American Writers, Supplement XX

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American Writers, Supplement XX

SUPPLEMENT XX Mary Antin to Phillis Wheatley American Writers A Collection of Literary Biographies JAY PARINI Editor i

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SUPPLEMENT XX Mary Antin to Phillis Wheatley

American Writers A Collection of Literary Biographies JAY PARINI Editor in Chief

SUPPLEMENT XX Mary Antin to Phillis Wheatley

American Writers Supplement XX Editor in Chief: Jay Parini Project Editor: Lisa Kumar Permissions: Sari Gordon, Tracie Richardson, Jhanay Williams Composition and Electronic Capture: Gary Leach Manufacturing: Cynde Lentz Publisher: Jim Draper Product Manager: Janet Witalec © 2010 Charles Scribner’s Sons, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. No part of this work covered by the copyright herein may be reproduced, transmitted, stored, or used in any form or by any means graphic, electronic, or mechanical, including but not limited to photocopying, recording, scanning, digitizing, taping, Web distribution, information networks, or information storage and retrieval systems, except as permitted under Section 107 or 108 of the 1976 United States Copyright Act, without the prior written permission of the publisher. This publication is a creative work fully protected by all applicable copyright laws, as well as by misappropriation, trade secret, unfair competition, and other applicable laws. The authors and editors of this work have added value to the underlying factual material herein through one or more of the following: unique and original selection, coordination, expression, arrangement, and classification of the information.

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LIBRARY OF CONGRESS CATALOGING-IN-PUBLICATION DATA American writers: a collection of literary biographies / Leonard Unger, editor in chief. p. cm. The 4-vol. main set consists of 97 of the pamphlets originally published as the University of Minnesota pamphlets on American writers; some have been rev. and updated. The supplements cover writers not included in the original series. Supplement 2, has editor in chief, A. Walton Litz; Retrospective suppl. 1, c1998, was edited by A. Walton Litz & Molly Weigel; Suppl. 5–7 have as editor-in-chief, Jay Parini. Includes bibliographies and index. Contents: v. 1. Henry Adams to T.S. Eliot — v. 2. Ralph Waldo Emerson to Carson McCullers — v. 3. Archibald MacLeish to George Santayana — v. 4. Isaac Bashevis Singer to Richard Wright — Supplement\[s\]: 1, pt. 1. Jane Addams to Sidney Lanier. 1, pt. 2. Vachel Lindsay to Elinor Wylie. 2, pt. 1. W.H. Auden to O. Henry. 2, pt. 2. Robinson Jeffers to Yvor Winters. — 4, pt. 1. Maya Angelou to Linda Hogan. 4, pt. 2. Susan Howe to Gore Vidal — Suppl. 5. Russell Banks to Charles Wright — Suppl. 6. Don DeLillo to W. D. Snodgrass — Suppl. 7. Julia Alvarez to Tobias Wolff — Suppl. 8. T.C. Boyle to August Wilson. — Suppl. 11 Toni Cade Bambara to Richard Yates. ISBN 0-684-19785-5 (set) — ISBN 0-684-13662-7 1. American literature—History and criticism. 2. American literature—Bio-bibliography. 3. Authors, American—Biography. I. Unger, Leonard. II. Litz, A. Walton. III. Weigel, Molly. IV. Parini, Jay. V. University of Minnesota pamphlets on American writers. PS129 .A55 810’.9 \[B\]

ISBN-13: 978-1-4144-3892-4 ISBN-10: 1-4144-3892-3 Gale 27500 Drake Rd. Farmington Hills, MI, 48331-3535

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Acknowledgment is gratefully made to those publishers and individuals who permitted the use of the following material in copyright. Every effort has been made to secure permission to reprint copyrighted material.

Knopf, 1931. Copyright 1931 by Kahlil Gibran and renewed 1959 by the Administratrix C.T.A. of Kahlil Gibran Estate and Mary K. Gibran. Used by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc.

BOYLE, T. C. Boyle, T. Coraghessan. From Water Music. Penguin Books, 2006. Copyright © T. Coraghessan Boyle, 1980, 1981. All rights reserved. Used by permission of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

LAMOTT, ANNE. Auden, W.H. From “As I Walked Out One Evening,” in Collected Poems. Edited by Edward Mendelson. Random House, 1940. Copyright 1940 & Renewed 1968 by W.H. Auden. Used by permission of Random House, Inc., and Faber and Faber Ltd. / Publishers Weekly, v. 240, May 31, 1993. Copyright © 1993 by Reed Publishing USA. Reproduced from Publishers Weekly, published by the Bowker Magazine Group of Cahners Publishing Co., a division of Reed Publishing USA, by permission. / Christianity Today, v. 47, January, 2003 for “Jesusy” Anne Lamott: Chatting with a Born-again Paradox” by Agnieszka Tennant. © 2003 by Christianity Today, Inc. Reproduced by permission of the author.

DI DONATO, PIETRO. The Commonweal, v. 72, August 19, 1960. Copyright, 1960, renewed © 1988 by Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc. Reproduced by permission of Commonweal Foundation. / The Commonweal, v. 76, July 13, 1962. Copyright 1962, renewed © 1990 by Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc. Reproduced by permission of Commonweal Foundation. / Melus, v. 14, fall-winter, 1987. Copyright MELUS: The Society for the Study of Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States, 1987. Reproduced by permission.

MILLER, JIM WAYNE. Miller, Jim Wayne. From Copperhead Cane. Robert Moore Allen, 1964. Copyright © 1964 by Robert Moore Allen. Reproduced by permission of the Literary Estate of Jim Wayne Miller, Executor, Mary Ellen Miller. / Miller, Jim Wayne. “Burning Tobacco Beds,” From Copperhead Cane. Robert Moore Allen, 1964. Copyright © 1964 by Robert Moore Allen. Reproduced by permission of the Literary Estate of Jim Wayne Miller, executor, Mary Ellen Miller. / Miller, Jim Wayne From The More Things Change The More They Stay The Same. Whippoorwill Press, 1971. Reproduced by permission. / Miller, Jim Wayne. From Dialogue With A Dead Man. University of Georgia Press, 1974. Copyright © 1974 by the University of Georgia Press. All rights reserved. Reproduced by permission of the Literary Estate of Jim Wayne Miller, executor, Mary Ellen Miller. / Miller, Jim Wayne. From The Figure of Fulfillment: Translations from the Poetry of Emil Lerperger. Green River Press, 1975. Copyright © 1975 by the Green River Press, Inc. All rights reserved. Reproduced by permission of the Literary Estate of Jim Wayne Miller, executor, Mary Ellen Miller. / Jim Wayne Miller, “The Faith of Fisherman,” in The Brier Poems, Gnomon Press, 1997, Copyright © 1997 The Estate of Jim Wayne Miller. Reproduced by permission of Gnomon Press. / The Iron Mountain Review, v. IV, spring, 1988 for “A Variegated Thread” by Maxine Kumin. (Article was reprinted in The Iron Mountain Review with the permission of Maxine Kumin and The Writer, July 1963.) Reproduced by permission of the author. / From “Jim Wayne Miller,” in Contemporary Author Autobiography Series. Edited by Joyce Nakamura. Gale Research Inc., 1992. Copyright © 1992 Gale Research Inc. Reproduced by permission of Gale, a part of Cengage Learning. / Miller, Jim W. From The Mountains Have Come Closer. The Brier Poems, Gnomon Press, 1997. Copyright

FRANK, WALDO. Ernest M. Hemingway, “The Soul of Spain with McAlmon and Bird the Publishers,” Representative Poetry Online, 2009. Taken from: Complete Poems, edited by Nicholas Gerogiannis, revised edition (Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1992): p. 70. Originally published as Ernest Henimngway: 88 Poems, published by arrangement with Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc. © 1992 Printed with permission of The Ernest Hemingway Foundation. FRANZEN, JONATHAN. St. Louis Post-Dispatch, August 28, 1988. Reprinted with permission of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, copyright 1988. / Vogue, September, 1988. Copyright © 1988 by the author. All rights reserved. Reproduced by permission. / The New York Times, September 4, 2001. © 2001 The New York Times. All rights reserved. Used by permission and protected by the Copyright Laws of the United States. The printing, copying, redistribution, or retransmission of the Material without express written permission is prohibited. / Newsweek, September 17, 2001. Copyright © 2001 Newsweek, Inc. All rights reserved. Reproduced by permission. / The Writer, v. 115, February, 2002 for “How I Write” by Jonathan Franzen. Copyright © 2002 Kalmbach Publishing Company. Reproduced by permission of the author. GIBRAN, KHALIL. Gibran, Kahlil. From Sand and Foam. A.A. Knopf, 1926. Copyright 1926 by Kahlil Gibran and renewed 1954 by Administrators C.T.A. of Kahlil Gibran Estate and Mary G. Gibran. Used by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. / Gibran, Kahlil. From The Earth Gods. A.A.


vi / American Writers © 1997 The Estate of Jim Wayne Miller. Reproduced by permission of Gnomon Press. MIRVIS, TOVA. Jill S. Jacobs, “Wandering a Long Way From Home,”, 2003. Reproduced with permission from The AVI CHAI Foundation. / Mirvis, Tova. From “Writing Between Worlds,” in Who We Are: On Being (and Not Being) a Jewish American Writer. Edited by Derek Rubin. Schocken Books, 2005. Copyright © 2005 by Derek Rubin. All rights reserved. Reproduced by permission of Random House, Inc. / Sara Ivry, “Stranger to Fiction,” Tablet, February 2, 2005. Reproduced by permission. / Tova Mirvis, “The Scarlet Letter Aelph,”, 2007. Reproduced by permission. / Caroline Leavitt, “An Unorthodox Novel,”, 2007. Reproduced by permission of the author. SKLOOT, FLOYD. Skloot, Floyd. From Music Appreciation. University Press of Florida, 1994. Copyright © 1994 by the Board of Regents of the State of Florida. All rights reserved. Reprinted courtesy of the University Press of Florida. / Skloot, Floyd. From The Evening Light. Story Line Press, 2001. Copyright © 2001 by Floyd Skloot. All rights reserved. Reproduced by permission. / Skloot, Floyd. From The Fiddler’s Trance. Bucknell University Press, 2001. Copyright © 2001 by Rosemont Publishing and Printing Corp. All rights reserved. Reproduced by permission. / Skloot, Floyd. From Approximately Paradise. Tupelo Press, 2005. Copyright © 2005 Floyd Skloot. All rights reserved. Reproduced by permission. / Skloot, Floyd. From The End of Dreams. Louisiana State University Press, 2006. Copyright © 2006 by Floyd Skloot. All rights reserved. Reproduced by permission. / Skloot, Floyd. From Snow’s Music. Louisiana State University Press, 2008. Copyright © 2008 by Louisiana State University Press. All rights reserved. Reproduced by permission. STRATTON-PORTER, GENE. Porter Meehan, Jeannette. From The Lady of the Limberlost: The Life and Letters of Gene StrattonPorter. Doubleday, Doran & Company, Inc., 1928. Copyright © 1928 by Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc. Renewed 1955 by Jeannette Porter Meehan. / Cooper, Frederic T. From “The Popularity of Gene Stratton-Porter,” in Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism. Edited by Dennis Poupard. Gale Research, 1986. Copyright © 1986 by Gale Publishing. Reproduced by permission of Gale, a part of Cengage Learning. / Birkelo, Cheryl. From “The Harvester and the Natural Bounty of Gene StrattonPorter,” in Such News of the Land: U.S. Women Nature Writers. Edited by Thomas S. Edwards and Elizabeth A. De Wolfe. University Press of New England, 2001. © University Press of New England, Lebanon, NH. Reprinted with permission. / Phillips, Anne K. From “Of Epiphanies and Poets: Gene StrattonPorter’s Domestic Transcendentalism,” in Children’s Literature Review. Edited by Scot Peacock. Gale Research, 2003. Copyright © 2003 by Gale Publishing. Reproduced by permission of Gale, a part of Cengage Learning. / Obuchowski, Mary D. From “Gene Stratton-Porter: Women’s Advocate,” in Children’s Literature Review. Edited by Scot Peacock. Gale Research, 2003. Copyright © 2003 by Gale Publishing. Reproduced by permission of Gale, a part of Cengage Learning. URIS, LEON. New York Times, March 14, 1976. Copyright © 1976 by The New York Times Company. Reprinted with permis-

sion. / The Jewish Quarterly Review, v. 94, fall, 2004. Copyright © 2004 University of Pennsylvania Press. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission of the University of Pennsylvania Press. WHEATLEY, PHILLIS. Wheatley, Phillis. From “To the Right Honourable William, Earl of Dartmouth, His Majesty’s Principle Secretary of State for North America,” in The Collected Works of Phillis Wheatley. Edited by John C. Shields. Oxford University Press, 1988. Copyright © 1988 by Oxford University Press, Inc. All rights reserved. Reproduced by permission of Oxford University Press, Inc. / Wheatley, Phillis. From “On Messrs. Hussey and Coffin,” in The Collected Works of Phillis Wheatley. Edited by John C. Shields. Oxford University Press, 1988. Copyright © 1988 by Oxford University Press, Inc. All rights reserved. Reproduced by permission of Oxford University Press, Inc. / Wheatley, Phillis. From “On Being Brought from Africa to America,” in The Collected Works of Phillis Wheatley. Edited by John C. Shields. Oxford University Press, 1988. Copyright © 1988 by Oxford University Press, Inc. All rights reserved. Reproduced by permission of Oxford University Press, Inc. / Wheatley, Phillis. From “Letter to Abour Tanner in Newport,” in The Collected Works of Phillis Wheatley. Edited by John C. Shields. Oxford University Press, 1988. Copyright © 1988 by Oxford University Press, Inc. All rights reserved. Reproduced by permission of Oxford University Press, Inc. / Wheatley, Phillis. From “On the Death of the Rev. Mr. George Whitefield,” in The Collected Works of Phillis Wheatley. Edited by John C. Shields. Oxford University Press, 1988. Copyright © 1988 by Oxford University Press, Inc. All rights reserved. Reproduced by permission of Oxford University Press, Inc. / Wheatley, Phillis. From “Various Subjects,” in The Collected Works of Phillis Wheatley. Edited by John C. Shields. Oxford University Press, 1988. Copyright © 1988 by Oxford University Press, Inc. All rights reserved. Reproduced by permission of Oxford University Press, Inc. / Wheatley, Phillis. From “To the Publick,” in The Collected Works of Phillis Wheatley. Edited by John C. Shields. Oxford University Press, 1988. Copyright © 1988 by Oxford University Press, Inc. All rights reserved. Reproduced by permission of Oxford University Press, Inc. / Wheatley, Phillis. From “On the Death of General Wooster,” in The Collected Works of Phillis Wheatley. Edited by John C. Shields. Oxford University Press, 1988. Copyright © 1988 by Oxford University Press, Inc. All rights reserved. Reproduced by permission of Oxford University Press, Inc. / Wheatley, Phillis. From “Letter to Rev. Samuel Occom,” in The Collected Works of Phillis Wheatley. Edited by John C. Shields. Oxford University Press, 1988. Copyright © 1988 by Oxford University Press, Inc. All rights reserved. Reproduced by permission of Oxford University Press, Inc. / Wheatley, Phillis. From “Letter to Sir David Wooster,” in The Collected Works of Phillis Wheatley. Edited by John C. Shields. Oxford University Press, 1988. Copyright © 1988 by Oxford University Press, Inc. All rights reserved. Reproduced by permission of Oxford University Press, Inc.

List of Subjects



List of Contributors























WALDO FRANK Kathleen Pfeiffer


LEON URIS Jack Fischel






HENRY LOUIS GATES, JR. S. Bailey Shurbutt



Cumulative Index


Authors List


KAHLIL GIBRAN Christopher Buck


ANNE LAMOTT Pegge Bochynski




When he was in Stockholm to receive his Nobel Prize for Literature, John Steinbeck told an audience of eager listeners: “The writer is delegated to declare and to celebrate man’s proven capacity for greatness of heart and spirit—for gallantry in defeat—for courage, compassion and love. In the endless war against weakness and despair, these are the bright rallyflags of hope and of emulation.” Indeed, the writers who matter to us look to find and celebrate this greatness of heart and spirit that Steinbeck mentioned here, whether they should be novelists, poets, playwrights, critics, or memoirists. In this twentieth volume of American Writers, we offer articles on American writers who choose a wide variety of genres; they are all accomplished figures who have displayed many of the virtues that Steinbeck notes above, yet none of them has yet been featured in this series before. Readers who wish to look more thoroughly into the work of these writers will find many things here to interest them: biographical and historical context, close readings of major texts, and supplementary material designed to enhance the reading of the individual subject and his or her work. This series itself had its beginnings in a series of critical and biographical monographs that appeared between 1959 and 1972. The Minnesota Pamphlets on American Writers achieved considerable fame in their days; they were incisively written and informative, treating ninety-seven American writers in a format and style that attracted a devoted following of readers. The series proved invaluable to a generation of students and teachers, who could depend on these reliable and interesting critiques of major figures. The idea of reprinting these essays occurred to Charles Scribner, Jr. (1921–

1995). The series appeared in four volumes entitled American Writers: A Collection of Literary Biographies (1974). Since then, twenty supplements have appeared, treating hundreds of well-known and less known American writers: poets, novelists, playwrights, essayists and autobiographers, literary critics. The idea has been consistent with the original series: to provide informative essays aimed at the general reader. These essays often rise to a high level of craft and critical vision, but they are meant to introduce a body of work of some importance in the history of American literature, and to provide a sense of the scope and nature of the career under review. Each article puts the writer in the context of his or her time. Our critics here have published books and articles in their field, and anyone glancing through this volume might pause to admire the good writing and sound scholarship. Every attempt has been made to see that this work meets the highest standards of critical acumen and factual accuracy. The articles describe the shape of a career, in detail, and each concludes with a select bibliography intended to direct the reading of those may wish to pursue the subject. Supplement XX treats a range of authors from the past and present. Phillis Wheatley—a major poet from the eighteenth century—has for whatever reason been overlooked thus far, and it is good that we could include an essay on her in this volume. Most of the writers included here are from the twentieth century, although Mary Antin, Waldo Frank, Khalil Gibran, Gene Stratton-Porter, and Howard Overing Sturgis were certainly born in the nineteenth, although there working lives extended well into the twentieth. The rest of our subjects—T.C. Boyle,


x / American Writers Timothy Findley, Jonathan Franzen, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Anne Lamott, Reginald McKnight, Jim Wayne Miller, Tova Mirvis, Floyd Skloot, Leon Uris, and Patricia Nell Warren— were all born in the twentieth, and most of them continue to produce books today. While they have been written about in journals and newspapers, few of them have had the kind of sustained critical attention they deserve, and we hope to provide a beginning here. The writers here certainly represent a range of backgrounds and critical approaches, though we insisted that each essay should be accessible to the non-specialist reader or beginning student;

that is, we did not allow the kind of critical jargon that is so prevalent in the criticism in our time. One could argue that the creation of culture involves the continuous reassessment of major texts, and my belief is that this collection of critical articles performs a healthy service here, offering substantial introductions to American writers who have found a sympathetic readership because of the high quality of their productions, their attempts to aim high, sticking to the high ideals mentioned by John Steinbeck above.



Terry Barr. Terry Barr holds a Ph.D in English from the University of Tennessee–Knoxville, and has taught courses in Holocaust Literature and Southern Jewish Literature. He has taught Modern Literature and Film Studies at Presbyterian College, in Clinton, SC, for the past 23 years. His essays have been published in Studies in American Culture, The Journal of Popular Film and TV, the American Literary Review, and in Half-Life: Jew-ishy Tales from Interfaith Homes. TOVA MIRVIS

Nancy Bunge. Nancy Bunge, a professor at Michigan State University, has held senior Fulbright lectureships at the University of Vienna in Austria, at the University of Ghent and the Free University of Brussels in Belgium and at the University of Siegen in Germany. She is the interviewer and editor of Finding the Words: Conversations with Writers Who Teach and Master Class: Lessons from Leading Writers, the editor of Conversations with Clarence Major and the author of Nathaniel Hawthorne: A Study of the Short Fiction. TIMOTHY FINDLEY

Pegge Bochynski. Pegge Bochynski is a Visiting Instructor of Advanced Writing at Salem State College in Salem, Massachusetts. She is the author of reviews and essays, including those on the work of Nathaniel Hawthorne, John Updike, Flannery OíConnor, James Thurber, Thomas Sanchez, Anne Rice, J.K. Rowling, William Sloan Coffin, and Anne Lamott. She is also the author of an essay on Joy Harjo for American Writers Supplement XII. ANNE LA-

Stephen J. Burn. Stephen J. Burn is an Associate Professor at Northern Michigan University. He is the author of Jonathan Franzen at the End of Postmodernism (2008), David Foster Wallaceís Infinite Jest: A Readerís Guide (2003), and co–editor of Intersections: Essays on Richard Powers (2008). His work has appeared in Modern Fiction Studies, Contemporary Literature, the Times Literary Supplement, and other journals. JONATHAN FRANZEN


Tom Cerasulo. Tom Cerasulo is an assistant professor of English at Elms College in Chicopee, Massachusetts, where he also holds The Shaughness Family Chair for the Study of the Humanities. He has published on film adaptations, on ethnicity, and on the cultural history of American authorship. His recent work appears in Arizona Quarterly, MELUS, Studies in American Culture, and Critical Companion to Eugene OíNeill. He is the author of Authors Out Here: Fitzgerald, West, Parker, and Schulberg in Hollywood (University of South Carolina Press, 2010). PIETRO DI DONATO

Christopher Buck. Christopher Buck, Ph.D., J.D., is a Pennsylvania attorney and independent scholar. He previously taught at Michigan State University (2000ñ2004), Quincy University (1999ñ2000), Millikin University (1997ñ1999), and Carleton University (1994ñ1996). His publications include: Religious Myths and Visions of America: How Minority Faiths Redefined Americaís World Role (2009); Alain Locke: Faith and Philosophy (2005); Paradise and Paradigm: Key Symbols in Persian Christianity and the Bahá’í Faith (1999); Symbol and Secret: Qur’an Commentary in Bahá’u’lláh’s Kitáb-i Íqán (1995/2004), and other book chapters, encyclopedia articles, and journal articles. KAHLIL GIBRAN

Stefanie K. Dunning. Stefanie K. Dunning is Associate Professor of English at Miami Univer-


xii / American Writers sity of Ohio. She completed her undergraduate work at Spelman College in 1995 and received a Ph.D. from the University of California–Riverside in 2007. She is the author of Queer in Black and White: Interraciality, Same Sex Desire and Contemporary African American Culture (Indiana University Press). REGINALD MCKNIGHT Nikolai Endres. Nikolai Endres is an associate professor at Western Kentucky University, where he teaches Great Books, classical literature, mythology, critical theory, and gay and lesbian studies. He received his Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill in 2000. He has published on Plato, Ovid, Petronius, Gustave Flaubert, Walter Pater, Oscar Wilde, E.M. Forster, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Mary Renault, Gore Vidal, and others. His next project is a “queer” reading of the myth and music of Richard Wagner. He is also interested in pornographic representations of canonical gay texts. PATRICIA NELL WARREN Jack Fischel. Jack Fischel is Emeritus Professor of History at Millersville University and is currently a Visiting Professor at Messiah College. His specialty is in American intellectual history and Jewish studies. He is the author and editor of six books on the Holocaust, and has written hundreds of articles and reviews for such periodicals as Virginia Quarterly, The Weekly Standard, The Forward, Congress Monthly, Midstream, and Choice. He is the former editor of Congress Monthly and the author of an essay on William Gibson which appeared in American Writers, Supplement XVI. LEON URIS Morris A. Grubbs. Morris Allen Grubbs is Administrative Director of the Preparing Future Faculty Program at the University of Kentucky. From 1997 through 2007 he was a professor of English at Lindsey Wilson College in Columbia, Kentucky. He holds a Ph.D. in literature with a focus on the short story and is the editor of two books: Home and Beyond: An Anthology of Kentucky Short Stories (2001) and Conversations with Wendell Berry (2007). He is co–edi-

tor with Mary Ellen Miller of the forthcoming Jim Wayne Miller Reader. JIM WAYNE MILLER Susan Carol Hauser. Susan Carol Hauser is a poet, essayist and natural history writer. Her books include Outside after Dark: New & Selected Poems; You Can Write a Memoir; Wild Rice Cooking: History, Natural History, Harvesting & Lore; Sugaring: A Maple Syrup Memoir with Instructions; and A Field Guide to Poison Ivy. She has received two Minnesota Book Awards, a Jerome Foundation Travel and Study Grant, and was a charter resident at the Anderson Center for Interdisciplinary Studies. She is a Professor of English at Bemidji State University. GENE STRATTON-PORTER Benjamin Ivry. Benjamin Ivry is the author of biographies of Arthur Rimbaud, Maurice Ravel, and Francis Poulenc. He has translated many books from the French, by authors including André Gide, Jules Verne, and Balthus. His poetry collection, Paradise for the Portuguese Queen, appeared in 1998. HOWARD OVERING STURGIS Janet McCann. Janet McCann is Professor of English at Texas A&M University. She is a poet; she received a National Endowment for the Arts award in 1989, and has published widely; her most recent poetry collection is Emilyís Dress (Pecan Grove Press, 2004). She has co–edited textbooks and anthologies, and has written a book on Wallace Stevens, Wallace Stevens Revisited: The Celestial Possible (Twayne, 2004). MARY ANTIN D. Quentin Miller. D. Quentin Miller is Associate Professor of English at Suffolk University in Boston. He is the author of John Updike and the Cold War and the editor of Re–Viewing James Baldwin: Things Not Seen and of Prose and Cons: New Essays on U.S. Prison Literature. His essays have appeared in such journals as American Literature, Forum for Modern Literature Studies, and Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers. He is also one of the editors of The Heath Anthology of American

Contributors / xiii Literature and of two composition textbooks: Connections and The Generation of Ideas. T. CORAGHESSAN BOYLE Kathleen Pfeiffer. Kathleen Pfeiffer, Ph.D. is associate professor of English at Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan. Her book, Race Passing and American Individualism, was published by the University of Massachusetts Press in 2003. She has edited and written the introductions to the re–issues of two Harlem Renaissance novels, Carl Van Vechten’s Nigger Heaven (2000) and Waldo Frank’s Holiday (2003), both published by the University of Illinois Press. Her forthcoming book, also to be published by the University of Illinois Press, is Brother Mine: The Correspondence of Jean Toomer and Waldo Frank. WALDO FRANK Caleb Puckett. Caleb Puckett is an Assistant Professor at Emporia State University, where he serves as a Reference and Instruction Librarian. Puckett is also a poet, short story writer and editor for Nimrod International Journal. PHILLIS WHEATLEY S. Bailey Shurbutt. Sylvia Bailey Shurbutt is Professor of English, Director of the Ap-

palachian Heritage Writers Project and Coordinator of the Appalachian Studies Program at Shepherd University. Her writing has appeared in The Journal of Appalachian Studies, The Journal of Kentucky Studies, Women’s Studies, Women and Language, Essays in Literature, The Southern Literary Journal, Encyclopedia of American Literature, and Scribner’s American Writers and World Writers series. She has chapters in Feminism in Literature, Untying the Gender Knot (Greenwood Press), and is author of books about writing and literature, including Reading Writing Relationships (Kendall Hunt). HENRY LOUIS GATES, JR. Ron Slate. Ron Slate earned an A.M. in creative writing from Stanford University in 1973. He is the author of two books of poetry, The Incentive of the Maggot (2005, nominated for the National Book Critics Circle award) and The Great Wave (2009), both published by Houghton Mifflin. A businessperson by profession, he has worked as vice president of global communications for a major computer technology corporation and as chief operating officer of a biotechnology startup. He reviews literature for various publications and at his website at FLOYD SKLOOT

MARY ANTIN (1881—1949)

Janet McCann MARY ANTIN IS known for one significant work, an immigration narrative that won her instant success and remains an important resource still. Her major book, The Promised Land, is a vividly written memoir about Mary’s family’s departure from their home in Russia at the end of the nineteenth century, her engagement with the obstacles that faced her and her family as Jewish immigrants, and her triumphant achievement of freedom and respect in the United States. The book stands out for its optimism and high spirits among the many popular immigration stories of her time and after, and it also shows that in this milieu, achievement was not limited to men. However, The Promised Land has been controversial since its first publication in 1912, both left and right having complaints. Some objected because it suggests total assimilation should be the goal of the immigrant and because it implies that each person’s success or failure in this country is entirely up to the individual. Also, her enthusiastic adoption of America as “her” land bothered a few snobs from old American families. The book’s uncritical acceptance of American myth as fact and its optimistic view of how welcoming society was to newcomers did not match others’ experience, and in fact even to the casual reader there is sometimes a disconnect between her success as an extremely bright education-hungry child and her firmly held belief that her experience could be any immigrant’s.

ther Weltman, was from a well-off family; she had helped her own father in his successful business and thus had experience with business problems and practices. When Esther was sixteen her marriage to Israel was arranged according to Jewish tradition. For some years the couple did well, as Esther inherited the family business, and the couple was able to support their growing family. Moreover, in her earliest years Mary was offered, through tutors hired for her brother, an education almost unheard of for girls. The Russian Pale, where they lived, was an area to which Jews were confined by law. It consisted of fifteen western provinces of European Russia and ten provinces of Poland. Polotsk (or Plotzk, in Antin’s writing), was its center of government. At this time increasing persecution of the Jews in Russia caused them to be expelled from various areas where they had been at home, and they were harassed in numerous ways that diminished their ability to make a decent living. Israel was a scholar rather than a practical businessman, and Esther had to take over more and more. Then, a long period of ill health for both parents resulted in economic devastation, and the child Mary (or Mashke, as she was then called), watched the family decline from semiprosperity to near starvation. When Israel and Esther finally recovered from their illnesses, they decided to emigrate to the United States, part of the wave of Jewish emigration resulting from the oppressive, even confiscatory policies of the tsar Alexander III. Israel left first, in 1891; his wife and four children, of which Mary was the second, followed three years later when they had at last managed to find the money for the ticket.


Mary Antin was born on June 13, 1881, in Polotsk, a district town in the government subdivision of Vitsyebsk, Russia, that had been a center of Jewish culture since at least the mid-sixteenth century. Her father, Israel Antin, was a businessman and an unworldly scholar. Her mother, Es-

In those three years the family suffered, but Mary was still offered opportunities not available to the others to explore and learn. When they


MARY ANTIN finally arrived in Boston, Mary, because she was the family scholar, was permitted to enjoy America’s free education system, while her sister Fetchke (later Frieda) went to work in a sweatshop to help support the family. Mary’s teachers were captivated by her quick mind and her patriotism, and they gave her extra attention. Mary learned English quickly and soon caught up with her class; her work, especially her essays, was frequently cited as an example for others. When she was still a child, one of her essays was published, which made her believe that her role was to be a writer. She wrote poems that were published in newspapers, and this success strengthened her ambition and confidence.

she, but like her, her was from an immigrant family; Mary felt that this shared background was a strong bond. The two began married life together in Boston. Antin began her studies at Barnard College, but stomach ailments interfered with her schoolwork and she did not finish. Instead, she relied on enthusiastic mentors to encourage her to write. She was especially close to Josephine Lazarus, the sister of well-known poet and activist Emma Lazarus. Antin’s major book was undertaken as a series of memoirs, which were published serially in the Atlantic Monthly. The book came out in 1912 to many resounding accolades and a few complaints. Between the first printing in 1912 and 1985, when a 1969 republication was reissued, it had had thirty-four printings. It was and is considered a classic immigration narrative, and Antin’s current place in American literature rests on this one book.

Many acquaintances were impressed by Mary’s quick intelligence. She received help and support from Lina and Jacob Hecht, Jewish philanthropists; Rabbi Solomon Schindler; and others in their circle of progressive Jews interested in benevolent causes and social justice.. Her first book, From Plotzk to Boston (1899), was a translation of a long letter she had written in Yiddish to her uncle Moses, with whom she had been especially close; she spilled oil on the letter before sending it and had to recopy it, but her father preserved the original, enabling her to use it later to write the book. From Plotzk to Boston was published with the help of the Hechts and Philip Cowen, editor of the journal American Hebrew. The book’s introduction was written by the English Jewish writer Israel Zangwill, who praised Mary Antin as a child prodigy and underscored the freshness of her language and the keenness of her observation.

Antin bore her only child, Josephine Esther, in 1907. During her daughter’s early years Mary wrote short stories and essays and worked on her autobiography. After Antin’s book became popular, the unequal incomes of she and her husband led to marital difficulties. Antin burdened herself with speaking engagements in part to help support her husband and to pay off her husband’s many debts. Problems in the marriage were increased by Grabau’s attraction to the German cause as international tensions grew. In fact, he was dismissed from his post at Columbia for loudly supporting the Germans. Antin was physically and mentally incapacitated by the marital discord. The couple separated permanently around 1917, Antin keeping custody of their daughter, but she had a nervous breakdown after the separation. After her recovery, she made new friends and acquired new supporters, but she never completely got back her zest for living or her overwhelming optimism. She wrote little. She tried to redefine and reaffirm her faith by exploring the ideas of friends who were involved with mystical experience.

When this first book was published in 1899, she was only eighteen. Small parts of the letter appear again in The Promised Land, published in 1912. Even after Mary Antin’s initial success, her family continued to suffer financially, and she was pulled between their survival needs and her own need to learn. After joining a Natural History Club, described vividly in her memoir, she met a young geology professor with a German background. In 1901, Antin married Amadeus William Grabau, who was a teacher at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and a graduate student at Harvard. Grabau was eleven years older than

She did write another book, a discussion of immigration policy titled They Who Knock at Our Gates: A Complete Gospel of Immigration, which appeared in 1914. This short book presents an argument for open immigration in highly


MARY ANTIN rhetorical language. The word “gospel” in the title earns its keep—this treatise does preach the gospel of immigration as a form of salvation, and sings the praises of those who become Americans and espouse the American story. Although Antin discusses the abuse of immigrants, the book conveys the sense that the problems involved in immigration are solvable through the goodwill of both native and adopted citizens. The book did not have the vitality of her memoir and was not a great success; it has not been republished. Antin herself was dissatisfied with it and did not wish it to be reprinted.

however delicately mounted, is no longer a butterfly; it is a beautiful carcass ѧ Do not go into the business of writing your life’s story unless you are willing to exchange quivering butterflies for dried specimens.” (New York Times Book Review, p. 392). At a loss for words, motivation, desire, and creative energy, she wrote to friends asking for advice and direction. She did write a few essays in her last years, mostly on the subject of the spiritual search. Her last published essay, “House of the One Father,” was published in the journal Common Ground in 1941. At this time she wished to reaffirm her Jewish identity, perhaps in part because of the situation in Europe, but she did not want to give up her insistence that, finally, education, learning, and understanding produce the highest values and lead to acceptance of others and to peace. Her late essays are somewhat different in tone from her early work, and their hopes are more muted; her last essay suggests that the land promised is finally not of this earth.

Antin, after spending some time in sanatoriums, began to work concentratedly on restoring her own mental health through a new approach to religion. The spiritual seeking she undertook with her friends William and Agnes Gould, who had founded the utopian community Gould Farm, led her to study Christianity but ultimately to affirm her Jewish identity. She spent some years on Gould Farm, profiting from its peaceful, practical approach to solving problems. She also tried in the 1920s to revive her literary career, but she felt that her works were not being well received and did not feel capable of further extended writing. In 1931 she sought out an Indian guru, Meher Baba, and briefly embraced his ideas, but she did not stay with his approach. In her spiritual study, her emphasis was on trying to find what the major religions shared, looking, as always, for those common grounds that would make for brotherhood among diverse groups. She returned to Gould Farm in 1936 to continue her personal metaphysical explorations.

Her last years saw a decline in her circumstances; she was forced to borrow against her royalties. She also had increasing health problems, and she moved several times in the last years for financial reasons and to be closer to family. Although she was mentally alert, she apparently wrote nothing further; she published nothing between 1941 and her death. By the time of cancer claimed her life in 1949, the royalties from her writing were insufficient to support her. She died at a nursing home in Suffern, New York, on May 15. Her place in the canon as a writer of the immigrant memoir rests on her perennially popular book, The Promised Land. Her few short stories, semiautobiographical, have been forgotten, and are read only in an effort to understand the memoir. Her essays are dated; her treatise on immigration is out of print and pretty much forgotten. Yet her memoir is still read and taught. Those who read The Promised Land and are taken by the brilliant child who turns into the young author, in a new land and using a new language, may wish that she had written a later, full-length memoir, describing in what ways her

From the 1920s on she was keenly aware of the loss of her facility of writing, and she sought to understand why she was no longer driven to write and could rarely cajole herself into doing it. Even as a successful young woman writer, she had thought of writing as a tremendous effort that brought about a sense of loss. She tended to think of writing as an activity that used up the substance of its subject, living memory. “If you enjoy remembering things,” she wrote in “How I Wrote The Promised Land,” “don’t put your memories on paper ѧ Chasing elusive memories is like chasing butterflies. The captured butterfly,


MARY ANTIN perspective changed when the land stopped fulfilling its promises to her.

and ambition. She describes them in horrific, dramatic detail, yet they seem to the child stories rather than life. Her major complaint is less about basic living conditions than about a lack of plentiful, free education and the exclusion of women and Jews from what little education was available to others. There was no free schooling for girls, and even the daughters of the well-to-do could find only primary education. The tsar desired to keep Jews out of the schools, and they had to have far higher qualifications to enter the universities. Few boys and virtually no girls were granted admission. For girls, higher education was a hopeless dream. Antin describes the community as a center of resistance against the harassment of the tsar:


The memoir is preceded by an introduction that argues for the validity of writing a memoir at such a young age. In it she sets forth her purpose: to tell the immigration narrative of her people: It is because I understand my history, in its larger outlines, to be typical of many, that I consider it worth recording. My life is a concrete illustration of a multitude of statistical facts. Although I have written a genuine personal memoir, I believe that its chief interest lies in the fact that it is illustrative of scores of unwritten lives. I am only one of many whose fate it has been to live a page of modern history. We are the strands of the cable that binds the Old World to the New.

As I look back to-day I see, within the wall raised around my birthplace by the vigilance of the police, another wall, higher, thicker, more impenetrable. This is the wall which the Czar with all his minions could not shake, the priests with their instruments of torture could not pierce, the mob with their firebrands could not destroy. This wall within the wall is the religious integrity of the Jews, a fortress erected by the prisoners of the Pale, in defiance of their jailers; a stronghold built of the ruins of their pillaged homes, cemented with the blood of their murdered children.

(p. xiii)

This vision of herself as representative of the immigrants is a constant throughout her book, and she reasserts it whenever it seems that the narrative is turning to the merely personal. From the onset she makes it clear that she is not simply telling her own story but is providing a narrative that mythologizes the experience of the immigrant in the hope that it will not only encourage later immigrants but will also help educate native-born citizens to their value and influence. The first half of the memoir re-creates life as it was to her as a child growing up in Polotsk, in the Russian Pale where Jews were harassed, punished, and in all ways abused, and yet where Antin was most of the time happy. Her child’seye view is established in the opening of the story, where she is comfortably surrounded by her family but aware that there are unfriendly forces at work outside her home and neighborhood. She learns early why they are not free to travel within Russia and that “the world was divided into Jews and Gentiles” (p. 5). The beginning of the book includes some of the horrors perpetrated on the Jews by the Russian leadership, including pogroms, but since she has only heard of these things as a child and not experienced them, they do not really touch her optimism

Harassed on every side, thwarted in every normal effort, pent up within narrow limits, all but dehumanized, the Russian Jew fell back upon the only thing that never failed him,—his hereditary faith in God. In the study of the Torah he found the balm for all his wounds; the minute observance of traditional rites became the expression of his spiritual cravings; and in the dream of a restoration to Palestine he forgot the world. (p. 29)

Within their fortress the Jews educated their sons, sending them to heder (Hebrew school) from kindergarten age to teenage years. The lessons ran all day into the evening, and were mostly recitation; the child Mary, however, envied her brother, and, encouraged by her father, did everything she could to learn on her own. In her earliest recollections the family is well off, with the trappings of a successful middleclass life and the closeness of the Jewish family.


MARY ANTIN The shimmering memories of early childhood, when Mashke was a favored child in a relatively well-off household, contrast starkly with the photographs she includes. In the pictures of the markets in Plotzk, the women doing their wash on the frozen lake, the houses where they lived, the figures seem carved and wooden, their lot unspeakably harsh. Yet her memories are rich with color and texture, and they make the reader nostalgic for a community in which the members were generous and supportive and where their simplicity was complemented by an inherent goodness.

The first part of the book is so detailed in its reconstruction of turn-of-the-century Jewish life in her community that its appeal is that of a wellwritten personal essay—yet the cozy scenes of family life and the content expressed by the speaker are at odds with the seriousness of the oppression and the dangers involved in simply living as a Jew in that time and place. She speaks of babies being ripped from their parents’ arms and slaughtered, yet she gives the narrative the quality of myth and describes her own daily life as rich in support and love. Isolated from reality by her family, she does not fear it. She appears to have two arguments to pursue: one, the integrity of the Jewish family and the health of this kind of upbringing; and two, the oppression the family was subject to. Her audience is mostly non-Jewish readers who do not know the details of Jewish life and who need to be convinced that for Jews, coming to America was the only solution. The narrative includes much about Mary Antin’s parents. It describes their own upbringing, and their pairing by the community matchmaker when her mother was only sixteen. Despite their disparity in fortune they were considered a good match, for her mother came from an upperlevel family but the father was acceptable because of his education—and education was highly prized by the entire Jewish community. Part of her purpose in the rich, sympathetic portrayal of the Jewish enclave is to make her readers familiar with this life and sympathetic to it. Even her negative experiences are presented as educational, emphasizing the book’s main theme. For instance, she says in talking about the abuse she received from a local gentile boy that she became suddenly aware that what caused this vicious abuse was lack of knowledge. This realization, coming in the middle of a beating, is an epiphany for the child:

The circumstances under which the family fell to poverty are never clearly articulated in the memoir; the narrative stays with the child’s vision, and the reader only sees that things change for the worse, due to both the repression of the Russians and the lack of business acumen of her father, in addition to ill health. The family went from middle-class comfort to near starvation. Still, Mashke was petted and indulged, even when the family had nothing; because of her intelligence and scholarly bent in a household where learning was valued, she was given every opportunity for an education despite the hardship this placed on the others. Her sister was not given any options—her hard work was the family’s support. The writer seems to know that some dimension of experience is missing from this girl who is so nourished and pampered—true compassion, maybe, and the ability to put herself in another’s place. She realizes that she has not much sympathy for others who are less willing and able to change their lives than she is. In many cases where individuals seem condemned to restricted lives, she claims that they chose those lives—for example, she dwells on her sister’s sacrifices to the family and to Mary’s own bright future, and she expresses some sense of guilt, but then she claims that her sister was happy to make these sacrifices and triumphed vicariously in her Mary’s success. There is a precarious balance between Mary’s belief in the triumph of the will and her contrary sense that some are destined for success and public recognition while others are not.

I forgot to revenge myself. It was so wonderful— Well, there were no words in my head to say it, but it meant that Vanka abused me only because he did not understand. If he could feel with my heart, if he could be a little Jewish boy for one day, I thought, he would know—he would know ѧ Oh, why could I not make Vanka understand? I was so sorry that my heart hurt me, worse than Vanka’s


MARY ANTIN view available nowhere else. There are few such persuasive portraits of a way of life in which religion is an organic part, healthy and sustaining.

blows. My anger and my courage were gone. Vanka was throwing stones at me now from his mother’s doorway, and I continued on my errand, but I did not hurry. The thing that hurt me most I could not run away from. (p. 17)


This paragraph could stand as the mission statement of Antin’s memoir. She wants to make Jewish life understandable to those who condemn the Jews through ignorance. Throughout the memoir, ignorance rather than any group is the enemy, to be fought with education, reading, understanding. She writes to teach. To this end she also includes at the end of the narrative a glossary of the Yiddish words she uses in her description, even though many of them are defined by the context. The first part of the book ends with the departure of the family for the New World. By this time, the Antins left at home are nearly destitute and have been borrowing heavily; the father too has had to borrow to pay for the steamer tickets that will allow his family to join him. The family still nearly does not make it. The reader may be amazed at the lack of fear and anxiety the child Mary Antin experiences as the family approaches the actual journey, when there is not enough to eat and the bailiffs have come to take all the family’s furnishings and other belongings to pay for a debt incurred not by the family but by a tenant. Everyone else in the family seems devastated, but Mary’s attitude is that since the seizure involves only money, it is not a tragedy like a death, because money can always be made somehow. She talks of a long visit to her uncle’s, where she did succeed in making some money herself by teaching a popular craft; she assumes that money somehow can always be replaced, and even the loss of her family’s familiar objects does not affect her much. She shows her naive faith by bringing back rich gifts for her family from her uncle’s home, when they can hardly afford enough food. The description of life in Polotsk and the Antin family’s departure for the New World would have been pleasing even to a casual reader of Antin’s time, because the details are exact and evocative and the culture is faithfully described. The modern reader can get a sense of a nineteenth-century Jewish community from a point of

About at the middle of the book comes the exodus. For this section Antin relies in part on the long letter in Yiddish that she wrote to her uncle back home, describing her adventures between Polotsk and Boston, which had been translated and published in full as her first book in 1899. It expresses the immediacy and excitement of her first encounter with distance travel and with her new land. The section based on the letter describes the departure—the farewell to her extended family and friends (and their naïveté about America and what they would find there)—as well as the extreme ill-treatment they receive on their journey, especially at their stopover in Germany. Several times it looks as though the family will not be allowed to enter the New World, but will be sent back home after their meager financial resources have been exhausted. But they finally enter the country, after having to beg and bribe their way through difficult situations. Antin says nothing about any problems of bureaucracy once they arrive in the United States—in fact, the joy of the arrival seems to eclipse all of their previous difficulties. “And so suffering, fearing, brooding, rejoicing,” she says, “we crept nearer and nearer to the coveted shore, until, on a glorious May morning, six weeks after our departure from Polotzk, our eyes beheld the Promised Land, and my father received us in his arms” (The Promised Land, p. 179). The reader perhaps expects irony to follow such a happy reunion, but the disappointments of the Promised Land are few and unsurprising while the rewards are many. Of course, her parents once more fail to make good, but she blames that mostly on her father’s lack of realism and her mother’s illness. For her, success is opened through the free public education system; this wholehearted faith in education was her


MARY ANTIN father’s belief and it is hers also. Mary was claimed by her father to be two years younger than she actually was when she was enrolled, so she would have the right to more free education. Antin does not talk of this in her memoir, though she does treat it in one of her short stories, “The Lie.” Because she was small, no one questioned her age, and the invisible extra two years may have helped her gain her reputation as a child prodigy when her first work came to public notice. She describes how the family arrives in Boston and attempts to make a living there, moving from one of the Boston slums to an even less desirable one as the parents continually prove unsuccessful in making enough money to support the family. They start with a seaside refreshment stand, of which the children are very proud, but this fails and they must move. The little store opened in a slum area does not do well, either. Once more the reasons for the parents’ difficulties are never completely explained—we do see the scholar-father having a difficult time with the practicalities of business management, and the uncertain health of both parents interfering with their business endeavors, but none of the reasons given fully explain the failure. The third store is in the worst neighborhood yet, Wheeler Street, and Antin speaks of coming back there later and realizing its degradation by seeing it through adult eyes. But she claims that at the time she lived there, she was happy; she contrasts the grinding misery of poverty with the freedom she was experiencing through education and the support and encouragement of others. Her description of the street projects hope and hopelessness at once:

held, invariably, a photograph album and an ornamental lamp with a paper shade; and the lamp was usually out of order. So there was as little motive for a common life as there was room. The yard was only big enough for the perennial rubbish heap. The narrow sidewalk was crowded. What were the people to do with themselves? There were the saloons, the missions, the libraries, the cheap amusement places, and the neighborhood houses. People selected their resorts according to their tastes. The children, let it be thankfully recorded, flocked mostly to the clubs; the little girls to sew, cook, dance, and play games; the little boys to hammer and paste, mend chairs, debate, and govern a toy republic. All these, of course, are forms of baptism by soap and water. (p. 272)

Her concept of “baptism by soap and water”— effort and education bringing profound transformation—appears elsewhere in the memoir, a baptism into the religion of democracy. She also says, “I found no fault with Wheeler Street when I was fourteen years old. On the contrary, I pronounced it good” (p. 266). A consistent feature of the narrative is that most of the events Antin describes during what must have been a miserable struggle for survival are presented as positive, even uplifting events for the young Mary. The neighborhoods are not seen as dangerous and threatening but rather as rich in culture; one person after another reaches out to help her. (Again the photographs represent bleak slums, and seem to belie the narrative.) The main center of growth for young Mary, though, is the public school, where her abilities are soon recognized and she is cited as an example for others. The part of the book describing her first years in America is less compelling than the descriptions of life in Plotzk, as the reader is invited to follow Mary from triumph to triumph, to read the essays she wrote as a child (which are not different from any essays of precocious children), to hear of her pride in her first publication as an adolescent, and so forth. She claims to want to include these things to show herself as a representative of immigrants, not merely to advertise her achievements—the lesson she underscores is that America offers these opportunities to those fleeing impossible economic problems, or oppres-

On Wheeler Street there were no real homes. There were miserable flats of three or four rooms, or fewer, in which families that did not practise race suicide cooked, washed, and ate; slept from two to four in a bed, in windowless bedrooms; quarrelled in the gray morning, and made up in the smoky evening; tormented each other, supported each other, saved each other, drove each other out of the house. But there was no common life in any form that means life. There was no room for it, for one thing. Beds and cribs took up most of the floor space, disorder packed the interspaces. The centre table in the “parlor” was not loaded with books. It


MARY ANTIN sion, or both, and it is not—or not merely—her personal abilities that win her recognition. She is able to take advantage of the country’s gifts, the best of which was free education, and she claims that other immigrants can and should do the same. Education, she repeats, is “soap and water” for the slums; her accomplishments are representative of what is possible for all those who avail themselves of it. Nevertheless, the pileup of achievements may pall, especially since there is little to offset them and since clearly this kind of record would not be possible for most of the immigrants, depending as it did on great language facility and sheer love of learning. Only one event seems to have caused the irrepressible Antin any personal difficulty, and it was a small event the reader might expect to be quickly forgotten. An official gives a speech about her, without naming her, and she, startled and gratified, thanks the official publicly. Of course since the official did not wish to identify her, she finds herself humiliated by his response. She assures the reader that others present were untroubled, yet the incident loomed large enough to form a cloud over her success. She devotes a chapter to this event, called “Tarnished Laurels,” and again claims that she is sharing her humiliation as a support to “vain fools” who accepted praise for themselves thoughtlessly.

possibilities that are open to them and to show native-born Americans how much richness the immigrants have to offer their new country. Wheeler Street is followed by yet another slum environment, Dover Street, but now she is being educated at the Latin School and barely notices her physical surroundings because of her sheer joy in learning. Sometimes she has no food, but she has Latin declensions. She does not feel excluded because of her poverty, as she can escape into the life of the mind, and what is more she is accepted by the wealthy students. Again she stresses the virtues of democracy—she is not confined to the social class of her birth, but is welcomed to educate herself out of it. Everything helped, you see. My schoolmates helped. Aristocrats though they were, they did not hold themselves aloof from me. Some of the girls who came to school in carriages were especially cordial. They rated me by my scholarship, and not by my father’s occupation. They teased and admired me by turns for learning the footnotes in the Latin grammar by heart; they never reproached me for my ignorance of the latest comic opera. And it was more than good breeding that made them seem unaware of the incongruity of my presence. It was a generous appreciation of what it meant for a girl from the slums to be in the Latin School, on the way to college. If our intimacy ended on the steps of the school-house, it was more my fault than theirs. Most of the girls were democratic enough to have invited me to their homes, although to some, of course, I was “impossible.”

It is easy to say that I was making a mountain out of a mole hill, a catastrophe out of a mere breach of good manners. It is easy to say that. But I know that I suffered agonies of shame. After the exercises, when the crowd pressed in all directions in search of friends, I tried in vain to get out of the hall. I was mobbed, I was lionized. Everybody wanted to shake hands with the prodigy of the day, and they knew who it was. I had made sure of that; I had exhibited myself. The people smiled on me, flattered me, passed me on from one to another. I smirked back, but I did not know what I said. I was wild to be clear of the building. I thought everybody mocked me. All my roses had turned to ashes, and all through my own brazen conduct.

(pp. 294–295)

One might wonder if this could be the full truth, or if she is representing a few students’ acceptance as universal. However her experience as described does serve as additional evidence for her belief that education overcomes all obstacles, including social barriers. Mary Antin cuts off her memoir at a high point, ending it with a scene of triumph. At the time she wrote it she was married, a mother, and somewhat entangled in family life. She says nothing of this. Her goal for the immigration process itself is education-based; she stops it with the culmination of her own education, participation in the Hale House Natural History Club, where she is free to explore her most compelling interest. She is going home from a day of

(p. 283)

Her embarrassment throws light on her many apologies for having the nerve to tell her story; it is wrong, she believes, to stress one’s achievement unless it is being done for a larger purpose—in her case to show other immigrants the


MARY ANTIN exploration of biology; she stops at the entrance to the library to reflect, and has a vision of her life as evolution: “I had a vision of myself, the human creature, emerging from the dim places where the torch of history has never been, creeping slowly into the light of civilized existence, pushing more steadily forward to the broad plateau of modern life, and leaping, at last, strong and glad, to the intellectual summit of the latest century” (p. 364). She is identifying with all immigrants when she claims in the book’s last sentence, “Mine is the whole majestic past, and mine is the shining future” (p. 364). Few memoirs are so unremittingly, even relentlessly, affirmative. The book received an enthusiastic welcome, and it gave a concrete example to demonstrate the reality of the American Dream. It was praised and used in classrooms, where it continued to be taught for decades. However, not all commentators were happy with it, as some felt that Antin was sacrificing her Jewish identity to an over-optimistic nationalism. The critic Keren McGinity, writing in 1998 in the journal American Jewish History, compares Antin’s published book to the draft of her manuscript to illustrate convincingly that the cuts made showed consistent determination that the final work be for a general, rather than a Jewish, audience, and that the discarded portions often contained details of personal life that did not necessarily support her overriding theme. It is true that one cannot always distinguish Antin’s cuts from those made by her editor, but the proselytizing she does for America and for individual accomplishment through persistence in pursuit of one’s goals in this country is powerful enough to indicate that this is her major theme. Even the sometimes vatic language Antin uses justifies McGinity’s conclusion that she was “a woman on a mission.” The mission was the promotion of immigration and the recognition of immigrants’ contribution to American culture.

and religion. All were published in the Atlantic Monthly. Antin’s short story “The Lie” fictionalizes her father’s effort to provide additional public education by falsifying her age. In it, David, a new immigrant boy, a “greenhorn”—a favored term for Antin in her memoir as well— forms a close association with a sensitive understanding teacher, as did Antin. Like Antin in her memoir, David is extremely patriotic toward America and is especially attracted to the figure of George Washington. Extremely scrupulous, he feels he cannot tell a lie—he doesn’t feel it right to sing “land where my fathers died” in his classroom, for instance, because his forefathers did not die in America. His teacher finds for him a symbolic way of interpreting the line so that he may sing it. When he is invited to play Washington in a skit, he is wild with joy—until he tells his teacher his age, and realizes that he has told a lie: his account supports that of his father, who had deducted two years from David’s age when enrolling him in public school so that he could have additional years of education. Not only does David now feel he cannot be George Washington with this lie on his conscience, but he falls dangerously ill. It is clear to all that some troubling preoccupation underlies his illness. The sensitive teacher, of course, goes to see him. His father is unaware that he has done anything wrong, and he boasts to the teacher about his stratagem to assure his smart son’s education. The teacher, realizing what has caused David’s illness, sympathizes with the father and finds a way to justify the lie to herself and, more importantly, to David. She then goes to David’s bedroom, where her tactful words help him clear his conscience so that he can get well and continue his education. The story is interesting mostly in its relation to The Promised Land. “The Lie” presents material from Antin’s own life that she found too murky or embarrassing to include in the memoir, but the story’s main character, the prodigy David, is clearly very like the speaker in the memoir, and of course the understanding teacher who maps the new surroundings for her student is a major figure in the memoir, too. The devices and


Antin published three short fiction pieces that help to enlarge the story of her life and add to the image she presents of the Jewish community


MARY ANTIN woman—the situation that Antin was in before coming to the United States.

coincidences that lead to the story’s happy ending are very visible; every narrative hinge creaks. The story illustrates that fiction is not really Antin’s genre—inventing and plotting are not her gifts, while describing and expounding are.

The story in “The Amulet” is the farthest from Antin’s experience and the least successful of her stories. She is using Polotz lore in this tale, but without much exploration. The story’s main character, Yankel, had had one childless marriage, and after he became a widower, he married a younger woman, hoping for progeny. But his second wife is also unable to have children, and the couple suffers deeply from their childlessness, which is also seen as a sad lack by the community. He is given an amulet that is supposed to make a woman fertile. It appears to work, but once his wife is pregnant, he learns the rest of the story of the amulet—it seems that if the child is a girl, the mother may die; if she bears twins, one of them will die; but if the baby is a boy, all will be well. He is devastated, because he is very much in love with his wife. He would not have risked her life if he had known the full effects of the amulet. But after a difficult childbirth, the baby turns out to be a boy.

The other two stories are tales of Plotzk; at one time she planned to write a book of Plotzk stories. They use her experience of poverty and need as background, and they show her nostalgic memory of a community she thought of as composed of naive, good people. “Malinke’s Atonement” tells of a poor, fatherless Orthodox family who are looking forward to having a rare treat, a chicken. When the mother finds a piece of wire in the bird, she fears that it may be considered unclean, and she sends Malinke to the rav (rabbi) to have his judgment pronounced on it. The rav, without noticing much about the circumstances of Malinke and her family, pronounces the bird unclean. Malinke, near starvation, lies to her mother about the rav’s judgment, and the family eats the chicken. Malinke nearly chokes to death on a chicken bone, however, and she attributes this incident to her guilt. She confesses her sin to her horrified family. The tale of her behavior spreads through the town, and she repents; she does penance by fasting and by throwing in the river her only good possession, a pair of boots. Then the rav calls for her; she expects to be publicly excoriated for her sin. But seeing her desperate poverty and learning of her penitence, he is sorry he pronounced the chicken unclean, and sorry that he did not evaluate the situation more closely and use the freedom given him in such judgments to grant the family their rare holiday meal. He forgives Malinke and offers her his services as a tutor, since she is so intelligent and she lacks any chance for education. She is wildly happy.

There is no character here that represents Antin, and the plot is farfetched; but the theme of guilt and the need for reconciliation is a constant in all three of the stories. And just as in Antin’s memoir, all three stories have overwhelmingly positive conclusions.


They Who Knock at Our Gates: A Gospel of Immigration, a book-length essay on immigration issues, came out in 1914. This book has not aged well, as it was based on research Antin did on topical issues and proposed legislation of the time. She herself felt in later years that it had dated badly, and she did not want it to be reissued. But it is indeed a gospel, proselytizing for immigration, and throughout it she compares the Jewish laws and traditions to her vision of American democracy, finding divine sanctions for the one similar to those for the other. It uses the Mosaic law to affirm the rightness of the U.S. Declaration of Independence, saying that:

The rebellious child “who thinks like a boy” in this story is similar to the self-presentation of Antin in her memoir. The reward that the child receives—education—is the young Mary’s strongest desire. As in Antin’s other work, there is a public reward for a rebellious act. The story also presents a vivid picture of the impoverished nineteenth-century Jewish family headed by a


MARY ANTIN whatsoever. The book lacks the power of her immigration narrative, but it is carefully written, rhetorically effective, sometimes sermon-like. The burden of its message is that the meltingpot image of America is true and good, to the point that the value of assimilation is higher and finer than any maintaining of local or religious bonds and loyalties. Its conclusion again associates the Mosaic law with her position on immigration and democracy:

there cannot be two minds about the position of the Declaration among our documents of state. What the Mosaic Law is to the Jews, the Declaration is to the American people. It affords us a starting-point in history and defines our mission among the nations. Without it, we should not differ greatly from other nations who have achieved a constitutional form of government and various democratic institutions. What marks us out from other advanced nations is the origin of our liberties in one supreme act of political innovation, prompted by a conscious sense of the dignity of manhood. (pp. 3–4)

Those who honor the golden images of self-interest and materialism threaten us with fearful penalties in case we persist in our championship of universal brotherhood. They are binding our hands and feet with the bonds of selfish human fears. The fiery glow of the furnace is on our faces—and the world holds its breath.

