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47 posts categorized "Literature"

08 September 2016

Cabin Fever: Deconstructing the Log-Cabin Myth of Appalachia

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Kevan Manwaring is an Eccles Centre Postgraduate Fellow and a Fellow of the Higher Education Academy. He is currently undertaking a Creative Writing PhD at the University of Leicester. His practice-based research is a novel set in Appalachia & Scotland.

As an historical artifact and as a cultural meme I set out to explore the phenomenon of that quintessential icon of American pioneering spirit, the log cabin.

Lincoln_Log_Cabin

Lincoln Log Cabin State Historic Site. Photograph by Daniel Schwen [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.

The homely shack hacked out of the primal wilderness, or so the myth goes, the log-cabin has been called ‘a symbol of democracy’ (Shurtleff: 5). Synonymous with self-reliance, hard-work, and grit the cabin has a taken on a metaphorical dimension. How has it become the crucible of the American Creation Myth? Every state seems to have at least one of these iconic structures where their most famous son or daughter started out. Perhaps the most hallowed of these was at Walden Pond, in Massachusetts, where, on the 4th July, 1845, Henry David Thoreau went to build a cabin. And live there he did, for a couple of years, cultivating his legumes and legend; but the nature of his dwelling – now enshrined in American culture and replicated countless times across the nation – is not exactly what it seems. It needs interrogating and deconstructing somewhat – but not to undermine Thoreau’s achievement or legacy – but to examine the foundations of this most enduring and beloved icon.

This ‘log-cabin myth’ (as Harold R. Shurtleff defined it in his 1939 Study of the Early Dwellings of the English Colonists in North America) is ‘an American belief that is both deep-seated and tenacious’ (Shurtleff: 5).

Let us look at the history of the Log-Cabin. At the risk of seeming disingenuous, I think it’s necessary to remind ourselves of what a log cabin is defined as: ‘a small house made from tree trunks’ (Cambridge Dictionary online). This is important, especially when considering Walden (it was not). It is a term that is often bandied about and misapplied.

 

But when was the log cabin first seen in the New World?

From current evidence we can deduce that the first dwellings built of round or square logs was raised by the earliest Scandinavian settlers in 1638 – primarily Swedes, but also Eastern Finnish, bringing with them the skill-set of the Savo-Karelian culture (Jordan; Kaups, 1992). German immigrants constructed their own variants, independently, from about 1710. The Scots-Irish arriving in large numbers after 1718, took up this new opportunity (having been unable to build timber-houses at home due to the lingering restrictions of that Norman construct, ‘forest’, and the financial cost) and ran with it. It seems likely they invented the term ‘log cabin’ (one belonging to a James McGavock is identified in an Irish community, Virginia, 1770). Before that, the most common one was ‘log house’ (Maine, 1662; Maryland, 1669; Massachusetts, 1678; North Carolina, 1680; New Hampshire, 1699). Via this new wave of migrants, the log cabin went ‘viral’: ‘From and through the Germans and Scotch-Irish it spread rapidly through the English colonies and by the American Revolution had become the typical American frontier dwelling from Maine to Tennessee.’  (Shurtleff: 4), to the point that, as John Alexander Williams observed: ‘The log house is the most enduring symbol of Appalachia’ (2002: 5). Cheap, convenient and quick to construct from readily available materials, with only an axe, a pair of hands, a mouthful of nails, some cussing and a lot of elbow grease, it is small wonder the log cabin or house flourished.

In summary it seems likely, that whoever got there first (and the degradable nature of the material means we will never know for certain), that ‘each group of European colonist in the seventeenth century erected the sort of dwellings they were accustomed to at home.’ (Shurtleff, 209).

Yet were they bringing coals to Newcastle, for it is noted by William Byrd in 1728 how he found ‘Indians’ in Virginia and North Carolina in the traditional lodges of their ancestors, what he called ‘Bark Cabanes’, wooden dwellings. This suggests the possibility of cross-fertilisation – that the ‘log cabin’ was the product of syncretism.

And so we can see how the notion of the ‘log-cabin’ is a constructed one, one with several influences. As a metaphor for the quintessential hybridity and Old/New World recycling of America, it is fit-for-purpose.

