as a whole, give us a rich portrait of Olive nevertheless.

Olive Kitteridge won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction and was made into an excellent HBO miniseries, starring Frances McDormand as Olive. To translate the book to television, the screenplay writer, Jane Anderson, put the story in roughly chronological order with Olive consistently at the center of events. Despite this imposition of linearity where there is none in the book, the miniseries is a well-done production (winning eight Emmy Awards). It’s a good supplement to the book but not a substitute for it.

I highly recommend reading the book first, then watching the miniseries. To get started, you can read Chapter 1, “Pharmacy,” on Elizabeth Strout’s website. Then consider purchasing the book and the DVD to get the full Olive Kitteridge experience.

Visit for links to all these resources. There you can also listen to Sandra Burr read an excerpt from Olive Kitteridge, watch one of the trailers for the HBO miniseries, and watch Elizabeth Strout discuss the book.

Jan 21, 2018

167: Emily Dickinson: Poem 372, "After Great Pain, a Formal Feeling Comes"

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This week on StoryWeb: Emily Dickinson’s Poem 372, “After great pain, a formal feeling comes –”

For Patricia and our students

Emily Dickinson’s Poem 372 is not – technically speaking – a story. And Dickinson is not a storyteller per se. But her nearly 1,800 poems speak deeply and powerfully to the human condition. They give a still unparalleled account of what it is to be human.

Poem 372 does have some elements of storytelling. Instead of “once upon a time,” we get “after this, then this.” And then Dickinson describes the numbing, the freezing, the letting go – perhaps the dying that follows loss, pain, trauma.

Was she writing of a disappointment with her sister-in-law, Sue, believed by many to have been her lover? Was it a loss of a different kind? We will never know that part of the story – the who, what, when, where, perhaps not even the why. But we do very much know the how – how the loss affected her, how it feels as a human being to grieve, to feel pain.

Without a doubt, this poem makes me think of my dear friend Patricia Dwyer. When she was in high school, Patricia listened as her English teacher – a Catholic nun – recited this particular Dickinson poem. Patricia was so moved that she thought, “This is what I want to do. I want to do what Sister Helen Anthony has just done.” Patricia went on to become a nun herself for twenty years, and in that time, she became a junior high and high school English teacher and ultimately a university English professor.

The power of this poem came to me fully in 2002, when Patricia and I were team-teaching a course on American Transcendentalism. On our week-long field trip to New England, we went to Dickinson’s hometown of Amherst, Massachusetts. Though many scholars don’t see Dickinson as a Transcendentalist, Patricia and I share a strong belief that she was influenced by and largely in sync with the leading literary and philosophical movement of the time.

After we toured the home Dickinson shared with her parents and the house next door where her brother, Austin, lived with his wife, Sue, we went to Dickinson’s gravesite at West Cemetery. There, we stood at the Dickinson family plot, bounded by a wrought-iron fence. It was a snowy March day, gray, heavy, damp. Together, we and our students stood silently, paying homage to the great poet.

Out of the snowy silence, Patricia began to recite the poem. “After great pain, a formal feeling comes,” she began, as Sister Helen Anthony had so many years ago. She concluded:

This is the Hour of Lead –
Remembered, if outlived,
As Freezing persons, recollect the Snow –
First – Chill – then Stupor – then the letting go –

The silence grew deeper, and without a dry eye in the bunch, we quietly walked out of the cemetery.

To learn more about our journey to Amherst, visit the American Transcendentalism website we and our students created – and be sure to read Patricia’s journal reflections about reciting the poem at Dickinson’s gravesite. A good overview of Dickinson and her work can be found at the Poetry Foundation website. The definitive collection of her poems was edited by Thomas H. Johnson; it’s a volume that every poetry lover will want to own.

As New England once again experiences a deep chill and heavy snow, I remember Emily Dickinson.

For links to all these resources and to see photographs from our visit to Dickinson’s gravesite, visit Listen now as I read Emily Dickinson’s Poem 372.

After great pain, a formal feeling comes –

The Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs –

The stiff Heart questions ‘was it He, that bore,’

And ‘Yesterday, or Centuries before’?

The Feet, mechanical, go round –

A Wooden way

Of Ground, or Air, or Ought –

Regardless grown,

A Quartz contentment, like a stone –

This is the Hour of Lead –

Remembered, if outlived,

As Freezing persons, recollect the Snow –

First – Chill – then Stupor – then the letting go –

Jan 07, 2018

166: James Joyce: "The Dead"

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This week on StoryWeb: James Joyce’s short story “The Dead.”

James Joyce’s “The Dead” is widely considered to be his best short story, called by the New York Times “just about the finest short story in the English language" and by T.S. Eliot as one of the greatest short stories ever written.

The storyline is simple enough: a long-married Irish couple -- Gretta and Gabriel Conroy – attend a lavish dinner party thrown by his aunts in celebration of the Feast of the Epiphany (January 6). At the party, they each have a variety of conversations with assorted party guests, and Gabriel gives the evening’s post-dinner speech and leads the toast. As Gabriel and Gretta leave the party, the snow which had been lightly falling when they arrived at the beginning of the evening has become quite heavy.

The closing scene finds Gretta asleep at their hotel while Gabriel stands at the window looking at the snow blanketing the city. Gabriel feels, in fact, that the snow is falling over the entirety of Ireland. Before falling asleep, Gretta had shared a memory about Michael Furey, the Irish activist lover of her youth. The reader is left to wonder whether Gabriel feels sorrow or acceptance over his wife’s confession that she still harbors feelings for her former lover.

The ending, it would seem, is deliberately ambiguous. Indeed, the ending forces the reader to go back into the story looking for clues as to whether we’re supposed to read the ending as “happy” or “sad.”

While “The Dead” is quite a famous story, less well known to the general public is its place as the culminating story in Joyce’s first book, a collection of short stories titled Dubliners. The collection was rejected 17 times over a 10-year period, with some of those rejections being based on what publishers and printers considered to be objectionable material. Finally published in 1914, this collection of 15 stories was Joyce’s first attempt to bring his native city to life. Of course, he would go on to write again and again about the Irish capital, most famously in his 1922 novel, Ulysses, which recounts one day in the life of Leopold Bloom as he makes his way through the streets of Dublin.

But Dubliners was Joyce’s initial portrait of a city he both loved and hated. Each story in the collection features a different resident of Dublin, and each tells a different tale of the suffocating, dreary lives lived in this city. The characters presented here suffer from spiritual paralysis, squelched freedom, and ##. Joyce himself admitted that the stories capture some of the unhappiest moments of life. If you’re looking for uplifting literature, Dubliners is not the book for you.

When read against the backdrop of these stories, “The Dead” – which is the finale of sorts to Dubliners – takes on an extra richness, an extra dimension. When read in this context, the story’s ambiguous ending becomes both easier and harder to read. Has Gabriel had an epiphany about the ways in which the dead live on in the memories of the living? Or has he succumbed – as the other characters in the Dubliners stories do – to a kind of paralysis, a numbing inability to be fully alive? Is the snow a beautiful phenomenon that brings all of Ireland together? Or is it a symbol of coldness, of death, a killing frost? As one source says, “In every corner of the country, snow touches both the dead and the living, uniting them in frozen paralysis. However, Gabriel’s thoughts in the final lines ofDublinerssuggest that the living might in fact be able to free themselves and live unfettered by deadening routines and the past. Even in January, snow is unusual in Ireland and cannot last forever.”

To consider the ending yourself, you’ll want to read this powerful story, which you can do for free at Project Gutenberg (and in fact, you can read the entire Dubliners collection here as well). If you prefer a hard copy, there’s an inexpensive Dover Thrift Edition.

You might also want to watch John Huston’s 1987 film adaptation of “The Dead.” It starred his daughter Angelica Huston as Gretta Conroy and Donal McCann as her husband, Gabriel.

Want to dig deeper? A helpful glossary of terms is available, and a digitized copy of the first edition of Dubliners can be found at Internet Archive. Richard Ellman’s biography of Joyce remains the standard, though its revised edition was published more than 30 years ago. Cornell’s James Joyce Collection is outstanding. You might also want to visit The James Joyce Centre – either online or in person in Dublin!

Visit for links to all these resources and to watch the film’s ending. But first, take a listen as I read the opening pages of “The Dead.”

Lily, the caretaker’s daughter, was literally run off her feet. Hardly had she brought one gentleman into the little pantry behind the office on the ground floor and helped him off with his overcoat than the wheezy hall-door bell clanged again and she had to scamper along the bare hallway to let in another guest. It was well for her she had not to attend to the ladies also. But Miss Kate and Miss Julia had thought of that and had converted the bathroom upstairs into a ladies’ dressing-room. Miss Kate and Miss Julia were there, gossiping and laughing and fussing, walking after each other to the head of the stairs, peering down over the banisters and calling down to Lily to ask her who had come.

It was always a great affair, the Misses Morkan’s annual dance. Everybody who knew them came to it, members of the family, old friends of the family, the members of Julia’s choir, any of Kate’s pupils that were grown up enough, and even some of Mary Jane’s pupils too. Never once had it fallen flat. For years and years it had gone off in splendid style as long as anyone could remember; ever since Kate and Julia, after the death of their brother Pat, had left the house in Stoney Batter and taken Mary Jane, their only niece, to live with them in the dark gaunt house on Usher’s Island, the upper part of which they had rented from Mr Fulham, the corn-factor on the ground floor. That was a good thirty years ago if it was a day. Mary Jane, who was then a little girl in short clothes, was now the main prop of the household, for she had the organ in Haddington Road. She had been through the Academy and gave a pupils’ concert every year in the upper room of the Antient Concert Rooms. Many of her pupils belonged to the better-class families on the Kingstown and Dalkey line. Old as they were, her aunts also did their share. Julia, though she was quite grey, was still the leading soprano in Adam and Eve’s, and Kate, being too feeble to go about much, gave music lessons to beginners on the old square piano in the back room. Lily, the caretaker’s daughter, did housemaid’s work for them. Though their life was modest they believed in eating well; the best of everything: diamond-bone sirloins, three-shilling tea and the best bottled stout. But Lily seldom made a mistake in the orders so that she got on well with her three mistresses. They were fussy, that was all. But the only thing they would not stand was back answers.

Of course they had good reason to be fussy on such a night. And then it was long after ten o’clock and yet there was no sign of Gabriel and his wife. Besides they were dreadfully afraid that Freddy Malins might turn up screwed. They would not wish for worlds that any of Mary Jane’s pupils should see him under the influence; and when he was like that it was sometimes very hard to manage him. Freddy Malins always came late but they wondered what could be keeping Gabriel: and that was what brought them every two minutes to the banisters to ask Lily had Gabriel or Freddy come.

“O, Mr Conroy,” said Lily to Gabriel when she opened the door for him, “Miss Kate and Miss Julia thought you were never coming. Good-night, Mrs Conroy.”

“I’ll engage they did,” said Gabriel, “but they forget that my wife here takes three mortal hours to dress herself.”

He stood on the mat, scraping the snow from his goloshes, while Lily led his wife to the foot of the stairs and called out:

“Miss Kate, here’s Mrs Conroy.”

Kate and Julia came toddling down the dark stairs at once. Both of them kissed Gabriel’s wife, said she must be perished alive and asked was Gabriel with her.

“Here I am as right as the mail, Aunt Kate! Go on up. I’ll follow,” called out Gabriel from the dark.

He continued scraping his feet vigorously while the three women went upstairs, laughing, to the ladies’ dressing-room. A light fringe of snow lay like a cape on the shoulders of his overcoat and like toecaps on the toes of his goloshes; and, as the buttons of his overcoat slipped with a squeaking noise through the snow-stiffened frieze, a cold, fragrant air from out-of-doors escaped from crevices and folds.

“Is it snowing again, Mr Conroy?” asked Lily.

She had preceded him into the pantry to help him off with his overcoat. Gabriel smiled at the three syllables she had given his surname and glanced at her. She was a slim, growing girl, pale in complexion and with hay-coloured hair. The gas in the pantry made her look still paler. Gabriel had known her when she was a child and used to sit on the lowest step nursing a rag doll.

“Yes, Lily,” he answered, “and I think we’re in for a night of it.”

He looked up at the pantry ceiling, which was shaking with the stamping and shuffling of feet on the floor above, listened for a moment to the piano and then glanced at the girl, who was folding his overcoat carefully at the end of a shelf.

“Tell me, Lily,” he said in a friendly tone, “do you still go to school?”

“O no, sir,” she answered. “I’m done schooling this year and more.”

“O, then,” said Gabriel gaily, “I suppose we’ll be going to your wedding one of these fine days with your young man, eh?”

The girl glanced back at him over her shoulder and said with great bitterness:

“The men that is now is only all palaver and what they can get out of you.”

Gabriel coloured as if he felt he had made a mistake and, without looking at her, kicked off his goloshes and flicked actively with his muffler at his patent-leather shoes.

He was a stout tallish young man. The high colour of his cheeks pushed upwards even to his forehead where it scattered itself in a few formless patches of pale red; and on his hairless face there scintillated restlessly the polished lenses and the bright gilt rims of the glasses which screened his delicate and restless eyes. His glossy black hair was parted in the middle and brushed in a long curve behind his ears where it curled slightly beneath the groove left by his hat.

When he had flicked lustre into his shoes he stood up and pulled his waistcoat down more tightly on his plump body. Then he took a coin rapidly from his pocket.

“O Lily,” he said, thrusting it into her hands, “it’s Christmas-time, isn’t it? Just ... here’s a little....”

He walked rapidly towards the door.

“O no, sir!” cried the girl, following him. “Really, sir, I wouldn’t take it.”

“Christmas-time! Christmas-time!” said Gabriel, almost trotting to the stairs and waving his hand to her in deprecation.

The girl, seeing that he had gained the stairs, called out after him:

“Well, thank you, sir.”

He waited outside the drawing-room door until the waltz should finish, listening to the skirts that swept against it and to the shuffling of feet. He was still discomposed by the girl’s bitter and sudden retort. It had cast a gloom over him which he tried to dispel by arranging his cuffs and the bows of his tie. He then took from his waistcoat pocket a little paper and glanced at the headings he had made for his speech. He was undecided about the lines from Robert Browning for he feared they would be above the heads of his hearers. Some quotation that they would recognise from Shakespeare or from the Melodies would be better. The indelicate clacking of the men’s heels and the shuffling of their soles reminded him that their grade of culture differed from his. He would only make himself ridiculous by quoting poetry to them which they could not understand. They would think that he was airing his superior education. He would fail with them just as he had failed with the girl in the pantry. He had taken up a wrong tone. His whole speech was a mistake from first to last, an utter failure.

Just then his aunts and his wife came out of the ladies’ dressing-room. His aunts were two small plainly dressed old women. Aunt Julia was an inch or so the taller. Her hair, drawn low over the tops of her ears, was grey; and grey also, with darker shadows, was her large flaccid face. Though she was stout in build and stood erect her slow eyes and parted lips gave her the appearance of a woman who did not know where she was or where she was going. Aunt Kate was more vivacious. Her face, healthier than her sister’s, was all puckers and creases, like a shrivelled red apple, and her hair, braided in the same old-fashioned way, had not lost its ripe nut colour.

They both kissed Gabriel frankly. He was their favourite nephew, the son of their dead elder sister, Ellen, who had married T. J. Conroy of the Port and Docks.

“Gretta tells me you’re not going to take a cab back to Monkstown tonight, Gabriel,” said Aunt Kate.

“No,” said Gabriel, turning to his wife, “we had quite enough of that last year, hadn’t we? Don’t you remember, Aunt Kate, what a cold Gretta got out of it? Cab windows rattling all the way, and the east wind blowing in after we passed Merrion. Very jolly it was. Gretta caught a dreadful cold.”

Aunt Kate frowned severely and nodded her head at every word.

“Quite right, Gabriel, quite right,” she said. “You can’t be too careful.”

“But as for Gretta there,” said Gabriel, “she’d walk home in the snow if she were let.”

Mrs Conroy laughed.

“Don’t mind him, Aunt Kate,” she said. “He’s really an awful bother, what with green shades for Tom’s eyes at night and making him do the dumb-bells, and forcing Eva to eat the stirabout. The poor child! And she simply hates the sight of it!... O, but you’ll never guess what he makes me wear now!”

She broke out into a peal of laughter and glanced at her husband, whose admiring and happy eyes had been wandering from her dress to her face and hair. The two aunts laughed heartily too, for Gabriel’s solicitude was a standing joke with them.

“Goloshes!” said Mrs Conroy. “That’s the latest. Whenever it’s wet underfoot I must put on my goloshes. Tonight even he wanted me to put them on, but I wouldn’t. The next thing he’ll buy me will be a diving suit.”

Gabriel laughed nervously and patted his tie reassuringly while Aunt Kate nearly doubled herself, so heartily did she enjoy the joke. The smile soon faded from Aunt Julia’s face and her mirthless eyes were directed towards her nephew’s face. After a pause she asked:

“And what are goloshes, Gabriel?”

“Goloshes, Julia!” exclaimed her sister “Goodness me, don’t you know what goloshes are? You wear them over your ... over your boots, Gretta, isn’t it?”

“Yes,” said Mrs Conroy. “Guttapercha things. We both have a pair now. Gabriel says everyone wears them on the continent.”

“O, on the continent,” murmured Aunt Julia, nodding her head slowly.

Gabriel knitted his brows and said, as if he were slightly angered:

“It’s nothing very wonderful but Gretta thinks it very funny because she says the word reminds her of Christy Minstrels.”

“But tell me, Gabriel,” said Aunt Kate, with brisk tact. “Of course, you’ve seen about the room. Gretta was saying....”

“O, the room is all right,” replied Gabriel. “I’ve taken one in the Gresham.”

“To be sure,” said Aunt Kate, “by far the best thing to do. And the children, Gretta, you’re not anxious about them?”

“O, for one night,” said Mrs Conroy. “Besides, Bessie will look after them.”

Dec 31, 2017

165: Richard Thompson: "1952 Vincent Black Lightning"

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This week on StoryWeb: Richard Thompson’s song “1952 Vincent Black Lightning.”

For Jim, in honor of his birthday

My husband, Jim, and I love this song by Richard Thompson and its signature line, “red hair and black leather, my favorite color scheme.” In fact, the first concert we saw together was Thompson playing at the Boulder Theater, and of course, I sported a black leather motorcycle jacket. When Thompson sang the song, one of his most popular, and got to this particular line, Jim called out, “Me, too!” Thank goodness, Jim is not a heckler – and he didn’t disturb the concert – but I loved it! I’m guessing many red-headed women have gone to Richard Thompson concerts in black leather jackets.

Thompson’s “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” is a perfect story song. It’s short – just four stanzas – but it really tells a story and packs an emotional punch in that compact space. There are two, maybe three characters – the thief James Adie and Red Molly, of course, but James’s 1952 Vincent Black Lightning is almost a character, too.

This “fine motorbike,” as Red Molly calls it, is legendary in the U.K. The Vincent motorcycle company – based in Great Britain – made motorcycles for only four years and made fewer than thirty of this particular bike in 1952. In an interview, Thompson describes the 1952 Vincent Black Lightning as “an object of myth, a rather wonderful, rare and beautiful beast.” Or as Red Molly says, “a girl could feel special on any such like.”

What I (and so many others!) love about this song is that Thompson has written it to sound like an old English ballad. It is the perfect ballad. It has a limited cast of characters whom we care about almost instantly. There is an object of beauty – or more accurately, two objects of beauty: Red Molly and the 1952 Vincent Black Lightning. There’s a romance, some crime, and an untimely death. But the fun twist is that the old-sounding ballad is about a man and his motorcycle – as if even the modern world can be the stuff of ballads. Or as Thompson said in one live performance, “It’s a simple boy-meets-girl story, complicated somewhat by the presence of a motorcycle.”

Thompson explains the origin of the song:

When I was a kid, that was always the exotic bike, that was always the one, the one that you went “ooh, wow.” I'd always been looking for English ideas that didn't sound corny, that had some romance to them, and around which you could pin a song. And this song started with a motorcycle, it started with the Vincent. It was a good lodestone around which the song could revolve.

It’s not surprising that Richard Thompson would write an old-time ballad about a motorbike. After all, as a founding member of the Fairport Convention in the 1960s, he was at the forefront of the English folk rock movement. According to one source, Thompson’s early group brought “a distinctively English identity to rock music and helped awaken much wider interest in traditional music in general.” points out that in his songwriting, Thompson has “long displayed a flair for adapting the tenets of the [English folk] style to his own contemporary works.” This song, says, “takes a story old as the hills (good woman falls for noble criminal) and brings it into the present day without robbing it of a bit of its emotional power – and it has a killer guitar part to boot.” American Songwriter says of the ending, “Yes it’s a cliché, but Thompson imbues their last goodbye with such genuine emotion that it transcends all the times this story has been told before.”

The song, which has developed almost a cult-like following, was recorded as part of Thompson’s 1991 album, Rumor and Sigh. Time magazine included the song in its list of 100 songs since the magazine began publishing in 1923. Time says the song is “a glorious example of what one guy can accomplish with just a guitar, a voice, an imagination and a set of astonishingly nimble fingers.” The ballad, says Time, “takes you to the emotional edge of love and theft, then soars right over it.”

If you want to truly geek out on this amazing song, visit Sing Out! magazine for an incredibly thorough discussion of the way the song has evolved over years of performances, both by Thompson and by other musicians who have covered the song.

If you’re not familiar with Richard Thompson’s “1952 Vincent Black Lightning,” take a listen – and see if you don’t get a lump in your throat as James says goodbye to Red Molly and his fine motorbike. You can listen to the song online – but better yet, you might want to purchase Rumor and Sigh, the album on which he released “1952 Vincent Black Lightning,” as there are lots of other great songs on the album as well. And if you fall in love with Richard Thompson’s music (and really, who wouldn’t?), you might want to add RT: The Life and Music of Richard Thompson, a five-CD box set that features classic, rare, and previously unreleased Thompson recordings. And if you want to learn to play like the fleet-fingered Thompson, check out his book Richard Thompson Teaches Traditional Guitar Instrumentals: Unique Arrangements of Irish, Scottish and English Tunes.

Visit for links to all these resources and to watch Richard Thompson perform “1952 Vincent Black Lightning.”

Dec 24, 2017

164: Robert Frost: "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening"

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This week on StoryWeb: Robert Frost’s poem “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.”

In honor of the winter solstice

Without a doubt, the most famous poem about winter is Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” In fact, Garrison Keillor says that this is perhaps the single most famous poem of any kind in the twentieth century. Frost himself called the poem “my best bid for remembrance.”

Written nearly in the blink of an eye in June 1922 after Frost had been up all night finishing his long poem “New Hampshire,” the poem, said Frost, came to him nearly in an hallucination in just “a few minutes without strain.” It was published the next year in a collection of Frost poems also titled New Hampshire.

It’s likely that you know this beloved poem – and also that you know other Frost poems, such as “After Apple-Picking,” “Birches,” “Nothing Gold Can Stay,” and of course “The Road Not Taken.” The thing about Frost’s poems is that they seem, at first glance, to be so simple, so straightforward.

In “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” the poem’s speaker is returning home from an errand of some sort on the “darkest evening of the year,” that is, the winter solstice. He and his horse stop by a wood filling with snow. The horse is impatient to get home, but the man is entranced by the snow piling up in the woods, “lovely, dark and deep.” Anyone who has witnessed a deep snow knows the muffled quiet, the hush that descends as the “downy flake[s]” fall, that magical feeling of being transported almost to another world. Since I live in Colorado, I get to enjoy many such snowfalls each year, and I often say it is like being in a snow globe.

But “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” is not just about being in a snow globe in New Hampshire, lovely as that image is. No, anyone who’s read the work of Robert Frost knows that there’s usually more going on in a Frost poem than at first meets the eye. Here, we can’t help but be intrigued by the lines at the poem’s end: “The woods are lovely, dark and deep, / But I have promises to keep, / And miles to go before I sleep, / And miles to go before I sleep.”

Perhaps these lines are literally about a busy man who needs to attend to his obligations and not tarry too long in this transcendent landscape. And maybe he is thinking prosaically about the long journey still ahead toward home.

But many readers have sensed that there is more at work here. Drawn into the otherworldliness of the dark woods filling up with snow, the speaker may be thinking on another level of the “sweet” relief that death may bring. Like sleep, death is a mystery, an unknowing, potentially a kind of oblivion that seems in some ways attractive to someone, like the poem’s speaker, who is too busy with obligations and errands. Might it be nice to simply succumb to these woods, “lovely, dark and deep” as they are?

Then again, maybe this is just a slice-of-life nature poem about appreciating a supremely beautiful winter landscape. A former colleague of mine from my days teaching at West Virginia’s Shepherd University emphatically told students that the poem is not about death as it does not explicitly mention this subject. For that professor, the poem is literally about the narrator needing to get home so he can sleep. But this professor also told students that any given poem has only one meaning and that it is the teacher’s job to ensure that students understand each poem’s single interpretation.

I am in a far different camp, as I believe that a rich poem can have multiple interpretations, maybe even contradictory meanings at the same time, that readers bring to the poem their own lives and experiences and that each reader has a unique experience of the poem. I ascribe to Archibald MacLeish’s philosophy: “A poem should not mean but be.”

To sample a few of the many interpretations Frost’s poem has elicited, visit the University of Illinois’s outstanding Modern American Poetry website, where you’ll find excerpts from a dozen or so scholars. One critic included here, Clint Stevens, writes, “There is in the end the uncertainty in choosing between his death impulse and his desire to continue on the road of life. Which wins in the end, I think I know, but it scarcely matters; the speaker has had his solitary vision; whether he stays or goes, the woods will go with him and the reader, who are now well-acquainted with the coming night.” Well said, Mr. Stevens. Well said.

To learn more about Frost, you might want to read thePoetry Foundation’s introduction to Frost’s work and philosophy. If you really want to delve into everything Frost, read Jay Parini’s outstanding biography,Robert Frost: A Life– and check out theRobert Frost postage stamp(along with other U.S. stamps dedicated to American poets!). The definitive collection of Frost’s poetry isThe Poetry of Robert Frost.

Visit for links to all these resources and to watch Frost recite this marvelous poem. At the very least, hearing him read the words will transport you to a magical, snowy world. And it just might cause you to reflect on the power of life – and death – beyond yourself.

And the next time you are lucky enough to enjoy a lovely, deep snowfall, think of Frost’s poems. Happy winter, happy return of the light to all my StoryWeb listeners.

Dec 17, 2017

163: Rick Nelson: "Garden Party"

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This week on StoryWeb: Rick Nelson’s song “Garden Party.”

For Julia, in honor of her birthday

In 1972, my two-year-old sister could sing all the words to this Rick Nelson hit. Why she latched on to this particular song when it came on the car radio none of us will ever know – not even Julia. She would sit in her car seat – not one of the safety-conscious car seats of today – and practically dance in her seat, legs and arms bopping to the beat.

So “Garden Party” has a special place in my memories. But there’s an interesting story to the song itself as well.

Rick Nelson was, of course, one of two sons of Ozzie and Harriet Nelson, famous stars of their own 1950s and 1960s television show, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. To be an Ozzie or a Harriet, to be a Ricky or a David, to be a Nelson meant that you were part of a wholesome, all-American family. The Nelsons epitomized the white picket fence dream of Eisenhower’s America.