Democracy, she says, is the center of this divinely ordered society, in which, “At one bold stroke we shattered the monarchical tradition, and installed the people in the seats of government, substituting the gospel of the sovereignty of the masses for the superstition of the divine right of kings” (p. 4). The book is a passionate response to the increasing demand for limitations and controls on the flow of immigrants. The ideals behind Jewish teachings, she finds, are similar to if not often the same as the ideals of the U.S. Constitution. In tracing the reasons for immigration and the benefits to both the receiving country and immigrants, she stresses the experience of Russian Jews, whose lives she knew so well, but the emphasis remains on the emigration rather than on the religion. She describes the Declaration of Independence as the secular equivalent of Mosaic law, and yet she extends the divine sanction from the latter to the former. Antin takes up one after another the various arguments for such controls—that the immigrants take jobs from Americans, that there is not enough room for unlimited immigrants, that they live in slums, that some of them do not stay, and so forth—with her idealistic view of society based on Mosaic law. Sometimes she offers specific suggestions for solving problems, but often her solution is an appeal to the best in people: that wealthy and comfortable people should give of their time and wealth to receive and educate the newcomers because it is the right thing to do. Ultimately she suggests that the guarantees in the Constitution should apply to everyone—though she stops short of saying there should be no controls over immigration

Once the thunders of God were heard on Mount Sinai, and a certain people heard, and the blackness of idolatry was lifted from the world. Again the voice of God, the Father, shook the air above Bunker Hill, and the grip of despotism was loosened from the throat of panting humanity. Let the children of the later saviors of the world be as faithful as the children of the earlier saviors, and perhaps God will speak again in times to come. (pp. 142–143)

Her thundering conclusion conflates the lifting of ignorance by God with the removal of ignorance and “selfish human fears” in the matter of immigration, and this equivalence is clear, though perhaps not so explicit, throughout The Promised Land as well. But without the softening effect of minutely observed concrete detail, Antin’s voice becomes unremittingly didactic. Yet the long essay is clearly motivated by the same convictions that drove her to write her popular memoir.


Antin’s few short essays were scattered through a variety of publications, but they tend to sound two notes: first, they offer helpful hints for immigrants and for those who deal with them, and second, they combine Antin’s ideas about metaphysics with her thoughts about an idealized democracy. The suggestions about immigration


MARY ANTIN are presented more indirectly, and perhaps more persuasively, in her memoir. These essays, sometimes editorial-like, appeared in newspapers and popular journals. The essays on spirituality are more extended and complex. They show her attempt to redefine the ideal she had so long believed in, without losing her commitment to America and immigration. Antin claimed atheism during part of the period remembered in The Promised Land, though her atheism seems superficial—perhaps a part of her refusal to accept any social limitations. Later she undertook a spiritual seeking that brought her to a nonstandard mysticism combined with her Judaism. These late spiritual explorations involved reading, meditation, and discussion with other seekers. A late essay, “The Soundless Trumpet,” explores her efforts to achieve a plane of enlightenment, and she uses again a combination of concrete detail and exposition to explain her explorations and discoveries. “The Soundless Trumpet” discusses states of mind in which she transcends her life and escapes from the prison of self; she seeks metaphysical truth through these experiences. She actively courts these states, banishing her loved language to entice them:

and objects, and she find acceptance of and even union with the marginal and the outcast. She finds sisterhood with a poor seamstress and a scarred alley cat. Her changed attitudes bring her deeper into the mystery; she affirms a kind of cosmic consciousness, describing the feeling that “there are no inanimate things anywhere in nature ѧ everything is trying to speak to me” (p. 565). These states are described in religious terms, using biblical language, as Antin does in all her work. She cites authorities and attempts to argue her position as she does in They Who Knock at Our Gates. The nature of escapes from the material world, however, just show her how far she needs to go to achieve real enlightenment. The genuine mystical flight, with a beginner like me, leaves an ache behind—the ache of incompletenessѧI know I have not really been over the horizon. My fleeting glimpses into the heart of things, the nostalgic sweetness of my moments into the world about me, the thrill of the soundless trumpet summoning me to cross the barrier of sense—all these are only the faintest trembling of the Veil in the inconstant breath of my too feeble aspiration. (p. 569)

She comes back to the banished words in her search for proof that her experiences are valid, saying that if she is not deluded, she will find the words to express her altered state. She has faith that “sincerity ѧ has an accent of its own,” that “a genuine experience sooner or later supplies the witness with the on unmistakable certifying word. Like the olive leaf brought back by Noah’s dove, my flight of symbols, if they were wrought out of genuine experience, will guarantee that I have touched, however briefly, a recovered land” (p. 569). She is clearly a spiritual seeker, still; she cannot rest in her discoveries. The essay reveals her attempt to put her intense will to believe to work on the spiritual, and moreover to democratize the spiritual. She sees the cosmic consciousness as a kind of universal sentience in which each element is both itself and part of the whole. Like America, the spiritual realm is a place, a promised land. Moreover her essays on the subject are still compelling to current adventurers in mysticism because they so clearly describe her failures as

I know the danger of breaking my immobility to spear the foolish words that come boiling into the net of surface consciousness. I have gone far enough with the mystery on occasion to know that words of which I am aware are my treat peril at these times; het the meddlesome pen thrusts itself in again and again, till it seems essential to the completed state of nonresisting by which, as by a Jacob’s ladder, I seek to climb out of the pit of mere cognition, to turn it also loose, this absurd irrelevant splinter of metal and hard rubber. Go, then, go, go, you shallow words, go all of you there are, till I am altogether cleansed of wording, till I rest from thoughts and slip through the I-barrier. (pp. 560-561)

The state she desires to enter is a speaking silence: “My place is in the secret silken seed pod of perfected stillness. My business is to hear the soundless trumpet of unrevealable gospels” (p. 561). She describes how the cleansed angle of vision reveals to her the truth of surrounding people


MARY ANTIN well as her successes as she courts the metaphysical. Her enthusiasm and her tentative wonder are contagious. Nonetheless, in looking at her essays in the context of her memoir, one might argue that she is not successful in her quest to replace “here” with “hereafter.” She seems to be driven to do so by numerous disappointments and disenchantments that followed her early success. The last essay she published, “House of the One Father,” shows another strong effort to unite physical and metaphysical, but the reader may sense that she is trying to convince herself as well that the vision of the promised land is undamaged by her lifetime of experience. “House of the One Father” appeared in 1941 after a period of silence; the editor of the journal Common Ground mentioned that Antin had been known for her work on the meaning of America from the point of view of an immigrant, commenting, “This is her first article in many years” (p. 42). The sense of wide-eyed optimism is not completely gone from this work, but it is located in the spiritual—a place where it is safe against attack. “House of the One Father” develops a plea for ecumenism surprising for its time and place. On the eve of World War II, the writer locates a spiritual goal in religion rather than in her particular religion, Judaism. Antin begins by describing an encounter with Jewish friends who criticized her for supporting both a Catholic chapel and a Hebrew school. She then explains that she had taken over the spiritual guidance of a Catholic girl who had been mentored by a friend, a social worker, who had on her deathbed asked Antin to take over for her. She did this, and had the child taught by nuns. Her friends seem to accept her mitzvah of taking over the upbringing of an orphan, but not the gift of money to the priests. The friends are presented as simple, puzzled: “The two men consulted by raising eyebrows. What was the proper mode of rebuking an erring Jewish woman whose husband, though a Gentile, was a great scholar and thereby entitled to supreme respect?” (p. 36). The narrative fudges the case, of course— Grabau and Antin had long ago permanently

separated, and he had another companion. Her perspective is that it is Jewish tradition to do good for others indiscriminately, including those who are in other faiths. She defends her position successfully against Jewish critics in the essay, and, presumably, also to readers of other faiths, by outlining the spiritual explorations that have led her to believe in a truth underlying all faiths. Finally she ties her notions to democracy. She describes giving a speech in a Christian church, where she, a Jew who had fled persecution, addressed her audience from a Christian pulpit: There were no dividing lines left standing. The hundreds in the pews and I in the high pulpit saw one thing: how every door in American that opened to the stranger of every race and creed—the school house door, the public library door, the door of the common playground, the door to any job a man was equipped to fill-each was a door to the House of the One Father ѧ (p. 40)

Democracy, always her most loved concept, together with its defense, becomes a stronger social bond even than faith. It is democracy that owns her highest loyalty, and it is the democratic spirit, she believes, that also informs religion: Let me pass in the world under any label the social vision of the time may apply, here at this point I feel alive and equipped to do my part: where the spiritual foundations of America are threatened, where God is mocked in the denial to a single individual or group of “just and true liberty, in matters spiritual and temporal,” as they sharply phrased it in the days of the first making of America. (p. 42)

Throughout her life, Antin had remained true to her gospel of democracy and America, and when in her later years, looking around her, she could no longer see evidence of American generosity and benevolence everywhere, she removed the promise of utopia to another plane—the dimension of spirituality. This, however, is a practical metaphysics, not a groping in the dark for indications of divine presence in everyday life. She is not exactly returning to her traditional Judaism, but instead she approaches an all-embracing deity that is as accepting of other religions as of Judaism. She sees the spiritual as feeding and be-


MARY ANTIN ing fed by American idealism, therefore making both inexhaustible. A good Jew becomes a good citizen, helping to advance education and understanding so that the ideal community made possible by democracy may come closer to realization.

and early-twentieth-century immigrants to the United States and as a memoir of a Jewish childhood.

Among all the American immigration narratives, past and present, Antin’s is one of the most optimistic and carefully directed; clearly she was not just out to tell “what it was like” to come to the New World. She wanted to preach for Americanism, to encourage other immigrants to the United States, and later to defend policies of open immigration when they became threatened. Her adult years, during which she wrote little but spoke much to various groups around the country, were spent preaching her gospel. No confessionalist, Antin was adept at hiding her own doubts and fears when writing about her experiences and her cherished beliefs; she also selected details and scenes that would best advance her cause. Moreover, neither was she a feminist, despite her comments on the exclusion of women from educational institutions both by the tsar and by her own people in the early days; when it came to suffrage, for instance, she claimed that it was not one of her causes.

Selected Bibliography WORKS BY MARY ANTIN EDITIONS From Plotzk to Boston. Boston: Clarke, 1899. The Promised Land. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1912. They Who Knock at Our Gates: A Complete Gospel of Immigration. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1914.

SHORT STORIES “Malinke’s Atonement.” Atlantic Monthly, September 1911, pp. 300–319. “The Amulet.” Atlantic Monthly, January 1913, pp. 31–41. “The Lie.” Atlantic Monthly, August 1913, pp. 177–190.

SELECTED ESSAYS “First Aid to the Alien.” Outlook, June 29, 1912, pp. 481– 485. “How I Wrote The Promised Land.” New York Times Book Review, June 30, 1912, p. 392. “A Woman to Her Fellow Citizens.” Outlook, November 2, 1912, pp. 482–486. “A Confession of Faith.” Boston Jewish Advocate, February 15, 1917, p. 5. “His Soul Goes Marching On.” Berkshire Courier, May 14, 1925, p. 1. “The Soundless Trumpet.” Atlantic Monthly, April 1937, pp. 560–569. “House of the One Father.” Common Ground, spring 1941, pp. 36–42.

Education and immigration were issues affecting men and women equally, and they remained her lifelong preoccupation; even the addition of the spiritual search did not change her primary focus. In the wake of debates about the acceptability of fictionalizing in autobiography and biography, spawned by analysis of the truthfulness of detail in books such as Edmund Morris’s Dutch: A Biography of Ronald Reagan (1999), James Frey’s autobiography A Million Little Pieces (2003), and others, critics have reexamined Antin’s memoir to see to what extent truth was tailored to serve her agenda. Other commentators have attacked the memoir because they reject its notion of assimilation as goal for immigrants from other cultures. Many readers have perceived the memoir as naive, and of course to an extent it is. Nonetheless, the original memoir remains compelling reading, both as an immigration narrative throwing light on the experiences of the vast wave of late-nineteenth

LETTERS Salz, Evelyn. “The Letters of Mary Antin: A Life Divided.” American Jewish History 84, no. 2:71–80 (1994). ———, ed. Selected Letters of Mary Antin. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1999. Antin’s letters, papers, and manuscripts are held in over a dozen libraries in the United States and in Israel.

BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL STUDIES Adelman, Tzvi Howard. “Self, Other, and Community: Jew-


MARY ANTIN Sociedad Española para el Estudio de los Estados Unidos: Fin de siglo, crisis y nuevos principios. Edited by María José Álvarez Maurín et al. León: Universidad, Secretariado de Publicaciones, 1999. Pp. 233–237.

ish Women’s Autobiography.” Nashim 7, no. 1:116–127 (spring 2004). Ashley, Kathleen. “Mary Antin’s ‘Biomythography.’” In Writing Lives: American Biography and Autobiography. Edited by Hans Bak and Hans Krabbendam. Amsterdam: VU University Press, 1998. Pp. 42–54. Avery, Evelyn. “Oh My ‘Mishpocha’! Some Jewish Women Writers from Antin to Kaplan View the Family.” Studies in American Jewish Literature 5:44–53 (1986). Bergland, Betty. “Mary Antin.” American Women Prose Writers, 1870–1920. Edited by Sharon M. Harris with the assistance of Heidi L. M. Jacobs and Jennifer Putzi. Detroit: Gale, 2000. Pp. 8–18. ———. “Rereading Photographs and Narratives in Ethnic Autobiography: Memory and Subjectivity in Mary Antin’s The Promised Land.” Memory, Narrative, and Identity: New Essays in Ethnic American Literatures. Edited by Amritjit Singh, Joseph T. Skerrett, Jr., and Robert E. Hogan. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1994. Pp. 45–88. Brown, Linda Joyce. The Literature of Immigration and Racial Formation: Becoming White, Becoming Other, Becoming American in the Late Progressive Era. New York: Routledge, 2004. Buelens, Gert. “Absentee American and Impatient Immigrant (Re)appraising the Promised Land: Henry James and Mary Antin on the New England Scene.” American Studies in Scandinavia 37, no. 1:34–56 (spring 2005). Butler, Sean. “‘Both Joined and Separate’: English, Mary Antin, and the Rhetoric of Identification.” MELUS 27, no. 1:53–82 (spring 2002). Chametzky, Jules. “Rethinking Mary Antin and The Promised Land.” Modern Jewish Women Writers in America. Edited by Evelyn Avery. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007. Pp. 17–27. Cohen, Sarah Blacker. “Mary Antin’s The Promised Land: A Breach of Promise.” Studies in American Jewish Literature 3, no. 2:28–35 (1977). Dominguez, Susan. “Snapshots of Twentieth-Century Writers Mary Antin, Zora Neal Hurston, Zitkala-Sa, and Anzia Yezierska.” Centennial Review 41, no. 3:547–552 (fall 1997). Ecker, Gisela. “Eating Identities—From Migration to Lifestyle: Mary Antin, Ntozake Shange, Ruth Ozekl[i].” In Wandering Selves: Essays on Migration and Multiculturalism. Edited by Michael Porsche and Christian Berkemeier. Pp. 171–183. Elahi, Babak. “The Heavy Garments of the Past: Mary and Frieda Antin in The Promised Land.” College Literature 32, no. 4:29–49 (fall 2005). Fowler, Lois J., and David H. Fowler. Revelations of Self: American Women in Autobiography. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1990. Juárez Hervás, Luisa. “‘A Heroine of Two Worlds’: Mary Antin’s The Promised Land.” In Actas III Congreso de la

Kellman, Steven G. “Lost in the Promised Land: Eva Hoffman Revises Mary Antin.” Prooftexts: A Journal of Jewish Literary History 18, no. 2:149–159 (May 1998). Kramer, Michael P. “Assimilation in The Promised Land: Mary Antin and Jewish Origins of the American Self.” Prooftexts: A Journal of Jewish Literary History 18, no. 2:121–148 (May 1998). Levinson, Julian. Exiles on Main Street: Jewish American Writers and American Literary Culture. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2008. McGinity, Keren R. “The Real Mary Antin: Woman on a Mission in The Promised Land.” American Jewish History 86, no. 3:285–307 (1998). Miller, Nancy K. “I Killed My Grandmother: Mary Antin, Amos Oz, and the Autobiography of a Name.” Biography: An Interdisciplinary Quarterly 30, no. 3:319–341 (summer 2007). Parini, Jay. Promised Land: Thirteen Books That Changed America. New York: Doubleday, 2008. Parrish, Timothy. “Whose Americanization? Self and Other in Mary Antin’s The Promised Land.” Studies in American Jewish Literature 13:27–38 (1994). Proefriedt, William A. “The Immigrant or ‘Outsider’ Experience as Metaphor for Becoming an Educated Person in the Modern World: Mary Antin, Richard Wright, and Eva Hoffman.” MELUS 16, no. 2:77–89 (1989). ———. “The Education of Mary Antin.” Journal of Ethnic Studies 17, no. 4:81–100 (winter 1990). Rokosz-Piejko, Elzbieta. “Falling in Love with Otherness: Some Aspects of Acculturation in Immigrant Autobiographies.” Literature and Linguistics/Literatur und Linguistik., Vol. 1. Edited by Kalaga Wojciech and Mielczarek Zygmunt. Cze˛stochowie, Poland: Wyz˙sza Szkoła Lingwistyczna, 2002 Pp. 106–114. Rosenfeld, Alvin H. “Inventing the Jew: Notes on Jewish Autobiography,” In The American Autobiography: A Collection of Critical Essays. Edited by Albert E. Stone. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1981. Pp. 133– 156. Rubin, Steven J. “Style and Meaning in Mary Antin’s The Promised Land: A Reevaluation.” Studies in American Jewish Literature 5:35–43 (1986). Sarna, Jonathan D., and Ellen Smith, eds. The Jews of Boston: Essays on the Occasion of the Centenary (1895– 1995) of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston. Boston: Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston, 1995. Shavelson, Susanne A. “Anxieties of Authorship in the Autobiographies of Mary Antin and Aliza Greenblatt.”


MARY ANTIN Writing in the Age of Realism. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2007. Wirth-Nesher, Hana. Call It English: The Languages of Jewish American Literature. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2006.

Prooftexts: A Journal of Jewish Literary History 18, no. 2:161–186 (May 1998). Sunada, Erika. “Revisiting Horace M. Kallen’s Cultural Pluralism: A Comparative Analysis.” Journal of American and Canadian Studies 18:51–76 (2000). Tuerk, Richard. “The Youngest of America’s Children in The Promised Land.” Studies in American Jewish Literature 5:29–34 (1986). Vapnyar, Lara. “The Writer as Tour Guide.” In The Writer Uprooted: Contemporary Jewish Exile Literature. Edited by Alvin H. Rosenfeld. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2008. Pp. 92–109. Wilson, Sarah. “The Evolution of Ethnicity.” ELH 76, no. 1:247–276 (spring 2009). Winter, Molly Crumpton. American Narratives: Multiethnic

Wood, Mary E. “Spiders and Mice: Nature, Class, and the City in Mary Antin’s The Promised Land.” Isle: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment 9, no. 1:45–68 (winter 2002). Zierler, Wendy. “In(ter)dependent Selves: Mary Antin, Elizabeth Stern, and Jewish Immigrant Women’s Autobiography.” In The Immigrant Experience in North American Literature: Carving Out a Niche. Edited by Katherine B. Payant and Toby Rose. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1999. Pp. 1–16.



D. Quentin Miller IN A 2009 interview with The Guardian, T. C. Boyle declares that life “is tragic and absurd and none of it has any purpose at all.ѧ the only thing you can do is to laugh in the face of it all” (p. 12). This aggressively existentialist attitude fits well with the public image that Boyle cultivates. As a self-styled enfant terrible of the literary establishment, Boyle (now in his sixties) cloaks himself at public appearances in the garb of an aging rock star: black T-shirts, an earring, and a goatee. A baby boomer who wanted to be a musician and whose coming-of-age stories center around alcohol abuse and heroin addiction, Boyle’s life story reads like that of a drifter saved by literature. In his essay on the craft of writing, “This Monkey, My Back,” he explicitly regards writing as a substitute for drug addiction.

the intent of majoring in music, but gravitated to English and history. After graduating in 1968 and developing a drug addiction that threatened his life (an overdose also killed one of his friends), Boyle turned to writing, initially about addiction. He was accepted into the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where he earned an M.F.A. in creative writing as well as his Ph.D. in nineteenth-century British literature at the University. Boyle married Karen Kvashay in 1974, and together they have three children. He lives near Santa Barbara and teaches at the University of Southern California. Boyle keeps a rigid, daily writing schedule, and for a decade has maintained an active Web site, one of the first author blogs. Some might assume that a frenzied output must be the product of a manic personality, but it is also possible to see it as the result of simple steady hard work. This is the seeming contradiction of T. C. Boyle, who seems a hybrid of two authors who influenced him deeply and whose work was dissimilar: the Benzedrine-driven Jack Kerouac and the tireless wordsmith John Updike.

Yet Boyle’s lengthy and ever-expanding oeuvre paints a more nuanced portrait. For Samuel Beckett, the realization of life’s tragedy, absurdity, and pointlessness led to shrinking, spare utterances, but as Boyle continues to dig into history and to imagine the future, he seems to reveal something surprisingly akin to traditional morality, a feature some critics found lacking from his early work. This is not to say that there isn’t a strong sense of existentialist doom at the heart of Boyle’s writing, but rather to emphasize that there are many other elements in play as well. What sometimes comes across as indifference toward humanity’s fate is tempered by deep concern for humanity.


Boyle’s first three collections of stories—Descent of Man (1979), Greasy Lake & Other Stories (1985), and If the River Was Whiskey (1989)— present a wide range of subject matter, styles, and tones, yet there are noteworthy consistencies within them. These stories address one of three prominent themes: the troubled relationship between humans and nature, violent enactment of revenge, and the intersection of popular mythology or history with the lives of everyday suburbanites. The stories reveal a fascination with fecundity and pregnancy and a preoccupation with dangerous, mad characters who tend to

This mixture may be traced from Boyle’s journey into creative writing. He was born (December 2, 1948) and raised in the town of Peekskill, New York, the son of alcoholic parents. (Absent fathers and overbearing mothers are common figures in his novels.) He entered the State University of New York at Potsdam with


T. CORAGHESSAN BOYLE disrupt the lives of their seemingly benign, sane counterparts. Humor and parody are dominant, but a dark undercurrent tinges the humor with profound discomfort. Descent of Man reveals Boyle’s range of subject matter and narrative style as it announces a number of themes that will develop throughout his career. The two epigraphs to the collection set the tone: the first is from Franz Kafka’s story “A Report to an Academy”; the narrator of this excerpt describes himself as a “free ape.” The second is “Ungowa!”, a nonsense word from Johnny Weismuller’s 1939 film Tarzan Finds a Son. Both signal comic absurdity and advance the idea of problematic relationships between humans and other primates. The title story, one of Boyle’s most frequently anthologized pieces, is a wildly comic tale of a spurned lover who believes that his girlfriend (“Jane,” echoing the Tarzan stories as well as famed primatologist Jane Goodall) is having a sexual affair with an ape. The narrator’s suspicions are exacerbated by his feelings of sexual inadequacy and his sense that an animal is more intelligent and culturally sophisticated than he. “Descent of Man” is overtly comical, but the humor is edgy, playing with ethnic stereotypes and dialects. The story raises a number of ethical dilemmas without providing any clues as to how to resolve them. The title itself is double-edged, referring to Charles Darwin’s famous study and to a moral descent of humanity that involves our species’ troubled relationship with the natural world above which we have supposedly evolved. Literature, science, and haute cuisine are revealed to be pursuits fraught with contradictions rather than the grand achievements we believe them to be. Virtually all of the stories in Descent of Man are as playful and comic as its title story. The reader is clearly in the realm of the absurd: one encounters tales of sickening gluttony, of a man desperate to enter an exclusive female sphere, of an unexplained storm in which blood rains from the sky, and of a man consumed with collecting beer cans. The motif structuring these stories is collision. Worlds collide, characters collide, and ideologies collide to produce violent changes in character as well as unpredictable plot

trajectories. One of the weightier stories in the collection, “Green Hell,” begins with an actual collision of a passenger plane. The story illustrates scenarios that mix the sitcom Gilligan’s Island with Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness as the crash survivors attempt to form a new society only to devolve into factions that seek to destroy one another. The opportunistic narrator does survive, unlike most of the others, yet his only thought is how to turn the experience into a best-selling book—another example of humanity’s descent. The final story in the collection, “Drowning,” shows that the collection’s keynote humor has often worked to mask a much darker vision of humanity. “Drowning” begins with a selfconscious postmodernist (as well as existentialist) pronouncement that someone will drown in this story, and that the reader shouldn’t bother looking for a cause. The story introduces five characters: two drunken fishermen, one sunbathing woman, one swimming man, and one desperate, pathetic male virgin who spots the sunbathing beauty. This character rapes the woman; the two fishermen, who seem initially as though they are coming to her rescue, also rape her. The swimmer, who has noticed the naked woman on the beach but has not thought of her as vulnerable, continues his swim and drowns. The rapists return to their lives without punishment; the victim ends the story in the hospital, only dimly aware of what has happened to her, and the drowned man becomes part of the food cycle, his flesh consumed by crabs, his skeleton picked apart by gulls. The cynical idea evolving here will become part of Boyle’s enduring message: that humans interact similarly to other animals, preying on the vulnerable, fulfilling their appetites at the expense of their own species, and suffering little or no guilt when their immoral nature is exposed. The title story of Boyle’s second collection, Greasy Lake & Other Stories, almost seems to attempt to apologize for the misanthropic vision at the end of his first. “Greasy Lake” centers around a near-rape as a gang of bored teenagers who believe that it is “good to be bad” (p. 1) blunder into a situation that nearly kills them.


T. CORAGHESSAN BOYLE Assuming they are simply harassing one of their friends engaged in a sexual tryst while parked in his car, they find themselves confronting a truly dangerous character. After the narrator nearly kills the stranger with a tire iron, he and his friends set upon the young woman with the intent of raping her. They are driven into the woods by another carload of delinquents and forced into a swamp where the narrator encounters a floating corpse. He survives the encounter and matures considerably, from a would-be murderer and rapist, “dirty, bloody, guilty, dissociated from humanity and civilization” (p. 6), to someone with a nascent conscience. The phrase “This was nature” (pp. 2, 9) appears twice in the story, both times following descriptions of human detritus and waste. Boyle asks his readers to contemplate if humanity’s only role in nature is to destroy it in the process of gratifying our primal desires.

paths on the unsuspecting world. In “Peace of Mind,” the main character makes a living by selling home security systems, preying on the racist fears of her clients by telling stories of black home invaders and rapists, attempting to convince them that her systems are necessary. She is called into the home of a sociopath who resents her and her company for thinking that they can stop the likes of him. He goes on a killing rampage, targeting a house that displays a sign advertising the same brand of security system. The saleswoman manages to use this incident in her next sales pitch, overcoming the guilt she feels for having, in essence, assisted the murderer. The grotesque is balanced by the fantastic in these story collections, however. In the stories not dominated by sexual predation, alcohol- or drug-induced rage, or marital discontent, there are buoyant fables of hope and passion. “Ike and Nina” (from Greasy Lake & Other Stories) tells of a love affair between Dwight Eisenhower and Nina Khrushchev that sustained Ike in his presidency while fueling cold war tensions. The culinary fantasy “Sorry Fugu” (from If the River Was Whiskey) depicts a chef who seduces a recalcitrant restaurant critic with food, but only after removing her from the presence of her dining companion. “The Human Fly” (also from If the River Was Whiskey) is an affecting portrait of a character driven to achieve fame by attempting dangerous stunts, such as scaling buildings or driving across country suspended from the axle of a truck. The narrator, the agent of The Human Fly, refreshingly seems more concerned with his client’s personal safety and sanity than with making a quick buck. There is a battle in Boyle’s early short stories between self-indulgence and altruism. Human nature is depicted as corrupt and destructive, but, occasionally, Boyle’s characters choose to work against this idea.

Sex and violence are keys to Boyle’s understanding of humanity’s relationship with nature in this collection. In “Whales Weep,” the narrator initiates an extramarital affair while observing the mating rituals of whales, and finds out later that his lover has been physically punished by her husband for her dalliance. In “Caviar,” an experiment in artificial insemination leads to another affair, this time between the narrator and the surrogate mother who has been hired to carry his child. The story’s final passage depicts the narrator fishing, having caught a sturgeon loaded with eggs: “I cupped my hands and held the trembling mass of it there against the gashed belly, fifty or sixty pounds of the stuff, slippery roe running through my fingers like the silver coins from a slot machine, like a jackpot” (p. 29). The implication of this final metaphor is that the pursuit of financial profit taints human relationships and is responsible for humanity’s destruction of nature and of one another. The motif of the “get-rich-quick” scheme permeates Boyle’s writing and reveals, in a financial context, the principle that drives all human interactions: people use one another (and nature) mercilessly for personal gratification. The stories in If the River Was Whiskey tend to be darker yet, and in them the drive to accumulate money unleashes dangerous psycho-


Boyle’s later stories do not necessarily depart from his earlier work so much as they develop or clarify themes that are also apparent in his longer fiction. The most prominent of these themes is the threat of ecological destruction. Humanity’s


T. CORAGHESSAN BOYLE A protagonist in a Boyle story will usually make poor choices based on greed or insensitivity to the natural or human world. Boyle’s 2005 story collection, Tooth and Claw, reprises a number of his themes, but concern for the environment remains at the top. One story, “Blinded by the Light,” is set in Argentina as the ozone hole rapidly grows. The narrator is isolated by his own denial that the hole is causing his animals and even his loved ones to go blind. There is little hope for humanity in the face of such denial; the crusading scientists are our only hope. Boyle manages to treat the end of the world humorously in the title story of his 2001 collection After the Plague. The narrator, one of only a handful of human survivors, allows an irascible, unattractive woman into his house in the name of procreating the species, only to learn that she had her tubes tied years ago. He discovers another living woman with whom he is more compatible, but the two of them are attacked by his first lover, who destroys their house. The protagonist observes, “It was hateful and savage—human, that’s what it was, human” (p. 301). Clouded by emotions and unable to accept the responsibilities of ensuring that the species will continue, humanity is essentially doomed, yet the spurned lover’s former fiancé miraculously arrives out of the wilderness to stabilize the relationships between monogamous couples, securing peace, if not longevity, for the species.

worst sins, according to Boyle, are gluttony and greed, which conspire to damage the natural world. The opening story of the 1994 collection Without a Hero, “Big Game,” is a chilling account of a wealthy suburban couple who participate in a fabricated safari in California. The land preserve on which they hunt is another get-richquick scheme, created by a character who affects a British colonial accent so that his clients may believe they are having an authentic experience blasting away at injured or abused animals imported from Africa. The couple, hunting only to collect trophies, acknowledges that shooting animals at the game preserve is “tacky” (p. 4), but this acknowledgment does not prevent them from destroying a number of animals before one, an enraged elephant, destroys them and the proprietor. Nature wins in this case, but in other examples the sense that humans pose a tremendous threat to the natural world is strong. “Hopes Rise” tells a tale of the disappearance of frogs and toads from local ecosystems. The title refers to the scientific discovery of tubeworms in a formerly dead stretch of water, but, the narrator isn’t convinced: “What hope. What terrific uplifting news” (p. 36). He and his lover discover a pond full of copulating toads, which is the true source of rising hope for them. They celebrate by lying down to make love amid the toads, which sounds like a positive reunion of humanity and nature, but the story’s final sentence highlights the threat that even the most well-intentioned humans present: “And when I came for her, the toads leapt for their lives” (p. 40). In Boyle’s stories, humans treat one another no better than they treat the environment. In a moving story titled “The Fog Man,” a teenager discovers that he will descend into racism when his peers pressure him to do so. The tale is eerily framed by the presence of a worker spreading pesticides through the narrator’s suburban town while children ride behind him on bicycles. The devastation of the pesticide spraying is revealed bluntly in another story in the collection, “Top of the Food Chain,” but in “The Fog Man” the poison is metaphorically related to the poison of race relations.


Boyle’s first novel, Water Music (1981), expands considerably upon the themes common to his early stories. It also reveals Boyle’s fascination with history from a postmodern perspective. This fascination applies to figures both familiar and eccentric—in this case, Mungo Park, the Scottish explorer who first penetrated the interior of the African continent, opening up possibilities for the British Empire while dispossessing and murdering native peoples. The shifting tone of Water Music is not unlike that of Descent of Man: both begin overtly humorously, then gradually reveal the cynicism and even misanthropy that


T. CORAGHESSAN BOYLE underlies the humor. Eventually, the humorous tone recedes altogether as Boyle concentrates on the depravity of Mungo Park’s mission and the culture that produced it.

may be to correct for the traditional historian by inventing tiny details that are left out of historical accounts. Boyle uses the life of the famous explorer to consider the essence of human interactions. He juxtaposes the experiences of the lowlife Ned Rise with Park’s supposed bravery. Early in the novel, Rise orchestrates a lengthy pornographic performance in a London pub while Park is doing everything within his power to chart the course of the Niger River. It is not accidental that Rise’s sex show centers around a wellendowed African, nor that Park condescends to be the sexual toy of a grotesquely oversized African queen as a way of furthering his expedition. Boyle suggests that people are all whores, whoremasters, or both. Rise’s plan to sell common London fish eggs dyed with shoe polish as caviar is one scheme leading up to Londoners calling for his hanging death; yet Park’s attempts to buy the favors of native Africans with cowrie shells and other trinkets takes nothing away from his glory. Both men are exploiters; the difference is that people die on account of Park’s actions.

If Boyle’s early stories reveal his indebtedness to Kafka, Water Music reveals a debt to more contemporary postmodern predecessors, notably John Barth and Thomas Pynchon. Boyle shares Barth’s enthusiasm for the ribald details of a past culture and Pynchon’s love of animating absurd rumors; the Loch Ness monster makes a brief appearance toward the end of the novel. Pynchonesque names such as Ned Rise and Fanny Brunch also appear in Water Music. These names are also reminiscent of the characters of Charles Dickens, whose influence on the structure of the novel is unmistakable. Water Music is a sprawling tale of betrayal, obsession, resurrection, and ultimately genocide in the name of national glory. Boyle’s postmodern sensibility results in jarring anachronisms: the narrator does not allow the reader to become fully immersed in the past; readers remain emotionally distant from the three protagonists of the novel (Park, his wife Ailie, and the scurrilous con man Ned Rise). Part of this distancing effect is created through exploiting the conventions of nineteenth-century novels, which remind readers that we are reading fiction. At the same time, this fiction depicts a historical figure whose legacy was a positive one, from an empire-building perspective. Boyle calls the truth of history into question by blending real-life characters with fictional ones.

The novel’s anachronisms may trip up the reader just as he or she immerses in the past. There is the occasional footnote, and contemporary allusions such as a Bob Dylan lyric for one of the quasi-chapter titles (“Oh Mama, can this really be the end?”) (p. 299). Mungo Park’s friend and long-term guide Johnson speaks in a twentieth-century African American idiom, and a number of other characters lapse into contemporary speech. Yet there is a tension between this narrative playfulness and a fundamentally serious intent that overshadows humor as the novel progresses. Ned Rise and Johnson improbably survive a hanging and a crocodile attack, respectively. They seem like ghosts haunting the otherwise untroubled Mungo Park during his final expedition into the African interior. These resurrected characters learn to value life, but Park never does; not only does he fail to honor the living when he neglects his wife, but he demonstrates his utter disregard for humanity during his final exploration. He is responsible for the deaths of the men he has brought with him—convicts like Rise—as well as the deaths of countless na-

History itself is a subject of debate. In the novel, one Lord Twit remarks, “And what is history, pray tell, if not a fiction? ѧ I mean to say that all our cherished histories ѧ are at best a concoction of hearsay, thirdhand reports, purposeful distortions and outright fictions invented by the self-aggrandizing participants and their sympathizers” (pp. 98–99). Park’s sidekick Johnson calls him out when he reads an account of their journey: “you’re suppose[d] to be an explorer. The first white man to come in here and tell it like it is. A myth-breaker, iconoclast, recorder of reality. If you ain’t absolutely rigorous, down to the tiniest detail, you’re a sham” (p. 121). The purpose of the postmodern novelist


T. CORAGHESSAN BOYLE tives, including a many in a convoy of canoes that he mistakes for the enemy. Boyle’s sprawling third novel, World’s End (1987), also plays with the conventions of the historical novel. Recipient of the 1988 PEN/ Faulkner award, World’s End is largely about tangled heredity and interfamilial feuds that last from the seventeenth century through the twentieth. Two Dutch families, the Van Brunts and Van Warts, battle continuously over property, and two other families—Native Americans of the Kitchawank tribe and an English family named Crane—are summarily oppressed and nearly destroyed by the feuding Dutch. History is a nearly unbroken cycle of oppression and revenge.

lived on the land. The drive to profit from land and from the hard work of others makes the patroon immoral yet clearly powerful, and others must either submit to him or face his wrath if they resist. The novel centers around parallel historical events that are open to interpretation. In the seventeenth century, two young men are executed for rising up against the patroon; in the twentieth century, a concert in support of the Communist Party is violently broken up by a mob of local vigilantes, led by one descendant of the patroon, Depeyster Van Wart. In both cases, one of Walter’s ancestors betrays his friends—his namesake Wouter Van Brunt in the eighteenth century and his vanished father in the 1949 Peterskill riots.

Boyle lists more than sixty characters at the beginning of the book and describes their relationships to one another, and although it is difficult to isolate one main character from this list, the story coheres around Walter Van Brunt. Walter is a young man raised by surrogate parents after the untimely death of his mother and disappearance of his father following a catastrophic battle between progressives and conservatives in the town of Peterskill, New York, in 1949. Walter styles himself after Meursault, the existential antihero of Albert Camus’ The Stranger, and spends his birthday “suffer[ing] an attack of history” (p. 6) while trying to escape his feelings through the methods typical of Boyle’s characters: excessive drinking and drugs. Urged on by the woman who is to become his femme fatale, Mardi Van Wart, Walter boards a phantom ship and confronts the ghost of his father, amongst other spectral images from his ancestral past. Speeding away on his motorcycle, he crashes into a historical marker, the first of two such accidents that result in the loss of his feet, metaphorically indicating his moral disintegration. Walter understands that his town is imbued with history, “but history really didn’t do much for him” (p. 17). His collisions with history are the catalysts for the tangled web of stories that comprise the novel.

When Walter’s adoptive mother tells him the story of the riots, he initially doesn’t want to believe that his father, Truman, was “a traitor, a turncoat, a backstabber and a fink.ѧ scum. A man who’d sold out his friends and deserted his wife and son” (p. 97). The ghost of Truman Van Brunt materializes to caution that there may be another side to the story, so Walter embarks on a quest for the truth that leads him to northern Alaska, where his father had gone into exile. Walter becomes so focused on his quest to understand the past that he neglects and even abuses those around him in the present, especially his wife Jessica, an idealized, generous woman who sacrifices her career for her husband, and his friend Tom Crane, the self-styled “saint of the forest” (p. 72) who lives like a hippie Henry David Thoreau. Walter’s attempt to piece together the past is a noble one, but he becomes an increasingly unsympathetic character: he cheats on his wife, and, after she leaves him for Tom, rapes her before departing for Alaska to meet his father. He has gone to work for Depeyster Van Wart, the morally depraved descendent of the patroon, and assumes Depeyster’s capitalist values while rejecting the hippie ways of his friends. The bleak message communicated through Walter’s story and other stories that emanate from it is not only that history repeats itself, but that understanding history actually intensifies this truth rather than giving people the power to alter

Disturbing patterns that begin in the seventeenth century repeat in subsequent generations. A wealthy “patroon,” or Dutch landowner, displays ruthlessness to his tenants and belligerence with the Native Americans who originally


T. CORAGHESSAN BOYLE history’s course. When he finally reaches Truman in Alaska, Walter “felt history squeezing him like a vise” (p. 394). Truman’s side of the story in fact confirms what Walter has heard or remembers: that his father is an alcoholic who abuses his loved ones and betrays his friends. As Walter attempts to judge Truman along these lines, Truman justly points out that the same is true of Walter: “No use fighting it.ѧ It’s in the blood, Walter. It’s in the bones” (p. 424). Walter initially rejects this fatalism, accusing his father of justifying his outrageous behavior “because of some forgotten shit that went down hundreds of years ago” (p. 424)—that is, the history that Truman had thoroughly researched, culminating in the hanging of innocents centuries before. Yet Walter has come to exhibit some of the same traits as his ancestors: one had a missing foot and engaged in the same ravenous gluttony that seizes Walter toward the end of the novel. His life, in the estimation of Depeyster, was “sad and doomed” (p. 453) just as his father’s had been.

novel’s tragic hero, ironically and homophonically named Hiro, is an escapee from a Japanese ship bound for the United States. Hiro believes in romance rather than reality; he boarded the ship ostensibly to find his American father, who deserted his mother before his birth. He imagines movie images of America: “he could go ashore and see the place for himself, see the cowboys and hookers and wild Indians, maybe even discover his father in some gleaming, spacious ranch house and sit down to cheeseburgers with him” (p. 18). When he encounters Americans he greets them with insults that film characters portrayed by Clint Eastwood or Charlton Heston might use. These encounters are hilarious on one hand, but the cultural misunderstanding they represent speaks to the novel’s larger sense of catastrophe. As the sole representative of the East, Hiro is a burdened character; he becomes the repository for all of the stereotypes and misunderstandings of the westerners he encounters, many concentrated in an artists’ colony (aptly named “Thanatopsis”) on a Georgia island. The main character here is Ruth Dershowitz, a less-thansuccessful fiction writer who is pathetic at best, dangerous at worst. The self-styled “queen bee” of the colony, she domineers and becomes obsessively jealous when her longtime rival Jane Shine arrives. Ruth also harbors Hiro, who has become a hunted refugee after a disastrous series of encounters with the island’s inhabitants. Her motivation for harboring Hiro seems humanitarian at first, but it becomes clear that she is ultimately using him as a way to seek vengeance on her lover, as a way to fulfill her maternal instincts, and as inspiration for her fiction.

There is, perhaps, some comfort in the two characters—the “saint of the forest” Tom Crane and Walter’s ex-wife Jessica, depicted as too good for this world—who leave the region on a boat called the Arcadia. Tom Crane is referred to as T. C. at one point (p. 430), and like his namesake author, he escapes the fate of the local history of New York state by fleeing to create a new world. Unlike Walter, Tom is able to resist the seduction of the toxic Mardi Van Wart, and his relationship with Jessica is marked by respect rather than possession. The hippie values of this eccentric character are ultimately validated, and his imagination and ability to fashion a self separate from historical fate is a triumph. Unlike Walter, Tom is able to transcend the world that created him and, ultimately, to leave it behind. While World’s End illustrates a collision with history, East is East (1990) illustrates a geographical collision. The title comes from Rudyard Kipling’s 1892 poem “The Ballad of East and West,” the opening line of which proclaims that “East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet.” When they do meet in Boyle’s book, the result is widespread confusion, mistrust, mayhem, and, eventually, tragedy. The

Ruth embodies the worst aspects of fiction writers: she is professionally jealous rather than supportive, she meddles unethically with the lives of others as a way of furthering her career, and she ultimately sells out her story for a fat contract, regarding herself as a serious journalist rather than a hack in search of quick money and fame. Routinely, she betrays those who surround her and gets away with it by blaming others. Hiro is the unfortunate victim of Ruth’s betrayals: she


T. CORAGHESSAN BOYLE believes that she is acting in his best interests by feeding him and providing clothing, but she discards Hiro once she has received inspiration for her story, and turns him over to U.S. Immigration officers. Ruth’s central flaws are narcissism and inauthenticity. She regards herself in dramatic terms, as an actress who must play certain roles as opposed to a real person interacting with other real people. In the middle of a disastrous reading (one she gives to combat a successful reading by her rival Jane Shine), she is enraptured by the thought of herself performing: “She could hardly believe it—here she was, La Dershowitz, holding them all, playing the role of the true and unpretentious artist, nearly drowning in the joy of it” (p. 328). The frivolity of this false sentiment clashes notably with the experiences of Hiro, who almost drowns a number of times in the novel, and who is forced to live with horrific deprivations and bodily torment in his earnest if misguided search for his American father. Boyle’s eleventh novel, Talk Talk (2006), also employs his signature plot structure of the collision of lives. Dana Halter, a deaf instructor at a deaf school, is hauled into police custody and detained over a weekend after a routine traffic stop. A victim of identity theft, she and her boyfriend Bridger Martin decide to pursue the thief without the help of the police, who seem powerless and inept. The result is a frantic, sometimes violent cross-country chase. Occasionally, characters who are beyond redemption appear within Boyle’s fiction; the antagonist of Talk Talk, identity thief Peck Wilson, is very much unredeemable. Boyle somehow encourages the reader to sympathize with Peck, if only temporarily. Peck, an ex-con with an explosive temper and no conscience, is also a connoisseur of fine food and wine; this contradiction reinforces the theme of the malleability of identity and seduces the reader into admiring something about him. Individual identity in this first group of novels is an uncomfortable blend of factors one cannot control (deafness, family history, ethnicity) and self-fashioning. It is undeniably fragile and, illustrated especially in Talk Talk, can be stolen or appropriated by others with ease.


This second theme-group of novels reveals a recurrent familial trend in Boyle’s fiction: fathers are absent, and mothers are dangerously selfish. Orphans are common, as are would-be parents who go to great measures to effect pregnancy. Rarely do parents and children, with their contradictory emotional needs, fulfill one another. Boyle’s novel The Road to Wellville (1993), perhaps his most famous, is on one level an illustration of this schism between the parental and the filial. On another level, it highlights the megalomania of legendary diet reformer John Harvey Kellogg, whose propensity for delusions of grandeur reappears with Alfred Kinsey in The Inner Circle (2004) and Frank Lloyd Wright in The Women (2009). Boyle is fascinated by these charismatic males and, perhaps even more, by their followers. A number of subplots intertwine in this Dickensian novel, but two main ones center around parent/child themes: Dr. Kellogg’s epic antagonism with his adoptive son George, and the relationship of childless married couple Eleanor and Will Lightbody. Dr. Kellogg, founder of the eponymous breakfast cereal empire and architect of the Battle Creek Sanitarium, began his experiments in the nineteenth century in scientific eating and suspicious medical treatments by testing his theories on orphaned children. Like most of the wealthy adult clients at his Sanitarium, the children he once took in were obedient, or at least pliable. The one exception is George, a boy who appears merely obstinate to John Kellogg, but who is truly psychopathic. It is unclear whether Kellogg’s methods of control cause George’s pathology or merely highlight it. Kellogg’s methods for the improvement of health include sexual abstinence, radical dieting (for instance, exclusively milk, or grapes, or products he manufactures), and frequent enemas. Many of Kellogg’s clients are diagnosed with “autointoxication” (p. 60), a poisoning of the system brought about through the consumption of meat, caffeine, and alcohol. Kellogg’s cure sounds like an experiment in clean living, but his almost perverse interest in his clients’ digestive


T. CORAGHESSAN BOYLE systems makes the doctor seem more an obsessive quack than the reformer he purports to be.

McCormick presents a challenge for early twentieth-century psychologists. In this novel, these psychologists and their employees feed off McCormick’s wealth while claiming to want to cure him. Stanley McCormick was the heir to the fortune of his father, the inventor of the modern machine reaper. His wife, Katherine Dexter McCormick, was a suffragette and philanthropist. Boyle uses their relationship to meditate on the nature of love and mental illness. Stanley is another hopelessly tragic figure. Over the decades, he is worsened by all of the treatments he undergoes. His illness is never even properly diagnosed; at the beginning of the era of modern psychology, the experts seemed to be learning as they went along. Stanley’s case becomes the basis for doctors’ articles and case studies. Reiterating a familiar motif in Boyle’s fiction, one doctor separates the sexually confused Stanley from all women, and places him in close proximity to a number of apes. Eddie O’Kane, one of the physician assistants, believes that the apes are actually “a bad influence on Mr. McCormick” who begins to imitate simian behavior (p. 178).

Kellogg manages to persuade his clients through lectures, dramatic demonstrations, and discussions. Most follow his advice without resistance, but skeptics emerge. One is Will Lightbody, the novel’s reluctant protagonist. Will has been dragged to the Sanitarium by his domineering wife Eleanor, a thorough convert to the Kellogg philosophy. Will first appears in the novel as a feeble follower of his wife’s commands, weakened by his poor health and his uxorious nature. Will arrives at the Sanitarium eager to please Eleanor, but soon drifts from her and discovers that she has placed her sexual energies outside their marriage. Dr. Kellogg fashions himself as the ur-paternal figure, and soon after Will first enters the Sanitarium, he finds himself swaddled in a diaper-like sheet, receiving an enema from a nurse onto whom he transfers his sexual desire. Having lost their child a year prior to the novel’s action, Eleanor and Will become children themselves, and Kellogg fulfills the role of their stern, distant father—the man who controls their desires and who disciplines them when they transgress. Will gradually realizes that a grown man must resist the infantalization that Kellogg prescribes. Will’s rebellion against his wife and the doctor has a comic ending: he literally drags Eleanor from the influence of Kellogg and those who surround him, and the couple returns home where they succeed in having and raising children.

O’Kane is the novel’s antihero. Though he is Stanley’s professional caretaker for decades, his own sexual behavior is out of control (though it may not be considered deviant in the way Stanley’s is). Having impregnated his young, nearly illiterate bride in New York, O’Kane moves with Stanley and his medical entourage to Riven Rock, a rehabilitation estate in California, partly to escape his marital and paternal duties. He seduces an Italian kitchen worker and is responsible for fathering three of her children, though he never divorces his wife back east, nor does he provide any support for their son. Though he isn’t dangerously mentally ill, O’Kane becomes increasingly harmful to those around him through alcoholism and infidelity. After years of caring for Stanley, O’Kane comes across a brief chronicle of his employer’s illness: “O’Kane felt himself oddly moved. The poor man, he was thinking, the poor man, and he wasn’t thinking only of Mr. McCormick” (p. 374). O’Kane realizes that, just like the man he looks after, he has not developed into a man beneficial to society over the years. Reviled by the women he loves,

The tragic counterpart to this happy ending is the story of George Kellogg. Will’s rebellion against the sadistic Dr. Kellogg goes relatively easily, but George and his adoptive father physically battle at the novel’s conclusion, nearly destroying the Sanitarium and each other, and resulting in George’s death. Like Hiro in East is East, George is doomed from the start: they are both orphans whose parental figures use them instead of love them. Like Ruth Dershowitz, Dr. Kellogg emerges with his reputation intact, and seems unaware or unconcerned that his success depends directly on the destruction of another. In another Boyle historical novel, Riven Rock (1998), the schizophrenic sex criminal Stanley


T. CORAGHESSAN BOYLE Eddie O’Kane is a tragic figure insofar as he gradually comes to understand his flaws, yet feels powerless to do anything about them.

views regarding people’s sexual habits and histories. What begins as important scientific research develops into increasingly questionable behavior as characters in the inner circle sleep with each other, watch one another have sex, and capture their extracurricular activities on film while insisting that it is all part of their work. Boyle’s Kinsey is both the opposite of and a kindred spirit to Dr. Kellogg in The Road to Wellville: both men are persuasive in their radical critiques of American society, yet Kinsey believes his countrymen to be too pure (or “sex shy”) while Kellogg insists they are not pure enough. As narrator, John Milk is able to give readers access to Kinsey’s most outrageous behavior, yet he remains surprisingly unwilling to critique or resist Kinsey, even when the famous scientist verbally abuses him or coerces him into sexual behavior that violates his mores. There is a breaking point, though: when Kinsey involves John’s wife Iris in the sexual freeplay of the inner circle, John attacks his mentor and commits to traditional monogamy. Boyle again posits a moral dilemma about the core definition of humanity. Prok and his followers repeatedly refer to people as “the human animal” (p. 185) and regard human sexual behavior as no different from that of other species. Milk, who was a virgin when he first attended one of Prok’s lectures, is willing to accept this theory because it allows him access to a wide variety of sexual encounters, but his colleagues ridicule him when he suggests that promiscuity jeopardizes love, an emotion they discount. The birth of Milk’s son and his wife’s disapproval shock him into developing a conscience independent from Kinsey’s teachings. The dynamic between Kinsey and Milk is reprised in The Women (2009). It is narrated by Tadashi Sato, one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s apprentices, and Wright bullies Sato in some of the same ways Kinsey bullies Milk, controlling his sex life and drinking habits. Sato remains loyal to the architectural genius as he tells Wright’s story, moving backward through Wright’s life and focusing on his major loves. Sato frequently relies on footnotes to inject his own voice and opinions into Wright’s tale, and in each of the

As in many of Boyle’s other works, a woman is the moral center of this novel, a steady force of goodness to counteract the self-gratifying and destructive tendencies of the men around her. Katherine McCormick demonstrates a lifelong commitment to her husband, and despite speculation to the contrary, she is motivated by love rather than by financial greed. The novel chronicles their relationship from the beginning, before Stanley’s schizophrenia has reached its height. Katherine is patient and kind throughout their courtship and the early years of their marriage, when Stanley’s sexual hang-ups prevent him from making love to her. Katherine’s good works do not necessarily earn respect. When O’Kane initiates his extramarital relationship in California, Katherine intervenes and transports O’Kane’s wife and son to be with him. Because she seems to be the only woman whom he cannot seduce, O’Kane dubs her “the Ice Queen” (p. 21) and resents her control over his personal affairs. Katherine’s goal is to promote healthy marital relationships, and this impulse manifests itself in her commitment to social reform: temperance, women’s suffrage, and birth control. Such a figure may seem selfrighteous on the surface, but Boyle is sympathetic to Katherine in a way that he is not to any of the male characters in the novel. Katherine is ultimately the unfortunate victim of her husband’s illness and of the doctors’ collective inability to cure him. Her constancy and mature commitment to social progress are bulwarks against male aggression and domination in many forms. Boyle’s next historical novel, The Inner Circle (2004), shares many characteristics with Riven Rock, especially in that it centers around a male figure with an eccentric sexual appetite. In this case the central figure is the famous Alfred Kinsey, zoologist and author of the famous midtwentieth century studies of human sexuality. The novel is narrated by Kinsey’s fictional protégé, John Milk, a central figure in Kinsey’s inner circle of researchers. His initial role is to help Professor Kinsey (called “Prok”) conduct inter-


T. CORAGHESSAN BOYLE three subsections of the book he tells his own story as it intersects with Wright’s. Wright is a hybrid of the other egomaniacs on which Boyle has focused: he both indulges in sex and refers to it as “the curse of Life” (p. 228), causing his second wife to regard him, correctly, as a “hypocrite” (p. 228). Hypocrisy is a familiar character trait in Boyle’s fiction, and Wright is a perfect case study. His paternalism exists to gratify his own ego rather than to benefit others: “Daddy Frank” (p. 19), as he is sometimes called, is essentially no different from Kellogg or Kinsey. What fascinates Boyle is the way that these characters influence those who surround them, not only “the women” of the title, but men like Sato who forego their own lives in order to associate with supposedly great men, even after discovering their flaws.

planning and harvest, he reaches the verge of quitting again, yet his perseverance enables him to feel a sense of accomplishment, even if what he has accomplished is illegal, and does not result in anything like the fabulous sums of money he and his colleagues have imagined. In a novel in which the main plot revolves around growing and harvesting an illegal drug, and in which all of the characters habitually drink and smoke themselves into a stupor, one would expect a more joyful hedonism than Budding Prospects conveys. The novel is subtitled “A Pastoral,” yet there are no fluting shepherds here. Rather, the novel depicts inheritors of the 1960s subculture who have grown cynical and tired. As they discuss their new business venture, they reveal their cynicism; Felix says, “Society was rotten to the core.ѧ It was dog eat dog and every man for himself” (p. 29). He goes on: “The whole hippie ethic—beads, beards, brotherhood, the community of man—it had all been bullshit, a subterfuge to keep us from realizing that there were no jobs, the economy was in trouble and the resources of the world going up in smoke.ѧ We knew what counted: money. Money, and nothing else” (p. 29). This philosophy frames a simple and essentially barren value system: Felix and his partners fail by their own measure of success, but even if they were to have succeeded, it is evident that they would not have been fulfilled. Felix comes to realize that the satisfaction of producing this particular cash crop ultimately has nothing to do with cash, and everything to do with accomplishment in the face of adversity. Every natural disaster that could possibly besiege them does, from torrential rains, to a voracious pot-eating bear, to rats, to a fire. Nature is far from the only problem, however. Felix must also deal with duplicitous business partners, an extortion-minded predecessor, an imbalanced, power-hungry police officer, a host of vigilantes who could receive a cash reward for turning the farmers in, a suspicious and hostile neighbor, a band of cantankerous drunks, and many more. Much of the novel’s humor dissolves into pathos as Felix’s predicament turns from mild ineptitude to life-ruining stupidity. Felix is wed-


One common theme in Boyle’s novels echoes and updates the work of American naturalists such as Frank Norris, Theodore Dreiser, and John Steinbeck in which human behavior is essentially animalistic and operates according to nothing more noble than Darwinian principles of nature. Boyle uses this sensibility to take a hard look at the baby boomers whose “back to the garden” ethos is revealed to be a self-deceptive fantasy. The drive to make money is a primary concern in Boyle’s second novel, Budding Prospects (1984), which begins with two poignant epigraphs, one from Benjamin Franklin’s The Way to Wealth and the other from Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. Boyle wishes to expose the folly of the American credo of getting rich through the sweat of one’s brow. Felix Nasmyth, the underemployed and overeducated narrator, joins cohorts in a get rich quick scheme to farm marijuana on someone else’s property. Everything that can possibly go wrong does in the hands of these amateurs, yet the narrator ultimately grows emotionally and morally as a result of his experiences. Budding Prospects opens with Felix’s confession that he has “always been a quitter” (p. 3), and through various trials between


T. CORAGHESSAN BOYLE according to natural principles and diminishes itself as a result. The collision in this novel is immediate and literal, as the novel’s Anglo protagonist, Delaney Mossbacher, strikes the novel’s Hispanic protagonist, Candido, with his car. Because of the language barrier between the two, just one piece of the “tortilla curtain” separating their worlds, the men move shakily away from the accident in opposite directions. Delaney ineptly offers Candido money—a paltry twenty dollars—in recompense for the injury he has suffered. The event touches off profound changes in both men: Candido becomes increasingly powerless to control his life, which spirals violently downward, and Delaney becomes aware of his own hypocrisy: his high-minded liberal beliefs give way to baser fight-or-flight instincts with regard to immigrants. There is no trace of Boyle’s distinctive humor in The Tortilla Curtain, and without the historical remove that characterizes a number of his novels, the issues it raises are stark challenges to the reader’s morality. As Delaney reveals his latent racist tendencies, he becomes increasingly unsympathetic, and yet Candido is not just a noble victim of such racism. Candido behaves just as prejudiced Anglo-Americans expect: he has no green card, he lives in a filthy camp, he steals, he eats garbage (and even one of Delaney’s pets), and he inadvertently starts a raging fire that nearly destroys hundreds of homes. Yet he does all of this in an ill-fated attempt to provide for his young wife and their baby, and to achieve some semblance of the American dream. Readerly sympathy for Candido is likely to be mixed with horror, and the same is true for different reasons of Delaney, who is transformed from a champion of liberal causes to a paranoid vigilante. The event that catalyzes Delaney’s change is not necessarily his car accident, but rather the intrusion of coyotes into his suburban development. Coyotes devour Delaney’s two dogs, and in both cases Delaney witnesses the attack yet is powerless to do anything about it. The coyotes are clearly analogous to the intruding Mexican immigrants, and the coyotes’ predatory violence stuns Delaney into a new consciousness. Delaney is a nature writer who struggles to

ded to the noble myths of American rags-toriches success; he says, “if [our scheme] failed, after all the hope and sweat and toil we’d invested in it, then the society itself was bankrupt, the pioneers a fraud, true grit, enterprise and daring as vestigial as adenoids or appendixes. We believed in ѧ the classless society, upward mobility, the law of the jungle.ѧ what else was there?” (p. 192). It is clear that this is a masculine fantasy, devoid of feminine love. Felix and his cohorts do not fully understand how the absence of valued women in their lives causes them to regard women as nothing more than sex objects, and their own needs as animalistic rather than emotional. The introduction into Felix’s life of an ideal woman, a potter named Petra who embraces the “hippie ethic” that he once scorned, draws him away from the notion that there is nothing more to American society, history, and ethics than dog-eat-dog financial dealings. Though the road back to her is somewhat implausible, Felix’s journey from self-gratification to a love relationship marks the novel’s triumph and results in a comic ending to a book that seemed destined for tragedy. His conclusion that he may even “plant a little seed” (p. 326) when he returns to Petra—fulfilling her stated desire to have children—represents not only maturity, but hope for the future in a society that seems morally bankrupt. Not all of Boyle’s neo-naturalist works end comically. Though The Tortilla Curtain (1995) connects to many of the themes of Boyle’s early fiction, it marks a turning point in his style. Like The Road to Wellville, it is a tale of how one man’s success depends upon another’s destruction, and, like East is East, juxtaposes the misfortunes of America’s immigrant outsiders against the prosperity of America’s more established citizens. The novel’s epigraph from The Grapes of Wrath and its title’s echo of Steinbeck’s Tortilla Flats indicates Boyle’s sensitivity to the American underclass, yet his style is not ideological in this nor subsequent works. Rather, by using his signature metaphor of collision to bring two American groups into violent contact with one another, Boyle indicates how humanity acts


T. CORAGHESSAN BOYLE understand the relationship between humanity and the natural world. In one of his columns about the encroachment of coyotes he vacillates between sympathy and fear; he writes, “But do not attempt to impose human standards on the world of nature, the world that has generated a parasite or predator for every species in existence, including our own. The coyote is not to blame—he is only trying to survive, to make a living, to take advantage of the opportunities available to him” (p. 214). This sentiment clearly parallels the perceived parasitical or predatory nature of the illegal immigrant community in relation to the established community, and Delaney’s nonjudgmental stance would be easier to believe if it were consistent with his response to Candido. But Delaney’s response to the man he once inadvertently wounded is violent, even destructive, and hypocritical: in an attempt to catch graffiti artists who are marring his property, and whom he is sure are immigrants, Delaney discovers that the perpetrators are in fact white youths from his gated community. He destroys the evidence he has collected and instead goes directly after Candido. Try though he might to maintain a sense of awe and wonder for the natural world, Delaney is essentially like every other living creature in his desire to protect himself from predators and to destroy the parasites who feed on his excesses.

tragic events of his life force him (and the reader) toward a more nuanced conclusion about the relationship between humans and the natural world. A Friend of the Earth is set partially in the future and partially in the past. Ty narrates the future segments, which are interwoven with a third-person account of past events in Ty’s life, with an emphasis on the death of his daughter Sierra. Ty claims to have been a “criminal” (p. 32) when he led a typical middle-class suburban existence because his lifestyle helped contribute to the destruction of the earth. Radical environmentalists from a group called Earth Forever! help him to see his criminal ways and start acting on behalf of the earth by participating in ecoterrorist actions like cementing himself (and his family) into the ground in front of bulldozers, and sabotaging equipment used to cut down trees. After one arrest, Ty observes that his doctor’s arms are “unnaturally long, ape’s arms ѧ Tierwater couldn’t help puzzling over a species so recently come down from the trees and yet so intent on destroying them” (p. 54). There is much irony and foreshadowing in this short phrase: first, Ty sees his own species from a remove; second, in the central tragic event of the book, Ty’s beloved daughter falls to her death from a tree; third, Ty himself is responsible for a setting a massive wildfire that destroys countless trees.