 

As a cultural meme, the log-cabin has extended its influence far beyond its humble parameters. It has been taken up by politicians, writers, singers, film-makers, eco-campaigners, artists and architects…

A seminal example of this is the ‘Lincoln Log Cabin’ – the humble family home of the 16th President of the USA. At Knob Creek Farm, La Rue County, Kentucky, a neighbour’s farm was relocated to the approximate spot and turned into a heritage ‘shrine’, evidence of the Lincoln myth, and by extension, the dramatic arc of the American dream – from log cabin to the white-house.

Such ‘repackaging’ has precedent, which can be seen if we dial-back to the 14th Presidential Election Campaign. In what became known as the Log Cabin campaign of William Henry Harrison, we can see the repurposing of the log cabin for political capital. Evoking an American Arcadia, the log cabin symbolized a return to good, simple virtues, to an uncomplicated, uncorrupted way of life.

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Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie (New York and London: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1935). Illustrated by Helen Sewell [20054.d.28.]

We see this representation of the log-cabin in classics of American literature such as Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 reformist novel; Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884); Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward Angel! (1929); the ‘Little House’ books of Laura Ingalls Wilder (1932-1943); Woody Guthrie’s recently rediscovered House of Earth (1947); Wilma Dykeman’s Appalachian trilogy, The Tall Woman (1962); The Far Family (1966); Return the Innocent Earth (1973); and Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain (1997). These and many others create a sub-genre of what could be called ‘Log Lit’. 

Extending its influence far beyond Appalachia, the log-cabin offers us a place of renewal, a taste of a more authentic, embodied, embedded and sustainable life.

 

Kevan Manwaring

NOTES: 

Davis, Donald E., Homeplace Geography: essays for Appalachia, Mercer University Press, 2002

Lee, Hannah Farnham Sawyer, The Log Cabin: or, the world before you, Appleton, 1844

Grant, Richard E., Ghost Riders: travels with American nomads, London: Abacus, 2003.

Jordan, Terry G. & Matti E. Kaups, The American Backwoods Frontier: an ethical and ecological interpretation (creating the North American Landscape), John Hopkins University Press, 1992.

Shurtleff, Harold R., The Log-Cabin Myth: a study of the early dwellings of the English colonists in North America, Harvard, 1939

Teale, Edwin Way (ed.), The Wilderness World of John Muir, , Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co. 1954

Thoreau, Henry David, Walden, or a Life in the Woods. Boston: Ticknor & Fields, 1854

Weslager, C.A., The Log Cabin in America: from pioneers to the present (1909-1994), New Brunswick, N.J., Rutgers University Press, 1969

Williams, John Alexande,  Appalachia: a history, The University of North Carolina Press, 2002

 

Eccles Centre resources:

Imagining the West: a guide to the literature of the American West

 

19 August 2016

Dialogue with a Dead Poet: Jack Spicer's After Lorca

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This week marks the 80th anniversary of the death of the the poet and playwright Federico García Lorca, murdered by a Nationalist firing squad at the beginning of the Spanish Civil War. One of the best known European poets of his time, he soon became a martyr for the international anti-fascist cause. Lorca’s poetry and drama have influenced the works of many American poets, including Allen Ginsberg, William Carlos Williams and Langston Hughes, who translated his play Blood Wedding into English. Leonard Cohen based the lyrics for his song ‘Take this Waltz’ on Lorca’s poem ‘Pequeño vals vienés’, and named his daughter Lorca after the poet.

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Cover of Jack Spicer, After Lorca (San Francisco: White Rabbit Press, 1957) [YA.1994.a.5955]

In 1957, the American poet Jack Spicer (1925-1965) published After Lorca, a book containing his translations into English of several poems by Lorca alongside his own work. One of the key texts in the collection is Spicer’s translation of Lorca’s ‘Ode to Walt Whitman’, suggesting Spicer’s intention to outline a genealogy of queer poetry.

After Lorca plays with post-modern theories about authorship. Spicer’s translations appear together with his own poems written in Lorca’s style, but the book presents all works as translations and does not provide any indication of their original author. In addition, Spicer intercalates a series of conversational letters to Lorca discussing poetry writing.