As a teen in the late 1950s, Ricky Nelson emerged as a rock-and-roll performer, with an emphasis on rockabilly. In short order, he became a teen idol. Though he officially changed his performance name to Rick Nelson in 1961 when he was 21, he would forever be known as “Ricky” by the many teen girls who had fallen in love with him.

With the onset of Beatlemania, Rick Nelson’s music fell out of popularity. By the late 1960s and early 1970s, he was still making music, recording in the country-rock genre emerging at the time. But his new music was not catching on in quite the way he hoped.

Things came to a head in 1971 when he performed at an oldies concert at Madison Square Garden. Other oldies artists – including Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, and Little Richard – played the show, which was intended to showcase the music of a bygone era. Wearing bell bottoms and a purple velvet shirt and sporting long hair, Nelson at first played “Be-Bop Baby,” “Hello, Mary Lou,” and other old hits, but when he launched into a country version of the Rolling Stones’ “Honky Tonk Women,” the audience booed him off the stage.

Disgusted by what had happened at the show, he wrote “Garden Party,” weaving together references to musicians and songs performed at the concert. In an essay for Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Story Behind the Song, his son Gunnar Nelson recalls: “After a lifetime of pretending to be a character he wasn’t – wearing the sweater on Monday on the set of Ozzie and Harriet after being a real rock star on the weekends – he was writing and performing for his own pleasure and satisfaction.” Gunnar says one of his most prized possessions is his father’s handwritten lyrics to “Garden Party,” featured at SongFacts, which includes extensive background on the song and on Rick Nelson’s career. Nelson offers reminisces about the song in a 1983 interview.

I love that “Garden Party” tells a real story – and I also love that it allowed Rick Nelson to get the last laugh. Ironically, he is really known now mostly for this song – a tune about not having his music appreciated. Though he never regained his earlier popularity by the time he died in a plane crash in 1985 at age 45, it seems Rick Nelson had learned the real lesson from that experience at Madison Square Garden – to be true to yourself and to your creative vision.

For me, though, this song will always conjure up images of my beloved little sister, her big brown eyes and long, curly brown hair, her pumping arms and legs, and her two-year-old voice exclaiming, “You see you can’t please everyone, so you got to please yourself.”

Visit for links to all these resources and to watch Rick Nelson play “Garden Party” on Midnight Special, hosted by Wolfman Jack.

Dec 10, 2017

162: The Coen Brothers: "Fargo"

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This week on Story Web: the Coen Brothers’ film Fargo.

I suppose I must have a dark sense of humor indeed to think of the Coen Brothers’ film Fargo as a comedy – even if I do realize that it is a dark comedy. I mean, what can you say about someone who shrieks, then laughs uproariously, at the woodchipper scene?

Yes, Fargo is a weird and dark tale – from William H. Macy as Jerry Lundegaard, the pathetic car dealership manager who pays two sleazy criminals to kidnap his wife, to Steve Buscemi as the “funny-looking guy” in that criminal pair, from Frances McDormand as Marge Gunderson, a pregnant police detective, to Steve Park as Mike Yanagita, the high school classmate who visits her in one of the film’s many bizarre scenes. All of the actors in the movie are outstanding, but my favorite by far is McDormand, who also happens to be married to Joel Coen and who acts in a number of the Coen Brothers’ films. Apparently, I am not alone in my assessment of McDormand’s portrayal of Marge Gunderson, as she won a Best Oscar Actress for this role.

Part of what made Fargo fascinating and compelling to me when I first saw it was the film’s opening claim that it is based on a true story. The viewer sees the following text on screen:

This is a true story. The events depicted in this film took place in Minnesota in 1987. At the request of the survivors, the names have been changed. Out of respect for the dead, the rest has been told exactly as it occurred.

But as it turns out, the story may not actually be true – or then again, it may be. The Coen Brothers have both asserted that it is true and laughed off questions about its veracity. As Ethan Coen says, “You don’t have to have a true story to make a true story movie.” Learn more about the truth or fiction of Fargo by visiting Snopes, the Huffington Post, and Film School Rejects.

Now if you haven’t seen Fargo, I don’t want to give anything away. Suffice it to say, watching Fargo won’t be your average viewing experience. And as you watch events unfold, you may be thinking, “She finds this funny?!” As I said, it’s a dark sense of humor that draws me to this film.

Fans of the Coen Brothers’ other films will know what I mean. From one of their earliest films, Raising Arizona, Joel and Ethan Coen have shown themselves to find humor in the strangest of settings. I know people who are such ardent fans of Raising Arizona that they can recite virtually every line, and that is even more the case with their cult classic The Big Lebowski (anyone for a White Russian?). Probably their “biggest” film to date is O Brother, Where Art Thou? It stars George Clooney as a modern-day Ulysses on an odyssey through the Depression-era South. Of course, laughs are once again in big supply.

(Video) 🧴Too Much Glue(Read Aloud) | Storytime by Jason Lifebvre *Miss Jill

To dig deeper into Fargo, check out The Atlantic’s in-depth consideration of the film that “brought it all together” for the Coen Brothers. You can watch a television interview with the Coen Brothers and Frances McDormand about Fargo, and you’ll also enjoy a short video about the seven things you probably didn’t know about Fargo. A great deal of dialogue from the film can be found at Wikiquote. To go all scholarly on the film, check out The Coen Brothers’ Fargo, a Cambridge Film Handbook.

To think more fully about the Coen Brothers’ long career in filmmaking, read The New Yorker’s assessment of their work. A three-minute video tribute to their many films is also available. You might also find it interesting to read Ian Nathan’s new book, The Coen Brothers: The Iconic Filmmakers and Their Work, or Mark T. Conard’s book The Philosophy of the Coen Brothers. Also useful is a collection of interviews with the Coen Brothers.

Of course, Fargo was so successful that it spawned a TV spin-off twenty years later! There are mixed reports about whether the Coen Brothers like the television series, but for my money, the original film is all you need. If you want to add Fargo to your DVD collection, consider buying Coen Brothers Collection, which includes Blood Simple, Fargo, Miller’s Crossing, and Raising Arizona. Or you might just want to stick with the special edition DVD of Fargo.

Visit for links to all these resources and to watch the scene in which police detective Marge Gunderson (played by Frances McDormand) says, “’m not so sure I agree 100% with your policework there, Lou.”

However you watch Fargo, just be sure to laugh. It’s not all grim and macabre – at least not to me!

Dec 03, 2017

161: Theodore Roethke: "My Papa's Waltz"

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This week on StoryWeb: Theodore Roethke’s poem “My Papa’s Waltz,”

A story contained in sixteen short lines of poetry – that is Theodore Roethke’s “My Papa’s Waltz.” This autobiographical poem tells of a little boy dancing with his drunk father as his frowning mother looks on.

How to read this poem? Is the speaker a man looking back at his drunken father with affection or remembering the fear he felt at his father’s whiskey binges? Love and fear simultaneously?

There is mixed, conflicted affection in the poem. The boy hangs on “like death” and acknowledges that “such waltzing was not easy.” But he also mentions “[t]he hand that held my wrist” and says that his father “waltzed me off to bed / Still clinging to your shirt.”

Despite the intimacy, however, it’s impossible not to notice the hard, nearly brutal images in the poem. The father dances around the room so roughly that pans slide off the kitchen shelf. The father’s hand is “battered.” The boy’s ear “scrape[s]” his father’s belt buckle. The father “beat[s] time on my head / With a palm caked hard by dirt.” These images hint of domestic violence – the father toward the boy or the father toward the mother, perhaps both.

However you read this poem, it is a poem of great intimacy – the grown man looking back at what passed for a close moment with his father. While it’s undeniable that the poem reveals the harsh side of the speaker’s father, the poem also reveals a tenderness between the father and the boy, the affection (if conflicted) the boy feels for the father.

Even the boy himself seems to wonder how he was supposed to feel. He’s “dizzy” – a state that can be good or bad. And he says, “Such waltzing was not easy.” As he dances a fragile dance between his father and his mother, he hangs on like death, clings to his father as best he can.

The title of the volume in which the poem appears – The Lost Son – may give us a clue as to how to read the poem, whether a fond remembrance of affection or a terrifying memory of fear. But even when we acknowledge that the “lost son” sounds negative, we are left with two opposing words: “lost” and “son.” Loss, abandonment, pain are acknowledged, but so too is the relationship of father and son. This volume of poetry, published in 1948, was Roethke’s breakthrough book.

The poem is likely based on Roethke’s own childhood. He was born and raised in Saginaw, Michigan, where his German immigrant father, Otto, owned and ran a twenty-five-acre greenhouse. When Roethke was fourteen, his father died of cancer and his uncle committed suicide. The great feeling of abandonment that sprang up in Roethke’s life intertwined with his own alcoholism and his profound struggles with manic depression. Despite this pain or perhaps because of it, Roethke’s poetry has an unusual power and grace.

To learn more about Roethke, visit the Poetry Foundation website, the Biography website, or the Modern American Poetry website. Poet Stanley Kunitz offers an insightful and heartfelt tribute to Roethke, and in an interview, Native American author Sherman Alexie acknowledges his debt to Roethke, saying that “I’ve spent my whole career rewriting ‘My Papa’s Waltz’ with an Indian twist.” These last two resources come from the outstanding Poetry Society of America website.

To explore Roethke’s poetry more fully, check out his collection The Waking, which won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1954. It includes his famous title poem, which reads in part, “I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow. / I learn by going where I have to go.” You might also enjoy The Collected Poems of Theodore Roethke and Straw for the Fire: From the Notebooks of Theodore Roethke. If you are a writer, you’ll enjoy Roethke’s book On Poetry and Craft.

Visit to listen to Theodore Roethke read “My Papa’s Waltz.” You can also watch a 1964 film about Theodore Roethke, In a Dark Time, which features footage of Roethke reading selected poems, including “The Waking.”

Nov 26, 2017

160: Lydia Maria Child: "Over the River and Through the Web"

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Lydia Maria Child: “Over the River and Through the Wood”

In the 19th century, Lydia Maria Child’s name was nearly a household word.

An outspoken abolitionist, women’s rights supporter, and crusader for Native American rights, Child was also a prolific author. A journalist and editor, she wrote novels and short stories (often using fiction to express her anti-slavery views), poems and children’s books, and domestic manuals for wives and mothers.

Her most famous book – which went into 33 printings – was The Frugal Housewife, first published in 1829. Four years later, she published An Appeal in Favor of That Class of Americans Called Africans, believed to be the first anti-slavery book published in the United States. She also served as editor for Harriet Jacobs’s influential 1861 slave narrative, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. In all, Child wrote more than 50 books.

Though Child was very prominent in her time, she comes down to us now primarily as the author of a poem originally published as “The New-England Boy’s Song about Thanksgiving Day” – more popularly known to us as “Over the River and Through the Wood.” It was included in her 1844 book, Flowers for Children. The poem features Child’s reminiscences about visiting her grandfather’s house during the cold New England winters.

The Poetry Foundation, which credits her with being one of the most important American women writers of the 19th century, provides an outstanding overview of Child’s life and work, writing: “She wrote one of the earliest American historical novels, the first comprehensive history of American slavery, and the first comparative history of women. In addition, she edited the first American children's magazine, compiled an early primer for the freed slaves, and published the first book designed for the elderly.”

Two other excellent introductions to Child can be found at American National Biography Online and the History of American Women website. You can visit to consider Child’s relationship to other New England thinkers and writers of the time. Her work is also included in the Library of Congress’s “American Women” project. Look for her especially in the section titled “Reform Efforts.”

If you want to go even further in your exploration of this key 19th-century writer, you might want to read Lori Kenschaft’s book Lydia Maria Child: The Quest for Racial Justice or Carolyn L. Karcher’s book The First Woman in the Republic: A Cultural Biography of Lydia Maria Child. A Lydia Maria Child Reader is available. And believe it or not, you can still buy a copy of The American Frugal Housewife.

Not surprisingly, many children’s picture books have taken “Over the River and Through the Wood” as their subject. I am particularly taken with Mary Engelbreit’s version. Another lovely book is Over the River and Through the Wood: An Anthology of Nineteenth-Century American Children’s Poetry.

Wherever Thanksgiving Day finds you this year, take a moment to revisit Lydia Maria Child’s classic poem celebrating the holiday.

Visit for links to all these resources. Listen now as I read Lydia Maria Child’s 1844 poem “The New-England Boy’s Song about Thanksgiving Day.”

The New-England Boy's Song about Thanksgiving Day


Over the river, and through the wood,

To grandfather's house we go;

The horse knows the way,

To carry the sleigh,

Through the white and drifted snow.

Over the river, and through the wood,

To grandfather's house away!

We would not stop

For doll or top,

For 't is Thanksgiving day.

Over the river, and through the wood,

Oh, how the wind does blow!

It stings the toes,

And bites the nose,

As over the ground we go.

Over the river, and through the wood,

With a clear blue winter sky,

The dogs do bark,

And children hark,

As we go jingling by.

Over the river, and through the wood,

To have a first-rate play —

Hear the bells ring

Ting a ling ding,

Hurra for Thanksgiving day!

Over the river, and through the wood —

No matter for winds that blow;

Or if we get

The sleigh upset,

Into a bank of snow.

Over the river, and through the wood,

To see little John and Ann;

We will kiss them all,

And play snow-ball,

And stay as long as we can.

Over the river, and through the wood,

Trot fast, my dapple grey!

Spring over the ground,

Like a hunting hound,

For 't is Thanksgiving day!

Over the river, and through the wood,

And straight through the barn-yard gate;

We seem to go

Extremely slow,

It is so hard to wait.

Over the river, and through the wood,

Old Jowler hears our bells;

He shakes his pow,

With a loud bow wow,

And thus the news he tells.

Over the river, and through the wood —

When grandmother sees us come,

She will say, Oh dear,

The children are here,

Bring a pie for every one.

Over the river, and through the wood —

Now grandmother's cap I spy!

Hurra for the fun!

Is the pudding done?

Hurra for the pumpkin pie!

Nov 19, 2017

159: Lee Smith: "Dimestore"

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This week on StoryWeb: Lee Smith’s memoir, Dimestore: A Writer’s Life.

I first fell in love with Lee Smith’s fiction nearly thirty years ago when I was a cook at Le Conte Lodge in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. On my afternoons off, I’d sit on my cabin porch, reading first Lee’s novel Oral History, later her novel Fair and Tender Ladies. She created characters with such powerful voices – women and men of Appalachia who spin yarns through story and song. Granny Younger’s voice and Ivy Rowe’s letters have stayed with me all these years.

The more I followed Lee’s career, the more I was drawn in. So it was an honor years later to edit a collection of previously published interviews with her. Gathering these interviews in Conversations with Lee Smith was like sitting on the porch drinking sweet tea and hanging out with a long-lost but beloved cousin.

Last year when Lee published her newest book, Dimestore: A Writer’s Life, I was more than delighted. In the interviews I had collected, Lee had told bits and pieces of her story – but now came Dimestore, a collection of personal essays, roughly arranged in chronological order. Taken together, they read like a memoir.

The reader who picks up Dimestore will learn about growing up as an only child in Grundy, Virginia, her parents, Gig and Ernest, her time spent in her father’s Ben Franklin dimestore, her parents’ struggles with mental illness, and Lee’s resilient coping strategies. As the book goes on, the reader learns also about her son Josh and his diagnosis of schizophrenia at age eighteen. Along the way, the reader sees how Lee’s love of storytelling and passion for writing literally saved her life.

One essay in the book stands out for me above all the others. “A Life in Books” began as the keynote address at the 2007 meeting of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP). I was fortunate enough to meet my best friends, Amy Young and Jennifer Soule, in Atlanta for the conference. And of course, they were right there with me in the front row for Lee’s speech.

By this time, Lee and I had long since met and become friends, and we had talked about the mental illness that ran through both of our families over many generations. And I knew that her son Josh had recently died of complications of his schizophrenia. I had sent a card and made a donation to the group home where he lived.

But little did I expect that Lee would talk openly that night about the heartbreaking loss of Josh and about the role her writing played in helping her to recover her own life. I wasn’t the only one who was deeply moved by Lee’s honest account that evening. Indeed, there were no dry eyes in the auditorium as the audience leapt to its feet in a long-standing ovation.

I’m so glad to see Dimestore published. In addition to “A Life in Books,” which appears near the end of the book, I highly recommend the entire volume. The author of thirteen novels and four short story collections, Lee Smith leaves her fictional worlds behind and lets us see behind the curtains into her own life.

To learn more about Dimestore, read the Huffington Post’s interview with Lee Smith and Publisher’s Weekly interview with her, then listen to Diane Rehm’s interview with her as well as Frank Stasio’s North Carolina Public Radio conversation with her about the book. You’ll also delight in visiting Lee’s website. You can read excerpts from the book: “Raised to Leave: Some Thoughts on ‘Culture’” and “Finding My Way Home.” When you’re hooked (and I know you will be!), get your hands on a hard copy of Dimestore.

Visit for links to all these resources and to listen to Lee Smith give her 2007 speech titled “A Life in Books,” published as an essay near the end of Dimestore.

Nov 12, 2017

158: Jill Ker Conway: "The Road from Coorain"

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This week on StoryWeb: Jill Ker Conway’s memoir The Road from Coorain.

The Road from Coorain traces the unlikely story of young Jill Ker’s journey from a sheep station in the western grasslands of New South Wales, Australia, to the position of president of Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts.

Journeys of such epic proportions are rare even for the increasingly ubiquitous genre of memoir. But the young Jill – hemmed in by the extreme drudgery of sheep farming, the tedium of the dry, parched landscape of the Australian outback, and later by the emotional demands of her widowed mother, who had relocated the family to Sydney – dreams big dreams. From the family’s 30,000-acre property known as Coorain, a place so isolated that she was seven before she saw another girl child, Jill Ker travels first with her family to Sydney, then on her own to Cambridge, Massachusetts, to earn a PhD at Harvard University.

Though Jill Ker Conway’s most public triumph comes in her becoming the first woman to be named president of Smith College (arguably the most prestigious women’s college in the world), this memoir – the first of a trilogy – takes us back to her childhood, paints for us the picture of a life limited by her family circumstances, including her father’s death at Coorain when young Jill is just ten, and limited as well by the Australian society of the 1950s, a world that does not value women’s contributions.

Conway went on to write two other memoirs – True North and A Woman’s Education – which, taken together, tell the story of her marriage to Canadian professor John Conway and her singular accomplishments in higher education. A good introduction to these two memoirs, especially A Woman’s Education, can be found in Harvard Magazine.

Both True North and A Woman’s Education are satisfying reading indeed, particularly for those readers who get swept up by The Road from Coorain and want to know how it all turned out for the young Jill Ker.

But it is The Road from Coorain that stays with the reader most powerfully. In this stark but also lyric memoir, Conway brings us into her childhood on Coorain, the name coming from the Aboriginal word for “windy place.” She offers a rare glimpse into a way of life in Australia that few hardy souls have experienced – and a life that few have transcended so remarkably.

The New York Times review of the memoir’s publication in 1989 is insightful. If you want to dip your toe into The Road from Coorain, you can read an online excerpt from the book’s opening. But you’ll be hooked – believe me – so you’ll eventually want to get your hands on the book itself.

Visit for links to all these resources and to watch a five-minute clip from the Australian telefeature based on Jill Ker Conway’s memoir The Road from Coorain. You can then watch a seventeen-minute video interview conducted in 2011 with Conway.

Nov 05, 2017

157: Edgar Allan Poe: "The Raven"

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This week on StoryWeb: Edgar Allan Poe’s poem “The Raven.”

For this spooky Halloween edition of StoryWeb, I’m featuring Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven.” Everyone knows this haunting poem – but less well known is Poe’s essay “The Philosophy of Composition,” in which he explains how he quite methodically wrote the poem.

Now “The Raven,” you have to understand, made a splash. Poe was a relatively unknown writer when he published the poem in January 1845 in the New York Evening Mirror and again the next month in The American Review. Almost overnight, he became a huge literary sensation, though he didn’t make much money from it or his other writing. Readers just couldn’t get over the macabre poem.

Poe decided to ride the wave of the poem’s instant popularity, and a year later, he published “The Philosophy of Composition” in Graham’s Magazine. His account of how he wrote “The Raven” step by step is likely exaggerated – he makes it almost seem as if he was completing a paint-by-number artwork. Do this, do that – and voila, a wildly successful poem!

Read the essay to learn why he used certain vowel sounds (such as the long vowel sound in “Nevermore”), how he strove for “unity of effect,” and why he believed stories and poems should be short. If a person could read a poem or story in one sitting, Poe believed, the author could better control the unity of effect. If you want to terrify your reader, best to do it in one concentrated burst with every element of the poem or story contributing to that terror.

More than 150 years later, “The Raven” is still one of the most widely read poems in the English language. Some literary scholars lift a critical eyebrow about it, concluding that it is not fine literature. But as you listen to me read the poem in its entirety, are you really thinking about fine literature or are you just caught up in the creepy, eerie feeling it creates? Even Poe himself asserts that he set out to write a poem that would "suit at once the popular and critical taste."

This question of whether “The Raven” is fine literature goes to Poe’s entire body of work. Perhaps because he was so popular, some scholars call into question whether he can be seen as a serious artist. But to my mind, creating works that are accessible to a wide range of readers is a mark in his favor.

Not surprisingly, Poe’s explanation of how he wrote “The Raven” ended up being a footnote to the great poem itself. Few readers know – or even give much thought to – how Poe wrote the poem. They are too busy enjoying it!

The “unity of effect” Poe cites in “The Raven” is evident in his fiction as well. Another masterful piece suitable for Halloween is “The Tell-Tale Heart” – and it, too, utilizes unity of effect and is written so that it can be read in one suspenseful sitting. Every single word in this taut, hair-raising story contributes to the suspense, to the reader’s growing horror at what the narrator has done. Both “The Raven” and “The Tell-Tale Heart” are classic Poe.

Vincent Price has a great rendition of “The Raven,” and you might want to stop by the Poe Museum. A great volume to have in your collection isComplete Stories and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe. If you still haven’t had enough Poe, check outPoe Illustrated, a collection of more than 100 images inspired by Poe’s work. A fun edition of “The Raven” is Christopher Wormell’s pop-up book, and there’s no end of Raven items you can buy: mugs, posters, T-shirts, and clocks. You can even buy an Edgar Allan Poe action figure! Visit for links to all these resources.

Listen now as I read Edgar Allan Poe’s poem “The Raven” in its entirety.

Oct 29, 2017

156: Frida Kahlo: "The Two Fridas"

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This week on StoryWeb: Frida Kahlo’s painting The Two Fridas.

Mexican painter Frida Kahlo is known for her stunning self-portraits. You might not think of her immediately as a painter who tells stories through her art. Indeed, you could be forgiven if you think of her husband, muralist Diego Rivera, as the more narrative painter of the two. After all, his paintings told tales of the Mexican Revolution.

But Kahlo’s paintings tell a tale – the same tale – over and over again, nearly obsessively, as if Kahlo had a compulsive need to share her story.

For the tale she told in so many of her paintings was the devastating effect a serious bus accident had on her body and her simultaneous refusal to let that accident define her life.

The accident she endured – and the injuries that resulted – are almost too gruesome to imagine. As a university student, she was on a bus when it collided with a streetcar. Several people were killed, and though Kahlo survived, she suffered an almost incomprehensible injury: she was impaled – through her pelvis – on an iron handrail.

Kahlo spent the rest of her life recovering from the accident. She was eighteen when she was injured. She was forty-seven when she died. In those intervening decades, she experienced excruciating pain and was sometimes confined to plaster corsets that left her lying on her back for months at a time. As one of her friends said, Kahlo “lived dying.”

Though Kahlo had been at the university to prepare for medical school, during her long recovery she found herself drawn to painting. Ultimately, she was extremely driven to be a painter, and even though she was flat on her back for months at a time, she rigged up a mirror and a canvas and painted portraits of herself as she appeared lying in bed.

Of her approximately two hundred paintings, many were self-portraits – and these are the images that stay with us today. She said, “I paint self-portraits because I am so often alone, because I am the person I know best.”

One of the most compelling of her many self-portraits is “The Two Fridas,” a double self-portrait she painted in 1939, the year she was divorced from Diego Rivera (before remarrying him in 1940). While most of Kahlo’s paintings were small (precisely the opposite of her husband’s grand murals), “The Two Fridas” was her first large-scale painting. It was also the painting for which she received the most money in her lifetime.

The painting indicates a split in Kahlo’s identity. The Frida on the left appears in a Victorian white dress, representing, some art historians have suggested, her paternal German heritage and her European-influenced, elite, privileged upbringing. The Frida on the right appears in the traditional indigenous clothing of a Mexican peasant, suggesting her maternal Mestiza ancestry, which she embraced as a key part of her involvement in the Mexican Revolution. Many Mexican women artists and intellectuals were also dressing in Mexican peasant clothing to emphasize their indigenous ancestry. Dressing this way was an immediate, powerfully visual way to declare one’s allegiance to the Mexican Revolution. Kahlo became known in her art for depicting herself in traditional clothing – and very well known in her life for her embrace of indigenous clothing and accessories. She wore long and colorful skirts and dresses, elaborate headdresses in her hair, and striking traditional jewelry. The reason for the indigenous clothing and jewelry is not hard to understand. The Mexicanidad movement was rejecting European colonialism and elevating the traditional folk culture of Mexico. As Kahlo said, she wished “to be worthy, with my paintings, of the people to whom I belong and to the ideas which strengthen me.”

A striking element in The Two Fridas is the broken blood vessel that connects the hearts of the two Fridas. It is not hard to see Kahlo’s references to her life of constant pain and suffering, a life that was marked by thirty-two separate surgeries to correct the injuries she sustained during the bus accident. Kahlo also indicated that the painting was a way of mourning her separation from Diego Rivera, to make vivid her broken heart, the feeling of being split in two. The Frida in the white dress may be independent and fierce, but the traditional Frida – as encouraged by her husband, whose portrait she holds in her hand – has embraced a revolutionary identity. Which Frida is the real Frida? This search for self-identity was at the center of so much of Kahlo’s work throughout her life. The fact that the two Fridas are set against the background of an intensely stormy sky indicates that this quest for self-understanding caused a great deal of turmoil for Kahlo.

To learn more about Kahlo, you’ll definitely want to watch Frida, a 2002 film starring Salma Hayek as the artist. The film is a good introduction to Kahlo’s larger-than-life tale: her accident and its aftermath; her stormy marriage to Rivera, who was more than twenty years her senior and a very famous artist when he met the then-unknown Kahlo; his love affairs as well as hers, including one with Leon Trotsky; and her ability to hold court and be a very powerful and commanding presence despite her physical limitations. More than anything, though, Frida will introduce you to Kahlo’s marvelous work as a painter.

Another interesting take on the couple known by the Mexican press simply as “Diego and Frida” is Barbara Kingsolver’s novel The Lacuna. Told from the perspective of a fictional assistant to the artists, the novel offers a bird’s-eye view of the famous pair.