The challenge to nature writers like Delaney and to neo-naturalists like Boyle is articulating the similarities between humans and nature while acknowledging human responsibilities. Boyle’s fiction is heavily laced with irony in that any attempt that humans make to improve their species is countered by the truth that we are essentially animalistic. This irony is nowhere more apparent than in his novel A Friend of the Earth (2000). Ty Tierwater is a radical environmentalist who repeatedly finds himself imprisoned for his actions on behalf of the well-being of the natural world. He has a credo that is tested throughout the novel: “to be a friend of the earth, you have to be an enemy of the people” (p. 43). This belief separates most humans from the rest of nature, positing humanity as a destructive rather than a creative force. Although Ty may believe this, the

Despite his high-minded idealism with regard to the earth, it is apparent that Ty comes to be motivated less by principle than by base revenge. He blames arresting officers, judges, and detectives for his repeated incarceration. He is damaged by the deaths of his first wife and his daughter, which is why his need for revenge runs so deep (yet his wife’s death was caused not by humans but by a reaction to a bee sting, and his daughter loses her balance while sitting in a tree in a protest action against lumber companies). Ty’s hypocrisy is clearly displayed when he recounts how he discouraged his daughter’s vegetarianism by bullying her into eating meat (not only denying her her righteous beliefs, but allying himself with forces such as the timber companies who threaten to forcibly remove her


T. CORAGHESSAN BOYLE during her protest). He proclaims, “It’s a Darwinian world—kill or be killed, eat or be eaten—and I see no problem with certain highly evolved apes cramming a little singed flesh between their jaws every now and again” (p. 112). Ty reveals himself to be profoundly human, which is to say flawed, even when risking life and limb for what appears to be a noble cause.

civilization on the ashes of the old” (p. 240). His misanthropy is consistent with his original philosophy that friends of the earth must be enemies to man, but the domestic and communal urge at the heart of this vision must be reconciled: Ty hates suburbia and brands himself a criminal for having once accepted it, yet his motivation for destroying it is actually a desire to recover the losses of his wife and daughter. The radical environmental movement is incommensurate with this core desire for domestic bliss. Ty ultimately regards the movement as a money-making venture like any other business, and once he admits that his actions have accomplished “absolutely nothing” (p. 266) he actually manages to fulfill his dream, in the book’s epilogue, in which he has reunited with his ex-wife in a broken-down condo. A teenaged girl eerily resembling his deceased daughter walks in and asks about their domesticated Patagonian fox. Ty answers, “‘she’s a dog.’ And then, for no reason I can think of, I can’t help adding, ‘And I’m a human being’” (p. 271). Ty’s humanity comes only after he has fully experienced loss and grief and moved to a stable acceptance of himself and his place in the cycles of nature, having realized the futility of attempting to control them.

Boyle may believe that the radical environmental movement acts in service of a noble cause, but he is more than a little wary of it. Not only is the earth in serious decline despite all of Ty’s efforts to save it, but there is the sense that he and his fellow conspirators might actually be making things worse. Meditating upon their actions against the lumber company, he wonders, “would it save the forest? And beyond that, would it save the world? Or would it only serve to provoke the timber company all the more ѧ?” (p. 132). Reflecting the activist party line, Ty says, “all elements of a given environment are equal and ѧ morally speaking no one of them has the right to dominate” (p. 151). This sentiment rubs against his admission that, after setting the fire that destroyed so much viable habitat in the name of environmentalism, “he’d felt good. And more: he’d felt like an avenger, like a god, sweeping away the refuse of the corrupted world to watch a new and purer one arise from the ashes” (p. 163). Ty acts against his own moral code, partly out of revenge and partly out of what might be called a natural need to dominate when a species is at the top of the food chain.

The fullest realization of Boyle’s neonaturalism is his 2003 novel Drop City. His fascination with utopian seekers and with the rugged frontier of Alaska come together in a masterful, mature work that is at the pinnacle of his oeuvre. The title refers to a 1970 commune with all of the hippie trappings, but the complications of free love and abundant drugs tend to overshadow any earnest efforts to live in simple harmony with nature. After an especially hedonistic ritual called “druid day” (p. 121), the communards experience a collective bad trip involving a car crash, a lost child, and the rape of a young visitor. Rather than face the music, the commune’s founder and leader suggests that they pack up and move from commune-saturated California to a truly natural space, Alaska.

The world that arises from the ashes certainly does not seem purer than the world Ty destroys with his blaze. Boyle depicts a future in which food and drink are scarce and species are dying off rapidly. Ty and a number of aging radicals set up a preserve dedicated to the survival of some of these species only to be attacked by a captive lion. Ty clings to his vision of a purer postapocalyptic future: “A comet would hit. The plague, mutated beyond all recognition, would come back to scour the land. Fire and ice. The final solution. And in all these scenarios, Ty Tierwater would miraculously survive—and his wife and daughter and a few others who respected the earth—and they would build the new uncivilized

The Drop City portion of the novel has a huge cast, but most prominent among them are two drifting flower children who have renamed


T. CORAGHESSAN BOYLE themselves Pan and Star. Hometown lovers who set out to distance themselves from their parents’ square ways, they test the boundaries of the free love mentality. Star finds a new lover named Marco and the couple segregate themselves from the rest of the commune to pursue a modified version of domestic bliss. Pan’s nickname is meant to connote the Greek god who was companion to the nymphs, but he actually resembles Peter Pan in his stubborn refusal to grow up. He styles himself as the commune’s hunter, ignoring the widespread vegetarianism that prevails, and he routinely abuses Star, and even steals from her. He is clearly one of the parasites in the novel, taking what he can from the commune and giving nothing in return. In addition to metaphorical parasites, there are literal parasites in the novel, such as crab lice that become the scourge of the free love doctrine.

espoused by the commune. In other words, they have managed to fend off the parasites and predators that would destroy them, and are able to offer the promise of a braver new world in harmony with, not separate from, nature. It is perhaps surprising that so many of Boyle’s fictions end up underwriting monogamy, industry, and prudence. As he explains in 2009 Guardian interview, “I’m a tenured professor, hardworking and diligent and a good family man.ѧ I must be the only American writer of my generation who has had only one wife” (p. 12). The casual reader of Boyle’s books might see a host of self-indulgent and profoundly flawed men, but it is clear that such characters are often punished, or at least made to undergo uncomfortable bouts of maturity. It might be reductive to suggest that the enfant terrible of contemporary American fiction is at the core somewhat disgusted by the self-gratifying behavior of his characters, but there is more than a little evidence to suggest this conclusion. Boyle’s misanthropy and tendencies toward existential angst gradually reveal a more positive reading of humanity, just as his hedonistic, egomaniacal characters ultimately destroy themselves and make way for the more altruistic characters who have been living in their shadows. Having begun his career fixated on humanity’s descent, Boyle has revealed a subsequent fascination with narratives embracing the hope for ascent.

There are also predators, real and metaphorical, throughout the novel. The men in Drop City are routinely referred to as “cats” and the women as “chicks” (p. 67), indicating the predatory masculine agenda hiding behind the free love credo. The Alaska plot centers around another pair of lovers, Pamela and Sess Harder. Sess is a true naturalist who seeks a monogamous relationship. Pamela is Sess’s ideal mate, though her civilizing sensibilities threaten his rugged/ masculine individualism. Sess’s life is based on raw survival. In addition to the potential for starvation, madness, and frostbite posed by the Alaskan winters, he also has a potent adversary named Joe Bosky. As is common with Boyle’s protagonists, Sess is too often blinded by jealousy and vengeance, and his actions following these emotions endanger him. The clearly predatory Bosky is a psychopath whose very existence poses a threat to Sess’s well-being. Bosky kills Sess’s dogs, paralleling the voracious wolverines that attack the commune’s goats and setting up a standoff that must leave one of the two men dead. Through his own excesses, Bosky dies and takes Pan down with him. The novel ends with both main pairs of lovers intact, without the threat of male rivals, prepared to lead domestic lives based on the self-sustaining values of Alaskan survivalists as well as the communal generosity of spirit

Selected Bibliography WORKS OF T. C. BOYLE NOVELS Water Music. Boston: Little, Brown, 1981. Budding Prospects. New York: Viking, 1984. World’s End. New York: Viking, 1987. East is East. New York: Viking, 1990. The Road to Wellville. New York: Viking, 1993. The Tortilla Curtain. New York: Viking, 1995. Riven Rock. New York: Viking, 1998. A Friend of the Earth. New York: Viking, 2000.


T. CORAGHESSAN BOYLE Failure of Postmodernism.” Studies in Short Fiction 31, no. 2:247–256 (spring 1994).

Drop City. New York: Viking, 2003. The Inner Circle. New York: Viking, 2004. Talk Talk. New York: Viking, 2006. The Women. New York: Viking, 2009.

INTERVIEWS Adams, Elizabeth. “An Interview with T. Coraghessan Boyle.” Chicago Review 37, no. 2/3:51–63 (1991). Ermelino, Louisa. “According to Boyle.” Publishers Weekly, June 19, 2006, pp. 24–25. Frumkes, Lewis Burke. “A Conversation with T. Coraghessan Boyle.” The Writer 112, no. 10:26–28 (October 1999). Grant, Richard. “A Life in Writing: TC Boyle.” The Guardian, February 28, 2009. Harshaw, Tobin. “The Uses of History.” The New York Times Book Review, April 25, 1993, p. 28. O’Neill, Molly. “At Breakfast with: T. Coraghessan Boyle; Biting the Hand that Once Fed Battle Creek.” The New York Times, June 2, 1993.

SHORT STORY COLLECTIONS Descent of Man. Boston: Little, Brown, 1979. Greasy Lake & Other Stories. New York: Viking, 1985. If the River Was Whiskey. New York: Viking, 1989. Without a Hero. New York: Viking, 1994. T. C. Boyle Stories. New York: Viking, 1998. After the Plague. New York: Viking, 2001. Doubletakes: Pairs of Contemporary Short Stories. Edited by Boyle. Boston: Wadsworth, 2003. Tooth and Claw. New York: Viking, 2005. The Human Fly and Other Stories. New York: Viking, 2005.



Gleason, Paul William. Understanding T. C. Boyle. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2009.

The Road to Wellville. Screenplay by and directed by Alan Parker. Beacon Communications, 1994.

Hicks, Heather J. “On Whiteness in T. Coraghessan Boyle’s The Tortilla Curtain.” CRITIQUE: Studies in Contemporary Fiction 45, no. 1:43–65 (September 2003).


Walker, Michael. “Boyle’s ‘Greasy Lake’ and the Moral


PIETRO DI DONATO (1911—1992)

Tom Cerasulo UPON ITS PUBLICATION in 1939, Pietro di Donato’s debut novel Christ in Concrete was lauded by critics in the popular press for its formal and thematic explorations into the process of thinking and feeling Italian. A story of construction workers authored by an actual construction worker, Christ in Concrete enjoyed the good fortune of being the right novel at the right cultural moment. Throughout the 1920s and well into the 1930s, Italians in the United States had been seen as “swarthy,” as racially other, with dangerous criminal tendencies to boot, but by the dawn of World War II, boosted by America’s efforts to promote democracy around the world, Italians were well on their way to becoming “white,” with all its attending privileges. They might eat strange-smelling foods, speak a funny-sounding language, and get a little dark-skinned in the summer, but they loved their mothers, worked hard on having nice lawns, and believed in a Christian God, and in these important ways they resembled their neighbors on Main Street. By introducing the reading public to the Italian American experience, Christ in Concrete helped pave the road to their acceptance. Rose Basile Green, who in 1974 published one of the first genre studies of the Italian American novel, calls Pietro di Donato: “the first Italian-American writer to stir the American reading public to recognize fully the Italian-American experience” and finds in Christ in Concrete “a significant documentation of America’s social history” (p. 151).

Donato’s artistic powers had faded over the years since the Depression, but what had certainly changed by the 1960s was a critical climate and an American publishing industry experiencing shifts in definitions of literary value and searching for new, non-European ethnic voices to promote. What were seen as di Donato’s unique stylistic assets in the 1930s came to be seen as weaknesses in his later works written decades later, when di Donato was no longer a bricklaying literary savant, the United States had entered an age of prosperity, and Italian Americans had further assimilated.


Pietro di Donato was born on April 3, 1911, in West Hoboken, New Jersey, to Geremio and Annunziata di Donato, immigrants from the Vasto region of Abruzzi, Italy. His father, a bricklayer who was rumored to be the bastard son of a nobleman, died in a construction accident on Good Friday of 1923 when the building he was working on, located on Mott Street in lower Manhattan, partially collapsed, plunging him into a vat of wet cement and suffocating him. It was revealed later that the project’s contractor had tried to save money by using imperfect materials for the scaffolding and the flooring. Pietro was twelve years old, and as the eldest of eight children he took his father’s place as the head of the household and went to work as a bricklayer to support his large family. Although he would later take a few engineering and construction classes at City College of the City University of New York, his father’s death forced Pietro to quit school in the ninth grade. This lack of a formal education bothered di Donato his entire life.

But di Donato’s subsequent novels of 1958 and 1960, This Woman and Three Circles of Light, published after a long period of absence from the writing profession, as well as his 1960 and 1962 biographies of two female Catholic saints, Maria Goretti and Mother Cabrini, received mixed reviews. It is arguable whether or not Pietro di


PIETRO DI DONATO Pietro di Donato learned the physically demanding, dangerous trade quickly, impressing his seasoned coworkers. He also learned, painfully, to become class-conscious and ethnically conscious, realizing that immigrant laborers were often exploited by those higher up on the socioeconomic ladder. In 1927, on the eve of the execution of the Italian American anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, who had been convicted of robbery and murder at the end of an unfair trial where their ethnicity had been used against them, di Donato joined the Communist Party. But after attending a few political demonstrations and donating some money to progressive causes, he sought another venue for expressing his anger for the injustices suffered by men like his father, his godfather, and his uncles. Michael Esposito writes that di Donato’s “Old World instincts inevitably forced him to abandon the existing political structures and to replace them with his own personal, humanitarian philosophy ѧ to illuminate the conflicts the Italian immigrants encountered in accepting the American ethos” (pp. 48–49).

completely emotionalized and that future work is utterly unpredictable” (quoted in Thomas Ferraro, p. 216). “Christ in Concrete” was selected to appear in Edward O’Brien’s Best Short Stories of 1938, and Esquire also issued it as a stand-alone, stylishly typeset and richly illustrated pamphlet that sold for a quarter. Thomas Ferraro writes: The unprecedented decision by Esquire to publish a discrete version of the story may have been partly a long-term marketing ploy, generating a buzz around their discovery of a great and slightly salacious writer, but the self-interestedness of Esquire pales before the existence of the slim book itself ѧ I can’t help but think that di Donato felt something of an artisan’s pleasure/pride in the quiet beauty and relative heft of this small book, an objective correlative of the artistry that went into its representative story. (pp. 70-71)

Di Donato received many publishing offers to expand “Christ in Concrete” into a novel. BobbsMerrill provided him with a five-hundred-dollar advance and a salary of twenty dollars a week to work on the book, which allowed him to put away his trowel for a time. Di Donato completed Christ in Concrete in eight months. Upon submitting the manuscript, he then went back to bricklaying, working on several buildings for the upcoming World’s Fair. The novel was released in 1939 to great acclaim and strong sales. Soon after, according to the commentary his son Peter di Donato provided for a DVD version of the film of Christ in Concrete, an exuberant di Donato urinated on his masonry tools and tossed them off the Brooklyn Bridge into the river below.

Di Donato’s hard work had enabled him to move his brothers and sisters to a house in Northport, on Long Island, New York. When the Depression temporarily put him out of a job in 1936, he began spending time at the Northport public library, reading novels of the downtrodden by masters like Leo Tolstoy, Émile Zola, and Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Di Donato had also been reading plays by Clifford Odets, and he believed he could do a better job than Odets of depicting working-class life. Inspired to put his experiences down on paper, he wrote a short story titled “Christ in Concrete,” dramatizing the violent death of an immigrant bricklayer, and mailed it off to the editor Arnold Gingrich at Esquire magazine. Before publishing the piece in 1937, however, thinking it might be some sort of literary hoax, the magazine sent the journalist Meyer Levin to meet Pietro di Donato, just to make sure he was really a construction worker and had really written the piece. Levin confirmed he was the genuine article and “crazy about music and when he writes claims that he sees colors and forms and hears notes” but added “I think he is


Pietro di Donato’s autobiographical representative in Christ in Concrete is the boy Paul, who must become the breadwinner of his family when his father dies in the collapse of a building constructed with skimpy materials. Geremio had asked the boss, Mr. Murdin, to spend a bit more to fortify the structure’s foundation, but had been threatened with being fired if he did not keep his mouth shut: “Lissenyawopbastard! if you don’t like it, you know what you can do” (p. 9). When Paul goes to the police station to claim his


PIETRO DI DONATO father’s body, he is told: “the wop is under the wrappin paper out in the courtyard” (p. 26). The ethnic slur “wop” derives from Italian dialect for “thug” (guappo), but has come to be identified as an acronym for “with out papers.” Geremio was neither. He had entered the country legally and was beginning the process of citizenship.

123). Northerners regarded southerners as backward, cowardly, dense, and lazy. Yet those who decided to emigrate, contrary to the stereotypes of their native countrymen, obviously possessed a fair measure of bravery and ambition to make so bold a move. Like many immigrant groups before them, and after them, southern Italians came to America in search of opportunities unavailable to them in their home countries. Some intended to return to Italy once they had made their fortune; many returned in defeat and frustration well before they had done so. As Richard Gambino explains in Blood of My Blood, these southern Italians brought with them to America an elaborate social system that had protected them against both destitution and exploitation in the old country. It was l’ordine della famiglia, an unwritten set of rules governing one’s responsibilities to blood relatives—not only mothers and fathers and sons and daughters, but also third cousins and great-aunts. The importance of familial ties was reinforced by other institutions of social bonding, such as the selection of godparents, which invited outsiders into the family circle, and campanilismo, the sense of allegiance to one’s neighborhood or village. The word campanilismo was derived from campanile (church bell tower), indicating you could only trust people who lived within listening distance of your parish bells. In this way, Italians were not really even Italians. They thought of themselves not as belonging to the nation of Italy, but as members of a region in general—for instance Naples, Sicily, Genoa, or Palermo—and a village in particular. Most immigrants were members of the contadini, the lower class of southern Italians, who recognized only one social reality: family. The Italian Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci wrote extensively on this culture of the southern peasant as an example of a cultura negata, a denied culture. He argued that these subordinated groups were politically, economically, and culturally oppressed by the dominant culture—in part because of their passivity and fatalism. Although Gramsci, who was a southerner himself, had some respect for the contadino emphasis on family, he also identified some of its resulting weak-

Paul learns quickly and sharply that the larger American society has little regard for his kind. Christ in Concrete’s Italian Americans are both economically and ethnically marginalized. As Paul tries to survive in a hostile urban landscape and provide for his loved ones—a narrative told in short, impressionistic episodes—he finds himself caught between an Old World, Italian identity left behind and a New World, American identity as yet out of reach. In this way, Christ in Concrete resembles both a documentary novel in the social-realist tradition and an aesthetically modernist narrative that charts interior states. Di Donato’s deeply personal story of Paul and his family becomes the story of all Italian American immigrants. During the period 1830–1930, the century of mass immigration in the West, 4.5 million Italians left home for America. Four million arrived between 1890–1921; two million arrived between 1901 and 1910 alone. The vast majority of these new immigrants hailed from the Mezzogiorno, Italy’s eight southern provinces: Abruzzi, Campania, Molise, Apulia, Basilicata, Calabria, Sicily, and Sardinia. Their reason for coming was economic. Northern Italy possessed a temperate climate, flat terrain, abundant crops, political power, and prosperous European neighbor countries. Southern Italy was dry and hilly and unindustrialized. It was, according to a popular saying in the region, “the land that time forgot.” Peasants working the land as sharecroppers were scarcely better off than they had been under feudalism. Political promises made during the 1861 Italian unification process, the risorgimento, never came to fruition. As to why the north was unwilling to aid its countrymen in the south, Louise Napolitano writes: “To the ruling north, the Mezzogiorno (everything south of Rome) was Africa; southern Italians were the ‘blacks’ of Italy and were treated like second-class citizens” (p.


PIETRO DI DONATO nesses: provincialism, pessimism, superstition, and too much faith in religion. In Christ in Concrete, Geremio exhibits aspirational signs of the Italian artigiano (artisan) class: he can read and write, wants his son to get a book education, and views himself as a skilled craftsman. But in industrial America, Geremio has sacrificed himself to his family. He works to exhaustion on a building he knows to be unsafe, and he bears the brunt of his boss’ anger so that he can buy his own home and provide for his wife and seven children, with an eighth on the way: “Who am I to complain when the good Christ himself was crucified? ѧ I feel the building wants to tell me something, just as one Christian to another ѧ Ah, bella casa mio. Where my little freshlets of blood and my good woman await me. Home where my broken back will not ache so ѧ I have earned a bit of bread for me and mine” (pp. 4–6). For the Americanized Paul, contadino ways are not enough. His disillusionment pervades the novel. Although he takes pride in his bricklaying skills and enjoys the camaraderie of his fellow workers, Paul realizes that “Job” is a grinding, inhumane system that preys on the economically weak, destroying the body, mind, and spirit:

(pp. 142–143)

low orders blindly. In Christ in Concrete, big business does not care about the individual. As one bricklayer, the Lucy, bemoans to his coworkers, “That’s what the America does for your peasants. Vomit your poison, you miserable bastards, for when you go to scratch the louse from your hungry faces you will not even possess the luxury of fingernails” (p. 77). Taking care of one’s family is of central importance in the novel, which is the factor that pushes these men to be willing to keep putting themselves in harm’s way. Despite the terrible pay, dizzyingly long hours, and often-lethal working conditions, Job is the only option these men can imagine for themselves. In America, there is no safety net for them. As Paul’s godfather Nazone says, “And why shouldn’t the son of a bricklayer learn the art and bring food to his family? Is the school going to satisfy their needs? The Police? The Army? Or Navy? The Church? Or the City Hall stinking with thieves?” (p. 67). In the Mezzogiorno region of Italy, peasants were suspicious of formal education, which took children away from the sphere of the family and made them question traditions. They also resisted the authority of the northern-controlled Italian government and a church aligned with the landowning classes. These prejudices had been brought to America, and are dramatized in Christ in Concrete. Young Paul loses his faith in both the church and state when they fail to help his mother and siblings. The social service agency, located in a building with the words “JUSTICE” and “EQUALITY” (p. 53) chiseled into its facade (likely by an Italian American mason), denies Paul’s claim, stating that Geremio had yet to complete the citizenship process. The Workman’s Compensation Bureau absolves the construction company and the insurance company from any financial responsibility for Geremio’s death:

Work, or “Job,” is a character in the novel, and serves as an antagonist. By capitalizing its first letter and omitting the article “the,” di Donato ascribes an omnipotent, mysterious power to Job. As pawns of the labor market, Paul and his comrades face Job’s attacks of death and dismemberment each day. Their economic value resides in their ability to do dangerous work and to fol-

And they saw the winning smiles that made them feel they had conspired with Geremio to kill himself so that they could present themselves here as objects of pity and then receive American dollars for nothing. The smiles that made them feel they had undressed in front of these gentlemen and revealed dirty underwear. The smiles that smelled of refreshing toothpaste and considered flesh. The smiles that made them feel they were un-Godly and greasy

Quickly he sweated, and human water commingled with lime-mortar and brick. This is the fresh stink of Job, this is the eight hour daily duel, this is the sense of red and grey, and our bodies are no longer meat and bone of our parents, but substance of Job ѧ These men were the hardness that would bruise Paul many times. They were the bodies to whom he would be joined in bondage to Job. Job would be a brick labyrinth that would suck him in deeper and deeper, and there would be no going back. Life would never be a dear music, a festival, a gift of Nature. Life would be the torque of Wall’s battle that distorted straight limbs beneath weight in heat and rain and cold.


PIETRO DI DONATO his parents had come to the United States in search of a better life, they had found instead that this American life of social and economic determinism certainly was no better. The promise of a classless society where all men were equal had proven to be false, and hardworking people get permanently stuck, as if in concrete: “Who nails us to the cross? Mother,” Paul asks, “why are we living! ѧ Unfair! Unfair!—Our lives— unfair” (p. 226). When Paul had started bricklaying, he had been paid less than half of what the other men were getting for the same amount of work. When he asked why, explaining he could never support his large household on that salary, he was told, “That’s the way the world is” (p. 95).

pagan Christians; the smiles that told them they did not belong in the Workmen’s Compensation Bureau. (p. 133)

Instead of getting angry or indignant, Paul and his mother, Annunziata, feel that their misfortunes must be their own fault. They have seen themselves as their oppressors see them, and they are ashamed. When Paul goes to the church for help, a rotund priest sitting down to an enormous meal offers the hungry family only a single piece of strawberry shortcake—echoes of Marie Antoinette’s response to starving peasants, “Let them eat cake”—and many empty excuses. He tells them to go ask their neighbors for help, neighbors as poor as they are. That these immigrant neighbors—Italian, Jewish, and Irish—do in fact offer them food and money adds to Paul’s class-consciousness. He realizes that organizations that are supposed to help the weak and the needy—the church, the welfare office, the police—are impersonal bureaucracies indifferent to human suffering. In the book’s climax, Paul has a nightmare in which he relives the horrific deaths of his father and godfather, only to foresee his own death at the hands of Job. Here, as he does throughout the novel, di Donato excels at capturing the gruesome physicality of traumatized bodies. In Paul’s dream, “His godfather is near him with his legs snapped off and kicking the pointy ends about like a woman lying on her back and squirming in desire; he is twisted, his face chopped in two, and he’s trying to keep the lid of his one remaining eye open with his fingers” (p. 222). Statues of saints leave their pedestals and begin pushing wheelbarrows around the church. Geremio is beaten up by a figure who transforms from a priest to a foreman to “a general, a mayor, a principal, a policeman” (p. 225). Priests, foremen, and policemen are all Irish Americans in the novel, dominating their specific institutions, and they look down on Italian immigrants in the same way they had been looked down on by other ethnic groups as famine-stricken (yet, importantly, English-speaking) new arrivals in the 1840s. When he awakes, Paul is a changed boy. He has lost faith in God and country. If people like

Now Paul finds that he can no longer be passive and willing to have the world act upon him rather than him acting within it. He cannot be like his father and operate on blind faith. He is done accepting “that’s the way the world is,” and he pledges to fight against injustice and question the myths that oppress his family—though he, and the reader, are never quite sure exactly what that will entail. Beyond Christ in Concrete’s advocacy of self-reliance and its call for the recognition of innate human dignity, the novel does not beat its drum for any specific ideological position or argue for any political action or social reform. Perhaps a labor union or an Italian American community organization, for instance, would just be another bureaucratic institution, like the government or the church, and di Donato has no use for institutions. Above all else, Paul knows he wants to take the family in a new, secular direction, which worries his mother. Southern Italian culture was predicated on tradition, reflected in the proverb: “Chi lascia la via vecchia e pieglio la via nuova, sa quello che lascia me non sa quello che trova ” (He who leaves the old way for the new, knows what he leaves but knows not what he will find). If lives in stasis were bad, change could be worse. Ancient superstitions die hard. Paul knows that fortune-tellers like the Cripple are frauds, preying on Annunziata’s desire to communicate with her lost husband and giving her false hope for the future, and he has come to believe Christian-


PIETRO DI DONATO ity is a fraud as well. In a symbolic gesture toward the end of the book, one that finds him rejecting the Catholic belief that a better life awaits the long-suffering, self-sacrificing poor in the afterlife, he crushes his mother’s crucifix. But as Annunziata lies on her deathbed, mother and son are reconciled in an operatic final scene that appears to have her crowning Paul the new Christ, making the other kids his apostles:

one might expect from an untutored craftsman” (p. 307). Like Mulas’, most studies of Christ in Concrete note the author’s innovative use of poetic, sensory translations of Italian dialect to depict the inner lives and working conditions of immigrant laborers. But the novel is not without its narrative faults. For example, di Donato is no master craftsman of point of view and plot. His use of free indirect discourse and stream of consciousness have their lyric moments, but for the most part the novel bounces too frantically from the “I” of the first person to the “he” of third person to the “you” of second person, from omniscient narration to limited, from Geremio as the focus of the action ѧ to Paul ѧ to Annunziata ѧ to brief glimpses into the minds of uncles and godfathers. Di Donato is not a skilled psychological realist in the manner of Henry James for example. He is a dramatist above all else. Broken into five, act-like sections (Geremio, Job, Tenement, Fiesta, and Annunziata), Christ in Concrete moves best—and derives its power— through dialogue.

And as he cradled her closely close, she receded ѧ and crooned: “Ne’ ѧ Ne’ ѧ Ne’ ѧ How beautiful he Little Paul my own Whose Jesu self Glorified our home Nadi ѧ Nadi ѧ Nadiѧ Gifted to me By the Madonna was he And of this son Shall rise A topless lighted column ѧ! ѧ Ne’ ѧ Ne’ ѧ Ne’ ѧ” With numbing hand she beckoned. “Children wonderful ѧ love ѧ love love ѧ love ever our Paul. Follow him.”

This dialogue is also the primary delivery system of the elements that comprise the novel’s essential “Italianess,” or what Fred Gardaphe and other scholars of Italian American literature term italianita. Drawing on ideas from the eighteenthcentury Italian philosopher and historian Giambattista Vico, Gardaphe argues that “each minority culture also has a prehistory that can and must be reconstructed. For Italian Americans, this is a history largely found in the immigrants’ words and figures, or tropes, discovered in both the early writing (usually letters and journalism) and the oral traditions that inform this early literature” (1996, p. 20). This gives novels like Christ in Concrete not only literary value, but ethnographic import as well. Documents like di Donato’s narrative allow an ethnic identity to be defined, located, and rediscovered by looking closely at its formal and thematic elements. With its insider voices, Christ in Concrete is an emotional history of Italian Americans in the early part of the twentieth century. We learn about di Donato’s characters, and about their experiences as ethnics in America, by listening to what they say.

(p. 236)


In his 1939 review of Christ in Concrete, which appeared in the daily edition of the New York Times, Charles Poore notes di Donato’s lapses into melodrama and “over-ornamented prose,” but he also praises him for being able to “write, at will, like Sherwood Anderson, Dreiser, May Sinclair, Joyce, or any of the experimentalists who have heard the siren call of Stein. He has brewed a pretty strange and fiery mixture of realism, romanticism, naturalism, and impressionism” (p. 31). A more recent critic, Franco Mulas, writes: “Although the writing betrays various stylistic inconsistencies, on the whole we can say that the young author succeeded in giving us a convincingly objective view of the protagonists’ world as they themselves lived and viewed it. At the same time, however, he charged it with the meaningful tensions of his own youthful feelings, without quite falling into the sentimentality that


PIETRO DI DONATO Di Donato often translates idiomatic Italian expressions into English, as when one foreignborn character says to another on the book’s opening page, “Ah, father of countless chicks, the old age is a carrion” (p. 3), or the way the Italian per piacere (please) is rendered literally as “for pleasure” throughout. Another tonal register is broken English, as when Mike the Barrel-mouth yells out: “Somebodys who gotta bigga buncha keeds and he alla times talka from somebody elsa” (p. 4). Similarly, when Italian speakers are interacting with English speakers in English, they find themselves reaching for awkward phrases and making syntactical mistakes in their second language. Paul’s injured uncle Luigi, who will lose an infected leg doled out by Job, cries out: “Nurse-nurse, I sense badly ѧ nurse-doctors, I sense ill” (p. 87). Luigi is trying to translate the mother tongue phrase that means “I feel sick”: mi sento male. Sometimes, when an English translation of a word cannot convey the same cultural meaning, di Donato leaves the Italian mixed into his translation: a male baby in Geremio’s patriarchal world is a bambino; his home is bella casa mio; the beloved Roman Catholic deity must be addressed as Dio; and the deeply religious Annunziata’s deathbed song equates Paul with Jesu.

theme of loving family bonds that remain strong through hardships. Furthermore, its exploration of outsiders in search of the American dream located it squarely in the mainstream tradition of the literature of the United States. Therefore, it was looked at not just as an Italian American novel, but as an American novel as well. Christ in Concrete was a main selection of the Bookof-the-Month Club, where it was picked by the committee over John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, ultimately selling eighty thousand copies and providing it with the lucrative stamp of middlebrow approval. Like many examples of American ethnic realism, such as Henry Roth’s 1934 Call It Sleep, di Donato’s Christ in Concrete was an insider account of first-generation experience written from the perspective of a second-generation participant and observer. But the novel held more than just sociological interest for readers. A great deal of the excitement about Christ in Concrete was about di Donato himself. Reviewers often appeared to praise the autobiographical novel for its worker-author’s wonderful ignorance of how a novel should be written. Asked many years later how he had arrived at his signature writing style, di Donato explained: “By virtue of not having had an education, I can be direct and literal and translate literally. If my mother said a thing a certain way, that’s the way I translated it, without any thought of grammar or this and that. It comes across, and there it is. That’s why it looks so different and so original. Then the next thing, of course, the dramatic structure, well that’s dictated by nature, by my rhythms, by my volatility, that which I cannot change” (von Huene–Greenberg, p. 36).

These different sounds and different dialects all combine to create a new language for a population in transition—not still fully Italian but not quite American yet either. Throughout the novel, Paul serves as intermediary and translator, able to code switch from Italian, to Italianized English, to standard English. He speaks “proper” English with his Jewish American friend Louis, who will go on to educational opportunities unavailable to the young bricklayer forced to support his family. As the son of Italian-speaking parents, Paul also understands orders barked at him in another language on the worksite. By the end of the novel, he seems to have found a balance between an Italian-speaking, class-bound familial identity and an American dream that must be pursued in English.

In the press, di Donato was treated as some sort of noble primitive from a land of strange talk and strange customs. Frederick T. Marsh in the August 20, 1939, New York Times Book Review called him “an untutored sensuous artist” (p. 4); and Dorothy Canfield reported “your ears are wonted to the new-minted freshness of their Italian-English metaphors and rhythms, so that to return to the correctness of our own stereotyped everyday talk is almost like leaving poetry for prose” (p. 28). Where highbrow and middlebrow

Despite the linguistic otherness of the book’s characters, critics of 1939 found something universal and reassuring in Christ in Concrete’s


PIETRO DI DONATO critics of the late 1930s thought they had discovered a savage modernist, those on the radical left thought they had discovered a proletarian novelist who was an actual member of the proletariat. However, in time, di Donato and his novel soon disappointed members of both camps. The author was adamant that he was not experimenting with language or trying to be artful; he was simply capturing the lyrical colloquialism of the Italian conversations around him. And although the novel’s characters are literally building capitalism’s infrastructure by erecting buildings in New York City’s financial district, capitalism isn’t to blame for the problems of Paul’s family; corruption is the culprit. A bargaining table isn’t the center of his characters’ lives; the family dinner table is. Pietro di Donato was a teenage member of the Communist Party, but he did not self-identify with leftist literary groups and did not publish in their journals. Furthermore, in his speech to the Third American Writers Conference, he made it clear that he was not interested in writing for class-conscious people and would not give up an ethnic identity for a class one. Later in life he was even more explicit in his feelings: “I was disenchanted with the masses, I saw them for what they were, treacherous, weak, fragmentary. They’re not whole people” (von Huene–Greenberg, p. 52).

But in late 1939, after a few months spent in a hedonistic haze in which he enjoyed the type of capitalist perks his Christ in Concrete seemed to condemn, the author soon found himself right back among the masses. Michael Esposito writes: “When his money was gone—he earned approximately $100,000 lecturing and writing—his new friends deserted him. Too mentally exhausted to resume writing, di Donato wandered aimlessly about the United States in an attempt to rekindle his creative spark; he was a derelict between 1939 and 1942” (p. 47). During this period, he did manage to write a one-act play titled “The Love of Annunziata,” which dramatized Geremio’s unfaithfulness to his wife and her forgiveness of his transgressions, but di Donato was unable to support himself as an author in the years to follow. During World War II, registering as a conscientious objector, he went to a Quaker camp in Cooperstown, New York, to work as a forester. He thought the war had been “manufactured by international capitalism” and was angry that “this goddamn society had sent me to go to work at twelve and did not send me to high school or college” (von Huene–Greenberg, pp. 42, 43). At the camp, he met his future wife, the widow Helen Dean, a former showgirl, who had recognized him from his author’s photo on the Bookof-the-Month Club edition of Christ in Concrete. Married in 1943 by New York City’s Italian American mayor Fiorello La Guardia, the couple moved to Long Island, where they would raise two sons, Peter and Richard. In 1946, di Donato decided to start a masonry business with his brother. His return to construction was, he later said, “a humiliating and desolating experience.” He thought that he had let down his fellow Italian American bricklayers. “My coming back and joining them seemed a betrayal of their expectations of me” (quoted in Esposito, p. 56). Unable to deliver on his promise as a great artist, he was once again simply an ordinary guy.


With the success of his novel, di Donato had left many of his paesani behind: “I had access to a strata of society that they did not have. They couldn’t sit with Dorothy Thompson, the big columnist, or famous people. But famous people were looking me up. They wanted to see this laborer, this bricklayer, to see what picked his brain. I picked their brain. It was interesting. Naturally, I was escalated to another plane in every respect. ѧ Here’s the difference—the wealthy knew what they wanted and went after it and got it. The poor masses didn’t and still don’t know what they want and are incapable of uniting to get what they need” (von Huene–Greenberg, p. 45).

In the late 1940s, when di Donato was approached by filmmakers who wanted to adapt his novel, he was hopeful that it might renew interest in him and his writing. Give Us This Day, a 1949 movie version of Christ in Concrete directed


PIETRO DI DONATO by Edward Dmytryk and starring Sam Wanamaker as Geremio and Lea Padovani as Annunziata, won an award at the Venice Film Festival but received only a limited American release, under the less blasphemous title Salt to the Devil. One reason often given for the film’s rapid fall into oblivion is that Dmytryk was suspected of being a Communist. As one of the “Hollywood Ten” who refused to testify in the House Un-American Activities Committee’s hearings, he was blacklisted from the film industry for a time, which affected the film’s distribution and exhibition possibilities. Furthermore, the film fit no established Hollywood genre and was not distributed by a major studio, so it had trouble finding an audience. The fuss over Christ in Concrete had gone quiet long ago, and Pietro di Donato felt like a forgotten man. Yet he continued writing in his spare time and worked on a second novel for over a decade. The result was 1958’s This Woman.

and familial stability is restored when Isa tells Paolo he is the father of her son. Then they all go to the beach. Critics such as Rose Basile Green have mined the novel for glimmers of larger, sociological significance, seeing in Paolo’s wife’s smug smile the mocking of the Italian by the Anglo-Saxon and viewing her wealthy ex-husband as a representative of capitalism. Green writes: “the final burial of Jack’s body is the symbolic rooting of ethnics who preceded the Italian-American, and the act is representatively violent. With the expiation of this necessary act, Paolo concludes that idealism is a functioning illusion, that even oneness with a woman is a romantic dream. The reader senses that DiDonato is saying, on another level, that the American Dream is an inspiring but romantic idea” (p. 155). According to di Donato, however, This Woman was “an obsessive novel about myself and my wife. It had a complete style of its own. I kept seeing her past” (quoted in Esposito, p. 56), and the theme of the text was “my Catholic compulsion to have had a virgin wife” (Diomede, p. 105). Published by Ballantine, known for its attractively priced midcentury paperbacks on drugstore spinning racks, This Woman was dismissed by Time as “a sex potboiler” (p. 101). In Christ in Concrete the reader gets to know Paul’s family intimately; here the reader gets to know Paolo’s erotic exploits—and therefore presumably Pietro di Donato’s erotic fantasies and exploits—intimately. As the protagonist has sex with Isa, we are treated to her private thoughts and whispered bedroom conversation regarding his prowess:


Like Christ in Concrete, di Donato’s This Woman was autobiographical, but instead of telling the story of an immigrant group made fatally passive by religion, this new book was about an aggressive husband dangerously obsessed with his wife’s romantic past. Freed from the apron strings of his dead mother’s Catholicism, Paolo di Alba has become a libertine. Fred Gardaphe writes, “For Di Donato, the solution to the problems created by capitalism would come not in the form of an organized church, but rather through a spiritual quest for truth that would lead him back to pagan sensualism that he would record in his second novel” (1993, p. xvii). After numerous sexual encounters with a variety of women, Paolo enters into a sadomasochistic affair with Isa, a widow whom he eventually marries. But Paolo’s jealousy of Isa’s first husband, a wealthy hotelier, begins eating away at him. Isa will not get rid of Jack’s stuff, and it drives Paolo mad. At one point he rapes his wife on her ex-husband’s grave; later he digs him up and desecrates the body, then drags Isa to see the defiled corpse. In a conclusion that escapes all logic, the couple reconciles

“Paolo boy, you know your stuff. You kill me. This is the way I want to die.” This guy’ll slaughter me before the night’s over. Goodie, Goodie, he fits beautifully. “Jack weighed a ton, couldn’t breathe. Thought he’d crush me out of shape the first time.” Sister mercy of the butterflies this guy has put electrodes in my ѧ (p. 18)

There is no real reason here to split up what Isa is thinking and what she says: both proclaim Paolo a great lover. There is no disconnect between her outer voice and her inner voice. This Woman reads like a catalog of sensations and


PIETRO DI DONATO emotions; it has no real plot or narrative tension. Like many examples of borderline pornographic writing, it just gets boring after a while. In reviews of Christ in Concrete, di Donato’s episodic construction and piling on of words were praised for their Joycean, impressionistic effects. His prose seemed to mirror the confusion felt by his characters in a world and language they were still trying to figure out. But here, the worst features of the author’s ham-fisted style seemed exposed:

effective in Christ in Concrete, but here is only exasperatingly cloying” (p. 429). But what had changed to make a device once aesthetically satisfying now gratingly annoying? Both novels revolve around the death of Geremio, but move in different thematic and chronological orbits otherwise. In Christ in Concrete, Paul di Alba rejects the religious faith of his mother. Three Circles of Light places more stock in religion than did its predecessor, although that religion is not quite Roman Catholicism. Mezzogiorno Catholicism included polytheistic elements derived from conquerors of the region as far back as ancient Greece and Rome. For example, saints and the Madonna were treated as minor gods and could be asked to perform small favors or to put in a good word with the Lord. Worshippers could turn on these figures and take their allegiances elsewhere in the pantheon if prayers went unanswered. As seen in Christ in Concrete, southern Italians also believed in superstitions such as the “evil eye” and in faith healing. Di Donato’s fictional world depicts religion to be as cultural as it is spiritual. In Christ in Concrete, Geremio was the innocent victim of unscrupulous builders, but Three Circles of Light reveals that he was complicit in financial shortcuts being taken. His harrowing death scene in Christ in Concrete—with his genitals impaled on a steel rod, his teeth snapping off, and his mouth filling with blood as he tries to bite through the concrete that is suffocating him—is reduced to a matter-of-fact description in Three Circles of Light: “The edifice upon which Father was laying brick collapsed. The building hated Father, hated Annunziata and her children. The many floors and walls threw themselves vengefully upon Father and crushed him. That Good Friday, Father, against his wishes and our wishes, became my very own Christ in concrete” (p. 176). Furthermore, the novel implies that Geremio perishes not because of the corruption of others, but as the comeuppance for his sins, the most mortal of which is adultery. In taking a blond American mistress, Geremio has placed a pox on his house. A local woman, Teresina, warns his wife: “The American heart and soul feels not for our kind. Have Geremio discard

This woman was the same as many women; a woman necessary, as the earth is to the swirling seed and the sower’s hand. The balm of peace transcending came to him and removed him from her, and with it lightened the burden of his need for her. From this entablature he could look unselfishly down upon this Isa and Tromm with sympathy, as if viewing from an elevated detachment their mutuality of common equilibrium, and her deprivation and vacuity of the same by his death. (This Woman, p. 213)

Critics derided what they saw as a phony elevated diction. Furthermore, as an author stand-in Paolo/ Paul was much less sympathetic here than he was in Christ in Concrete. In the first novel he was a boy trying to provide for his mama and baby siblings; in the second he was a batterer, a sadist, and a rapist. The rooting interest just was not there. Di Donato’s third novel did not fare much better. Three Circles of Light, which appeared in 1960 and is written as a prequel to Christ in Concrete, chronicles the life of Paul and his family up to the time of his father’s death. The three circles of the title are family, church, and work. Like Christ in Concrete, the novel moves episodically, but this time the technique was seen as a weakness by critics. Time said that di Donato “has written a piece of immigrant Americana that has no more narrative line than an antipasto” (p. 101), the Commonweal reviewer Philip Deasy called the work “a cliché-ridden, overdone piece of hokum” (p. 430) whose “descent into sentimentality, bathos, and just plain scurrility is rapid. ѧThe dialogue for the most part is in that phony Biblical idiom that purports to be a translation of the speakers’ Italian, a device that was lyrically


PIETRO DI DONATO Delia Dunn and these Americans who look down upon us as an inferior race. Remember seriously, when darkness strikes one of our homes, it is the paesano who brings the order of strength, and the sacred taper of care and love” (p. 147). Teresina’s words point to what may have irked reviewers about the book, and why it was seen as inferior to Christ in Concrete. Not only were there thematic differences in worldview between these two novels, there were differences in the social reality of the world itself between these two novels. The sociologist Richard D. Alba writes:

Soprano’s psyche, di Donato’s working-class everymen, Mario Puzo’s mafiosi, and the pop singer Madonna’s crucifixes—that have transmitted Italian American mores and sensibilities into the larger American oversoul. He writes of di Donato’s achievement in Christ in Concrete: In the depth of the Depression, a man very much like the son of Geremio, a bricklayer who was expected to fill his later father’s shoes all his days, nonetheless willed himself into becoming a writer, a man of the word (not bricks) in the public eye. It was then, and only then, as a writer, that di Donato was able to reveal “the flesh and smell and joy of them” who were, as he put it, his “own people,” and who had since their arrival lived beneath the radar of middle-class sentiment, so close to the bone.

The position of Italians in American society shifted very rapidly during and after World War II. The war had the effect of expanding the magic circle of citizenship to include Italian Americans and other white ethnics, and it drew a distinction between the previously despised European ethnic groups and people of color that had not been so visible before. Consequently, in the aftermath of the war, it was the white ethnics who made tremendous socioeconomic strides. In fact, the social position of Italian Americans continued to improve throughout the period under discussion, and the group’s social mobility was accompanied by demonstrable cultural and social assimilation. The most significant indicator of the assimilation trend was the intermarriage rate, which rose sharply in the 1950s and 1960s.

(p. 71)

Ferraro’s chapter headings (like di Donato’s in Christ in Concrete)—“Honor”; “City”; “Job”; “Mother”; “Song”; “Crime”; “Romance”; “Diva”; “Skin”; and “Table”—provide a list of archetypal words, deeply resonating with Italian Americans, that have become central to the mainstream culture through the historical commodification of an Italian American identity. In these ways, di Donato’s later novels may have seemed passé, making them victims of a postwar acceptance of Italian Americans that had been helped along by Christ in Concrete. In Three Circles of Light, a 1960 prequel to a text written over twenty years earlier about a time before World War I, Italians still self-identify as a different race. They have not assimilated and, as Teresina’s words remind us, many of them have no intention of doing so. They do not care to be Americanized and choose to remain in an ethnic enclave. But by the 1960s, this was no longer the reality. Implicit in reviews of Three Circles of Light was that Pietro di Donato was out of touch. The suffering of Italian Americans no longer played as well as it had in 1939, and di Donato’s characters now came off as mere Tony Macaroni stereotypes. Furthermore, publishers and literary critics in the United States were now looking for new voices and experiences to champion. In 1964, Congress revised the immigration laws, and stories of new American ethnics, from the

(p. 99)

A familiar discussion in studies of American ethnicity since the late twentieth century, like Alba’s, has been the process whereby some immigrant groups formerly thought of as “nonwhite”— Greek Americans, Italian Americans, and Irish Americans among them—were re-racialized, ethnically dry-cleaned, to emerge as Caucasians. Thomas J. Ferraro’s Feeling Italian: The Art of Ethnicity in America (2005), which includes an insightful chapter on Pietro di Donato, sets up shop in a different spot. Ferraro argues that Italians did not become more American; Americans became more Italian. He writes: “The feelings Italian Americans have for themselves, the feelings non-Italians have for Italian Americans, and the feelings both have for the role of Italianness in America intertwine and interpenetrate” (p. 4). Ferraro looks at aesthetic objects and pop-culture figures—such as Frank Sinatra’s performance of self, Joseph Stella’s modernist paintings, Tony


PIETRO DI DONATO Caribbean, Latin America, and Asia were waiting to be told, marketed, and sold.

knew how to get things done by convincing people to help her. She would size up a community and angle for the best price on properties she wanted to transform into a nursery, a rectory, or even a farm. Much of the real estate she amassed for the Catholic Church in the cities of New York and Chicago would later become extremely valuable. She was always an underdog, always in poor health, but her strong faith and ironclad devotion to God kept her going and allowed her to help tenement dwellers, orphans, miners, and hospital patients.


With its emphasis on ritual, customs, and on superstitions like the “evil eye,” Three Circles of Light seems to have found Pietro di Donato making peace with the pagan-inflected Italian American Catholicism of his youth, but stopping way short of an outright return to Roman Catholic faith. In other words, he had a newfound respect and cultural pride for the pageantry and iconography of the church, but not its doctrine. In this vein, he wrote two novelistic hagiographies, 1960’s Immigrant Saint: The Life of Mother Cabrini and 1962’s The Penitent. Di Donato had begun researching the life of the woman known as Mother Cabrini as a screenplay for a film for Twentieth Century–Fox, in which Sophia Loren was to play the title role. Plans for the movie fell through, and the material was reshaped into a book, published by McGrawHill. The biography follows the life of Francesca Xavier Cabrini, the first American canonized by the Roman Catholic Church as a saint, and it dramatizes episodes from her childhood in Italy, her mission in New York City to work with the poor, her struggles with anti-immigrant sentiments, her founding of the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, her death in 1917, and her canonization in 1946. Di Donato told an interviewer: “I fell in love with Mother Cabrini as a human being. I would never write about a god or saints that I have never seen. I’m not that credulous and naïve. So, realistically, Mother Cabrini did more good for the Italian immigrants than anybody” (Diomede, p. 139). The book might best be described as a nonfiction novella. While di Donato quotes from letters and other historical documents, much of the material is imaginative. He imagines conversations Cabrini might have engaged in and creates for her baroque internal dialogues and symbolic dreams and visions. The portrait that emerges of Cabrini is of an energetic, courageous, thrifty, ingenious, highly organized woman who

Some 1960s reviews of the biography suggested that di Donato’s treatment of the material was too operatic and that he had tried too hard to depict Mother Cabrini as the victim of anti-Italian discrimination. Philip Burnham wrote in Commonweal: “The situation of the new ItalianAmericans was not so pathetic and saddened by specific discrimination as to check the great tide of their immigration, nor, probably, to justify a certain righteous querulousness in this book” (p. 513). Many historians would disagree. The American Catholic Church saw Italian Catholicism as almost equivalent to paganism, and Cabrini faced discrimination even from the New York archbishop Michael Corrigan, who essentially advised her and her sisters to get on the next boat back to Italy. Even with his minor objections to the treatment of the material, Burnham, like many reviewers for Christian news outlets, found much to admire in the book. After Christ in Concrete, Immigrant Saint was perhaps di Donato’s most successful work, though its audience was much smaller. The biography was a favorite of religious book clubs and appeared on Christian “best of” lists. St. Martin’s Press also reissued it in 1991, which renewed interest in di Donato for a time. The March 15, 1991, issue of Library Journal recommended that although Catholic readers were the most likely audience “general biography and non-Catholic religious collections should include it” (p. 120). The idea for di Donato’s other biography of a saint was given to him by his wife, Helen, who had read an article in the New York Times on the 1902 murder of the Italian girl Maria Goretti and


PIETRO DI DONATO the subsequent moral reformation of her killer. Instead of focusing on the saint, The Penitent, published by Hawthorn, focuses on the sinner. The preteen Goretti had been killed fighting off her would-be rapist, Alessandro Serenelli, a fisherman living with her family. As he hacked her to death, Goretti forgave him. During his trial Serenelli was unrepentant, and citizens observing in the courtroom were clamoring for him to receive the maximum penalty. But Maria’s mother spoke on his behalf, stating that if Maria had forgiven him during her murder, then she would forgive him at the trial as well. Serenelli served a sentence of twenty-seven years for his crime, and while in prison he grew close to the Goretti family. Upon his release, he entered a monastery, where di Donato visited him:

penetrated by ‘religious’ kitsch. It is, regrettably, hard to believe that the author of Christ in Concrete also produced this venture in Reader’s Digest hagiography” (p. 407). Di Donato’s final works after these hagiographies concentrated less on the sacred and more on the profane. From the mid-1960s through the 1970s, he published short stories and articles in men’s “nudie” magazines such as Playboy, Penthouse, and Nugget. In 1978 he won an Overseas Press Club Award for a Penthouse article on the kidnapping and murder of Aldo Moro, the leader of Italy’s Christian Democratic Party. Many of these pieces, along with excerpts from Christ in Concrete, This Woman, and Three Circles of Light were collected in a 1970 volume titled Naked Author, published by Phaedra. The book is marred by numerous typographical errors, but—as its title indicates—it reveals much about Pietro di Donato’s life and his emotions. It also finds him, as he is getting old, reflecting on his writing career and his place in literary history. One of the stories it features, a 1966 piece titled “Tropic of Cuba,” is based on di Donato’s 1939 meeting with Ernest Hemingway, in which each man tries to outdrink and outboast the other:

It was like an old-age place. He had read my book, Christ in Concrete, and he had two favorite books, Delitto e Pena [Crime and Punishment of Dostoyevsky] and Christ in Concrete of DiDonato. So we became great friends. We took a lot of pictures together and wept together, and we prayed together and so forth. So that was so rewarding and again I say it had nothing to do with the Jew God named Christ and Jehovah in the Old Testament and all that kind of fatal stuff. It had to do with my people and all truth and humanity.

I said he was full of shit and he said his shit was better than anyone else’s shit. According to him he was the champ of writing and of this and of that. “[sic] To me he was his mother with a mustache and hopelessly imbedded was his father’s hysteria; and I felt his type was comfortable only with lesbians.” [sic] He said I was a flash in the pan and could never discipline myself as a professional author; and what was funny was that he, a convert to catholicism, called me a false catholic.