Amusingly, the book contains an introduction by Federico García Lorca himself, who at the time of publication had been dead for more than 20 years. Writing from his grave located ‘Outside Granada’, the ‘Lorca’ invented by Jack Spicer appears bemused by the project, and warns the reader that this is no ordinary poetry collection:

 The reader is given no indication which of the poems belong to which category, and I have further complicated the problem (with malice aforethought I must admit) by sending Mr. Spicer several poems written after my death which he has also translated and included here. Even the most faithful student of my work will be hard put to decide what is and what is not Garcia Lorca as, indeed, he would if he were to look into my present resting place. The analogy is impolite, but I fear the  impoliteness is deserved.

 

Mercedes Aguirre

 

19 July 2016

Kay Boyle, American in Paris

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Among the American expatriate writers who congregated in Paris in the interwar period, Kay Boyle was one of the most prolific. In her long and varied career she published fourteen novels, among them Death of a Man (1936) and Avalanche (1944), several collections of short stories, essays, poetry and translations. 

Boyle

By New York World-Telegram and the Sun staff photographer: Al Ravenna [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Kay Boyle was born in St. Paul, Minnesota, in 1902. In 1922 she moved to New York, where she became an assistant to Lola Ridge, the editor of Broom magazine. Boyle attended Ridge’s literary gatherings, where guests included William Carlos Williams and Marianne Moore. In June of the same year she married her first husband, the Frenchman Richard Brault, and the couple moved to France in 1923. While in Paris, Boyle met the writer and founder of Contact Editions Robert McAlmon, who became both a friend and a literary mentor.

In 1928 Boyle became acquainted with Harry and Caresse Crosby, founders of the Black Sun Press, one of the most renowned private presses run by American expatriates. The press, which was originally set up with the name Éditions Narcisse, published works by celebrated modernist writers including D H Lawrence, Hemingway and James Joyce. In March 1929 the press published Boyle’s Short Stories in a limited edition of 150 [Cup.510.fa.7.]. Some of the seven stories that form the collection had previously appeared in little magazines of the period, including transition, and all of them were reprinted alongside new work in the later collection Wedding Day and Other Stories (1930).

During the late 1920s and 1930s Boyle worked on several literary translations from French into English, including Joseph Delteil’s novel Don Juan. In 1931 the Black Sun Press published Boyle’s translation of a work by the surrealist writer René Crevel, Mr. Knife and Miss Fork, an extract of Crevel’s novel Babylone. The book was illustrated with nineteen photograms by the German artist Max Ernst. Boyle’s full translation of the novel into English was published in 1985 by North Point Press.

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René Crevel, Mr. Knife, Miss Fork (being a fragment of the novel Babylone), trans. by Kay Boyle.  Paris : Black Sun Press, 1931. [C.184.f.4] From top to bottom: cover, detail of the spine, front page and photogram by Max Ernst.

 

The following year Boyle’s poem ‘A Statement’ was published by a lesser known American private press, The Modern Editions Press, founded by the African American writer Kathleen Tankersley Young . The press produced two series of beautifully crafted short story and poetry pamphlets in 1932 and 1933. Boyle’s poem included a frontispiece by the cubist artist Max Weber. The Modern Editions Press was a short-lived project, as Young died unexpectedly in 1933 during a trip to Mexico.

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Kay Boyle. A Statement. New York : Modern Editions Press, 1932. [RF.2016.A.26]           From top to bottom: front cover and frontispiece by Max Weber.

 

The Library has recently acquired Kay Boyle: A Twentieth Century Life in Letters, a volume that collects Boyle’s correspondence, edited by Sandra Spanier. Boyle’s selected letters, spanning eight decades, bear witness to her central role in several modernist networks and presents a fascinating picture of American expatriate life in Paris and beyond during the twentieth century.

 

Further reading:  

Boyle, Kay. Kay Boyle: A Twentieth-Century Life in Letters, ed. by Sandra Spanier. Urbana, Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2015. [YD.2016.a.2187]

Ford, Hugh. Published in Paris: American and British Writers, Printers, and Publishers in Paris, 1920-1939. London: Garnstone Press, 1975. [X.981/20326]

McAlmon, Robert and Kay Boyle. Being Geniuses Together 1920-1930. London: Michael Joseph, 1970. [X.989/5601.]