While the petite and physically frail Kahlo was largely overshadowed (both literally and figuratively) by her near giant of a husband, interest in her work surged in the late 1970s and has only gained momentum in the years since. The resulting cultural phenomenon is sometimes called “Fridamania” – as her face, her paintings, and her story have swept popular culture. Today, you can buy not only Frida Kahlo posters but also Frida Kahlo home furnishings, hair accessories, and clothes. You can easily find a shower curtain, an action figure, a magnetic dress-up play set, socks, and of course, calendars featuring images from her various self-portraits. Interestingly, the Frida Kahlo Corporation controls access to images of the famed artist. Through the corporation, you can get credit cards, tequilla, and more – all emblazoned with Kahlo’s licensed image.

To round out your exploration of this phenomenal Mexican artist, you’ll want to visit the official Frida Kahlo website. Other valuable resources on Kahlo are the excellent Wikipedia post about her; an entry on; and the BBC’s article “13 Things You Didn’t Know about Frida Kahlo.” To go in depth, check out Hayden Herrera’s biography, Frida. And most importantly, to view the paintings, you’ll want to visit the galleries at, the Frida Kahlo Foundation, and WikiArt.

Visit to watch actual footage of Frida Kahlo and her husband, Diego Rivera. Then watch a clip from Julie Taymor’s 2002 film, Frida. In this scene, Frida attends her Mexican exhibition against all odds.

“I am not sick. I am broken,” Kahlo said near the end of her life. “But I am happy to be alive as long as I can paint.” The last words in her diary were: “I hope the leaving is joyful; and I hope never to return.”

Oct 22, 2017

155: The Partridge Family: "I Think I Love You"

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This week on StoryWeb: The Partridge Family’s song “I Think I Love You.”

Fifth grade – and the song I can’t get out of my head is “I Think I Love You.” Every girl at Griffith Elementary School – make it every girl at schools around the United States – feels the same way. How we swooned over David Cassidy, the teen idol who played a made-for-TV band’s lead singer.

The fictional band was The Partridge Family, based loosely on the real-life Cowsills, a family pop band popular in the late ’60s. The TV show debuted in fall 1970, just a month after “I Think I Love You” had been released as a single. The show featured Shirley Jones as a widowed mother of five children, who scheme to put together a band as a way of helping the family financially. Amazingly enough, this unknown family band has its debut at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas! Jones’s real-life stepson, David Cassidy, played Keith, the oldest of Shirley Partridge’s children. Susan Dey, Danny Bonaduce, and two younger children rounded out the family cast.

Like many girls my age, I tuned in every Friday night to The Partridge Family. In fact, it was the first show my family watched when we got our first color TV. We were watching Shirley Partridge and her kids, when the camera zoomed in for a very tight close-up of Shirley Jones’s face, complete with bright orange – nearly neon orange – lipstick. What a thing to see on a color set! My younger brother exclaimed, “Look at them lips!” And with that the TV sparked and went dead. No more Partridge Family. We have laughed ever since about those technicolor lips of Shirley Jones.

Although the actors “performed” songs as part of the show, most of them were actually lip-syncing. The only actors who performed in the band were David Cassidy, as lead singer, and Shirley Jones, who sang backup. So the 45s and albums that my friends and I purchased with our allowance money didn’t actually feature Susan Dey and Danny Bonaduce, but instead were the product of an anonymous studio band. This made no difference to us – for it was David Cassidy we wanted, and he was there front and center.

Though fifth-grade girls could not have known – yet – that pressing, anxious, heart-stopping feeling you get when you are falling in love but haven’t yet “confessed” that love, we nevertheless gladly sang along. Of course, like every school girl, I dreamed that Keith/David was singing that song to me. That was the magic of the song: this cute, cute heartthrob seemed to be confessing his love to me – and I loved him right back.

Unbelievably, “I Think I Love You” – a song by a fictitious band – hit #1 on the Billboard charts. Since 1970, there have been many cover versions, including those by Andy Williams, Perry Como, Paul Westerberg, and David’s daughter Katie Cassidy. David Cassidy himself recorded an updated solo version in 2003.

To go behind the scenes with the Partridge Family, check out Shirley Jones’s 2014 memoir or one of David Cassidy’s two books: C’mon, Get Happy: Fear and Loathing on the Partridge Family Bus and Could It Be Forever? My Story. You might want to visit David Cassidy’s official website. To get the original version of “I Think I Love You,” you can buy the group’s first album, simply titled The Partridge Family Album. The complete TV series is available on DVD.

Visit for links to all these resources and to see The Partridge Family perform “I Think I Love You” as part of the episode titled “My Son, the Feminist.”

I’m under no illusion that The Partridge Family was great television or that the music released under their moniker was any good. But I can say that I still know every single word to “I Think I Love You” and that I am willing to belt it out if ever I am asked. My fifth-grade self would be proud.

Oct 15, 2017

154: Geoffrey Chaucer: "The Canterbury Tales"

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This week on StoryWeb: Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales.

Whan that aprill with his shoures soote

The droghte of march hath perced to the roote,

And bathed every veyne in swich licour

Of which vertu engendred is the flour. . . .

Oh, how I loved learning how to recite these opening lines to “The Prologue” of Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. While I was by no means a scholar of medieval literature (modern literature being far more to my taste, as you know if you are a devoted StoryWeb listener), I reveled in learning about the language, the religious pilgrimage Chaucer’s narrators were on, loved delving into their various voices.

What a magical storytelling device! Imagine thirty travelers walking from London to Canterbury to worship at the shrine of St. Thomas Becket. How would they while away their time? By holding a storytelling competition, of course, and regaling each other with one tale after another. Storytelling was an immensely popular form of entertainment in England at that time, and storytellers had enjoyed besting one another in contests for centuries. The prize for the winner? A free meal at the Tabard Inn at Southwark on their return from Canterbury.

What emerges from this narrative device is one of the great masterworks of world literature. Pilgrims from all walks of life tell tales. As Oxford scholar Nevill Coghill notes, The Canterbury Talesoffers readers a "concise portrait of an entire nation, high and low, old and young, male and female, lay and clerical, learned and ignorant, rogue and righteous, land and sea, town and country."

We listen as the merchant spins his fable and as the miller – who admits he is quite drunk – tells the uproarious and bawdy story of a cuckolded carpenter. And of course, no one can forget the wife of Bath’s Arthurian legend, her pre-feminist insights about women’s authority honed from her five marriages. Other tales are told by a knight, a reeve, a cook, a man of law, a friar, a summoner, a clerk, a squire, a franklin, a physician, a pardoner, a shipman, a prioress, a monk, and a nun’s priest.

Chaucer began writing The Canterbury Tales in 1387, and it appears that the collection was unfinished when he died in 1400. Nevertheless, The Canterbury Tales -- twenty-four tales with over 17,000 lines of poetry – is considered by virtually everyone to be his masterpiece.

Think you wouldn’t be interested in this 600-year-old collection of tales? You might be surprised! An easy way to dip a toe into The Canterbury Tales is to read a modern English translation. Once you’ve laughed until you’ve cried from reading “The Miller’s Tale,” maybe you’ll even feel brave enough to try the late Middle English in which Chaucer wrote The Canterbury Tales. It takes some getting used to – and it can help to have an edition with the original Middle English and the modern English translation side by side. Fordham University’s Internet Medieval Sourcebook provides a good online Middle English/Modern English version of “The Prologue.” Librarius provides parallel original text and translated text for many of the other tales.

It can also be fun to listen to an audio version of the tales in Middle English. LibriVox provides a useful collection of audio recordings of the various tales. When you listen, you’ll quickly discover that I am practically butchering Chaucer’s rich and rhythmic Middle English (told you I’m not a medieval scholar!), but that doesn’t stop me from thoroughly enjoying reading Chaucer’s original lines of poetry aloud. They’re just so darned fun to say!

For a unique perspective on The Canterbury Tales, read or listen to a five-part NPR series that retraces the steps of Chaucer’s pilgrims to explore the Britain of today. The series includes an interactive map tracing the route from London to Canterbury.

Finally, you can go even further in your exploration of all things Chaucer by visiting Harvard University’s Geoffrey Chaucer Page. Georgetown University’s Labyrinth website provides extensive resources for Medieval studies.

Visit for links to all these resources and to listen to Professor Jess B. Bessinger, Jr., read “The Prologue.”

Oct 08, 2017

153: Dolly Parton: "Coat of Many Colors"

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This week on StoryWeb: Dolly Parton’s song “Coat of Many Colors.”

Call it maudlin or sentimental, but Dolly Parton’s song “Coat of Many Colors” is undeniably an American classic, so much so that it was adapted to a made-for-television movie in 2015 and to a sequel, “Christmas of Many Colors,” in 2016.

The song is not particularly innovative artistically speaking. It doesn’t push the envelope in any way.

And yet . . . it tells the story of the Parton family so honestly, vividly, and memorably – and does so in a neat, three-minute package.

The song tells of the Parton family’s poverty, so profound that the only way Avie Lee Parton can provide a winter coat for her daughter is to stitch together one from old rags given to the family. As she sews the coat for young Dolly, she tells her the Biblical story of Joseph and his coat of many colors. Dolly can’t wait to wear the new coat to school. The joy and pride she feels in wearing the rainbow-colored coat are dashed when the other children at school make fun of her for her coat made of rags. Of course, as a good Nashville hit will have it, by the end of the song, young Dolly has learned a lesson in true love and pride in one’s family.

Parton wrote “Coat of Many Colors” in 1969 while traveling on a tour bus with her singing partner, Porter Wagoner. The story goes that she couldn’t find any paper on which to write the song, so she grabbed a dry cleaners’ receipt for one of Wagoner’s suits. When the song hit it big, Wagoner had the receipt framed. It is now on display next to a replica of the original coat in Chasing Rainbows, the Dollywood museum dedicated to Dolly Parton’s life and career.

The song was released in 1971 as the title track of Parton’s eighth album. Iconic and revered, “Coat of Many Colors” is without a doubt Parton’s “signature song.” It has been covered by Shania Twain, Emmylou Harris, and Eva Cassidy, among others. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution ranked it tenth on its list of one hundred songs of the South. And in 2012, the Library of Congress added “Coat of Many Colors” to its National Recording Registry, a collection of sound recordings that the LOC describes as “culturally, historically, or aesthetically important,” recordings that “inform or reflect life in the United States.” Perhaps most importantly, “Coat of Many Colors” remains Parton’s own favorite of the more than three thousand songs she has penned since she began writing at age seven.

When I worked at a hiking lodge in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park high atop Mt. LeConte, I was mesmerized by a photo history book of the area as it existed before it was made into a national park in 19##. Families had lived scattered throughout the rugged but spectacularly beautiful terrain. Among those original families were the Partons and the Ogles. Dolly Parton and Judy Ogle, as is told in the television movie, became best friends in school and remain so to this day.

Born in 1946 in Locust Ridge, a very small and remote community just north of the Greenbrier Valley in the Great Smoky Mountains, Dolly was the fourth of twelve children born to Avie Lee and Robert Lee Parton. Her mother was a singer and taught her young daughter religious music as well as the traditional ballads her ancestors brought with them when they settled in the Smoky Mountains.

Raised as a Pentecostal in the Church of God, Dolly became a singing sensation at an early age. When she was thirteen, she appeared on the Grand Ole Opry, where she met Johnny Cash, who encouraged her to pursue her career in the way that felt right for her.

The day after her high school graduation in 1964, Dolly Parton moved to Nashville. On her first day in the city, she met Carl Dean, her future husband, in a laundromat. Dean is now retired from his work paving asphalt roads in Nashville. And according to both Parton and Dean, he has seen her perform only once. Perhaps Carl Dean is one of the reasons Dolly Parton stays so rooted to her past despite the wigs and gowns and over-the-top makeup.

What I love about Dolly Parton is that she spans two worlds that seem at once far apart and extremely close. As told in “Coat of Many Colors” and in the numerous interviews Parton has given throughout her long career, the Partons lived a hardscrabble life in Locust Ridge. Dolly Parton very much has one foot squarely planted in that mountain past. The fact that she feels a strong tie to her home and her people is made clear in her theme park, Dollywood, and her other business ventures in nearby Pigeon Forge, just a few miles from the one-room cabin where Parton was raised with eleven siblings. Parton employs many people at Dollywood who are descended from those original mountain families.

But Dolly Parton also very much has her other foot planted just as firmly in the glitzy, glamorous, modern world of show-biz – Nashville, where she makes her home, and Hollywood, where she has made her films. She herself is larger than life, a walking, talking, singing coat of many colors. She embodies – literally – that in-your-face joy and fierce mountain woman pride.

Dolly’s exceptional accomplishments – from recording numerous country and bluegrass albums to receiving a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, from making several films to being named to the Country Music Hall of Fame – are a testament to her ability to stay connected to her past while embracing the much wider world beyond Locust Ridge. In recognition of her many successes, Dolly Parton has received the Library of Congress’s Living Legend Award, the presidential National Medal of Arts, and Kennedy Center Honors.

To learn more about Dolly Parton, visit the Library of Congress’s extensive digital archive about the Appalachian musician. Begin your exploration by reading the LOC’s biography of Dolly Parton. Then locate Locust Ridge exactly on maps of the Great Smoky Mountains. You can peruse a timeline of Parton’s life as well as a discography of Parton’s recordings. To place Parton’s career within the history of country music, take a look at the country music timeline provided by the LOC.

To explore the song and its spin-offs, consider purchasing the 1971 album Coat of Many Colors. You can also buy a children’s picture book based on the song as well as DVDs of the 2015 TV movie, Coat of Many Colors, and the 2016 sequel, Christmas of Many Colors.

Visit for links to all these resources and to listen to the original 1971 recording of “Coat of Many Colors.” You can also watch an early 1970s television appearance in which Dolly Parton performs “Coat of Many Colors.”

Revisit this classic American song – and find out how even the glitzy, glamorous Dolly Parton brings life to her deep-seated mountain pride.

Oct 01, 2017

152: Alex Haley: "Roots"

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This week on StoryWeb: Alex Haley’s book Roots.

In January 1977 when I was sixteen, I joined 130 million Americans to watch the television miniseries based on Alex Haley’s book Roots: The Saga of an American Family. It was broadcast eight consecutive nights, and like countless other viewers, I was glued to the TV set every night. I was there, front row, center, for every episode. The concluding episode still ranks as having the third largest audience in television history. Who can forget Kunta Kinte, his daughter Kizzy, or her son Chicken George?

The story Haley recounted in Roots was nothing short of miraculous. After years of genealogical sleuthing, he made his way back to the African village of his ancestors. And there, in tiny country known as The Gambia, a griot – part storyteller, part genealogist, part priest – told of the capture of Haley’s great-great-great-great-grandfather Kunta Kinte.

The story Haley told went like this. Based on the griot’s revelations about Kunta Kinte and on the many tales passed down through Haley’s family, based on careful searches of slave records and court documents, Haley painstakingly pieced together the centuries-long tale of multiple generations of his African and African American forebears. Haley writes near the end of the book,

To the best of my knowledge and of my effort, every lineage statement withinRootsis from either my African or American families' carefully preserved oral history, much of which I have been able conventionally to corroborate with documents. Those documents, along with the myriad textural details of what were contemporary indigenous lifestyles, cultural history, and such that giveRootsflesh have come from years of intensive research in fifty-odd libraries, archives, and other repositories on three continents.

As it turns out, however, this amazing story is not actually true. Since the release of the book and the miniseries, a series of scholars just as painstakingly debunked Haley’s story. The Gambian griot may have told Haley wanted he wanted to hear, and the other links in Haley’s genealogical chain were suspect. The whole thing was much too neat, and Haley simply didn’t have the conclusive evidence to back it up.

When the book was originally published in 1976, it had been promoted as nonfiction and flew to the top of The New York Times bestseller list for nonfiction. Haley described it as “faction.” But on the heels of the charges about the book’s historical inaccuracies, the publisher moved the book to its fiction category. It is now often described as a novel.

Also dogging Haley were two charges that the book was plagiarized. Harold Courlander claimed that large portions of Roots were drawn from his book The Africans. Haley and Courlander settled out of court, and Haley acknowledged that he did use passages from The Africans in Roots. Margaret Walker’s lawsuit, which claimed that Haley had plagiarized from her book Jubilee, was less successful; no evidence of plagiarism was found, and the suit was dropped.

Despite these controversies, Roots remains a powerful book indeed. For me, as for many readers, it is the idea of Roots that matters. In the late 1990s, the National Endowment for the Humanities had a slogan: “My family’s history is America’s history.” In my own work and writing, I have deeply embraced that notion. I firmly believe that if any American traced her family history, she would see in very personal terms the history of this diverse nation. This idea motivated my explorations in my 2009 memoir, Power in the Blood: A Family Narrative, and is a driving force as well in my current book-in-progress, Ferguson Girl: A Story of Family, Place, and Race. Regardless

Haley’s family history is perhaps more compelling because it is a hidden, secret history, because slaveowners tore slave families apart and tried to deny them their lineage and history. Haley’s victory is in showing that the slaveowners ultimately weren’t able to stamp out family bonds.

Picking up Haley’s mantle today is the African American scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr., who is fascinated with family roots and ancestry. As the host of the PBS series Finding Your Roots, Gates features genealogical research about well-known Americans, including prominent African Americans such as John Lewis, Cory Booker, and Sean Combs. Gates, who was a friend of Haley’s, acknowledges Haley’s legacy in this way:

Most of us feel it's highly unlikely that Alex actually found the village whence his ancestors sprang.Rootsis a work of the imagination rather than strict historical scholarship. It was an important event because it captured everyone's imagination.

Gates speaks my mind. Even if Roots does not represent unerring and rigorous genealogy, it is the idea of Roots that signifies. Haley encouraged many other Americans – especially black Americans – to seek and claim their ancestry. It’s a message that continues to resonate today.

To get a taste of Roots, you can read Chapter 1 online. To read Roots, you’ll need to purchase a hard copy or borrow it from your library. Buckle your seatbelt, though: it’s a long book! If you want to watch the 1977 miniseries, you can purchase the seven-disc DVD box set.

To learn more about the controversies surrounding Roots, read The Guardian’s article “Roots of the Problem: The Controversial History of Alex Haley’s Book” or Adam D. Henig’s book Alex Haley’s Roots: An Author’s Odyssey. Robert J. Norrell’s biography, Alex Haley: And The Books That Changed a Nation, looks at Haley’s larger legacy, including his writing of The Autobiography of Malcolm X (a book which he wrote in collaboration with the famed civil rights leader). To learn more from Alex Haley himself, you’ll want to read Alex Haley: The Man Who Traced America’s Roots: His Life, His Works.

Visit for links to all these resources and to watch a scene from the first episode of Roots, in which Kunta Kinte discovered whites enslaving Africans. You can then watch Alex Haley reflect on Roots in 1991.

“My family’s history is America’s history,” said the National Endowment for the Humanities. What is your family history? And what does it tell you about America’s past? Alex Haley inspires me to pursue the answers to these questions – and I hope you’ll take up the fascinating task as well.

Sep 24, 2017

151: Elizabeth Bishop: "In the Waiting Room"

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This week on StoryWeb: Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “In the Waiting Room.”

I’ve featured Elizabeth Bishop previously on StoryWeb. “The Moose” – set in Bishop’s home province of Nova Scotia – is one of my favorite poems, as it tells so powerfully the ordinary – but extraordinary – experience we all have from time to time: an encounter with wild life, with the “wild life.”

Set in 1918 and written in 1976, “In the Waiting Room” – set in another of Bishop’s childhood locales, Worcester, Massachusetts – also tells a tale of an experience that is common to everyone: coming into conscious awareness of oneself as a separate person, a being who can feel pain, alone in a large and often alienating world. What is not at all common is young Elizabeth’s awareness of this moment of coming into consciousness. Is the young Elizabeth aware of this as it is happening? Or is it the older adult Elizabeth who looks back and recognizes what this moment was? Or is the young Elizabeth perhaps in a kind of conversation with her adult self who seeks to make meaning out of a “strange” experience?

Young Elizabeth – about to turn seven in just three days – sits in a waiting room while her Aunt Consuelo has a dentist appointment. Surrounded by “grown-up people, / arctics and overcoats,” the young girl picks up a National Geographic (with its classic yellow border). She pores over photographs of the inside of a volcano, the explorers Osa and Martin Johnson (“dressed in riding breeches, / laced boots, and pith helmets”), and “[a] dead man slung on a pole,” captioned as “long pig,” presumably destined to be eaten by cannibals. Most startling, however, are the “[b]abies with pointed heads / wound round and round with string” and the “black, naked women with necks / wound round and round with wire,” women with “horrifying” breasts.

Lost in her exploration of the National Geographic, Elizabeth is startled by the sound of her aunt as she cries out with “an oh! of pain.” As she snaps to attention back into the cold, dark, winter world of Worcester, Elizabeth has “the sensation of falling off / the round, turning world. / into cold, blue-black space.”

Surrounded by “shadowy gray knees, / trousers and skirts and boots,” the young girl has what can only be called an existential awakening. The adult Bishop writes:

But I felt: you are an I,
you are an Elizabeth,
you are one of them.
Why should you be one, too?

The moment is disorienting and illuminating at once. Bishop continues:

I knew that nothing stranger
had ever happened, that nothing
stranger could ever happen.

Why should I be my aunt,
or me, or anyone?

What similarities—
boots, hands, the family voice
I felt in my throat, or even
the National Geographic
and those awful hanging breasts—
held us all together
or made us all just one?

Overwhelmed by a “big black wave,” the young Elizabeth is “back in it” as suddenly as she had been taken out of the waiting room and given a larger view. The poem concludes:

The War was on. Outside,
in Worcester, Massachusetts,
were night and slush and cold,
and it was still the fifth
of February, 1918.

No matter how many times I read this poem, I will never cease to be amazed at how deftly Bishop depicts the common, but extraordinary, experience of coming into an awareness of self. As in “The Moose,” she isolates a powerful moment in time – the type of moment too many of us overlook or experience in such a fleeting way that it is nearly forgotten. Bishop provides the freeze-frame, tells us to stop, pay attention.

If you want to read more of Bishop’s poetry, you’ll want to take a look atThe Complete Poems: 1927-1979as well as the Library of America volumeElizabeth 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.

Earlier this year, a new Bishop biography was published. Megan Marshall’s Elizabeth Bishop: A Miracle for Breakfast draws on a collection of letters Bishop wrote to her psychiatrist in 1947, letters previously unknown by Bishop scholars. If you’re not up for reading the entire biography, you might read an excerpt from the book. Published in The New Yorker, the excerpt – “Elizabeth and Alice” – focuses on Bishop’s last love affair.

The New Yorker also published an insightful article about Marshall’s biography. “Elizabeth Bishop’s Art of Losing” accurately describes Bishop’s closely guarded personal life as “harrowing.” Bishop’s psychiatrist told her she was lucky to have survived her childhood. That she did so speaks perhaps to Bishop’s personal strength and resilience. In a poem like “In the Waiting Room,” we see the commanding mind already at work, even in a young girl just about to turn seven.

I highly recommend these poems about Elizabeth Bishop’s youth – “The Moose” and “In the Waiting Room.” Though she published only about one hundred poems in her lifetime, they are powerful poems indeed and well worth reading.

Visit for links to all these resources and to hear Elizabeth Bishop read “In the Waiting Room.”

Sep 17, 2017

150: Oscar Wilde: "The Importance of Being Earnest"

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This week on StoryWeb: Oscar Wilde’s play The Importance of Being Earnest.

Really, has there ever been a play funnier than Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest?

No matter how you experience it – by reading the play, seeing it performed live, or watching one of the film adaptations – you’re sure to be splitting your sides with laughter in no time. Even if you’ve seen the play or one of the films before, you’ll laugh just as hard – maybe even harder – than you did the first time you saw it. Knowing all the uproariously funny jokes to come, all the farcical plot twists and turns Wilde has up his sleeve just adds to the fun.

Who is your favorite character in the play? Like many viewers, I am partial to Lady Bracknell, the forerunner to Violet, the Dowager Countess of Grantham, played so consummately by Maggie Smith on Downton Abbey. Lady Bracknell’s arch observations – complete with eyebrows lifted and eyes peering down her aristocratic nose – are droll and on point every single time.

“To lose one parent, Mr. Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune,” she says near the beginning of the play. “To lose both looks like carelessness.” The scene from which this line comes – in which Lady Bracknell interrogates Ernest (or is it Jack?) Worthing as he seeks her daughter Gwendolyn’s hand in marriage – is one of the funniest in the play. But the rest of the play is supremely satisfying comedy as well as we learn the importance of being Ernest.

Like Lady Bracknell, Oscar Wilde himself was a force to be reckoned with. No upholder of the aristocracy, Wilde instead flouted convention at every turn. One source says, “Known for his biting wit, flamboyant dress, and glittering conversation, Wilde became one of the best-known personalities of his day.”He reigned supreme as the British playwright of the 1890s.

Wilde’s lover was Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas, whose father, the Marquess of Queensberry, had planned to throw rotten vegetables at Wilde after the debut in early 1895 of The Importance of Being Earnest. Wilde and Bosie pre-empted the plan, and Wilde prosecuted the Marquess for criminal libel. Eventually, Wilde dropped the charges against the Marquess but was then himself arrested and tried for gross indecency with men. Ultimately, Wilde was convicted and received the maximum penalty for crimes of homosexuality: he was imprisoned for two years’ hard labor. In 2017 – more than 120 years after his conviction – Wilde was pardoned for his offense. When Britain passed the Policing and Crime Act of 2017, homosexuality was no longer a crime in the United Kingdom, and an estimated 50,000 men, including Wilde, were pardoned.

Unfortunately, the trial and imprisonment exacted a great toll upon Wilde. The Importance of Being Earnest was his last play, and he never fully recovered – creatively or otherwise – from his trial and imprisonment. Five years after The Importance of Being Earnest premiered in London and three years after being released from prison, Wilde died penniless in Paris at the age of 46. A great literary light was extinguished.

To learn more about the inimitable Wilde, visit the Oscar Wilde Website or the website of the Oscar Wilde Society. Richard Ellmann’s 1987 volume, Oscar Wilde, is the definitive biography. It was used as the basis for the outstanding 1997 film Wilde, with Stephen Fry playing Wilde and Jude Law playing Bosie.

Ready to revisit this wonderful play – or to discover it for the first time? You can read the play online at Project Gutenberg or buy a hard copy of the play. Two film adaptations – Anthony Asquith’s 1952 film or Oliver Parker’s 2002 version (starring Colin Firth and Judi Densch as Lady Bracknell) – bring the play to life in all its comedic glory.

Wilde’s literary executor, Robert Ross, said after his death:

Later on I think everyone will recognise his achievements; his plays and essays will endure. Of course you may think with others that his personality and conversation were far more wonderful than anything he wrote, so that his written works give only a pale reflection of his power. Perhaps that is so, and of course it will be impossible to reproduce what is gone forever.

Visit for links to all these resources and to watch a clip from the 1952 film adaptation of The Importance of Being Earnest. In this scene, Edith Evans (as Lady Bracknell) interrogates her daughter’s potential suitor, Ernest/Jack Worthing. Comedy doesn’t get any better than this!

Sep 10, 2017

149: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: "Americanah"

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This week on StoryWeb: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel Americanah.

Nigerian Chinua Achebe was the first African writer to publish a major novel in English – a novel in the colonial master’s language. Published in 1958, Things Fall Apart tells the story of Okonkwo and his traditional Igbo village and the devastating transformation it undergoes with the arrival of British colonialists. But the novel is every bit as much about Okonkwo as a tragic hero – his story regardless of time and place – as it is about the damage wrought by Europeans. Things Fall Apart demanded that the Igbo be taken on their own terms.