(quoted in Diomede, p. 141)

In The Penitent, di Donato’s Depression-era study of the works of Dostoevsky in the Northport public library appears to have paid dividends. The biography does a good job imagining Serenelli’s tortured inner dialogues, both as a will-to-power madman in the days leading up to his crime and, gradually, as a man searching for redemption. Here, as elsewhere in his body of work, di Donato vividly describes the battles between the spirit and the flesh. However, some critics saw the book’s focus on the murderer to be misaligned, and they wished for less melodrama and more intellectual rigor. Maria, canonized by Pope Pius XII in 1952 as Saint Agnes, comes off a bit too saintly. One reviewer, Thomas P. McDonnell, wrote, “Although this is not a postcard biography by any means, it is nevertheless clear that Alessandro Serenelli remains within a mystery of sanctity that cannot be

(p. 265)

Di Donato wrote a novel called “Havana” based on the story, but could not find a publisher for it. For many decades, the author worked on a long work titled “The Gospels,” a jeremiad-like, politicized reimagining of the New Testament set against the backdrop of the late twentieth century. The material features wars, copulations, executions, assassinations, and carnage and ends with the Last Judgment. Louise Napolitano writes: “Stylistically, the Bible, mythology, theatre of the absurd, Dante, Strindberg and Pirandello converge in The Gospels” (p. 11). Each section


PIETRO DI DONATO features a Christ of changing ethnicities and genders: a Native American Christ, a Jewish Christ, a female Chinese Christ, and a black woman Christ. Di Donato intended the work to be “purely my revenge on society, my answer to all the nonsense of authority and of Church and so forth” (vonHuene–Greenberg, p. 33). The Gospels were never completed. Di Donato died of bone cancer on January 19, 1992, on Long Island, New York. The novel remains unpublished.

that it is real. I’m real, but playact. They say, ‘He’s a genius. Look how lyrical this and that.’ No, he suffered, he suffered, he suffered” (Diomede, p. 127). Here, di Donato has it both ways. He quotes others calling him a literary genius but appears to retain an identity as an authentic Italian American worker whose artistic material comes straight from life, as opposed to those mafia playacters DeNiro and Mario Puzo. Into his eighties, Pietro di Donato still took great pleasure in playing the role of, as Frederick Marsh had called him at the beginning of his writing career: “the untutored sensuous artist.” Robert Viscusi writes: “The outrageous is what still retains a flavor. Di Donato remained a freethinking Italian bricklayer to the end of his days, never pausing to make himself more decorous, more restrained. In retrospect, this witness resembled a Christian sign of contradiction, a witness to another and superior way of seeing the world ѧ Di Donato’s penance was to immure himself inside his imaginary father’s imaginary body as if it were itself a concrete coffin” (p. 106). Viscusi goes on to say that this literary search for a lost father struck a chord with Italian American writers and scholars who came of age in the 1970s: “Di Donato’s version had particular salience to a whole generation of immigrants’ children who had overcome their fathers by leaving them behind, forgetting their language and their music, and then had emerged, after the Cultural Revolution of 1968, finding themselves to be Italians all over again” (p. 107). This Woman and Three Circles of Light had been published too late to be included among the American immigration stories of early twentieth century yet too early to be part of the celebration of multiculturalism and the recovery of Italian American ethnic identity of the 1970s. Today, Christ in Concrete is still considered Pietro di Donato’s greatest artistic accomplishment. In interviews with Diomede and von Huene–Greenberg, di Donato himself agreed with this assessment. But the later novels have now found their champions. Through di Donato’s writing, critics can explore what it means to be Italian in America and what it means to be an American of Italian descent. Louise Napolitano writes that di


From the beginning of his writing career, the story of di Donato the uneducated Italian American bricklayer was cemented to the story of di Donato the author. Like many American authors, Pietro di Donato was a master architect of his own mythology, even if the stories he told about himself did not always hold up over time. In “Paesano with a Trowel,” a 1960 profile in Time magazine that coincided with the publication of Three Circles of Light, di Donato explained his long absence from writing as a crisis in identity. After the publication of Christ in Concrete, he said, he had become “too sophisticated for bricklaying and too confused to write.” He had moved to a wooden house on Long Island because he was “sick of brick” (p. 101). Yet at other times throughout his life, he maintained that he had never planned to be an author, was not an artist, and simply wrote from and about his experiences as an Italian American manual laborer. He told Dorothee von Huene–Greenberg: “I’m in my way, although uneducated, an elitist—a conscious, definite, voluntary elitist ѧ I’m a missionary, I’m a dreamer, I’m a visionary, a revolutionist, an idealist” (p. 35). Among writers and intellectuals he usually presented himself as a bricklayer, and among bricklayers he usually presented himself as a writer and intellectual. In an interview conducted a few years before his death, he remarked, “What do you think I dream about at night? I dream about I’m a bricklayer. ѧ That distinguishes me from the Puzos and the Robert DeNiros. They’re playacting, and they’re trying to make believe


PIETRO DI DONATO Donato’s novels “transformed the facts and statistics into felt experience for the reader, enabling the reader through this dramatization to better understand the Italian American experience. Di Donato’s work displays that ‘qualitative’ aspect of Italian American life, so elusive to historians” (p. 18). In the years since his death, with his inclusion in volumes like The Heath Anthology of American Literature, appreciation from a robust Italian American writing and publishing community, and discussion of his novels at panels at academic conferences like the Modern Language Association, Pietro di Donato has taken his place in the canon as a spokesman for Italian American literary voices.

VIA: Voices in Italian-Americana 2, no. 2:67–78 (fall 1991). Diomede, Matthew. Pietro di Donato: The Master Builder. Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 1995. Esposito, Michael. “The Travail of Pietro di Donato.” MELUS 7, no. 2:46–60 (summer 1980). Ferraro, Thomas P. Feeling Italian: The Art of Ethnicity in America. New York: New York University Press, 2005. Gambino, Richard. Blood of My Blood: The Dilemma of the Italian Americans. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1974. Gardaphe, Fred L. Introduction to Christ in Concrete. New York: Signet Classic, 1993. Pp. ix–xviii. ———. Italian Signs, American Streets. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1996. Gramsci, Antonio. Selections from the Prison Notebooks. New York: International Publishers, 1971. Green, Rose Basile. The Italian American Novel. Rutherford, N.J.: Farleigh Dickinson University Press, 1974. Mulas, Franco. “The Ethnic Language of Pietro di Donato’s Christ in Concrete.” In From the Margin: Writings in Italian Americana. Edited by Anthony Julian Tamburri, Paolo A. Giordano, and Fred L. Gardaphe. West Lafayette, Ind.: Purdue University Press, 1991. Pp. 307–315. Napolitano, Louise. An American Story: Pietro di Donato’s Christ in Concrete. New York: Peter Lang, 1995. “Paesano with a Trowel.” Time, June 6, 1960, p. 101. Tamburri, Anthony Julian, Paolo A. Giordano, and Fred L. Gardaphe, eds. From the Margin: Writings in Italian Americana. West Lafayette, Ind.: Pudue University Press, 1991. Viscusi, Robert. Buried Caesars, and Other Secrets of Italian American Writing. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2006.

Selected Bibliography WORKS OF PIETRO DI DONATO EDITIONS Christ in Concrete. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1939. Reprint New York: Signet Classic, 1993. (Quotations in text are from the reprint edition.) “The Love of Annunziata” (Play) In American Scenes, edited by William Kozlenko, 119-138. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1941. This Woman. New York: Ballantine, 1958. Immigrant Saint: The Life of Mother Cabrini. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1960. Three Circles of Light. New York: Messner, 1960. The Penitent. New York: Hawthorn, 1962. Naked Author. New York: Phaedra, 1970.



BOOK REVIEWS AND INTERVIEWS Canfield, Dorothy. “A Young Bricklayer Writes.” New York Times Book Review, August 20, 1939, p. 28. Burnham, Philip. “American Saint.” Commonweal 73, February 10, 1961, pp. 512–514. Deasy, Philip. “To the Nadir.” Commonweal 72, August 19, 1960, pp. 429–430. Marsh, Fred T. Review of Christ in Concrete, by Pietro di Donato. New York Times Book Review, August 20, 1939, p. 6. McDonnell, Thomas P. “Postcard Sanctity.” Commonweal 76, July 13, 1962, pp. 406–407. Poore, Charles. Review of Christ in Concrete by Pietro di Donato. New York Times, September 15, 1939, p. 31. Review of Immigrant Saint: The Life of Mother Cabrini. Library Journal, March 15, 1961, p. 120. von Huene–Greenberg, Dorothee. “A MELUS Interview: Pietro di Donato.” MELUS 14, nos. 3–4:33–52 (fall–winter 1987).


Pietro di Donato’s papers are collected at the Immigration History Research Center at the College of Liberal Arts at the University of Minnesotta Mineapolis and at Stony Brook University.

BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL STUDIES Alba, Richard D. Italian Americans: Into the Twilight of Ethnicity. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1985. Casciato, Arthur D. “The Bricklayer as Bricoleur: Pietro di Donato and the Cultural Politics of the Popular Front.”



Nancy Bunge TIMOTHY FINDLEY COMMITTED himself and his work to veracity, but he believed that this meant avoiding realism. He argued that literature does a particularly good job of exposing large truths because it conveys meanings through imagery and symbolism: facts can distract from what really matters. He learned this early in his professional life as an actor: he produced a compelling rendition of a character not by replicating the details of that person’s life, but by calling upon dimensions of himself that would allow him to manifest that character’s attitude. If anger consumed the person Findley attempted to portray on the stage, then he would fuel his performance with his own anger; his emotional involvement vivified his characterization in a way his intellect never could. Findley contended that the same careful attention to his instincts rather than to his thoughts allowed him to function successfully as a dancer and as a writer. This insistence that the author or the dancer or the actor become one with the character he or she attempts to depict not only requires calling upon personal dispositions, but also self-realization. For instance, Findley reported that he disliked Wallis Simpson, the American woman for whom King Edward VIII abdicated the throne, but in order to inhabit and delineate her as a character in his novel Famous Last Words (1981), he had to use previously unacknowledged aspects of himself. Findley’s writing, dancing and acting method, therefore, required that he continually learn new things about himself. He hoped that his own engagement with whatever art he produced would allow him to embody the human issues it raised so compellingly that the viewer or reader would also achieve a new level of thinking and, especially, of feeling, for Findley vehemently insisted that he created by listening to his heart, not his head, and that although he

appreciated intellectual explanations of his work, he could not really understand them. Moreover, he hoped exposure to his work would encourage people to become kinder rather than smarter.


Born on October 30, 1930, in Toronto, Canada, Findley had to learn to trust himself from an early age. His paternal grandfather, Thomas Findley, the president of Massey-Harris, a manufacturer of farming machinery, was one of Toronto’s most distinguished and successful citizens. His mother, Margaret Bull Findley, was the daughter of a piano manufacturer. But the promising circumstances that seemed to assure his parents and their children comfortable lives were deteriorating even before Findley was born. Findley’s uncle “Tif,” Thomas Irving Findley, from whom Findley inherited both his name, Timothy Irving Frederick Findley, and his nickname, “Tiff,” had returned from World War I an invalid. Findley’s father, Allen Findley, a stockbroker during the 1929 crash, struggled financially, forcing the family to move to a more modest house. When Timothy Findley was three, his infant brother died; shortly thereafter, his uncle Tif died. Findley himself persistently struggled with illness, so he spent much time alone reading, while his older brother, Michael, was a gregarious and popular child. When Timothy was nine, his father left for War War II after informing Michael but not Timothy about his enlistment. This clearly bothered Findley, who presents thinly disguised versions of the event in the story “War” (collected in Dinner Along the Amazon, 1984) and in the novella You Went Away (1996). Although his father’s absence exacerbated the family’s financial problems, his return did not relieve them;


TIMOTHY FINDLEY moreover, his father’s behavior after coming home persuaded young Timothy that his father felt trapped by his family.

Whether or not they result from Wilder’s influence, similarities exist between Wilder’s work and Findley’s. In a blurb for Not Wanted on the Voyage (1984), Northrop Frye declares the novel reminiscent of Wilder’s 1942 play The Skin of Our Teeth, but even more fundamental parallels link Winder and Findley. For instance, both wrote fiction as well as plays, and their unhappiness with the unkindness they saw practiced all around them shaped everything they produced. Wilder and Findley hoped their literature would remind people of their better sides, or at least help them face their shortcomings. But, at the same time, they both suspected and avoided overtly political work, which they believed too ideological to generate powerful and enduring literature. Perhaps the most significant bond between them relates to Findley’s motto, “Against despair!” Wilder also understood that people can treat each other kindly only if they embrace the hopefulness and decency that he believed exists in everyone. Like Findley, Wilder considered cruelty the largest human failing and compassion its only solution. As a result, the work of both men engages its readers and audiences in unusual perspectives, for they maintained that all genuine human connection rests on an ability to see things from multiple points of view: the more adept people become at putting themselves in others’ situations, the more easily they can realize an empathy that improves their own lives as well as those of the people with whom they interact. And both men held that writers best achieve these goals by avoiding didacticism and involving themselves and their readers in the unfolding drama of stories. In his 2003 posthumous memoir, Journeyman: Travels of a Writer, Findley reports that his theater work honed his storytelling abilities. He repeatedly explains that his fiction grows from his involvement with particular characters and that his time on the stage cultivated his ability to imagine himself into the stance of another person. But Findley’s life partner, William Whitehead, challenges this assertion in a 1981 interview titled “Alice Drops Her Cigarette on the Floor ѧ (William Whitehead Looking Over Timothy Findley’s Shoulder).” In the interview, White-

By the time he was seven or eight years old, Findley had realized that men, not women, attracted him, and he told his parents of his homosexuality in his early teens; they chose to dismiss the notion. He attended Jarvis Collegiate between bouts of illness from 1945 until 1948 and left before graduating. Findley decided he wanted to study dance; when his father refused to finance lessons, he got a job in the MasseyHarris factory that his grandfather once ran and he paid for the lessons himself. A fused disc ended his dancing career, but when he had the experience of participating in a crowd that urged Christ’s crucifixion in an Easter play, he fell in love with acting: he found plays more fully expressive than the ballet. Findley performed with Alec Guinness at the Stratford Festival in Canada in 1953, its first season, and so impressed Guinness that he offered to pay for Findley’s passage to London as well for as his housing there so that Findley could train at London’s Central School of Speech and Drama. Findley stayed in London to work, and in 1955 he played a waiter named Rudolph in Thornton Wilder’s The Matchmaker, starring Ruth Gordon. When actors from the production together visited an art exhibit in Manchester featuring work by artists under thirty, Ruth Gordon complained to the group that the art reflected the pessimism of young people. Findley wanted to prove her wrong, so he wrote her a story, “About Effie.” After reading it, she urged Findley to keep writing and she also passed the tale on to Thornton Wilder, who concurred that Findley should become an author. Wilder and Findley remained friends until Wilder’s death in 1975. Findley acknowledges his deep debt to Wilder’s mentorship in his memoirs, and he repeatedly includes references either to Wilder or to Wilder’s work in his own writing. For instance, Dolly, a major character in Findley’s 1969 novel The Butterfly Plague, reads and reflects on Wilder’s 1927 novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey, and Findley dedicated Famous Last Words to Wilder’s memory.


TIMOTHY FINDLEY head interrupts Findley as he begins to explain yet again that his characters guide his writing, protesting that Findley makes it sound as though producing literature comes easily for him. Whitehead says he knows firsthand that Findley labors over his writing. This effort is presumably necessary because Findley, like the reader, must struggle to locate and develop aspects of himself that correspond to each character’s take on reality. But Findley remarks in his 1990 memoir, Inside Memory, that he enjoys this difficulty: he waited impatiently for The Matchmaker’s run to end so that he could stop playing the same narrow character and move on to new challenges.

only rocks. Findley repeatedly avowed that Whitehead’s support and help were crucial to his work and his life. Together they wrote an awardwinning series about Canada’s first transcontinental railroad called The National Dream: Building the Impossible Railway for the Canadian Broadcasting Company in 1974. But while Whitehead continued to write documentaries for television, including over one hundred episodes for a CBC science show called The Nature of Things, Findley concentrated on imaginative writing, in part because he found having his work interpreted and reworked by others frustrating.

Findley also believed that his time in the theater gave him a sense of language and taught him how to pace events in a way that captures the reader’s interest. Certainly the language of Findley’s fiction is consistently lucid, powerful, and specific, inviting the readers to become absorbed in his stories and settings. Even though Findley wrote many novels over four hundred pages long, only the most disciplined and determined person could stop reading a work of his fiction after the first hundred pages. His vivid plots, characters, and language easily engage those who encounter them. After the American tour of The Matchmaker ended in California in 1956, Findley went to Hollywood, where he got by with whatever jobs he could find and concentrated on writing. He burned the novel he produced in that period. In 1958, he settled back in Toronto, where he did some acting, was briefly married to the actress Janet Reid, and kept writing. In 1962, he met and fell in love with William Whitehead, who had a master’s degree in biology but had recently started acting after becoming smitten with the theater. Then both men quit acting to focus on writing for radio and television. Findley found he enjoyed composing work based on real events, and he has said that the use of documents in his fiction derives from his experience writing scripts for documentaries. In 1964, Findley and Whitehead bought a farm near Toronto and named it Stone Orchard, partly in homage to Findley’s hero, Anton Chekhov, and his play The Cherry Orchard, and partly because the farm produced


Findley’s first published book, The Last of the Crazy People (1967), has a simplicity that seems to distinguish it from the many novels that followed. Told from the point of view of Hooker Winslow, an eleven-year-old boy trapped in a family of individuals each so caught in misery that they cannot reach out to each other or change, it concludes with the boy shooting the rest of his family to death. Findley said that he was astonished to discover when writing the story that the boy’s killing his family offered the only logical conclusion. The novel’s sharp focus on a single character and its lack of obvious social commentary seems to separate it from the work to follow. But Findley thought the book offered yet another consideration of the theme of fascism that dominated much of his subsequent work; Findley argued that in The Last of the Crazy People, fascism functions within the family. The critic Lorraine York claimed the novel also reflects Findley’s persistent concern with war, only in this case, it takes place within a family rather than between states. The book clearly renders what Findley identified as his most persistent theme: the havoc wrought by people’s unkindness to one another. The story contains elements reminiscent of Findley’s early life. Hooker, like Findley, has an infant sibling who dies shortly after birth, and he has a widely admired grandfather. His older brother Gilbert, like Findley, likes to write but does not do well in school. Hooker himself may


TIMOTHY FINDLEY the character whose point of view dominates the book. Raised in Hollywood, Ruth had gone to Germany where she began a career as an Olympic athlete under the brutal guidance of her husband, Bruno Haddon, a passionate Nazi. At the beginning of the novel, she has left him and returned home to Hollywood, which she finds rife with plastic glamour. Alvarez Canyon, an apparently natural paradise that is in fact filled with fake greenery, offers a specific image of this false world. Ruth tells of a fire that took place when she was visiting the canyon, in which, she says, four thousand animals were destroyed—but everyone else who was with Ruth and supposedly witnessed this event denies it happened, leaving the reader uncertain about Ruth’s accuracy. Similarly confusing is how we are meant to interpret comments by Ruth’s mother, Naomi, who says that seeking perfection always creates problems—which can be seen as Findley’s statement of the fatal flaw shared by Nazi Germany and by Hollywood—even though Naomi makes this statement at the same time that she denies the reality of the fire.

recall Findley’s mentally ill aunt whose increasingly tenuous hold on reality came accompanied by a tendency to pronounce truths others preferred to ignore. Although Findley used what seem to be pieces of his biography in the novel, if one had to choose which character most resembles Findley, one must select Iris, the family’s black maid, whose compassion allows her to understand what transpires and whose engagement in nature and in song allows her to bear living through the novel’s tragic events.


While The Last of the Crazy People presents an engaging narrative about a dysfunctional family from the perspective of its youngest member, Findley’s next novel, The Butterfly Plague (1969), embeds large issues, dramatic events, and historical references in a highly episodic rendition of yet another dysfunctional family. Critics generally agree that the novel draws a parallel between the fascism of Nazi Germany and the plastic glamour prized by Hollywood and its many American fans. This juxtaposition of shining images and the grisly events of the Holocaust has autobiographical roots. During Findley’s Hollywood sojourn, on one particularly glamorous evening at the home of the screenwriter Ivan Moffat, Findley happened to pick up a book of photographs Moffat took to document what the Allies found when they entered the German concentration camp Dachau at the end of World War II. The disjunction between the horrific events the pictures captured and the magical vista from Moffat’s Los Angeles home gave Findley an epiphany: “I was just like everyone else. We are all a collective hiding place for monsters,” he said in his 1990 memoir, Inside Memory (p. 311). The Butterfly Plague describes a Hollywood filled with beautiful monsters. Although most critics agree The Butterfly Plague makes an analogy between Hollywood and the rise of fascism, they also tend to concur that the novel’s broad scope and jumpy movement make it bewildering. For instance, it is hard to tell whether or not to trust Ruth Damarosch,

The characters in this novel must carry the narrative’s grand themes, so they often function as symbols, placing them at a distance from the reader. One even has the name “Race.” Heather Sanderson argued that in this book Findley accuses the fascists of privileging the ideal over the real, but that his novel, by virtue of its heavy allegory, does the same thing. As a result, she said, Findley produces an attack on fascism that controls its readers by dictating certain interpretations of the characters. Recognizing that the book had problems, Findley rewrote it and republished it in 1986, but most critics felt that the book’s difficulties persisted in the revision. CAN YOU SEE ME YET?

In 1974, the Canadian National Arts Centre named Findley playwright in residence. During his tenure he wrote Can You See Me Yet? (1976), a play that, like The Butterfly Plague, makes it difficult for the audience to judge how much to trust the perspective that controls the work. A


TIMOTHY FINDLEY new resident of the asylum where the play is set, Cassandra, appears clutching a photograph album that she says captures her idyllic home. The other inmates, under Cassandra’s direction, go back and forth between playing themselves and pretending to be members of Cassandra’s family, making it difficult for the audience to follow precisely what transpires. Moreover, the audience does not know whether they witness a replay of Cassandra’s history or a rendition of her fantasies, since the album may not even belong to her. To complicate things further, the characters of the inmates presumably influence their performances, but audiences and readers have no access to the information that would allow them to evaluate the extent to which this happens.


The complicated narrative structure of The Wars (1977) could have resulted in another bewildering work, but since this novel made McLean’s magazine’s list of the ten best novels of the twentieth century and received both the Toronto Book Award and Canada’s most prestigious Canadian literary prize, the Governor General’s Award, the structure clearly works for most people, even though a few critics have found it confusing. The novel’s protagonist, Robert Ross, does not tell the story; instead, a researcher attempting to understand Ross’ experiences in World War I narrates. But this researcher also relies upon interviews with Juliet D’Orsey, a woman who encountered Ross during the war, and with Marian Turner, his nurse at the end of his life, and it includes transcripts of these talks in the text. The narrative itself flows from a series of photographs, giving it an episodic structure but making the novel highly visual.

The play also presents themes similar to those of The Butterfly Plague. Cassandra eventually concludes that her father’s obsession with perfection left his children incapable of being their own flawed selves. This realization comes juxtaposed to the sound of Adolf Hitler delivering a speech in Nazi Germany. So, yet again, Findley links perfectionism to fascism. But Cassandra comes to understand her arrogance, and, as a result, she establishes true links with the other people in the asylum. They can see her; she sees them; they accept each other as they are—just before Cassandra perishes in a fire. The critics did not like Can You See Me Yet? any better than The Butterfly Plague. Unfortunately, William Whitehead had work that took him to Ottawa, leaving the depressed Timothy Findley alone at Stone Orchard, where he filled his solitude with alcohol. Carol Roberts recounts Findley’s confession in Timothy Findley: Stories from a Life, that his drinking problem became so serious he sometimes suffered from delirium tremens. However, the trauma of being awakened in the middle of the night by an enormous bat motivated Findley to cut back on alcohol, and he never suffered delirium tremens again. During this period he produced drafts of two novels that he felt were too depressing and subsequently discarded. He then began work on what he and others identify as his breakthrough work: The Wars.

In describing how he came to write the book, the author said that like his other protagonists, Robert Ross approached Findley, in this case strolling into Findley’s life wearing a World War I uniform. Findley already had an intense interest in this conflict since he owned a bound copy of letters from the front sent home by his uncle Tif. Findley relied heavily on these for details that fill in the experience of war and for the portrayal of Ross’s increasing cynicism about war as his involvement in it continues, but Ross himself, according to the author, was entirely a creation of Findley’s imagination. Findley also read many historical accounts to further understand the conflict. In an attempt to make his rendition of Ross’s agonies as authentic as possible, Findley attempted to spend twenty-four hours camping in a muddy field, but he could not stand living that way for an entire day. Findley put all this research to good use: the proliferation of telling specifics in the novel makes it easy for readers to become intensely involved with its events. Despite the grounding of this novel in reality, Findley has not written history but instead has given a sense of the emotional lives of those ordinary people overlooked in historical accounts because of their supposedly minor roles.


TIMOTHY FINDLEY A number of critics have suggested that the researcher’s attempt to find meaning in all these materials and events gives an order to the text that it might otherwise lack, but since the researcher seeks rather than knows the answers, the reader has ample opportunity to respond to and shape the materials Findley presents. Findley said that he intentionally gave his protagonist Robert Ross the same name as Oscar Wilde’s loyal companion, a man who held watch at Wilde’s deathbed even though Wilde’s homosexuality had made him a pariah. Findley’s Robert Ross is also a kind, loyal man who goes off to war after the death of his handicapped sister, Rowena, in part because he feels guilty about not saving her. The battle at Ypres in which Ross participates has particular resonance for Findley because so many Canadian soldiers died there, and indeed, some critics read the novel as a comment on Canada’s entry into world affairs. Ross has a number of horrifying experiences, including his rape by unknown soldiers, which Findley describes in excruciating detail. Eventually, Ross disobeys orders so that he can attempt to save a large group of horses, which nonetheless perish. Ross deserts the military and then happens upon 130 more horses, which he also attempts to save, shooting the soldier who tries to stop him. He winds up securing himself in a barn with the horses. The soldiers light a fire so that Ross will let the horses out, but he struggles to reopen the door, ending up horribly burned himself. Ultimately Ross is court-martialed but not sent to jail, because the fire has so devastated him that he can only wait to die. In its essence, the novel portrays the horrors of war from the point of view of one sympathetic, kind soldier.

Rodwell, spends his time in the foxhole drawing animals. Realizing he will die in the war, Rodwell gives Ross a letter to his daughter asserting a totally positive view of life. The best men in the book, therefore, do not see themselves as superior to nature, but rather they take comfort in observing and participating in it. The war itself devastates the landscape, but Ross notes that when he returns to the area where the first battle took place, he finds that nature has done an astonishing job of healing itself. Ross also realizes that animals would never achieve the level of cruelty that men do in a war. Thus, the book suggests that the healthiest human beings align themselves with the natural order rather than seeing its destruction as a trivial side effect of war. In terms of the book’s general values, Ross’s attempts to save the horses are contrary to the pursuit of domination integral to the masculine role, and therefore his actions underline that he has retained his goodness and his sanity in the midst of a mad environment. Other critics have noted that all the direct testimony about Ross’s behavior comes from women who do not see him as a traitor but rather as a remarkably good man—not only during wartime, but also in retrospect. Juliet D’Orsey admires him so passionately that she sits with him and comforts him as he dies. These women’s reactions sketch out the differences between male and female reactions, but their inclusion in Findley’s novel also emphasizes the unacknowledged roles women often play in war. Critics have wondered over the book’ plural title; why call it The Wars instead of The War? Some see this as Findley’s statement that all wars are alike; others see it as an acknowledgment that Ross’s family members also fight among themselves, so the book presents a war in the household as well as a world war; another critic argues that the title signals a concern with the human tendency to exploit everything in one’s path, whether other human beings, animals, or even the land. That the novel can sustain so many readings shows that Findley’s achievement of clarity and power in this book did not come at the cost of its complexity.

Some readers of early drafts of the novel urged Findley to exclude the rape for fear it would hurt sales, but Findley saw it as a central image of the book; he felt that the men were victims of a society demanding blind machismo. In this novel, he ties together the pursuit of dominance and the lethal consequences of adopting the traditional male role. The best men in the book resist this pattern. Ross’ dying friend Harris retreats from pain into comforting fantasies of swimming with whales. Another friend, Captain


TIMOTHY FINDLEY friend Matteotti. A young Spanish poet with integrity, Luis Quintana, also commits suicide. All these deaths suggest that the times accord few options to those who aspire to note and record the truth. When studying the prehistoric paintings in the caves at Altamira with Isabella, Mauberley sees art as a manifestation of the need for every human being to try to make his or her presence and perspective known; this compulsion does not vanish during difficult times. Here, Mauberley seems to agree with Findley, who believed all true writers need to tell the story as they know it, no matter what the consequences. That art and the truth have strong holds on Mauberley make him far more than a political or social animal. But he lives during a time when politics saturate everything, and people automatically judge others in political and social terms.


The protagonist of Findley’s next novel, Famous Last Words (1981), is Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, from Ezra Pound’s poem with the same name. In Pound’s version, Mauberley stands up for art in the midst of a rotten culture that has sent young men to war to protect a “civilization” that has turned away from genuine art to focus on rapidly produced junk. In Findley’s novel, as World War II draws to a messy conclusion, Mauberley’s mentor, Pound—who has aligned himself with fascism and awaits his own arrest—castigates Mauberley, whose rejection of both the Allies and the Nazis has left him universally despised, Mauberley has been involved with a cabal of people hoping to build a fascist state on the ruins left by World War II, although he was not an enthusiastic participant in their plans. Now he has a suitcase full of notebooks recording the group’s activities, and he sets out, searching for somewhere neutral to wait out the war’s end. He winds up in an Austrian hotel called the Grand Elysium where he stayed during more glorious days, for both him and the inn. Using the silver pen he found in his father’s coat pocket after his father committed suicide, he writes an account of his adventures with his fascist acquaintances on the walls and ceilings of four rooms. Predictably, much critical commentary hovers over whether Findley intends Mauberley as a hero or a villain, as an artist or a fascist. The novel supplies grounds for all these positions. Substantial evidence exists against Mauberley: he gives up writing in order to wander around with a lot of ostensibly elegant, but fundamentally cruel, people, like Wallis Simpson, the Duchess of Windsor. This cabal understandably trusts Mauberley since he involves himself in a murder that benefits them. However, the reader knows of Mauberley’s guilt only because he writes about it all over the walls: he confesses that he gave up his art, and thus himself, in order to spend time wandering with empty people. Moreover, he not only hangs out with evil fascists but also travels with Isabella Loverso, whose husband, a poet devoted to truth-telling, was killed by Benito Mussolini along with their children and another writer, his

Findley supplies Mauberley’s wall writing with two readers, American soldiers who happen on the hotel and Mauberley’s body after the war ends. Captain Freyberg wants revenge on the fascists for what they have done. He hovers with particular vehemence over Dachau, appropriating the metalwork that surrounded the entrance with the misleading saying “Work Makes Free,” so that he can put it over his desk. He also has an album containing pictures of Dachau’s victims with a cover displaying innocent pictures of ducks and lambs. Because Freyberg assumes the worst about Mauberley, he has no interest in reading his writings. The other soldier, Sergeant Quinn, admires Mauberley as an artist and reads every word, expecting from the outset to find a way to excuse him. Certainly Mauberley’s writings convince Quinn that the dead man acted in problematic ways, but Quinn sees him as misguided rather than evil. Naturally enough, critics dispute which interpreter of Mauberley’s text does the best job, and Findley has left the book’s readers to make up their own minds. The book’s closing image is of something indeterminate surfacing briefly, then disappearing under the water but never really vanishing: “All we remember is the awesome presence, while a shadow lying dormant in the twilight whispers from the other side of reason; I am here, I wait” (p. 396). Findley explains, in an interview with


TIMOTHY FINDLEY W. M. Mellor, that the image represents the fascism that never truly goes away because it persistently lures people with its glamour. Resigning to fascism means turning oneself over to an illusion of perfection and control, and, Findley maintains, this fantasy’s appeal never dies. Most reviewers found the book rich, lively, interesting, and substantial, but a few thought that Findley spent too much time detailing the adventures of a group of shallow fascists. Some even accuse him of hovering over these frivolous people because he wanted the book to sell. But that readers found it entertaining to read about a fictional group of cruel but glossy people underlines Findley’s position that fascists can bewitch. The book is rife with historical figures and events, freely interpreted. As a result, it was not released in Great Britain until after the Duchess of Windsor’s death, and when it appeared in 1987, some British readers found Findley’s portrayal of her outrageous. This troubled Findley but helped the novel do well financially in England. Findley discovered after the book came out that a number of his guesses had real substance. There was, he notes with delight, a cabal not unlike the one he describes at work during World War II. But Findley most fundamentally concerns himself not with historical accuracy, but with exposing larger truths metaphorically. In Famous Last Words, Findley wants to show the allure of fascism and point out that art may sometimes serve as an antidote.

came easily; it required several drafts before Findley felt comfortable publishing his version of Noah and the Ark. Some critics have pointed out that, once again, Findley deals with the issue of fascism: Noah is presented as a consummate fascist, who believed that following the orders delivered by Yahweh, and destroying everything and everyone except those few beings Yahweh deems appropriate inhabitants of the Ark, would allow the world to begin again, freed of its corruption. Yet another benighted character in a Findley novel aspires to leave imperfection behind. As Noah realizes Yahweh’s rigid and merciless plan, the world’s magic disintegrates; meanwhile Noah’s wife, Mrs. Noyes, attempts to preserve it: she gives the fairies who are slowly fading from the landscape a ride on her back across a river, and, for a moment, they celebrate their escape. Finally, however, only a place on the Ark can save them, and Noah refuses them entry. He does allow a unicorn on board, but then he needs the unicorn’s horn to rape his daughterin-law, Emma, so that she will have sex with his son, Japeth, and begin the work of replenishing the earth. The violence performed on the unicorn to use his horn kills him, leaving the remaining creatures of the earth without magic. These supernatural characters serve as metaphors for the rapturous appreciation of nature that Findley believed all human beings must cultivate to save themselves from barren lives. Findley felt it was essential for people to begin undoing the damage that the coldness of modern life has done by returning to the intense involvement with the natural world they experienced as children. So, while Noah sees himself as the savior of the world, Findley’s novel suggests that Noah’s wife, a reluctant passenger on the Ark, comes closer to fulfilling this role. And thanks to Mrs. Noyes, Mottyl does not perish in the flood, but gets carried on board the Ark in her pocket. Some critics argue that Lucy, a seven-foot, five-inch woman with webbed hands who marries Noah’s son Ham and who is in fact the angel Lucifer in drag, serves as a Christ figure, since through her or him, divinity comes to earth. Moreover, by making her the book’s savior, Find-


A starving, blind cat that Findley and Whitehead had taken in at Stone Orchard and named Mottle inspired Findley’s next big book, Not Wanted on the Voyage (1984). Findley admired Mottle’s resourcefulness and courage, and when she died in 1981, he created a character named Mottyl and began a novel in which she played a principal role. He struggled for some time with the book, but when he heard a friend, Phyllis Webb, read a poem titled “Leaning” that juxtaposed blindness, dark and the Ark, Findley suddenly had a workable idea for his Mottyl novel. Not Wanted on the Voyage began developing, but the book never


TIMOTHY FINDLEY ley validates androgyny and homosexuality, since Lucy/Lucifer is a man who marries another man. But other critics point out that Lucy, like Noah, ultimately seeks domination and triumph, a stance not only negatively characterized in the case of Noah, but persistently criticized in Findley’s work. These critics argue that Mrs. Noyes and Mottyl serve as the novel’s heroines, because they accept imperfection. For instance, at the novel’s end, Mrs. Noyes prays that it continues to rain, because since one always lives in a flawed world, one must do one’s best to enjoy the journey. This means forfeiting fantasies of a perfect ending. Mottyl seems determined to think even more positively than Mrs. Noyes. She feels terrible when she catches herself thinking Noah evil, even though he repeatedly took her newborn kittens so he could perform cruel experiments on them and he also did his best to abandon her in an uninhabitable world. But after reviewing these crimes and others, Mottyl decides to suspend judgment of Noah because “what could a person truly know?” (p. 279).

perspective. He discovered that they were active all night, wandering in and out of their shelter, so he did the same. When the sun rose, they sat and watched it; Findley joined them. In another experiment, he crawled along the beach on all fours, sniffing like a cat. A couple witnessing this agreed that it offered a cautionary example of addiction’s consequences. Findley’s willingness to lose himself in animals’ points of view presumably helps explain why he does such a persuasive job of helping readers take seriously a cat’s pregnancy difficulties or her friendship with a crow. By linking destructive attitudes toward women, perfection, violence, and nature to the story of Noah and the Ark, Findley’s novel suggests that these biases contaminate Western civilization—for how could one see building the Ark and allowing only a limited number of creatures to board it as anything but the actions of someone slavishly obeying a cruel, bitter God? This helps explain why Mrs. Noyes prays “but not to the absent God. Never, never, again to the absent God, but to the absent clouds, she prayed. And to the empty sky” (p. 352). In this book, Findley extends his attack on fascism, showing one of its possible sources, for the novel’s events raise the question of how people who grew up putting the story of Noah and the Ark at the center of their worship could ever achieve kindness. In this novel, for the first time, Findley presents an alternative to enduring or fighting fascism: one can join a compassionate community like that belowdecks on the Ark he has created, a group that celebrates the delights of unbounded nature rather than trying to control it. Critics liked the novel expressing this new perspective very much: Findley received the Canadian Authors Award for it.

No matter what one concludes about the sexually ambiguous Lucy/Lucifer, in this novel, males persistently indulge in futile attempts to control events, usually through violence. In the hope of sharing some of the comfort that comes with power, Noah’s daughter-in-law, Hannah, accommodates Noah in many ways, including sexually. This does win her housing above deck on the Ark, while the rest of the novel’s female characters who attempt to connect with people, rather than triumph over them, struggle to survive belowdecks along with one male, Noah’s son, Ham. The animals also live belowdecks. Findley does a remarkable job in this novel of giving not only Mottyl but many of the animals vibrant, empathetic personalities. These characterizations help convey and probably reflect Findley’s view that the human race must nourish its ties to nature to save itself. The fascinating animals in this novel may also reveal the value of experiential research. Findley reports in From Stone Orchard: A Collection of Memories (1998) that he spent a night sleeping outside with the dogs in their house in order to get a stronger sense of creature


In his 1993 novel Headhunter, Findley examines fascism in Rosedale, the respectable neighborhood in Toronto where he grew up. As he wrote it, he claimed that the book placed Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness (1902) in


TIMOTHY FINDLEY Rosedale, an assertion absurd on its face since Conrad’s book links the ethical decline of a man named Kurtz to his living away from European civilization in the Belgian Congo, and Rosedale, to all appearances, was terminally civilized. In Findley’s novel, this is precisely the problem. For the denizens of Headhunter, compliance with social norms nurtures evil; a completely respectable obsession with money and power corrupts people.

Lilah’s neighbor, Charlie Marlow, a psychiatrist who has just joined Dr. Kurtz’s psychiatric institute, eventually unravels Kurtz’s misbehavior. At one point, Marlow needs someone reliable to transport and keep the papers that he plans to review in order to understand what has transpired; tellingly, he asks Lilah to carry them to her apartment in her baby carriage. That he likes and trusts Lilah gives the reader yet another reason to pay her serious and compassionate attention. Marlow also has another schizophrenic patient, Amy Wylie, a poet who feeds starlings even though the authorities try to exterminate them in the false belief that they have caused a plague terrorizing Toronto. Marlow urges Amy’s family to leave her untreated so that she can enjoy writing poetry and taking care of her birds instead of lapsing into the living death that drugs would induce. He argues convincingly that allowing her to live without drugs gives her a freedom that she would otherwise lose. Headhunter thus sets out a clear antithesis: on the one hand, the pursuit of wealth and power prized by conventional society destroys both the community and the individuals participating in it. On the other hand, having the courage to live empathetically redeems one’s life and enhances the lives of others. Findley demonstrates, in Headhunter, that literature helps us realize these truths by setting out mythic patterns. For instance, Conrad’s Heart of Darkness captures and conveys a fascination with power and control that lurks in Rosedale as well as in the Congo; as Lilah’s mentor, Nicholas Fagan, points out, Kurtz lives everywhere. In another literary reference, the character Emma Berry has renamed herself Emma after the heroine of Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary; Emma married the plastic surgeon who made her perfect after a fire left her scarred, because his money drew her as irresistibly as her flawlessness attracted him. Their marriage leaves both feeling empty. She attempts to console herself by picking up men in a white stretch limousine every night. She believes a relationship with James Gatz will bring her to life again, but his father, whose incestuous desires for his son forced Gatz to leave home at a young age, resurfaces to kill

Bored, wealthy men from Rosedale attempt to enliven their existence by joining the Club of Men, which gathers regularly to direct the posing of drugged adolescents for sexual photographs. On one occasion, these sessions get even more malevolent: Charles Shapiro and other club members rape and kill Charles’ son, George. Rupert Kurtz, a psychiatrist, facilitates these gettogethers by supplying experimental drugs that render the children docile and by giving the men permission for their activities in their psychiatric sessions with him. In return, they give him money to build his psychiatric empire and the thrill of knowing that he controls all the participants in these activities. In Headhunter, the association between playing the male role and dominating others comes through with singular clarity. The character of Lilah Kemp offers an antidote to this serial misery. A schizophrenic whose involvement with books runs so deep that she wanders the streets of Rosedale with a baby carriage containing a blue copy of Wuthering Heights, she worries that she let Kurtz escape from the pages and go out into the world while she was reading The Heart of Darkness. The narrator helps overcome the reader’s natural reluctance to trust someone who believes that as she reads fiction, its characters move from the page into the world by acknowledging that Dr. Kurtz in fact appears in the library as Lilah reads Heart of Darkness. Findley does a remarkable job of rendering this psychologically troubled woman in a way that pulls in the reader’s sympathy and trust. Thus, in Headhunter, Findley makes the point he learned as a child from his aunt: in an insane world, those labeled mentally ill can offer the rest of us valuable insights.


TIMOTHY FINDLEY his son. While Emma’s attempts to resolve her empty life resemble those of her namesake, Emma Bovary, James Gatz shares significant characteristics with the protagonist of The Great Gatsby (1925); F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Jay Gatsby also suffers from the illusion that money and control will bring him happiness. Timothy Findley was adamant that literature presents compelling versions of reality that give those who encounter them the awareness needed to make better choices, and accordingly, the kindest people in this book—Lilah, Amy, Marlow, and Fagan—all enjoy literature. In this way, the novel argues that taking art seriously can be a healing activity, a view that is passionately embraced by a patient named Findley, whom Marlow has yet to meet. According to the file Marlow finds on Findley, this patient believes that in producing literature, he acts as a kind of psychiatrist; for he, too, strives to cure people. Amy, Lilah, Marlow, Fagan, and Findley all help save others by telling the truth, even though they may use fiction to do so. Findley recounted that the original version of Headhunter was a negative one but that he ultimately accepted the suggestion that he create a positive ending. In an interview with Beverly Slopen (1994), he said he was glad that he made this change; he felt that in doing so he elaborated on the hopeful notion introduced in Not Wanted on the Voyage: that no matter how brutal a society may be, positive options remain. The books shares some of the same positive themes and symbols that were put forward in Not Wanted on the Voyage: community, self-trust, women, animals, and birds. Headhunter adds insanity and literature to this list of potential forces for good. Although they found it grim, critics generally praised the book, and it won the Toronto Book Award.

the novel consists of his using her journals, mementos, and family photographs to reconstruct her past and, thus, his own. Although he has long known of his mother’s mental illness, reviewing her life’s story helps him understand that his mother, Lily, and her mother, Edith (Ede), endured enormous difficulties. His grandmother seems a tragic figure to him because she capitulated to her husband, Frederick Wyatt; for instance, she allowed him to send her daughter Lily away because Lily’s propensity to have fits violated the public image he cultivated. Ede, who became pregnant with Lily because she could not resist the way a stranger played the piano and sang to her, and who made her child a wreath from the flowers and plants growing in the field where she gave birth to Lily alone, changed from a vivid, happy woman to a quiet, sad one. Lily, his mother, on the other hand, despite having to stay in the attic during parties so she would not embarrass her family, despite being sent away to her grandparents and then to school, and despite struggling with a desire to set fires urged on by a fire-prone ancestral ghost named John Fagan, never loses her passion and joy. Instead, because Lily has tasted so much rejection and isolation, she seeks out other excluded people to comfort them. She introduces her young son to her “friend,” Mr. Arbuthnot, as she and the partially deaf gardener sit together nude, and she consuls Charlie not to squander time and energy on the attempt to socialize with his betters. Like her mother, Lily feels a bond to nature, but unlike her mother, she cherishes it until the end of her life, urging her son to listen to the song all the beings of the universe sing to him and her. And while Lily’s mental illness sometimes causes her to abandon her son, when she is with him she gives him her full attention: to her, he seems astonishing. By the time Lily’s illness becomes so severe that she must live in an institution, Charlie has spent nine years with her, enough time to absorb her openness to others, to music, and to life’s wonders.


The narrator Charlie Kilworth opens Findley’s next novel, The Piano Man’s Daughter (1995), by explaining how he told his dying mother it was all right with him that he didn’t know his father. He clearly says this to comfort her, since

Charlie becomes a musician who marries another musician, Alexandra, but he resists having children because he fears they may inherit


TIMOTHY FINDLEY Lily’s defective genes. But the optimism Lily also passed on to him finally overwhelms his reservations. After he and his wife have a child, Emma, he takes Em to the field where his mother was born. There, Emma holds out her hand to show him that she has found an ant: a creature that fascinated Lily all her life. The novel ends with this comment: “We were not—and we will never be—alone” (p. 490). Having learned his history, it comforts Charlie to embrace it.

A mentally ill woman helps both of these men attain their final insight: in Kilworth’s case, the woman is his mother, Lily; in Marlow’s case, it is his neighbor Lilah, who believes she has a fantasy child (the book Wuthering Heights that she carries in a baby carriage). Lilah has a mentor named Nicholas Fagan, while Lily has an evil ghost named John Fagan who urges her to set fires. In The Piano Man’s Daughter, Lizzie, Lily’s closest friend, dies during kitchen table surgery on his brain tumor, while Lilah in Headhunter encounters a ghostly mother who weeps about her son dying while a doctor attempted to remove a brain tumor as he lay on the kitchen table in the apartment where Lilah lives.

A number of signals suggest that Findley wrote this novel to honor the line of women who produced him. The principal family in the book, the Wyatts, owns a piano factory, as did his mother’s family. Lily’s mother, Ede, meets her husband on a piano bench, the same scenario in which Findley’s parents met each other. Findley dedicates the book to his Aunt Ruth. And the book includes old family photographs that Findley says fascinated him as a child. He uses a narrator modeled on Nick Caraway in The Great Gatsby, who presents an admiring rather than an objective account of the person at the center of his story, which guarantees sympathetic portraits of these characters apparently descended from Findley’s own family. On one level, therefore, The Piano Man’s Daughter presents a rather romantic description of a family focusing particularly on a woman whose mental illness makes her socially embarrassing, but whose son comes to realize through the telling of her story that watching her live with passion and caring taught him to do the same.

The novels also present parallel themes. Both render a world run by controlling, often angry men. Lily’s stepfather, Frederick Wyatt, fearing that her propensity to have fits will interfere with his social aspirations, cruelly hides her or sends her away. But then Frederick would have had little opportunity to learn kind behavior from his own father, a widower who outlived three wives and can barely stand to have women in his house. The kindness and joy in both novels comes primarily from female characters. Although Ede submits to her husband, she never completely abandons Lily. She looks after her as best she can without infuriating her husband. Lily pays close attention to her son as well as to others, and both women cherish nature and music. Similarly Lilah in Headhunter has compassion for her neighbors, her ghosts, and her animals. Amy, the other schizophrenic character in Headhunter, cares for the birds the city attempts to eradicate. But Headhunter and The Piano Man’s Daughter also have stark differences. First, virtually all the men except Fagan and Marlow in Headhunter seem corrupt or lost. The Piano Man’s Daughter includes a number of male characters who know how to dance, sing, and love like Lizzie: there is Tom Wyatt, Lily’s father; Neddy Harris, her fiancé; and Lily’s uncle, Harry Wyatt. Lily’s stepfather distancing himself from her seems a trivial weakness compared to Charles Shapiro’s complicity with his own son’s murder in Headhunter. The mothers in Headhunter also fail

The many parallels between this text and Headhunter invite comparisons between the two novels. Through the process of exploring documents left in his family and narrating The Piano Man’s Daughter, Charlie Kilworth arrives at the truth about both his father and about the impact of his mother’s mental illness on his life. Similarly, Charlie Marlow, in Headhunter, moves through documents and photographs to arrive at the truth about what has damaged so many children in Rosedale. For both Marlow and Kilworth, resolution of the mystery they explore requires not only that they gather information but also that they achieve the ability to accept its implications.


TIMOTHY FINDLEY to provide loving homes for their children: Lilah cherishes her book more than the nondelusional mothers do their children; Emma’s interactions with her daughter Barbara consist of what she can fit in before she dashes out the door to pick up men; the mother of the Wylie girls takes more interest in alcohol than in them. And if Rosedale parents paid serious attention to their children, the Club of Men would find it far more difficult to lure adolescents into taking drugs and posing for sexual pictures. Indeed, when one juxtaposes these two books, the world of Headhunter seems considerably more desperate. When Lizzie dies in The Piano Man’s Daughter, for instance, his death is widely lamented, Lily keeps mementos that remind her of the best moments of their friendship, and she gives her son the day that Lizzie died as a birth date, suggesting that Charlie’s appearance on the earth somehow helps redeem Lizzie’s death. But only Lilah and the ghost who mourns her son’s (similar) death in Headhunter remember or care that the boy existed. And the young George Shaprio seems to simply vanish altogether, leaving behind only a grisly photograph of his death.

time has passed, people’s cruelty has grown, destroying community, nature, and happiness. His evocation of The Great Gatsby in the character Gatz in Headhunter and in the generous narrator of The Piano Man’s Daughter makes sense, for F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel offers a stark parable about the inevitable link between striving for control over other people and the environment and creating a world devoid of beauty, caring, and meaning. Although Findley believed life in the modern world had gotten more ferocious, he still argued for cultivating optimism: “Nothing is harder, now in this present time, than staring down despair. But stare it down we must. Unless we do, there can be no reconciliation” (Inside Memory, p. 318). No matter what negative forces Findley sees at work in society, the home he and William Whitehead established in the friendly countryside outside Toronto allowed Findley himself to cultivate the childlike enjoyment of nature and others that he repeatedly maintains is the only hope for redeeming the modern world.

In brief, despite its many faults, the world of The Piano Man’s Daughter contains enough caring people to make it bearable. By the time the events of Headhunter take place in Toronto, almost all the compassionate, loving people seem to have left town. In The Piano Man’s Daughter, by comparison, despite Lily’s profound problems, she belongs to a large family that cares about her, and she has many friends. Headhunter’s heroes, Lilah and Charlie, live in isolation. Charlie’s wife has died, but he admits their relationship didn’t amount to anything anyway. Lilah’s social contacts consist of the doctors who medicate her, Marlow, ghosts, and animals. So, while The Piano Man’s Daughter ends by celebrating the way one person transmits joy to another, desolation pervades Headhunter.

The title character of Findley’s last novel, Pilgrim (1999), has not been as fortunate as his creator. Suffering despair, he gets delivered to the Burgholzli Clinic in Switzerland, where Carl Jung attempts to treat him. Pilgrim has the habit of apparently killing himself and then coming back to life. His journals contain vivid stories told in the first person by men and women who lived centuries before the novel takes place in 1912. When Pilgrim claims to have lived all of the experiences recorded in his journals, Jung silently judges him mad; but writers imaginatively engage in precisely the kinds of exercises Pilgrim’s journals collect all the time. Authors constantly lose themselves in the perspectives of others and record their stories, undeterred by differences in gender, culture, or time. Pilgrim says that he dreams and then remembers his experiences: this sounds like writing fiction. Inspired by Pilgrim’s claim to have experienced multiple lives, Jung concludes that a collective unconscious shared by all human beings across all time periods must exist. In this, Find-


The dates and old photographs at the start of each section of The Piano Man’s Daughter emphasize that its events took place in the past. Findley is perhaps inviting the reader to make comparisons between the books, because their juxtaposition illuminates Findley’s belief that as


TIMOTHY FINDLEY ley connects Jungian theory specifically to the human activities of creating and responding to art. If human beings do not share common attitudes, reactions, and insights, how could writers, or actors, for that matter, effectively render characters from other cultures and time periods on the page or the stage? Art’s immortality requires some constancy in human nature. Indeed, Jung argues that all great art emanates from the collective unconscious, suggesting that art expresses something that holds us all together. But to Pilgrim’s dismay, despite the shared humanity that could bind people together, they insist on killing each other. He therefore wants to die, because he cannot bear watching people destroy each other any longer. He goes on a rampage that involves helping someone remove the Mona Lisa from the Louvre and setting a fire in the cathedral at Chartres that kills someone. Pilgrim hopes that destroying these great works of art will help people realize that experiencing them helps nourish compassion. But he is devasted because of the death that has occurred as a result of his efforts. He once again attempts suicide and apparently succeeds.

people trying to control each other, occur in the world, in the Jungs’ marriage, and in the psychiatric clinic where much of the book takes place. Aside from Jung’s mistreatment of his wife, the three major characters, Pilgrim, Carl Jung, and Emma Jung, seem remarkably free of this impulse toward power and control. In Pilgrim, then, Findley moves even further toward a more hopeful perspective on this persistent theme in his fiction. Once again, women play positive roles in this novel and in the main characters’ lives: Emma Jung, as Carl Jung himself acknowledges, can show more insight than her legendary husband. Pilgrim, Jung, and other more minor characters feel intense attachment to nature, which the novel often describes movingly. And Findley’s persistent theme that mad people have something to teach everyone else, including Carl Jung, comes through clearly in Jung’s interactions with Pilgrim and his other patients. In addition, Findley introduces the theme of selfrealization: Jung remains open to his clients’ influence, because he knows that only by welcoming other perspectives can he stretch his own and, thus, learn.

In a 1999 interview with John Bemorse, Findley says that Pilgrim is the person Findley tries not to be: someone who capitulates to despair. Carl Jung seems a more balanced character. Although he treats his wife badly, he he has good qualities in that he appreciates nature and genuinely cares for and listens to his patients: Pilgrim persistently insults Jung, who nonetheless admires Pilgrim’s integrity and regrets not being able to heal him. Thus, Jung emerges as a positive character whose humility allows him to constantly learn. At the book’s conclusion, Jung has prophetic visions of a conflagration that imperils everyone: World War I. But he embraces hope and the moment. His life-affirming comments conclude the book: “After so many beginnings—can there be another? And then I woke and it was now. Now. And now is all we have. Now—And now again and nothing more” (p. 481). Pilgrim presents a vivid summation of themes from Findley’s career. War and the more common manifestations of the same need for power,


The importance of fully realizing oneself constitutes the central theme of Findley’s 2000 play, Elizabeth Rex, which also links redemption both to literature and to women. In the play, the queen Elizabeth, anxious for a distraction on the eve of the execution of her lover, the Earl of Essex, seeks out Shakespeare and his players. Shakespeare just happens to be working on Anthony and Cleopatra, a play about a queen who resigns herself to her passions. Elizabeth determines to do what will best meet the needs of her state and that means ignoring her intense attachment to Essex. In choosing to play the role of monarch rather than indulging her feelings, she adopts the male role of domination and control. One of the actors who plays women’s roles recites Cleopatra’s lines to Elizabeth and reawakens her emotions, but Elizabeth refuses to give in to them, clinging instead to her chosen persona. In the context of the play, this choice seems a


TIMOTHY FINDLEY mistake: she embraces a narrow and false version of herself out of what she considers her duty. Findley generally considers his plays less successful than his novels, and they often lack the density of his best fiction, but the juxtaposition of Elizabeth’s dilemma to Shakespeare’s Anthony and Cleopatra gives this play a wonderful richness that led to its being honored with the 2000 Governor General’s Award for English Language Drama. And, in a sense, the play continues the themes articulated in Pilgrim, since it once again affirms the importance of owning and living out all aspects of oneself.

Again, I fall back on Thornton Wilder, who said that: cruelty is nothing more than a failure of the imagination. Yes. I believe that. If you can imagine harmony, you can achieve it. (p. 314)

Although Findley aspires to write literature, not political tracts, he still wanted his work to encourage the kindness toward others and the appreciation of nature’s radiance he believes essential to mitigating the coldness he sees spreading throughout the modern world. Findley collected many awards throughout his career, including the high honors bestowed by the two countries where he lived: Canada made him an Officer of the Order of Canada and France named him a Chevalier de L’Ordre des Arts et Lettres. No matter what Findley’s intention, these acknowledgments of his influence seem signs that his work successfully ignites the imagination and, as a result, the empathy of those who encounter it. Findley died in France on June 20, 2002, from congestive heart failure and complications resulting from a broken pelvis.

Findley admired the psychology of Carl Jung, and his novels demonstrate his embrace of Jung’s notion that only by understanding others’ perspectives and using them to expand our own point of view can we improve ourselves and the world. All social change must begin with individual knowledge and awareness. And in order to see the world more intelligently and compassionately, we must first own up to our shortcomings, as Jung persistently does in Pilgrim. Then we must attempt to own and embody as many aspects of ourselves as possible. Through his writing, Findley spent his life engaged in precisely the kind of intellectual and empathetic expansion Jung considered central to the genuine learning that would allow one to become a fuller, kinder human being. But Findley undoubtedly had a larger goal in mind than self-realization. He must have hoped that by producing literature that coaxed people to lose themselves in other people’s points of view, they would learn to treat each other more compassionately, just as reading Pilgrim’s journal entry presenting the perspective of a lower-class person helps Emma Jung learn not to judge others in terms of stereotypes. In his memoir Inside Memory, Findley makes these aspirations for his work explicit:




The Last of the Crazy People. London: MacDonald, 1967. The Butterfly Plague. New York: Viking, 1969. Rev. ed. Markham, Ont.: Penguin, 1986. (Citations in this essay refer to the 1986 edition.) The Wars. Toronto: Clarke, Irwin, 1977. “Island” and “A New Hard Walk.” In The Newcomers: Inhabiting a New Land. Edited by Charles E. Israel. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1979. Pp. 69–96, 125– 157. Famous Last Words. Toronto: Clarke, Irwin, 1981. Dinner along the Amazon. Markham, Ont.: Penguin, 1984. (Contains “Lemonade,” “War,” “About Effie,” “Sometime—Later—Not Now,” “What Mrs. Felton Knew,”

Human imagination can save us; save the human race and save all the rest of what is alive and save this place—this earth—that is itself alive. Imagination is our greatest gift.


TIMOTHY FINDLEY Journeyman: Travels of a Writer. Edited by William Whitehead. Toronto: HarperFlamingo, 2003.

“The People on the Shore,” “Hello Cheeverland, Goodbye,” “Losers, Finders, Strangers at the Door,” “The Book of Pins,” “Daybreak at Pisa,” “Out of the Silence,” “Dinner Along the Amazon.”) Not Wanted on the Voyage. Markham, Ont.: Viking, 1984; Toronto: Penguin, 1996. (Citations in this essay refer to the 1996 edition.) The Telling of Lies: A Mystery. Markham, Ont.: Viking, 1986. Stones. Markham, Ont.: Viking, 1988. (Contains “Bragg and Minna,” “A Gift of Mercy,” “Foxes,” “The Sky,” “Dreams,” “The Name’s the Same,” “Real Life Writes Real Bad,” “Almeyer’s Mother,” “Stones.”) Headhunter. Toronto: HarperCollins, 1993. The Piano Man’s Daughter. Toronto: HarperCollins, 1995. Reprint, 2002. (Citations in this essay refer to the 2002 edition.) You Went Away: A Novella. Toronto: HarperCollins, 1996. Dust to Dust: Stories. Toronto: HarperCollins, 1997. (Contains “Dust,” “Kellerman’s Windows,” “Abracadaver,” “A Bag of Bones,” “Come as You Are,” “Hilton Agonistes,” “Americana,” “Infidelity,” “The Madonna of the Cherry Trees.”) Pilgrim. Toronto: HarperFlamingo, 1999; New York: HarperCollins, 2001. (Citations in this essay refer to the 2001 edition.) Spadework. Toronto: HarperCollins, 2001.

OTHER WORKS The Life and Death of the SLA. With Les Payne and Carolyn Craven. New York: Ballantine, 1976. Imaginings. With Janis Rappaport. Toronto: Ethos, 1982. Afterword. In Any Time at All, and All Other Stories, by Joyce Marshall. Edited by Findley. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1993.

MANUSCRIPTS Timothy Findley’s papers are held at the Library and Archives Canada in Ottawa, Ontario.




The Wars. A film written by Timothy Findley, directed by Robin Phillips, and released March 20, 1983, by the National Film Board of Canada. Not Wanted on the Voyage. A play adapted by D. D. Kugler and Richard Rose and performed in 1992 in Winnipeg at the Manitoba Theatre Center. The Piano Man’s Daughter. A television movie adapted and directed by Kevin Sullivan, shown on CBC Television on September 22, 2003. Available on DVD. The Wars. A play adapted by Dennis Garnhum. Winnipeg: Scirocco Drama, 2008.