Spanier, Sandra Whipple. Kay Boyle: Artist and Activist. Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1986. [YC.2002.a.22409]

22 March 2016

Langston Hughes translates Nicolás Guillén

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Langston Hughes is well known as one of the leading figures of the Harlem Renaissance, primarily for his poetry. However, there is a side to his work which has received comparatively less attention: his literary translations.

Langston_Hughes_1936

Langston Hughes in 1936, by Carl Van Vechten

Hughes was not a professional translator, and indeed most of his translations did not do very well commercially. His translations were driven by his interest in writers with whom he felt a connection, particularly authors who explored the representation of black identity beyond European literary models. Hughes felt a kinship with writers of the African diaspora in the Americas, whom he saw as linked by a similar cultural heritage and history of racial oppression. These included the Haitian writer Jacques Roumain, whose posthumous novel Masters of the Dew (Gouverneurs de la Rosée) was translated by Hughes circa 1947.

In 1948, Hughes (together with Ben Frederic Carruthers) translated a selection of poems by the Cuban writer and activist Nicolás Guillén. They were published under the title of Cuba Libre by the American Ward Ritchie Press, in a beautiful limited edition of 500 with illustrations by Gar Gilbert.

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Cover and title page of Cuba Libre (1948)

Hughes met the poet Nicolas Guillén in 1930 in Cuba and they soon developed a friendship. Both men travelled together to Spain during the country’s civil war as war correspondents, an episode that Hughes narrated in his autobiography I Wonder as I Wander (1956). While the extent to which Hughes influenced Guillén’s style is still up for debate, their works have many aspects in common. Their poetry is a celebration of black folk culture, music and use of language. Often described as ‘poets of the people’, both men were concerned with representing class inequality and racial injustice.

Below is an extract from Guillén’s well-known poem ‘Tu no sabe inglé’, translated by Hughes as ‘You don’t speak no English’. Hughes’s translation used the African American vernacular to reproduce Guillén’s experimentation with the Cuban criollo (Creole) dialect in his poetry:

Con tanto inglé que tú sabía,

Bito Manué,

con tanto inglé, no sabe ahora

desí ye.

La mericana te buca,

y tú le tiene que huí:

tu inglé era de etrái guan,

de etrái guan y guan tu tri.

        Nicolás Guillen, Motivos de son (1930)

 

All dat English you used to know,

Li’l Manuel,

all dat English, now can’t even

say: Yes.

‘Merican gal comes lookin’ fo’ you

an’ you jes’ runs away

Yo’ English is jes’ strike one!

strike one and one-two-three.

Langston Hughes’s translation, published in Cuba Libre (1948)

 

Further Reading

Guillén, Nicolás. Cuba Libre, translated by Langston Hughes and Ben Frederic Carruthers (Los Angeles: The Ward Ritchie Press, 1948) [Cup.510.naz.3.]

Kutzinski, Vera M., The Worlds of Langston Hughes: Modernism and Translation in the Americas (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2012) [YC.2013.a.1917]

Martin-Ogunsola, Dellita, ‘Introduction’. The Collected Works of Langston Hughes. Vol 16: The Translations: Federico Garcia Lorca, Nicolas Guillen, and Jacques Roumain, ed. by Arnold Ra``mpersad (Columbia and London: University of Missouri Press, 2003) [YC.2005.A.3285]

Scott, William, ‘Motivos of Translation: Nicolas Guillen and Langston Hughes’. CR: The New Centennial Review, 5:2 (2005): 35-71. [3486.443000]

 

 —Mercedes Aguirre

16 February 2016

On the outskirts of the world: Movimiento Hora Zero

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Movimiento Hora Zero was an avant-garde poetry movement that emerged from Peru during the 1970s. Founded by Jorge Pimentel and Juan Ramírez Ruiz, the young writers anticipated a form of poetic expression that rejected what they saw as the pompous European-influenced canon of Peruvian poetry and instead channelled the language, politics, and everyday experience of contemporary Peru. Their manifesto, Palabras Urgentes (1970) tells of a need to

manifestarnos como hombres libres y como escritores con una nueva responsabilidad, con una nueva actitud ante el acto creador, ante los hechos derivados de una realidad con la que no estamos de acuerdo.[1]

[speak out as free men and as writers with a new responsibility, with a new approach to the creative act, in the face of events derived from a reality with which we disagree.]