Now almost sixty years later, Nigerian literature has expanded considerably. In Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s 2013 novel, Americanah, the main characters live in Nigeria, the United States, and England. If not completely comfortable in all of these worlds – or indeed maybe not comfortable in any of these worlds – they nevertheless figure out how to move in these worlds.

The two main characters – Ifemelu and Obinze – are modern, urban Nigerians. Hailing from Lagos, the capital city of the West African nation, their postcolonial Nigeria is a place of power-shifting, power-grabbing corruption. Both extremely bright young people, they go their separate ways – Ifemelu to attend university in “Americanah” (as the Nigerians call it), Obinze to England to seek a new life. Eventually, they both return to Nigeria, determined to make a go of it in their home country.

All that transpires from their youth in Africa to their adventures in North America and the U.K. to their return to Nigeria is the stuff of a long, complex novel – and I won’t give away anything about the many twists and turns of the detailed plot.

Chinua Achebe, who died in 2013, the same year Americanah was published, might not have recognized the Nigeria of Adichie’s novel. It certainly seems that Lagos has developed in ways Achebe might have anticipated but never personally witnessed. I suspect, though, that he might have seen some of his own experiences in Ifemelu’s journey to study in the western white world.

In many ways, Adichie literally followed in Achebe’s footsteps. Her debt to his literary legacy is evident, of course. But less well known is the fact that when the Achebes moved out of their home in the university town of Nsukka, Nigeria, it was Adichie’s parents and their children (including Adichie herself) who moved in. You can learn the full story and read an early interview with Adichie in Ike Anya’s 2003 article, “In the Footsteps of Achebe: Enter Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Nigeria’s Newest Literary Voice.” In that interview, Adichie said: “I think Chinua Achebe is one of the greatest writers the world has ever seen, because he did not only tell us, the writers who would come after him, that our stories were worthy, he also swiped at the disgusting stereotypes of Africa.”

Here and elsewhere, Adichie has acknowledged the power of Achebe’s example, saying in another interview, “Chinua Achebe will always be important to me because his work influenced not so much my style as my writing philosophy: reading him emboldened me, gave me permission to write about the things I knew well.” To learn more about the Achebe-Adichie connection, read her essay “The Man Who Rediscovered Africa.”

Born in Nigeria, Adichie now divides her time between her home country and the United States. She is the recipient of a MacArthur Foundation “genius” award. To learn more about Adichie and her work, visit her website. You’ll also want to stop by the independent website about Adichie, which has a treasure trove of links to seemingly endless essays, articles, and more by the Nigerian writer.

If you’ve got some time to invest in a long, winding novel, you just might consider curling up with Americanah. The best-selling and critically acclaimed book will leave you eagerly waiting for the film adaptation, which is set to star Lupita Nyong’o and David Oyelowo.

Visit for links to all these resources and to watch a conversation between Faith Adiele and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Near the beginning of the video, Adichie reads the opening of Americanah. You can also watch Adichie’s TED talk titled “The Danger of a Single Story.”

Sep 03, 2017

148: Langston Hughes: "Theme for English B"

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This week on StoryWeb: Langston Hughes’s poem “Theme for English B.”

Oh, how I love this poem! It packs so much into a short space. Published on its own in 1949, it was included in Langston Hughes’s 1951 collection, Montage of a Dream Deferred. Though it gains more resonance when taken with the entire collection of Hughes’s bebop poetry, it also stands successfully on its own.

In “Theme for English B,” Hughes imagines a 22-year-old black student—a transplant from North Carolina – living at the Harlem Y and going to college. He is the only “colored” student in his class at Columbia University, where Hughes himself had been a less-than-satisfied student in the 1920s.

In the poem, Hughes plays with the idea of using writing – words on paper – as a tool to bridge racial, social, class, and educational differences. Through the “theme” the young man is writing, his professor – white and well educated – has the opportunity to learn from his black, yet-to-be-fully-“educated” student.

Like so many other writing teachers, the professor tells his students to write what they know. He says:

Go home and write
a page tonight.
And let that page come out of you –
Then, it will be true.

The student goes back to his room at the Y and writes his essay, naming things he likes, including music: “Bessie, bop, or Bach.” Being black doesn’t mean he doesn’t like Bach, but there’s a hint here that he may have even greater access to cultural experiences than the white professor, for the student has his foots in two worlds – the white university and Harlem. Though they are located right next to each other, they are nevertheless worlds apart.

Or are they worlds apart? Hughes’s poem seems to hold out the promise that through words on the page, the student and his professor can bridge the cultural, social, economic, perhaps even the racial chasm that would seem on the surface to separate them. Reflecting on his passions, the things that shape his identity, the student writes:

I guess being colored doesn’t make me not like
the same things other folks like who are other races.
So will my page be colored that I write?

Being me, it will not be white.

I especially love that Hughes seems to have Walt Whitman in mind. Just as Whitman imagined speaking to readers across time through his words on the page (in poems like “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”), so, too, Hughes imagines written language as a vehicle to bridge gaps and allow us to learn about the seemingly unknowable “other.” The student says:

I guess I’m what
I feel and see and hear, Harlem, I hear you:
hear you, hear me – we two – you, me, talk on this page.
(I hear New York, too.)

In some ways, as this student constructs a fledgling understanding of himself, as he imagines his identity into existence, the poem is an African American answer to Whitman’s “Song of Myself” – the young black student “singing” his experiences. He makes clear that he and the professor are both American. The student says:

You are white –
yet a part of me, as I am a part of you.
That’s American.
Sometimes perhaps you don’t want to be a part of me.
Nor do I often want to be a part of you.

But we are, that’s true!

For ideas on teaching “Theme for English B” within the context of bebop music, an insurgent African American form of urban jazz, see Eric Otto’s fine article in Teaching American Literature. And to explore many other resources related to Hughes and his poetry, visit the StoryWeb episode on Montage of a Dream Deferred, the collection in which “Theme for English B” appears.

Visit for links to all these resources and to listen as Atlanta playwright Jermaine Ross reads Langston Hughes’s poem “Theme for English B.”

Aug 21, 2017

147: Langston Hughes: "Montage of a Dream Deferred"

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This week on StoryWeb: Langston Hughes’s book of poems Montage of a Dream Deferred.

I play it cool

And dig all jive

That’s the reason

I stay alive.

My motto

As I live and learn

Is dig and be dug in return.

So goes the poem “Motto” in Langston Hughes’s 1951 jazz collection, Montage of a Dream Deferred.

The list of my favorite Langston Hughes poems would be long indeed, but no volume of his poetry makes my heart sing like Montage of a Dream Deferred. Not only does it include justly famous poems like “Harlem” and “Theme for English B” and lesser known poems like “Motto.” But it also – taken as a whole volume as Hughes intended – provides a marvelous portrait of the African American community in post-World War II Harlem.

The story goes that Hughes wrote Montage of a Dream Deferred in a creative outburst in one week in September 1948. Hughes had just moved into his own home after being a renter his entire adult life. Writing to a friend, Hughes described Montage as “a full book-length poem in five sections,” “a precedent shattering opus—also could be known as a tour de force.” I completely concur with Hughes’s self-assessment: Montage of a Dream Deferred is very much a tour de force.

In his early work, Hughes showed how the blues as a uniquely African American musical form shaped his poetry. Some time back, I explored his landmark 1925 poem “The Weary Blues” and the way it exemplified the blues influence on Hughes’s poetry. By the 1940s, however, jazz had more than come into its own, embodying the vast creativity and artistry of African Americans.

Jazz is just right as a vehicle for Hughes’s poetry, for he can riff on a poetic theme much as a band member might riff on a musical motif set down by the leader. Jazz was, of course, a distinct creation of African American musicians. Though there were many white musicians who became interested in and mastered jazz and pushed it in new directions, jazz was largely an African American cultural phenomenon.

No volume of Hughes’s poetry illustrates his “jazz in words” approach quite like Montage of a Dream Deferred. And here it’s especially be-bop and boogie woogie that shape the volume and provide its language and syncopated rhythms. In a prefatory note to the book, Hughes writes,

[T]his poem on contemporary Harlem, like be-bop, is marked by conflicting changes, sudden nuances, sharp and impudent interjections, broken rhythms, and passages sometimes in the manner of the jam session, sometimes the popular song, punctuated by the riffs, runs, breaks, and disc-tortions of the music of a community in transition.

Right from the volume’s first poem, “Dream Boogie,” we are immersed in the “cool” language of be-bop, and we encounter our first syncopated stanza of poetry. Hughes writes:

Good morning, daddy!

Ain’t you heard?

The boogie-woogie rumble

Of a dream deferred?

Listen to it closely:

You’ll hear their feet

Beating out and beating out a –

You think

It’s a happy beat?

Now that the motif has been established – the “dream deferred” – Hughes can riff on it throughout the volume, which he stressed was to be seen as one long poem rather than a collection of 87 individual short poems. He employs different voices, takes different vantage points, takes the same words and plays them back to us in a different way.

Even a short and seemingly straightforward poem like “Harlem” (taught by many an American literature instructor and “sampled” by Lorraine Hansberry in the title of her pioneering play A Raisin in the Sun) can take on a deeper resonance when it’s set in the context of this jazz-in-words volume of poetry. Appearing about midway through the book, “Harlem” opens with one of the most well-known lines in American poetry: “What happens to a dream deferred?” That question is at the heart of this book of poems.

What exactly is the “dream deferred” that gives title and theme to this volume of poetry? Hughes had always played with the theme of “the dream,” in particular the dream of political and social justice for African Americans. “But Hughes now faced the fact,” says The Oxford Index, “that the hopes that had drawn thousands of blacks to the northern cities had led many of them to disappointment, alienation, and bitterness. Some of these poems depict blacks still able to hope and dream, but the most powerful pieces raise the specter of poverty, violence, and death.”

And finally what of the term “montage”? Usually used to name a cinematic technique, the word “montage” describes the quick cuts and splices between disparate but associated images. In this case, the montage is of Harlem just after World War II. Famous for its Renaissance in the 1920s, when African American migrants from the rural South poured into the Manhattan neighborhood and filled it with music, art, literature, rent parties, and life, Harlem by the late 1940s was in decline. The dream African Americans had sought in their own vibrant neighborhood was, indeed, drying up like a raisin in the sun. The montage Hughes gives us, says The Oxford Index, is one that pulls together “virtually every aspect of daily Harlem life, from the prosperous on Sugar Hill to the poorest folk living down below.” The book “touches on the lives of Harlem mothers, daughters, students, ministers, junkies, pimps, police, shop owners, homosexuals, landlords, and tenants; its aim is to render in verse a detailed portrait of the community, which Hughes knew extremely well.”

In his 1940 autobiography, The Big Sea, Hughes said, “I tried to write poems like the songs they sang on Seventh Street. . . . Their songs—those of Seventh Street—had the pulse beat of the people who keep on going.” Eight years later when he wrote Montage of a Dream Deferred, he succeeded magnificently in capturing that pulse beat.

To read Montage of a Dream Deferred, you’ll need to purchase The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes, edited by Arnold Rampersad. It is the only place the 1951 volume is available (and except for a few individual poems, you can’t read Montage of a Dream Deferred online).

A great recording of many of Hughes’s poems, including several from Montage of a Dream Deferred, is an album by Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis. It’s available only on vinyl, but if you’ve got a turntable, you’re in for a treat.

If you want to go deeper, consider taking the Langston Hughes walking tour the next time you are in Harlem. The Big Sea: An Autobiographywill give you insights into Hughes’s life, as willSelected Letters of Langston Hughes. True aficionados will want to read Arnold Rampersad’s two-volume biography of Langston Hughes.Volume I of The Life of Langston Hughes is subtitledI, Too, Sing Americaand covers the years 1902-1941. Volume II is subtitledI Dream a Worldand covers the years 1941-1967 (the year of Hughes’s death).

Visit for links to all these resources. You can also listen to Langston Hughes read “Harlem,” arguably the most important poem to come out of Montage of a Dream Deferred. You can also watch actor Danny Glover recite the poem.

Aug 13, 2017

146: Herman Melville: "Billy Budd, Sailor"

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This week on StoryWeb: Herman Melville’s novella Billy Budd, Sailor.

While “Bartleby, the Scrivener” and Moby-Dick get a lot of attention (and are taught frequently in high school and college classes), fans of Herman Melville’s work think a lot about a piece he was writing at the end of his life. Though Melville had been working on the novella Billy Budd, Sailor for the last five years of his life, it appears that he may not have finished it when he died in 1891.

It’s surprising that Melville had been working on the novella for such a long time. Earlier in his life, he was known for the extremely rapid pace at which he wrote. For example, he wrote the mammoth Moby-Dick in just eighteen months – an epic novel that was about six times longer than Billy Budd.

So it’s odd that Melville would spend so much time on one piece – and still leave it unfinished.

Also puzzling is Melville’s motivation in writing Billy Budd at all. After he published Moby-Dick in 1851, he went on to write three other novels – Pierre; or, The Ambiguities; Israel Potter; and The Confidence-Man. Each subsequent novel increased the public’s sense that Melville had lost his mind, that his books were the ravings of a lunatic mad man. Looking back after more than 150 years, we can see that Melville was not insane but was rather highly innovative and deeply cynical about the human psyche.

Like Walt Whitman, Melville blew the lid off literary convention and, also like Whitman, was very much misunderstood and rejected by many in polite society. But unlike Whitman – and indeed unlike the whole band of Transcendentalists and their friends – Melville had a deeply pessimistic view of the world. When he saw Nathaniel Hawthorne in Europe in 1856, he told his friend that he had “pretty much made up [my] mind to be annihilated.” Hawthorne summed up Melville’s dilemma: “He can neither believe, nor be comfortable in his unbelief; and he is too honest and courageous not to try to do one or the other.”

As he wrote novel after novel in the 1840s and ‘50s, Melville’s view of the human psyche became darker and darker, with the monomaniacal Captain Ahab epitomizing the terror of the human soul gone mad, consumed by evil.

So intense was the public’s vitriolic reaction to Melville’s work that he quit writing entirely. He disappeared into a quiet career as a New York Customs House inspector. Indeed, he had become such an obscure figure that a New York newspaper, whose offices were located just two blocks from Melville’s home in Manhattan, wrote an article that wondered if Melville had died.

So the question many Melville fans ask is: was the author of Billy Budd still cynical about the human soul and was his final novella thus a “testament of resistance”? Or had he made his peace with darkness, had he come to some kind of spiritual acceptance of the world – with the novella a “testament of acceptance”?

And what of the fact that the manuscript was apparently unfinished? When Melville died, the manuscript had not been prepared for the printer – and much ink has been spilled since that time trying to determine Melville’s intentions as a writer.

Given all the mystery surrounding this short piece of fiction, we must ask ourselves why Billy Budd is so ambiguous and what this ambiguity can tell us about Melville’s final message to his readers. When we look closely, I believe we’ll see that Billy Budd is ambiguous because Melville’s own ideas changed as he wrote it and because he wanted his readers to explore for themselves the profound questions the book asks. He wanted to challenge the intelligent and alert reader – the reader whom he so desperately wanted to find, the reader who would be waiting for him later in the twentieth century.

When Melville died in September 1891, it had been five months since he had written “End of Book” on the last page of Billy Budd. Why, then, do scholars think the novella was unfinished? Fragments, repetitions, scraps of text compete with each other. In fact, even though the book was rediscovered in the 1920s, it wasn’t until the 1960s that a somewhat definitive version was published – but even that version feels unfinished and incomplete.

Melville had a lifelong history of losing control of manuscripts. For example, he told a friend that Pierre had “got somewhat out of hand,” ending up much longer and much more complex than Melville had originally intended. And in the famous cetelogy chapter in Moby-Dick, the narrator, Ishmael, says he leave his “cetological system standing thus unfinished. . . . God keep me from ever completing anything.” The editors of the 1962 version conclude:

Perhaps the “unfinished” Billy Budd should be regarded in this light. Melville’s often declared conception of the relation between reality and literature, between “truth” and the writer’s attempt to see and state it, involved both incompletion and formal imperfection as a necessity: a work that is faithful to reality must in the end be both incomplete and unshapely, since truth is both elusive and intractable. . . .

When we look at Melville’s writing process, then, we should remember his wide-ranging, deep-diving psychological journeys. As he responded to Hawthorne’s letter on having read Moby-Dick, “The truth is ever incoherent. . . . Lord, when shall we be done growing? . . . Lord, when shall we be done changing?” Or as one critic said, Billy Budd “seems to chronicle a divided conscious; divided not by irony alone but by the reading and reflection and changing thoughts and attitudes of those five years of revisions and reconceptions.”

But Billy Budd is not simply an unfinished manuscript. To the degree that it is finished, it is deliberately ambiguous. Throughout the novella, Melville uses a quite large number of “sliding” words, changes our perspectives on all the main characters frequently, and makes direct comments regarding ambiguity and the problems of definitively answering troublesome questions. Melville’s purpose, it seems to me, was to set up a book in which the reader asks questions along with the author and, instead of having the questions answered by the author, is forced to grapple with them herself.

Take sliding words. Billy Budd is peppered with words that give the book an unfixed quality. Strange. Mysterious. Peculiar. Singular. Lurking. Secret. Obscure. Subtle. Questionable. Equivocal. Vague. Puzzle. Vex. Perplex. Wonder. Speculate. Ambiguous. These words are used in key scenes – scenes we often recall vividly. But when we reread these scenes, we find that any vividness we remember is but the vividness we have ourselves created.

Similarly, the book’s image patterns put us in a world where the line between awake and asleep is thin and malleable, a world of dreaming and trances. And the main characters – Billy Budd, John Claggart, and Captain Vere – shift and shape-change not only throughout the book but also within individual scenes. The reader simply can’t get a grasp on who these characters are. Is Billy Budd an Adam, a Christ, and Claggart a devil? Not so fast, Melville seems to say. Truth is not so neat.

Perhaps the most telling statement is one that appears late in the novella. The narrator says,

The symmetry of form attainable in pure fiction cannot so readily be achieved in a narration essentially having less to do with fable than fact. Truth uncompromisingly told will always have its ragged edges; hence the conclusion of such a narration is apt to be less finished than an architectural finial.

Melville urges us to take care with what we read, to be slow in casting judgment and in reaching conclusions, and to allow ourselves to fully enter into the ambiguous exploration of the labyrinth. One scholar says that Billy Budd trails off, “leaving endless reverberations in our minds. There is more mystery than we had thought, and we may agree with dying Gertrude Stein that answers are less important than questions. . . . Not the tidy discourse of our first impression, [Billy Budd] is almost as inexplicable as Moby-Dick.”

If Melville had arrived at a well-defined set of answers, if this book was intended as his “testament of acceptance” or his “testament of resistance,” it is likely that he would not have carefully and neatly woven those answers into a story. Perhaps nothing underscores this more than the fact that readers and scholars have been finding their own individual answers to the problem of Billy Budd since the book was first published in 1924. While not all have followed Melville’s cues, each has at least tried to determine for himself what the book means.

But the best defense for a purposefully ambiguous reading comes from Melville’s own lifelong struggle with truth, from his long and shifting writing process, and from a thorough and alert reading of the novella. Not the unfinished, disunified work of art that many have seen, Billy Budd is a triumph as a novella that lets the reader discover “truth” for herself.

If you’re curious about the challenges Melville’s manuscript presented to scholars who rediscovered it in the 1920s, visit the University of Virginia’s outstanding American Studies website on Billy Budd. There you’ll also find a great list of online resources to help as you read the novella.

If you want to own what many scholars believe to be the “best” version of the controversial manuscript, you’ll want the 1962 Hayford and Sealts edition. And 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 famoustwo-volume biography.

Visit for links to all these resources.

Listen now as I read Chapter 2 from the 1962 Hayford/Sealts edition. It provides our first full introduction to Billy Budd.

Aug 06, 2017

145: Allen Ginsberg: "A Supermarket in California"

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This week on StoryWeb: Allen Ginsberg’s poem “A Supermarket in California.”

In so many ways – both in his poetry and in his interviews – Allen Ginsberg made clear that he owed a great debt to Walt Whitman. Indeed, Ginsberg’s most famous poem, “Howl,” stands as a nearly direct response to Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” published in 1855, a century before “Howl.”

But perhaps nowhere does Ginsberg make their kinship clearer than in his 1955 poem “A Supermarket in California.” In what seems at first a light-hearted, whimsical poem, Ginsberg imagines walking the aisles of a grocery store with the famed poet, the American bard.

Ginsberg addresses Whitman directly in the poem’s opening line: “What thoughts I have of you tonight, Walt Whitman.” The reader doesn’t need to guess or infer that Ginsberg has Whitman in mind.

Of course, Ginsberg often acknowledged his poetic debt to Whitman. Both here and in “Howl” (and in many other poems), Ginsberg builds on Whitman’s explosion of the poetic line. Where Whitman sounded his “barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world,” Ginsberg howled, nearly rending his garments in despair and anguish over witnessing “the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked.”

Good enough. Ginsberg was influenced, strongly, by Whitman’s poetry.

But there’s so much more to “A Supermarket in California,” so many ways Whitman is a “dear father,” a mentor to Ginsberg. For Ginsberg was a gay man in 1950s America, a dangerous time and place to embrace one’s homosexuality. In this poem, Ginsberg recognizes that Whitman can teach him more than how to open up a poetic line, how to catalog what he sees as he steps inside “the neon fruit supermarket, dreaming of your enumerations!”

No, Whitman – whom Ginsberg calls at the poem’s end the “lonely old courage-teacher” – sets an example for how to embrace one’s sexuality in a culture that is buttoned up, that does not talk about sex much less delight and revel in it openly.

Just as in “A Supermarket in California,” Ginsberg made clear in numerous interviews that Whitman showed him the way to be a truly American poet and how to be a gay man in America. Particularly moving is theVoices 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 canread a transcript of Ginsberg’s commentsat theAllen Ginsberg Project website.

As you listen to Ginsberg read “A Supermarket in California,” be sure to appreciate the whimsy of imagining a stroll through the produce department with the “graybeard” poet. Join Ginsberg as he notices the fruits and vegetables and the people who crowd the grocery store’s aisles even at night:

What peaches and what penumbras! Whole families shopping at night! Aisles full of husbands! Wives in the avocados, babies in the tomatoes!

But be sure to appreciate also how Ginsberg pays homage to Walt Whitman as a personal role model.

And just for fun, The Paris Review has a great illustration of Ginsberg and Whitman in the California supermarket! You can read “A Supermarket in California” online – or buy a copy of Howl and Other Poems, which includes the Walt Whitman grocery store fantasy.

Visit for links to all these resources and to watch Allen Ginsberg introduce and read “A Supermarket in California.” And if you have Amazon Prime, you can stream an album titled The Beat Generation – Music & Poetry. Track 50 is “A Supermarket in California.”

Surely, we want to read beyond the ending, when Ginsberg asks:

Where are we going, Walt Whitman? The doors close in an hour. Which way does your beard point tonight?

Oh, how I long to join Walt Whitman – and Allen Ginsberg – as they walk the streets of America!

Jul 30, 2017

144: Gloria Anzaldúa: "I Had To Go Down"

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This week on StoryWeb: Gloria Anzaldúa’s poem “I Had To Go Down.”

Gloria Anzaldúa was a groundbreaking, perhaps even groundclaiming theorist and poet. She is by far best known for her 1987 book, Borderlands/La Frontera. It is much easier to identify it as her most influential and enduring work than it is to place it into a genre. Is it theory? History? Poetry? Memoir? It is all this – and more.

Anzaldúa’s work can be challenging. It is a dense text with complex concepts, and some readers find it hard to understand. And it can be unsettling, especially to white (male) readers who might find their notions of privilege and status being called into question. This difficulty – this textual, psychological, social difficulty – is quite deliberate on Anzaldúa’s part. She confronts her readers as she upends dominant views of race, language, white privilege, gender and sexuality, and “ownership” of contested land between the U.S. Southwest and Mexico. In short, Borderlands/La Frontera is not an easy read nor is it intended to be.

Despite the challenges the book presents, there are so many wonderful sections and aspects to this multilayered, multifaceted book. Anzaldúa talks a lot about language shifting, new linguistic moves as part of what she calls the New Mestiza Consciousness. “At the confluence of two or more genetic streams,” she says, “with chromosomes constantly ‘crossing over,’ this mixture of races, rather than resulting in an inferior being, provides hybrid progeny, a mutable, more malleable species with a rich gene pool. From this racial, ideological, cultural and biological cross-pollinization, an ‘alien’ consciousness is presently in the making – a new mestiza consciousness. . . . It is a consciousness of the Borderlands.”

On one hand, she captures the New Mestiza through her hybrid use of language – as she fluidly moves “from English to Castillian Spanish to the North Mexican dialect to Tex-Mex to a sprinkling of Nahuatl,” often within the same work. It is quite a linguistic feat.

But Anzaldúa also demonstrates the New Mestiza Consciousness through her radical mixing of genres. The first half of the book features heady, theoretical essays, geographical history, and personal autobiography. The second half of the book is comprised of powerful and sometimes intensely personal poems. Theory and poetry – two seemingly opposed discourses placed right up against each other in one volume. Self-described as a “chicana dyke-feminist, tejana patlache poet, writer, and cultural theorist,” Anzaldúa creates a new approach to embody the many aspects of her self, of her creativity and consciousness.

Perhaps my favorite poem is “I Had To Go Down.” Reminiscent of Adrienne Rich’s poem “Diving into the Wreck,” this poem tells of a narrator slowly going down into a dank, dark cellar. She’s put off the trip to the basement as long as she can – “I hardly ever set foot on the floors below,” she says. But finally, needing to do her laundry, she decides to take the plunge, saying “I should have waited till morning.” As she opens the door to the basement, the narrator discovers that “[t]he steps down had disappeared. . . . / I would have to lower myself / and then drop. . . .”

An explorer of sorts, the narrator makes her way into the basement, the moist, dark, musty cellar underneath a house. Basements and cellars are spooky, unsettling, creepy. The narrator encounters spider webs that “[shroud] the narrow windows,” crumbled bricks, old “bedsprings and headboards,” “a broken chair,” and a faded dress. Most pervasive is the dirt – rich, pungent, loamy earth. The narrator says, “A rank earth smell thickened the air in the cavernous room.”

But a cellar is also often a place of nourishment – as jars of canned preserves often line the walls. In this poem, what springs to life “into the belly of the house” is “[a] gnarled root,” “a shoot [that] had sprung in the darkness.” “[N]ow a young tree was growing,” the narrator says, “nourished by a nightsun.”

The trip downstairs into the dank heart of the house is frightening, but it is the only way the narrator can find this sign of new life. Numerous theories have been offered for this poem. Going down is a metaphor for the writing process, some say. Anzaldúa hints at this meaning when she writes earlier in the book, “Living in a state of psychic unrest, in a Borderland, is what makes poets write and artists create.”

Others point to the psychological journey the narrator is on as she delves into the space underneath her house. Our society has “strict taboos against this kind of inner knowledge,” says Anzaldúa. “It fears what [Carl] Jung calls the Shadow, the unsavory aspects of ourselves.” Later in the book, she writes, “Our greatest disappointments and painful experiences – if we can make meaning out of them – can lead us toward becoming more of who we are.” Going down into the basement, in the psychological reading, takes us down into the depths of who we are, brings us face to face with the gnarled root of new life pushing up through the dirt floor.