PLAYS Can You See Me Yet? Vancouver: Talonbooks, 1977. John A.—Himself. Directed by Peter Moss. Theatre London, London, Ontario, January 31–February 17, 1979. The Stillborn Lover. Winnipeg: Blizzard, 1993. The Trials of Ezra Pound. Winnipeg: Blizzard, 1994. Elizabeth Rex. Winnipeg: Blizzard, 2000. Shadows. A one-act play directed by Dennis Graharn. Studio Theatre, Stratford Festival, August 24–September 15, 2001.

CRITICAL AND BIOGRAPHICAL STUDIES Bailey, Anne Geddes, and Karen Grandy, eds. Paying Attention: Critical Essays on Timothy Findley. Toronto: ECW Press, 1998. Brydon, Diana. “A Post-Holocaust, Post-Colonial Vision.” In International Literature in English: Essays on Major Writers. Edited by Robert L. Ross. New York: Garland, 1991. Pp. 583–592. ———. Timothy Findley. New York: Twayne, 1998.


Drolet, Gilbert. “‘Prayers Against Despair’: A Retrospective Note on Findley’s The Wars.” Journal of Canadian Fiction 33:148–155 (1981–1982).

The Paper People. CBC, 1967. Don’t Let the Angels Fall. National Film Board of CanadaColumbia, 1969. The Whiteoaks of Jaina. CBC, 1971–1972. The National Dream: Building the Impossible Railway. With William Whitehead. CBC, 1974.

Hollenberg, Donna Krolik. “Art for Whose Sake? Reading Pound’s Reputations in Timothy Findley’s Famous Last Words and The Trials of Ezra Pound.” Journal of Canadian Studies 33:143–152 (winter 1998–1999). Hulcoop, John F. “Look! Listen! Mark My Words!: Paying Attention to Timothy Findley’s Fictions.” Canadian Literature: 91:22–47 (winter 1981). Klovan, Peter. “‘Bright and Good’: Findley’s The Wars.” Canadian Literature 91:58–59 (winter 1981). Pennee, Donna Palmateer. Moral Metafiction: Counterdis-

MEMOIRS Inside Memory: Pages from a Writer’s Notebook. Toronto: HarperCollins, 1990. From Stone Orchard: A Collection of Memories. Toronto: HarperFlamingo, 1998.


TIMOTHY FINDLEY Canton, Jeffrey. “The Whole Lake Beneath: Timothy Findley.” In The Power to Bend Spoons: Interviews with Canadian Novelists. Toronto: Mercury Press, 1998. Pp. 59–68. Findley, Timothy. “Alice Drops Her Cigarette on the Floor ѧ (William Whitehead Looking Over Timothy Findley’s Shoulder).” Canadian Literature 91: 10–21 (winter 1981). Gibson, Graeme. “Timothy Findley.” In Eleven Canadian Novelists. Toronto: House of Anansi, 1973. Pp. 115–149. Hunter, Catherine. “Passing It On; or, How I Met Tiff.” Journal of Canadian Studies 33:38–40 (winter 1988– 1989). Kruk, Lurie. “Timothy Findley.” In The Voice Is the Story: Conversations with Canadian Writers of Short Fiction. Oakville, Ont.: Mosaic Press, 2003. Pp. 77–99. McCartney Filgate, Terrence, director. Timothy Findley: Anatomy of a Writer. Documentary film, 1992. Mellor, W. M. “Timothy Findley’s True Fictions: A Conversation at Stone Orchard.” Studies in Canadian Literature/Etudes en LiterratureCanadienne 19:77–101 (1994). Meyer, Bruce, and Brian O’Riordan. “The Marvel of Reality: An Interview with Timothy Findley.” Waves 10:5–11 (spring 1982). Reichard, William. “Who Am I ѧ This Time?” Lambda Book Report, February 2000, pp. 6–9. Richards, Linda. “Timothy Findley.” January Magazine ( html), November 1999. ———. “Timothy Findley.” January Magazine (http://, June 2002. Slopen, Beverly. “Timothy Findley.” Publishers Weekly, April 11, 1994, pp. 41–42. Summers, Alison. “Interview with Timothy Findley.” Canadian Literature 91:49–55 (1981). ———. “Interview with Timothy Findley.” Malahat Review 58:105–110 (April 1981). Twigg, Alan. Strong Voices: Conversations with Fifty Canadian Authors. Madeira Park, B.C.: Harbour, 1988. Pp. 83–89.

course in the Novels of Timothy Findley. Toronto: ECW Press, 1991. ———. Praying for Rain: Timothy Findley’s “Not Wanted on the Voyage.” Toronto: ECW, 1993. Pirie, Bruce. “The Dragon in the Fog: ‘Displaced Mythology’ in The Wars.” Canadian Literature 91:70–79 (1981). Roberts, Carol. Timothy Findley: Stories from a Life. Toronto: ECW Press, 1994. Roberts, Carol, and Lynne Macdonald. Timothy Findley: An Annotated Bibliography. Toronto: ECW Press, 1990. Sanderson, Heather. “(Im)perfect Dreams: Allegories of Fascism in The Butterfly Plague.” Essays on Canadian Writing 68:104–125 (summer 1998). Scobie, Stephen. “Eye-Deep in Hell: Ezra Pound, Timothy Findley, and Hugh Selwyn Mauberley.” Essays on Canadian Writing 30:206–227 (winter 1984–1985). Shields, E. F. “‘The Perfect Voice’: Mauberley as Narrataor in Timothy Findley’s Famous Last Words.” Canadian Literature 119:84–98 (winter 1988). York, Lorraine M. Introducing Timothy Findley’s “The Wars”: A Reader’s Guide. Toronto: ECW Press, 1990. ———. Front Lines: The Fiction of Timothy Findley. Toronto: ECW Press, 1991. ———. “Timothy Findley 1930–.” In Canadian Writers and Their Works. Edited by Robert Lecker, Jack David, and Ellen Quigley. Vol. 12. Toronto: ECW, 1995. Pp. 71– 120.

INTERVIEWS Aitken, Johan. “‘Long Live the Dead’: An Interview with Timothy Findley.” Journal of Canadian Fiction 33:79–93 (1981–1982). Bemrose, John. “Pilgrim.” Maclean’s 112: 62 (September 6, 1999). Cameron, Donald. “Timothy Findley: Make Peace with Nature, Now.” In Conversations with Canadian Novelists. Toronto: Macmillan, 1973. Pp. 49–63.


WALDO FRANK (1889—1967)

Kathleen Pfeiffer AS NOVELIST, CULTURAL critic, social commentator, editor, and mentor to younger writers, Waldo Frank promoted the development of a more organic, democratic American literature in the twentieth century. Though he longed for recognition as a novelist, particularly in relation to his pioneering efforts to develop the “lyric novel” in his early fiction, Frank will probably best be remembered for the clarity and insight of his critical writing about American culture and for his passionate advocacy of Latin American writers to U.S. audiences. Waldo Frank held fast to his lifelong belief that his roles as artist, philosopher, and critic were necessarily intertwined, and he suffered deeply from his readers’ and critics’ confusion and hostility in the face of this. Ambitious and profoundly confident, Frank was inspired by a mystical vision in childhood, and he vowed thereafter that all his writings should be “proofs of god.” Yet it was not mere arrogance that motivated his life’s work, but a deep desire to cultivate the fullest potential in American literary and intellectual culture. Relentlessly experimental in both content and style, Frank’s fiction sought to reinvent American literature, insistently blending literary modernity with national identity.

Helene Rosenberg Frank, maintained a comfortably middle-class home on West Seventy-eighth Street in New York. Julius Frank was a lawyer and an active member of the Democratic Party who once ran unsuccessfully for Congress; he was also a trustee of the New York Society for Ethical Culture. Waldo’s mother, having trained as a soprano for the opera, sang daily; his father played organ and piano; sister Edna played piano and sister Enid violin; and Waldo Frank was himself a dedicated amateur cellist (it is not clear whether his brother Joseph shared in the family’s music). The coddled “baby” of the family in childhood, Frank developed a strong ego early in life, and his self-confidence led to his lifelong embrace of individualism. His posthumously published Memoirs illustrate his egocentricity by opening with a vivid passage in which he describes the peculiar delight he took as a child in the contemplation of his own penis in the bathtub. “It stands up, erect, the island apex of a continent which a pressure of hand and foot on the bottom of the tub reveals above the water,” Frank writes. “This is the Waldean continent, with the male organ as its center” (p. 6). Though the Memoirs later refer back to his “Waldea” myth as “nonsense,” four separate references in the Memoirs do discuss Waldea with serious respect. His brother Joseph recalled that in childhood, “he began to show ideas of faith in his individuality by announcing a new ‘Waldensian’ religion of which he was going to be the prophet” (Bittner, p. 24). This extraordinary self-confidence led Frank to instill great significance in a vision he experienced early in life. The scene is described in The Rediscovery of Man (1958) as a sort of mystical experience in which, as a young boy, he felt himself united with the Cosmos. “He had had an experience of


The youngest of four children, Waldo David Frank was born into a nonobservant Jewish family on August 25, 1889, in a white frame house near the shore in Long Branch, New Jersey, where the Franks happened to be spending their summer. Named after Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, Waldo Frank felt himself destined to literary greatness, and his childhood was spent in an environment where music, literature, art, and imaginative expressions were highly valued. His parents, Julius J. Frank and


WALDO FRANK Frank traveled extensively during his life, throughout the United States and abroad. In the months following his college graduation, he journeyed to Wyoming, Montana, Chicago, New York, and Paris. He landed in Greenwich Village and took a job on the New York Evening Post and then on the New York Times. Frank later learned, to his great dismay, that his father had been paying his salary at the Evening Post, and much of his work was never published; nevertheless, he interviewed figures such as Emma Goldman, Samuel Gompers, and Theodore Roosevelt during this time. Like many other Greenwich Village bohemians, Frank became an enthusiastic cultural pluralist, and he joined the political debates of the day with great passion. Objecting to U.S. involvement in World War I, he registered as a pacifist, the nation’s first (or so he claimed) conscientious objector. In 1914 Frank met the woman who would, in 1916, become the first of his three wives. Margaret Naumburg was an accomplished woman: she earned a degree from Barnard in 1912, studied with John Dewey, and was one of the first Americans to train with the innovative educator Maria Montessori. Naumburg was a tremendous influence on Frank. She introduced him to Freudian psychoanalysis and encouraged him to meld the numerous influences that would inform his writing throughout his life. His efforts to integrate spiritual mysticism, realism, and political radicalism into his fiction owe a debt to Naumburg. She was also the cofounder of the Children’s School, later renamed the Walden School (after Thoreau’s Walden, at Waldo’s suggestion) which took a revolutionary approach to education by employing psychoanalytic principles as part of the pedagogy. Today Margaret Naumburg is best known as an innovator in art therapy, and during the time of her marriage to Frank, she was a formidable woman.

relation which he could not fit into the weave of functional relations,” Frank writes of his young self. “In its directness, its apparently absolute freedom from the relations that weave the tissues of life, this knowledge is revelation” (pp. 256, 257). Thus, early in life, Frank dedicated himself to the examination of philosophical themes he saw as interrelated—Personhood, Wholeness, and Unity (the capitalization is Frank’s). Even as a boy, he promised himself that all of his writings would be “proofs of god” (Memoirs, p. 11). A precocious student who did not hesitate to challenge his teachers, Frank was expelled from Horace Mann School for refusing to apologize after a classroom brawl, and he regularly cut his English classes at DeWitt Clinton High School because he believed that he knew Shakespeare better than the teacher. As a result, he failed to graduate. In 1905 Frank had already written a novel, Builders in Sand, which was accepted for publication at Putnam but was withdrawn by Frank’s father, who felt that the work’s immaturity would reflect badly on his son. Frank spent a year in Les Chamettes Pensionnat in Lausanne, Switzerland, a private preparatory school, before attending Yale, where he enrolled in 1907. There, he studied with the storied William Lyon “Billy” Phelps (whom he later made the target of an unkind profile in the New Yorker, the negativity of which he came to regret) and Henry A. Beers, whose having known Emerson impressed Frank as prophetic for himself. (“The circuit from past to present was complete!” he later wrote [Memoirs, p. 43]). In 1911, after just three years of study, he received a simultaneous B.A. and M.A. from Yale, where he earned a Phi Beta Kappa key and was made an honorary fellow of the university. While at Yale, his writing developed: Frank served as the drama critic of the New Haven Courier-Journal, and he began writing plays. A year after his graduation, the Yale University Press offered to publish his master’s thesis, “The Spirit of Modern French Letters.” Frank’s ideas about French literature were constantly changing at the time, however, and thus the book was never finished and therefore never published.


In 1916, Frank joined the critics James Oppenheim and Van Wyck Brooks in founding the Seven Arts, a magazine dedicated to innovative criticism, literary experimentation, and other written


WALDO FRANK expressions of the emerging modernist national spirit. The Seven Arts was short lived but vitally important among the “little magazines” that proliferated during this time, and Waldo Frank’s influence is evident in its promotion of a unified cultural movement that integrated aesthetics and national identity. In the Seven Arts vision, literature had great potential to effect social action, and it sought to nurture writers who rebelled against literary convention. The magazine’s premiere issue declared its objectives:

culture for the twentieth century: “I loved the magazine,” he writes in his Memoirs, which for a year and a half I had lived ѧ with others ѧ to create. Even my dreams had lived it. This was to be no grab-bag periodical, no individual or narrow group expression, but a living organ articulate of America and of Cosmos: a proof indeed of God. (p. 94)

The magazine, however, could not sustain the burden of its editors’ lofty and often contradictory objectives. Editorials became frankly political once the United States declared war in the spring of 1917, and its editorial opposition to the war lost the backing of Mrs. Annette Rankine, its primary financial contributor. In 1919, after the collapse of the Seven Arts, Frank published his first major work of critical nonfiction, a book titled Our America. Written during the Paris Peace Conference, as armistice was being negotiated and as Americans reconsidered their nation’s role in the emerging modern world, Our America is a very important book and offers further insight into Frank’s artistic philosophy at the time. Energetic and rebellious, Our America argues for a sense of national renewal, which, in Frank’s view, can only come through an aggressive confrontation with history and not through flight or denial. Condemning America’s Puritan legacy of repression, Frank proclaims his nation’s spiritual potential, citing Walt Whitman’s vision of democratic multitudes. Frank had long since been drawn to Whitman (as a student, he won the gold medal in DeWitt Clinton High School’s annual oration contest with a selection from Leaves of Grass), and in Our America, Frank celebrates Whitman as a great mystic. “He saw the movements of men upon the flat planes of mundane life in its relation to all mundane life. He saw the unitary flow of all mundane life in its relation to an infinite Being of which it was an elementary part” (p. 202). A sweeping cultural appraisal that Ann Douglas has described as “a pioneering attempt to psychoanalyze American culture” (67–68), Our America calls for nothing short of an artistic and social revolution across the land. “We must begin to generate within ourselves the energy which is love of life,” Frank

It is our faith and the faith of many, that we are living in the first days of a renascent period, a time which means for America the coming of that national self-consciousness which is the beginning of greatness. In all such epochs the arts cease to be private matters; they become not only the expression of national life but a means to its enhancement. (p. 52)

The Seven Arts political vision was complex: it celebrated individualism; it repudiated the dehumanizing effect of capitalism; and it advocated a fuller integration of aesthetics into everyday life. The magazine allowed Frank to exercise considerable cultural authority, and he became an influential critic at a remarkably young age. As its literary editor he discovered and first published Claude McKay and Sherwood Anderson. Other contributors that he brought to the magazine read like a list of “who’s who” among experimental modernist writers in the 1920s: D. H. Lawrence, Eugene O’Neill, Mable Dodge, Katherine Baker, Robert Frost, Amy Lowell, Kahlil Gibran, Carl Van Vechten, and John Butler Yeats, to name but a few. Throughout the magazine’s numerous essays and editorials, Waldo Frank’s aesthetic and critical vision made itself known. Casey Nelson Blake has rightly characterized Frank’s critical stance as “a conscious appeal to the public as a romantic seer” (Beloved Community, p. 170). Thus, Frank’s work in shaping the artistic and political agenda of the Seven Arts demonstrates the first of his “repeatedly frustrated efforts to act as a spiritual leader in the world of politics” (p. 170). In its twelve issues, running from November 1916 to October 1917, Frank worked to provide literary leadership for a new generation of writers and to redefine aesthetic


WALDO FRANK concludes. “For that energy, to whatever form the mind consign it, is religious. Its act is creation. And in a dying world, creation is revolution” (p. 232). It was successful and influential, and Our America not only galvanized its readers but also established Waldo Frank as an important cultural critic; Frank’s friend, the writer Gorham Munson, called this book “the Bible of the oncoming generation” (“Fledgling,” p. 28).

came; his father was; and yet no even tenuous cord connected them. From this amazing seed of recognition sprang many varied, new impressions. And it was not long ere infantile wisdom had sensed the truth” (p. 27). As Quincy matures, his predisposition to be an individualist is at times indistinguishable from frank alienation—from his family, his society, and American culture generally. Successful at business, Quincy grows to become materialistic, yet his prosperity is framed by the narrator’s lengthy discussions of the city’s ugliness, meanness, and lack of spiritual essence. Looking back at The Unwelcome Man near the end of his life, Frank believed it to be in accord with his subsequent novels and with his life’s themes. “The lot of the sensitive man is to lose and vanish,” he wrote of Quincy Burt, and, one suspects, of himself as well. “In the depiction of the hero’s walk across the Brooklyn Bridge, the treatment of the machine-made world surrounding Quincy Burt awaits the sense of revelation in my other stories” (Memoirs, p. 239). His next novel, The Dark Mother (1920), was dedicated to Margaret Naumburg. It was the first of several books published by Boni & Liveright, the firm with whom he enjoyed a strong relationship throughout the 1920s. Like The Unwelcome Man, The Dark Mother experimented with psychological concepts, offering a nuanced and mystical account of male friendship that has often been cited as an early example of homosexual literature. In his Memoirs, Frank linked The Dark Mother to The Unwelcome Man as “an experiment that failed, because no technique had been developed to express the book’s specific form of vision” (p. 102n). The two novels also share a tendency to idealize the feminine. In both novels, male protagonists are spiritually deprived by their primal separation from the maternal. Like much of Frank’s fiction, both novels are concerned with broad philosophical concepts—how to cultivate Personhood and Wholeness. The Dark Mother examines the triangulated passion that develops between protagonist David Markand, his friend Tom Rennard, and Tom’s sister Cornelia, a gifted artist. The homosexual subtext appears early in the novel, soon after David meets Tom. Overcome with feelings for


Alongside his work on the Seven Arts, Frank wrote effusive experimental fiction, struggling to develop an American novel form that would parallel the innovative style of Romain Rolland’s ten-volume novel Jean-Christophe. Frank’s novels often received mixed reviews, however, and led to his sense of being misunderstood and unappreciated, a feeling that frustrated and depressed him and would dog him throughout his life. To be fair to the critics, all of Frank’s novels are difficult and demanding, with complex plotting and abstruse language. The narrative point of view often shifts unexpectedly, and the narrative voice often struggles, with varying success, to incorporate mystical visions and a psychological subtext into an ostensibly realistic scene. Much of Frank’s writing attempts to develop what he called the “lyric novel,” a direct expression of subjectivity that employs modernist literary techniques. Frank’s debut novel was a lengthy semiautobiographical bildungsroman titled The Unwelcome Man (1917). It was rejected by numerous publishers (including Sinclair Lewis, during his stint as an editor) before being accepted by Little, Brown in Boston. Casey Blake has noted that The Unwelcome Man is “one of the first American novels to employ both psychoanalytic categories and a stream-of-consciousness technique” (Beloved Community, p. 33) in developing the character of the protagonist Quincy Burt. Early in the novel, for instance, Frank gives voice to the infant Quincy’s interior life, in the moment where the baby recognizes that his mother serves his father’s needs ahead of his own. “Here was a great, new truth to knead into his heart. His father


WALDO FRANK Tom, David thinks, “the man beside him was part of a whirling wonder ѧ the waves of his feelings were up and down” (p. 22). The novel frames this homoerotic desire, however, by connecting it to the feminine and the maternal. As David sits beside Tom on a train in the early pages of the novel, he thinks of Manhattan as “a woman, terrible, virgin, and he aware of his own love and of his impotence before her” (p. 24). As Tom watches David enter the city for the first time, he fantasizes that he might “enter” David as David enters the city. While David feels erotic longing for Tom, he also desires maternal comfort and seeks reconciliation with some primal feminine. Looking about the city, he has a vision, mystical and compelling:

cally from traditional narrative, juxtaposing story lines and characters against each other and against classical literary traditions. Both also examined sexuality, with Rahab focusing on a procuress and the prostitutes she attends, and City Block examining, among other things, the sexual infidelity of a married couple and the sexual activity of a priest. Two of the stories from City Block had been written earlier and published in the Seven Arts, but otherwise, the two novels were written simultaneously. Rahab was published first, however, in part because City Block experienced some delays in production. Because both Frank and his publisher Horace Liveright feared prosecution from the New York Society for the Prevention of Vice for City Block’s explicit sexuality, it was published privately. Frank viewed both books as more mature in their presentation of the individual, and his aesthetic philosophy at this time is clear in his discussion of the works:

The world was a dark Mother. The Night of the miracle of worlds was fleshed and was a Mother.ѧ And he within her, moving with the world toward the movelessness of birth. David was unborn. But his mouth sucked vision. Sucking the Night sucked vision.

Unlike the assumption in “realism” that the individual is real—and until recently mortal, bound for hell or heaven, so that he may be portrayed analytically, historically, linearly—the premise for my work is that the individual is unreal and is transformed into truth, instantaneously, nonlinearly, only as the timeless and spaceless Presence speaks in him.

(p. 249)

As the novel unfolds, it becomes clear that the two men are psychologically quite different: Tom, a cynical and manipulative attorney; and David, a thoughtful and idealistic dreamer who is trying to make his way in the world but finds himself repeatedly befuddled by the hypocrisy of the social world around him. Thus, the homosexual desire between the two also functions as a backdrop against which their differences might be integrated. Cornelia’s presence complicates this dyad, however, not only through her close connection to Tom but because of her unrequited love for the philandering David. David struggles to find his way in the city and to mature into full personhood as Tom grows more cynical, and their friendship disintegrates beneath the ensuing conflict. David, freed from Tom’s oppressive bitterness, falls in love with Helen Daindrie, a friend of Cornelia. On the novel’s last page, Cornelia burns all of her paintings and commits suicide. Frank experimented with nonlinear narrative form in two structurally innovative and thematically related works, Rahab (1922) and City Block (1922). Each of these novels deviated dramati-

(Memoirs, p. 102)

In Rahab, Frank draws on his Jewish heritage for inspiration. The Rahab of the Old Testament appears in the book of Joshua and is a prostitute who saves herself and her family from a military invasion by hiding Israelite spies and protecting them from capture. Frank’s Rahab, Fanny Luve, is a procuress who cannot save herself or the “family” of prostitutes she attends. The novel interpolates past and present, interior imagination and exterior dialogue, lyricism and prose. In the frame narrative, Fanny engages in conversation with Samson Brenner, a Jewish man who is awaiting his appointment with a prostitute who works in the house where Fanny is a madam. We learn, in fragments, of Fanny’s past as a southern wife and mother who, upon being abandoned by her drunken husband, takes a lover and thereby discovers her own strength. When her estranged husband returns, now sober and sanctimonious,


WALDO FRANK she confesses her affair and he casts her out, citing the Bible for support, and separating her from her daughter. Rejected, homeless and yearning, Fanny travels north, seeking Wholeness. She takes another lover, an industrialist named Christopher Johns, and becomes more focused in her spiritual quest. Guilt compels her to break with Johns, however, and as she breaks with him, she tells him,

the Jewish aspects of the case: his characters—a police lieutenant named Statt, a gambler named Abraham Mangel, and a judge named Mark Pfennig—are each enamored of one of the women at Fanny’s house. In lyric verse, Frank shows how Mangel’s self-loathing triggers the admission that leads to their downfall. “My soul is beautiful,” Mangel thinks. “My soul says to me: / You are a dirty Jew!” (p. 215). He decides to betray the system, and plans to admit his own guilt and to reveal Statt as corrupt; Statt, of course, learns of the plan. In the novel’s denouement, Fanny forbids Statt from having Mangel killed in her house, thus evoking the Old Testament Rahab. “Fanny, whose life too hinged on the actions of Jews,” writes William Bittner, “came to her worldly downfall for the sake of a Jew whom she would not betray—Mangel. And she like Rahab, gained, not from earthly reward for her act ѧ but from a spiritual gain inherent in the act” (p. 87).

I will continue to do this, poison others with the poison of my wound, so long as I seek to be healed. Do you see? That is what makes the world endlessly hurt the world. It seeks to be healed. Do you see? Each human soul, wounded by another human soul, seeks a soul to be healed. And the wound is passed along endlessly, endlessly. (pp. 124–125)

Fanny sinks into poverty. Though financially desperate, Fanny is not alone, and with the friendship and support of three other women, she is able to recover and rise. The women—all but Fanny are “kept”—take a house together in which their men come to see them, and they are all happy together for several years. In Rahab’s ambitious climax Frank revisits the biblical antecedent by offering a thinly veiled fictional account of the New York police corruption scandal of 1912, a case that Frank had covered years earlier as a newspaper reporter, having interviewed all of the principals involved. The case began when a gambler, Herman Rosenthal, exposed the protection setup that had been lining the pockets of the New York police lieutenant Charles Becker, and which implicated nearly the entire force. Notwithstanding his heavy guard, Rosenthal’s protection could not prevent his being gunned down outside the Hotel Metropole. Subsequent investigations revealed that Becker ordered the hit and that Jewish gunmen carried it out. F. Scott Fitzgerald would also make fictional use of this notorious crime in The Great Gatsby (published three years after Rahab), in the scene where Nick Carraway meets Gatsby’s business partner Meyer Wolfsheim; in Gatsby, Wolfsheim reminisces about the evening of the murder, connecting himself to the crooked gambler and thereby underscoring the questionable legality of Gatsby’s own business dealings. In Rahab, however, Frank is more interested in

Though experimental in its arrangement— interlocking characters and scenes link one story to the next—in City Block’s prefatory note, “The author assures the reader that City Block is a single organism and that its parts should be read in order.” Episodic in form and design, City Block nevertheless offers coherence in its interest in Unity and Personhood. Each of the characters depicted in its fourteen stories is somehow searching, and characters often reappear, as when Fanny Luve figures in both “Accolade” and “Faith.” And each story offers an aesthetic interpretation of the book’s epigraph, from Spinoza, “By reality and perfection I understand the same thing.” These stories are among Frank’s most accessible precisely because they focus on the quotidian details of their characters’ lives and loves, eschewing the mystical visions that often emerge in Frank’s novels. “City Block was to be a nexus of short stories,” he wrote, “each revealing in humble and broken human lives the moment and the ecstasy of that true knowledge” (Memoirs, p. 102). Perhaps the most important and bestremembered novel from this period is Holiday (1923), his evocative story of a southern lynching. Well known for its connection to the Harlem


WALDO FRANK Renaissance (it was advertised in the 1923 Survey Graphic issue that was dedicated to “The New Negro”), Holiday is also important for its connection to Jean Toomer, the ambitious and gifted African American writer whom Frank befriended and mentored during the time that Toomer wrote his own important modernist collection titled Cane. Viewed by Frank and Toomer as “companion pieces,” Holiday and Cane were published on the same day, both by Boni & Liveright. Firmly grounded in the psychosocial and racial history of the early-twentieth-century South, Holiday is rich in allegory and is one of Frank’s most accessible novels of the decade. The novel is structured according to the cycle of a single day in a town called Nazareth, and it depicts the simmering sexual and religious fervor that leads to lynching. Structured in four parts—dusk, dawn, noon, and dusk—the plot unfolds within a surrealistic atmosphere. Nazareth is divided into two towns— the white city and the “niggertown.” The day begins as a holiday from work for black folks because the brutally hot weather has led their employer’s daughter, Virginia Hade, to close down operations early at the request of John Cloud, the black overseer. A holiday atmosphere already influences Nazareth’s white folks because the Revival Tent is being set up. The religious passion aroused in the Christian men of Nazareth, however, doesn’t find its expression in virtuous redemption but in the grotesque pyre set beneath John Cloud at the novel’s end. Holiday opens with the arrival of the ship named Psyche, during the docking of which a black sailor falls into the water and drowns because the white townsmen who can swim would rather not get their clothes wet. The novel is filled with numerous biblical allusions. John Cloud’s last name indicates his height and airiness, and his initials suggest his role as a Christ figure. Likewise, Virginia’s name underscores her sexual purity. The Hade family prospers because it controls the town’s main business of picking and preserving fruit, a venture that evokes a metaphorical Garden of Eden. Indeed, the town’s name itself surely underscores these allusions, suggesting a new cultural birth. But the Psyche’s presence also evokes much, and as with many of

Frank’s novels, a complicated and ambiguous psychological subtext runs through its pages. For example, Virginia Hade and John Cloud are drawn to each other because they experience a similar restlessness, a sense of longing and unease that both describe as a “skinny witch” that dances on the chest. The novel’s plot brings John and Virginia together because of the heat—both arrive, separately and unplanned, at the same swimming hole. Virginia sees John swimming naked, and once he is dried and clothed he joins her and they talk. At Virginia’s insistence, they exchange knives. Frank’s lyric prose seeks to convey the simultaneous attraction and alienation between the two: She sees him: unreal, too. In his eyes snow: his body is flame, but in his eyes snow ѧ John Cloud walks away. Virginia Hade is alone. She looks:—With John’s knife alone. The blade is stained ѧ—With John’s blood, alone ѧ (p. 171)

Virginia cuts herself with John’s blade while in a strange, mystical delirium. Walking back to town, she is carrying John’s knife and is seen by her brother and other racist townsmen who are leaving the Revival Tent, frustrated by the impotence of its religious offerings. John Cloud’s lynching is inevitable and it is not clear whether Virginia’s mystical trance leaves her unwilling or unable to stop it. By the novel’s end, however, Virginia is sleeping peacefully and John is horrifically dead, and the implications of this are depicted clearly: “The Psyche stands at the empty pier that points from Nazareth out into the world” (p. 233). Perhaps the most compelling aspect of Waldo Frank’s novel, its final image projects the implications of lynching in the broadest possible terms. As Holiday was in press, Frank wrote the psychological thriller Chalk Face (1924), a murder mystery that, like much of Frank’s fiction, manipulates Freudian tropes. Written with astonishing speed (in a letter to Toomer at the time, Frank described it as an “explosion” in his


WALDO FRANK “inners”), he completed Part One, some thirty thousand words, in the first ten days. Chalk Face is often likened to the work of Edgar Allan Poe or connected to the tradition of Sherlock Holmes, yet it has much in common with Frank’s earlier novels.

observation carries considerable authority. “A good rule in Waldo Frank’s writing,” he notes, is that where you see the name Mark, there is Waldo Frank. David Markand, John Mark, Mark Ferry, all these are facets of Waldo Frank. John Mark is a projection of Waldo Frank at the peak of his fame looking on to greater things he will do if the details of living would only get out of the way.

The story unfolds through the first-person narrative of its main character, John Mark. A hardworking, poorly paid scientist, Mark is the son of wealthy parents, and when he falls in love with the beautiful and wealthy Mildred Fayn, he asks his parents for the financial support to marry her. They refuse, dashing his hopes with a cavalier dismissal. He leaves them, and as he walks to Mildred’s house he begins to have a series of visions—“Something in me is fixed, and something in me is moving! ѧ” (p. 40)—in which he sees a man murdered. Mark returns to his senses and arrives at Mildred’s house to propose marriage, only to learn that she has another offer from a man named Philip whom she also loves. As Mark tries to press his own suit with Mildred, they are interrupted with the discovery that Philip LaMotte has been murdered. Mark’s efforts to investigate the crime are then interrupted when he learns that his parents have both been killed in an automobile accident. Foul play is suspected.

(p. 109)

Frank’s reputation was so firmly established by 1923 that Boni & Liveright published Waldo Frank: A Study, by Gorham Munson. A celebratory critique of the then thirty-four-year-old writer, “the most exciting figure in contemporary American letters” (p. 9), the Study included a portrait of Frank taken by his close friend, the famed photographer Alfred Stieglitz. Munson declared Frank as having achieved “a rising progression from a modest start up through suspense-provoking transitions and thrilling climaxes to a promising maturity” (p. 9). Throughout the 1920s Frank’s literary prominence brought him both praise and scorn. Ernest Hemingway memorialized his contempt for Frank in a 1924 poem “The Soul of Spain [In the manner of Gertrude Stein]” with the unambiguous line “Waldo Frank is the shit.” Similarly, F. Scott Fitzgerald offered his own harsh estimation of Frank’s literary contributions in a letter to an editor at Boni & Liveright. Fitzgerald complains that Frank “seems to be an ambitious but totally uninspired person under the delusion that by filching the most advanced methods from the writers who originated them to express the moods of their definate [sic] personalities, he can supply a substitute for his own lack of feeling and cover up the bogus ‘arty ness’of his work” (Correspondence, p. 123). Nevertheless, Frank was an influential man, and he helped shape the aesthetic values of early-twentieth-century American literary culture. His output as a novelist was more prolific during this era than at any other time in his life.

The “Chalk Face” of the title, echoed in the first of the book’s three sections (titled “The Man with the White Head”) refers to a ghostly figure, dressed in black, with an eerily white head, that appears throughout the novel. In a dreamlike sequence, Mark sees Chalk Face and follows him to the edge of the city, where the latter tries to lure him to his death at the edge of a lime kiln. “Come down: and join him.ѧ Here, if you will but come, you and he are one. And I will be released” (p. 200). The encounter is depicted as a painful struggle within Mark against his own will, suggesting that Chalk Face represents his own divided sensibility, seeking the quintessentially Frankian Unity. In the end, he confesses the killings to Mildred, and she leaves him. Commenting on Chalk Face, William Bittner has noted that Frank’s use of nomenclature offers a parallel among novels that would otherwise seem quite disparate; and because Bittner’s research included extensive conversations with Frank himself, his


Frank’s personal life shaped the direction of his writing, however. His marriage to Margaret


WALDO FRANK Naumburg had always been emotionally turbulent, and with the birth of their son Thomas in May 1922, pressures on the couple increased. The stresses proved irreconcilable, leading Margaret to travel to Reno, Nevada, in March 1924 to obtain a divorce. Years later, Waldo Frank reflected on this disappointment. “My marriage had failed,” he lamented,

only of Frank’s personal influence but also of his intellectual and aesthetic interests at this time. On July 15, 1927, Frank remarried, taking Alma Mae Magoon for his wife in Paris. Educated at Wheaton and Barnard Colleges, Alma Magoon earned a master’s degree from Teacher’s College of Columbia University. A formidable woman in her own right, Magoon established herself as a distinguished educator during the years of her marriage to Frank. She won a Rockefeller grant in 1936, for example, that sent her to London, where she studied infant development with F. Mathias Alexander. She became an expert in the so-called Alexander method of physical and psychological coordination. She and Waldo Frank had two daughters, Michal, born in 1930, and Deborah, in 1931. Shortly after marrying Magoon, Frank published New Year’s Eve: A Play. Though it was never produced, New Year’s Eve was rehearsed by the Group Theater, and Frank developed friendships with members such as Harold Clurman and Stella and Luther Adler. During this time, Frank also worked on a series of articles that were originally intended as a kind of sequel to Our America. They appeared regularly in the New Republic and were published in 1929 as The Rediscovery of America: An Introduction to Philosophy of American Life. The unevenness and didactic tone of Rediscovery may be a result of its origins as a series of essays rather than as an organic, stylized whole, like Our America. Nevertheless, its three-part structure provides an examination of the past, present, and future of American culture and concludes by emphasizing America’s tremendous remaining potential. Like Our America, The Rediscovery of America called for an organic American art form. “We are dealing with a world that has never yet been,” he writes, “a world which may come true if it is true (as I believe) that man is still an infant and all his history a cradle story” (p. 309). The Rediscovery of America’s publication corresponded with the crash of the stock market and the Great Depression; in the face of this widespread economic despair, Frank was spurred to undertake the very sort political activism that Rediscovery advocates. In 1929, for example, he accompanied Sherwood Anderson and other writ-

(I realized how unconscious-deliberately I had sabotaged it) because I was not ready, not willing, for its burdens of responsibility, absorbed as I was by the problems of my career as a writer. I faced long absences from my son, and my notebooks reveal how I suffered from the separation. (Memoirs, p. 140)

One practical consequence of the divorce was the increased financial burden of providing for two households in addition to paying child support. In response to this pressure, Frank sought and accepted more regular, paying assignments. He was named contributing editor to New Masses and he wrote essays for the New Republic (where he was later named associate editor) and the Nation. A number of his essays from 1916 to 1924 were assembled in the collection Salvos: An Informal Book About Books and Plays, published by Liveright in 1924. Also at this time, under the pseudonym “Search-Light,” he began writing essays for the New Yorker’s “Profiles” section. The arch and witty tone of the “Profiles” is evident in the subtitle of “Search-Light’s” collected works, Time Exposures: Being Portraits of Twenty Men and Women Famous in Our Day, together with Caricatures of the Same by Divers Artists to which is appended An Account of a Joint Report Made to Jehovah on the Condition of Man in the City of New York [1926] by Julius Caesar, Aristotle and a Third Individual of Less Importance. The people who fall under “SearchLight’s” glare in this collection include friends and mentors, ranging from the financier and patron of the arts Otto Kahn, the influential Yale literature professor William Lyon Phelps, the painter Georgia O’Keeffe, the composer Ernest Bloch, the actor and comedian Charlie Chaplin, Frank’s publisher Horace Liveright, the pianist and composer Leo Ornstein, and the photographer Alfred Stieglitz. The list illustrates the range not


WALDO FRANK ers who raised funds for striking Massachusetts textile workers. Then in 1932, Frank joined Mary Heaton Vorse, Edmund Wilson, and Malcolm Cowley as union-sponsored observers of the miners’ strikes in Harlan, Kentucky, where he took a tough beating that was featured in a series of articles in the New York Times. He became active in the writers’ delegation of the National Committee for the Defense of Political Prisoners, attacking President Hoover for his treatment of the Bonus Army, veterans of World War I who sought cash payment for the endowment promised them as relief during the Depression. He was elected chairman of the League of American Writers; he served as a delegate to the International Congress for the Defense of Culture; and he addressed the American Writers Congress. These were, to be sure, busy years for Waldo Frank. Like many writers in the 1930s Frank fell under the sway of communism, though, ever the individualist, he cultivated his own distinctive brand. His attitude toward communism was partly influenced by his personal experience traveling in Russia. He took an extended tour of the Soviet Union in 1931 and it affected his ideological stance. “I accepted the workers’ ‘saving grace’ that fated them to change the world,” he wrote.

study of cultural history than a strictly literary text, Virgin Spain’s subtitle best captures its author’s goals: “Scenes From the Spiritual Drama of a Great People.” Though the book was ignored or disparaged in the United States (most notably by Ernest Hemingway, whose Death in the Afternoon ridicules it as “erectile writing”), it received an enthusiastic reception in Spain and Latin America. Indeed, it led Frank to a series of lecture tours in South America and a subsequent heightening of social consciousness that characterized his work and writing in the years to follow. Frank’s exhausting travel took him to a number of countries, including Argentina, Bolivia, Peru, Chile, Colombia, Brazil, Uruguay, and Cuba. The forty-two lectures themselves, Primer mensaje a la América Hispana, were published in Madrid in 1930; a year later, Frank published America Hispana: A Portrait and a Prospect. In the opening lines of America Hispana, Frank explains that “this book must be taken as a work of art.” The aesthetic philosophy behind America Hispana, he contends, is of a piece with that of works like Rahab and City Block. The aim, Frank notes, “is not primarily to give facts or information: it is to create for the reader an image of the living organism about which the facts are recorded, to give him an experience of the truth which this collective living being represents” (p. ix). Throughout his life, Frank believed that Americans had much to learn from the depth and rootedness of the Spanish people.

Yet I never lost my critical stance toward the oversimple Marxist psychology. Man was more than the product of his material conditions; evil was more humanly inherent than the corruption of a class society. And if you reduce man’s dimensions by the dogmatic rejection of the cosmic within his self, your society will be unprepared to cope with reality and will be overwhelmed by the unadmitted in man’s nature.

Throughout the 1930s, Waldo Frank maintained an ambitious and wide-ranging itinerary of travel. Nor did he lessen his commitment to producing the paid shorter essays and critical works that would provide for his family; his collected essays from 1925–1936 appeared in book form as In the American Jungle in 1937. Frank also maintained his commitment to fiction writing, and in 1934 published a sequel to The Dark Mother titled The Death and Birth of David Markand. First drafted in 1927 (the original title contained no mention of death), the novel begins after David Markand has married Helen Dandrie and fathered a son and a daughter. Like Quincy Burt of The Unwelcome Man, David is both

(Memoirs, p. 184)

His book Dawn in Russia (1932) elucidated these idiosyncratic views, and he became more involved in party activities during the early 1930s, at one point joining Earl Browder on the campaign trail. During the 1930s Frank also nurtured a deepening interest in Hispanic culture. His book Virgin Spain had been published in 1926 to such acclaim in the Hispanic literary community that he came to be known, by the end of his life, as a “literary ambassador” to Latin America. More a


WALDO FRANK financially prosperous and personally dissatisfied, and in the novel’s opening paragraph he notices “this daily experience of waking as if being born into strangeness” (p. 3). Helen turns to Catholicism in order to combat her own spiritual alienation, and when she tells David about the comfort she finds in having discovered a “truth,” he ventures out to search for a truth of his own. In the novel’s second section, titled “The Mothers,” David returns to his boyhood home, searching through his parents’ papers for some direction to his true self, some instruction on how to live. Reading their letters, he finds a sense of love and connection between them and himself and he is deeply moved. Nevertheless, he remains unable to understand and negotiate social problems in the wider world, and his inability to find a common vocabulary with the townspeople, for whom his appearance has created deep conflicts, leads to his being run out of town. Throughout the novel, Frank employs sexuality as both plot device and symbolic activity. David takes many lovers and he finds sexual desire in numerous situations, but desire does not lead to love, and sexual intimacy does not alleviate David’s sense of strangeness. Instead, these encounters underscore his alienation and symbolically prepare David for his rebirth.

a person—through physical ordeals, corresponds with Waldo Frank’s quest through spiritual ordeals” (pp. 139–140). In the novel’s final scene, Frank reaffirms the spiritual value of social action. David faces his own “awakening will” and realizes that “the shudder in his body ѧ must turn the tide of men streaming to death back to their source, which is life” (p. 542). Frank’s next novel, The Bridegroom Cometh (1938), was originally intended as a sequel to The Death and Birth of David Markand; its protagonist, Mary Donald, was first designed as a fictional counterpart to Frank’s wife, Alma Magoon, and David is, in fact, a central character. Frank’s initial work on the novel suffered numerous interruptions, however: Alma’s Rockefeller grant was awarded during this time, and the whole family relocated to London; Frank’s break with Earl Browder and the American Communist Party also distracted him from its composition. In terms of plot, the novel—sprawling, complex, and divergent—follows Mary’s search for herself. The title refers to her family’s fanatical religiosity, as they are preoccupied with the “coming of the bridegroom” that is Armageddon. Mary Donald’s maturation is traced with marked New Testament imagery throughout, underscoring Frank’s ongoing interest in religious and spiritual truth. Yet its structure evokes musical composition in that it is organized into movements, each of which depicts some important scene in Mary’s life. “Do,” “Re,” “Mi,” and “Fa” make up the first section, titled “The Last days”; “Sol,” “La” and “Si” constitute “The Second Coming.” “Thus the novel closes on the high note—‘Si’—leading to the next octave” writes Paul Carter, “unlike the inconclusive note of Markand’s story” (p. 124). In the novel’s final scene, Mary and David Markand stand looking out a window together, having discovered a truth in love, and experiencing the limitless possibility in their being together.

David’s search for religious truth leads him to social action in the novel’s sprawling third section, titled “The River.” He travels to Kentucky with John Byrne, a socialist organizer, and Jane Priest, an idealistic reformer. Like Waldo Frank himself in Harlan, Kentucky, in 1932, David, Jane, and John find themselves attacked by hostile crowds. David awakens after being beaten and, upon finding that John and Jane have been killed, experiences the beginning of his new birth. “Everything had changed,” David thinks. “He no longer needed to die. His conscious self was a dark cave, void and lifeless, but the cave had a mouth where there was light, and framed in it the world lived” (p. 520). William Bittner has argued quite persuasively that David Markand’s personal journey is one that contains strong autobiographical resonance for Waldo Frank. “The quest of David Markand for himself,” Bittner writes, “his trying to find himself as

Such harmony and closure were not at all present in Waldo Frank’s own life at the time however, because his marriage to Alma was, by then, irrevocably disintegrating. The outbreak of war in Europe led him to return with his two daughters to the United States. While the divorce was not finalized until August 14, 1943, the mar-


WALDO FRANK riage between Waldo and Alma was essentially over by the end of 1939. The failure of his marriage, the emerging war, and an irrational sense of homelessness all led Frank into deep depression that lasted throughout 1940. And although he did write and publish the book Chart for Rough Water that year, Frank’s sense of being un- or underappreciated as a cultural and literary leader intensified at this time, and it would continue throughout his life. Chart for Rough Water warns against the dangers of isolationism, and it reflects Frank’s idiosyncratic political views and his own peculiar blend of religion, politics, and philosophy. In both tone and content, his sense of marginalization becomes clear, as he asks, “haven’t I been saying and writing for twenty years that we can have no adequate politics, no adequate aesthetics, no adequate ethics in our time without an adequate metaphysic and religion?” (pp. 99–100). Bittner makes a strong case for an extraordinary prescience in Frank’s analysis:

since Mortimer Crane has a son and daughter around the same age as his lover, Dagny Peterson, their affair contains undertones of incest. Yet the plot also addresses World War II in its juxtaposition of characters: Dagny’s fiancée, Herbert Stein, is a Jew and her father is a Nazi sympathizer. When Stein learns of Crane’s involvement with Dagny, he tells her father that Crane is a Jew, knowing where Oskar Peterson’s violent racism would lead. Stein’s calculations prove correct and Peterson arrives at Crane’s office with a gun. Confident and powerful, Crane dissuades the homicidal Peterson from shooting him. “You know Jews?” he mocks the antiSemite. “Stein’s a friend of the family, isn’t he? Eats at your house. Goes out with your girl. You know Jews! Did Stein tell you I was the Jew?” (p. 272). By the end of their exchange, Crane has bought off the “humiliated little man” (p. 279). Crane’s longtime secretary comes into the room and urges Crane to take a vacation. “Before the summer ends?” he asks, in a line that alludes to the novel’s title (p. 280). But for Crane, summer never ends. In the novel’s final pages, the debased and shamed Herbert Stein commits suicide by jumping off the Brooklyn Bridge, reeling with guilt from having fed into Peterson’s Nazi sympathies. Dagny submits to a final sexual encounter with Crane and then leaves him—she, sneering and dismissive; he, alone and humiliated. Crane considers and rejects suicide. In the end he returns to his two children, from whom he had been estranged throughout the novel, and in their presence he experiences a “transfiguration” in which they had become “sturdy” and he was “vulnerable, fragile” (p. 309).

A direct application of the ideas of The ReDiscovery of America to the actuality of a world threatened by fascism, Chart for Rough Water shows so keen a perception of the dangers inherent, not only in American Isolationism, but in certain brands of Intervention, that it would be easy to forget that it was written in 1940 and to consider it analysis after the fact rather than prognostication. (pp. 167–168)

In an act of political conscience, Frank broke with the New Republic at this time as well, resigning in protest over the magazine’s editorial support for neutrality. Yet this break only underscored Frank’s increasing sense of cultural and political alienation. His insistence on an individualistic blend of political, religious, philosophical, and cultural views left him in what Casey Blake has described as a kind of cultural limbo: his interest in mystical religiosity separated him from political radicals; and his leftist political views distanced him from his spiritual compatriots (DLB, p. 129).

In 1942 Frank found himself in the spotlight both in the United States and abroad during the course of his second Latin American lecture tour. Paul Carter notes that “he lectured as an unofficial representative of the United States government in an effort to counter or weaken Fascist propaganda” (p. 132). On August 1, the Argentine government pushed back against his efforts, declaring him persona non grata. It was not just Frank’s lectures that incited the declaration, however; he wrote—and several newspapers published—an open letter to the Argentine

Nevertheless, Frank’s fiction writing continued. Summer Never Ends (1941) tells the story of a love affair between a newly divorced, middle-aged man and a much younger woman;


WALDO FRANK people, highly critical of the country’s leadership. The next day, Frank was beaten in his Buenos Aires apartment by Fascist thugs. For a man of Frank’s diminutive stature, his stocky build notwithstanding, this must have been a horrifying experience. Reports of a bloodstained apartment accompanied the account of his injuries, which included multiple lacerations on the scalp, hands, and face as well as multiple contusions of the face, shoulders, and arms. Newspapers in the United States followed the investigations into his beating and traced his movements as he left the country and returned home. The lectures themselves, Ustedes y Nosotros: Nuevo Mensaje a Ibero-América, were published that same year and his record of the trip, South American Journey, appeared a year later.

transitional era in American history between the Civil War and World War I. Epic in its concerns and experimental in its treatment of time, Island in the Atlantic traces three generations—from Jonathan’s father, Joseph, to his son, Jeff—and unfolds through Jonathan’s consciousness during the course of a single day. The key events of Jonathan’s life thus correspond to key events in American history, so that his development as a Person seeking Wholeness takes on symbolic resonance. The father and son are both onboard the S.S. Cosmopolis at the novel’s end, and in these final scenes, Frank’s central concerns emerge. The father and son discuss belief and knowledge; Jeff asks his father if he believes in God. “I don’t believe in belief,” the father answers. But Jeff pushes Jonathan, and, relenting, he replies. “Knowledge is what is needed Jeff. Not belief. Belief goes wrong!” (p. 491). The novel concludes dramatically: the ship hits an iceberg and sinks; Jonathan saves his son, letting himself drown. He is comforted by the thought that he had saved his son and thus “he was free; free to love them who were all sons of guilt together; free to love himself” (p. 503). The Invaders (1948), Frank’s next novel, fictionally imagines the devastating import of the atom bomb on individual identity through a series of interpersonal “invasions.” Originally conceived as a play, The Invaders opens when the residents of a New England town hear on the radio that an atom bomb has been accidentally dropped on New York. The invasion of the title, however, refers not only to this inadvertent military attack but to a more personal incursion experienced by the novel’s central characters, Mark Ferry, his wife Bianca, and their infant son Christopher. As several of their relatives and friends descend on their seaside cottage in escaping from the city, conflicts emerge and develop into interlocking cycles of rage, violence, revenge, and destruction. The novel’s central question, both personal and political, is how to meet hostility: With love and understanding, or with force and self-defense? Mark Ferry implores his wife to choose the path of forgiveness.

Notwithstanding the trials of his beating, Waldo Frank found happiness upon his return from Argentina: he decided to marry again. Jean Klempner had been Frank’s secretary as he wrote South American Journey; the book’s acknowledgments page notes his debt to her. In 1943 Frank was fifty-three and she twenty-six; they married on August 15 in San Francisco, one day after his divorce from Magoon was finalized. Klempner had worked at the New Republic, which is where she likely met Frank. She was born and raised in Lake Bluff, Illinois, and earned a Master of Arts degree in English from Northwestern University. The support and comfort of a happy marriage provided stability for Frank and allowed him to focus on fiction. In his next novel, Island in the Atlantic (1946), Frank examines Jewish identity in America by fictionalizing his own father’s life. Jewish themes had been on his mind in years previous to this novel’s appearance; he had published a collection of essays in 1944 titled The Jew In Our Day. Reinhold Niebuhr, a close friend of Frank’s, wrote the introduction, and the increasing anti-Semitism unleashed by Hitler’s Nazi ideology added to its sense of urgency. Frank’s belief in a distinctive Jewish identity was something that found full and eloquent voice in Island in the Atlantic. The protagonist, Jonathan Hartt, shares a birthday with Waldo Frank’s father, though Jonathan’s age has been altered so that his life span fits more neatly into the

“People are hurt,” sadness now muffled Mark’s voice almost to a whisper, “and in self-defense hurt


WALDO FRANK recalled (Memoirs, p. 234). Moreover, by this time, he had two more children to support: his son Jonathan was born in 1947 and another son, Timothy, was born in 1953. Nevertheless, he continued his political work, and he continued to promote his Latin American contemporaries throughout the 1950s, functioning as a cultural ambassador of great importance to South American countries. He wrote “Voz de America,” a monthly syndicated column for Latin American papers. In 1948 he was commissioned by the Venezuelan government to write a biographical study of Simón Bolívar; this was published in 1951. Birth of a World: Bolívar in Terms of His Peoples used the occasion of biography to reaffirm Frank’s long-standing celebration of cultural unity between North and South America.

others. And these always in self-defense hurt others: the endless bloody circle! With all the inertia of tradition, right, duty and love, to keep it going and to keep us caught! Someone must jump out of it, Bianca!” (p. 161)

His plea fails to move his wife, and she leaves him in the end; in an ominous and devastating final scene of impotence and futility, Mark is left utterly alone. Not Heaven: A Novel in the Form of Prelude, Variations, and Theme (1953) is Frank’s last novel, a collection of short stories that are unified only in their theme of examining some aspect of hell on earth. The book’s subtitle makes this clear, and its postscript “Aside to the Reader” explains his rationale for structure. There Frank explains that “this novel has, in place of unifying plot, a unifying theme which grows ѧ by the variational development of the characters who progress ѧ from unconsciousness toward whole, ecstatic knowledge” (p. 286). While all of the stories in Not Heaven were written after The Invaders, Frank had been collecting the story themes for more than thirty years. The novel includes twelve “Variations,” or sets of characters and situations, thereby illustrating the range of circumstances through which heaven and hell can be experienced by anyone at any time. Aesthetically and philosophically ambitious, Not Heaven maintains a quintessentially Frankean concern with the concept of the Whole, and of a Person’s role within it. Bittner explains that “in Waldo Frank’s philosophy, there is no such thing as an individual: persons exist only in relation to all the other things in the universe, and the unity which is all creation is God” (p. 212). After publishing Not Heaven, Frank returned to cultural criticism, working on two books: The Rediscovery of Man (1958), a dense and abstruse program for spiritual redevelopment; and Bridgehead: The Drama of Israel (1957), the end result of a commissioned visit to Israel and a series of articles on its founding and state. Frank’s reputation as a leftist created problems for him in the 1950s, and like many, his career suffered. “With the cold war and Senator McCarthy my invitations to lecture had shrunk, particularly from institutions with money,” he

In the final decade of his life, Frank’s involvement with Cuba and his personal association with Fidel Castro led to unprecedented publicity. Frank had visited the Isle of Pines near Cuba as early as 1926 with his friend, the poet Hart Crane, whose family owned a summer home there. After visiting Cuba in the fall of 1959, Frank was encouraged by Cuban cultural ministers to write a book about the country, which he agreed to do as long as the contract allowed him to express his views freely. Yet increasing tensions between the U.S. State Department and the Castro regime, together with Castro’s increasingly dictatorial behavior, led Frank, privately, to express doubts about the project. Frank met with Castro during his visit to the United Nations in 1960 and then he traveled to Cuba, where he spent a month working on the book. Cuba: Prophetic Island appeared in 1961, though any critical engagement with its argument or its writing was lost in the political maelstrom surrounding its appearance. In 1962 Frank was questioned by the House Committee on Un-American Activities about his ties to Castro; the following year, the Senate’s Internal Security Committee called him to testify as well. By the end of his life, Waldo Frank’s FBI file was over five hundred pages long, and it revealed that he had been watched since 1932; his wife Jean later commented that he never felt that his name had been cleared. “It colored his life,” she noted. “He knew


WALDO FRANK that the surveillance was going on and that it was affecting the publication of his books. But the blacklisting never affected the content of his books—what he wrote” (Robins, p. 344). Throughout his life, Frank maintained strict self-discipline as a writer. He regularly counted words and thereby measured and recorded his ostensible progress. He maintained a studio on a hill behind his summer home in Truro, Massachusetts, on Cape Cod. There he would keep regular office hours, drinking hot mugs of yerba maté and working at his typewriter in isolation from early morning until noon or so. Frank hated to be interrupted during these times. Selfdiscipline informed his hobbies as well as his writing life: he was a dedicated and serious amateur musician, keeping up the cello throughout his life. On the Cape in the summertime, he participated in an amateur quartet that met weekly to play together. At the end of his life, he took long walks and daily swims, and he mused bitterly over his lack of recognition as a writer. Cuba: Prophetic Island was the last book Waldo Frank published, though he continued writing, primarily his Memoirs, until his death on January 9, 1967. His Memoirs were published posthumously in 1973. Edmund Wilson recorded his impressions of Waldo Frank’s funeral, which took place in the South Truro cemetery on a bitterly cold January 12. Wilson noted that he had been asked to speak, but declined. “The most depressing thing about his death,” Wilson wrote,

the depth of his intellectual integrity. For many years, his home in Truro, Massachusetts, was adorned with a framed needlepoint canvas prominently positioned over the fireplace that read, “Dare to Do Right.” The sentiment influenced his family and serves as a pithy summary of his professional and artistic goals as well.

Selected Bibliography WORKS OF WALDO FRANK FICTION The Unwelcome Man. Boston: Little Brown, 1917. The Dark Mother. New York: Boni & Liveright, 1920. City Block. Darien, Conn.: Privately printed, 1922. Rahab. New York: Boni & Liveright, 1922. Holiday. New York: Boni & Liveright, 1923. Chalk Face. New York: Boni & Liveright, 1924. New Year’s Eve: A Play. New York and London: Scribners, 1929. The Death and Birth of David Markand. New York: Scribners, 1934. The Bridegroom Cometh. London: Gollancz, 1938. Summer Never Ends. New York: Duell, Sloan & Pearce, 1941. Island in the Atlantic. New York: Duell, Sloan & Pearce, 1946. The Invaders. New York: Duell, Sloan & Pearce, 1948. Not Heaven: A Novel in the Form of Prelude, Variations, and Theme. New York: Hermitage House, 1953.

was the unsatisfactoriness of his writing and career. He said to me lately that he had been “rejected.” I am sure he never knew why. He seemed incapable of self-criticism. Conscious of in some ways brilliant abilities and an unusually wide intellectual range, he could not understand that his practice nowhere near came up to his pretentions. I used to think about him years ago that he had no humility before his medium, never in fact taught himself to write.

NONFICTION Our America. New York: Boni & Liveright, 1919. Salvos: An Informal Book About Books and Plays. New York: Boni & Liveright, 1924. Time Exposures, by Search-Light. New York: Boni & Liveright, 1926. Virgin Spain. New York: Boni & Liveright, 1926. The Rediscovery of America. New York and London: Scribners, 1929. Primer mensaje a la América Hispana. Madrid: Revista de Occidente, 1930. America Hispana: A Portrait and a Prospect. New York: Scribners, 1931. Dawn in Russia. New York: Scribners, 1932. In the American Jungle. New York: Farrar & Rinehart, 1937. Chart for Rough Water. New York: Doubleday, Doran, 1940.