 HZ1    HZ2
Hora Zero Oriente: materiales para una nueva época (1970) [Shelfmark: X.902/1157]

As might be expected from the urgency of their manifesto, the movement materialised at a critical moment in Peruvian history. Mass migration from the Andes to the coast over the preceding decades had resulted in a huge increase in the urban population and this in turn meant that the previously marginalised customs and traditions of the sierra were now decidedly present within the metropolitan centres of Peru. The overthrow of Fernando Belaúnde’s government in October 1968 by General Velasco’s left-wing military regime led to a project of sweeping reforms which would be instituted under the term Perunaismo. There was a definite sense that the Peruvian elite were being challenged, and it was certainly a time of great social and political flux. This is exemplified by the fact that a number of the poets associated with Hora Zero had attended the Universidad Nacional Federico Villarreal, which had been founded in 1963 as part of a programme to reorganise the Peruvian education system, and this naturally placed them in opposition to the radical literary movements of earlier generations, which had tended to centre around the ancient and prestigious Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos.[2]

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Juan Ramírez Ruiz Un par de vueltas por la realidad (1971) [Shelfmark: X.900/13683]

Although the Hora Zero poets sought to negate much of the Peruvian literature which had come before them, there were certain of their forebears whom they considered kindred spirits in that they too were striving for a literature that could both represent and help shape a pluralist Peruvian culture, distinct from the political project of indigenismo, which ostensibly sought to improve the lives of marginalised Peruvians, but that as Marie-Chantal Barre puts it “officialised the disappearance of Indians as Indians, instead recognising them only as peasants."[3] One such is example is the work of author José María Arguedas.

Although he was heavily criticised in certain quarters for his romanticising of indigenous people, Arguedas certainly seems to have made an impression on the Hora Zero writers. In an interview from 2011, Pimentel and fellow Hora Zero member Tulio Mora make reference to Arguedas’s 1964 novel Todas las Sangres, which attempts a comprehensive portrayal of Peruvian cultural life, and his 1962 prose-poem Tupac Amaru Kamaq Taytanchisman, a reflection on indigenous migration from the sierra to the city published in both Quechua and Spanish. Despite the censure that Arguedas received from some corners, the Hora Zero writers clearly felt that there was something to be salvaged from his project, and his writings would take their place alongside César Vallejo’s Los Heraldos Negros and José Carlos Mariátegui’s Siete Ensayos de Interpretación de la Realidad Peruana as works from which the movement would draw inspiration.

  Arguedas 1   7 ensayos 1
José María Arguedas Todas las Sangres (1964) [Shelfmark: X.900/7132] and José Carlos Mariátegui Siete Ensayos de Interpretación de la Realidad Peruana (1928) [Shelfmark: 8025.d.40]

Though these writers may have been similar in spirit, the Hora Zero writers still felt that there was much to be done in reorienting their poetics towards the everyday experience of ordinary Limeños. In this respect, one of the seminal works to come out of the movement is En los extramuros del mundo (1971), a collection of poetry by Enrique Verastegui. Published when he was just twenty years old, the poems encapsulate the bustling energy, confusion and absurdity of the city:

Yo vi caminar por calles de Lima a hombres y mujeres

carcomidos por la neurosis,

          hombres y mujeres de cemento pegados al cemento aletargados

                     confundidos y riendose de todo.[4]

[I saw walking the streets of Lima men and women

eaten away by neurosis,

cement men and women stuck to the cement lethargic

confused and laughing at everything.]

Later in the 1970s, the movement’s principal figures would spend time outside Peru in both Europe and other places in Latin America before Hora Zero gained renewed momentum  in the second half of the decade. In the meantine, Tulio Mora would visit Mexico, where the movement found a receptive audience amongst the infrarrealismo movement led by a certain Roberto Bolaño, whose first manifesto includes a fitting tribute to the young radicals from Peru:

Nos antecede HORA ZERO[5]

[Our ancestors HORA ZERO]

- Laurence Byrne (with thanks to Mercedes Aguirre and Barry Taylor)

Notes

[1] Pimentel (1970: 9)

[2] Vilanova (1998: 7)

[3] Barre (1985: 53)

