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12 posts from October 2012

30 October 2012

Post the Post-Tropical Storm


Apple Store in Philadelphia
An electronics the morning after Hurricane Sandy. Thankfully the sandbags were unnecessary. Photo: M. Shaw

Thankfully my fellow Fellows' predictions didn't come to pass, and we kept power during the storm (although some in south Philly lost theirs).  The cops came out to check some jerry cans left in a truck opposite the repository of some of the nation's most precious books and manuscripts, but deemed them safe.  A chunk of metal got blown down from somewhere, and then clattered about the street for the night.  The merlot was disappointing.  But, that, thankfully was it.  We were lucky.

It was another story for pretty much everything east of the Delaware (and, indeed, elsewhere). You will have seen the reports from New York that look like a slide from an Al Gore presentation.  Several million are still without power.  People have died.  The governor of New Jersey has proposed delaying Halloween, and absentee ballots have been extended in several of the worst-hit counties.  Long Island will have some tales as bad as 1938, if not worse.

Twitter, I think, told the most telling story, as the snark drained from people's timelines as news from the several feeds reporting on police scanners spread across the internet (the NYTimes's David Carr called it right).  Earnest debunking of rumours and hoaxes (a shark in New Jersey, anyone?), along with expressions of concern, verified reports, and official updates instead filled up the timeline.  Usually active friends and colleagues fell silent as power outages, server fails and iPhone batteries drained.  They'll be back soon enough; that's the American way, as politicians and governors have been keen to say.  And they are right.

Here's just one tweet from the night. I like the screen grab. 

And, the last word from Joshua Lyman.  

29 October 2012

A Philadelphia Tempest: Hurricane Sandy

I am currently appreciating such mod-cons as a fully-charged laptop, wi-fi, and a coffee machine.  My fellow-residents at the Library Company's Cassatt House suggest we will not have these for long, as Hurricane Sandy, the apparently officially-named 'Frankenstorm' is making landfall on the New Jersey coast as I type, and is likely to unleash hell on PECO's electricity-supply capability.  I hope they are wrong, but if not, I have a flashlight, a pile of paperbacks, two bottles of wine and some cheese.  

The weather and popular news channels have been overjoyed with the turn of events, and have gone to town with 'Storm Watch'-style graphics and bulletins.  It makes for great TV, and even better, appears to be a break from the election, which seems to have thoroughly bored everyone, the president included.  However, it does make it hard to work out what is really going on, as I assume it's not really the apocalypse, just in time for Halloween (and we've heard little about the hurricane in Haiti or Cuba).  It's no-doubt very serious, and already miserable for the residents of Atlantic City, and, as one wag put it, a host of small towns mentioned in Bruce Springsteen songs.

The political fallout is hard to judge.  The incumbent can look presidential, and gets some free screen time, but political scientists suggest that voters tend to punish POTUS for 'Acts of God'; in contrast, gubernatorial incumbents gain voter support.  Some mileage has been made out of Romney's focus on small government and comments about downsizing FEMA, the federal emergency agency.  In contrast, there is something about standing on one's own two feet and looking after one's own that speaks to Mitt's narrative about America.  The Atlantic offers a good overview.  (Pennsylvania, incidentally, is a swing state.)

Meanwhile, thanks to the aftermath of Hurrican Katrina, it is federally mandated to allow pets into hurricane shelters.  As Carole commented, Toto would be pleased.

More, I hope, to follow tomorrow.


25 October 2012

Lions and Pink Slips

I am in Philadelphia at the moment, spending four weeks at The Library Company thanks to a short-term fellowship.  While I'm here, I'll try and post the occasional update, partly about Philadelphia and the U.S. (it is election month, after all) and also about some of the research I'm doing on the production and consumption of early American newspapers.

There are a number of Fellows here at the same time, and the Library has a very sensible tradition of a regular seminar in which we present our programme of work. I heard about a fascinating project to follow how the image of Confucius was spread and shaped in the Antebellum period, and spent twenty minutes talking through my own project.  However, I couldn't help but have my attention drawn to something that was starting me in the face in the bookshelf on the left: a golden lion's face.

This was the famous 'Lion's Mouth' suggestion box, introduced by Benjamin Franklin as one of the founders of the Library in about 1750.  You can see a picture of it here.  The text reads, 



To deposit in the 

Lion's Mouth



As they may wish to have


I am rather jealous of this.  At the British Library, we welcome suggestions for acquistions (from Gentlewomen as well as Gentlemen), but by the far more prosaic method of an email to or via the Reading Rooms' 'pink slips' as they are known.  I hereby start a campaign for the St Pancras equivalent of the Lion's Mouth.  But what creature would be suitable for our own reading room?