(The Sixties, pp. 564–565)

Readers may judge for themselves whether they agree with Wilson’s estimation, that Frank’s practice failed to meet his pretensions. Nevertheless, any fair evaluation of Waldo Frank’s life must give him credit for the intensity of his commitment to American literature and culture and to


WALDO FRANK Dictionary of Literary Biography. Detroit: Gale, 1988. Pp. 122–130. ———. Beloved Community: The Cultural Criticism of Randolph Bourne, Van Wyck Brooks, Waldo Frank, and Lewis Mumford. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1990. Carter, Paul J. Waldo Frank. New York: Twayne, 1967. Eckley, Wilton. “Waldo Frank.” In American Novelists, 1910–1945. Part 2, F. Scott Fitzgerald–O. E. Rolvaag. Edited by James J. Martine. Vol. 9 of Dictionary of Literary Biography. Detroit: Gale, 1981. Pp. 28–34. Faber, Sebastiaan. “Learning from the Latins: Waldo Frank’s Progressive Pan-Americanism.” CR: The New Centennial Review 3, no. 1:257–295 (2003). Fitzgerald, F. Scott. Correspondence of F. Scott Fitzgerald. Edited by Matthew Bruccoli, Margaret Duggan, and Susan Walker. New York: Random House, 1980. Gordon, Nicholas Karl. “Jewish and American: A Critical Study of the Fiction of Abraham Cahan, Anzia Yesierska, Waldo Frank, and Ludwig Lewisohn.” Ph.D. dissertation. Stanford University, 1967. Kloucek, Jerome. “Waldo Frank: The Ground of His Mind and Art.” Ph.D. dissertation. Northwestern University, 1958. Munson, Gorham B. Waldo Frank: A Study. New York: Boni and Liveright, 1923. ———. “The Fledgling Years, 1916–1924.” Sewanee Review 40, no. 1:24–54 (January–March 1933). Ogorzaly, Michael A. Waldo Frank: Prophet of Hispanic Regeneration. Cranbury, N.J.: Associated University Presses, 1994. Robins, Natalie. Alien Ink: The FBI’s War on Freedom of Expression. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1993. Terris, Daniel. “Waldo Frank, Jean Toomer, and the Critique of Racial Voyeurism.” In Race and the Modern Artist. Edited by Henry Hathaway, Josef Jarab, and Jeffrey Melnick. New York: Oxford, 2003. Pp. 92–114. Wilson, Edmund. The Sixties: The Last Journal, 1960–1972. Edited by Lewis M. Dabney. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1994.

Ustedes y Nosotros: Nuevo Mensaje a Ibero-América. Buenos Aires: Editorial Losada, 1942. South American Journey. New York: Duell, Sloan & Pearce, 1943. The Jew in Our Day. New York: Duell, Sloan & Pearce, 1944. Birth of a World: Bolivar in Terms of His Peoples. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1951. Bridgehead: The Drama of Israel. New York: Braziller, 1957. The Rediscovery of Man: A Memoir and a Methodology of Modern Life. New York: Braziller, 1958. Cuba: Prophetic Island. New York: Marzani & Munsell, 1961.




Memoirs of Waldo Frank. Edited by Alan Trachtenberg. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1973. The Correspondence Between Hart Crane and Waldo Frank. Edited by Steve H. Cook. Troy, N.Y.: Whitston Publishing, 1998. Brother Mine: The Correspondence of Jean Toomer and Waldo Frank. Edited by Kathleen Pfeiffer. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2010 (forthcoming).

AS EDITOR With James Oppenheim and Van Wyck Brooks. The Seven Arts. Vol. 1. Seven Arts Publishing, 1916. With Lewis Mumford, Dorothy Norman, et al. America and Alfred Stieglitz. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1934. Waldo Frank’s Papers are housed in the Rare Book and Manuscript Library at the University of Pennsylvania.

CRITICAL AND BIOGRAPHICAL STUDIES Bittner, William. The Novels of Waldo Frank. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1958. Blake, Casey (Nelson). “Waldo Frank.” In Modern American Critics, 1920–1955. Edited by Gregory S. Jay. Vol. 63 of



Stephen J. Burn middle of the golden age of the American middle class ѧ As a child, I set great store by the fact that no American state shares a boundary with more states than Missouri does ѧ And our town, Webster Groves, was in the middle of this middle” (p. 13).

THE WIDELY ACCLAIMED novelist Jonathan Franzen occupies an unusual middle space in contemporary American literature, situated between different literary movements and torn between conflicting aesthetic impulses. As a consequence, his works are often hybrid fictions that seem calculated to appeal to radically different audiences. The strong emphasis on relatively traditional storylines (coming-of-age narratives, the psychological tensions of conflicted families) have attracted a large general readership and prompted Oprah Winfrey to offer her endorsement of his novels. Yet his novels’ formal sophistication and coded allusions to his postmodern ancestors—William Gaddis, Don DeLillo, and Thomas Pynchon— seem to be directed toward capturing the attention of critics and other writers. Perhaps because of this mixture of artistic energy, literary scholars have often left his work lost in the middle, hanging between mainstream and academic fiction in a kind of critical vacuum. His third novel, The Corrections (2001), was heralded as one of the most important works of the new century, but for all the fanfare Franzen’s work has received and for all the copies sold, his novels have been relatively unexamined by critics.


Though Franzen was born and raised in the middle of the United States, his family came from the north of the country. His father, Earl T. Franzen, was raised in northern Minnesota, and his route south seems to have been driven by the engineering and railroad companies who employed him in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Illinois. He eventually settled in Missouri, and for much of Jonathan Franzen’s upbringing (the years 1967 until 1981) his father was chief engineer for the Missouri Pacific Railroad (MoPac), which seems to have provided a loose template for the MidPac company whose dissolution lies at the heart of The Corrections. Earl evidently met Franzen’s mother, Irene Super (a receptionist in a doctor’s office), in a philosophy night class at the University of Minnesota, during the years when he worked for the Great Northern Railroad. Their third (and youngest) son, Jonathan Earl Franzen was born on August 17, 1959, in Western Springs, Illinois, though in 1964 the family crossed the state boundary, eventually settling in Webster Groves, a suburb of St. Louis. The imaginative territory of Franzen’s work as a whole seems deeply rooted in this midwestern upbringing, but his first novel, in particular, circles around his hometown. While the Franzen family lived in an attractive house at 83 Webster Woods, the pivotal family in The Twenty-seventh City (1988) lives in a “three-story stucco house” (p. 27) located about

The divided aesthetic that characterizes his work seems to have its roots in Franzen’s upbringing. In the many essays where Franzen writes about his background, he tends to stress a sense of division that he feels is essential to his life and art. In How To Be Alone (2002), he notes that his birthdate places him on a cultural faultline, poised between the conformity of the 1950s and the social and artistic revolution of the 1960s. In his 2006 memoir, The Discomfort Zone, he elaborates on his sense of being in the middle: “I grew up in the middle of the country in the


JONATHAN FRANZEN a mile away on Sherwood Drive, which Franzen toured when at school.

machinations help propel the plot of his first novel. In 1988, Franzen described this play and its relevance to The Twenty-seventh City in an interview with Clarence Olson:

Although Franzen did not publish his first novel until 1988, his long apprenticeship as a writer began ten years earlier, while Franzen was enrolled at Webster Groves High School. Franzen seems to recall the school fondly, and in a 2001 interview he told Jane Henderson that the teachers “thought it was their job or privilege to encourage creativity of all kinds” (p. G1). It was a physics teacher—Bill Blecha—who encouraged the students to produce a play that Franzen wrote with a fellow pupil, Kathy Siebert. Franzen discusses his relationship with Siebert at some length in The Discomfort Zone, but the outcome of their early collaboration was a one-act play titled The Fig Connection (1977), and in “How I Write” Franzen recalls how this work inspired his later fiction: “I got the [writing] bug bad when I was in high school. I wrote a couple of plays with a friend of mine; one of them was properly published. We actually got paid $50 each. That really set the hook. It was an amazing thing to happen to a 17-year-old. I’ve had a novel of some sort cooking ever since.” The Fig Connection is split into four scenes and a finale, and much of the dramatic action is driven by the plot’s absurd juxtapositions. Mixing modern politics and the history of science, the play draws on cold war suspicion to depict apparently modern Russian spies in seventeenthcentury England as they try to capture Isaac Newton before he discovers gravity. As the play unfolds, the action rehearses slapstick routines that are routinely interrupted by metadramatic reminders of the play’s artificiality (characters leave the stage and chase each other up the theater’s aisles, dialogue explains that other characters are waiting offstage). But while The Fig Connection is important to Franzen’s career inasmuch as it represents his first published work, his collaboration with Siebert is also noteworthy in the passage toward his first novel. After completing The Fig Connection, Siebert and Franzen wrote an untitled play set in British colonial India, which featured a character Franzen would return to when he created Susan Jammu, the Indian American police officer whose

It was just an absurd, long, anachronistic comedymystery ѧ but there was a police inspector named Jammu, who was male at the time, and a while later I had the idea of putting this character, whom we all had liked, into a story set in St. Louis. The idea basically started with the collision of this character, this strange Indian police officer, with what in my mind is a pretty ordinary Midwestern city. Certainly not an exotic place. (p. 3C)

Franzen graduated from Webster High in 1977, and left St. Louis to study at Swarthmore in Pennsylvania. Swarthmore appears at the edges of Franzen’s fiction on several occasions, normally as a college that his female characters are drawn to—in The Twenty-seventh City, Luisa Probst applies to study at Swarthmore, while in The Corrections, Caroline and Denise Lambert attend the school—and his time there seems to have shaped much of his literary sensibility. During his college years a number of prominent writers gave readings at Swarthmore—John Knowles, Alice Walker, E. L. Doctorow—while Franzen also received a seminal exposure to German literature in Professor George C. Avery’s class on German literature. By the time Franzen enrolled in Avery’s class he had already spent four months in Munich as part of an exchange program, where he recalls that he had been especially engrossed by the poetry of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Back at Swarthmore with Avery, his reading moved toward the twentieth century, as Franzen read works by Friedrich Nietzsche, Arthur Schnitzler, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Robert Walser, Karl Kraus, Rainer Maria Rilke, Franz Kafka, Alfred Döblin, and Thomas Mann. As Franzen makes clear in his essay, “The Foreign Language” (collected in The Discomfort Zone), Germany and its literature have significantly molded his life and his writing. On a personal level, Franzen would return to Germany after graduation when (with the support of the Fulbright Student Program) he studied at Berlin’s Freie Universität. In later years he also worked on translations of the essays of Karl Kraus, and he published a


JONATHAN FRANZEN translation of Frank Wedekind’s play Spring Awakening in 2007. In terms of Franzen’s own fiction, Germany has provided structural concepts for his novels as well as plot devices. At the level of plot, characters visit Germany in both The Twenty-seventh City and The Corrections, and Kafka’s sense of modern paranoia and internal corruption bleed into the atmosphere of Franzen’s first novel, where Joseph K. apparently provided a template for Franzen’s Martin Probst. On a more complex level, Thomas Mann’s tendency to organize his novels around leitmotif structures seems to have influenced the way variations on the word “correct,” for example, are woven through Franzen’s The Corrections.

“Facts” is a conspiracy story that Franzen wrote in a single afternoon in his final semester at college. The story came third in Swarthmore’s annual fiction-writing competition (which was judged by novelist Richard Price), and it became his first major postcollege publication when it appeared in Fiction International in 1986. With both college and his Fulbright-funded travels to Germany behind him, Franzen returned to the United States to marry a fellow Swarthmore graduate, Valerie Cornell, in 1982, and (following the advice of his college roommate, Göran Ekström, a Swedish physicist) he took a job in the earth and planetary sciences department at Harvard University. From 1983 to 1987, Franzen worked as a research assistant crunching data on seismic activity and appearing as coauthor on a number of seismology papers. During this period, Franzen lived north of Cambridge with Cornell in Somerville, Massachusetts, a town that provides the home for Louis Holland in Franzen’s second novel, Strong Motion (1992). As Franzen told Clarence Olson in 1988, his seismology appointment “became an absolutely ideal job for a writer because I worked weekends, and the two of us, by living frugally, could live on what I made at a two-day-a-week job, plus having all the privileges of the school associated with the job—the libraries and other resources” (p. 3C). Both Franzen and Cornell were working on novels during this period—Franzen was writing The Twenty-seventh City; Cornell worked on a novel about an insane politician—and their daily routine evidently involved spending eight hours writing and then devoting five hours to reading. For Franzen, the outcome of this process was a thousand-page draft of his first novel, though much of the work was evidently completed in a burst after a long apprenticeship of false starts. Franzen told Olson:

Franzen also found many writing opportunities at Swarthmore. As the detailed survey in Stephen J. Burn’s Jonathan Franzen at the End of Postmodernism (2008) documents, Franzen published poems, a play, fiction, and journalism in a variety of student publications during his college years. The greatest volume of work— more than thirty articles—appeared in Swarthmore’s student newspaper, the Phoenix. Franzen’s focus in these articles was eclectic, ranging from an account of the work being done on galactic star maps by the Sproul Observatory to noting that one of Swarthmore’s managerial board was the lawyer hired to represent Ezra Pound when he was incarcerated in a Washington, D.C., mental hospital. As well as serving as copy editor, feature editor, and opinion editor for the Phoenix, Franzen was appointed editor of the student literary magazine, the Nulset Review, in 1980. Franzen quickly renamed the magazine Small Craft Warnings (a title taken from a play by a fellow St. Louis native, Tennessee Williams), and he broadened his artistic repertoire by including some of his own photographs in the magazine. Photography—and especially selfconsciously artistic photography—is a pastime of one of The Twenty-seventh City’s central characters (Duane Thompson returns from Germany to take pictures that are designed to suggest an “implied photographer”), but one of the clearest indications of Franzen’s later career to be found in his student work is the short story “Facts.” Poised between Germany and the Midwest,

I spent several years trying to do the first three or four chapters, and I was such a bad writer that I kept doing it over and over again. I slaved over what is now just the first 80 pages of the book ѧ And then when I’d gotten to be a better writer and everything was clear in my mind, it went quickly. Really, in 1985, I wrote most of what there is here,


JONATHAN FRANZEN resistance, by luring his family members away from him.

and then I just rewrote it basically in a couple of months. It pretty much came out as a piece. (p. 3C)

Jammu’s initial goal is to gain widespread support to redraw the city’s boundaries, but around the conflict between these two characters Franzen ambitiously and carefully weaves a series of other stories. The multiple narratives allow Franzen to attempt to represent the multivalent chaos of a many-voiced city, while it also highlights how the life of an individual is enmeshed amid scales of life both larger and smaller than they realize. The different voices drawn from the city give the book an unusually broad horizontal reach, but Franzen’s study of St. Louis also seeks vertical depth, and on occasions his narrative voice becomes essayistic as it plunges into the past to historicize the city’s emergence from the earlier “hunting ground for the Cahokia people, native Americans leading lives which bore ѧ little connection with the subsequent Caucasian experience” (p. 154). The scope of the novel’s architecture, then, is a remarkable achievement for a novelist not yet out of his twenties, but beyond artistic display The Twenty-seventh City is conceived, in part, as an act of social criticism. On the book’s publication, Franzen told Clarence Olson, “I feel some social responsibility as a writer to not accept the world as it comes to me, because I think there are things wrong with it” (p. 3C), and the novel’s targets are variously consumer capitalism, political corruption, and ecological destruction.


Published in September 1988, The Twentyseventh City is a remarkably polished first novel. Beginning (amid multiple references to George Orwell) in 1984, and moving forward over eight months to end in 1985, the novel is relayed through a mosaic of short scenes that, for the most part, circle around different characters entwined in interlinked stories set in St. Louis. The urban landscape is marked by decay, and Franzen’s title introduces this theme as the early chapters explain how the city that was once America’s fourth-largest urban center became the country’s twenty-seventh city in what the novel calls “the Era of the Parking Lot, as acres of asphalt replaced half-vacant office buildings downtown” (p. 26). With imagery drawn from T. S. Eliot, Franzen depicts the city as a kind of concrete wasteland where the dominant motifs are sleep and degeneration. Into this decaying cityscape Franzen inserts Susan Jammu, a half-Indian female police chief and relative of Indira Gandhi (assassinated that year), who has just been imported from Bombay. With powerful financial backers, the energetic Jammu is trying to revitalize the city in her image, but the depth of her ambition and the extremity of her methods offer a dark contrast to the sleepy midwestern lives she disrupts. By kidnapping pets, stalking local families, and blowing up cars, Jammu uses terror to try to gain control of the minds of prominent citizens—in a way that allows Franzen to critique what he sees as the lethargy of the modern American. In the novel’s initial schema, Jammu is opposed by Martin Probst, a widely respected local businessman. Probst’s support is crucial for Jammu, not just because of his reputation for integrity but also because he is chairman of Municipal Growth—a committee (based on the real St. Louis coalition, Civic Progress) made up of leading local businesses—and with the help of her associates she gradually undermines his

As this plot unfolds, there are hints of the modernist fascination with fertility rituals and sacrifice. The pivotal events that will supposedly ensure the city’s revival are due to take place in April, and as Jammu’s net begins to close around Probst, Franzen explains that “Spring was ѧ the time of year when great men died” (p. 481). Yet in a reversal of the modernist template—and in a move characteristic of Franzen’s early fascination with the situation of women—it is the female characters, rather than the male, who face the sacrificial altar in The Twenty-seventh City. Alongside the echoes of modernism, Franzen’s first novel also overlaps significantly with the works of his postmodern ancestors. The vast and


JONATHAN FRANZEN labyrinthine conspiracy narratives pioneered by Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo clearly shape Franzen’s plot, and he slyly acknowledges this heritage (while simultaneously noting how little impact critically admired postmodernism made upon a wider audience) in a scene in the novel where literary allusion gets tangled up in peergroup politics as two young characters talk:

trying to publish short stories, and he identified Charles Dickens, Kafka, Ved Mehta, V. S. Naipaul, Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö as writers he had drawn on for information and inspiration. Several reviewers noted that the novel was a kind of hybrid, caught between different fictional modes. In a September 4, 1988 Washington Post article, for instance, Michelle Slung saw moments in the novel where characters from the realist tradition found themselves in a postmodern world, as when she described feeling “that I’d encountered the odd Updike character coming to grips with a Pynchonesque landscape.” Similarly, in a review that ran alongside a photo shoot, Margo Jefferson explained to Vogue’s readers that while Franzen was “attuned to the multinational complexities of Salman Rushdie” there were points in the book where she feared he “was veering toward the brute dualities of Robert Ludlum.” Peter Andrews in the New York Times Book Review, however, considered the novel to be a relatively straightforward thriller—evidently to Franzen’s chagrin—and discussed the novel’s resemblance to “conventional potboilers” in its “crime/mystery” section.

“What are you, paranoid or something?” “Yeah. Paranoid.” He leaned back in the seat, reached out the open window, and adjusted the extra mirror. “My life’s gotten kind of weird lately ѧ Do you know Thomas Pynchon?” “No,” Luisa said. “Do you know Stacy Montefusco?” (p. 55)

The Twenty-seventh City was strongly backed by Farrar, Straus and Giroux when it was published in the United States. (Franzen’s first and second novels were not published in the UK until 2003.) With a first print run of forty thousand copies and a promotions budget of $50,000, the book was heralded by a two-page advertisement in the New York Times Book Review, which announced “It’s 1984 in St. Louis and Big Brother is a Woman.” For a first novel, the book received a lot of attention. In an August 21, 1988 prepublication review of the novel for the Chicago Tribune, John Blades identified many of the book’s features that later reviewers picked up on. Accurately placing the novel in its literary context, Blades argued that despite the novel’s sober and accurate message, there was “an unmistakable comic lunacy to the novel” which he traced to the influence of Pynchon and DeLillo, and he concluded with some measured admiration for the book: “Still in his late 20s, Franzen ѧ is an extravagantly talented writer, as well as an occasionally graceless and impatient one, a little too anxious to pour into his first novel everything he knows.” A week later, Newsweek ran a review by Laura Shapiro in which she praised The Twenty-seventh City as “a big, lavish novel of creepy realism ѧ as gripping as a detective story.” In conversation with Shapiro for the article, Franzen explained how he had received “some 200 rejection slips” when

As the end of the year approached, Franzen was also to receive criticism—that would evidently resonate profoundly with him—from the New Yorker. Finding the novel (like some earlier reviewers) a “weird hybrid,” Terence Rafferty praised Franzen as “an awfully talented guy” (p. 101), but he found the novel self-involved on a technical level, complaining that “ultimately, Franzen’s novel ѧ is about nothing but its own ingenuity” (p. 103). What Franzen had missed, in Rafferty’s eyes, was the standard semiautobiographical fare of the sensitive first novel. Observing that Franzen had written “a first novel that doesn’t feel like a first novel,” Rafferty argued that the risk for Franzen “is that he will miss the opportunity to define himself, to discover what’s unique about where he stands in relation to the world” (p. 101, 104). In December 1991, on the brink of his second novel’s publication, Franzen reflected in a Publishers Weekly interview on the impact of the unusual criticism represented by Rafferty’s review:


JONATHAN FRANZEN That was a bombshell ѧ I respect the New Yorker a lot ѧ But to be taken to task ѧ for what? Look at the first book of so many of our great writers— Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood, Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children. I was trying to write just like the writers I admired. They seemed to have learned not to sound like kids anymore.

carefree, pursues another woman—allows Franzen to establish a clear (and visual) parallel between the irresponsibility of male sexuality and the exploitative practice of multinational companies who inject their waste into the earth. With the tighter concentration on personal relationships and the spotlight on a single family, Strong Motion may initially seem somewhat narrower than The Twenty-seventh City, and Franzen told Michael Coffey of Publishers Weekly he was explicitly “going back and writing the comingof-age story I hadn’t written in the first book” (p. 54). But despite the closer, more personal focus, the novel’s attention to earthquakes and humanity’s exploitation of the natural world makes its ecological dimension much more pronounced. Although Franzen’s emphasis on St. Louis was of “a city gone dead” (p. 201) in his first book, he took care to punctuate The Twentyseventh City with moments where the reader is freed from the urban sprawl to catch a glimpse of the natural world. In these moments, Franzen attempts to capture nature’s overwhelming excess in sentences that rely on multiple commas to imitate nature’s pulsing vitality:

(p. 53)

Yet for all Franzen’s apparent frustration with Rafferty’s review, the publication of Strong Motion in 1992 seemed to suggest that the young writer had taken his criticism to heart because— from its first sentence onward—Franzen’s second novel addresses the traditional ingredients of an early novel much more directly than his first book.


Drawing on his time in Somerville and his work at Harvard’s earth and planetary sciences department, Strong Motion adopts earthquakes as both a plot device and an organizing principle. The concept of “Strong Motion” is glossed in this novel as “a term for the ground shaking felt near an epicenter” (p. 184), and while the novel locates its earthquakes in Boston, the characters themselves are found near the epicenter of social upheavals, becoming entangled in protests over environmentalism and reproductive rights. While The Twenty-seventh City’s focus was dispersed across an entire city, in this much more personal book, the disturbances are largely found in the internal tensions of members of the Holland family, who inherit stock in a chemical company after a relative is killed in an unexpected earthquake. The quake brings twenty-three-yearold Louis Holland into contact with an older seismologist, Renée Seitchek, with whom he begins a relationship. But romantic love in this novel is complicated by seismology and economics when Renée begins to suspect that it is the waste disposal policies of Louis’ mother’s company that is causing the earthquakes. Renée’s life becomes even more complicated when she discovers shortly after breaking up with Louis that she is pregnant. The trauma that she undergoes—seeking an abortion and becoming embroiled in prolife demonstrations, while Louis,

The land was beautiful. Secondary growth, the scrub oak and cottonwood, sycamore and sassafras, hawthorn and sumac, had crept from the safety of ravines and vaulted, annually, ever farther into the old cornfields, converging and rising. Conifers consolidated early gains, blackberry brambles and cattails reaffirmed the swamps, the old apple orchard let down its hair, grew crazy in the sweet rot of its droppings. (The Twenty-seventh City, p. 155)

The centrality of trees to the momentum of this passage is not coincidental, as trees also become a central motif in Strong Motion’s efforts to demonstrate “how deeply” humanity is “immersed in the world” (p. 350). The motif is subtly introduced in his protagonist’s last name—the etymology of “Holland” suggests the Old English word holt, meaning “wood” or “copse”—and is elaborated throughout the book to conjure an idyllic precolonial vision of an America that was “all trees and no fences” (p. 376). Indeed, Franzen’s commitment to eradicating the line that establishes humanity’s autonomy from the natural world—a line that sets humanity up as both


JONATHAN FRANZEN observer and master of nature—even infects his narrative technique, as he goes so far as to narrate one section of the novel from the point of view of a raccoon. All creatures—whether procyonid or primate—are equally of interest in the eyes of this novel.

ever, are essentially complaints about the overpowering richness of Franzen’s conception—the busyness of the novel at the level of the sentence—and Strong Motion’s reputation will presumably rise as scholars begin to reframe what seems to be excessive cleverness in terms of elements that are actually integral to Franzen’s overarching design.

As might be expected from an author with Franzen’s seismology background, Strong Motion betrays careful attention to its scientific sources. For the most part, Franzen incorporates some reference to his major source material into the novel itself, so the reader learns, for instance, of David M. Evans’ study of induced seismicity from a mini-lecture delivered by Renée. At the same time, the mechanics of the plot itself seem to draw from the new sciences of chaos and complexity, with the narrative patterned around such concepts as sensitive dependence on initial conditions (the so-called butterfly effect) and recursive symmetry. Published in January 1992, Strong Motion had a reception that was significantly more muted than its predecessor’s, and Franzen attributes its disappointing sales to a poorly organized marketing campaign and an unattractive dust jacket (the cover of the first edition is a deep red plane interrupted by dark seismology graphs). Several reviewers issued mixed reports, finding many elements to praise in Franzen’s work but ultimately expressing some disappointment with the overall success of his second book. In Newsweek, Shapiro reaffirmed her admiration for Franzen’s first novel, but complained that in his new work “the scenes that delve into character ѧ are oddly self-conscious. Too often Franzen falls back on his talent, presenting sentences and paragraphs of beautiful writing that simply call attention to themselves rather than advance the story.” Similarly, in the New York Times Book Review, Josh Rubins admired Franzen’s ambition in creating Strong Motion’s “bold, layered design” (p. 13) but tempered his praise by explaining that “despite the brilliance of individual set pieces and the intelligence and keen observation on almost every page, Strong Motion loses momentum and conviction as it expands to meet Mr. Franzen’s ambitious specifications” (p. 14). The negative notes struck by these reviewers, how-


After Franzen had published two novels in four years, there was a palpable pause between his second and third works, and that pause seems to be indicative of seismic changes in Franzen’s personal life and a subtle recalibration of his approach to fiction. In the wake of The Twentyseventh City’s unanticipated success (higher sales than expected, a $25,000 Whiting Award), Franzen and Cornell had been able to travel in Italy, Germany, and France, while they also spent a winter writing in the small inland village of Llíber, in Alicante, Spain. But despite these travels, their marriage was evidently under considerable strain, because the couple separated in 1991, and Franzen withdrew to an artist’s colony in upstate New York to finish Strong Motion. Within two years their marriage was officially over, and Franzen experienced numerous other personal difficulties—such as the death of both his parents—through the course of the 1990s. In early 1992, Franzen returned to Swarthmore to work as a visiting associate professor (a position he took again in 1994), and he lived— like Chip in The Corrections—in a college faculty sublet. Teaching works by such writers as David Foster Wallace and Paula Fox, Franzen found that academic work absorbed frustratingly large amounts of his time, and he has since been critical of the academy in both his fiction and nonfiction, including his essay “I’ll Be Doing More of Same” wherein he termed universities a “nursing home for terminally ill arts” (p. 34). His personal anguish through this period was compounded by the difficult time he had making progress on a third novel. Franzen evidently


JONATHAN FRANZEN began work on The Corrections before Strong Motion was even published, and he had settled on the novel’s title as early as 1993. He was determined, however, that the novel should represent both a significant artistic advance on his earlier novels and should extend his conception of the novel as an act of social criticism. Having written two third-person novels, Franzen felt that it was time to demonstrate that he could write a “voice novel” that relied on a first-person narrator. As late as 1998, he was still laboring with this plan, and that year he explained to the Booklist interviewer Molly McQuade that The Corrections would be narrated in the first person by “a very depressed staff attorney at the Securities and Exchange Commission.” While there were a couple of early drafts of the novel—narrated by a character named Andy Aberant—that were published in the magazine Blind Spot and that made use of first-person perspective, the change in perspective was evidently an artistic dead end for Franzen; both Aberant and the firstperson perspective are missing from the published version of the novel. Franzen’s determination that his novel should engage with the many faces of contemporary culture also seems to have cost him valuable time and energy. Through years of agonizing over society’s indifference toward the literary arts, and trying to formulate an adequate aesthetic response to consumer culture, Franzen claims to have thrown out thousands of pages of early drafts for the novel.

breakthrough came in June 1994 when Henry Finder commissioned Franzen to write a fifteenthousand-word article about the Chicago post office for the New Yorker. Through the second half of the 1990s, in particular, Franzen published essays in the New Yorker, Harper’s, the Review of Contemporary Fiction, and elsewhere as he explored the impact of technology on contemporary life, the pernicious dominance of neuroscience as an authoritative mode for conceiving of identity, and the concept of a private self. In these pieces—many of which were collected in his first nonfiction collection, How To Be Alone (2002)—Franzen’s essayistic style often hinges upon braiding autobiographical meditations with a larger argument, and the most famous example of this technique undoubtedly appeared in Franzen’s “Perchance to Dream.” Published in Harper’s in April 1996, and revised and retitled “Why Bother?” for inclusion in How To Be Alone (evidently against Franzen’s wishes, the essay had been given its original title, “Perchance to Dream,” by a Harper’s editor), “Perchance to Dream” wove an account of Franzen’s struggle with his third novel, his sense of depression, his interviews with Shirley Heath (a social scientist investigating literary fiction’s audience), and his concern about whether or not a contemporary novel might be able to speak to an increasingly atomized America. The essay’s origins lay in an assignment for New York Times Magazine, which gave Franzen an expense account and invited him to take writers (such as Don DeLillo, and Donald Antrim) to dinner and talk to them about fiction. Franzen considers his engagement with other writers during this period as marking a crucial step forward in his efforts to make progress on The Corrections, but too often “Perchance to Dream” has been read as a straightforward articulation of the aesthetic that underpins Franzen’s third novel. The essay itself encourages this mistake, as its final moments build to a crescendo as Franzen recounts his apparent breakthrough: “As soon as I jettisoned my perceived obligation to the chimerical mainstream, my third book began to move again. I’m

Amid all this personal and professional turmoil, and with the royalties from his first two books dwindling rapidly, Franzen turned to journalism as an outlet that would permit him to simultaneously make money and engage with a wider audience. Given the many articles he contributed to Swarthmore’s Phoenix in his student years, the return to journalism brought his career full circle. In the early 1990s he had written an occasional book review—covering works by Norman Mailer, E. L. Doctorow, William Kennedy, and Russell Banks for the Los Angeles Times Book Review and the New York Times Book Review—but now Franzen had the chance to write (as he had as a student) on social as well as literary, matters, and his major


JONATHAN FRANZEN amazed now that I’d trusted myself so little for so long” (How To Be Alone, p. 95). The sense of triumph is tangible, but it’s important to note that the facts of The Corrections’s composition make it clear that “Perchance to Dream” charts the resolution of an aesthetic problem that Franzen had not really resolved, and did not resolve for several more years. If “Perchance to Dream” marked the breakthrough in 1996, then why did Franzen not compose the major part of the novel (“80 percent,” he told Antrim; p. 78) until 2000? Clearly the description of some grand breakthrough at the end of “Perchance to Dream” is little more than a rhetorical device designed to conclude a very long, sometimes convoluted essay, and the core of The Corrections is more subtle than his nonfiction suggests.

novel, The Recognitions, while much of the action in The Corrections seems to replay elements from Gaddis’ A Frolic of His Own (1994). There are notable parallels to DeLillo’s White Noise (1985) and to many other works, too, but perhaps the work that has the most significant overlaps with Franzen’s novel is DeLillo’s Underworld. Franzen read Underworld in manuscript— apparently in March 1997, though perhaps earlier—during a twelve-day vacation in Mexico where the younger novelist would make a daily pilgrimage to read the novel at the top of the Pyramid of the Sun and the Pyramid of the Moon at Teotihuacán. After reading the manuscript, Franzen sent DeLillo a six-page letter about the book, responding enthusiastically to DeLillo’s achievement, and there are multiple overlaps between Underworld and The Corrections. In terms of structure, both novels shuttle between different perspectives as they move gradually backward in time to uncover the reasons why a man and his marriage exist in their contemporary form. Both novels betray a fascination with the growth of multinational companies and map a world whose networks of connection almost exceed human comprehension. Underworld even features a character who enters “correction,” and DeLillo had evidently considered Correction as a title for his novel—a move that would have been a conscious act of homage to the Austrian Thomas Bernhard’s 1975 novel, Korrektur, published in English as Correction. Returning the younger writer’s favor, in early 2001, DeLillo read a draft of The Corrections for Franzen. DeLillo suggested a few revisions to the novel— including removing the word “entropy,” a term heavily associated with the Pynchonian postmodernism of the previous generation, from Franzen’s opening paragraph—and his admiration for the book was crystallized in the effusive blurb he contributed to the novel’s dust jacket.

Regardless of its sometimes misleading connection to Franzen’s nonfiction, The Corrections is, certainly, a product of a decade of theorizing about fiction and of discussion with other writers. Perhaps inevitably then, in its final form the book seems intimately linked to a number of earlier novels. Franzen met David Foster Wallace, for instance, in the late 1980s after Wallace sent Franzen a letter expressing his admiration for The Twenty-seventh City, and the two writers talked and corresponded frequently about the novel’s place in contemporary culture. While their respective essays seem to indicate significant overlaps in their conception of the novel’s need to establish a “contract” with the reader, Wallace’s masterpiece, Infinite Jest (1996) adopts more experimental techniques to cover much the same territory—anhedonia, the relationship of sons to suicidal fathers, the place of identity in a consumer-driven world—that Franzen would later explore in The Corrections. In a more direct fashion, Paula Fox’s short novel Desperate Characters (1970), for which Franzen wrote an introduction for the 1999 edition, bequeaths Franzen’s work its simultaneous fascination with food and excretion. The squalor of Franzen’s New York is also not far removed from Fox’s vision of the city, where there is “refuse everywhere” (Desperate Characters, p. 13). Similarly, Franzen has acknowledged that his title is modeled on that of William Gaddis’ magnificent 1955


If Franzen’s first two novels had developed along lines that reversed the trajectory of a traditional novelist’s career—moving from cool objectivity


JONATHAN FRANZEN toward emotive autobiography—then The Corrections continued Franzen’s movement toward a kind of fiction that relied on a more limited focus and on recasting apparently autobiographical material. Whether or not Terence Rafferty’s critique of The Twenty-seventh City in the New Yorker helped drive this shift or not, on first inspection The Corrections seems to unfold on a much more restricted canvas than his earlier works. While both The Twenty-seventh City and Strong Motion took considerable pains to recontextualize contemporary existence in a long lens that historicized the emergence of cities, The Corrections limits its investigations to anatomizing the tensions between two generations of a single family.

and Gary into the warm spring night, she felt that nothing could kill her hope now, nothing. She was seventy-five and she was going to make some changes in her life” (p. 568). In the final sentence, the optimism of the last eleven words seem to profoundly circumscribed by the four that precede them—just how many changes can be made, Franzen seems to ask, when one is approaching eighty? A similar sense of imbalance is conveyed by the preceding sentence, which has Enid simultaneously moving into the warmth of spring—with its inevitable overtones of youth, and life to come—and the dark of night—with its equally inevitable intimation of death, an intimation that is strengthened by the word “kill” later in the sentence.

At the center of Franzen’s novel is the Lambert family. The once-dominant patriarch, Alfred (a railroad engineer), is now in his seventh decade and in terminal decline as Parkinson’s disease tightens its grip on his nervous system. His wife, Enid, simultaneously berates her husband for his failings and desperately tries to gather the family together for one last Christmas in their midwestern hometown of St. Jude. The novel begins in late September—apparently just shy of the millennium—and climaxes shortly after Christmas, and for three months Enid struggles to persuade her children (who are variously entangled in personal crises of their own) to return home for the holidays. The novel is split into seven sections, and each section has a different chronological structure and offers a different piece of the family’s psychological jigsaw for the reader to assemble.

Though the novel is filled with much subtle formal play—from Franzen’s careful efforts to match form and content, to the many anagrams and puns that punctuate his prose—early reviews enthusiastically championed the novel as a return to the traditional elements of the realist novel. Sven Birkerts, for instance, argued in the September 2001 issue of Esquire that the novel owed “more to Salinger” than to “something along the DeLillo, Powers, Wallace axis,” while Michiko Kakutani could barely conceal her glee that Franzen had left behind his earlier “messy and wildly ambitious epics, crammed to overflowing with cautionary political plots” to produce “a devastating family portrait and a harrowing portrait of America in the late 1990’s” (p. E1). In this more traditional work, she explained, “the real tension ѧ stems from the characters’ emotional dramas, rather than from the sort of contrived plot points found in the author’s earlier novels” (p. E6). Several reviews offered intelligent and valuable elucidations of the novel. Writing for the New York Times Book Review, David Gates carefully and insightfully unpacked a number of Franzen’s literary allusions. One of the best reviews appeared in the Yale Review, where T. M. McNally skillfully sketched a detailed map of how the prison motif informs the novel. McNally built on this perception to argue that Franzen created a “poetry of architecture” (p. 168) as motifs steadily accumulated resonance. Max Watman’s

Franzen devotes more than five hundred pages to minutely documenting the passage of these crucial three months, and then concludes the book with a very brief final section. At the novel’s resolution, several of the children seem to have been partially redeemed for their earlier flaws, and, with Alfred finally dead, Enid stands on the brink of a new phase of her life. Yet while the novel may seem to wrap up very quickly, Franzen’s conclusion is remarkably unsettled. The novel’s last lines are imbued with ambiguity: “Yet when he was dead, when she’d pressed her lips to his forehead and walked out with Denise


JONATHAN FRANZEN review “On the Hysterical Playground,” which appeared in the New Criterion, offered less of an extended reading of the novel, but his essay is nevertheless worth reading, especially because Watman recalls his experience of once having Franzen as his writing teacher.

sured a massive commercial boost for the novel, and Farrar, Straus and Giroux apparently printed five hundred thousand more copies on the strength of her influence. By October 22, 2001, however, Winfrey had withdrawn Franzen’s invitation to promote the book on her show. According to Winfrey in a People magazine article, Franzen was “seemingly uncomfortable and conflicted about being chosen” (“Novel Approach” 2001). Reports in the media and from Franzen himself indicated that such discomfort was due mainly to an association with Winfrey’s commercial empire. The novel remained a book club selection, but the fallout from this dispute was messy and culminated in a number of undignified statements (For instance, as Franzen mentions in an Independent interview, he was publicly termed an “ungrateful bastard” by a literary agent).

Few reviewers broke with the consensus view of the book as the major novel of the year. Newsweek’s Malcolm Jones, however, criticized Franzen for using typecast characters and being “interested in the Lamberts only to the degree that he can manipulate them in the scheme of his novel.” Describing the author’s stance as “standing back sneering” at his novel’s action, Jones accused Franzen of including an excess of material that “does nothing but showcase Franzen’s virtuosity.” In an intelligent and important essay for the American Book Review, Tom LeClair cited almost diametrically opposed reasons for his sense of the novel’s failure. While Jones found the novel excessive, LeClair praised the narrative strategies of Franzen’s earlier novels but then found The Corrections surprisingly narrow, given its size, in comparison to works by Franzen’s contemporaries—Richard Powers, David Foster Wallace, and William T. Vollmann. LeClair complained, “Readers of Wallace’s Infinite Jest (1996) or Powers’s Gain (1998) or any of Vollmann’s historical novels can bring to The Corrections ways of generalizing about American culture from the oh-so-personal lives Franzen documents. But much of what he includes seems present to satisfy mainstream readers’ lust for Tom Wolfe detail rather than to serve as cultural synecdoche.” Regardless of these few dissenting voices, The Corrections was propelled by a wave of positive reviews to win the National Book Award and to secure a spot as finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award and the Pulitzer Prize.


In the years following The Corrections, Franzen has published only a few short fictions, and the greater part of his writing has been confined to nonfiction. Many of his essays were collected in How To Be Alone: Essays (2002) and The Discomfort Zone: A Personal History (2006). Although How To Be Alone’s subtitle offered the neutral description “essays” as a summary of its contents, really Franzen’s first nonfiction collection was a volume with a deeply personal agenda. The book brought together a cluster of diverse topics—smoking, sex manuals, city life—but regardless of the particular focus, the subject of a given essay often functioned as a lens to bring the author’s life into sharper focus. The transformation of the book’s most famous essay— “Perchance to Dream”—is revealing in this respect. When Franzen revised the essay for inclusion in How To Be Alone, he explained that he’d cut the essay by a third to better illuminate his basic argument. But this is only part of the story. In 1996, the Harper’s essay began with the following statement: “My despair about the American novel began in the winter of 1991, when I fled to Yaddo ѧ to write the last two

The positive initial response to the novel was, however, swiftly interrupted as Franzen became embroiled in a highly public dispute with the American talk-show host Oprah Winfrey. On August 31, 2001, Winfrey apparently called Franzen to reveal that The Corrections would be selected by her powerful book club, though the selection was not scheduled to be made public until September 24. Winfrey’s endorsement as-


JONATHAN FRANZEN chapters of my second book. I had been leading a life of self-enforced solitude in New York City” (“Perchance to Dream,” p. 35). By 2002, however, in How To Be Alone, the second sentence of the essay began: “My wife and I had recently separated, and I was leading a life of selfenforced solitude in New York City” (p. 55). Obviously the addition reporting the dissolution of Franzen’s marriage does little to streamline the argument itself. Rather, what Franzen had done is revise the essay so that his speculations about the future of the novel are even more closely entwined with his personal life. This movement toward using his nonfiction as a medium of self-exploration reaches another level in Franzen’s second collection, The Discomfort Zone, where the larger subjects that caught his attention in the previous book are edged further aside in favor of dissecting more personal memories. The book’s subtitle, “A Personal History,” indicates this increasingly subjective agenda. The switch in subtitles aside, The Discomfort Zone clearly begins where How To Be Alone left off. Apart from a slight four-page sketch, Franzen’s earlier book closed with an account of the aftermath of his mother’s death: in the final pages he recalls the discovery of a miniscule portion of peas in the refrigerator that his mother has been unable to keep down in her last days; at this sight he runs, grief-stricken, from their family home, vowing never to return. In The Discomfort Zone’s first essay, however, he is back in the old house, rooting through the refrigerator again and finding some nine-year-old beef brisket. Franzen is ostensibly back in his childhood home to choose a Realtor to sell his late parent’s house, but his homecoming prompts a circle of recollections both about his parents and his childhood. In this respect, the opening essay serves as a useful prologue to the rest of the book, because the major part of the book revolves around youthful hometown exploits—reading Peanuts cartoons, trying to lose his virginity, friction with his parents, and planning schoolboy practical jokes. The picture of Franzen that emerges here is often not particularly flattering, and when Michiko Kakutani reviewed the book in the New York

Times, she described it as “an odious self-portrait of the artist as a young jackass.” But there is a direct honesty behind the portraits in The Discomfort Zone that can be seen as admirable. Franzen at times seems actively to court bad publicity, as when he announces that he is “enraged about the aftermath of Katrina” because he “couldn’t go online, open a newspaper, or even take cash from an ATM without encountering entreaties to aid the hurricane’s homeless victims” (p. 17). Similarly, an essay about ecology unflinchingly tracks a misanthropy that rises in proportion to ecological awareness, as Franzen explains in “My Bird Problem” that “I wanted to immerse myself in nature, now that I’d become environmentally conscious,” but “what sickened and enraged me were all the other human beings on the planet” (p. 168). Nevertheless, for admirers of Franzen’s novels, The Discomfort Zone fills in a great deal of background on his early dramatic work, on his student work at Swarthmore, and on the relationship with the rest of his family that he seems to mine so thoroughly in his fiction. Particularly valuable is a long essay on Franzen’s time in Germany, which describes his early grounding in Germanic language and literature. After this forty-page essay, Franzen’s 2005 announcement to the German newspaper Die Zeit that he considers himself “a kind of German writer” makes much more sense (“Intimately Connected to the Zeitgeist” 2005). But although these essays provide valuable background information about Franzen, biographical data was already widely available in other contexts. Writers in many periodicals speculated in detail about Franzen’s behavior toward Oprah, and in numerous interviews Franzen has reflected on his background. Franzen talks in both of his nonfiction collections about the breakup of his marriage to Valerie Cornell, but an account of that split had already been published from Cornell’s point of view. In “On Being Unable to Read,” Cornell describes their failing relationship and how they divided up their shared library when the marriage ended. Among the books she ended up with is R. D. Laing’s



Selected Bibliography

influential study The Divided Self (1960). Laing’s book was published just a year after Franzen’s birth, and even without a deep knowledge of Laing’s account of schizoid psychology, an observer can see clearly that the idea of division is important both to Franzen’s vision of himself as well as to his writing. His first three novels might be seen as emerging from different kinds of division—The Twenty-seventh City is based around the lifestyle divides between middle America and the Indian subcontinent; Strong Motion examines the split between religion and science; and The Corrections is worked up out of the imaginative differences between life in the Midwest and on the Eastern Seaboard. But in The Discomfort Zone, Franzen takes the idea of division further and describes himself as possessing a kind of divided identity, maintaining “two separate versions of myself, the official fifty-yearold boy and the unofficial adolescent” (p. 96). The friction between these two models of himself provides the basis for much of the comedy and pathos in The Discomfort Zone. The straight-A mature Franzen who writes reports on plant physiology is undercut by descriptions of his furtive fascination with pornography, or his efforts “to pretend to be a kid who naturally said ‘shit’ a lot” (p. 57) to impress cooler adolescents. But each of these versions of the self are identities that he only rarely seems able to reach outside of in his essays, and at times this can give his later nonfiction a somewhat claustrophobic edge. This narrowed focus means that The Discomfort Zone probably reaches a smaller audience than the eclectic selection, How To Be Alone, but the newer volume is likely to be more rewarding for readers who enjoy Franzen’s often humorous attempts to anatomize his feelings of shame and his social anxieties.

WORKS OF JONATHAN FRANZEN FICTION The Twenty-seventh City. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1988; New York: Noonday/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1997. Strong Motion. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1992; New York: Picador/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1992. The Corrections. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2001; New York: Picador/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002.

NONFICTION How To Be Alone: Essays. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002; New York: Picador/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003. The Discomfort Zone: A Personal History. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006;. New York: Picador/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007.

SELECTED UNCOLLECTED WRITING The Fig Connection. With Kathy Siebert. Woodstock, Ill.: Dramatic Publishing Company, 1977. “Facts.” Fiction International 17, no. 1:144–151 (1986). “I, Spy.” Review of Harlot’s Ghost, by Norman Mailer. Los Angeles Times Book Review, September 29, 1991, pp. 1+. “Skeleton Key to the Phelans.” Review of Very Old Bones, by William Kennedy. Los Angeles Times Book Review, April 26, 1992, pp. 2+. “Where Our Troubles Began.” Review of The Waterworks, by E. L. Doctorow. Los Angeles Times Book Review, June 19, 1994, pp. 1+. “Hitting the Road.” Review of Rule of the Bone, by Russell Banks. New York Times Book Review, May 7, 1995, p. 13. “FC2.” New Yorker, March 18, 1996, p. 116. “Perchance to Dream: In the Age of Images a Reason to Write Novels.” Harper’s April, 1996, pp. 35–54. “How He Came To Be Nowhere.” Granta 54:111–123 (1996). “I’ll Be Doing More of Same.” Review of Contemporary Fiction 16, no. 1:34–38 (1996). “Somewhere North of Wilmington.” Blind Spot 8 (1996). “At the Part for the Artist with No Last Name.” Blind Spot 14 (1999). “No End to It: Rereading Desperate Characters.” Introduction to Desperate Characters, by Paula Fox. New York: Norton, 1999. Pp. vii–xiv. “Freeloading Man.” Review of John Henry Days, by Colson

With three novels and two nonfiction collections assembled over a twenty-year period, Franzen has published less fiction than many of his contemporaries, but his work betrays an admirable attempt to reconcile the formal experiments of his postmodern predecessors with a more accessible prose that might be able to engage a wider audience.


JONATHAN FRANZEN Amerikastudien/American Studies 49, no. 1:91–105 (2004). Toal, Catherine. “Corrections: Contemporary American Melancholy.” Journal of European Studies 33:305–322 (2003). Yeager, D. M. “Art for Humanity’s Sake: The Social Novel as a Mode of Moral Discourse.” Journal of Religious Ethics 33, no. 3:445–483 (2005).

Whitehead. New York Times Book Review, May 13, 2001, pp. 8–9. National Book Award acceptance speech (http://www., November 14, 2001. “How I Write: Jonathan Franzen.” Writer, February 2002, p. 66. “Alice’s Wonderland.” Review of Runaway, by Alice Munro. New York Times Book Review, November 14, 2004, pp. 1+.

INTERVIEWS Antrim, Donald. “Jonathan Franzen.” Bomb 77:72–78 (fall 2001). Birkerts, Sven. “The Esquire Conversation: Jonathan Franzen.” Esquire (, August 10, 2006. Canfield, Kevin. “An Interview with Fiction Writer Jonathan Franzen.” Poets & Writers Online Only ( org/mag/dq_franzen.htm). October 11, 2002. Coffey, Michael. “PW Interviews: Jonathan Franzen.” Publishers Weekly, December 6, 1991, pp. 53–54. Conrad, Bernadette. “Intimately Connected to the Zeitgeist.” Sign and Sight 24 Aug. 2005. 4 Aug. 2006 http://www. Eakin, Emily. “Jonathan Franzen’s Big Book.” New York Times Magazine, September 2, 2001, pp. 18–21. Greenman, Ben. “Having Difficulty with Difficulty.” New Yorker Online Only (, September 23, 2002. Henderson, Jane. “In the Mind’s Eye of Jonathan Franzen.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, September 23, 2001, pp. G1+. McQuade, Molly. “A Nonsmoker’s Novel by Jonathan Franzen.” Booklist 94, no. 21:1865 (July 1998). Miller, Laura. “Only Correct.” Salon ( com/books/int/2001/09/07/franzen/index.html), September 7, 2001. Murphy, Jessica. “Mainstream and Meaningful.” Atlantic Unbound ( int2001-10-03.htm), October 3, 2001. Olson, Clarence E. “Don’t Judge by Cover: Author Likes Hometown.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, August 28, 1988, pp. 3+. Romano, Carlin. “A Writer Basking in the Raves.” Philadelphia Inquirer, January 25, 1992, pp. D1+. Schindehette, Susan. “Novel Approach.” People, November 12, 2001, p. 83. Smith Rakoff, Joanna. “Making the Corrections: An Interview with Jonathan Franzen.” Poets & Writers, September–October 2001, pp. 27–33. Strecker, Trey. “A Difficult Haven: An Interview with Jonathan Franzen.” Raintaxi 8, no. 3:12–13 (2003). Sweet, Matthew. “Jonathan Franzen: The truth about me and Oprah.” The Independent, January 17, 2002.

Swarthmore commencement address (http://www. html), May 29, 2005. “Two’s Company.” New Yorker, May 23, 2005, pp. 78–81. “Tomes That Can Trigger a Writer’s Wanderlust.” New York Times, May 14, 2006, Travel Section, pp. 9+. “Ambition.” Guardian, July 15, 2006, Weekend Section, pp. 17–21. “Authentic but Horrible: An Introduction to Spring Awakening.” In Franzen’s translation from the German, Spring Awakening: A Children’s Tragedy, by Frank Wedekind. New York: Faber and Faber, 2007. Pp. vii– xvii. List of favorite ten books. In The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books. Edited by J. Peder Zane. New York: Norton, 2007. P. 65. “I Just Called to Say I Love You: Cell Phones, Sentimentality, and the Decline of the Public Space.” MIT Technology Review, October 2008, pp. 88–95.

CRITICAL AND BIOGRAPHICAL STUDIES Annesley, James. “Market Corrections: Jonathan Franzen and the ‘Novel of Globalization.’” Journal of Modern Literature 29, no. 2:111–128 (2006). Bukiet, Melvin Jules. “Crackpot Realism: Fiction for the Forthcoming Millennium.” Review of Contemporary Fiction 16, no. 1:13–22 (1996). Burn, Stephen J. Jonathan Franzen at the End of Postmodernism. London: Continuum, 2008. Green, Jeremy. Late Postmodernism: American Fiction at the Millennium. New York: Palgrave, 2005. McLaughlin, Robert L. “Post-Postmodern Discontent: Contemporary Fiction and the Social World.” Symploke¯ 12, nos. 1–2:53–68 (2004). Marcus, Ben. “Why Experimental Fiction Threatens to Destroy Publishing, Jonathan Franzen, and Life as We Know It.” Harper’s, October 2005, pp. 39–52. Ribbat, Christopher. “Handling the Media, Surviving The Corrections.” Amerikastudien/American Studies 47, no. 4:555–566 (2002).


Rohr, Susanne. “The Tyranny of the Probably: Crackpot Realism and Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections.”

Andrews, Peter. “Jammu Has Plans for St. Louis.” New York Times Book Review, October 9, 1988, p. 22.


JONATHAN FRANZEN McNally, T. M. Review of The Corrections. Yale Review 90, no. 2:160–169 (2002). Rafferty, Terence. “Coming of Age.” New Yorker, December 19, 1988, pp. 101–106. Rubins, Josh. “How Capitalism Causes Earthquakes.” New York Times Book Review, February 16, 1992, pp. 13–14.

Begley, Adam. “‘But Dad!’ The Joys of Family, Up Close and Scarily Lifelike.” New York Observer 27 Aug. 2001: 10. ———. “With His Pants Down: A Writer’s Self-Portrait.” New York Observer 11 Sept. 2006: 21. Birkerts, Sven. “The Novel We’ve Been Waiting For.” Esquire, September 2001, p. 71. Blades, John. “Wild Urban Flight of Fancy.” Chicago Tribune, August 21, 1988, section 14, pp. 1+. Burn, Stephen. “Seismology and the City.” Times Literary Supplement 6 June 2003: 24. ———.. “Taking the Brisket.” Times Literary Supplement 20 Oct. 2006: 26. Gates, David. “American Gothic.” New York Times Book Review, September 9, 2001, pp. 10+. Jefferson, Margo. “A Go-for-Broke First Novel.” Vogue, September 1988, p. 454. Jones, Malcolm. “The Emperor’s New Prada?” Newsweek, September 17, 2001, p. 66. Kakutani, Michiko. “A Family Portrait as Metaphor for the 90’s.” New York Times, September 4, 2001, pp. E1, E6. ———. “A Man Who Looks in the Mirror and Smiles.” New York Times, August 29, 2006, p. E1. LeClair, Tom. “Shortfall.” American Book Review 23, no. 2:1+ (2002).

Shapiro, Laura. “A Lavish Novel by a Newcomer.” Newsweek, August 29, 1988, p. 59. ———. “Terra Not So Firma.” Newsweek, January 20, 1992, p. 61. Slung, Michelle. “Meet Them in St. Louis.” Washington Post, September 4, 1988, pp. 1+. Watman, Max. “On the Hysterical Playground.” New Criterion, November 2001, pp. 67–72. Wood, James. “Abhorring a Vacuum.” New Republic 15 Oct. 2001: 32-40. ———. “What the Dickens.” Guardian 9 Nov. 2001. 10 Nov. 2001,

OTHER WORKS Cornell, Valerie. “On Being Unable to Read.” By Herself: Women Reclaim Poetry. Ed. Molly McQuade. Saint Paul, MN: Graywolf, 2000. 403-20.



S. Bailey Shurbutt A LITERARY CRITIC and journalist, an educator and cultural commentator, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., is one of the nation’s premier scholars in the field of African American studies. Gates’s literary criticism and social history have given us insights into the relationship between the races and a better understanding of what is commonly called the “racial divide.” That racial divide is clearly still with us in America today, as illustrated by the July 16, 2009, incident that occurred when Cambridge police arrived at Gates’ Ware Street home near Harvard Square to investigate a home break-in call. When Gates was approached by police officer inside his home and asked to show identification, the scholar upbraided the officer for harassing him, and Gates was arrested. While the charges were later dropped and Gates and the white arresting officer were both invited to the White House by President Barack Obama to talk about the incident, the event received national and international coverage and remains a vivid illustration that African American men and white men are treated differently by the legal system and held to different standards.

Bondwoman’s Narrative) to encyclopedic surveys of African American history and culture, including Africana (1999) and the eight-volume African American National Biography (2008). In addition to his work in the academy, Gates has been an indefatigable voice for African American history and culture in the public realm. Gates’s Wonders of the African World was an acclaimed BBC/PBS television series in 1999. He was narrator and writer for Frontline’s “The Two Nations of Black America” (1998) and the PBS productions America Beyond the Color Line (2002), African American Lives (2006), Oprah’s Roots: An African American Lives Special (2007), African American Lives 2 (2008), and Looking for Lincoln (2009). His dual role as scholar and public intellectual has earned him an eclectic array of honors and awards, ranging from a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” (1981), the George Polk Award for Social Commentary (1993), and the Carl Sandburg Award (2004) to the Chicago Tribune Heartland Award (1995), the Appalachian Heritage Writer’s Award from the West Virginia Humanities Council (2007), and the Parents’ Choice Award (2009). In 1997 he was named one of Time magazine’s “Twenty-five Most Influential Americans.” Gates has been honored with a National Humanities Medal (1998) and elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters (1999); he is the recipient of Carnegie, Phelps, Whitney Griswold, Andrew Mellon, and National Endowment for the Humanities grants and fellowships. Over the years he has been honored with more than fifty honorary degrees.

Since joining the faculty of Harvard University in 1991, Gates has served as professor of English and the Humanities as well as director of the university’s W. E. B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research; in 2006 he was named Alphonse Fletcher University Professor. As an author he has made important contributions to literary critical theory in books such as Figures in Black: Words, Signs, and the “Racial” Self (1987) and The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of Afro-American Literary Criticism (1988). As an editor he has researched and overseen dozens of projects, ranging from the recovery and republication of nineteenth-century African American writings (Our Nig and The

As preface to this distinguished career, Gates graduated summa cum laude from Yale University in 1973 with a degree in history, and he traveled abroad to earn his M.A. and Ph.D. degrees in


HENRY LOUIS GATES, JR. English Literature from Clare College, Cambridge University. Among his mentors there was the Nigerian playwright and Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka, who at that time was not part of the Cambridge English Department because African literature was considered appropriate only for anthropological and sociological study—in other words, it was not considered “literature.” In the years to come, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., would expend much of his intellectual energy addressing that egregious omission.

as well as rediscovering lost African American writers and providing a point of reference and system of tropes and symbols to explain and explicate African American texts, veiled as they often are in the language of indirection and subtext. Thus Gates’s writing is aimed both at lifting the veil and at assaulting literary and popular cultural myths that separate and marginalize African Americans, thus feeding the racial divide.