[4] Verastegui (1971: 13)

[5] Madariaga Caro (2010: 146)

References / further reading

Barre, Marie-Chantal Ideologías indigenistas y movimientos indios, 2d ed. (Mexico: Siglo Veintiuno Editores, 1985)

Bolaño, Roberto "Déjenle todo nuevamente. Primer manifesto del movimiento infrarrealista"(1976) in Madariaga Caro, Montserrat Bolaño Infra. 1975 - 1977: los años que inspiraron Los detecitves salvajes (Santiago: RIL, 2010)

Huamán, Miguel Angel “La Rebelion Del Margen: Poesia Peruana De Los Setentas” in Revista de Crítica Literaria Latinoamericana 20.39 (1994): 267–291

Pimentel, Jorge and Ramírez Ruiz, Juan "Palabras urgentes" in Pimentel, Jorge Kenacourt y Valium 10 (Lima: Ediciones del Movimiento Hora Zero, 1970)

Juan Ramírez Ruiz Un par de vueltas por la realidad - See more at: http://www.typepad.com/site/blogs/6a00d8341c464853ef0120a63638e0970c/compose/preview/post#sthash.JxJ3WZOc.dpuf

Verastegui, Enrique En los extramuros del mundo (Lima: CMB Ediciones, 1971)

Vilanova, Núria “The Emerging Literature of the Peruvian Educated Underclass” in Bulletin of Latin American Research 17.1 (1998): 1-15

31 July 2015

Three American Libraries from Homes of American Authors (1853)

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Some real estate for Friday: Homes of American Authors (New York, 1853). A collection of somewhat florid travelogues composed by several writers and published by G. P. Putnam & Co. as a 'gift book', this work successfully began the America vogue for peeking into the homes of the talented, rich or famous. It's a habit that that is continued today in numerous glossy magazines, TV shows and popular blogs. Putnam followed up the success of this publication with Homes of American Statesmen (1854), which included the first photographic illustration in an American book.

Here are my top three descriptions of writers' libraries from Homes of American Authors.

1. Edward Everett

  Everett library

Always a favourite on this blog (mostly for his heroic, and forgotten, Gettysburg Address, hours longer than Lincoln's), Everett's 'career is most justly indicated by a view of his birthplace, which at once suggests a life of mental activity and patriotic devotion, and of the interior of the library where the best hours of an honored maturity are passed, eloquent of that wealth of attainment and literary culture, which has been the source both of his extensive usefulness and wide renown.'  

2. Ralph Waldo Emerson (summer house shown below)

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 'Mr. Emerson's Library is the room at the right of the door upon entering the house. It is a simple square room, not walled with books like the den of a literary grub, nor merely elegant like the ornamental retreat of a dilettante. The books are arranged upon plain shelves, not in architectural bookcases, and the room is hung with a few choice engravings of the greatest men... It is the study of a scholar'. In here, the local villagers noted, 'he has a huge manuscript book, in which he incessantly records the ends of thoughts, bits of observation and experience, and facts of all kinds, -- a kind of intellectual and scientific rag-bag'.

 3. William Cullen Bryant

'The library occupies the northwest corner... and we need hardly say that of all the house this is the most attractive spot... because it is, par excellence, the haunt of the poet and his friends. Here, by the great table covered with periodicals and literary novelties, with the soft ceaseless music of rustling leaves, and the singing of birds marking the silence sweeter, the summer visitor may fancy himself in the very woods'. In here, the poet could turn 'from the dryest treatise on politics or political economy, to the wildest romance or the most tender poem -- happy in a power of enjoying all that genius has created or industry achieved in literature.' You will be pleased to note that the 'library has not, however, power to keep Mr. Bryant from the fields, in which he seeks health and pleasure a large part of every day that his editorial duties allow him to pass at home.'

[Matthew Shaw]

All images in the public domain, and taken from our copy of Homes of American Authors held at shelfmark 816.e.26. The Cornell University's copy is online via the HathiTrust or via Google Books.

On Putnam & Co., see Ezra Greenspan, George Palmer Putnam: representative American publisher (University Park, PA., 2000)

07 May 2015

Inventing The Great Gatsby

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Careless People (cover)

Above: The cover for Careless People, by Prof. Sarah Churchwell (2013).