As she claims a rich Chicana identity and a robust Chicano language, Anzaldúa says, “I will no longer be made to feel ashamed of existing. I will have my voice: Indian, Spanish, white. I will have my serpent’s tongue – my woman’s voice, my sexual voice, my poet’s voice. I will overcome the tradition of silence.”

To experience firsthand how Anzaldúa broke the silence, get a copy of Borderlands/La Frontera and dive in. Be forewarned: this is not an easy read. It’s technically challenging, and it will make you question what you thought you knew about race, place, language, gender, sexuality, history, and more. But if you go down into the basement with Anzaldúa, you just might find “a young tree” growing in your own consciousness.

To learn more about Anzaldúa, you can read a short biography and overview of her work. Emory University places her work in a postcolonial context, and Ms. Magazine offers a retrospective of her career and her impact. Be sure to visit the website for the Gloria E. Anzaldúa Foundation. Those who want to teach Anzaldúa’s work will find Annenberg Learner’s resources very helpful. The National Council of Teachers of English offers the Gloria Anzaldúa Rhetorician Award, while the American Studies Association has the Gloria E. Anzaldúa Award.

To go even further, check out the landmark anthology Anzaldúa edited with Cherríe Moraga, This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color, and look also at another volume she edited: Making Face, Making Soul/Hacienda Caras: Creative and Critical Perspectives by Feminists of Color. Also worth a read is the University of Texas Press anthology Bridging: How Gloria Anzaldúa’s Life and Work Transformed Our Own, featuring 32 writers paying homage to Anzaldúa. And to delve into all of her writing, look no further than The Gloria Anzaldúa Reader, published by Duke University Press.

Encountering Gloria Anzaldúa for the first time can be energizing and challenging, as she calls us to look at the voices from the deep, loamy earth. Start with “I Had to Go Down” in Borderlands/La Frontera, and then consider exploring more of her work. Reading Anzaldúa takes work, but it is effort that is amply rewarded.

Visit for links to all these resources and to listen to a rare recording of Gloria Anzaldúa reading from unpublished work in 1991 at the University of Arizona Poetry Center.

Jul 23, 2017

143: E.M. Forster: "A Passage to India"

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This week on StoryWeb: E.M. Forster’s novel A Passage to India.

When I was a senior in high school, my favorite English teacher, Mr. Alwood, agreed to do an independent study with me. He selected four challenging novels he thought I was up to understanding and studying. I think back to those novels now and can’t imagine how a 17-year-old could really have been equipped – intellectually or emotionally – to appreciate them. But in my way, limited by life experience though I was, I did appreciate them.

One of those novels was E.M. Forster’s 1924 book, A Passage to India. The novel hinges on an accusation of rape. One of the main characters is Mrs. Moore, a refined British lady who has come to visit India, still a British colony. Mrs. Moore is sensitive to the cultures and religions of others, and when she visits and enters a Muslim mosque reverently, she forms an unlikely but heartfelt friendship with Dr. Aziz, an Indian Muslim doctor in the town of Chandrapore.

At first it seems that a bridge can be built between cultures, between the colonizer and the colonized, but when Dr. Aziz and Mrs. Moore go on an outing to explore the nearby Marabar Caves, Mrs. Moore’s potential daughter-in-law, Adela Quested, feels ill and claims that Dr. Aziz has “insulted” her.

For the rest of the novel, we follow Dr. Aziz’s trial in the British Raj courtroom. Did Aziz attempt to rape Adela? Or was Adela instead overcome by the power and “otherness” of the caves and imagine an assault?

The other key character in the novel is Cyril Fielding, a British headmaster who runs a school for Indians. He, too, is friends with Aziz. Throughout the novel, Fielding and Aziz try to foster a true friendship, but their efforts at knowing each other are strained indeed.

Forster asks in this novel whether there can truly be cross-cultural friendship. Can we reach across cultural, religious, national, and gender divides to meet as human beings?

Forster seems to answer that question through the novel’s ending. Fielding and Aziz are out riding their horses, and the question that opened the novel – can the British and the Indians form real friendships? – comes up again. In a passionate declaration, Aziz asserts that the Indians can drive the Brits out of their country. “India shall be a nation!” he shouts. “No foreigners of any sort! Hindus and Moslem and Sikh and all shall be one! Hurrah! Hurrah for India!”

Forster writes:

“If it’s fifty-five hundred years, we shall get rid of you, yes, we shall drive every blasted Englishman into the sea, and then” – he rode against [Fielding] furiously – “and then,” he concluded, half kissing him, “you and I shall be friends.”

“Why can’t we be friends now?” Fielding asks, holding Aziz affectionately. “It’s what I want. It’s what you want.”

Forster ends the novel with these words:

But the horses didn’t want it – they swerved apart; the earth didn’t want it, sending up rocks through which riders must pass single file; the temples, the tank, the jail, the palace, the birds, the carrion, the Guest House, that came into view as they issued from the gap and saw Mau beneath: they didn’t want it, they said in their hundred voices, “No, not yet,” and the sky said, “No, not there.”

A Passage to India was made into a powerful film by David Lean, who wrote, directed, and edited the film. But the movie closes with a revised ending scene – putting forth the opposite conclusion Forster presents in the novel. Years after the excursion to the Marabar Caves, Aziz and Adela make their peace via correspondence, and Fielding and his wife – Mrs. Moore’s daughter, Stella – see Aziz in India and affirm their friendship.

So crucial to the novel is Forster’s ending that to me all the power of the film – its sweeping treatment of the British Raj and the movement for Indian independence – is undone by the less morally complicated ending Lean slapped on the film. The movie ties things up in a neat bow, offers a pat, feel-good ending in which the divisions between the British and the Indians, between the colonizer and the colonized, between the powerful and the powerless are easily erased.

Arguably Forster’s enduring motto is “Only connect!” It serves as the epigraph to his 1910 novel, Howards End, and it sums up Forster’s feeling about the centrality of human relationships. But in A Passage to India, his last great work, he leaves us unsettled as Fielding and Aziz swerve apart. Despite the fact that both men want to be friends, their places in their respective worlds leave them unable to fully connect. That truth – the impossibility of connecting across human-created divides – is the heart of A Passage to India.

The Guardian named A Passage to India as one of the hundred best novels written in English. To learn about Forster himself, you can go back to Lionel Trilling’s early assessment of the man and his work. A more recent examination of Forster and his fiction can be found in Wendy Moffat’s biography, which provides the first full look at Forster’s somewhat closeted life as a gay man and the impact of his sexuality on his work. The New York Times review of Moffat’s biography provides a good introduction to the themes she considers.

Damon Galgut’s Arctic Summer is a fictional biography of Forster; it highlights Forster’s relationship with Syed Ross Masood, an Indian Muslim who was Forster’s unrequited love. Forster said, “But for Masood, I might never have gone to India.” The Guardian offers an exploration of their relationship.

Visit for links to all these resources and to watch a clip from the film in which Mrs. Moore and Dr. Aziz meet in a mosque for the first time. You can also listen as Forster discusses writing novels and his motto “Only connect” and listen as he talks about writing A Passage to India.

But as always, the best way to experience the work at hand is to curl up with a hard copy. Really . . . isn’t A Passage to India perfect for a cozy armchair and a cup of tea?

Jul 16, 2017

142: Derek Bowman: "Tam: The Life and Death of a Dog"

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This week on StoryWeb: Derek Bowman’s book Tam: The Life and Death of a Dog.

For Mom, in honor of her birthday

Chanonry Point.

The very name of this tiny peninsula in northern Scotland evokes fond memories and takes me back – almost physically, it seems – to the little cottage I shared with my mother and sister for one week in Summer 2006. I can recall the peculiar washer and dryer (which try as we might we never could get to work), Julia’s bedroom at the top of extremely narrow, very steep, almost ladder-like stairs, and Mom’s makeshift bedroom in the living room.

I certainly recall walking outside on Chanonry Point, which is a sightseeing destination for locals and tourists alike, our tiny cottage the only structure other than the lighthouse on the point. People would gather at all hours of the day to watch the dolphins that gathered in the Moray Firth just off the point, the largest “traffic intersection” of dolphins in Scotland, perhaps the world.

I also well remember the many dogs that traveled with their humans to explore the shoreline. My family has always loved dogs, and the three of us reveled in having so many of them just outside the cottage’s front door.

But of all the things I remember of that week at Chanonry Point, perhaps none stands out more than Mom being immersed in a book she found in the cottage. During quiet times that week, as we’d take breaks from our exploration of the Black Isle (as it is called) and the nearby communities of Rosemarkie and Fortrose, Mom would have her nose stuck in the pages of Derek Bowman’s Tam: The Life and Death of a Dog. Mom not only loves dogs – she also loves books, and she especially loves books about dogs. All week, she kept telling Julia and me how thoroughly she was enjoying the book. The volume became such a part of our time at Chanonry Point that we have a photo of Mom reading Tam!

Years later, Julia and Mom tracked down used copies of Tam, and now all the women of the family have their own copies. When I finally took time to read my copy of Tam, I immediately understood what all the fuss was about. Bowman brings Tam to life in such a vivid way and perfectly describes a dog’s ways of being and habits, its gestures and quirks.

Flash forward to 2017. I decided I wanted to feature Tam on StoryWeb, but I’d need the author’s permission to read an excerpt from the delightful book. Always one for some good cyber-sleuthing, I dug into my Google detective work and discovered that Derek Bowman had been a lecturer in German at Edinburgh University. I wrote to the department chair to see if he knew Bowman and if he knew how to contact him.

The next thing I knew, I had an email from Derek Bowman’s two daughters, Catherine and Elisabeth. I felt I already knew them as Bowman – of course – makes them part of the story of his 1978 book.

But now Catherine and Elisabeth were all grown up, and they were writing to let me know they’d received my request from the university. Sadly, both their father and their mother had passed away some time ago, but they would be delighted for me to feature Tam on StoryWeb and happily gave me permission to record some excerpts.

They also told me more about their father, who despite my best investigations, had remained a mystery to me. Born in Liverpool in 1931, Derek Bowman loved languages and ultimately became a university lecturer in German. In addition to writing literary criticism and translating German works into English, Bowman also wrote and published poetry. His translation of The Diary of Dawid Rubinowicz is particularly interesting due to the subject matter. The diary of a young Jewish boy in Poland during World War II, the book is similar in content to Anne Frank’s diary. The story was little known at the time Derek Bowman translated it, and Bowman made a trip to Poland, then an Iron Curtain country, to verify the authenticity of his sources. Bowman also translated several short stories that were broadcast on BBC Radio, and a number of his poems were published in The Scotsman, one of Scotland’s major daily newspapers.

But for me – as for Mom and Julia – it all comes back to Tam: The Life and Death of a Dog. We’ve loved and lost our own dogs – most recently our beloved Toby and dearest Abbie – and all three of us stand amazed at how perfectly Bowman captures the “essence of dog” in his descriptions of Tam, his family’s border collie. I spied some similarities to Abbie in the border collie descriptions and in the photos of Tam – and of course, all the dogs we have loved have shared that same ineffable canine spirit as Tam. “All good clean fun,” Bowman writes of Tam. “Fun – that’s what draws him. St. Augustine’s ‘dilectio,’ delight, ‘the force that makes the life-time strong,’ the urge that shapes the course our lives take, for we are creatures just like him, with appetites just like his.”

From the book’s title, you know it does not have a happy ending. Always, sadly, we must let our doggies go, as their lives are so much shorter than ours. But oh, the love they give us while they’re here, the boundless joy we share with them!

If you want your own copy of Tam, you can find a used copy on Amazon as well as other online book outlets. I know you’ll love this short, sweet book every bit as much as Mom did that week on Chanonry Point.

Listen now as I read a short excerpt from Derek Bowman’s book Tam: The Life and Death of a Dog.

Jul 09, 2017

141: Lin-Manuel Miranda: "Hamilton"

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This week on StoryWeb: Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Broadway musical Hamilton.

Like many, many Americans, I am entirely and utterly swept up in the cultural phenomenon of our time – meaning I can’t get enough of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Broadway musical Hamilton.


That is really all there is to say. Introducing the cast for a performance at the White House, Michelle Obama said that Hamilton is the greatest work of art in any genre that she has ever encountered. And numerous theater directors and scholars compare Miranda to Shakespeare in his ability to bring history to life through colloquial verse. The show won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and was nominated for a record-setting sixteen Tony Awards, winning eleven. Miranda not only wrote the lyrics and music for the show – but also starred as Hamilton, receiving the Tony for Best Actor in a Musical. In 2015, the same year Hamilton debuted on Broadway, Miranda was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship – known by many as the MacArthur genius award.

What’s all this fuss about a Broadway show? Why do I and so many others love Hamilton? Is Hamilton a great work of art? And is Miranda a Shakespeare?

Well. For starters, Hamilton truly brings the American Revolution and the founding of the United States to incredibly vivid life. Alexander Hamilton gets his due – in many ways, his long-overdue credit. Sure, he graces the ten-dollar bill, and high school students who are paying attention know that he founded the U.S. Treasury. And who isn’t captivated by the story of the Burr-Hamilton duel? (We think, “Really?! They settled their differences with duels?! That’s even more outlandish than attacking your opponents via Twitter!”) But as Miranda makes clear, Alexander Hamilton contributed so much more to our fledgling country.

But Hamilton is more than a history lesson. Zoom ahead about 240 years and produce the show now, and you get hip-hop – exuberant, fierce hip-hop full of verbal pyrotechnics. I do not consider myself a fan of rap or hip-hop, but after immersing myself in the Hamilton CD, I am starting to be converted. The linguistic dexterity and wizardry are not to be believed. Take a listen – you’ll see what I mean. And for insights into the many ways Hamilton pays homage to the greats of hip-hop, study the annotated libretto.

Now, put 1776 and 2017 together, one era reflecting back on the other, and you can’t help but see the parallels to the #blacklivesmatter movement, the movement for immigrant rights, and other actions to gain full civil rights. With a cast comprised nearly completely of people of color (only King George is played by a white actor), the musical sounds the echoes of the American colonies’ push for freedom and contemporary actions for equality. Hamilton’s rise from being an immigrant orphan to becoming one of the founding fathers of the new nation is a major plot driver in the show. Indeed, when Mike Pence went to see the show on Broadway, the cast spoke to him directly after the curtain call, making a plea for valuing immigrants’ contributions to American society.

Want to experience Hamilton even if it’s not coming to your town any time soon – or if you don’t want to shell out hundreds of dollars for a ticket?

First, listen to the original Broadway cast recording of the show -- you’ll be listening again and again, mark my word!

Second, buy the libretto, Hamilton: The Revolution. It includes extensive annotations by Lin-Manuel Miranda – giving insights into the rich history and dynamic artistic choices that went into the making of Hamilton. You’ll learn how he was inspired while on vacation by Ron Chernow’s outstanding biography Alexander Hamilton. You’ll learn how he built on and signified on previous rappers and hip-hop artists. You’ll also find article after article interspersed throughout the songs, again providing a vibrant backdrop to a truly amazing accomplishment.

Finally, a PBS Great Performances documentary – Hamilton’s America – provides both a behind-the-scenes look at the show and actual performances from the show. I know you’ll be as mesmerized as I was. For great resources about Alexander Hamilton and the musical, visit the Great Performances website.

Visit for links to all these resources and to watch as the Broadway cast performs “Alexander Hamilton” at the White House. The clip includes President Barack Obama talking about the importance of the musical.

Listen to the original Broadway cast recording of Hamilton, read the libretto, watch the PBS documentary, read the Ron Chernow biography that inspired Miranda to write the musical, and if you’re lucky, go see the show – and then join Alexander Hamilton and his compatriots as you “Rise up!” What a way to celebrate the Fourth of July!

Jul 02, 2017

140: John Hiatt: "Feels Like Rain" and "Drive South"

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This week on StoryWeb: John Hiatt’s songs “Feels Like Rain” and “Drive South.”

For Jim, in celebration of our years together

Later this week, Jim and I will celebrate twelve years together, ten years married.

American singer-songwriter John Hiatt was a part of our early courtship, and two of his songs became our particular favorites – “Feels Like Rain” and “Drive South.” Both appear on Hiatt’s 1988 album, Slow Turning.

A true American troubadour, Hiatt has recorded more than 20 albums, beginning with Hangin’ Around the Observatory in 1974 and most recently with Terms of My Surrender in 2014. He’s known for great songs like “Have a Little Faith in Me,” “Perfectly Good Guitar,” and “Thing Called Love” (which became a hit for Bonnie Raitt). His songs have been covered by a wide range of outstanding musicians, from Aaron Neville, B.B. King, and Bob Dylan to Iggy Pop, Linda Ronstadt, and Rosanne Cash. “Feels Like Rain” was the title track of a 1993 album by Buddy Guy, and Suzy Bogguss recorded “Drive South” in 1992, hitting number two on the country charts.

Of Hiatt’s many albums, Slow Turning stands out for its rich collection of compelling songs. It’s just one of those albums you have to have – and if you don’t know John Hiatt’s music, it’s a great place to start. You’ll find yourself listening to the album again and again, discovering new gems each time. In addition to “Feels Like Rain” and “Drive South,” it includes such tunes as “Tennessee Plates” (which was recorded by Charlie Sexton for the soundtrack to Thelma and Louise) and “Icy Blue Heart” (which Emmylou Harris recorded for her 1989 album, Bluebird).

Back to our two favorite songs. “Feels Like Rain” and “Drive South” are perfect falling-in-love songs. “Feels Like Rain” compares new love to the power of a hurricane. It was featured on the HBO series, Treme, set in post-Katrina New Orleans. In one episode, two characters talk together about what makes Hiatt’s song so powerful. In fact, one of those characters, Harley, is played by none other than Steve Earle, an American troubadour in his own right.

“Drive South” is all about the open road, new opportunity, and the sweetness of middle-aged love. As blogger Holly A. Hughes says, “One of the things I love about ‘Drive South’ is that it’s a car song and a love song, where the crazy joy of hitting the road is perfectly mingled with the crazy joy of being in love.” And NPR tags “Drive South” as one of its recommended “Songs for Stops Along the Way.”

If you get a chance to catch John Hiatt live, run, don’t walk, to the concert. My dear friend Karin and I had the opportunity to see him at an intimate concert for 250 people. Despite the persistent heckler who harassed Hiatt throughout much of the show, Hiatt gave an outstanding performance. Near the end of the show, he sang “Feels Like Rain,” then slid right into “Drive South.” I was in heaven!

Frequently these days, John Hiatt performs with his long-time friend Lyle Lovett. Sitting together on stage, they take turns performing their songs. Their dual performance is part of a long tradition rooted in Nashville, Tennessee, and Austin, Texas, two great music towns. The “song circle” or “guitar pull,” says San Diego Troubadour, creates a sacred circle of song. JamBase said of one of their shows, “The two are so comfortable with themselves that they make you feel like you are sitting in the living room with them, getting to know them better through their songs.” The New York Times offers a great review of a Hiatt-Lovett concert as well.

Whether you’re listening to Slow Turning on your stereo or enjoying a live performance by John Hiatt (and maybe his pal Lyle Lovett), you’re in for a real treat. Rolling Stone offers a 30-year retrospective of Slow Turning, with a particular focus on “Drive South” – worth checking out if you want to learn more. And if you want to try your hand at singing and playing Hiatt’s songs yourself, check out the lyrics and chords for “Feels Like Rain” and “Drive South” (both available, with numerous other Hiatt songs, at the John Hiatt Archives).

You can learn more about John Hiatt – who hails from Indianapolis, Indiana – in three interviews, one with Jay Hipps in 1994, one with Mark Coenen in 1995, and one with Rolling Stone in 1995.

I’m so glad I “drove north” twelve years ago, rocking out to John Hiatt on my Honda Civic tape player as I headed up the east coast to meet Jim at his family’s Long Island beach house. Better believe it, baby!

Visit for links to all these resources and to watch John Hiatt perform “Feels Like Rain” and “Drive South.”

Jun 25, 2017

139: Edith Wharton: "The House of Mirth"

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This week on StoryWeb: Edith Wharton’s novel The House of Mirth.

I want to close out my multi-week focus on the Gilded Age with a consideration of Edith Wharton’s novel The House of Mirth. Where Jacob Riis, Alfred Stieglitz, Stephen Crane, and Theodore Dreiser look at the grimier side of this famed period in New York City history, at the underbelly that the working class and poor, the immigrants, and the homeless faced as they made their way through daily life, Edith Wharton focuses her attention on the world she knew best: that of the privileged, moneyed class.

It seems odd in a way to say I “love” The House of Mirth. After all, the main character, Lily Bart, endures such a difficult downward spiral amid the harsh, judgmental upper-class echelons of New York City. The young, flirtatious, life-loving, aptly named Lily doesn’t stand a chance against high Manhattan society, whether it is those with old money, such as her Aunt Peniston, or those with new money, such as the Trenors and Dorsets.

Lily’s story – as hard as it is to witness – is told fully, drawn exquisitely against the backdrop of Fifth Avenue mansions. Written in 1905 – first as a serialized series in Scribner’s Magazine and then published as a book – The House of Mirth brings to life a New York that most of Wharton’s readers would not have had the privilege to know. But it is a world Edith Wharton knew intimately.

Born Edith Newbold Jones, she came from the uber-rich family that gave rise to the saying “keeping up with the Joneses.” Wharton spent her whole life in that rarified, upper-crust elite. She knew firsthand its luxuries and privileges. She also saw the ways in which it was stultifying, demanding strict adherence to a rigid set of mores and ostracizing anyone who dared to go against those mores.

Lily Bart is an interesting case in point. A poor relation, orphaned and without an income, Lily is forced to rely on her aunt, Mrs. Julia Peniston, one of the so-called Knickerbockers who hailed from old New York money. Thus, Lily is a kind of stepchild, a pampered beggar at the very altar of wealth. She has been raised in this world, but she doesn’t have a firm foothold in it, much less a steady stand in it.

In her late twenties, the beautiful Lily is beginning to lose her bloom, and the pressure is on her to marry. But Lily can’t seem to make a match. She is still full of youth, life, energy – and she is also frivolous and flirtatious, too much for her own good according to the moneyed society in which she lives. Through a scandal involving money and sexual harassment, Lily falls precipitously from the tenuous grace she inhabits at the beginning of the novel. By novel’s end, she’s had a rough go indeed.

Indeed, The House of Mirth virtually epitomizes The Gilded Age. At the novel’s opening, Lily Bart lives in that gilded world – a world dipped in a shining gilding of gold. The era gets its name from Mark Twain’s 1873 novel, The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today, in which the venerated social satirist makes clear that all that glitters is not gold. What appears to be gold – the lush luxuries of the moneyed class in Manhattan – is actually just thin gold gilding masking serious social problems. Scratch the gilding a bit, and you’ll see the rot, destruction, corruption, and despair underneath. So, too, with Lily and her downfall. Wharton scrapes the gilding off, shows the dirty reality of the world in which Lily lives.

Wharton broke astonishingly new ground in The House of Mirth. Writing in the 1936 reprint of her novel, she said:

When I wroteHouse of MirthI held, without knowing it, two trumps in my hand. One was the fact that New York society in the nineties was a field as yet unexploited by a novelist who had grown up in that little hot-house of tradition and conventions; and the other, that as yet these traditions and conventions were unassailed, and tacitly regarded as unassailable.

To learn more about The House of Mirth, check out Daily Kos’s take on it as well as “The Portrait of Miss Bart” in the New York Review of Books. You can view the illustrations from the original 1905 edition at the Edith Wharton Society website. If you want to explore Wharton in depth, you’ll want to read Hermione Lee’s biography of her.

The website for Wharton’s home, The Mount, includes a biography and a consideration of her legacy, which inspired Julian Fellowes, the creator of Downton Abbey. You can take a virtual tour of Wharton’s estate, the main house, the stable, and the gardens. C-SPAN’s two-and-a-half-hour special on Edith Wharton – broadcast from The Mount – is well worth viewing.

You can read The House of Mirth for free online at Project Gutenberg – but if you’re like me, you’ll want to curl up in your favorite armchair with a hard copy of this delightfully long novel.

One last resource is fascinating indeed – a 2007 article in the New York Times – but it reveals the ending of the novel. So wait until you’ve read The House of Mirth before you read “Wharton Letter Reopens a Mystery.”

Visit for links to all these resources. Listen now as I read Chapter 1 of Edith Wharton’s 1905 novel, The House of Mirth.

Selden paused in surprise. In the afternoon rush of the Grand Central Station his eyes had been refreshed by the sight of Miss Lily Bart.

It was a Monday in early September, and he was returning to his work from a hurried dip into the country; but what was Miss Bart doing in town at that season? If she had appeared to be catching a train, he might have inferred that he had come on her in the act of transition between one and another of the country-houses which disputed her presence after the close of the Newport season; but her desultory air perplexed him. She stood apart from the crowd, letting it drift by her to the platform or the street, and wearing an air of irresolution which might, as he surmised, be the mask of a very definite purpose. It struck him at once that she was waiting for some one, but he hardly knew why the idea arrested him. There was nothing new about Lily Bart, yet he could never see her without a faint movement of interest: it was characteristic of her that she always roused speculation, that her simplest acts seemed the result of far-reaching intentions.

An impulse of curiosity made him turn out of his direct line to the door, and stroll past her. He knew that if she did not wish to be seen she would contrive to elude him; and it amused him to think of putting her skill to the test.

"Mr. Selden—what good luck!"

She came forward smiling, eager almost, in her resolve to intercept him. One or two persons, in brushing past them, lingered to look; for Miss Bart was a figure to arrest even the suburban traveller rushing to his last train.

Selden had never seen her more radiant. Her vivid head, relieved against the dull tints of the crowd, made her more conspicuous than in a ball-room, and under her dark hat and veil she regained the girlish smoothness, the purity of tint, that she was beginning to lose after eleven years of late hours and indefatigable dancing. Was it really eleven years, Selden found himself wondering, and had she indeed reached the nine-and-twentieth birthday with which her rivals credited her?

"What luck!" she repeated. "How nice of you to come to my rescue!"

He responded joyfully that to do so was his mission in life, and asked what form the rescue was to take.

"Oh, almost any—even to sitting on a bench and talking to me. One sits out a cotillion—why not sit out a train? It isn't a bit hotter here than in Mrs. Van Osburgh's conservatory—and some of the women are not a bit uglier." She broke off, laughing, to explain that she had come up to town from Tuxedo, on her way to the Gus Trenors' at Bellomont, and had missed the three-fifteen train to Rhinebeck. "And there isn't another till half-past five." She consulted the little jewelled watch among her laces.

"Just two hours to wait. And I don't know what to do with myself. My maid came up this morning to do some shopping for me, and was to go on to Bellomont at one o'clock, and my aunt's house is closed, and I don't know a soul in town." She glanced plaintively about the station. "It IS hotter than Mrs. Van Osburgh's, after all. If you can spare the time, do take me somewhere for a breath of air."

He declared himself entirely at her disposal: the adventure struck him as diverting. As a spectator, he had always enjoyed Lily Bart; and his course lay so far out of her orbit that it amused him to be drawn for a moment into the sudden intimacy which her proposal implied.

"Shall we go over to Sherry's for a cup of tea?"

She smiled assentingly, and then made a slight grimace.