Much of Gates’s literary criticism emanates from the seminal idea and concept of the “double voice.” If the “double voice” is the key to understanding African American literature, it is, without doubt, central to the originality and success of Gates’s scholarship and writing. Gates has the extraordinary ability to speak about the African American experience both from inside and outside that cultural and ethnic framework. His “double voice” is not so much in the literary sense of what he refers to as “signifyin(g)” but rather in his singular ability to walk gracefully in both the white and the black worlds. A few extraordinary individuals—for example, Oprah Winfrey, Barack Obama, Bill Cosby, and Bill Clinton—possess this ability to move seamlessly between the two cultures. They possess a universal point of view that in some sense transcends their racial selves, surpassing, in the process, the “great racial divide” that continues to be so formidable in contemporary American life. In Gates’s case this ability is something akin to what the Victorians referred to as “disinterestedness,” which is to say possessing an objective rather than an uninterested point of view—for Gates is profoundly interested in the racial divide and in racial issues in America. Explaining his theory of criticism in Figures in Black, he notes that to create his system of reading African American texts he had “to step outside” his culture, “to defamiliarize the concept by translating it into a new mode of discourse,” before he could “see its potential in critical theory” (p. 236). All of Gates’s writing has, in one way or another, been aimed at diminishing the color line,

Born in Keyser, West Virginia, on September 16, 1950, Gates grew up in nearby Piedmont, a mill town situated in the Potomac highlands of Mineral County. He has said of his hometown: “My darkest fear is that Piedmont, West Virginia, will cease to exist, if some executives on Park Avenue decide that it is more profitable to build a completely new paper mill elsewhere than to overhaul one a century old.ѧ Piedmont ѧ is life itself” (Colored People, p. xi). Gates’s roots thus run long and deep in both the Appalachian and African American communities of West Virginia. To support his family, Gates’s father, Henry Louis, Sr., worked two jobs, one at the Westvaco paper mill and another in afternoons and evenings as a janitor at the phone company, while Gates’s mother, Pauline Coleman Gates, cleaned white people’s houses. Together they raised two confident, poised, and accomplished sons, Paul (Rocky) and Louis (Skipper). In a 1994 Booknotes interview, Gates spoke of the particular influence of his mother on her two sons. Though Pauline had a profound distrust of white people, Gates recalled that his mother wished them to speak proper English as well as black vernacular, and go to integrated and then to private and Ivy League schools. Gates added, however, that “she always wanted us to remember, first and last, that we were black” (p. 8). Gates remembered that his mother instilled in him and his brother the knowledge that they were brilliant and beautiful, the intellectual self-confidence she communicated to them perhaps her finest gift to her two sons. The story of Gates’s coming of age in the mountains of Appalachia and the close-knit


HENRY LOUIS GATES, JR. African American community of Piedmont is detailed in his award-winning memoir Colored People (1994), a book that serves as a remarkable chronicle for a remarkable period of American history: the civil rights era of the 1950s and 1960s, a time of transition from an officially segregated to an integrated America. The perspective provided by Colored People is unique among the many social histories of this period. Gates’s book is a remarkable personal testimony—one lovingly placed within a framework of filial courage, loyalty, and kindness—that enriches the portrait provided by grittier historical accounts of the period. In Colored People, Gates explores the interplay between past and present, utilizing Piedmont as a microcosm for a dynamic period of change in American social and cultural life. By exploring his roots in one specific time and place, Gates encourages each of us to examine our own roots, and he poses some extraordinary questions about family, race, and class in the process. Those places that provided African Americans in Piedmont with a sense of community and comfort—the barbershop, the kitchen, the church— were in varying degrees supplanted, eclipsed, or altered after integration came to the school and to the workplace. The harsh times spawned by the institution of segregation were passing away, yet something positive, something intangibly consoling, according to Gates, was also lost in the process. It was lost even as African Americans were gaining social equality and political justice and were discovering (at long last, according to young people like Skip Gates) a brave new world of possibility and advancement. In many ways, Colored People is about the process of “moving away,” going “Elsewhere,” or, as Gates writes in The Future of the Race (1996), moving “up from” (p. 3). This process—which began with the integration of the schools and Skip Gates’s discovery, largely through books, of a world beyond Piedmont—would eventually carry him uncountable miles from the kitchen table, to the continent of Africa and beyond, and finally to the elite halls of academia. The journey from Piedmont to “Elsewhere,” in Emersonian terms, would be both a gain and a loss.

Colored People is also a book about “naming”—how we name and rename, vision and “revision” ourselves, in this case for Gates, from “colored” to “Negro” to “black,” with all the associative social and cultural responses that accompany such appellations (Colored People, p. 201). Gates tells a wonderful story in “What’s in a Name,” an essay in the Loose Canons (1992) collection. He writes about going to the Cut-Rate Drug Store with his father as a boy and being perplexed when Mr. Wilson, an Irish neighbor as were many whites in Piedmont at that time, walked by and responded to Gates’s father’s hello with “Hello, George.” Skip looked up at his dad and said with some perplexity, “Your name isn’t George.” Henry Louis, Sr., quietly told his son after a “long silence”: “He calls all colored people George.” Gates writes in the essay, “I never again looked Mr. Wilson in the eye” (p. 133). In any bildungsroman, or “coming of age” story, such as Colored People, the juxtaposition between time present and time past becomes singularly important. For Gates, time lies at the heart of his story. He begins Colored People in time present, with a vignette about his daughter Liza, whose privileged life makes it difficult for her to understand or to empathize with the struggles of her grandparents. Gates writes: “No, my children will never know Piedmont, never experience the magic I can still feel in the place where I learned how to be a colored boy” (p. 4). Present time functions as a frame for the memoir, which provides, at least indirectly, a road map for addressing some of the new social problems that have swelled in the wake of social changes after integration, changes that have come to both the African American and the white American nuclear family. In his Booknotes interview with Brian Lamb, Gates makes it clear that he wrote Colored People as a tribute to his parents: “a portrait of my mother, but in my father’s voice.” Gates’s parents represent the diversity within the African American community and the emerging black middle class he has written so eloquently about. His mother’s family, the Colemans, who lived in Piedmont, were a tight-knit clan, focused on


HENRY LOUIS GATES, JR. working hard and achieving economic success according to the traditional conception of the American Dream. Pauline Gates sacrificed many of her own dreams so that her brothers might finish school and achieve professions. The Coleman uncles, however, were often judgmental and demanding of young Skip, particularly that he stick to the rules, including the rules of the white man. Gates writes of the Coleman brothers, who, like most African Americans, managed the minefields of segregation in more traditional ways:

fierceness of Malcolm X, Skip noted a “certain radiance” slowly spreading across his mother’s “soft brown face, as she listened to Malcolm X naming the white man the Devil. ‘Amen,’ she said, quietly at first” (Colored People, p. 34). The child was astounded by the change he perceived in his mother’s face: “It was like watching the Wicked Witch of the West emerge out of the transforming features of Dorothy. The revelation was both terrifying and thrilling” (p. 34). Yet Pauline Coleman Gates had found within herself a reservoir of dignity that made her a leader in the community, among both blacks and whites. It was she who was elected the first black president of the PTA, it was she who stood eloquently before black and white parents and read the PTA minutes with perfect diction that sounded to her son like poetry, and it was she who functioned in the black community of Piedmont, in some sense, as the traditional “elocutionist”—someone, as Gates describes in Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Black Man (1997), who inspired black lives, delivered “uplifting homilies,” and recited the “race poetry” (p. xxiv). It was also Pauline who accepted and defended her son’s various rebellious acts and social activism, who insisted that both sons aim for the highest goals they could comfortably achieve and then work hard to accomplish them. Gates recalled one of his white teachers reprimanding him once when he referred to his mother simply as “she.” “Your mother is a lady, a real lady. What is wrong with you?” the teacher scolded (Colored People, p. 93).

Whenever one of my uncles would speak to a white person, his head would bow, his eyes would widen, and the smile he would force on his lips said: I won’t hurt you, boss, an’ I’m your faithful friend.ѧ he assumed the same position with his head and his body when he was telling a lie. (pp. 150–151)

This mask or “veil” is one of the dominant images that Gates explores in both his literary and social criticism and in his memoir writing. In The African American Century: How Black Americans Have Shaped Our Country (2002), Gates explains the “veil,” conceptualized by W. E. B. Du Bois in his seminal Souls of Black Folk (1903), as the “curtain separating black and white life” (p. 5). In his introduction to America Behind the Color Line (2004), Gates illustrates the idea by observing: “It has long struck me as curious that African Americans often speak differently—more colorfully and openly—when talking with each other behind closed doors, as it were, than they do in interracial settings; more spontaneous, say, in barbershops and beauty parlors, in church socials and their living rooms.ѧ” Gates reiterates the idea made current in the work of Du Bois and others when he suggests that black people have often “conducted their lives in America behind a ‘veil’ ” (p. xiii). Unlike her brothers, however, Pauline Coleman was both suspicious and fearless of white people. Her experiences with cleaning the houses of white folks and with the meanness and condescension of whites had engendered downright hatred. Gates writes of an incident when his mother was watching a CBS documentary about black Muslims called The Hate That Hate Produced, and as Mike Wallace spoke about the

The Gates family, from the Potomac highlands near Cumberland, was less clannish than the Colemans and more vocally indignant about the social injustices that African Americans endured. They encouraged young Skip to become a social activist as a teenager. However, Gates’s father, a very light-skinned African American, was skeptical of many of these family attitudes and did not encourage his son’s iconoclasm. Henry Gates was also not above enjoying some of the racist perks that the light color of his skin provided, according to his son Skip. Gates remembered that as a child he hated the fact that he and his siblings could not sit down at the food


HENRY LOUIS GATES, JR. counter at the local Cut-Rate drugstore, owned by a white proprietor, Carl Dadisman. Nonetheless, his father’s light complexion and work at the local phone company gave him access to the counter, where he was not above sitting and sipping a cup of coffee as he waited for food and coffee to be brought out for him to carry back to the operators at the phone company. Gates remembered: “At the time, I never wondered if it occurred to Daddy not to sit down at the CutRate when neither his wife nor his two children were allowed to do so, although now that I am a parent myself, the strangeness of it crosses my mind on occasion” (p. 18). Gates’s memoir is characterized, however, by his distinctive absence of judgment on the disparate responses to segregation that the two families and his parents represented. “If Mama’s tolerance [of his rebelliousness],” he writes in Colored People, “separated her from her brethren [the Coleman family], Daddy’s intolerance, jocular though it was, separated him from his. Indeed, the other Gateses were positively approving toward me and my budding political ideas.ѧ they were freethinkers and, as such, welcomed me into their ranks” (p. 188).

liked Daddy to work. These shows for us were about property, the property that white people could own and that we couldn’t” (p. 21). Gates notes as well that although Amos and Andy is now labeled as an example of negative stereotyping and racial caricature, African Americans at the time viewed it differently. He writes: “I don’t care what people say today. For the colored people, the day they took Amos and Andy off the air was one of the saddest days in Piedmont, about as sad as the day of the last [segregated] mill pic-a-nic.” Gates continues: “What was special to us about Amos and Andy was that their world was all colored, just like ours” (p. 22). What further was special, much like the slave folktales epitomized in the “politically incorrect” series of Uncle Remus stories, were the political subversion and trickster aspects of some of the Amos and Andy characters and situations—even today not fully appreciated. Just as Joel Chandler Harris, who recorded the tales, could little comprehend the political subtext and subversive scope of these slave stories, the white people involved in the production of the Amos and Andy episodes and the white audience that watched the series with superior self-satisfaction were blithely unaware of what the episodes often said to African American audiences, who watched the series through different eyes.

One of the fascinating characteristics about Gates’s memoir is his candid discussion of the importance of skin color and hair texture in the African American community, in the days before integration. In the insular, segregated black community, folks were evaluated according to the degree of their hair’s “straightness” and the lightness of their skin tone. Gates writes casually of the African American assessment of the Methodist preacher, Reverend Monroe, whom he describes as “a nice guy, medium-brown-skinned, with a not-bad grade of hair” (p. 116).

One of the most remarkable aspects of the “colored” part of Piedmont was the closeness of the African American community or “village,” as Gates sometimes refers to it, a community that represented both positive (support and sense of belonging) and negative (gossip and judgmental attitudes) traits. For African American families, the barbershop, the kitchen, the church, and the schoolhouse were the heart of the community. Each environment brought a different sense of cohesiveness and belonging. The barbershop and beauty parlor were places that signified coming of age, particularly in sexual terms. Gates recalled his own youthful “initiation” while getting a haircut on a Saturday afternoon— remembering stories of love affairs and titillating gossip. Yet, he writes, “Not getting a sugar bowl haircut was even more important than graduating

Likewise, the favorite TV shows of the African American community would not today be considered “politically correct.” Leave It to Beaver and Amos and Andy were community favorites. While Beaver’s world fulfilled economic aspirations of African Americans, Amos and Andy gave them familiar faces. Gates writes: “Beaver’s street was where we wanted to live, Beaver’s house where we wanted to eat and sleep, Beaver’s father’s firm where we’d have


HENRY LOUIS GATES, JR. from Ebony and Jet to Penthouse and Playboy” (p. 175).

grader, a chance to meet the governor, to find fame and glory! The half-point that missed the prize for Rocky in favor of a white student was bogus, but later, when he learned the points had been manipulated so that he would not be the first “colored” child to win the award, he was relieved because he knew that he had not failed (pp. 98–100). Skip would go on to win the award five years later, but the unfairness of the event would forever be remembered by both of Pauline Gates’s sons. A decade later, when Skip gave the valedictorian speech at his high school graduation, he chose not to deliver the canned, censored, and approved version that valedictorians traditionally gave. Instead he talked about the issues that actually affected the lives of the students— inequality, Vietnam, abortion, civil rights—and thus the iconoclastic tone for his life and work was set during his school years in Piedmont (p. 191). Gates would later write about the crucial importance of education in a multicultural society like America:

The kitchen was the center of African American home life, the heart of the home because it was the woman’s domain and she was the center of family life and utterly essential to her children. The kitchen was where uniquely African American cuisine was lovingly prepared and appreciatively devoured. The “kitchen,” which often served as a makeshift beauty parlor and which was specifically associated linguistically with that unruly tuft of hair at the nape of the neck, was thoroughly African. Gates writes: “If there ever was one part of our African past that resisted assimilation, it was the kitchen. No matter how hot the iron, no matter how powerful the chemical, ѧ neither God nor woman nor Sammy Davis, Jr., could straighten the kitchen. The kitchen was permanent, irredeemable, invincible kink. Unassimilably African” (p. 42). The church, in its turn, was central to the socialization of African Americans as well as historically important in the struggle for civil rights. Children in Gates’s youth were brought up in the church and were expected to abide by the values and ideals espoused there, though like every other aspect of “colored” life, there was diversity and variety within that institution. For example, Skip Gates started out in the more conservative, evangelical church of his grandmother and moved to the more staid Methodist church of his father’s family. However, when his mother died, he longed for the more emotional, evangelical send-off that he recalled from his earlier church days.

Ours is a ѧ world profoundly fissured by nationality, ethnicity, race, class, and gender. And the only way to transcend those divisions—to forge, for once, a civic culture that respects both differences and commonalities—is through education that seeks to comprehend the diversity of human culture. Beyond the hype and the high-flown rhetoric is a pretty homely truth: There is no tolerance without respect—and no respect without knowledge. (Loose Canons, p. xv)

The process of “moving away” from Piedmont and the comfortable, insular world provided by the black community began with integration of the schools and Gates’s discovery through books of a greater world beyond “the kitchen.” The enlightening and liberating experience of attending Peterkin, an Episcopal Church camp; the realities of Vietnam and Watts; his first college experience at Potomac State—all worked to move Skip Gates beyond the blue ridges of West Virginia and on to other worlds. Although Gates has explained in The Future of the Race that “narratives of ascent, whether or not we like to admit it, are also narratives of alienation, of loss” (p. 3), the writing of Colored People in some respect allowed him to reclaim the world he left, reclaiming his roots in much the same way as the

For the generation of Henry Louis Gates’s parents, education was utterly essential—the irrefutable panacea, the ticket to affluence and success. Both of their sons were primed for absorbing the opportunities that education provided. Because integration came to Piedmont the year before Skip Gates began his public school career, his older brother Rocky “paved the way,” in some respects, for the younger brother’s successes. Rocky, equally brilliant as a student, faced headlong the vicissitudes of racism. An example is the story of the prestigious Golden Horseshoe award in eighth grade, as Gates writes, “the Nobel Prize” of scholarship to an eighth


HENRY LOUIS GATES, JR. “reverse migration” today, when growing numbers African Americans are moving “back home,” back to their roots in the South, a subject Gates writes about in America Behind the Color Line (p. 123). In contrast, Gates notes, however, about his generation of black Americans, who ventured for the first time into integrated American society: “Usually the ascent is experienced not as a gradual progression but as a leap, and for so many of my generation that leap was the one that took us from our black homes and neighborhoods into the white universities that had adopted newly vigorous programs of minority recruitment.ѧ You might call us the crossover generation” (The Future of the Race, pp. 3–4).

people and for the American racial and intellectual landscape than his becoming another sort of doctor. Skip Gates’s brave new world began with the singular experience for an African American youth in the early 1970s of attending Yale University, an event interrupted by a year working at a mission hospital in Tanzania, a hitchhiking trek across Africa (from the Indian Ocean to the Atlantic Ocean), and a stint in Jay Rockefeller’s gubernatorial campaign in West Virginia. These events were followed by two degrees from Cambridge University and a scholarly journey that eventually carried him to Harvard, where he would establish one of the premier African American studies programs in the country.

The journey to “Elsewhere” changed Skip Gates’s life in a number of ways. He had thought, as did most young blacks venturing off to those elite white institutions of higher learning, that he would study science and become a doctor, that he would join the elite ranks of what W. E. B. Du Bois called the “Talented Tenth.” He instead studied literature and became another sort of “physician.” Early on, he understood, first intuitively and then intellectually, that language and literature shape reality, that the power of the word is prominent and tangible in the myths and images it creates, the stereotypes it engenders, and the “realities” it manifests. The eighteenthcentury “enlightened” philosophers, who figured into Gates’s Ph.D. dissertation, posited that the “dearth” of literary and artistic traditions among African peoples denoted a lesser stage of “civilized” accomplishment, thus providing a rationale for slavery. However, as “dearth” might be reinterpreted as “different” or, more likely, as “omitted from” the accepted European canon imposed by white patriarchs, so too might our assessment of African American literature require some rethinking.


One of the most important accomplishments of Henry Louis Gates, Jr., has been opening the traditional literary canon and rediscovering lost African American writers. Gates’s first major discovery was the Harriet Wilson novel Our Nig (republished in 1983), at that time given the distinction as the first novel published in this country by a black person (1859). Gates has gone on to exhume and reclaim other forgotten works, including those gleaned from black periodical literature and a handwritten manuscript that may be the first novel written by a slave: The Bondwoman’s Narrative, by Hannah Crafts, a Fugitive Slave, Recently Escaped from North Carolina (c. 1853–1861). Gates has spent considerable scholarly energy researching and writing about these early writers, in effect extending and broadening the African American literary tradition as well as the canon. His editing of the thirty-volume Schomburg Library of NineteenthCentury Black Women Writers (1988), his edition of The Norton Anthology of African American Literature (coedited by Nellie Y. McKay, 1996), and the volume The Civitas Anthology of African American Slave Narratives (coedited with William L. Andrews, 1999) have each provided an important contribution to the enrichment of the American literature and our understanding of the American experience.

Gates would go on to provide in his scholarship a sweeping revision of the dated, uninformed, and shallow judgments of the past about black art and literature. He would likewise help to rediscover lost or ignored works that reveal the soul and mind of African America. In this respect, Gates’s journey to “Elsewhere”, to academia, has been perhaps more fruitful for his


HENRY LOUIS GATES, JR. Another important scholarly contribution is Gates’s attempt to retrieve and rehabilitate the eighteenth-century African American poet Phillis Wheatley, who has received mixed reviews, even among African American scholars. Gates notes that while W. E. B. Du Bois praised Wheatley— indeed Gates himself credits Wheatley with beginning the African American literary tradition and being the first African American woman of letters—writers such as Margaret Walker upbraid her for “not being black enough” (The Trials of Phillis Wheatley, p. 81). Gates’s clever study of Wheatley allows him to deconstruct both Thomas Jefferson’s indictment of Wheatley’s authenticity and Jeffersonian racist assertions about African American intellectual inferiority. Gates likewise tackles the African American charge that Wheatley’s point of view was simply “too white” and that she was too deferential toward her white owner Suzanna Wheatley, perhaps the only mother, he notes, that the child would have known. If Wheatley’s poetry is imitative, so was most of the rest of eighteenth-century poetry, caught in the shackles of a fixed poetic diction and in the shadow of Alexander Pope. Wheatley was thus “too black” for Jefferson and “too white” for Walker. Gates further uses the story of Wheatley to address some important issues in black and white society today. He asserts: “What’s required is only that we recognize that there are no ‘white minds’ or ‘black minds’: there are only minds, and yes, they are, as that slogan has it, a terrible thing to waste. What would happen if we ceased to stereotype Wheatley but, instead, read her, read her with all the resourcefulness that she herself brought to her craft?” (p. 87).

be both economical and prolific in his scholarship: “Do your research, prepare it as a lecture, give it all year, as many times as you can, because then it becomes like second nature to you. You can realize the flaws.” Gates continues: “Then make it an essay, publish it in a scholarly journal, a juried journal, and then the essay becomes a chapter in the book. That is the law of political economy of essays.” Gates’s second extraordinary accomplishment is his attempt to provide a critical framework for evaluating, defining, and explicating works by African American writers. Both Figures in Black: Words, Signs, and the “Racial” Self (1987) and The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of AfroAmerican Literary Criticism (1988) provide the scaffolding for this lofty task, with the second volume considered a continuation of the framework of critical ideas laid out in the first. As Gates researched and taught works by African American writers, as he read those nascent literary theoreticians and black writers who came before him (and who stepped lightly through the minefields of reading and evaluating African American literature), he became convinced that it is through the process of “signification” (in the case of African American literature, a theory of reading that arises from “within the black cultural matrix”) that understanding black writers, as he says in Figures in Black, must begin (p. 235). Just as nineteenth-century women’s texts must be read through indirection and subtext—or what Emily Dickinson suggests as telling “all truth but tell[ing] it slant”—African American texts, particularly nineteenth- and twentieth-century texts, are “double-voiced,” speaking both to the reader and to other African American texts. Gates writes in The Signifying Monkey: “The black tradition is double-voiced. The trope of the Talking Book, of double-voiced texts that talk to other texts, is [a] unifying metaphor [and] ѧ signifyin(g) is the figure of the double voiced” (p. xxv). Utilizing the linguistic strategies and habits that require reading literary works through the African American culture allows Gates to offer a tool for deeper understanding of the real meaning of African American texts. The key to signifyin(g) thus lies within the black vernacular and in im-

Much of Gates’s scholarship and literary sleuthing is directly connected to his teaching a variety of subjects at Yale and then Harvard, including courses on the Harlem Renaissance, African American women’s writing, and the African American literary tradition. He has spoken about his Yale mentor, the African American scholar John Blassingame, who taught Gates to “teach what you write, write what you teach.” In 2002 Gates explained to the interviewer Bruce Cole the process that allows a teacher to


HENRY LOUIS GATES, JR. ages that come from African myth and art. “The challenge of the critic of comparative black literature,” Gates notes in Figures in Black, “is to allow contemporary theoretical developments to inform his or her readings of discrete black texts but also to generate his or her own theories from the black idiom itself” (p. 58). Gates explains in Figures in Black his literary “theory of interpretation” by noting that it comes not only from “the black cultural matrix” but that it is a theory of “formal revisionism [recasting or ‘re-visioning’ a text to create a system of tropes that casts new meaning and revises myth].” He goes on to assert that such a theory “is tropological” and “turns on repetition of formal structures and their differences” (p. 235). Literary discourse and critical interpretation of African American texts, as Gates writes in The Signifying Monkey, rely on modes of interpretation that “accord with the vernacular” tradition, and a close and accurate textual reading thus requires an understanding of “the manner in which [African American] language is used” (p. xxvii). Gates explains: “Black texts Signify upon other black texts in the tradition by engaging in ѧ formal critiques of language use, of rhetorical strategy. Literary Signification, then, is similar to parody and pastiche” (p. xxvii). Parody is reinforced by allusion and wordplay, both enhanced by amplification and augmentation through the African American vernacular to garner a new or expanded meaning.

nonetheless key to the revelations of content. Most important, Esu is depicted in Yoruba tradition with two mouths, indicating his “double voice,” while the Signifying Monkey, an African American trope, is a metaphor for textual revision and the interplay between texts. Together, as Gates notes in The Signifying Monkey, Esu and the Signifying Monkey serve as “two tricksters [that] articulate the black tradition’s theory of its literature” (p. xxi). “Esu’s double voice and the language of Signifyin(g),” as Gates notes in The Signifying Monkey, are the “unifying metaphors, indigenous to the tradition,” used to discern “patterns of revision from text to text and for modes of figuration at work within the text” (p. 239). Within that scheme, Gates finds that there are four variations on the double-voiced text and textual relationships: the “tropological revision,” as typified in the various versions of slave narratives with their attempts to tell their own stories; the “speakerly text,” a double-voiced hybrid text such as Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, whose narrator speaks in standard English and whose characters speak in African American dialect; the “talking texts,” wherein black texts talk or speak to other black texts; and the “rewriting” of the speakerly text, wherein black texts revise other black texts, such as Alice Walker’s loving revision of Hurston in The Color Purple, a book that utilizes an epistolary style to allow Celie’s vernacular voice to function most often as narrator. Gates concludes his commentary on the intertextual relationship between Their Eyes Were Watching God and The Color Purple by asserting: “In The Color Purple ѧ Walker rewrites Huston’s narrative strategy, in an act of ancestral bonding” (The Signifying Monkey, p. 244).

The trope or metaphor that Gates employs as a frame for his critical theory comes directly from Yoruba (African, Caribbean, and black South American) and African American cultural myth, from those trickster characters long part of the African storytelling traditions and, in this case, associated with language and text: specifically Esu (the Yoruba figure linked with interpretation and the double voice) and the Signifying Monkey (the African American figure that serves as the metaphor for the “re-vision” and deconstruction of language). Characteristically, Esu hobbles on unequal legs, one made for walking in the magical world of the gods while the other stumbles awkwardly in the human realm. While Esu is more technique or style than substance, he is

If such narratives as Walker’s are “signifying” upon other black texts in order to construct their own meaning, the reader must be aware of the specifics and the process of such interplay among African American texts. In The Signifying Monkey, Gates renders a number of close readings, utilizing his theory of signifyin(g), in order to illustrate these intertextual relationships, specifically of Zora Neale Hurston, Ishmael Reed, and Alice Walker. It is clear to the literary scholar


HENRY LOUIS GATES, JR. that this mode of comprehending African American texts is a variation of T. S. Eliot’s principle that most great literature is in dialogue directly and indirectly with texts that have gone before. For example, William Wordsworth’s revision of eighteenth-century poetry is a type of “signifying,” as is Dickinson’s search for her literary foremothers in the imagery of Elizabeth Barrett Browning. The similarities, in terms of signification, between African American writers and nineteenth-century women writers is remarkable in that both are attempting to throw off the shackles that traditional language has imposed, and both are searching for an individualized literary expression that distinguishes their works from the dominant European or patriarchal literature, which in large part they seek to revise or recast for their own purposes. For women, the revisions are associated with those Pygmalion renderings of how patriarchal culture would wish them to be; for African Americans, they are rooted in the legacy of slavery.

can texts directly from African culture and vernacular. In the essay “Tell Me, Sir, ѧ What Is ‘Black’ Literature?” from Loose Canons, Gates writes about the debt that African American scholarship and African American programs owe to feminist criticism. He posits: “Scholars of women’s studies have accepted the work and lives of black women as their subject matter in a manner unprecedented in the American academy. Perhaps only the Anglo-American abolitionist movement was as cosmopolitan as the women’s movement has been in its concern for the literature of blacks” (p. 92). Gates credits writers such as Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, and Gloria Naylor for engendering this interest among feminist literary scholars, and Morrison he applauds in particular for using her position as a senior editor at Random House to encourage the proliferation and sales of books by black women, which has begun to “reverse the trends that by 1975 had jeopardized the survival of black studies” (pp. 92–93). Feminist critics have therefore played no small part in “loosening the canon.”

Both nineteenth-century women and African American writers must thus utilize irony, the mask, and indirection in order to “re-vision” themselves, and it is essential that they recapture those prevailing cultural images and reconstitute them into tropes and images essential for their survival. Thus the works of Jane Austen, for example, signify upon the stories of Ann Radcliffe, Fanny Burney, and Maria Edgeworth; Mary Shelley attempts to revise in Frankenstein the perceived misogynistic intent of Milton’s Paradise Lost, while Charlotte Brontë and George Eliot signify upon those masculine texts that limit the possibilities for both men and women. Nineteenth-century women writers and African American writers are attempting thus to write a version, their own, of their lives, to tell their own stories, or as Carolyn Heilbrun characterizes the phenomenon, “to write oneself”—and in so doing both African American and nineteenth-century women writers are able to seize the language, its powerful metaphoric intent, and write their own destinies. What is distinctive about Gates’s critical theory is that he provides the tropological framework for readers to comprehend these revisions in African Ameri-


One unique variation on Gates’s literary revisionism occurs as he addresses the iconic and complex racial legacy of Abraham Lincoln. In Lincoln on Race and Slavery (2009), Gates attempts delicately to dance through the minefields of assessing Lincoln’s attitude toward race and the complicated evolution of his intellectual growth on the topic. Gates manages to illuminate and clarify the portrait of the individual directly responsible for the Emancipation Proclamation without raising Lincoln to the level of heroic icon or sinking to the depths of the revisionist historian bent on pulling the pedestal out from under him. Instead, Gates humanizes Lincoln, revealing his flaws and his finest ideals directly through his letters and papers, achieving an assessment of the sixteenth president’s intellectual thought that is relatively free from bias. Gates notes three ribbons of thought in Lincoln’s words about slavery: (1) his early “abhorrence of slavery as a violation of natural rights, as an economic institution”; (2) his


HENRY LOUIS GATES, JR. personal wrestling with “the deep-seated, conventional ambivalence about the status of Negroes vis-à-vis white people on the scale of civilization”; and (3) his “flirtation with the voluntary colonization of the freed slaves either in the West Indies, in Latin America, or in Africa” (p. xxi). Gates contrasts Jefferson and Lincoln in this way: “Thomas Jefferson most certainly was not thinking of black men and women when he wrote the Declaration of Independence, and no amount of romantic historical wishful thinking can alter that fact. However, Abraham Lincoln most certainly and most impressively did” (xxiii). At the same time, Lincoln’s unconventional belief did not translate, according to Gates, into advocacy of equality, and certainly Lincoln was “dubious ѧ about the prospects for a harmonious interracial, postslavery American, in the North or in the South” (p. xxxv). The impressive array of documents that Gates presents from Lincoln’s own pen reveals Lincoln’s fundamental humanity and the ethical soundness of ideas that allay the scrutiny and hindsight of history. Gates admits that Lincoln hated slavery but that his opposition was rooted in economic as well as ethical considerations: “What is clear is that Lincoln hated slavery, not only because of its brutality and inhumanity, but ѧ because it constituted the theft of another person’s labor” (p. xxx). It was the war itself, however, that brought a transformation to Lincoln’s thinking, a war that he had come to see slavery as directly responsible for. Specifically, Lincoln’s loyalty to the “colored” troops and his admiration for their service transformed his attitude toward blacks. The turning point for Lincoln came not in 1863 when he issued the Emancipation Proclamation but on March 4, 1865, a month prior to his death, when he delivered a speech that Frederick Douglass called fundamentally about blacks. From that day on, Gates asserts, “Abraham Lincoln became the president of black men and women, far more so than he had before, even through the Emancipation” (p. xlix).

ary canon is, in no very grand sense, the commonplace book of our shared culture, in which we have written down the texts and titles that we want to remember, that had some special meaning for us” (p. 21). The crucial necessity for all to see a reflection of themselves in the works that are read and taught in the academy is at the heart of “loosening” the canon. “Self-identification,” Gates writes, “proves a condition for agency, for social change. And to benefit from such collective agency, we need to construct ourselves, just as the nation was constructed, just as the class was, just as all the furniture in the social universe was” (p. 37). One of the ways that African American males, in particular, will “construct themselves,” Gates writes, is to recognize the heritage of the mother. Gates reflects on the words of the African American critic Hortense Spillers in “The Master’s Pieces”: “It is the heritage of the mother that the AfricanAmerican male must regain as an aspect of his own personhood—the power of ‘yes’ to the ‘female’ within” (p. 40). At first, Gates thinks it a “curious figure—men, black men, gaining their voices through the black mother” (p. 40), but then he recalls his own mother’s providing him literally with a voice, a story that he also recounts in Colored People. As a precocious four-year-old he was called on to “deliver my Piece” one Sunday at Easter in the local Methodist Church. He had practiced and rehearsed his lines to perfection, but when the time came to recite, he was struck silent. Finally, as the awkwardness of the moment stretched on for what seemed an eternity, he was relieved to hear his mother’s voice in the back of the church—her voice reciting his words—Pauline Gates, who had so eloquently schooled her sons to present themselves before the world with pride and dignity, who insisted they excel at school and in all else that they undertake. At that moment, Gates recalls, his mother, both literally and metaphorically, gave him his voice. Gates continues: For me, I realized as Hortense Spillers spoke, much of my scholarly and critical work has been an attempt to learn how to speak in the strong, compelling cadences of my mother’s voice. To reform core curricula, to account for the comparable eloquence of the African, the Asian, and the Middle Eastern


Gates posits in his essay “The Master’s Pieces” from Loose Canons (1992) the idea that the “liter-


HENRY LOUIS GATES, JR. To further explain the concept of “counternarrative,” Gates refers to a study by the folklorist Patricia A. Turner, whose 1993 work I Heard It Through the Grapevine shed light on the concept of “rumor” in the African American community. Gates explains that the nature of rumor denotes “regnant anxieties, that ѧ take root under particular conditions and play particular social roles.” Gates adds that the “currency of rumor flourishes where ‘official’ news has proved untrustworthy” (p. 106). Thus in the case of Simpson, as the nation remained riveted to television for months with images of the police pursuing Simpson’s white SUV and of courtroom melodrama, a collective “counternarrative” evolved as a means by which the group might contest the “dominant reality and the fretwork of assumptions that supports it” (p. 106). Gates notes that “fealty to counternarratives is an index to alienation” (p. 107). For African Americans, the judicial baggage that preceded the Simpson case could be summed up in a pithy adage older blacks liked to repeat, “When white folks say ‘justice,’ they mean ‘just us’ ” (p. 109). Black intellectuals such as Anita Hill understood the dynamics of the revisionary aspects of African American attitudes toward the Simpson case, including, she told Gates, what she called “the manufacture of blackmale heroes as part of the syndrome.” Hill was bewildered by Simpson’s “being honored as someone who was being persecuted for his politics, when he had none” (p. 118).

traditions, is to begin to prepare our students for their roles as citizens of a world culture, educated through a truly human notion of ‘the humanities,’ rather than—as Bennett and Bloom would have it—as guardians at the last frontier outpost of white male Western culture, the Keepers of the Master’s Pieces. And for us as scholar-critics, learning to speak in the voice of the black female is perhaps the ultimate challenge of producing a discourse of the critical Other. (p. 42)

In Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Black Man (1997), a collection of essays that explores the meaning of what it is to be a black male in the twentieth century, Gates applies a variation of his literary theory of “signifyin(g)” in order to comment upon the great divide between the races— what he calls “counternarrative,” or a type of popular, collective signifyin(g) in a sociological sense. In the collection of profiles that constitute the book, Gates (referencing Wallace Stevens’ poem “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”) selects thirteen representative black men from a variety of areas of life in order to explore the concept of masculinity. One of his most interesting essays attempts to explain African American reaction to the O. J. Simpson trial, a reaction 180 degrees from that of white Americans and causing no small measure of perplexity and misunderstanding between the races. For black America, the Simpson verdict was viewed almost universally as a victory over the white judicial system, stacked historically against the black man. Gates interviewed a range of African Americans in his attempt to shed light on black reaction to Simpson’s acquittal. The comment of Spike Lee, who believed Simpson guilty but who understood the cheers at acquittal, best sums up the “counternarrative” that African Americans developed concerning the trial: “A lot of black folks said, ‘Man, O. J. is bad [good], you know. This is the first brother in the history of the world who got away with the murder of white folks, and a blond, blue-eyed woman at that’” (p. 113). African Americans’ distrust of white justice, along with their willingness to believe the worst about a system that historically was only too happy to hang a black man for mere suspicion of criminality, made possible an alternative reality or “counternarrative” in the case of O. J. Simpson.

Yet the creation of the “counternarrative” is perfectly understandable given the history of the judicial system regarding African Americans. Gates notes the response of the opera diva Jessye Norman, who was angry that the white media totally missed the point, intent as it was upon prejudging Simpson as guilty rather than seizing the opportunity to “educate the public as to how [African Americans] could possibly look at things ѧ differently” (p. 108). The bulk of Gates’s sociological writing attempts to achieve this kind of understanding, through explicating the events, the lives, the thoughts, and the literary works of those African Americans who have shaped this country.


HENRY LOUIS GATES, JR. Gates has written that “the single most pervasive and consistent assumption of all black writing since the eighteenth century has been that there exists an unassailable, integral, black self, as compelling and as whole in Africa as in the New World, within slavery as without slavery. What is more, this self was knowable, retrievable, recuperable, if only enough attention to detail were displayed” (Figures in Black, p. 115). Henry Louis Gates, Jr., has spent his professional life attempting to reveal that “black self.” He has also maintained the right of all to speak with equal forcefulness about the realities they perceive. Sometimes he has been criticized for his openness and honesty regarding free speech and the right of everyone to express his cultural reality. In 1990 Gates defended the rap group 2 Live Crew when they were arrested in Florida after a performance. Gates has insisted that any regulation of speech, even hate speech, is counterproductive in America, given the unique diversity of the country. In an essay in Speaking of Race, Speaking of Sex: Hate Speech, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties (1994), he observes that regulation of even the worst speech would likely increase its circulation. He writes: “And so the purging of racist speech from the body politic is proposed as a curative technique akin to the suction cups and leeches of eighteenth-century medicine, which were meant to strengthen the patient by draining off excessive toxins” (p. 52). However, Gates’s work has made clear the principle that “racism has traditionally been waged through language, not against it” (p. 53). The power of the word, which comes to whoever seizes and uses the language best to his advantage, will win the culture wars. Rather than laying on the leeches to withdraw the toxins, Gates recommends open and free debate—the best debate occurring within the arena of the academy. Stifling a particular and obnoxious language will render only a Pyrrhic victory. In the concluding essay to Loose Canons, Gates posits the real crux behind all his writing and literary/cultural criticism:

understanding. In short, the challenge facing America in the next century will be the shaping, at long last, of a truly common public culture, one responsive to the long-silenced cultures of color. If we relinquish the ideal of America as a plural nation, we’ve abandoned the very experiment that America represents. (p. 176)

Gates reiterates this idea in both Colored People and The Future of the Race: “My grandfather was colored, my father was Negro, and I am black” (pp. 201, 18). His own personal journey from being a “colored” child growing up in Piedmont, West Virginia, to becoming the premier African American scholar in the United States has been winding and far-ranging. He has walked the hallowed halls of Yale and Cambridge, trekked across the continent of Africa, sat among the sage in political circles and in the Ivy League bastions of learning in this country and abroad. He has hobnobbed with the great and the grand, the common and the lowly, yet he has never forgotten his roots, his fundamental self, or, to use Matthew Arnold’s term, his “buried self.” This ability to “move up from” without actually leaving home completely behind has been key to Henry Louis Gates’s success as a literary and social critic and as the articulator of a theory of reading that has revolutionized the way we process black texts. Gates early on understood that language and literary traditions were key to autonomy and self-actualization, as important as economic and political equality. He not only proves that one can go home, but that it is immensely important to do so ѧ again and again.

Selected Bibliography WORKS OF HENRY LOUIS GATES, JR. AS AUTHOR Figures in Black: Words, Signs, and the “Racial” Self. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987. The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of Afro-American Literary Criticism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988. Loose Canons: Notes on the Culture Wars. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.

The society we have made simply won’t survive without the values of tolerance. And cultural tolerance comes to nothing without cultural



Speaking of Race, Speaking of Sex: Hate Speech, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties. With Anthony P. Griffin, Donald E. Lively, and Nadine Strossen. New York: New York University Press, 1994. Colored People, a Memoir. New York: Knopf, 1994; Vintage Books, 1995.

Cole, Bruce. “2002 Jefferson Lecturer in the Humanities Interview.” Available online ( whoweare/gates/index.html). Lamb, Brian. “Colored People, by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.” Booknotes, October 9, 1994. Available online (http://

The Future of the Race. With Cornel West. New York: Knopf, 1996; Vintage Books, 1997. Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Black Man. New York: Random House, 1997; Vintage Books, 1998. The African-American Century: How Black Americans Have Shaped Our Country. With Cornel West. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000. The Trials of Phillis Wheatley. New York: Perseus Books, 2003.

CRITICAL AND BIOGRAPHICAL STUDIES Appiah, Kwame Anthony. “The Conservation of ‘Race.’” Black American Literary Forum 23: 37–60 (1989). Begley, Adam. “Black Studies’ New Star: Henry Louis Gates, Jr.” New York Times (April 1, 1990). “Henry Louis Gates, Jr.” Contemporary Black Biography. Gale 67 (2008). Jeyifo, Biodun. “Greatness and Cruelty: ”Wonders of the African World“ and the Reconfiguration of Senghorian Negritude.” The Black Scholar 39 (spring 2000. 30). Johnson, Thomas C. “Interview with Henry Louis Gates, Jr.” Worcester Review 19:61–67 (1998). Kilson, Martin. “Black Intellectual as Establishmentarian: Henry Louis Gates’ Odyssey.” The Black Scholar 31:14 (spring 2001). Mazrui, Ali A. “Black Orientalism? Further Reflections on Wonders of the African World.” The Black Scholar 30:15 (spring 2000). Osinubi, Victor. “African American Authors and the Use of Dialect in Literature: The Foregrounding of Ethnicity.” Journal of Commonwealth and Postcolonial Studies 4: 65–77 (fall 1996). Phillips, Jerry. “The Slave Narratives (review).” The Hudson Review 54: 335 (summer 2001). Rowell, Charles H. “An Interview with Henry Louis Gates, Jr.” Callaloo: A Journal of African American and African Arts and Letters 14: 444–63 (spring 1991). Slaughter, Jane. “Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (Interview).” The Progressive 62:30 (January 1998). Smith, J.C. “Henry Louis Gates, Jr.” Notable Black American Men. Detroit: Gale, 1999. 448–50. Ward, Jerry W., Jr. “An Interview with Henry Louis Gates, Jr.” New Literary History: A Journal of Theory and Interpretation 22:927–35 (autumn 1991).

America Behind the Color Line: Dialogues with African Americans. New York: Warner Books, 2004. In Search of Our Roots: How 19 Extraordinary African Americans Reclaimed Their Past. New York: Crown, 2009.

AS EDITOR Our Nig; or, Sketches from the Life of a Free Black. By Harriet E. Wilson. New York: Vintage Books, 1983. Schomburg Library of Nineteenth Century Black Women Writers. 30 vols. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988. The Norton Anthology of African American Literature. With Nellie Y. McKay. New York: Norton, 1996. Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience. With Kwame Anthony Appiah. New York: Basic Civitas Books, 1999. The Bondwoman’s Narrative by Hannah Crafts. Ann Arbor, Mich.: XanEdu, 2002. African American Lives. With Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. The African American National Biography. With Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham. 8 vols. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008. Lincoln on Race and Slavery. With Donald Yacovone. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2009.


KAHLIL GIBRAN (1883—1931)

Christopher Buck THE ARAB-AMERICAN author and artist Kahlil Gibran was a best-selling writer whose work has yet to receive critical acclaim equal to his popular appeal. There is no question that Gibran’s work in Arabic was central to the development of twentieth-century Arabic literature—in that Arab Romanticism begins with Gibran, the pivotal figure in the Mahjar movement of émigré Arab writers centered in New York. There is also no question that Kahlil Gibran’s masterpiece, The Prophet (1923)—a small volume of aphorisms (wise sayings) offering pithy wisdom of an almost prophetic quality—belongs to world literature, for it is known and loved the world over. As an American man of letters, however, Gibran has received scant attention from American literary critics. Since The Prophet has yet to be widely recognized as an American classic, and the author yet to be fully accepted as an American writer, Gibran’s inclusion in the American Writers series requires some justification.

States. Apart from a two-year study in Paris and two brief return visits to Lebanon, Gibran spent his entire adult life—the last two-thirds of his life, in fact—entirely on American soil, dying in New York at the age of forty-eight. In The Prophet, the city of Orphalese is often said to represent America (or New York). Shahid underscores the fact The Prophet was America’s best-selling book of the twentieth century, not counting the Bible, and that Gibran outsold all other American poets, from Walt Whitman to Robert Frost. According to Gibran’s New York publisher, Alfred A. Knopf, The Prophet has sold more than ten million copies. The book’s success was due entirely to its own appeal, as Knopf never promoted it. Strangely, Gibran is arguably America’s best-loved prosepoet, whose market appeal continues despite critical indifference. It’s true that Gibran had what might be called a double psyche, and inhabited two thought-worlds at once. As an Arab American, Gibran wrote in two languages: English and Arabic. Arabic was his mother tongue, and English his second language. As an accomplished man of letters of considerable influence in the Middle East, Gibran inspired a literary renaissance in the Arab world, such that all modern Arabic poetry bears the marks of Gibran’s. Yet Gibran’s work has had little influence in American letters, despite its enormous popular appeal. Notwithstanding, Shahid thinks that Gibran has not been fairly treated as an American writer. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that, categorically, The Prophet exists in splendid isolation, severed from its Arabic cultural roots. And so The Prophet will have to be evaluated, or reevaluated, on its own literary merits and for its singular contribution to the American literary heritage.

Eminent scholars including Irfan Shahid (professor emeritus at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.) and Suheil Bushrui (professor emeritus and current director of the Kahlil Gibran Chair for Values and Peace at the University of Maryland at College Park) have made the case for Gibran’s recognition as an American writer worthy of note. According to Bushrui, America is entitled to claim Gibran as one of its sons (even if not a native son) as fully and as authentically as his native Lebanon can lay such claim: “In his work, he became not only Gibran of Lebanon, but Gibran of America, indeed Gibran the voice of global consciousness” (1996, p. 10). After all, the young Gibran spent only the first twelve years of his life in Bsharri (a village near the famous “Cedars of God”), where he was born in 1883, before emigrating with his family to the United


KAHLIL GIBRAN charges. At the time, Lebanon was a Turkish province, part of Greater Syria (Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine) and subjugated to the Ottoman Empire, until its fall in 1918. In June 1895, while the elder Gibran languished in his Bsharri jail cell, his wife, Kamila Rahme, left her native Lebanon and immigrated with her children to America, where her brother lived. They arrived in New York on June 25, 1895. On December 3, 1895, the family moved into Boston’s impoverished immigrant South End, in Chinatown, where their cousins were living. To support her four children—Gibran, his younger sisters Marianna and Sultana, and her son by a previous marriage, Peter (Butrus)—Kamila sold cloth and lace in Boston’s then-wealthy Back Bay. She opened a dry goods store on Beach Street with Kahlil and his half brother, Peter. On September 30, 1895, Gibran entered Quincy School, where he was placed in a class for immigrant children who needed to learn English. Gibran’s name was shortened, with two letters inverted (from Khalil to Kahlil), whether through a clerical error, or because a teacher wanted the boy’s first name to suit American pronunciation. In any event, Gibran kept his shortened name, Kahlil Gibran, as his English pen name.


A biography of Kahlil Gibran’s life is complicated by the fact that Gibran himself spun some fanciful tales about it. He embroidered, embellished, lionized, and mythologized himself. He claimed, for instance, that his father was a wealthy Arab aristocrat and that his grandfather owned a grand mansion guarded by lions, and he did not resist speculation that he was the reincarnation of the English mystic William Blake. But the real facts betray Gibran’s humble origins, and it is necessary to demystify Gibran. Kahlil Gibran was born on January 6, 1883, in Bsharri, a picturesque but impoverished Maronite Christian village, perched on a fertile ridge between Qadisha Gorge and the spectacular grove of Lebanon cedars now known as the Cedars of God in northern Lebanon. His original, full name was Gibran Khalil Gibran—the first name his own; the second, his father’s; and the last, his grandfather’s. Raised in the Maronite tradition, Gibran was a sensitive boy. His father, a bully and a gambler, owned a walnut grove thirty-five miles from Bsharri. His father’s lordly pretensions (marked by his trademark amber cigarette holder), extravagant habits, aversion to peasanttype labor, mercurial temper, and addiction to the gambling game of domma prompted young Gibran to retreat to the surrounding countryside, which was dominated by the Cedars of God. Contemplative, inventive, and creative, Gibran had no formal schooling in Bsharri, but he received private instruction from Selim Dahir, who taught the boy the rudiments of Arabic, history, and art. The young Gibran was also mystically inclined. Early in life, Gibran interpreted personal experiences as profoundly spiritual in nature and attached religious significance to them. His father, Khalil, clerked in his uncle’s apothecary shop until he became so indebted from gambling that he stooped to working as a tax collector and enforcer (a job that was considered below repute) for Raji Bey, the village headman and local administrator appointed by the Ottomans. To put it bluntly, his father was a thug for the village strongman. In 1891, after Raji Bey was dismissed following numerous complaints, Gibran’s father was jailed on graft

Meanwhile, Gibran’s talent for drawing attracted the attention of a growing number of admirers, several of whom became his patrons. Among them was Jessie Fremont Beale, a social worker who, in 1896, when apprised of Kahlil’s talent for drawing by a settlement house art teacher, Florence Pierce, wrote to her friend, Fred Holland Day, asking if he would assist the boy. Day, a wealthy Bostonian aesthete and avantgarde patron of the arts, was also a photographer, and he began to use Gibran, his younger sisters, his half brother, and his mother as models for his own symbolist and semierotic “fine art” photographs. Day viewed the young Gibran’s artistic and literary gifts as evidence of natural genius, and he became the boy’s close mentor and patron. In 1897, Gibran returned to Lebanon to study at the Madrasat al-Hikmat (“School of Wisdom”), founded by the Maronite bishop Joseph Debs in Beirut. In 1899, Gibran had an ill-fated affair


KAHLIL GIBRAN (1918), then The Forerunner (1920), and finally, The Prophet (1923). In 1905, Gibran’s brief piece, al-Músíqá (Music) was published by the Arabic immigrant press in New York City, marking the author’s debut into the world of letters. In 1906, Gibran, who opposed Ottoman Turkish rule and the Maronite Church’s strict social control, published his next Arabic work in 1906, ‘Ará’is al-Murúj (English trans., Nymphs in the Valley, 1948; the work has also been translated as Spirit Brides), an anticlerical collection of three short stories serving as a caustic critique of establishmentarian church and state. The Arabic poem al-Arwáhខ alMutamarrida (English trans., Spirits Rebellious, 1948), also incorporating a social critique, followed in 1908. During this same period, Gibran was working on a book about the philosophy of religion and religiosity (also in Arabic); but that book was never published. In 1908, Mary Haskell sponsored Gibran’s undertaking of a three-year study at the Académie Julian in Paris, a private art school where he produced the series of paintings titled “The Ages of Women” (1909–1910) and a portrait of Auguste Rodin (1910). There he was exposed to the work of the English mystic poet William Blake (1757–1857), whose thought and art had a profound influence on Gibran. In 1910, Gibran, Ameen Rihani, and Yusuf Huwayyik met in Paris, where they envisioned and drew up plans for the cultural renaissance of the Arab world. On his return to Boston in October 1910, Gibran earned his living through portrait painting. In 1911, he began work on his first Englishlanguage manuscript, eventually published as The Madman: His Parables and Poems (1918). He was frustrated with the shortcomings of the cultural scene in Boston, however, and, in 1912 he made New York City his professional home. Gibran produced his finest work in his studio at 51 West Tenth Street (which he nicknamed “The Hermitage”). In total, Gibran published seven spiritual works in English: The Madman: His Parables and Poems (1918), The Forerunner: His Parables and Poems (1920), The Prophet (1923), Sand and Foam: A Book of Aphorisms (1926), Jesus,

with a twenty-two-year-old Lebanese widow, Sultana Tabit (against social taboos), memorialized in his Arabic work al-Ajnihខ ah alMutakassira, published in 1912 (translated into English as The Broken Wings in 1957). In autumn 1899, Gibran came back to Boston, but he returned again to Lebanon in 1902, as a guide and interpreter to an American family. But when his mother became ill, Gibran returned to the United States once more. (She died of tuberculosis on June 28, 1903.) Day’s mentorship continued to be crucial in Gibran’s life; he introduced the young artist to the writings of the Belgian symbolist Maurice Maeterlinck, to the work of nineteenth-century poets such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman, John Keats, and Percy Bysshe Shelley and also to the writing of various other British, American, and Continental poets from the turn of the century. Day’s patronage made possible Gibran’s emergence as a new talent, both as artist and poet, as Gibran entered the prestigious circles of Boston’s artistic and intellectual elite. In 1903, Day’s friend the poet Josephine Preston Peabody arranged for an exhibition of Gibran’s drawings at Wellesley College. In January 1904, Day held, in his own studio, an exhibition of Gibran’s art. Another exhibition was held in February 1904 at the Cambridge School, where the headmistress was a progressive schoolteacher named Mary Haskell; Haskell was ten years his senior, but she and Gibran developed a close friendship that endured throughout his lifetime. (She declined his offer of marriage in 1910, and Gibran remained a bachelor for the rest of his life, despite the considerable number of women who were drawn to the handsome and gifted artist and poet.) After the exhibitions in early 1904, Day’s Harcourt Buildings studio burned, destroying Gibran’s entire portfolio. Not only did Mary Haskell remain Gibran’s good friend and benefactress, she served as his editor as well. He continued to rely on her to correct his punctuation and grammar, and occasionally suggest an alternative word for greater euphonic effect. From June 1914 to September 1923, he sought her advice on The Madman


KAHLIL GIBRAN the Son of Man (1928), The Earth Gods (1931), and The Wanderer: His Parables and Sayings (1932). The publication in 1918 of The Madman established Gibran as a writer worthy of note in America, inaugurating a new literary career in English. Among his other Arabic works, Gibran published Dam’a wa Ibtisáma (1914; English trans., A Tear and a Smile), al-Mawákib (1919; English trans., The Procession), al-’Awásខ if (1920; English trans., The Storm; a collection of previously published work), Iram, Dhát al-’Imád (1921, one-act play set in a lost Arabian city mentioned in Qur’an 89:7; English trans., Iram, City of Lofty Pillars, published in Secrets of the Heart), and al-Badá’i’ wa’l-Tará’if (1923, English trans., Marvels and Masterpieces).

his last work to appear during his lifetime. His remains were taken back to Lebanon for burial in his home village, arriving in the port of Beirut on August 21, and his body was eventually interred in the old chapel at the monastery of Mar Sarkis in his native Bsharri, near which the Gibran Museum was soon established to commemorate his literary and artistic legacy. On October 19, 1984, the U.S. Congress passed legislation authorizing the building of a memorial to Kahlil Gibran on federal land with private funds. The result was the Khalil Gibran Memorial Garden, on Massachusetts Avenue directly opposite the British Embassy in Washington, D.C., which President George H. W. Bush dedicated on May 24, 1991, calling the memorial a tribute to Gibran’s “belief in brotherhood, his call for compassion, and perhaps above all, his passion for peace.”

Fulfilling the promise he had demonstrated as a youth, Gibran became an accomplished visual artist as well. (Along with drawing and painting, he also executed small wood carvings.) In December 1914, Gibran had an exhibition of his drawings and paintings at the Montross Gallery, New York. In 1917, Gibran had exhibits at the Knoedler and Company Gallery, New York, and the Doll and Richards Gallery, Boston. A collection, Twenty Drawings, was published by Alfred A. Knopf in 1919. In January 1922, Gibran’s work was showcased at the Women’s City Club, Boston.


Gibran’s work resonates with that of Blake, Keats, and William Wordsworth and of American transcendentalists such as Emerson, Whitman, and Henry Thoreau, and it arguably shows clear marks of their influence. For instance, in Gibran’s 1919 Arabic work, translated as The Procession— Gibran’s most respected Arabic poem in verse— the critic Ahmad Majdoubeh has found lexical and philosophical echoes of Emerson and Thoreau, revealing the direct influence of these exponents of New England transcendentalism. A personal letter dated November 10, 1925, from Gibran to the archbishop and metropolitan Antonious Bashir (who translated The Prophet into Arabic) offers insights into possible further influences on Gibran’s work. In this letter (translated from the Arabic by George N. El-Hage in 2005), Gibran tellingly commends to the archbishop, for translation to Arabic, “four valuable books which I believe are among the best that Westerners have written during our present time” (p. 12): The Treasure of the Humble (1896) by the Belgian symbolist Maurice Maeterlinck (rendered from the French original); Tertium Organum (1912) by the Russian philosopher P. D. Ouspensky; FolkLore in the Old Testament (1918) by the Scottish

In April 1920, Gibran and some fellow writers from the Arabic diaspora founded a group they named al-Rábita al-Qalamíya (The Pen League), or “Arrabitah,” as they referred to it in English. Gibran was elected president and the Lebanese author, Mikhail Naimy, secretary. This was the first Romantic school in the Arab world. Ardent nationalists, Gibran and other members of the Arrabitah sought reform and Arab liberation from colonialism through the power of the pen. The society published a literary and political journal, al-Sá’ihខ (The Traveler), edited by ‘Abd al-Masíh Haddád, which was widely read across the Arab world. They met regularly until Gibran’s death eleven years later. On April 10, 1931, Gibran died of cirrhosis of the liver with incipient tuberculosis at St. Vincent’s Hospital in New York. Two weeks before his death, he published The Earth Gods,


KAHLIL GIBRAN anthropologist James George Frazer; and The Dance of Life (1923) by the British sexologist Havelock Ellis.

that same day, in a letter to Mary Haskell, Gibran wrote that he had, in the presence of ‘Abdu’lBahá, “seen the Unseen, and been filled” (Bushrui and Jenkins, p. 126). Juliet Thompson later recalled Gibran telling her that his audiences with ‘Abdu’l-Bahá had profoundly influenced his writing of Jesus, the Son of Man, which appeared in 1928. Ultimately, however, Gibran, while shaped by his influences, crafted his own art and writing in his own way. The sum total of these “influences” are perhaps best characterized as “confluences”—that is, the convergence of orientations and ideas that were spun into prosaic gold by Gibran’s synthetic power and gilded by his own sapiential genius. From the sophomoric to the sublime, Gibran’s prose-poems may be characterized as a form of secular wisdom literature, reaching audiences with a spiritual—but not necessarily religious— interest. That having been said, Gibran’s sage advice, through the mouthpieces of his various literary personae, is more inspirational than prescriptive in nature, and it rarely ventures into the realm of social teachings that might guide a society as a whole. Ideologically, Gibran urged escape from the trappings of materialism (although sales of The Prophet endowed him with a respectable income). He encouraged transcending sectarian religious conflict, he promoted reform in the Arab world, and he championed ideal East-West relations, in which he believed he might play the role of cultural intermediary. While he promoted spirituality and virtue, he was not a paragon of it. Although mystically inclined, Gibran was not a mystic. But his art endowed life and nature with the mystique of divine mystery. Except for mentioning their publication in the course of his career, Gibran’s Arabic works, a number of which have been translated into English, will not be treated in the following discussion, as Gibran’s works in English are what distinguish him as an American writer of note. That having been said, Gibran’s Arabic works (in translation), will be consulted as an aid by which to interpret some of Gibran’s salient themes in his English work.

Other scholars theorize about the way in which Gibran re-visions Christianity in the light of Sufi (Islamic) mysticism. In the Madrasat alHikmat, beyond his required course of studies, Gibran immersed himself in classical and contemporary Arabic literature, including Paris alShidyak, Francis al-Marrásh, Adib Isháq, and the great Sufi masters Rumi, ‘Umar ibn al-Faríd, alGhazálí, Ibn Rushd (Averroes), and Ibn Síná (Avicenna). This immersion was to have a lasting influence on Gibran: the American architect Claude Bragdon recalls how, at the end of his life, Gibran would freely translate Sufi poets to a circle of admirers and would recount folktales of his native Lebanon. Thus Gibran’s early works effectively re-forge Sufi thought, in which, as expressed by Suheil Bushrui and Joe Jenkins in their biography of Kahlil Gibran, Gibran’s “aphorisms, parables, and allegories closely resemble Sufi wisdom—the themes of paradox and illusion turning on the unripeness of a sleeping humanity attached to the ephemeral” (p. 15). Thus in Gibran’s work (although he is by no means a “Sufi poet”), man is portrayed as on the arc of ascent, traversing spiritual degrees in drawing closer to God, in which one becomes increasingly godlike in the process. Friedrich Nietzsche, Carl Jung, and Rabindranath Tagore (whom Gibran met in December 1916) are cited as other influences, although Bushrui and Jenkins emphasize that Gibran was drawn to Nietzsche’s form rather than his formulations and identified with his passion more than his philosophy. There is evidence of Bahá’í influence as well: the New York artist Juliet Thompson, one of Gibran’s artistic circle of close friends and an adherent of the Bahá’í Faith, had lent him several works of its founder, Bahá’u’lláh, in the original Arabic. These writings impressed Gibran deeply, for he later declared that Bahá’u’lláh’s Arabic works were the most “stupendous literature that ever was written” (Bushrui and Jenkins, p. 125). On Friday, April 19, 1912, Gibran drew, in his studio, a portrait of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá (1844– 1921), the son and successor to Bahá’u’lláh. On


KAHLIL GIBRAN nor serial selves. They are simply selves in different stages of spiritual development. In The Madman, Gibran’s contrast of the soporific self and the sapiential self is inchoate and undeveloped. Previously, in his Arabic work, A Tear and a Smile (1914), Gibran had spoken of the “inner self” as a “spirit growing” within the thew and sinew of the “flesh” or the “covering of matter” (p. 789)—yet the doctrine of the greater self is scarcely developed beyond the spirit/matter dichotomy. Yet the theme of the benighted self and the awakened self may be traced throughout Gibran’s mature works, where the doctrine matures as well.