[As a prelude to an upcoming Eccles Centre event, Prof. Sarah Churchwell writes for us on 'The Great Gatsby'. You can hear more at her talk, 'Inventing the Great Gatsby: 1922 - 1925' on May 18th]

The Great Gatsby has made countless readers feel as if the Jazz Age were a party to which they have not been invited. Like the party-goers at Gatsby’s revels, the reader of Gatsby is drawn there by word of mouth, looking for glamour and personality, in search of celebrated and interesting people. We want to know F. Scott Fitzgerald, whom we have met through his books: we want to meet his wife, and know whether she was really mad, or destroyed him, or whether he destroyed her. We want to know how much she made herself up, or he made her up, or we've made them both up. Although many literary critics still insist that this impulse is unworthy, a deplorable preference for gossip over art, it is also true that our social personality is a creation of the minds of others, as Proust observed. Scott Fitzgerald understood that better than most, and it is one of the themes of The Great Gatsby. 

Many people respond by throwing their own Gatsby-themed parties, a response with which I sympathize. But because I am an academic (i.e., a professional geek), my idea of throwing a Gatsby party is not to mix a few tasty cocktails and suggest that people put on a pretty dress that approximates one that might have been worn in the 1920s. No, my response is to spend years and years intensively researching what life would have been like in 1922, what Scott Fitzgerald could have known when he was sat down to write the novel, what he guessed—and what he had no way of knowing.

In April 1925, when Gatsby was published, it was a contemporary novel. It had been written in 1924 and set in 1922: so it would work in exact parallel if we imagine a novel published this year, that was written in 2014, and set in 2012. It would be a contemporary novel: we would understand all of its references, without need of translation, explanation, or glossary. The Great Gatsby was certainly a “modern” novel—so modern that its first readers could not see any meanings beyond the ones that were entirely manifest in 1925. Most of these meanings are entirely lost upon us now—but it turns out that they are not entirely lost to us. They are there, waiting to be found, if we’re patient, or dogged, or both. And it is those meanings—the meanings that would have been available to Fitzgerald, and his readers, in 1925—that I set out to recover in researching my book about Gatsby, if I could. The analogy, to my mind, is like trying to do an historically sympathetic renovation of a beautiful old art deco house. Of course you can cover it over with all kinds of layers from other eras, and there are arguments to be made in favor of updating (just as few of us would want to actually live with an historically authentic bathroom from 1925, so few of us would want to return to an historically authentic 1925 attitude toward, for example, anti-Semitism). But there are also arguments to be made in favor of creating something historically sympathetic, and aesthetically consonant, and that’s what I tried to do in the book I eventually wrote, called Careless People.

Gatsby 1925 (CUP406I13)

Above: first pages of the 1925 New York edition of The Great Gatsby [BL:Cup.406.I.13]

One of the unexpected results of this research project was that I came to see much more clearly than I’d ever predicted why The Great Gatsby was not a great critical or commercial success when it was published in 1925; it didn’t flop, but its sales were sluggish, its reviews largely uncomprehending. Along the way I learned a great deal about what New Yorkers in 1922, when Gatsby is set, actually wore (skirts were much longer than we think), what they drank (bathtub gin and bootleg gin are not the same thing), what they danced (not the Charleston), what they listened to, what they ate, even what perfumes were available. (The great French house of Caron produced both Narcisse Blanc and Nuit de Noël in 1922, for example; both are still available for any historical die-hards who do not have to survive on an academic salary.)

Such a critical, and I hope creative, endeavor necessarily raises a series of question about what it might mean to try to recover the past. And as fate would have it, this is the great question asked by the great Gatsby, and by The Great Gatsby. “You can't repeat the past,” Nick Carraway warns Jay Gatsby. “Can't repeat the past?” Gatsby responds, incredulously. “Why of course you can!” And then Fitzgerald adds, with one of the hundreds of touches of mordant humor that pepper the novel, that Gatsby “looked around him wildly, as if the past were lurking here in the shadow of his house, just out of reach of his hand.”