"So many people come up to town on a Monday—one is sure to meet a lot of bores. I'm as old as the hills, of course, and it ought not to make any difference; but if I'M old enough, you're not," she objected gaily. "I'm dying for tea—but isn't there a quieter place?"

He answered her smile, which rested on him vividly. Her discretions interested him almost as much as her imprudences: he was so sure that both were part of the same carefully-elaborated plan. In judging Miss Bart, he had always made use of the "argument from design."

"The resources of New York are rather meagre," he said; "but I'll find a hansom first, and then we'll invent something." He led her through the throng of returning holiday-makers, past sallow-faced girls in preposterous hats, and flat-chested women struggling with paper bundles and palm-leaf fans. Was it possible that she belonged to the same race? The dinginess, the crudity of this average section of womanhood made him feel how highly specialized she was.

A rapid shower had cooled the air, and clouds still hung refreshingly over the moist street.

"How delicious! Let us walk a little," she said as they emerged from the station.

They turned into Madison Avenue and began to stroll northward. As she moved beside him, with her long light step, Selden was conscious of taking a luxurious pleasure in her nearness: in the modelling of her little ear, the crisp upward wave of her hair—was it ever so slightly brightened by art?—and the thick planting of her straight black lashes. Everything about her was at once vigorous and exquisite, at once strong and fine. He had a confused sense that she must have cost a great deal to make, that a great many dull and ugly people must, in some mysterious way, have been sacrificed to produce her. He was aware that the qualities distinguishing her from the herd of her sex were chiefly external: as though a fine glaze of beauty and fastidiousness had been applied to vulgar clay. Yet the analogy left him unsatisfied, for a coarse texture will not take a high finish; and was it not possible that the material was fine, but that circumstance had fashioned it into a futile shape?

As he reached this point in his speculations the sun came out, and her lifted parasol cut off his enjoyment. A moment or two later she paused with a sigh.

"Oh, dear, I'm so hot and thirsty—and what a hideous place New York is!" She looked despairingly up and down the dreary thoroughfare. "Other cities put on their best clothes in summer, but New York seems to sit in its shirtsleeves." Her eyes wandered down one of the side-streets. "Someone has had the humanity to plant a few trees over there. Let us go into the shade."

"I am glad my street meets with your approval," said Selden as they turned the corner.

"Your street? Do you live here?"

She glanced with interest along the new brick and limestone house-fronts, fantastically varied in obedience to the American craving for novelty, but fresh and inviting with their awnings and flower-boxes.

"Ah, yes—to be sure: THE BENEDICK. What a nice-looking building! I don't think I've ever seen it before." She looked across at the flat-house with its marble porch and pseudo-Georgian facade.

"Which are your windows? Those with the awnings down?"

"On the top floor—yes."

"And that nice little balcony is yours? How cool it looks up there!"

He paused a moment. "Come up and see," he suggested. "I can give you a cup of tea in no time—and you won't meet any bores."

Her colour deepened—she still had the art of blushing at the right time—but she took the suggestion as lightly as it was made.

"Why not? It's too tempting—I'll take the risk," she declared.

"Oh, I'm not dangerous," he said in the same key. In truth, he had never liked her as well as at that moment. He knew she had accepted without afterthought: he could never be a factor in her calculations, and there was a surprise, a refreshment almost, in the spontaneity of her consent.

On the threshold he paused a moment, feeling for his latchkey.

"There's no one here; but I have a servant who is supposed to come in the mornings, and it's just possible he may have put out the tea-things and provided some cake."

He ushered her into a slip of a hall hung with old prints. She noticed the letters and notes heaped on the table among his gloves and sticks; then she found herself in a small library, dark but cheerful, with its walls of books, a pleasantly faded Turkey rug, a littered desk and, as he had foretold, a tea-tray on a low table near the window. A breeze had sprung up, swaying inward the muslin curtains, and bringing a fresh scent of mignonette and petunias from the flower-box on the balcony.

Lily sank with a sigh into one of the shabby leather chairs.

"How delicious to have a place like this all to one's self! What a miserable thing it is to be a woman." She leaned back in a luxury of discontent.

Selden was rummaging in a cupboard for the cake.

"Even women," he said, "have been known to enjoy the privileges of a flat."

"Oh, governesses—or widows. But not girls—not poor, miserable, marriageable girls!"

"I even know a girl who lives in a flat."

She sat up in surprise. "You do?"

"I do," he assured her, emerging from the cupboard with the sought-for cake.

"Oh, I know—you mean Gerty Farish." She smiled a little unkindly. "But I said MARRIAGEABLE—and besides, she has a horrid little place, and no maid, and such queer things to eat. Her cook does the washing and the food tastes of soap. I should hate that, you know."

"You shouldn't dine with her on wash-days," said Selden, cutting the cake.

They both laughed, and he knelt by the table to light the lamp under the kettle, while she measured out the tea into a little tea-pot of green glaze. As he watched her hand, polished as a bit of old ivory, with its slender pink nails, and the sapphire bracelet slipping over her wrist, he was struck with the irony of suggesting to her such a life as his cousin Gertrude Farish had chosen. She was so evidently the victim of the civilization which had produced her, that the links of her bracelet seemed like manacles chaining her to her fate.

She seemed to read his thought. "It was horrid of me to say that of Gerty," she said with charming compunction. "I forgot she was your cousin. But we're so different, you know: she likes being good, and I like being happy. And besides, she is free and I am not. If I were, I daresay I could manage to be happy even in her flat. It must be pure bliss to arrange the furniture just as one likes, and give all the horrors to the ash-man. If I could only do over my aunt's drawing-room I know I should be a better woman."

"Is it so very bad?" he asked sympathetically.

She smiled at him across the tea-pot which she was holding up to be filled.

"That shows how seldom you come there. Why don't you come oftener?"

"When I do come, it's not to look at Mrs. Peniston's furniture."

"Nonsense," she said. "You don't come at all—and yet we got on so well when we meet."

"Perhaps that's the reason," he answered promptly. "I'm afraid I haven't any cream, you know—shall you mind a slice of lemon instead?"

"I shall like it better." She waited while he cut the lemon and dropped a thin disk into her cup. "But that is not the reason," she insisted.

"The reason for what?"

"For your never coming." She leaned forward with a shade of perplexity in her charming eyes. "I wish I knew—I wish I could make you out. Of course I know there are men who don't like me—one can tell that at a glance. And there are others who are afraid of me: they think I want to marry them." She smiled up at him frankly. "But I don't think you dislike me—and you can't possibly think I want to marry you."

"No—I absolve you of that," he agreed.

"Well, then—-?"

He had carried his cup to the fireplace, and stood leaning against the chimney-piece and looking down on her with an air of indolent amusement. The provocation in her eyes increased his amusement—he had not supposed she would waste her powder on such small game; but perhaps she was only keeping her hand in; or perhaps a girl of her type had no conversation but of the personal kind. At any rate, she was amazingly pretty, and he had asked her to tea and must live up to his obligations.

"Well, then," he said with a plunge, "perhaps THAT'S the reason."


"The fact that you don't want to marry me. Perhaps I don't regard it as such a strong inducement to go and see you." He felt a slight shiver down his spine as he ventured this, but her laugh reassured him.

"Dear Mr. Selden, that wasn't worthy of you. It's stupid of you to make love to me, and it isn't like you to be stupid." She leaned back, sipping her tea with an air so enchantingly judicial that, if they had been in her aunt's drawing-room, he might almost have tried to disprove her deduction.

"Don't you see," she continued, "that there are men enough to say pleasant things to me, and that what I want is a friend who won't be afraid to say disagreeable ones when I need them? Sometimes I have fancied you might be that friend—I don't know why, except that you are neither a prig nor a bounder, and that I shouldn't have to pretend with you or be on my guard against you." Her voice had dropped to a note of seriousness, and she sat gazing up at him with the troubled gravity of a child.

"You don't know how much I need such a friend," she said. "My aunt is full of copy-book axioms, but they were all meant to apply to conduct in the early fifties. I always feel that to live up to them would include wearing book-muslin with gigot sleeves. And the other women—my best friends—well, they use me or abuse me; but they don't care a straw what happens to me. I've been about too long—people are getting tired of me; they are beginning to say I ought to marry."

(Video) The Detective Dog by Julia Donaldson. Children's story audiobook, kids read-aloud.

There was a moment's pause, during which Selden meditated one or two replies calculated to add a momentary zest to the situation; but he rejected them in favour of the simple question: "Well, why don't you?"

She coloured and laughed. "Ah, I see you ARE a friend after all, and that is one of the disagreeable things I was asking for."

"It wasn't meant to be disagreeable," he returned amicably. "Isn't marriage your vocation? Isn't it what you're all brought up for?"

She sighed. "I suppose so. What else is there?"

"Exactly. And so why not take the plunge and have it over?"

She shrugged her shoulders. "You speak as if I ought to marry the first man who came along."

"I didn't mean to imply that you are as hard put to it as that. But there must be some one with the requisite qualifications."

She shook her head wearily. "I threw away one or two good chances when I first came out—I suppose every girl does; and you know I am horribly poor—and very expensive. I must have a great deal of money."

Selden had turned to reach for a cigarette-box on the mantelpiece.

"What's become of Dillworth?" he asked.

"Oh, his mother was frightened—she was afraid I should have all the family jewels reset. And she wanted me to promise that I wouldn't do over the drawing-room."

"The very thing you are marrying for!"

"Exactly. So she packed him off to India."

"Hard luck—but you can do better than Dillworth."

He offered the box, and she took out three or four cigarettes, putting one between her lips and slipping the others into a little gold case attached to her long pearl chain.

"Have I time? Just a whiff, then." She leaned forward, holding the tip of her cigarette to his. As she did so, he noted, with a purely impersonal enjoyment, how evenly the black lashes were set in her smooth white lids, and how the purplish shade beneath them melted into the pure pallour of the cheek.

She began to saunter about the room, examining the bookshelves between the puffs of her cigarette-smoke. Some of the volumes had the ripe tints of good tooling and old morocco, and her eyes lingered on them caressingly, not with the appreciation of the expert, but with the pleasure in agreeable tones and textures that was one of her inmost susceptibilities. Suddenly her expression changed from desultory enjoyment to active conjecture, and she turned to Selden with a question.

"You collect, don't you—you know about first editions and things?"

"As much as a man may who has no money to spend. Now and then I pick up something in the rubbish heap; and I go and look on at the big sales."

She had again addressed herself to the shelves, but her eyes now swept them inattentively, and he saw that she was preoccupied with a new idea.

"And Americana—do you collect Americana?"

Selden stared and laughed.

"No, that's rather out of my line. I'm not really a collector, you see; I simply like to have good editions of the books I am fond of."

She made a slight grimace. "And Americana are horribly dull, I suppose?"

"I should fancy so—except to the historian. But your real collector values a thing for its rarity. I don't suppose the buyers of Americana sit up reading them all night—old Jefferson Gryce certainly didn't."

She was listening with keen attention. "And yet they fetch fabulous prices, don't they? It seems so odd to want to pay a lot for an ugly badly-printed book that one is never going to read! And I suppose most of the owners of Americana are not historians either?"

"No; very few of the historians can afford to buy them. They have to use those in the public libraries or in private collections. It seems to be the mere rarity that attracts the average collector."

He had seated himself on an arm of the chair near which she was standing, and she continued to question him, asking which were the rarest volumes, whether the Jefferson Gryce collection was really considered the finest in the world, and what was the largest price ever fetched by a single volume.

It was so pleasant to sit there looking up at her, as she lifted now one book and then another from the shelves, fluttering the pages between her fingers, while her drooping profile was outlined against the warm background of old bindings, that he talked on without pausing to wonder at her sudden interest in so unsuggestive a subject. But he could never be long with her without trying to find a reason for what she was doing, and as she replaced his first edition of La Bruyere and turned away from the bookcases, he began to ask himself what she had been driving at. Her next question was not of a nature to enlighten him. She paused before him with a smile which seemed at once designed to admit him to her familiarity, and to remind him of the restrictions it imposed.

"Don't you ever mind," she asked suddenly, "not being rich enough to buy all the books you want?"

He followed her glance about the room, with its worn furniture and shabby walls.

"Don't I just? Do you take me for a saint on a pillar?"

"And having to work—do you mind that?"

"Oh, the work itself is not so bad—I'm rather fond of the law."

"No; but the being tied down: the routine—don't you ever want to get away, to see new places and people?"

"Horribly—especially when I see all my friends rushing to the steamer."

She drew a sympathetic breath. "But do you mind enough—to marry to get out of it?"

Selden broke into a laugh. "God forbid!" he declared.

She rose with a sigh, tossing her cigarette into the grate.

"Ah, there's the difference—a girl must, a man may if he chooses." She surveyed him critically. "Your coat's a little shabby—but who cares? It doesn't keep people from asking you to dine. If I were shabby no one would have me: a woman is asked out as much for her clothes as for herself. The clothes are the background, the frame, if you like: they don't make success, but they are a part of it. Who wants a dingy woman? We are expected to be pretty and well-dressed till we drop—and if we can't keep it up alone, we have to go into partnership."

Selden glanced at her with amusement: it was impossible, even with her lovely eyes imploring him, to take a sentimental view of her case.

"Ah, well, there must be plenty of capital on the look-out for such an investment. Perhaps you'll meet your fate tonight at the Trenors'."

She returned his look interrogatively.

"I thought you might be going there—oh, not in that capacity! But there are to be a lot of your set—Gwen Van Osburgh, the Wetheralls, Lady Cressida Raith—and the George Dorsets."

She paused a moment before the last name, and shot a query through her lashes; but he remained imperturbable.

"Mrs. Trenor asked me; but I can't get away till the end of the week; and those big parties bore me."

"Ah, so they do me," she exclaimed.

"Then why go?"

"It's part of the business—you forget! And besides, if I didn't, I should be playing bezique with my aunt at Richfield Springs."

"That's almost as bad as marrying Dillworth," he agreed, and they both laughed for pure pleasure in their sudden intimacy.

She glanced at the clock.

"Dear me! I must be off. It's after five."

She paused before the mantelpiece, studying herself in the mirror while she adjusted her veil. The attitude revealed the long slope of her slender sides, which gave a kind of wild-wood grace to her outline—as though she were a captured dryad subdued to the conventions of the drawing-room; and Selden reflected that it was the same streak of sylvan freedom in her nature that lent such savour to her artificiality.

He followed her across the room to the entrance-hall; but on the threshold she held out her hand with a gesture of leave-taking.

"It's been delightful; and now you will have to return my visit."

"But don't you want me to see you to the station?"

"No; good bye here, please."

She let her hand lie in his a moment, smiling up at him adorably.

"Good bye, then—and good luck at Bellomont!" he said, opening the door for her.

On the landing she paused to look about her. There were a thousand chances to one against her meeting anybody, but one could never tell, and she always paid for her rare indiscretions by a violent reaction of prudence. There was no one in sight, however, but a char-woman who was scrubbing the stairs. Her own stout person and its surrounding implements took up so much room that Lily, to pass her, had to gather up her skirts and brush against the wall. As she did so, the woman paused in her work and looked up curiously, resting her clenched red fists on the wet cloth she had just drawn from her pail. She had a broad sallow face, slightly pitted with small-pox, and thin straw-coloured hair through which her scalp shone unpleasantly.

"I beg your pardon," said Lily, intending by her politeness to convey a criticism of the other's manner.

The woman, without answering, pushed her pail aside, and continued to stare as Miss Bart swept by with a murmur of silken linings. Lily felt herself flushing under the look. What did the creature suppose? Could one never do the simplest, the most harmless thing, without subjecting one's self to some odious conjecture? Half way down the next flight, she smiled to think that a char-woman's stare should so perturb her. The poor thing was probably dazzled by such an unwonted apparition. But WERE such apparitions unwonted on Selden's stairs? Miss Bart was not familiar with the moral code of bachelors' flat-houses, and her colour rose again as it occurred to her that the woman's persistent gaze implied a groping among past associations.

But she put aside the thought with a smile at her own fears, and hastened downward, wondering if she should find a cab short of Fifth Avenue.

Under the Georgian porch she paused again, scanning the street for a hansom. None was in sight, but as she reached the sidewalk she ran against a small glossy-looking man with a gardenia in his coat, who raised his hat with a surprised exclamation.

"Miss Bart? Well—of all people! This IS luck," he declared; and she caught a twinkle of amused curiosity between his screwed-up lids.

"Oh, Mr. Rosedale—how are you?" she said, perceiving that the irrepressible annoyance on her face was reflected in the sudden intimacy of his smile.

Mr. Rosedale stood scanning her with interest and approval. He was a plump rosy man of the blond Jewish type, with smart London clothes fitting him like upholstery, and small sidelong eyes which gave him the air of appraising people as if they were bric-a-brac. He glanced up interrogatively at the porch of the Benedick.

"Been up to town for a little shopping, I suppose?" he said, in a tone which had the familiarity of a touch.

Miss Bart shrank from it slightly, and then flung herself into precipitate explanations.

"Yes—I came up to see my dress-maker. I am just on my way to catch the train to the Trenors'."

"Ah—your dress-maker; just so," he said blandly. "I didn't know there were any dress-makers in the Benedick."

"The Benedick?" She looked gently puzzled. "Is that the name of this building?"

"Yes, that's the name: I believe it's an old word for bachelor, isn't it? I happen to own the building—that's the way I know." His smile deepened as he added with increasing assurance: "But you must let me take you to the station. The Trenors are at Bellomont, of course? You've barely time to catch the five-forty. The dress-maker kept you waiting, I suppose."

Lily stiffened under the pleasantry.

"Oh, thanks," she stammered; and at that moment her eye caught a hansom drifting down Madison Avenue, and she hailed it with a desperate gesture.

"You're very kind; but I couldn't think of troubling you," she said, extending her hand to Mr. Rosedale; and heedless of his protestations, she sprang into the rescuing vehicle, and called out a breathless order to the driver.

Jun 18, 2017

138: Theodore Dreiser: "Sister Carrie"

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This week on StoryWeb: Theodore Dreiser’s novel Sister Carrie.

In 1899, as the soon-to-be-novelist Theodore Dreiser was starting work on Sister Carrie, he was also working on two articles about America’s up-and-coming photographer Alfred Stieglitz. Impressed by Stieglitz’s realistic photography, Dreiser used similar techniques in Sister Carrie, creating “word pictures” to describe city scenes in both Chicago and New York. Relying on photographic elements in these passages, Dreiser emphasized the weather, qualities of light and darkness, and the spectacle aspect of the scenes, thus underlining the stark reality being presented.

Born in 1871 in Terre Haute, Indiana, Dreiser worked until 1899 as a newspaper reporter in Chicago, St. Louis, Toledo, Pittsburgh, and New York and then moved on to magazine work. The amount of work he produced for magazines was phenomenal, with 120 pieces appearing in a three-year period. Much of this journalistic work was not of high quality, later earning Dreiser the reputation of being a “hack” writer. But many of the sketches he turned out for both magazines and newspapers evocatively captured city life during the Gilded Age.

He brought all this – his love of the emerging field of photography and his fascination with the city – into his creation of his 1900 novel, Sister Carrie. The story of a young Wisconsin woman who heads to the big city to make her mark on the world, the novel is just as much about the two cities it presents: Chicago and New York. Picture after picture of city scenes unfold in the narrative.

Many of Dreiser’s word pictures bring to vivid life the cold, snow, and rain – the general gloom and bleakness such unpleasant elements bring. Often these scenes are heavy in their use of black and white, as though the weather had stripped the city of its color. Early in the novel, Dreiser describes Chicago this way: “Once the bright days of summer pass by, a city takes on that sombre garb of grey, wrapt in which it goes about its labours during the long winter. Its endless buildings look grey, its sky and its streets assume a sombre hue; the scattered, leafless trees and wind-blown dust and paper but add to the general solemnity of color.” Similarly, near the end of the novel, Dreiser describes New York City:

Already, at four o’clock, the sombre hue of night was thickening the air. A heavy snow was falling – a fine picking, whipping snow, borne forward by a swift wind in long, thin lines. The streets were bedded with it – six inches of cold, soft carpet, churned to a dirty brown by the crush of teams and the feet of men. Along Broadway men picked their way in ulsters and umbrellas. Along the Bowery, men slouched through it with collars and hats pulled over their ears. In the former thoroughfare business men and travelers were making for comfortable hotels. In the latter, crowds on cold errands shifted past dingy stores, in the deep recesses of which lights were already gleaming. There were early lights in the cable cars, whose usual clatter was reduced by the mantle of the wheels. The whole city was muffled by this fast-thickening mantle.

With these winter scenes, one can’t help but think of such Stieglitz photographs as The Terminal and Winter, Fifth Avenue, both taken in 1893. So connected are Dreiser and Steiglitz, in fact, that Winter, Fifth Avenue graces the cover of the Norton Critical Edition of Sister Carrie. (If you want a hard copy, this is by all means the version to buy!)

In his writings about his approach to fiction, Dreiser said that “True Art Speaks Plainly” (the title of one of his essays). Many years later in an interview, he said that an author needs to be a “sensitive mechanism” so that he can respond to all the life presented to his eyes. “The business of the writer,” he said, “is to hold a mirror up to nature.” Dreiser did that so well for the cities he knew and the people who lived and died in them. To learn more about Dreiser’s life and work, visit Penn Libraries’ Dreiser Web Source, which includes a virtual exhibit on Sister Carrie.

I don’t want to give away the intricate and sometimes hair-raising plot of Sister Carrie, but I will say that the Gilded Age is presented in all its gory glory in the rise of its heroine, Carrie Meeber, and the fall of its antihero, Hurstwood. Sister Carrie – named by The Guardian as one of the best 100 novels ever – is a must-read.

Visit for links to all these resources. Listen now as I read Chapter XLV of Sister Carrie. Here, in describing the downfall of Carrie’s former lover, Hurstwood, Dreiser drew heavily on a piece he wrote in 1899 for Demorest’s magazine: “Curious Shifts of the Poor.” It will remind you of Jacob Riis’s photos and writing in How the Other Half Lives as well as Stephen Crane’s magazine sketch “An Experiment in Misery.”

CHAPTER XLV of Theodore Dreiser’s novel Sister Carrie: “CURIOUS SHIFTS OF THE POOR”

The gloomy Hurstwood, sitting in his cheap hotel, where he hadtaken refuge with seventy dollars--the price of his furniture--between him and nothing, saw a hot summer out and a cool fall in,reading. He was not wholly indifferent to the fact that hismoney was slipping away. As fifty cents after fifty cents werepaid out for a day's lodging he became uneasy, and finally took acheaper room--thirty-five cents a day--to make his money lastlonger. Frequently he saw notices of Carrie. Her picture was inthe "World" once or twice, and an old "Herald" he found in achair informed him that she had recently appeared with someothers at a benefit for something or other. He read these thingswith mingled feelings. Each one seemed to put her farther andfarther away into a realm which became more imposing as itreceded from him. On the billboards, too, he saw a prettyposter, showing her as the Quaker Maid, demure and dainty. Morethan once he stopped and looked at these, gazing at the prettyface in a sullen sort of way. His clothes were shabby, and hepresented a marked contrast to all that she now seemed to be.

Somehow, so long as he knew she was at the Casino, though he hadnever any intention of going near her, there was a subconsciouscomfort for him--he was not quite alone. The show seemed such afixture that, after a month or two, he began to take it forgranted that it was still running. In September it went on theroad and he did not notice it. When all but twenty dollars ofhis money was gone, he moved to a fifteen-cent lodging-house inthe Bowery, where there was a bare lounging-room filled withtables and benches as well as some chairs. Here his preferencewas to close his eyes and dream of other days, a habit which grewupon him. It was not sleep at first, but a mental hearkeningback to scenes and incidents in his Chicago life. As the presentbecame darker, the past grew brighter, and all that concerned itstood in relief.

He was unconscious of just how much this habit had hold of himuntil one day he found his lips repeating an old answer he hadmade to one of his friends. They were in Fitzgerald and Moy's.It was as if he stood in the door of his elegant little office,comfortably dressed, talking to Sagar Morrison about the value ofSouth Chicago real estate in which the latter was about toinvest.

"How would you like to come in on that with me?" he heardMorrison say.

"Not me," he answered, just as he had years before. "I have myhands full now."

The movement of his lips aroused him. He wondered whether he hadreally spoken. The next time he noticed anything of the sort hereally did talk.

"Why don't you jump, you bloody fool?" he was saying. "Jump!"

It was a funny English story he was telling to a company ofactors. Even as his voice recalled him, he was smiling. Acrusty old codger, sitting near by, seemed disturbed; at least,he stared in a most pointed way. Hurstwood straightened up. Thehumour of the memory fled in an instant and he felt ashamed. Forrelief, he left his chair and strolled out into the streets.

One day, looking down the ad. columns of the "Evening World," hesaw where a new play was at the Casino. Instantly, he came to amental halt. Carrie had gone! He remembered seeing a poster ofher only yesterday, but no doubt it was one left uncovered by thenew signs. Curiously, this fact shook him up. He had almost toadmit that somehow he was depending upon her being in the city.Now she was gone. He wondered how this important fact hadskipped him. Goodness knows when she would be back now.Impelled by a nervous fear, he rose and went into the dingy hall,where he counted his remaining money, unseen. There were but tendollars in all.

He wondered how all these other lodging-house people around himgot along. They didn't seem to do anything. Perhaps theybegged--unquestionably they did. Many was the dime he had givento such as they in his day. He had seen other men asking formoney on the streets. Maybe he could get some that way. Therewas horror in this thought.

Sitting in the lodging-house room, he came to his last fiftycents. He had saved and counted until his health was affected.His stoutness had gone. With it, even the semblance of a fit inhis clothes. Now he decided he must do something, and, walkingabout, saw another day go by, bringing him down to his lasttwenty cents--not enough to eat for the morrow.

Summoning all his courage, he crossed to Broadway and up to theBroadway Central hotel. Within a block he halted, undecided. Abig, heavy-faced porter was standing at one of the sideentrances, looking out. Hurstwood purposed to appeal to him.Walking straight up, he was upon him before he could turn away.

"My friend," he said, recognising even in his plight the man'sinferiority, "is there anything about this hotel that I could getto do?"

The porter stared at him the while he continued to talk.

"I'm out of work and out of money and I've got to get something,--it doesn't matter what. I don't care to talk about what I'vebeen, but if you'd tell me how to get something to do, I'd bemuch obliged to you. It wouldn't matter if it only lasted a fewdays just now. I've got to have something."

The porter still gazed, trying to look indifferent. Then, seeingthat Hurstwood was about to go on, he said:

"I've nothing to do with it. You'll have to ask inside."

Curiously, this stirred Hurstwood to further effort.

"I thought you might tell me."

The fellow shook his head irritably.

Inside went the ex-manager and straight to an office off theclerk's desk. One of the managers of the hotel happened to bethere. Hurstwood looked him straight in the eye.

"Could you give me something to do for a few days?" he said."I'm in a position where I have to get something at once."

The comfortable manager looked at him, as much as to say: "Well,I should judge so."

"I came here," explained Hurstwood, nervously, "because I've beena manager myself in my day. I've had bad luck in a way but I'mnot here to tell you that. I want something to do, if only for aweek."

The man imagined he saw a feverish gleam in the applicant's eye.

"What hotel did you manage?" he inquired.