Suggestions below, or Tweet them to @_Americas.



24 October 2012

Typing - and Retyping On the Road

 In Matt’s last blog Film and On the Road, he referenced Truman Capote’s quote (often misquoted),'That's not writing. That's typewriting.'  At the time, a dim memory surfaced in my foggy brain, only to disappear again almost immediately. But it reappeared at the weekend, when a friend and I were browsing in the wonderful bookshop at the Whitechapel Gallery. My friend suddenly waved in front of me a copy of Kenneth Goldsmith’s Uncreative Writing: managing language in the digital age. And then I remembered – Goldsmith includes a piece in the book entitled ‘Retyping On the Road.’ He talks of meeting some students who had been given assignments to write a piece in the style of their favourite author. One had chosen Kerouac and complained at how meaningless the exercise had seemed. Goldsmith thought she would have been better off going on her own road trip, - but then came to a another conclusion. He recalled often seeing art students engaged in copying old masters – and wondered if such ‘copying’ could be applied to literature, quoting from Walter Benjamin’s Reflections ‘the power of the text is different when it is read from when it is copied out.’ Perhaps the student could retype some (or even better, all) of On the Road, and she might thereby succeed in getting ‘inside the text.'

The British artist Simon Morris came across Goldsmith’s suggestion and decided to carry it out. Using the scroll edition of On the Road, he began to retype one page a day from the book on his blog Getting Inside Jack Kerouac's Head. He began on May 31, 2008 with that first sentence ‘I first met Neal not long after my father died,’ (of course, I immediately wondered why he had omitted the second met – it should be 'I first met met Neal'), and continued to the end of the page (ending in mid sentence), then continued the next day with the next page and so on. Every day he would spend c.20 minutes typing a page, finally completing his task in March 2009. Morris says that he would proofread each page, checking for mistakes (so how did he miss that met met?). Having never read the book before, he describes it as ‘the most thrilling read/ride of my life,’ and talks of the insights he gained into Kerouac’s writing. Goldsmith picks up on the fact that Morris found himself accidentally adding his own words – as Kerouac’s ‘shorthand’ allows the reader to complete sentences in their heads. Morris would then delete his own additions in the checking process, but acknowledges that he might have missed some. Goldsmith suggests that Morris’s appropriation of the text ‘need not be a mere passing along of information,’ but something more creative which could lead to ‘producing different versions and additions – remixes even- of an existing text.’  Appropriation and re-purposing are of course recurring themes in Goldsmith’s writing – often controversial but always challenging and thought-provoking (see for example, his piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education).

The web was the perfect conduit for Morris’s performative project – predigital it would have been an altogether different proposition. So the rather surprising culmination to the project was the publication – in print – of Morris’s Getting Inside of Jack Kerouac’s Head. The book mimics almost exactly the design and typography of the Penguin edition of On the Road (google it), and includes Morris's blog, but commences with the last blog and works backwards. As Goldsmith comments, ‘it was jarring to see a blog-driven project reborn as print.’ For me, it's a step too far - the blog I get, but not the book.

So has the project been a success for Morris? ‘One would hope for some truly profound response but really there is none. I don’t feel anything at all. A bit like Jack Kerouac’s own journey on the road and into himself in search of something he never really finds…… all I can really say with any certainty is I’ve never spent such a long time with a book or thought about any book as much.'

For those of you wishing to engage with Kerouac's own typing, the On the Road scroll is on display at the Library until December 27.



22 October 2012

A History of Conflict: Québec City and War

Recollect Friars Church after the Siege of Quebec
Damage to the Recollect Friars' Church after the Siege of Québec [K.Top 119.30.a]

On Wednesday 24 October we're hosting a talk about a perhaps less well-known part of the American Civil War: the effect of the conflict on French Canada. As usual, this made me think about relevant materials we hold in the collections and the view of Québec history they give us.

Even at a cursory glance the materials held at the Library illustrate that Québec is a city which has been fought over many times in its history and which has been strategically and geopolitically important from the 17th through to the 19th century. This is borne out by materials documenting various British attacks on the city, not least the significant amount of material relating to the 1759 siege of Quebec. Of particular note is the topographical collection of King George III, which contains many items documenting the city (including the above), which was captured by the British the year before George III came to the throne.

Red Line Map (1775)
Mitchell’s ‘Red-Lined Map’ [K.Top 118.49.b]

Past this point Québec features in conflicts between Britain and the United States, most notably in the American Revolution, when an American force marched on and laid siege to the city. The failure of this gambit can be argued to have had significant repercussions for the war and the future of North America, and some of this can be seen through the Library’s collections, for example the Red-Lined Map, which served as a benchmark for British negotiators at the Treaty of Paris.