Is the past just out of reach of our hand? For Nick, as for Fitzgerald, this is a facetious remark—and yet the idea that it might be is just the response that the novel has inspired in thousands of readers since Fitzgerald’s death in 1940. But in 1925, as I’ve said, Gatsby was a purely contemporary novel: its ideas about the past were negligible, and its vision of the future was indiscernible, undetectable to jazz-age eyes, as blind as the eyes of Dr. TJ Eckleburg, pointlessly lording it over the ashes of history.

What past we have is an invention. There was a past, and we certainly did not invent it, although other people did; but that past has made its exit and it will not return. Our myths, our legends, our false memories and mistaken historical assumptions, our anachronisms, our egotistical projections of our own values—these are the invented past.

What I discovered is that the hectic absurdity of the past takes us by surprise; we are accustomed to invent only that past that seems useful to us, by and large: rare is the effort to accommodate the present to the past, rather than the other way around. We may not believe that we can repeat the past, but we do tend to believe that we can recover it, although God knows what havoc we would wreak if we found ourselves accidentally grasping it.

Gatsby 1925 cover (CUP406I13)

Above: cover and modern preservation box for the 1925 edition of The Great Gatsby [BL: Cup.406.I.13]

I think most of us expect history to display a certain dignity, as befits its age; but what I learned is that the past is not a venerable old man, an eminence grise: it is an unabashed adolescent, with no understanding or fear of the consequences of its own idiotic behavior. Its carelessness proves, in the end, rather winning, but we should not mistake a survivor’s instinct for sanity.

The history of 1922 reads not like history, but like a rather madcap novel—and that novel is by Scott Fitzgerald, because it was his novel that taught us how to read this story. The sources turn out to have a tremendous story to tell themselves: but we would not know what it was about if Fitzgerald had not told us how to read it in the first place.

Memory is an imaginative reconstruction of the facts. So is history. So is The Great Gatsby. They are not the same things, of course, memory, history, fiction. But they have more in common than we like to think. They’re all a story about the art of exhilaration, about a glittering, gin-drenched, time-drenched world, whether we are dealing with fiction or with history. In either case the theme is the peril and brevity of such vision—that is the theme of Gatsby, and it is the starting point for any serious conversation about it.

[SC]

[Prof. Sarah Churchwell will be speaking about 'The Great Gatsby' at the British Library on May 18th, you can find more information here]

05 March 2015

Pais de maravillas: Cuba on the mind…

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Leonardo Abaroa, Pais De Maravillas (Havana: Ediciones Extramuros, 1992) BL
Shelfmark RF.2015.a.23

 

The recent rapprochement between the United States and Cuba has brought new attention to Cuba, and in particular the challenges for Cuban society under the pressure of the American trade embargo since the fall of the Soviet Union.

The dissolution of the Soviet Union caused massive shortages of fuel, food, medicine and income from exports. Known as the ‘periodo especial,’ or the ‘special period,’ the crisis lasted for most of the 1990s and was a profound and transformative experience. Indeed, contemporary Cuban society cannot be understood without reference to this period. Most Cubans will share stories and pictures of how they survived. Havana’s famous ‘camello’ bus was introduced during the special period, as were the urban organic gardens known as ‘organoponicos.’ Not surprisingly, together with all of the significant socio-structural changes that followed the collapse of the USSR, Cubans’ self-understanding and vision for the future underwent deep re-evaluation. This was evidenced, in among other things, the art and literature produced at the time.

Here at the BL we recently acquired a collection of Cuban poetry and short stories written during the special period, the majority of which received the prestigious Luis Rogelio Nogueras prize.

One of my favourites is the collection of short poems calle Tablero de Ifa by Frank Upierre. The title is a reference to a divination table from the Yoruba based Cuban religion of Santeria.

The author writes, “We all have a legend, a poem, or a song that forms part of our life and, without knowing how, directs us.”

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Frank Upierre, Tablero de Ifa  (Havana: Ediciones Extramuros, 1994) BL shelfmark RF.2015.a.16

The poems are full of metaphors drawn from the natural world, water, rain, dust, and stars, as well as the pilgrim and the traveller. They explore the constant tension between the permanent and the ephemeral, the spiritual and the material, history and the future. Reading them now in 2015 they leave me with both an awe inspired and eerie feeling. They reveal both the soul searching and the hardship of Cuban society, as well as its strength and it momentum.

[B.C.]