"It wasn't a hotel," said Hurstwood. "I was manager ofFitzgerald and Moy's place in Chicago for fifteen years."

"Is that so?" said the hotel man. "How did you come to get outof that?"

The figure of Hurstwood was rather surprising in contrast to thefact.

"Well, by foolishness of my own. It isn't anything to talk aboutnow. You could find out if you wanted to. I'm 'broke' now and,if you will believe me, I haven't eaten anything to-day."

The hotel man was slightly interested in this story. He couldhardly tell what to do with such a figure, and yet Hurstwood'searnestness made him wish to do something.

"Call Olsen," he said, turning to the clerk.

In reply to a bell and a disappearing hall-boy, Olsen, the headporter, appeared.

"Olsen," said the manager, "is there anything downstairs youcould find for this man to do? I'd like to give him something."

"I don't know, sir," said Olsen. "We have about all the help weneed. I think I could find something, sir, though, if you like."

"Do. Take him to the kitchen and tell Wilson to give himsomething to eat."

"All right, sir," said Olsen.

Hurstwood followed. Out of the manager's sight, the headporter's manner changed.

"I don't know what the devil there is to do," he observed.

Hurstwood said nothing. To him the big trunk hustler was asubject for private contempt.

"You're to give this man something to eat," he observed to thecook.

The latter looked Hurstwood over, and seeing something keen andintellectual in his eyes, said:

"Well, sit down over there."

Thus was Hurstwood installed in the Broadway Central, but not forlong. He was in no shape or mood to do the scrub work thatexists about the foundation of every hotel. Nothing betteroffering, he was set to aid the fireman, to work about thebasement, to do anything and everything that might offer.Porters, cooks, firemen, clerks--all were over him. Moreover hisappearance did not please these individuals--his temper was toolonely--and they made it disagreeable for him.

With the stolidity and indifference of despair, however, heendured it all, sleeping in an attic at the roof of the house,eating what the cook gave him, accepting a few dollars a week,which he tried to save. His constitution was in no shape toendure.

One day the following February he was sent on an errand to alarge coal company's office. It had been snowing and thawing andthe streets were sloppy. He soaked his shoes in his progress andcame back feeling dull and weary. All the next day he feltunusually depressed and sat about as much as possible, to theirritation of those who admired energy in others.

In the afternoon some boxes were to be moved to make room for newculinary supplies. He was ordered to handle a truck.Encountering a big box, he could not lift it.

"What's the matter there?" said the head porter. "Can't youhandle it?"

He was straining to lift it, but now he quit.

"No," he said, weakly.

The man looked at him and saw that he was deathly pale.

"Not sick, are you?" he asked."I think I am," returned Hurstwood.

"Well, you'd better go sit down, then."

This he did, but soon grew rapidly worse. It seemed all he coulddo to crawl to his room, where he remained for a day.

"That man Wheeler's sick," reported one of the lackeys to thenight clerk.

"What's the matter with him?"

"I don't know. He's got a high fever."

The hotel physician looked at him.

"Better send him to Bellevue," he recommended. "He's gotpneumonia."

Accordingly, he was carted away.

In three weeks the worst was over, but it was nearly the first ofMay before his strength permitted him to be turned out. Then hewas discharged.

No more weakly looking object ever strolled out into the springsunshine than the once hale, lusty manager. All his corpulencyhad fled. His face was thin and pale, his hands white, his bodyflabby. Clothes and all, he weighed but one hundred and thirty-five pounds. Some old garments had been given him--a cheap browncoat and misfit pair of trousers. Also some change and advice.He was told to apply to the charities.

Again he resorted to the Bowery lodging-house, brooding overwhere to look. From this it was but a step to beggary.

"What can a man do?" he said. "I can't starve."

His first application was in sunny Second Avenue. A well-dressedman came leisurely strolling toward him out of Stuyvesant Park.Hurstwood nerved himself and sidled near.

"Would you mind giving me ten cents?" he said, directly. "I'm ina position where I must ask some one."

The man scarcely looked at him, fished in his vest pocket andtook out a dime.

"There you are," he said.

"Much obliged," said Hurstwood, softly, but the other paid nomore attention to him.

Satisfied with his success and yet ashamed of his situation, hedecided that he would only ask for twenty-five cents more, sincethat would be sufficient. He strolled about sizing up people,but it was long before just the right face and situation arrived.When he asked, he was refused. Shocked by this result, he tookan hour to recover and then asked again. This time a nickel wasgiven him. By the most watchful effort he did get twenty centsmore, but it was painful.

The next day he resorted to the same effort, experiencing avariety of rebuffs and one or two generous receptions. At lastit crossed his mind that there was a science of faces, and that aman could pick the liberal countenance if he tried.

It was no pleasure to him, however, this stopping of passers-by.He saw one man taken up for it and now troubled lest he should bearrested. Nevertheless, he went on, vaguely anticipating thatindefinite something which is always better.

It was with a sense of satisfaction, then, that he saw announcedone morning the return of the Casino Company, "with Miss CarrieMadenda." He had thought of her often enough in days past. Howsuccessful she was--how much money she must have! Even now,however, it took a severe run of ill luck to decide him to appealto her. He was truly hungry before he said:

"I'll ask her. She won't refuse me a few dollars."

Accordingly, he headed for the Casino one afternoon, passing itseveral times in an effort to locate the stage entrance. Then hesat in Bryant Park, a block away, waiting. "She can't refuse tohelp me a little," he kept saying to himself.

Beginning with half-past six, he hovered like a shadow about theThirty-ninth Street entrance, pretending always to be a hurryingpedestrian and yet fearful lest he should miss his object. Hewas slightly nervous, too, now that the eventful hour hadarrived; but being weak and hungry, his ability to suffer wasmodified. At last he saw that the actors were beginning toarrive, and his nervous tension increased, until it seemed as ifhe could not stand much more.

Once he thought he saw Carrie coming and moved forward, only tosee that he was mistaken.

"She can't be long, now," he said to himself, half fearing toencounter her and equally depressed at the thought that she mighthave gone in by another way. His stomach was so empty that itached.

Individual after individual passed him, nearly all well dressed,almost all indifferent. He saw coaches rolling by, gentlemenpassing with ladies--the evening's merriment was beginning inthis region of theatres and hotels.

Suddenly a coach rolled up and the driver jumped down to open thedoor. Before Hurstwood could act, two ladies flounced across thebroad walk and disappeared in the stage door. He thought he sawCarrie, but it was so unexpected, so elegant and far away, hecould hardly tell. He waited a while longer, growing feverishwith want, and then seeing that the stage door no longer opened,and that a merry audience was arriving, he concluded it must havebeen Carrie and turned away.

"Lord," he said, hastening out of the street into which the morefortunate were pouring, "I've got to get something."

At that hour, when Broadway is wont to assume its mostinteresting aspect, a peculiar individual invariably took hisstand at the corner of Twenty-sixth Street and Broadway--a spotwhich is also intersected by Fifth Avenue. This was the hourwhen the theatres were just beginning to receive their patrons.Fire signs announcing the night's amusements blazed on everyhand. Cabs and carriages, their lamps gleaming like yellow eyes,pattered by. Couples and parties of three and four freelymingled in the common crowd, which poured by in a thick stream,laughing and jesting. On Fifth Avenue were loungers--a fewwealthy strollers, a gentleman in evening dress with his lady onhis arm, some club-men passing from one smoking-room to another.Across the way the great hotels showed a hundred gleamingwindows, their cafes and billiard-rooms filled with acomfortable, well-dressed, and pleasure-loving throng. All aboutwas the night, pulsating with the thoughts of pleasure andexhilaration--the curious enthusiasm of a great city bent uponfinding joy in a thousand different ways.

This unique individual was no less than an ex-soldier turnedreligionist, who, having suffered the whips and privations of ourpeculiar social system, had concluded that his duty to the Godwhich he conceived lay in aiding his fellow-man. The form of aidwhich he chose to administer was entirely original with himself.It consisted of securing a bed for all such homeless wayfarers asshould apply to him at this particular spot, though he hadscarcely the wherewithal to provide a comfortable habitation forhimself. Taking his place amid this lightsome atmosphere, hewould stand, his stocky figure cloaked in a great cape overcoat,his head protected by a broad slouch hat, awaiting the applicantswho had in various ways learned the nature of his charity. For awhile he would stand alone, gazing like any idler upon an ever-fascinating scene. On the evening in question, a policemanpassing saluted him as "captain," in a friendly way. An urchinwho had frequently seen him before, stopped to gaze. All otherstook him for nothing out of the ordinary, save in the matter ofdress, and conceived of him as a stranger whistling and idlingfor his own amusement.

As the first half-hour waned, certain characters appeared. Hereand there in the passing crowds one might see, now and then, aloiterer edging interestedly near. A slouchy figure crossed theopposite corner and glanced furtively in his direction. Anothercame down Fifth Avenue to the corner of Twenty-sixth Street, tooka general survey, and hobbled off again. Two or three noticeableBowery types edged along the Fifth Avenue side of Madison Square,but did not venture over. The soldier, in his cape overcoat,walked a short line of ten feet at his corner, to and fro,indifferently whistling.

As nine o'clock approached, some of the hubbub of the earlierhour passed. The atmosphere of the hotels was not so youthful.The air, too, was colder. On every hand curious figures weremoving--watchers and peepers, without an imaginary circle, whichthey seemed afraid to enter--a dozen in all. Presently, with thearrival of a keener sense of cold, one figure came forward. Itcrossed Broadway from out the shadow of Twenty-sixth Street, and,in a halting, circuitous way, arrived close to the waitingfigure. There was something shamefaced or diffident about themovement, as if the intention were to conceal any idea ofstopping until the very last moment. Then suddenly, close to thesoldier, came the halt.

The captain looked in recognition, but there was no especialgreeting. The newcomer nodded slightly and murmured somethinglike one who waits for gifts. The other simply motioned to-wardthe edge of the walk.

"Stand over there," he said.

By this the spell was broken. Even while the soldier resumed hisshort, solemn walk, other figures shuffled forward. They did notso much as greet the leader, but joined the one, sniffling andhitching and scraping their feet.

"Gold, ain't it?"

"I'm glad winter's over."

"Looks as though it might rain."

The motley company had increased to ten. One or two knew eachother and conversed. Others stood off a few feet, not wishing tobe in the crowd and yet not counted out. They were peevish,crusty, silent, eying nothing in particular and moving theirfeet.

There would have been talking soon, but the soldier gave them nochance. Counting sufficient to begin, he came forward.

"Beds, eh, all of you?"

There was a general shuffle and murmur of approval.

"Well, line up here. I'll see what I can do. I haven't a centmyself."

They fell into a sort of broken, ragged line. One might see,now, some of the chief characteristics by contrast. There was awooden leg in the line. Hats were all drooping, a group thatwould ill become a second-hand Hester Street basement collection.Trousers were all warped and frayed at the bottom and coats wornand faded. In the glare of the store lights, some of the faceslooked dry and chalky; others were red with blotches and puffedin the cheeks and under the eyes; one or two were rawboned andreminded one of railroad hands. A few spectators came near,drawn by the seemingly conferring group, then more and more, andquickly there was a pushing, gaping crowd. Some one in the linebegan to talk.

"Silence!" exclaimed the captain. "Now, then, gentlemen, thesemen are without beds. They have to have some place to sleep to-night. They can't lie out in the streets. I need twelve centsto put one of them to bed. Who will give it to me?"

No reply.

"Well, we'll have to wait here, boys, until some one does.Twelve cents isn't so very much for one man."

"Here's fifteen," exclaimed a young man, peering forward withstrained eyes. "It's all I can afford."

"All right. Now I have fifteen. Step out of the line," andseizing one by the shoulder, the captain marched him off a littleway and stood him up alone.

Coming back, he resumed his place and began again.

"I have three cents left. These men must be put to bed somehow.There are"--counting--"one, two, three, four, five, six, seven,eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve men. Nine cents more will putthe next man to bed; give him a good, comfortable bed for thenight. I go right along and look after that myself. Who willgive me nine cents?"

One of the watchers, this time a middle-aged man, handed him afive-cent piece.

"Now, I have eight cents. Four more will give this man a bed.Come, gentlemen. We are going very slow this evening. You allhave good beds. How about these?"

"Here you are," remarked a bystander, putting a coin into hishand.

"That," said the captain, looking at the coin, "pays for two bedsfor two men and gives me five on the next one. Who will give meseven cents more?"

"I will," said a voice.

Coming down Sixth Avenue this evening, Hurstwood chanced to crosseast through Twenty-sixth Street toward Third Avenue. He waswholly disconsolate in spirit, hungry to what he deemed an almostmortal extent, weary, and defeated. How should he get at Carrienow? It would be eleven before the show was over. If she came ina coach, she would go away in one. He would need to interruptunder most trying circumstances. Worst of all, he was hungry andweary, and at best a whole day must intervene, for he had notheart to try again to-night. He had no food and no bed.

When he neared Broadway, he noticed the captain's gathering ofwanderers, but thinking it to be the result of a street preacheror some patent medicine fakir, was about to pass on. However, incrossing the street toward Madison Square Park, he noticed theline of men whose beds were already secured, stretching out fromthe main body of the crowd. In the glare of the neighbouringelectric light he recognised a type of his own kind--the figureswhom he saw about the streets and in the lodging-houses, driftingin mind and body like himself. He wondered what it could be andturned back.

There was the captain curtly pleading as before. He heard withastonishment and a sense of relief the oft-repeated words: "Thesemen must have a bed." Before him was the line of unfortunateswhose beds were yet to be had, and seeing a newcomer quietly edgeup and take a position at the end of the line, he decided to dolikewise. What use to contend? He was weary to-night. It was asimple way out of one difficulty, at least. To-morrow, maybe, hewould do better.

Back of him, where some of those were whose beds were safe, arelaxed air was apparent. The strain of uncertainty beingremoved, he heard them talking with moderate freedom and someleaning toward sociability. Politics, religion, the state of thegovernment, some newspaper sensations, and the more notoriousfacts the world over, found mouthpieces and auditors there.Cracked and husky voices pronounced forcibly upon odd matters.Vague and rambling observations were made in reply.

There were squints, and leers, and some dull, ox-like stares fromthose who were too dull or too weary to converse.

Standing tells. Hurstwood became more weary waiting. He thoughthe should drop soon and shifted restlessly from one foot to theother. At last his turn came. The man ahead had been paid forand gone to the blessed line of success. He was now first, andalready the captain was talking for him.

"Twelve cents, gentlemen--twelve cents puts this man to bed. Hewouldn't stand here in the cold if he had any place to go."

Hurstwood swallowed something that rose to his throat. Hungerand weakness had made a coward of him.

"Here you are," said a stranger, handing money to the captain.

Now the latter put a kindly hand on the ex-manager's shoulder."Line up over there," he said.

Once there, Hurstwood breathed easier. He felt as if the worldwere not quite so bad with such a good man in it. Others seemedto feel like himself about this.

"Captain's a great feller, ain't he?" said the man ahead--alittle, woebegone, helpless-looking sort of individual, wholooked as though he had ever been the sport and care of fortune.

"Yes," said Hurstwood, indifferently.

"Huh! there's a lot back there yet," said a man farther up,leaning out and looking back at the applicants for whom thecaptain was pleading.

"Yes. Must be over a hundred to-night," said another.

"Look at the guy in the cab," observed a third.

A cab had stopped. Some gentleman in evening dress reached out abill to the captain, who took it with simple thanks and turnedaway to his line. There was a general craning of necks as thejewel in the white shirt front sparkled and the cab moved off.Even the crowd gaped in awe.

"That fixes up nine men for the night," said the captain,counting out as many of the line near him. "Line up over there.Now, then, there are only seven. I need twelve cents."

Money came slowly. In the course of time the crowd thinned outto a meagre handful. Fifth Avenue, save for an occasional cab orfoot passenger, was bare. Broadway was thinly peopled withpedestrians. Only now and then a stranger passing noticed thesmall group, handed out a coin, and went away, unheeding.

The captain remained stolid and determined. He talked on, veryslowly, uttering the fewest words and with a certain assurance,as though he could not fail.

"Come; I can't stay out here all night. These men are gettingtired and cold. Some one give me four cents."

There came a time when he said nothing at all. Money was handedhim, and for each twelve cents he singled out a man and put himin the other line. Then he walked up and down as before, lookingat the ground.

The theatres let out. Fire signs disappeared. A clock struckeleven. Another half-hour and he was down to the last two men.

"Come, now," he exclaimed to several curious observers; "eighteencents will fix us all up for the night. Eighteen cents. I havesix. Somebody give me the money. Remember, I have to go over toBrooklyn yet to-night. Before that I have to take these men downand put them to bed. Eighteen cents."

No one responded. He walked to and fro, looking down for severalminutes, occasionally saying softly: "Eighteen cents." It seemedas if this paltry sum would delay the desired culmination longerthan all the rest had. Hurstwood, buoyed up slightly by the longline of which he was a part, refrained with an effort fromgroaning, he was so weak.

At last a lady in opera cape and rustling skirts came down FifthAvenue, accompanied by her escort. Hurstwood gazed wearily,reminded by her both of Carrie in her new world and of the timewhen he had escorted his own wife in like manner.

While he was gazing, she turned and, looking at the remarkablecompany, sent her escort over. He came, holding a bill in hisfingers, all elegant and graceful.

"Here you are," he said.

"Thanks," said the captain, turning to the two remainingapplicants. "Now we have some for to-morrow night," he added.

Therewith he lined up the last two and proceeded to the head,counting as he went.

"One hundred and thirty-seven," he announced. "Now, boys, lineup. Right dress there. We won't be much longer about this.Steady, now."

He placed himself at the head and called out "Forward." Hurstwoodmoved with the line. Across Fifth Avenue, through Madison Squareby the winding paths, east on Twenty-third Street, and down ThirdAvenue wound the long, serpentine company. Midnight pedestriansand loiterers stopped and stared as the company passed. Chattingpolicemen, at various corners, stared indifferently or nodded tothe leader, whom they had seen before. On Third Avenue theymarched, a seemingly weary way, to Eighth Street, where there wasa lodginghouse, closed, apparently, for the night. They wereexpected, however.

Outside in the gloom they stood, while the leader parleyedwithin. Then doors swung open and they were invited in with a"Steady, now."

Some one was at the head showing rooms, so that there was nodelay for keys. Toiling up the creaky stairs, Hurstwood lookedback and saw the captain, watching; the last one of the linebeing included in his broad solicitude. Then he gathered hiscloak about him and strolled out into the night.

"I can't stand much of this," said Hurstwood, whose legs achedhim painfully, as he sat down upon the miserable bunk in thesmall, lightless chamber allotted to him. "I've got to eat, orI'll die."

Jun 11, 2017

137: Stephen Crane: "An Experiment in Misery"

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This week on StoryWeb: Stephen Crane’s article “An Experiment in Misery.”

Many Americans know Stephen Crane as the author of the Civil War novel, The Red Badge of Courage, which made Crane famous at the age of 23 when it was serialized in 1894. It was published as a full-length book in 1895. Some know his first novel, Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, or even the harrowing short story “The Open Boat,” based on a real-life experience when Crane was en route to Cuba and spent 30 hours adrift with others in a lifeboat.

Less well-known to most readers is Crane’s work as a journalist. Born in 1871 in Newark, New Jersey, Crane floundered around from college (which he didn’t finish) to one vocational pursuit after another. When he found himself drawn to New York City in the 1890s and took work as a newspaper writer, he appeared to have found his calling. Crane would make a peripatetic living for the rest of his short life as a fiction writer and correspondent from various locations throughout the western hemisphere. He filed stories from the Western United States, from Mexico City, from Cuba during the Spanish-American War, and from the Greco-Turkish War front in Greece, where he was joined in his writing by his common-law wife, Cora Crane, recognized as the first woman war correspondent. Stephen Crane died at age 28 of tuberculosis.

But it’s Crane’s writing about New York City in the 1890s that interests me. Working from a home base in nearby Paterson, New Jersey, he made frequent day trips into New York City and spent considerable time in the tenement districts and especially the Bowery. Eventually, he moved into a rooming house in Manhattan. Thus, Crane was one of the journalists – writers, photographers, illustrators – who were on the streets at the height of the Gilded Age. Like Jacob Riis in How the Other Half Lives and like Alfred Stieglitz in such photographs as The Terminal and Winter, Fifth Avenue, Crane offers us a view into New York life at this crucial time in its history.

Perhaps Crane’s most famous piece of journalism is “An Experiment in Misery,” which was first published in 1894 in the New York Press and, in a slightly revised version, as part of The Open Boat and Other Tales of Adventure, a volume Crane published in 1898. In this piece – which to today’s readers will read more like a sketch or even a short story than an objective work of “journalism” – Crane imagines what it would be like to disguise oneself as a Bowery bum and go undercover to explore the realities of that grim life. The lengthy headline tells you all you need to know about journalistic style in the 1890s:

An Evening, a Night and a Morning with Those Cast Out.
But His Royalty, to the Novitiate, Has Drawbacks of Smells and Bugs.
A Wonderfully Vivid Picture of a Strange Phase of New York Life,
Written for “The Press” by the Author of “Maggie.”

Newspaper articles on “indigent Americans and the ‘Tramp Menace,’” says the Library of America’s Story of the Week website, were common during the late nineteenth century. A few reporters actually did dress as bums and explore their haunts, but apparently Crane did not himself conduct such an experiment. He did, however, base the imagined experiment on his real-life knowledge of the Bowery, a once-fashionable neighborhood in southern Manhattan now home to saloons, brothels, and rapidly increasing numbers of homeless people in New York City. The result is a vivid account of life as a Bowery bum, as homeless men were known at the time. Just as Crane had never been a soldier in a war yet imagined the Civil War more vividly and “realistically” than any other writer up to that time, so, too, he used his considerable skills of observation and his imagination to conjure up what it would be like to live as a homeless man in New York City.

As it turns out, Crane may have had too much exposure to life in the Bowery. Crane spent time, says one source, in the “saloons, dance halls, brothels and flophouses” of the Bowery. While he claimed he did so for research, his scandalous involvement with prostitutes and madams (most notably Cora Crane, who was operating the Hotel de Dream when Crane met her in Jacksonville, Florida) and other close dealings with the shadier set suggests that Crane was personally drawn to these seedy elements that were so far from his strict upbringing among Methodist ministers and temperance leaders. He said once that the slums were “open and plain, with nothing hidden,” and he seemed to find solace in that.

You can read the original version of “An Experiment in Misery” at WikiSource. Unlike the later version published in The Open Boat and Other Tales of Adventure, the original version published in the newspaper included a “Foreword” and a “Coda” explaining that the sketch presented is an experiment, that a young man disguises himself as a bum to experience that life directly for himself. To read the version published in The Open Boat, get your hands on a copy of Crane: Prose and Poetry, the outstanding collection published by the Library of America.

To learn more about Crane, read the New Yorker’s article “The Red and the Scarlet: The Hectic Career of Stephen Crane.” If you want to go into depth in your exploration of Crane, you can read Paul Sorrentino’s biography, Stephen Crane: A Life of Fire, which tells the story of how Sorrentino and scholar Stanley Wertheim delved deeply into Crane research and archives to debunk common, longstanding myths about Crane.

Although Crane’s writing fell into obscurity for some time after his death, interest in his work was resurrected in the 1920s. He had a particularly strong influence on Ernest Hemingway, who himself was a journalist and a novelist of war.

Next week, I’ll feature a novel by another journalist-turned-novelist: Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser. Published in 1900, it is perhaps the masterpiece of the Gilded Age. Tune in next week to learn how Dreiser pulled together the work of Riis, Stieglitz, and Crane to create a complex, multifaceted novel.

Visit for links to all these resources.

Listen now as I read “An Experiment in Misery,” as originally published in the New York Press in 1894.


Two men stood regarding a tramp.

"I wonder how he feels," said one, reflectively. "I suppose he is homeless, friendless, and has, at the most, only a few cents in his pocket. And if this is so, I wonder how he feels."

The other being the elder, spoke with an air of authoritative wisdom. "You can tell nothing of it unless you are in that condition yourself. It is idle to speculate about it from this distance."

"I suppose so," said the younger man, and then he added as from an inspiration: "I think I'll try it. Rags and tatters, you know, a couple of dimes, and hungry, too, if possible. Perhaps I could discover his point of view or something near it."

"Well, you might," said the other, and from those words begins this veracious narrative of an experiment in misery.

The youth went to the studio of an artist friend, who, from his store, rigged him out in an aged suit and a brown derby hat that had been made long years before. And then the youth went forth to try to eat as the tramp may eat, and sleep as the wanderers sleep.

“An Experiment in Misery”

It was late at night, and a fine rain was swirling softly down, causing the pavements to glisten with hue of steel and blue and yellow in the rays of the innumerable lights. A youth was trudging slowly, without enthusiasm, with his hands buried deep in his trouser's pockets, towards the down-town places where beds can be hired for coppers. He was clothed in an aged and tattered suit, and his derby was a marvel of dust-covered crown and torn rim. He was going forth to eat as the wanderer may eat, and sleep as the homeless sleep. By the time he had reached City Hall Park he was so completely plastered with yells of "bum" and "hobo," and with various unholy epithets that small boyshad applied to him at intervals, that he was in a state of the most profound dejection. The sifting rain saturated the old velvet collar of his overcoat, and as the wet cloth pressed against his neck, he felt that there no longer could be pleasure in life. He looked about him searching for an outcast of highest degree that they too might share miseries, but the lights threw a quivering glare over rows and circles of deserted benches that glistened damply, showing patches of wet sod behind them. It seemed that their usual freights had fled on this night to better things. There were only squads of well-dressed Brooklyn people who swarmed towards the bridge.

The young man loitered about for a time and then went shuffling off down Park Row. In the sudden descent in style of the dress of the crowd he felt relief, and as if he were at last in his own country. He began to see tatters that matched his tatters. In Chatham Square there were aimless men strewn in front of saloons and lodging-houses, standing sadly, patiently, reminding one vaguely of the attitudes of chickens in a storm. He aligned himself with these men, and turned slowly to occupy himself with the flowing life of the great street.

Through the mists of the cold and storming night, the cable cars went in silent procession, great affairs shining with red and brass, moving with formidable power, calm and irresistible, dangerful and gloomy, breaking silence only by the loud fierce cry of the gong. Two rivers of people swarmed along the side walks, spattered with black mud, which made each shoe leave a scar-like impression. Overhead elevated trains with a shrill grinding of the wheels stopped at the station, which upon its leg-like pillars seemed to resemble some monstrous kind of crab squatting over the street. The quick fat puffings of the engines could be heard. Down an alley there were sombre curtains of purple and black, on which street lamps dully glittered like embroidered flowers.

A saloon stood with a voracious air on a corner. A sign leaning against the front of the door-post announced "Free hot soup to-night!" The swing doors, snapping to and fro like ravenous lips, made gratified smacks as the saloon gorged itself with plump men, eating with astounding and endless appetite, smiling in some indescribable manner as the men came from all directions like sacrifices to a heathenish superstition.

Caught by the delectable sign the young man allowed himself to be swallowed. A bar-tender placed a schooner of dark and portentous beer on the bar. Its monumental form upreared until the froth a-top was above the crown of the young man's brown derby.