These are two examples of an extensive collection and long history with too much nuance to sufficiently furnish here. For more on French Canada’s (this time less direct) role in North American conflicts, come along to our event on Wednesday night.


18 October 2012

The Sense of Hemingway's Endings

A Farewell to Arms

The new edition of A Farewell to Arms published this October 2012 by William Heinemann with the original cover from 1929.

I have been luxuriating this week in a handsome new edition of Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms. The book comes replete with cut chapters, new endings and a handful of frankly awful possible titles under Hemingway's heading ‘Shitty Titles’ – ‘Carnal Education’ being one of the bluer offerings. 

The real pleasure in reading all of these new endings, all forty seven of them, is that it shows the author gradually whittling his writing down to the essential material. He submerges these drafts in the final publication so that the reader can only see the ‘top’ of the story. It’s his iceberg principle at work. 

In earlier drafts, for example, the author plots Henry’s solitary walk home; the sorrowful night-light still on from the start of Catherine's contractions a day ago; the difficulty of burial in a foreign country. In the final version, however, Hemingway lops off the lament and cuts to the final sentence: ‘After a while I went out and left the hospital and walked back to the hotel in the rain.’ The reader is left on the brink of Henry’s loss. For me, the experience is all the richer because our imagination fills in what Hemingway has left out. 

'A writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing', Hemingway wrote in Death in the Afternoon. The ending of A Farewell to Arms is so far from being a hollow spot precisely because of these early drafts: Hemingway knew exactly where Henry was going that night. Underneath the declarative style is the roiling undercurrent of Henry’s grief.  

For all that we think of Hemingway as a master of the minimalist tradition, he was a consummate editor of his own work. He often read all of his material back first and then picked up where he left off the day before. The extra material shows how hard he worked to get at his precise style.  

In writing A Farewell to Arms, 'he worked like hell and through it' - so said Dorothy Parker - even changing the ending from what had been serialized in Scribners' magazine to the first edition of the book proper. (Although some critics suggest he did this so that customers would buy both magazine and book – characteristic Hemingway canniness when it came to increasing his bottom line.)

Unlike his posthumous work, where scholars still argue about self-interested editing (his fourth wife edited A Moveable Feast) and savage cuts (almost two thirds was left out from The Garden of Eden in its final publication), we know Hemingway did eventually settle on the designated ending back in 1929.

The alternative endings in A Farewell to Arms give readers an opportunity to see the work evolve, without really threatening the final text. One can happily read The Sun Also Rises without knowing the original beginning that Fitzgerald recommended cutting, just as one can happily read A Farewell to Arms without knowing Hemingway, at one time, considered keeping the baby alive. In not one of the drafts does Catherine live. Regardless of how much he changed his plots, it seems that she was always intended for the chop. 

Naomi Wood is one of the Eccles Centre Writers in Residence. She is currently working on her second novel, Mrs Hemingway which will be published by Picador in 2014. 

12 October 2012

Film and On the Road

Truman Capote famously dismissed Jack Kerouac's On the Road in two pithy – and rather tart – lines, 'That's not writing.  That's typewriting'.  (The quotation was later often boiled down to 'that's not writing, that's typing'; a subtly different set of words.  Neither epigram would look good as a blurb.)

Capote, of course, had the honour of having several of his books and stories turned into films and TV shows (indeed, two films inspired by the writing of In Cold Blood were released in the same twelve months).  And, as George Costanza could tell you, a book can be much more easily digested in video form, particularly if you join a bookclub to impress your girlfriend ('If it's not about sports, I find it very hard to concentrate!').  The novella that George was trying to get through – and even fails to watch to the end because he spills grapejuice over the couch and has to flee the appartment – was, of course, Capote's Breakfast at Tiffany's.

The film of Breakfast at Tiffany's, as George failed to notice, takes certain liberties with Capote's typed text.  As Time magazine noted, 'for the first half hour or so, Hollywood's Holly (Audrey Hepburn) is not much different from Capote's. She has kicked the weed and lost the illegitimate child she was having, but she is still jolly Holly, the child bride from Tulip, Texas, who at 15 runs away to Hollywood to find some of the finer things of life—like shoes... after that out-of-Capote beginning, Director Blake Edwards goes on to an out-of-character end'.  The film is also set in the 1960s, rather than the more austere 1940s. 

In contrast, Walter Salles' adaptation of On the Road is pretty authentic, cutting things out of necessity here and there; combining bits of the published novel with the unpublished scroll (such as the reinsertion of the death of Jack/Sal's father at the start of the film, replacing the split with his wife that opens the novel, and by so-doing, emphasising the sense of loss and spiritual search of the novel), and bringing in other bits and pieces (such as Joan Vollmer's marital advice, which is discussed in Ted Morgan's biography of William Burroughs); the scroll itself (which, need I remind you, is on display in the British Library at St Pancras, London until 27 December), makes a brilliant appearance towards the end of the movie.  Indeed, at the previewing screening at the Library this week, members of the audience let out a yelp of delight at this point.  (And, unlike Carole and I, you probably won't be jarred by the Sal/Jacks' correct typing of 'I first met Neal' rather than 'I first met met Neal' or the crisp whiteness of the paper.)  Like the reception of Breakfast at Tiffany's, a lot of critics and viewers have commented on the casting (The New York Times found Hepburn as 'implausible as ever', Capote thought the studio had double-crossed him, and wanted Marilyn Monroe all along), particularly Garrett Hedlund as Dean and Kristen Stewart as MaryLou.  For me, both were more than fine, but Tom Sturridge almost stole it as Carlo Marx/Allen Ginsberg, and has the best 'beat' moments.  Salles also does a good job at drawing out the female characters' roles, something that readers of the book often find troubling, and also in following the structure of the book, which places Denver as the heart of the narrative structure.

I'm not sure what George would make of it; he may find two hours a little long, given his need to visit the bathroom.  And, taking into account his unease with bookclubs, he might resort to a line suggested by a friend of mine, 'that's not filming, that's CCTV', but, that would be wrong of him.  It's a very artful film (with I expect a future nomination for the cinematography by Éric Gautier).  If anything, it's overly true to the book, which does not really make for comfortable viewing or reading; a view nicely summed up in this review by The Scotsman.


09 October 2012

Three weeks, fuelled by coffee: Jack Kerouac's On the Road scroll

So did Kerouac really write the scroll in 3 weeks? Well, the answer is both yes - and no. And that’s not a cop out – it’s really quite complicated!

I don’t think there’s any doubt that the scroll was indeed typed over 3 weeks in April 1951. But did Kerouac just sit down at the typewriter and the story suddenly came to him? No, definitely not. He’d had the idea for a road novel for a long time – years, from his own first solitary road trip in July 1947 in fact. In a journal entry from August 1948 he wrote, “I have another novel in mind – ‘On the Road’ – which I keep thinking about: - about two guys hitch-hiking to California in search of something they don’t really find, and losing themselves on the road, and coming all the way back hopeful of something else. Also, I’m finding a new principle of writing.” The last sentence is particularly significant, referring to Kerouac’s desire to find his ‘own voice,’ to get away from the standard prose of his first novel The Town and the City, and to find a new, more immediate and authentic way of expressing experience – the style that was to become known as ‘spontaneous prose.’

As early as autumn 1948 Kerouac had completed the first draft of a road novel he later referred to as ‘Ray Smith,’ (a name he subsequently gave to the narrator of Dharma Bums, - a character based on himself). And this is just one of numerous road drafts of varying lengths that can be found in Kerouac’s archive at the New York Public Library. Elements of some of those drafts would eventually become part of On the Road, whilst others ended up in other novels (e.g. Pic).

Kerouac’s journals covering 1949/50 document his later road trip with Neal Cassady, Luanne Henderson and Al Hinkle, and demonstrate how he was constantly writing about what he was seeing and feeling. In fact, one of the things that struck me when I started reading about Kerouac is that anyone who knew him would inevitably say at some point that he was always writing, - always scribbling in notebooks and journals (if you check out some of the images of him in the exhibition, you will spot notebooks poking out of his pockets). Not only was he a very disciplined writer, but he was also very methodical – the perfect self archivist in fact. And the writing of drafts and notes was clearly an essential part of the creative process for Kerouac – his way of exploring both himself and his friends.

Something else that also always pops up when you read about Kerouac is that everyone remarks on the fact that he had a phenomenal memory. And that’s the final point to add before going back to that Chelsea apartment in April 1951. So, various drafts, chapter outlines, ‘cast of characters’ already exist, Kerouac is sitting at the typewriter with his coffee (and ok, maybe Benzhedrine too), and, in a truly extraordinary burst of creativity, everything comes exploding out of his head on to that scroll over the next 3 weeks.

Many more drafts were to follow of course, and the title of the novel would also go through many variations, including, for example, The Beat Generation (in 1955/56), but it would return to On the Road at the insistence of Viking’s editor, Matthew Cowley.

And that’s the short version. If you want to read more on the complex story of all the pre and post scroll drafts, I would recommend Isaac Gewirtz’s excellent (and beautifully written) Beatific Soul: Jack Kerouac On the Road, which was published to accompany the exhibition of the same title at New York Public library in 2007.

On the Road: Jack Kerouac's manuscript scroll is on at the British Library until 27 December.


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