"Soup over there, gents," said the bar-tender affably. A little yellow man in rags and the youth grasped their schooners and went with speed toward a lunch counter, where a man with oily but imposing whiskers ladled genially from a kettle until he had furnished his two mendicants with a soup that was steaming hot, and in which there were little floating suggestions of chicken. The young man, sipping his broth, felt the cordiality expressed by the warmth of the mixture, and he beamed at the man with oily but imposing whiskers, who was presiding like a priest behind an altar. "Have some more, gents?" he inquired of the two sorry figures before him. The little yellow man accepted with a swift gesture, but the youth shook his head and went out, following a man whose wondrous seediness promised that he would have a knowledge of cheap lodging-houses.

On the side-walk he accosted the seedy man. "Say, do you know a cheap place to sleep?"

The other hesitated for a time gazing sideways. Finally he nodded in the direction of the street, "I sleep up there," he said, "when I've got the price."

"How much?"

"Ten cents."

The young man shook his head dolefully. "That's too rich for me."

At that moment there approached the two a reeling man in strange garments. His head was a fuddle of bushy hair and whiskers, from which his eyes peered with a guilty slant. In a close scrutiny it was possible to distinguish the cruel lines of a mouth which looked as if its lips had just closed with satisfaction over some tender and piteous morsel. He appeared like an assassin steeped in crimes performed awkwardly.

But at this time his voice was tuned to the coaxing key of an affectionate puppy. He looked at the men with wheedling eyes, and began to sing a little melody for charity.

"Say, gents, can't yeh give a poor feller a couple of cents t' git a bed. I got five, and I gits anudder two I gits me a bad. Now, on th' square, gents, can't yeh jest gimme two cents t' git a bed? Now, yeh know how a respecter'ble gentlm'n feels when he's down on his luck, an' I--"

The seedy man, staring imperturbable countenance at a train which clattered oerhead, interrupted in an expressionless voice--"Ah, go t' h--!"

But the youth spoke to the prayerful assassin in tones of astonishment and inquiry. "Say, you must be crazy! Why don't yeh strike somebody that looks as if they had money?"

The assassin, tottering about on his uncertain legs, and at intervals brushing imaginary obstacles from before his nose, entered into a long explanation of the psychology of the situation. It was so profound that it was unintelligible.

When he had exhausted the subject, the young man said to him--

"Let's see th' five cents."

The assassin wore an expression of drunken woe at this sentence, filled with suspicion of him. With a deeply pained air he began to fumble in his clothing, his red hands trembling. Presently he announced in a voice of bitter grief, as if he had been betrayed--"There's on'y four."

"Four," said the young man thoughtfully. "Well, look-a-here, I'm a stranger here, an' if ye'll steer me to your cheap joint I'll find the other three."

The assassin's countenance became instantly radiant with joy. His whiskers quivered with the wealth of his alleged emotions. He seized the young man's hand in a transport of delight and friendliness.

"B' Gawd," he cried, "if ye'll do that, b' Gawd, I'd say yeh was a damned good fellow, I would, an' I'd remember yeh all m' life, I would, b' Gawd, an' if I ever got a chance I'd return the compliment"--he spoke with drunken dignity,--"b' Gawd, I'd treat yeh white, I would, an' I'd allus remember yeh."

The young man drew back, looking at the assassin coldly. "Oh, that's all right," he said. "You show me th' joint--that's all youv'e got t' do."

The assassin, gesticulating gratitude, led the young man along a dark street. Finally he stopped before a little dusty door. He raised his hand impressively. "Look-a-here," he said, and there was a thrill of deep and ancient wisdom upon his face, "I've brought yeh here, an' that's my part, ain't it? If th' place don't suit yeh, yeh needn't git mad at me, need yeh? There won't be no bad feelin', will there?"

"No," said the young man.

The assassin waved his arm tragically, and led the march up the steep stairway. On the way the young man furnished the assassin with three pennies. At the top a man with benevolent spectacles looked at them through a hole in a board. he collected their money, wrote some names on a register, and speedily was leading the two men along a gloom-shrouded corridor.

Shortly after the beginning of this journey the young man felt his liver turn white, for from the dark and secret places of the building there suddenly came to his nostrils strange and unspeakable odors, that assailed him like malignant diseases with wings. They seemed to be from human bodies closely packed in dens; the exhalations from a hundred pairs of reeking lips; the fumes from a thousand bygone debauches; the expression of a thousand present miseries.

A man, naked save for a little snuff-coloured under-shirt, was parading sleepily along the corridor. He rubbed his eyes, and, giving vent to a prodigious yawn, demanded to be told the time.

"Half-past one."

The man yawned again. He opened a door, and for a moment his form was outlined against a black, opaque interior. To this door came the three men, and as it was again opened the unholy odours rushed out like fiends, so that the young man was obliged to struggle against an overpowering wind.

It was some time before the youth's eyes were good in the intense gloom within, but the man with benevolent spectacles led him skilfully, pausing but a moment to deposit the limp assassin upon a cot. He took the youth to a coat that lay tranquilly by the window, and showing him a tall locker for clothes that stood near the head with the ominous air of a tombstone, left him.

The youth sat on his cot and peered about him. There was a gas-jet in a distant part of the room, that burned a small flickering orange-hued flame. It caused vast masses of tumbled shadows in all parts of the place, save where, immediately about it, there was a little grey haze. As the young man's eyes became used to the darkness, he could see upon the cots that thickly littered the floor the forms of men sprawled out, lying in death-like silence, or heaving and snoring with tremendous effort, like stabbed fish.

The youth locked his derby and his shoes in the mummy case near him, and then lay down with an old and familiar coat around his shoulders. A blanket he handled gingerly, drawing it over part of the coat. The cot was covered with leather, and as cold as melting snow. The youth was obliged to shiver for some time on this affair, which was like a slab. Presently, however, his chill gave him peace, and during this period of leisure from it he turned his head to stare at his friend the assassin, whom he could dimly discern where he lay sprawled on a coat in the abandon of a man filled with drink. He was snoring with incredible vigour. His wet hair and beard dimly glistened, and his inflamed nose shone with subdued lustre like a red light in a fog.

Within reach of the youth's hand was one who lay with yellow breast and shoulders bare to the cold drafts. One arm hung over the side of the cot, and the fingers lay full length upon the wet cement floor of the room. Beneath the inky brows could be seen the eyes of the man exposed by the partly opened lids. To the youth it seemed that he and this corpse-like being were exchanging a prolonged stare, and that the other threatened with his eyes. He drew back watching his neighbour from the shadows of his blanket edge. The man did not move once through the night, but lay in this stillness as of death like a body stretched out expectant of the surgeon's knife.

And all through the room could be seen the tawny hues of naked flesh, limbs thrust into the darkness, projecting beyond the cots; upreared knees, arms hanging long and thin over the cot edges. For the most part they were statuesque, carven, dead. With the curious lockers standing all about like tombstones, there was a strange effect of a graveyard where bodies were merely flung.

Yet occasionally could be seen limbs wildly tossing in fantastic nightmare gestures, accompanied by guttural cries, grunts, oaths. And there was one fellow off in a gloomy corner, who in his dreams was oppressed by some frightful calamity, for of a sudden he began to utter long wails that went almost like yells from a hound, echoing wailfully and weird through this chill place of tombstones where men lay like the dead.

The sound in its high piercing beginnings, that dwindled to final melancholy moans, expressed a red grim tragedy of the unfathomable possibilities of the man's dreams. But to the youth these were not merely the shrieks of a vision-pierced man: they were an utterance of the meaning of the room and its occupants. It was to him the protest of the wretch who feels the touch of the imperturbable granite wheels, and who then cries with an impersonal eloquence, with a strength not from him, giving voice to the wail of a whole section, a class, a people. This, weaving into the young man's brain, and mingling with his views of the vast and sombre shadows that, like mighty black fingers, curled around the naked bodies, made the young man so that he did not sleep, but lay carving the biographies for these men from his meagre experience. At times the fellow in the corner howled in a writing agony of his imaginations.

Finally a long lance-point of grey light shot through the dusty panes of the window. Without, the young man could see roofs drearily white in the dawning. The point of light yellowed and grew brighter, until the golden rays of the morning sun came in bravely and strong. They touched with radiant colour the form of a small fat man, who snored in stuttering fashion. His round and shiny bald head glowed suddenly with the valour of a decoration. He sat up, blinked at the sun, swore fretfully, and pulled his blanket over the ornamental splendours of his head.

The youth contentedly watched this rout of the shadows before the bright spears of the sun, and presently he slumbered. When he awoke he heard the voice of the assassin raised in valiant curses. Putting up his head, he perceived his comrade seated on the side of the cot engaged in scratching his neck with long finger-nails that rasped like flies.

"Hully Jee, dis is a new breed. They've got can-openers on their feet." He continued in a violent tirade.

The young man hastily unlocked his closet and took out his shoes and hat. As he sat on the side of the cot lacing his shoes, he glanced about and saw that daylight had made the room comparatively commonplace and uninteresting. The men, whose faces seemed stolid, serene or absent, were engaged in dressing, while a great crackle of bantering conversation arose.

A few were parading in unconcerned nakedness. Here and there were men of brawn, whose skins shone clear and ruddy. They took splendid poses, standing massively like chiefs. When they had dressed in their ungainly garments there was an extraordinary change. They then showed bumps and deficiencies of all kinds.

There were others who exhibited many deformities. Shoulders were slanting, humped, pulled this way and pulled that way. And notable among these latter men was the little fat man, who had refused to allow his head to be glorified. His pudgy form, builded like a pear, bustled to and fro, while he swore in fishwife fashion. It appeared that some article of his apparel had vanished.

The young man attired speedily, and went to his friend the assassin. At first the latter looked dazed at the sight of the youth. This face seemed to be appealing to him through the cloud wastes of his memory. He scratched his neck and reflected. At last he grinned, a broad smile gradually spreading until his countenance was a round illumination. "Hello, Willie," he cried cheerily.

"Hello," said the young man. "Are yeh ready t' fly?"

"Sure." The assassin tied his shoe carefully with some twine and came ambling.

When he reached the street the young man experienced no sudden relief from unholy atmospheres. He had forgotten all about them, and had been breathing naturally, and with no sensation of discomfort or distress.

He was thinking of these things as he walked along the street, when he was suddenly startled by feeling the assassin's hand, trembling with excitement, clutching his arm, and when the assassin spoke, his voice went into quavers from a supreme agitation.

"I'll be hully, bloomin' blowed if there wasn't a feller with a nightshirt on up there in that joint."

The youth was bewildered for a moment, but presently he turned to smile indulgently at the assassin's humour.

"Oh, you're a d---d liar," he merely said.

Whereupon the assassin began to gesture extravagantly, and take oath by strange gods. He frantically placed himself at the mercy of remarkable fates if his tale were not true.

"Yes, he did! I cross m'heart thousan' times!" he protested, and at the moment his eyes were large with amazement, his mouth wrinkled in unnatural glee.

"Yessir! A nightshirt! A hully white nightshirt!"

"You lie!"

"No, sir! I hope ter die b'fore I kind git anudder ball if there wasn't a jay wid a hully, bloomin' white nighshirt!"

His face was filled with the infinite wonder of it. "A hully white nighshirt," he continually repeated.

The young man saw the dark entrance to a basement restaurant. There was a sign which read "No mystery about our hash"! and there were other age-stained and world-batered legends which told him that the place was within his means. He stopped before it and spoke to the assassin. "I guess I'll git somethin' t' eat."

At this the assassin, for some reason, appeared to be quite embarrassed. He gazed at the seductive front of the eating place for a moment. Then he started slowly up the street. "Well, good-bye, Willie," he said bravely.

For an instant the youth studied the departing figure. Then he called out, "Hol' on a minnet." As they came together he spoke in a certain fierce way, as if he feared that the other would think him to be charitable. "Look-a-here, if yeh wanta git some breakfas' I'll lend yeh three cents t' do it with. But say, look-a-here, you've gota git out an' hustle. I ain't goin' t' support yeh, or I'll go broke b'fore night. I ain't no millionaire."

"I take me oath, Willie," said the assassin earnestly, "th' on'y thing I really needs is a ball. Me t'roat feels like a fryin'-pan. But as I can't get a ball, why, th' next bes' thing is breakfast, an' if yeh do that for me, b' Gawd, I say yeh was th' whitest lad I ever see."

They spent a few moments in deteroux exchanges of phrases, in which they each protested that the other was, as the assassin had originally said, "a respecter'ble gentlm'n." And they concluded with mutual assurances that they were the souls of intelligence and virtue. Then they went into the restaurant.

There was a long counter, dimly lighted from hidden sources. Two or three men in soiled white aprons rushed here and there.

The youth bought a bowl of coffee for two cents and a roll for one cent. The assassin purchased the same. the bowls were webbed with brown seams, and the tin spoons wore an air of having emerged from the first pyramid. Upon them were black moss-like encrustations of age, and they were bent and scarred from the attacks of long-forgotten teeth. But over their repast the wanderers waxed warm and mellow. The assassin grew affable as the hot mixture went soothingly down his parched throat, and the young man felt courage flow in his veins.

Memories began to throng in on the assassin, and he brought forth long tales, intricate, incoherent, delivered with a chattering swiftness as from an old woman. "--great job out'n Orange. Boss keep yeh hustlin' though all time. I was there three days, and then I went an' ask 'im t' lend me a dollar. 'G-g-go ter the devil,' he ses, an' I lose me job.

"South no good. Damn niggers work for twenty-five an' thirty cents a day. Run white man out. Good grub though. Easy livin'.

"Yas; useter work little in Toledo, raftin' logs. Make two or three dollars er day in the spring. Lived high. Cold as ice though in the winter.

"I was raised in northern N'York. O-o-oh, yeh jest oughto live there. No beer ner whisky though, way off in the woods. But all th' good hot grub yeh can eat. B' Gawd, I hung around there long as I could till th' ol' man fired me. 'Git t' hell outa here, yeh wuthless skunk, git t' hell outa here, an' go die,' he ses. 'You're a hell of a father,' I ses, 'you are,' an' I quit him."

As they were passing from the dim eating place, they encountered an old man who was trying to steal forth with a tiny package of food, but a tall man with an indomitable moustache stood dragon fashion, barring the way of escape. They heard the old man raise a plaintive protest. "Ah, you always want to know what I take out, and you never see that I usually bring a package in here from my place of business."

As the wanderers trudged slowly along Park Row, the assassin began to expand and grow blithe. "B' Gawd, we've been livin' like kings," he said, smacking appreciative lips.

"Look out, or we'll have t' pay fer it t'night," said the youth with gloomy warning.

But the assassin refused to turn his gazed toward the future. He went with a limping step, into which he injected a suggestion of lamblike gambols. His mouth was wreathed in a red grin.

In the City Hall Park the two wanderers sat down in the little circle of benches sanctified by traditions of their class. They huddled in their old garments, slumbrously conscious of the march of the hours which for them had no meaning.

The people of the street hurrying hither and thither made a blend of black figures changing yet frieze-like. They walked in their good clothes as upon important missions, giving no gaze to the two wanderers seated upon the benches. They expressed to the young man his infinite distance from all that he valued. Social position, comfort, the pleasures of living, were unconquerable kingdoms. He felt a sudden awe.

And in the background a multitude of buildings, of pitiless hues and sternly high, were to him embelamatic of a nation forcing its regal head into the clouds, throwing no downward glances; in the sublimity of its aspirations ignoring the wretches who may flounder at its feet. The roar of the city in his ear was to him the confusion of strange tongues, babbling heedlessly; it was the clink of coin, the voice of the city's hopes which were to him no hopes.

He confessed himself an outcast, and his eyes from nder the lowered rim of his hat began to glance guiltily, wearing the criminal expression that comes with certain convictions.


"Well," said the friend, "did you discover his point of view?"

"I don't know that I did," replied the young man; "but at any rate I think mine own has undergone a considerable alteration."

Apr 30, 2017

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

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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 filmcamera 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 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.

Apr 23, 2017

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

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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 François 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 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”

DOWNbelow 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.


Apr 16, 2017

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

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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 to hear Gene Autry sing “Here Comes Peter Cottontail.”

Apr 09, 2017

133: Martin Sexton: "Happy"

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

Apr 03, 2017

132: Kent Haruf: "Plainsong"

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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 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.

Mar 26, 2017

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

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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 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.

Mar 20, 2017

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

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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 theAmerican 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 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.

Mar 12, 2017

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

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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 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.

Mar 06, 2017

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

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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-Hélène Barbéris, 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 to watch a featurette about I Am Not Your Negro.

Feb 27, 2017

127: Beyonce: "Lemonade"

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This week on StoryWeb: Beyoncé’s album Lemonade.

Beyoncé 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 Beyoncé’s performance of “Formation” at last year’s Super Bowl, I have been mightily intrigued by this powerhouse of a performer.

For Beyoncé’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 Beyoncé. “I am large,” said Walt Whitman. “I contain multitudes.” The same might very well be said of Beyoncé. She slays precisely because she contains vast multitudes.

“Formation” – especially the video Beyoncé 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, Beyoncé 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 Beyoncé 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 Beyoncé 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 Beyoncé – 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.”

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.

Feb 19, 2017

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

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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 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.

Feb 13, 2017

125: Solomon Northup: "Twelve Years a Slave"

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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 inAmsterdamwhereAnne Frankis a national hero, and for me this book read likeAnne Frank's diarybut 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 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.

Feb 05, 2017

124: "The Mary Tyler Moore Show"

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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 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!

Jan 29, 2017

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

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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 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.

Jan 23, 2017

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

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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 isa 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 dreamthat 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 anoasis 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 for links to all these resources and to watch Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., give his “I Have a Dream” speech.

Jan 15, 2017

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

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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 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.”

Jan 08, 2017

120: Neil Young: "Comes a Time"

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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 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?

Jan 02, 2017

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

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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 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.

Dec 26, 2016

118: David Sedaris: "The Santaland Diaries"

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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 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.

Dec 19, 2016

117: Albert and David Maysles: "Grey Gardens"

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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.

(Video) 'Arnie the Doughnut' read by Chris O'Dowd

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 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.

Dec 12, 2016

116: Leonard Cohen: "Hallelujah"

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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 onRolling 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 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.

Dec 05, 2016

115: Maya Angelou: "Still I Rise"

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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 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!

Nov 28, 2016

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

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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 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.

Nov 21, 2016

113: Rainer Maria Rilke: "Sunset"

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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

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.

Nov 14, 2016

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

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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 Dépôt de Triage in La Ferté-Macé 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 Roomby 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 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 asSection Sanitaire Vingt-et-Un(then located at Germaine) through the mysteries of Noyon, Gré and Paris to thePorte de Triage de La Ferté Macé,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 Ferté 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 Ferté---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 Ferté was aPorte de Triage---that is to say, a place where suspects of all varieties were herded byle gouvernement françaispreparatory 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 Ferté to a 'regular' prison, called Précigné, in the province of Sarthe. About Précigné 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 Précigné you were 'in' for good and all,pour la durée de la guerre,whichduréewas 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 Ferté was, then, a stepping-stone either to freedom or to Précigné, 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 Précigné---beyond that lurked acauchemarcalled by the singularly poetic name, Isle de Groix. A man who went to Isle de Groix was done.

As theSurveillantsaid 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 hadde la chanceall right, but that was something whichpauvre M. le Surveillantwot 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 Ferté? Anyone whom the police could find in the lovely country of France (a) whowas 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 whichen temps de guerreare put in a hole and covered over, with the somewhat naïve 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 Fertés 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 theSurveillant'sremark.

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 vertebræ, etc., etc., could (with a few exceptions) write not a word and read not a word; neither could theyfaire la photographieas 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 Fertés of that mighty nation upon some, at least, of whose public buildings it seems to me that I remember reading

Liberté. Egalité. Fraternité.

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 madela grève,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 très gen-tille, elle est fran-çaise et très belle, très, très 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 écrire, 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, déployant ses ailes
II disait à sa canarde fidèle
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.

Nov 07, 2016

111: Ann McGovern: "The Velvet Ribbon"

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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 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 to learn about the story and to hear me read it in its entirety.

Happy Halloween!

Oct 31, 2016

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

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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, 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 for links to all these resources and to listen as T.S. Eliot reads “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.”

Oct 24, 2016

109: Arthur Miller: "The Crucible"

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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 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.

Oct 17, 2016

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

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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 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.

Oct 10, 2016

107: Allen Ginsberg: "Howl"

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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 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 for links to all these resources and to hear Allen Ginsberg read “Howl.”

Oct 03, 2016

106: Richard Attenborough: "Shadowlands"

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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 bookLenten 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.

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 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.

Sep 26, 2016

105: Michael Cunningham: "The Hours"

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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 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.

Sep 19, 2016

104: Virginia Woolf: "Mrs. Dalloway"

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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 risqué 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 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.

Sep 12, 2016

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

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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 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.

Sep 05, 2016

102: Emily Bronte: Wuthering Heights

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

Ooh! Heathcliff! That’s who I think of when I think of Emily Brontë’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 Brontë’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 Brontë’s only novel, published under the pseudonym “Ellis Bell.” Brontë 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 painterDante Gabriel Rossetticalled 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 Brontë, 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 Brontë and Wuthering Heights, visit The Victorian Web. For more on Emily Brontë 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 Brontë 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

Listen now as I read Chapter I of Emily Brontë’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 mevis-à-visthe 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.

Aug 29, 2016

101: Tim Burton: "Big Fish"

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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 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.

Aug 22, 2016

100: Ernest Gaines: "The Sky Is Gray"

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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 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).

Aug 15, 2016

099: Anzia Yezierska: "America and I"

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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 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.

Aug 08, 2016

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

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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.”

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

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

Aug 01, 2016

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

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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 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.

Jul 25, 2016

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

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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 (Renée Michel), and the Japanese businessman (Kakuro Ozu) – are each exquisitely drawn. For a good portion of the novel, Paloma and Renée 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 Renée works as the building’s concierge – the custodian or “super.” How on earth will Paloma and Renée 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 Renée 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 for links to all these resources and to watch the trailer for The Hedgehog.

Jul 18, 2016

095: Jane Austen: "Pride and Prejudice"

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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

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 ofthat."

"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."

(Video) 'Clark the Shark' read by Chris Pine

"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.

Jul 11, 2016

094: Elizabeth Bishop: "The Moose"

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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 for links to all these resources and to hear Elizabeth Bishop read “The Moose.”

Jul 04, 2016

093: Mary Oliver: "The Summer Day"

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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 for links to all these resources and to listen as Mary Oliver reads “The Summer Day.”

Jun 27, 2016

092: Willa Cather: "O Pioneers!"

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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 Ántonia, 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 Ántonia. For links to all these resources, visit

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."

Jun 20, 2016

091: Laird Hunt: "Neverhome"

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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 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.

Jun 13, 2016

090: "Mary Chesnut's Civil War"

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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 dorée 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.

Jun 06, 2016

089: Sherman Alexie: "Smoke Signals"

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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 2010PEN/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 for links to all these resources and to watch a short clip from Smoke Signals.

May 30, 2016

088: Herman Melville: "Moby-Dick"

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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 exposé 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 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.Thatonce 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 tothismark, and your charge is but a penny; tothisa 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 ofskrimshander. 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 donebrownif 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,youI 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;docome;won'tye 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.

May 22, 2016

087: Carson McCullers: "The Member of the Wedding"

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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 Café, 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 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.

May 16, 2016

086: Nathaniel Hawthorne: "The Scarlet Letter"

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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

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.

ATHRONGof 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-PLOTbefore 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 SCARLETLETTER,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.

May 09, 2016

085: "Glen Campbell: I'll Be Me"

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This week on StoryWeb: the documentary film GlenCampbell: I’ll Be Me.

Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me is a powerful, compelling,utterly gripping documentary in every way. It traces the famed popcountry singer’s journey from an Alzheimer’s diagnosis to his finaldeterioration. As it does so, it also documents his farewell tourand the struggles Campbell and his family faced as he performedfrequently for a full year and a half after his diagnosis.Campbell, born in 1936, turned 80 last month. He now lives in amemory care facility and is attended every day by his wife andchildren.

This is a well-made film and an honest, courageous story. Afterlearning of his Alzheimer’s diagnosis, Campbell, with the supportof his wife and children, decided to go public with the diagnosisand to allow the documentary to be made. They also decided thatCampbell would go on an extended “Goodbye Tour” for as long as hisillness would permit.

The documentary is chock full of private footage in theCampbells’ home, in dressing rooms, and on the tour bus. The viewersees Campbell as a human being, laughs along with his goofy senseof humor (complete with his trademark duck quack), and cries withCampbell, his wife, and his children as Campbell forgets the mostbasic facts of his life, including – frequently – the fact thathe’s about to play a show or has just played a show.

Amazingly, the other half of the film features concert footagefrom the farewell tour. There are numerous nail-biting moments ashis children (who play in his band) wait to see if he’ll rememberhow to play and sing his best-known songs. A giant telecasterdisplays the lyrics, but Campbell – playing lead guitar – has toremember how to start each song and how to play it through to theend. That he is able to do so for so many months – despite the factthat 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-wrenchingfilm. It is difficult to watch anyone – much less a beloved popicon – deteriorate and fade away. But there’s something inspiringabout the film as well. In the face of a certain and fiercediagnosis, Glen Campbell stands up and says he will go out doingwhat he has always done best, what he loves so well. Courageously,he vows to share the entire journey with his fans as a way ofshattering the silence surrounding Alzheimer’s.

Fans of Campbell’s music won’t be disappointed. He performs allthe great hits: “Wichita Lineman,” “Gentle on My Mind,” and“Rhinestone Cowboy.” A new song, “I’m Not Gonna Miss You,” is alsofeaturedl. It is Campbell’s final studio recording. A soundtrack CDis available as well.

To learn more about Glen Campbell as well as the film, stop byCampbell’s official website, and check out the RollingStone article that appeared when the film was released inOctober 2014. To learn more about Alzheimer’s and to contribute toresearch on the devastating disease, visit the I’ll Be MeAlzheimer’s Fund.

Visit for links to all theseresources 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 NotGonna Miss You.”

May 02, 2016

084: Prince: "Raspberry Beret"

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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 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.

Apr 25, 2016

083: Adrienne Rich: "Diving into the Wreck"

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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 Gonzáles; 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 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 for links to all these resources and to hear Adrienne Rich read her most influential poem, “Diving into the Wreck.”

Apr 18, 2016

082: Leo Tolstoy: "The Death of Ivan Ilyich"

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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

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.

Apr 11, 2016

081: Bernard Rose: "Immortal Beloved"

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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 Pathétique” 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 for links to these resources and to watch the “Ode to Joy” sequence from the film.

Apr 04, 2016

080: Earl Hamner, Jr.: "The Waltons"

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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 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.”

Mar 28, 2016

079: Kate Chopin: "The Awakening"

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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

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.

Mar 21, 2016

078: Bill Pohlad: "Love and Mercy"

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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 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.

Mar 14, 2016

077: Janet Frame: "An Angel at My Table"

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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 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.”

Mar 07, 2016

076: Zora Neale Hurston: "Their Eyes Were Watching God"

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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 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.”

Feb 29, 2016

075: Lorraine Hansberry: "A Raisin in the Sun"

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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 theNew York Drama Critics' Circlenamed 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?

(Video) 'The Hula-Hoopin' Queen' read by Oprah Winfrey

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 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.

Feb 22, 2016


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