Out of the thirty-four parables that comprise of The Madman: His Parables and Poems (1918), eleven original manuscripts are preserved in Princeton Library’s Department of Rare Books and Special Collections as part of the William H. Shehadi Collection of Kahlil Gibran. The order in which the parables appear in the manuscripts differs somewhat from their published sequence. Annotations in Arabic can be found throughout. The Madman is said to have been based on Lebanese folklore. The book’s eponymous persona, the “madman,” has had seven prior lives, and he begins to recount experiences and expound parables. In the latter part of the book, Gibran experiments with personification of a blade of grass, a leaf, the eye, sorrow and joy, and so forth. The Madman’s desultory nature and lack of coherence is evidence of Gibran’s developing yet unripened talent insofar as his English work was concerned. While The Madman has been described as a thought-provoking collection of life-affirming parables and poems, the book can scarcely be described as prescriptive in nature. It inspires self-reflection, but not a clear sense of self-direction—except insofar as Gibran’s most basic message is concerned, as exemplified by the last sentence of the chapter “The Greater Sea”: “Then we left that sea to seek the Greater Sea” (Collected Works, p. 38; all citations are from this 2007 volume). If The Madman has a message, that message is that of discovering the true self—the greater sea is the greater self.


Most of Gibran’s work The Forerunner: His Parables and Poems (1920) is composed of tales, interspersed with a few poems. The tales are very much like Sufi tales. Seven of the twenty-four morality tales The Forerunner are archived in the William H. Shehadi Collection at Princeton. The tale “God’s Fool” is set in the city of Sharia, which is an obvious reference to the Islamic code of law (although the reference would not have been obvious to Gibran’s readers). The tale “Dynasties” takes place in the city of Ishana, which betrays possible Hindu influence, as Ishana is one of the five faces of the god Shiva. To what extent Gibran’s place-names are symbolic is hard to say. The underlying theme of The Forerunner is the need to spiritually awaken. Here, in contrast to The Madman, Gibran’s doctrine of the awakened self is further developed. It commands the attention of the reader in the opening line: “You are your own forerunner, and the towers you have builded are but the foundation of your giant-self” (p. 53). Thus the prologue opens by saying that each person is his or her own forerunner, and that each person has a “giant-self” within, which is the “greater self” (one of the tales is “The Greater Self”) and “freer self” as well. The greater self may be thought of as a “deeper heart.” In “Out of My Deeper Heart,” Gibran speaks of “man’s larger self” (p. 73). The Mad-

In “The Sleep-Walkers,” the “freer self” is mentioned. This implies another self, presumably captive of passions and other limitations. In “The Seven Selves,” the madman teaches that there is a rebellious self, a joyous self, the love-ridden self, the tempest-like self, the thinking self, the working self, and the do-nothing self. The seven stages of the soul are a well-known Sufi paradigm, although Gibran has taken liberties with it here. In “Night and the Madman,” the Night tells the Madman of his “little-self,” of his “monsterself,” and that his soul is wrapped in the veil of seven folds (p. 33). These are neither separate


KAHLIL GIBRAN man, in his parable titled “Crucified,” had exclaimed: “For we must be crucified by larger and yet larger men, between greater earths and greater heavens” (p. 39). That which is crucified will resurrect with greater power, and so the lesser self, when crucified, will rise as a larger self in a progressing expanding consciousness. The spiritual self is opposed by the materially attached self—the self that must be crucified—which is described in various ways. In the poem “Love,” Gibran speaks of the “weaker self” (p. 57), but later in “Beyond My Solitude,” the two selves are mentioned together: “Beyond this burdened self lives my freer self” (p. 86). The Forerunner’s final piece, “The Last Watch,” is a sermon by the Forerunner himself, who speaks to slumberers in their sleep, right before dawn. He speaks like the prophets of old. He has loved one and all, “overmuch,” including “the giant and the pigmy” (p. 87; symbols for the spiritually awakened and spiritually undeveloped selves). The message is that spiritual awakening is needed. If each one is a Forerunner, as the opening line explicitly says, then that Forerunner “sees with the light of God,” as is said in “The Last Watch,” which continues, “He speaks like the prophets of old. He unveils our souls and unlocks our hearts” (p. 90). The Forerunner within each person is prophetic. Ultimately, the Forerunner becomes a Prophet, whose mission is to awaken and illumine the soul within.

to death in the marketplace after being freed. Gibran had partly written the second work, which was completed by Barbara Young (the pseudonym of Henrietta Breckenridge Boughton, who claimed she was Gibran’s secretary and companion for the last seven years of his life) and published posthumously as The Garden of the Prophet in 1933. (To what extent that book actually is Gibran’s authentic work is controversial.) Nineteen of the twenty-six discourses, or poetic essays, as well as the prologue and epilogue (or farewell) of The Prophet are archived in Princeton Library’s Shehadi Collection. The plot of The Prophet is skeletal. The Prophet’s name is Almustafa—that is, “alMustafa” (Arabic for “the Chosen” and one of the names of Muhammad)—in its more familiar transliteration. Almustafa was a stranger who tarried twelve, lonely years the city of Orphalese, waiting to return to the island where he was born. From a mountaintop, he saw a ship with purple sails slip through the mist, and he hastened to the city to meet it. There he was met by a throng of people in a great square before the temple. They came to bid him farewell. A seeress named Almitra entreats the Prophet to impart to them his wisdom before he embarks on his way back home. Speak, Almitra beseeches Almustafa, of love. Speak, asks another witness, of marriage. And so the Prophet speaks on topics that matter most in human life: “On Love,” “On Marriage,” “On Children,” “On Giving,” “On Eating and Drinking,” “On Work,” “On Joy and Sorrow,” “On Houses,” “On Clothes,” “On Buying and Selling,” “On Crime and Punishment,” “On Laws,” “On Freedom,” “On Reason and Passion,” “On Pain,” “On Self-Knowledge,” “On Teaching,” “On Friendship,” “On Talking,” “On Time,” “On Good and Evil,” “On Prayer,” “On Pleasure,” “On Beauty,” “On Religion,” and “On Death.” Of these discourses, the most popular in American popular culture may well be “On Marriage,” which is used in a great many American wedding ceremonies.


The Forerunner, according to Gibran’s contemporary Mikhail Naimy, was a title chosen deliberately by Gibran as a precursor of The Prophet. Gibran conceived The Prophet, published in 1923, as the first of a trilogy, to be followed by “The Garden of the Prophet” (on humanity’s relationship to Nature) and “The Death of the Prophet” (on humanity’s relationship to God). The first book is set on the eve of the Prophet’s departure from Orphalese to his native island; the second is set on the island itself, in the garden of the Prophet’s mother; and the planned third volume would have the Prophet return to Orphalese, only to be imprisoned and then stoned

These topics reflect universal human concerns. Almustafa’s discourses may best be characterized as spiritual meditations, yet they do not rise, much less aspire, to the threshold of


KAHLIL GIBRAN prophetic or revelatory utterances. They are words of wisdom; they are sublime, but not divine. The Prophet, moreover, has been described as neither a purely philosophical work nor a purely literary work, and therefore it occupies an ambiguous position in American literature. Although English in form, it is Arabic in thought-form.

Haskell; Almustafa’s native island as Lebanon; and the twelve years in Orphalese as the twelve years Gibran spent in New York prior to the publication of The Prophet. Unenchanted critics have criticized The Prophet as platitudinous and petty. Others find Gibran’s masterpiece profound and ennobling. Writing in the London Review of Books, Robert Irwin caricatured Gibran’s poetic craft by declaring that “as latter-day Prophet, Gibran favoured a mock-Biblical delivery, larded with archaisms, and inversions of word-order for rhetorical effect.” Bushrui and Jenkins, by contrast, privilege The Prophet as “the most highly regarded poem of the twentieth century” and as “the most widely read book of the century” (p. 2). The broad and long-lasting appeal of The Prophet in American popular culture has never been satisfactorily explained, but presumably it has something to do with the human hunger for deeper meaning in life, which established religions have traditionally provided. Given the widespread decline in church attendance and the waning influence of religion generally, does the appeal of The Prophet render it a surrogate gospel?

Published in September 1923 by the prestigious New York publishing firm of Alfred A. Knopf, The Prophet is Gibran’s masterpiece. Composed, for the most part, in April and May of 1918, its original title, as a manuscript, was “The Counsels.” Of its initial print run of 2,000, The Prophet sold only 1,159 copies (although other sources claim that the print run was 1,300 and that these sold out within a month or two). To Knopf’s surprise, demand for The Prophet doubled the following year and again the year after. The book sold 12,000 copies in 1935, and late in World War II an edition for distribution to soldiers was published by the nonprofit Council on Books in Wartime. Sales numbered 111,000 in 1961, and 240,000 in 1964, according to a 1965 article in Time magazine tracing the cultlike phenomenon that The Prophet had become. It went on to become the best-selling book of the twentieth century, apart from the Bible, and has been translated into over forty languages.

“Gospel” is, in fact, too narrow a word, in that The Prophet is not an exclusively Christian text; rather it is a fusion of Christian and Islamic (Sufi) mysticism. In religious terms, The Prophet could be considered not a social gospel but, rather, a personal gospel—a gospel with a message of salvation from the ignorance of one’s own true self, not of salvation from sin in the traditional Christian sense. Gibran himself epitomized the message of The Prophet: “The whole Prophet is saying one thing: ‘You are far far greater than you know—and All is well’” (Bushrui and Jenkins, p. 238). In the chapter “Crime and Punishment,” Almustafa speaks of the “god-self” (that is, the higher nature) and what he calls the “pigmy-self” (that is, the lower nature): “Like the ocean is your god-self. ѧ Even like the sun is your god-self; ѧ But your god-self dwells not alone in your being. ѧ But a shapeless pigmy that walks asleep in the mist searching for its own awakening” (p. 122) The human person is both benighted and enlightened, in that each individual is “but one man standing in twilight

Of the experience of writing this book— which is of modest length (less than twenty thousand words) yet of immodest ethos—Gibran wrote to Archbishop Antonious Bashir: “You know that this small book is a part and parcel of my being, and I hardly wrote a chapter of it without experiencing a transformation in the depth of my soul” (El-Hage, trans., p. 172). Admirers of the The Prophet respond to its luminous wisdom and its approach to the numinous. Yet there is a hidden dimension to The Prophet as well. Mikhail Naimy, Gibran’s friend and, later, his critical biographer, saw The Prophet as an intensely personal production. One is struck, certainly, by the visual resemblance between the portrait of Almustafa and that of Gibran himself. One can see Almustafa as Gibran; Orphalese as New York; Almitra as Mary


KAHLIL GIBRAN between the night of his pigmy-self and the day of his god-self” (p. 124). This is Gibran at his most pellucid moment: The giant within is the god-self, while the dwarf within is the pygmy self, which stand in polar relation to each other as day and night. The relation of the pygmy self to the giant self is developmental, progressive, evolving, like that of the acorn to the oak. But is the god-self the spiritually awakened lesser self grown to its full potential, or is the greater self a cosmic principle, a world supersoul? There is no consensus among scholars on this issue, but the latter interpretation seems persuasive, because it carries the inherent pantheism of The Prophet to the extreme.

While a reader may understand that passion is emotion and emotion has motive power, and that reason is pensive and therefore still, whether reason is best described as “rest” is controversial. Yet ultimately such definitions are not the point. The Prophet is exquisitely inspirational—it is not intended to be ethically explicit or morally prescriptive, nor is it a social panacea.


Gibran is the consummate aphorist, and his 1926 volume Sand and Foam is primarily a collection of aphorisms, pithy bits of wisdom, strung like pearls across the skin of the slender volume’s pages. Some of the aphorisms in this work were first composed by other writers in Arabic, then translated by Gibran into English. For instance, Gibran writes, “Love is the veil between lover and lover” (p. 185). This alludes to a couplet composed by the Bahá’í founder and prophet, Bahá’u’lláh’s. As it is written in an English translation of his mystical work The Seven Valleys and the Four Valleys: “Love is a veil betwixt the lover and the loved one; More than this I am not permitted to tell” (Marzieh Gail, 1991). Despite its negative reception by critics, Sand and Foam won popular acclaim.

In the volume’s concluding discourse, “The Farewell,” Almustafa says: “It is in the vast man that you are vast, And in beholding him that I beheld you and loved you” (p. 154). The concept of the “vast man” is the key to unlocking the message of The Prophet. By “man” is meant consciousness. The greater the spiritual awareness, the vaster the man. Man is asleep, benighted in oblivion to a higher reality (including his own higher being), until awakened by the dawn of spiritual awareness. The seed of that awareness is the realization that a person is far more than the body, as the physical frame cannot contain the boundless spirit. Almustafa explains, “You are not enclosed within your bodies, nor confined to houses or fields. That which is you dwells above the mountain and roves with the wind” (p. 159). Elsewhere in The Prophet, the message seems to be that love is the power of spiritual growth. It manifests most intensively in the passionate love between man and woman, yet that is merely a beginning for the wider embrace of love. Love results in unity, and that sharing or merging of consciousness is expansive and redemptive.

Gibran sustains his anthropology of the lower and higher selves in this book, with phrasing such as “You are but a fragment of your giant self” (p. 225) and “rising toward your greater self” (p. 173). Rising toward the greater self is a process of expanding one’s awareness and seeing the greater picture in a vaster panorama unbounded by limitations of narrow identities: “If you would rise but a cubit above race and country and self you would indeed become godlike” (p. 225). Elsewhere in Sand and Foam, the writer speaks of the “other self” as the greater self: “Your other self is always sorry for you. But your other self grows on sorrow; so all is well” (p. 184). (This evokes Gibran’s précis of the message of The Prophet discussed above—“You are far far greater than you know—and All is well”— and the idea as before, that God is latent within each person as the greater self.)

In “The Farewell,” the Prophet admits that his teachings may be “vague”: “If these be vague words, then seek not to clear them” (p. 159). This vagueness has not escaped the notice of critics who feel that The Prophet is overrated. As an example, in the discourse “On Reason and Passion,” Almustafa says that one should rest in reason and move in passion, just as “God rests in reason” and “God moves in passion” (p. 130).


KAHLIL GIBRAN The book concludes with what may be Gibran’s most prescriptive general counsel in English: “Every thought I have imprisoned in expression I must free by my deeds” (p. 228). Here, action follows cognition, if moved by volition. Mere intentionality is inert, and action without knowledge and wisdom is a rudderless ship. In Sand and Foam, the reader stands on the shore of the ocean of grandeur, gazes on the sea of wisdom, is awakened and enlightened by the dawn of knowledge, is inspired by the breezes of love, is uplifted like a bird, and soars in the atmosphere of spiritual oversight in an invisible world that endows the visible world with meaning and purpose—yet the reader must inevitably return to the rigors of daily life and find a way to translate insight into action.

iaphas and Annas are all archetypally alive in the recurring cosmic drama. Ernest Renan’s Life of Jesus (English trans., 1863) was a major influence on Gibran’s conception of Jesus. His biographers Bushrui and Jenkins claim Baha’i influence as well: “The template for his unique portrayal of Jesus was inspired by his meetings in 1912 with ‘Abdu’lBahá, the Bahá’í leader, whom he drew in New York, a man whose presence moved Gibran to exclaim: ‘For the first time I saw form noble enough to be a receptacle for the Holy Spirit’” (p. 252). This novel hypothesis, however, remains undeveloped. While Gibran was clearly impressed by Bahá’u’lláh’s writings in Arabic, and by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in person, he was relatively unfamiliar with the full scope of Baha’i teachings and thus cannot be said to have subscribed to them generally. The result was a gospel narrative that is not seamless but rather is a patchwork of fictional reminiscences by those who knew or had met the Nazarene, creating an impressionistic medley of memories that would entertain, even illumine, but not necessarily enlighten. ‘Abdu’lBahá, rather than being an actual template for Jesus, the Son of Man, could arguably have served as an immediate inspirational presence in the mind of Gibran, while he was composing this secular yet sacred portrait of Jesus.


For twenty years, Gibran had wanted to write a life of Jesus. After Alfred Knopf gave him a twothousand-dollar advance, Gibran abandoned The Garden of the Prophet in order to work on Jesus, the Son of Man, which he began in November 1926. The book, published in 1928, was handsomely produced with some of Gibran’s illustrations in color. Reviews were favorable, and the book remains the most popular of his works after The Prophet. The full title of this work is Jesus, the Son of Man: His Words and His Deeds as Told and Recorded by Those Who Knew Him. This polychoral and imaginal life of Jesus is Gibran’s lengthiest work in English. It is a creative and reverential life of Jesus as told by seventy-eight of his contemporaries, both real and fictional, enemies as well as friends, and strangers from a distance—such as the Persian philosopher who was a follower of the Persian prophet Zoroaster. As such, Jesus, the Son of Man is a series of sketches from which a patchwork portrait of Jesus emerges. At the very end, “A Man from Lebanon Nineteen Centuries Afterward” speaks, saying that seven times he was born and seven times he had died, that Jesus’ mother is seen in the sheen of the face of all mothers; that Mary Magdalene, Judas, John, Simon Peter, and Ca-

Is Gibran’s Jesus Christian? Clearly, the figure portrayed in this volume is both orthodox and extra-orthodox (not necessarily heterodox). Curiously, in “John the Son of Zebedee: On the Various Appellations of Jesus,” Zoroaster, the prophet of the Persians, is identified as a previous incarnation of Jesus, as is Prometheus and Mithra. Not only does Gibran add apocryphal accounts to the life of Jesus, he enhances a number of the sayings of Jesus by taking a familiar teaching and expanding on it. For instance, in “Simon Who Was Called Peter: When He and His Brother Were Called,” Jesus says to Andrew, brother of Peter, on the shores of Galilee: “Follow me to the shores of a greater sea. I shall make you fishers of men. And your net shall never be empty” (p. 253); a reader might recall that “the greater sea” is a favorite Gibranian symbol for the Sufi notion of the greater self, or the “perfect man.”


KAHLIL GIBRAN The most extensive of Gibran’s edifying edits of the sayings of Jesus is in the chapter, “Matthew: The Sermon on the Mount,” in which Gibran embellishes Jesus’ beatitudes, proverbs, and other teachings. This, in turn, is followed by Gibran’s version of the Lord’s Prayer. Sometimes the alteration or embellishment may be accomplished by a single word, such as in Gibran’s version of Jesus’ “cry of dereliction,” as scholars call it. In “Barabbas: The Last Words of Jesus,” Jesus, who is still alive on the cross, exclaims, “Father, why hast Thou forsaken us?”—where the word “us” is substituted for “me” (p. 390). Some of Gibran’s sayings of Jesus are utterly noncanonical, as in this saying from “James the Brother of the Lord: The Last Supper”: “Heaven and earth, and hell too, are of man” (p. 397). Gibran here has disenchanted the metaphysical world of the principality of Satan and shifted attention back to the true principal of evil—man. The biographical narrative is not sequential and is sometimes glaringly out of sequence. For instance, “The Last Supper” appears shortly after the Crucifixion account, mentioned above. The anecdotal accounts are interwoven with the occasional poem, typically a paean to Jesus. Jesus, the Son of Man, as a whole, is an artistically original and eloquent tribute to the “Prophet of Nazareth.”

does not see. / And that is the secret of our being” (p. 431). In other words, the greater self, the spiritual giant, Christ-spirit is within. The beginning of salvation is to awaken the sleeping giant. At the height of their debate, the Third God proclaims: “Love is our lord and master” (p. 443). Love is God on Earth. Beyond that, the debate is convoluted and unsophisticated, with no clear progression in reasoning. (There is no rhyme.) The Earth Gods is perhaps the least deserving of Gibran’s English works. Its publication was anticlimactic. Fortunately, it was followed by the appearance of The Wanderer, which is more true to form and a more befitting legacy.


Gibran finalized the manuscript of The Wanderer: His Parables and His Sayings during the last three weeks of his life. The original manuscript, however, is not extant; after she edited the manuscript, and once the book appeared in print in 1932, Barbara Young destroyed it. The Wanderer is primarily a book of fables, tales told by the itinerant traveler whom a man chances to meet and invite to his home. The guest regales his host and family with edifying stories with various morals. Some of these stories serve as social commentaries as well. Among the fiftytwo parables and poems, for instance, in “The Lightning Flash,” a Christian bishop is asked by a non-Christian whether there is salvation for her from hellfire. The bishop replies that only those baptized in water and the spirit will be saved. Then a thunderbolt strikes the cathedral, igniting a fire. The woman is saved by the men of the city, but the bishop is consumed by the fire. This fabulous fable turns on the irony of the priest telling the woman that she is destined for hellfire, when he himself is the one ultimately engulfed by fire; of she being saved and he, not. The salvation of dogma is the antithesis of real salvation. In “The Prophet and the Child,” the prophet “Sharia” appears, with Gibran again drawing on the term for the Islamic code of law. In “The King,” the author speaks of the “kingdom of Sខ adik” (p. 466)—an Islamic term for “righteous”


As a complete work, The Earth Gods, published in 1931, brings Gibran’s literary work to a conclusion, as it appeared shortly prior to his death in same year. Illustrated with several exquisitely executed drawings by Gibran himself, twenty-eight manuscript pages of the book (which correspond to pages 1 to 27, or two-thirds of the published book) are archived in Princeton Library’s Shehadi Collection. The Earth Gods is a free-verse triologue among three earth-born Titans, in what may be considered a meditation on love. At one point, the Second God discloses the open “secret” that is at the heart of Gibran’s consistent message: “Yea, in your own soul your Redeemer lies asleep, / And in sleep sees what your waking eye


KAHLIL GIBRAN and name of Ja’far al-Sádiq (d.765 C.E.), universally revered as a mystic in both Sunní and Shí’a Islam, and regarded as the “Sixth Imám” by all Shí’a Muslims. In “The Three Gifts,” Gibran writes of his birthplace, “Becharre” (p. 469), and in “The Quest,” two ancient philosophers meet on a mountain slope of Lebanon much like the one near Gibran’s childhood home. There is much personification throughout the stories, such as in “Garments” (where Beauty and Ugliness converse), or “The Eagle and the Skylark,” in which a talking turtle enters into the conversation between the two birds. There are talking oysters, frogs, dogs, trees, sparrows, grass, and even a speaking shadow. Like the title of the book’s final fable, “The Other Wanderer,” the book may be thought of as a desultory disquisition on the mysteries of life and death, in which the reader is left to divine the wisdom of each brief tale.

more perfectly illustrated than in “Khalil the Heretic”—one of the four short stories of Spirits Rebellious (although only three of the stories from the Arabic appear in Anthony Ferris’ translation (the other two being “Madame Rose Hanie” and “The Cry of the Graves,” excluding “The Bridal Bed”). Speaking transparently as the character Khalil in this story, Gibran fictionalizes himself as a young peasant man who challenges the avaricious prince, Sheik Abbas, and the corrupt Maronite church. In part 3, Khalil introduces himself by name. He tells the story of how he had dwelled for a time in a monastery, where the monks addressed him as “Brother Mobarak”— yet they never treated Khalil as a “brother.” They dined on sumptuous foods and drank the finest wine, while Khalil subsisted on dry vegetables and water, and they slumbered in soft beds while the young man slept on a stone slab in a dank and dismal room by the shed. One day, Khalil recounts, he stood bravely before the monks who gathered in the garden and criticized them for corrupting the teachings of Christ by segregating themselves from the people and enjoying the fruits of others’ labor in an unholy parasitism. Jesus had sent these corrupt monks as lambs among wolves, Khalil says— that although they feign virtue, their hearts are full of lust; they pretend to abhor earthly things, but their hearts are swollen with greed. For his words, Khalil was branded a heretic, and he was scourged and cast into a dark cell for forty days and nights. In part 5, Kahlil the Heretic describes the way that, in Lebanon, the noble and the priest collude to exploit the farmer who has worked the land and reaped the harvest to protect himself from the sword of the ruler and the curse of the priest. We learn that Sheik Abbas conspired with Father Elias to punish Khalil for having sought shelter at the house of Rachel, the widow of Samaan Ramy. In part 6, Khalil is arrested and brought to the Sheik’s home. In part 7, before a throng of onlookers, Khalil answers his accusers, Sheik Abbas and Father Elias, and tells them that the souls of the peasants are in the grip of the priests, and their bodies are in the jaws of the rulers. Winning over the villagers by force of argument and eloquence, Khalil then beseeches


Gibran’s early Arabic works may offer a key to better understanding Gibran’s salient themes in English. Gibran’s eight Arabic books are: Music (al-Músíqá, 1905), Nymphs of the Valley (‘Ará’is al-Murúj, 1906), Spirits Rebellious (al-Arwáhខ alMutamarrida, 1908), The Broken Wings (al’Ajnihខ a al-Mutakassirah, 1912), A Tear and a Smile (Dam’a wa Ibtisáma, 1914), The Procession (al-Mawákib, 1919), and two collections of previously published work, The Storm (al’Awásif, 1920), Marvels and Masterpieces (alBadá’i’ wa’l-Tará’if, 1923), and Heads of Grain (al-Sanábil, 1929), (Music scarcely qualifies as a book, however, since it is only eleven pages long.) To express his ideas in Arabic, Gibran first used the short narrative, but over time, he employed the literary devices of parable, aphorism, allegory, and epigram—all of which became the distinctive stylistic hallmarks of his English works. In a 1908 letter to his cousin Nakhli, Gibran, wrote: “I know that the principles upon which I base my writings, are echoes of the spirit of the great majority of the people of the world” (quoted in Bushrui and Jenkins, p. 87). Nowhere is this


KAHLIL GIBRAN Liberty, and, in his prayer, he calls “Liberty” (p. 687) the “Daughter of Athens,” the “Sister of Rome,” the “companion of Moses,” the “beloved of Muhammad,” and the “Bride of Jesus” (p. 688).

ary pieces typically represent a single arresting image. Gibran is also incapable of ironic detachment, or even rational analysis. Gibran’s paintings and stories are dreamlike and ethereal. Whether a painting, a prose poem, or an illustrated story, Gibran’s art touches the heart at a prerational level. As in his painting, Gibran in his writing uses a vivid but essentially static image, but he does not explicate this link of emotion and experience; his work is impressionistic.

The story has a happy ending. We learn that a half a century later, the Lebanese people had awakened. In the future, fifty years later, a traveler, on his way to the Holy Cedars of Lebanon, is struck by contented villagers in homes surrounded by fertile fields and blooming orchards. Sheik Abbas’ mansion has since fallen to rubble. As for Khalil, his life’s history has been indelibly written by God with glittering letters upon the pages of the people’s hearts. While Nymphs of the Valley, Spirits Rebellious, and Broken Wings are all set in Lebanon, they set the stage for Gibran’s English works. The advent of The Madman in 1918 marked Gibran’s transition to, and adoption of, English as a universal language for literary purposes. Lebanon recedes from the foreground and becomes a background, while remaining the bedrock of Gibran’s basic orientation.

While one may appreciate the extraordinary force of Gibran’s moral seriousness as related to various aspects of life, says Walbridge, the reader should not expect from Gibran prescriptions for living, reforms for reordering society, reasoned ethics, rational theology, conceptual depth, nor a coherent philosophy. Gibran tends to express his moral and spiritual views in terms of dichotomies. He romanticizes the country and demonizes cities. Society and religion, for Gibran, are systems of oppression, whereas nature and love are what benefit humanity most. (Other scholars have commented on Gibran’s persistent dualisms as well, such as life and death, good and evil, love and hatred.) Gibran’s views do not represent practical teachings; as Walbridge points out, we cannot desert our cities to live as hermits at the edge of the Qadisha Gorge nor can we all escape to live as couples in idyllic cottages overlooking Beirut in total abandonment of society.

In his early Arabic works, Gibran may be described as a social reformer, in a visionary sort of way. In his English works, Gibran is more of a spiritual guide, offering counsels for edification and personal transformation. But despite his strengths in these respects, Gibran had serious limitations that must be acknowledged as well. John Walbridge, an authority on Gibran and translator of Gibran’s The Storm (1998) and The Beloved (1998) from the original Arabic, has framed some of the most persuasive critical analysis of Gibran’s shortcomings. Walbridge notes that Gibran is not adept at narrative and that “his narrative harp has only a few strings” (2001, online) As a writer, says Walbridge, Gibran lacks the skills of subtle characterization or complex plots. Everything Gibran says is deadly serious. There is never a trace of humor or irony in his work (nor in his art), and thus he has a significant limitation on his range of expression. Walbridge sees Gibran’s English prose as pretentious, his ideas as excessively mystical or just trite; Gibran’s aesthetic is Arabic, not American. Like one of his paintings, each of Gibran’s liter-

What, then, are Gibran’s contributions in the final analysis? In the Arab world, Gibran’s influence was as profound as it was pervasive. What came to be known as “Gibranian style” was marked, among other elements, by the electric cadence of his rhythms, in the drumbeat of his incantations and repetitions; by the charm of his new poetic style; in his inventive and selective choice of words, in brave abandon of arid Arabic poetic diction; through the evocative power of words with emotional immediacy; by rhetorical reliance on “value words” such as beauty, love, power, and justice; through structural use of biblical images that inform and sustain his narratives; and by dint of soul-deep symbolism—that is, the cage (symbol of oppression), the forest (symbol of sanctuary, freedom, renewal, and immortality), the storm or tempest (symbol of destruction and


KAHLIL GIBRAN regeneration), the mist (symbol of mystery and eternity, or that which obscures), the child (symbol of perceptiveness and equilibrium), the river (symbol of the course of human life), the sea (symbol of the great spirit or the greater self), the bird (symbol of the soul’s search for the divine), the mirror (symbol of contemplation), the night (symbol of soporific ignorance), and the dawn (symbol spiritual awakening). These carry over into Gibran’s work in English, which is stylistically marked by a lyrical impulse, by rebellion against literary norms and established forms, and by impressionistic imagery with evocative power to effect emotional elevation. Gibran’s ideological leitmotifs include—to name some of the more obvious themes—the veneration of love, a pantheistic quest for the mysterious in nature, the rejection of religious and political corruption, a passion for freedom, and a belief in human brotherhood.

American it may or may not be. If a work such as The Prophet has entered the canon of “world literature,” then surely its author ought to be viewed as belonging to the American literary hall of fame as well. Beyond the question of whether The Prophet is an American classic, however, or whether Kahlil Gibran ought to be recognized, at long last, as an American writer worthy of note, there is the question of Gibran’s significance for the twentyfirst century. Those who promote the idea of his importance today do so not for what he was but for what he represents; his importance is in his message of reconciliation, of peace, of brotherhood. Gibran has iconic value in the way he represents the embrace of East and West. It is Gibran’s greater self, as it were, that really matters—not the person, but the paradigm. In a speech in December 1995 to celebrate the one hundredth anniversary of Gibran’s arrival in America, Suheil Bushrui spoke of the importance of Gibran’s work and ideas for our time, and he pointed out the dual recognition that Gibran has received in the academic and public spheres in the United States—as represented by the University of Maryland’s creation of the Kahlil Gibran chair and the dedication of the Kahlil Gibran Memorial Garden in Washington, D.C. Beyond this national recognition, said Bushrui, Gibran also occupies a distinctive position among the world’s great writers because of the universal appeal that The Prophet has enjoyed internationally. Gibran’s “stature and importance increase as time passes,” said Bushrui, because “his message remains ѧ potent and as meaningful today” (“Kahlil Gibran of America,” 1996, online). With “its emphasis on the healing process, the universal, the natural, the eternal, the timeless,” he continued, Gibran’s work “represents a powerful affirmation of faith in the human spirit.” His name, says Bushrui, “perhaps more than that of any other modern writer, is synonymous with peace, spiritual values and international understanding.” Gibran’s work imbues purely secular concerns with sacred significance, by enlarging individual identity with the “greater self” of the world at large. Indeed,


On July 9, 2009, the International Astronomical Union officially approved the naming of a crater, one hundred kilometers in diameter, on the planet Mercury after Kahlil Gibran, thanks to the efforts of Nelly Mouawad, a postdoctoral researcher in the astronomy department at the University of Maryland, in association with the university’s director of the Kahlil Gibran Chair for Values and Peace, Suheil Bushrui. Even though a crater on Mercury has now been named after Gibran, his identity as a significant American writer is still in question. Where is Gibran’s “crater” in the American literary critical landscape? Why is Gibran still largely “off the map” in terms of critical acclaim? Whether or not The Prophet is an American classic, and whether Gibran himself will be accepted by critics as an American writer of note, Gibran’s legacy transcends that category itself. The Prophet, after all, falls outside conventional frames of reference. It resists categorization. Yet, to be a great American author is, perhaps, to write a work of universal quality, of enduring international appeal, irrespective of how qualitatively


KAHLIL GIBRAN perhaps the most important element in Gibran’s work for our own time is that it conveys the quintessential spiritual unity of Islam and Christianity and of all religions. In his parable “War and the Small Nations” (which is immediately preceded by “The Greater Self” in The Forerunner), Gibran’s social message is embodied in the words of a mother sheep to her lamb (representing the “small nations”), as two eagles (powerful, hegemonic nations), each intent on devouring the lamb, were fighting in the sky overhead: “Pray, my little one, pray in your heart that God may make peace between your winged brothers” (p. 67).

Universities, such as Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, do not teach him in their departments of English or Comparative Literature, and it is only recently that he came to be taught, but in a non-Ivy League University, that of Maryland, by Professor Suhayl Bushrui. The Prophet has passed the test of time as an enduring work. Indeed, ten million readers cannot be entirely wrong. Yet, The Prophet has not passed the threshold of the canon of American literature. (p. 4)

Although The Prophet has entered the canon of world literature, Gibran does not appear in anthologies of American literature, even in collections known for cultural diversity such as the prestigious The Heath Anthology of American Literature (where there is not a single line from Gibran). This critical indifference to the author of America’s bestselling book (apart from the Bible) goes far in explaining why The Prophet has been so marginalized in American literary history. That indifference is hardly disinterest; rather, it is a studied disinheritance of something distinctively unique in the American literary heritage, and has the paradoxical effect of raising serious questions about the critical recognition of greatness in the face of so overwhelming an audience response. It therefore makes perfect sense that Gibran’s masterpiece The Prophet ought, at long last, to be included in the American canon. The Prophet is not without honor save in its own country. Perhaps it’s time for that to change.

In the province of universal imagination, Gibran’s “greater self” of the individual is transposed to the greater, collective identity not only of nature, but of society itself. Throughout his works (both English and Arabic), Gibran draws from a palette of natural, spatial, and situational metaphors to convey the notion of an interior, hidden, expansive, liberated, powerful, and spiritual “self”—one that has compassion for others. This “greater self” is not ontologically swallowed up by one vast, undifferentiated Oversoul in the Emersonian sense. Rather, the “greater self” is greater by virtue of its identity with—not its identity as—the universe of other souls. Thus Gibran’s “greater self”—rather than referring to some amorphous, atavistic “Oversoul”—is the socially “wider self,” progressively selfactualized in part-to-whole harmony with the human family, or “the world.” Gibran’s call for reconciliation, for the realization of a “greater self,” addressed not only the need for Christian-Muslim understanding that seems so relevant today; it acknowledged the need for religious tolerance and understanding that would encompass all religions and all peoples. And, as the scholar Irfan Shahid points out, Gibran’s poetry and ideas have stood the test of time, the best of all critics. Nonetheless:

Selected Bibliography WORKS OF KAHLIL GIBRAN ENGLISH WORKS The Madman: His Parables and Poems. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1918. The Forerunner: His Parables and Poems. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1920. The Prophet. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1923. Reprint. Annotated, edited, and with an introduction by Suheil Bushrui. Oxford and Boston: Oneworld Publications, 1995.

Although his Prophet has sold, according to one estimate, ten million copies, thus outselling all American poets from Whitman to Eliot, the American literary establishment has not given him the recognition he deserves, and has not admitted him to the American literary canon. The Ivy League



Sand and Foam: A Book of Aphorisms. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1926.

Kahlil Gibran: A Self-Portrait. Translated by Anthony R. Ferris. New York: Citadel Press, 1959; London: Heinemann, 1960. The Letters of Kahlil Gibran and Mary Haskell. Edited by Annie Salem Otto. Houston: Otto, 1970. Beloved Prophet: The Love Letters of Kahlil Gibran and Mary Haskell and Her Private Journal. Edited by Virginia Hilu. New York: Knopf, 1972. Unpublished Gibran Letters to Ameen Rihani. Edited and translated by Suheil Bushrui and Salma Kuzbari. Beirut: Rihani House for the World Lebanese Cultural Union, 1972. Blue Flame: The Love Letters of Kahlil Gibran to May Ziadah. Edited and translated by Suheil Bushrui and Salma Kuzbari. Harlow, U.K.: Longman, 1983. Revised as Gibran: Love Letters: The Love Letters of Kahlil Gibran to May Ziadah. Oxford: Oneworld, 1995. “Gibran’s Unpublished Letters to Archbishop Antonious Bashir.” Translated by George N. El-Hage. Journal of Arabic Literature 36, no. 2:172–182 (2005).

Jesus, the Son of Man: His Words and His Deeds. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1928. The Earth Gods. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1931. The Wanderer: His Parables and His Sayings. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1932. The Garden of the Prophet. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1933. (Published posthumously in a volume completed by Barbara Young. Whether this work is authentically Gibran’s depends on how much of it was completed by Barbara Young herself, as it is really the work of two authors.)






Al-Músiqá. New York: Al-Mohajer, 1905. ‘Ará’is al-Murúj. New York: Al-Mohajer, 1906. Translated by H. M. Nahmad as Nymphs of the Valley. New York: Knopf, 1948; London: Heinemann, 1948; and by Juan R. I. Cole as Spirit Brides. Santa Cruz, Calif.: White Cloud Press, 1993. al-Arwáh al-Mutamarrida. New York: al-Mohajer, 1908. Translated by H. M. Nahmad as Spirits Rebellious. New York: Knopf, 1948; London: Heinemann, 1948. Also translated by Anthony Rizcallah Ferris as Spirits Rebellious. New York: Philosophical Library, 1947. al-Ajniha al-Mutakassira. New York: Mir’át al-Gharb, 1912. Translated by Anthony R. Ferris as The Broken Wings. New York: Citadel Press, 1957; London: Heinemann, 1966. Also translated by Juan R. I. Cole. Ashland, Ore: White Cloud Press, 1998. Dam’a wa Ibtisáma. New York: Atlantic, 1914. Translated by H. M. Nahmad as A Tear and a Smile. New York: Knopf, 1950; London: Heinemann, 1950. al-Mawákib. New York: Mir’át al-Gharb, 1919. Translated by M. F. Kheirallah as The Procession. New York: ArabAmerican Press, 1947. al-’Awásif. Cairo: al-Hilál, 1920. Translated by John Walbridge as The Storm: Stories and Prose Poems. Santa Cruz, Calif.: White Cloud Press, 1993. Iram, Dhát al-’Imád. Published posthumously in al-Majmú’a al-Kámila li-Mu’allifát Jubrán Khalil Jubrán; ed. Míkhá’íl Nu’aymí. 2 vols.; Beirut: Dár al-Sខ ádir, 1964. (Standard Arabic edition of Gibran’s collected Arabic publications and translations of Gibran’s English works by Antខúniyús Bashír and ‘Abd al-Latខíf Sharára. Often reprinted.). Translated by A. R. Ferris as “Iram, City of Lofty Pillars” in Spiritual Sayings. New York: Philosophical Library, 1947. al-Badá’i’ wa’l-Tará’if . Cairo: Yúsuf Bustání, 1923. Kalimát Jubrán. Cairo: Yúsuf Bustání, 1927. Translated by A. R. Ferris as Spiritual Sayings. New York: Citadel Press, 1962. al-Sanábil (Heads of Grain; New York: al-Sá’ihខ , 1929.




Twenty Drawings. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1919. Gibran’s manuscripts, notebooks, and papers pertaining to The Prophet; The Madman: His Parables and Poems; The Forerunner: His Parables and Poems; and The Earth Gods are held in the William H. Shehadi Collection of Kahlil Gibran (1883–1931), Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University Library, Princeton, N.J.

COLLECTED WORKS The Essential Gibran. Edited and translated by Suheil Bushrui. Oxford: Oneworld, 2007. The Collected Works, With Eighty-four Illustrations by the Author. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2007. (This is the edition cited throughout this essay.) The Complete Works of Khalil Gibran. Delhi: Indiana Publishing House, 2007. The Treasured Writings of Kahlil Gibran. Edited by Martin L. Wolf, Anthony R. Ferris, and Andrew Deb Sherfan. Edison, N.J.: Castle Books, 2005.

BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL STUDIES Bush, George H. W. “Remarks at the Dedication Ceremony for the Khalil Gibran Memorial Garden, May 24, 1991” ( h t t p : / / b u l k . r e s o u r c e . o rg / g p o . g o v / p a p e r s / 1 9 9 1 / 1991_vol1_556.pdf). Bushrui, Suheil. Kahlil Gibran of Lebanon. Gerrards Cross, U.K.: Colin Smythe, 1987. ———. “Kahlil Gibran of America.” Arab American Dialogue 7, no. 3:1–10 (January-February 1996).


KAHLIL GIBRAN ———. “‘A Strange Little Book.’” Saudi Aramco World, March-April 1983, pp. 8–9. (Online at http://www. htm) Nassar, Eugene Paul. “Cultural Discontinuity in the Works of Kahlil Gibran.” MELUS 7, no. 2:21–36 (summer 1980). Reprinted in his Essays Critical and Metacritical. Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1983. Pierce, Patricia Jobe. “Gibran, Kahlil.” In American National Biography. Edited by John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999. “The Prophet’s Profits.” Time, 86, no. 7 (August 13, 1965). Salma, Khadra Jayyusi. “Gibran Khalil Gibran (1883– 1931).” In Trends and Movements in Modern Arabic Poetry. Vol. 1. Edited by Khadra Jayyusi Salma and Christopher Tingley. Leiden: Brill, 1977. Pp. 91–107. Shahíd, Irfan. “Gibran and the American Literary Canon: The Problem of The Prophet.” In Tradition, Modernity, and Postmodernity in Arabic Literature: Essays in Honor of Professor Issa J. Boullata. Edited by Issa J. Boullata, Kamal Abdel-Malek, and Wael B. Hallaq. Leiden: Brill, 2000. Pp. 321–334. Shahid, Irfan. “Gibran Kahlil Gibran Between Two Millennia.” Farhat J. Ziadeh Distinguished Lecture in Arab and Islamic Studies, Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilization, University of Washington, Seattle, April 30, 2002. (Online at http://depts.washington. edu/nelc/ziadehseries.html) Shehadi, William. Kahlil Gibran, a Prophet in the Making: Book Based on Manuscript Pages of “The Madman,” “The Forerunner,” “The Prophet,” and “The Earth Gods.” Beirut: American University of Beirut, 1991. Summers, D. S. “The Source of ‘Ask Not.’” American Scholar 74, no. 2:142–143 (spring 2005). Walbridge, John. “Gibran: His Aesthetic and his Moral Universe.” al-Hikmat (Lahore) 21:47–66 (2001). (Online at˜jrcole/gibran/papers/ gibwal1.htm) ———. “Kahlil Gibran.” In Twentieth-Century Arab Writers. Edited by Majd Yaser al-Mallah and Coeli Fitzpatrick. Dictionary of Literary Biography, vol. 346. Detroit: Gale Cengage Learning, 2009. Waterfield, Robin. Prophet: The Life and Times of Kahlil Gibran. New York: St. Martin’s, 1998. Wild, Stefan. “Friedrich Nietzsche and Gibran Kahlil Gibran.” Abhath 22:47–58 (1969). Young, Barbara. This Man from Lebanon. New York: Knopf, 1945.

———. “Introduction.” In The First International Conference on Kahlil Gibran: The Poet of the Culture of Peace, December 9–12, 1999. Bethseda, Md.: University of Maryland Press, 1999. P. 7. (Online at http://www. Bushrui, Suheil, and Joe Jenkins. Kahlil Gibran, Man and Poet: A New Biography. Oxford: Oneworld, 1998. Gibran, Jean. “The Symbolic Quest of Kahlil Gibran: The Arab as Artist in America.” In Crossing the Waters: Arabic-Speaking Immigrants to the United States Before 1940. Edited by Eric J. Hooglund. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1987. Pp. 161–171. Gibran, Jean, and Kahlil Gibran. Kahlil Gibran: His Life and World. 1974. Rev. ed. Northampton, Mass.: Interlink, 1998. Hanna, Suhail ibn-Salim. “Gibran and Whitman: Their Literary Dialogue.” Literature East and West 12: 174–198 (1968). Hawi, Khalil S. Kahlil Gibran: His Background, Character, and Works. Beirut: Arab Institute for Research and Publishing, 1972. (First published in the Oriental Series of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at the American University of Beirut in 1963.) Irwin, Robert. “I Am a False Alarm.” London Review of Books, September 3, 1998, p. 17. (Review of Kahlil Gibran: Man and Poet, by Suheil Bushrui and Joe Jenkins, and Prophet: The Life and Times of Kahlil Gibran, by Robin Waterfield.) Karam, Antoine G. “Gibran’s Concept of Modernity.” In Tradition and Modernity in Arabic Literature. Edited by Issa J. Boullata and Terri DeYoung. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1997. Pp. 29–42. Knopf, Alfred A. “Random Recollections of a Publisher.” Massachusetts Historical Society Boston Proceedings 73: 92–103 (1961). Kusumastuty, M. Imelda. “The Mode of Expression and Themes of Kahlil Gibran’s Aphorism in The Prophet.” Phenomena: A Journal of Language and Literature 8, no. 2:8–15 (October 2004). Majdoubeh, Ahmad Y. “Gibran’s The Procession in the Transcendentalist Context.” Arabica 49, no. 4:477–493 (2002). Naimy, Mikhail. Kahlil Gibran: A Biography. New York: Philosophical Library, 1950. ———. Kahlil Gibran: His Life and His Works. Beirut: Khayyat, 1964. ———. “The Mind and Thought of Khalil Gibran.” Journal of Arabic Literature 5, no. 1:55–71 (1974).



Pegge Bochynski BEGINNING HER PROFESSIONAL writing career as a novelist, Anne Lamott has become better known as a memoirist whose Christian faith has transformed her life and continues to inform her work. Often autobiographical in nature, her fiction and nonfiction reflect her personal struggles with alcoholism, substance abuse, low self-esteem, aging, and loss. Most of her characters cope with similar issues, and Lamott has acknowledged that the people in her novels possess characteristics that mirror her own psychological and emotional history. Although the flaws of human nature are in full display in her novels and memoirs, the darkness in her work is tempered by her sharp wit, searing emotional honesty, and, in her later work, a quirky but devout faith. Tracing her journey from agnostic to bornagain Christian, Lamott’s three spiritual memoirs, arguably her most popular works, offer insight into how her Christian belief has helped her overcome substance abuse, gradually embrace self-acceptance, and build a spiritual framework for personal growth and transformation. She speaks publicly about her faith, but she does not conform to the stereotypical profile of a fundamentalist or evangelical Christian. Although she makes it plain that she is an ardent follower of Jesus, she has stirred controversy among conservative Christian groups because of her advocacy of feminism, abortion rights, gay rights, and euthanasia. In fact her unorthodox opinions set forth in her often profanity-laced work have so angered some traditional believers that her books have disappeared from the shelves of mainstream Christian bookstores.

tional household. Her father, Kenneth Lamott, the son of Presbyterian missionaries, grew up in Japan and scorned religion, especially Christianity. He was also an author and wrote four novels, as well as articles for the New Yorker and other publications. Her mother, Dorothy Nora Wyles Lamott, nicknamed Nikki, was born in Liverpool, England. She eventually divorced Kenneth, earned a law degree, and moved to Hawaii, where she founded the first women’s law firm in the state. Lamott also has an older brother, John, and a younger brother, Steve. The family lived in Tiburon, California, where the children came of age during the 1960s. The Lamotts embraced the counterculture of the time, and Anne writes about her parents’ wild parties where drugs and alcohol were in plentiful supply and extramarital affairs were commonplace. Her permissive parents tolerated their children’s experimentation with drugs and alcohol. Lamott’s younger brother Steve had his first drink when he was ten, and Lamott first smoked marijuana when she was thirteen. In contrast to her free-spirited family life, Lamott found structure in school and discipline in sports. A bright student, she skipped fourth grade. She was a gifted poet, winning several state poetry prizes for her work. She was also athletic and excelled at tennis, becoming one of California’s top twenty teenaged singles players. Her achievements did not compensate for her low self-esteem, and she was sensitive about her appearance, especially her “weird Albert Einstein crazy hair.” Her parents’ deteriorating marriage added to her insecurity. Although she admired and loved her father, her relationship with her emotionally distant mother was difficult. To compensate for her mother’s lack of affection, she sought comfort in the well-adjusted house-


Born in San Francisco, California, on April 10, 1954, Anne Lamott was raised in an unconven-


ANNE LAMOTT holds of her friends whose mothers were more loving. In 1972 when she was seventeen, Lamott attended Goucher College in Maryland on a tennis scholarship. She wrote for the school paper and studied philosophy, English, and religion. Although her parents were atheists, Lamott had secretly prayed as a child but was not sure to whom or what she was praying. When she was in college, she read Søren Kierkegaard’s commentary on the Old Testament story of Abraham’s near sacrifice of Isaac presented in his influential 1843 discourse on faith, Fear and Trembling. Kierkegaard’s interpretation of the story moved Lamott a step closer to belief in God. She writes in her 1999 spiritual memoir, Traveling Mercies:

“Well, it’s really coming along now” (p. xxiii). Her father was supportive of her ambition and advised her to approach the craft with discipline. “Do it every day for a while,” he told her. “Do it as you would do scales on the piano. Do it by prearrangement with yourself. Do it as a debt of honor. And make a commitment to finishing things” (Lamott, Bird by Bird, p. xxii). Lamott followed his advice and practiced her art with passion and commitment. Strongly autobiographical, her material is derived from her inner psychological and emotional battles, the picturesque surroundings of Marin County, and her quirky friends and family. A notable example is her first novel, Hard Laughter (1980), written when she was just twenty-three. After her father was diagnosed with brain cancer, she produced a series of fictionalized vignettes that paralleled her family’s experiences as they coped with Kenneth’s diagnosis and treatment. She sent five of the vignettes to her father’s agent, who in turn submitted them to various publishers. These “self-contained short stories” became the nucleus of Hard Laughter. Lamott’s thinly disguised fictionalized treatment of her family’s heartbreaking situation established themes found in her later works, including loss of a loved one and the loneliness and grief that result, as well as the triumph of love in the midst of suffering and pain. Hard Laughter tells the story of Wallace, an author and divorced father of three nearly adult children who is diagnosed with a brain tumor. Narrated by Wallace’s daughter, Jennifer, a writer and part-time housecleaner, the novel follows the sister and two brothers, Ben and Randy, as they and their father deal with Wallace’s terminal illness. The background of the dysfunctional family resembles Lamott’s real-life family history. Like Kenneth, Wallace is the son of Presbyterian missionaries and grew up in Tokyo. Jennifer’s absent mother was born in Liverpool and, after divorcing her father, establishes a small law firm in Honolulu. With wry humor, Jennifer, Lamott’s alter ego, describes herself as set apart from the rest of the family by her physical appearance: “I did not look quite human until I grew hair at two years old, and even then more closely resembled an albino rhesus monkey with an Afro. I was sort

In the interior silence that followed my understanding of this scene, I held my breath for as long as I could, sitting there under the fluorescent lights— and then I crossed over. I don’t know how else to put it or how and why I actively made, if not exactly a leap of faith, a lurch of faith. ѧ I left class believing—accepting—that there was a God. I did not understand how this could have happened. It made no sense. It made no sense that what brought me to this conviction was the story of a God who would ask his beloved Abraham to sacrifice the child he loved more than life itself. ѧ I felt changed, and a little crazy. (pp. 28–29)


After dropping out of Goucher in 1973, Lamott moved back to California, settled in Bolinas, and began writing full-time. To support herself, she worked as a clerk-typist, cleaned houses, and taught tennis. She also held freelance jobs for Woman Sports, Mademoiselle, and California Magazine. Her dream was to become an established writer, and although her father was a successful author, Lamott had trouble launching her career. In the introduction to her 1994 best seller, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, she tells an anecdote about how every few months she would send the same short story, called “Arnold,” to Elizabeth McKee, her father’s agent in New York City. McKee would return it with an encouraging but noncommittal note:


ANNE LAMOTT of comically cute, and was teased about my hair by older kids until my early teens” (Hard Laughter, pp. 1–2). Jennifer and her family live separate lives, until Wallace’s malady brings them together. Jennifer notes, “All of us are better friends with one another since the recent diagnosis of my father’s brain tumor, which is one of the possibilities of crisis” (p. 2). Deepening love for one another is only one consequence of the calamity the family faces. Another is the pall of unreality that is cast over the routine events of everyday life, giving fresh significance to memories that formerly seemed trivial: “Just the other day we were three young children who took baths together. Just the other day my parents were young and healthy, and Wallace didn’t have a brain tumor, and now at the age of fifty-five, with three semi-grown-up children, he does. It’s as simple and mysterious as that” (p. 4). Lamott writes with humor, honesty, immediacy, and desperate hope as she portrays Wallace and his children adjusting to the dire diagnosis, dealing with the surgery and its aftermath, and planning for an uncertain future—which includes the possibility of administering a lethal drug overdose to Wallace should he request it. At this point in her life, Lamott’s nascent faith was not full blown; therefore spiritual concerns do not play a central role in the novel. However, when a loved one is facing death, existential questions inevitably arise. As Jennifer sits on a patio overlooking the ocean at sunset, drinking a beer with her best friend, Kathleen, she asks an age-old question:

When the call finally comes and the doctor confirms that Wallace’s hiccups are nothing more than an unpleasant side effect of radiation treatments, the family’s relief is palpable. Jennifer describes the emotional roller coaster families experience throughout a beloved member’s critical illness: “And once again in the course of a minute, our lives had changed dramatically and not changed, up and down and up and down and up” (p. 289). Although the novel ends on a hopeful note, it is clear that Wallace will die from his illness, just as Kenneth Lamott did. Before he passed away in August 1979, Lamott’s father was able to read the first draft of her novel. Lamott told a Publishers Weekly interviewer that “it was a great relief to him that I had my foot in the door of the publishing world” (Review of Hard Laughter). Hard Laughter appeared in October 1980 to positive reviews. Despite the favorable critical reception, however, Lamott’s first novel was not a commercial success, and she lived in near poverty. After her father’s death, Lamott’s alcohol and drug abuse, from which she had suffered since she was a teenager, became worse. Yet she continued to write, and she published a second novel, Rosie, in 1983. The story focuses on the widow Elizabeth Ferguson and her daughter, the precocious Rosie of the title. The mother and daughter’s last name was taken from characters about whom Kenneth had written. The daughter of alcoholics, Elizabeth tries to assuage her grief after the unexpected death of her wealthy husband, Andrew, who was killed in a car accident. Financially well off, she lacks direction in her in life but finds purpose in raising her daughter. Rosie is ashamed of Elizabeth’s drinking and wishes for a more normal mother. When Rosie becomes friends with Sharon Thackery, who comes from the ideal family, Sharon’s house becomes a refuge for the troubled little girl.

“How can this be so beautiful, so fucking perfect, so obviously inspired by the gods—I mean, how could the same gods create all this perfection and then let Wallace get a brain tumor? ѧ” “You’re just about the only person I know who still believes,” said Kathleen. “I don’t have any answers for you, except I think your theory of the drunken stoned gods is as good as any.” (p. 215)

Elizabeth finds companionship in her friendship with Rae, a free-spirited weaver who constantly falls for the wrong men. Rae, recognizing that Elizabeth’s drinking is a symptom of depression, suggests they embark on a backpacking trip, which is the last thing the unathletic Elizabeth wants to do. Finally she surrenders to

Hard Laughter closes as Wallace, who is suffering from a prolonged case of the hiccups, anxiously awaits a telephone call from the doctor. He and his family hope to receive reassuring news that his uncomfortable condition is not indicative of a more serious underlying problem.


ANNE LAMOTT Rae’s badgering and agrees to go. The fastidious Elizabeth is miserable for most of the excursion until they run into James and Lank, two men who are hiking in the same area. James is an eccentric writer who wears mismatched clothes and smokes. As the four campers sit around the fire that evening, James and Elizabeth find that they have favorite books in common, including John Updike’s Rabbit, Run.

that she decided to do so because, after talking to victims of sexual abuse, she wanted to draw attention to the problem of child molestation. After Rosie’s admission that she has been abused, Elizabeth is appalled at both the situation and her own behavior. Realizing that her drinking is ruining her relationship with Rosie, she decides to confront her demons and, with James’s love and support, embraces sobriety.

James observes, “Updike’s the master. Sometimes, when I read him, I’m so in awe that I think I’ll never write again, that there’s no point in my trying to compete. But sometimes I read him because I want to cringe with admiration, and somehow it gets me back to the typewriter” (Rosie, p. 116). One of the hallmarks of Updike’s work is his strong sense of place. His novels capture the daily rhythms of the New England towns in which he lived, and Rabbit, Run is a primary example. Like Updike, Lamott, too, knows the power of place. In Rosie, and indeed in all her fiction and nonfiction, she offers concrete, detailed descriptions evocative of the people and locales around the Bay Area of San Francisco. As James and Elizabeth share their opinions on their favorite literature, they connect on a deep level that surprises Elizabeth. Although James is not her image of the ideal man, Elizabeth finds him compelling, and they begin a serious relationship. After a rocky start, James moves in with Elizabeth, and Rosie is delighted. Patient, compassionate, and caring, James becomes the anchor that the emotionally adrift Elizabeth and Rosie have needed since Andrew’s death. However, Elizabeth does not stop drinking, which leads to a major breakdown in communication between mother and daughter. One day when Rosie visits the Thackery house, Sharon’s father exposes himself to her. Understandably traumatized by the event, Rosie cannot bring herself to tell Elizabeth. Finally when she finds the courage to do so, she discovers Elizabeth drunk and unconscious on the couch. Rosie turns to Rae, who then informs Elizabeth about Thackery’s violation. Lamott has been asked the reason for including a pedophile among the cast of characters in Rosie. She said


Lamott no doubt drew on her own experience with substance abuse as the basis for her portrayal of the alcoholic Elizabeth, and Elizabeth’s eventual sobriety may have been equivalent to literary wish fulfillment on Lamott’s part. By the time she finished Rosie, Lamott was also suffering from bulimia along with her alcohol and drug addiction. She acknowledges that her drinking had so impaired her memory that she often called friends the day after a binge to help fill in the blanks of the night before. One particularly humiliating incident occurred during a fund-raiser when she was both intoxicated and high on drugs. She was in the middle of her presentation when she lost track of what she was saying and babbled incoherently. She says that it was then she knew she needed to stop drinking, but at the time she did not have the will to put down her glass for good. By the time she was working on her third book, her alcohol and drug addiction were having a decidedly deleterious effect on her writing. Her third novel, Joe Jones (1985), takes place in a rundown waterfront restaurant in the San Francisco Bay area. Lamott, who had worked in a similar eatery in Petaluma years earlier, builds the novel’s story around the lives of the patrons who frequent Jessie’s Café. At the age of seventynine, Jessie still comes to the restaurant every day with her mute friend, Georgia. Other characters include Louise, the motherly cook who is having an on-again, off-again affair with the absent bartender, Joe Jones. After Louise throws him out because of his philandering, Joe goes to Hawaii to visit his mother, but he still carries a torch for Louise. Jessie’s gay grandson, Willie (who is also the café’s pastry chef), is Louise’s friend and confidant, and Eva, a genteel biology


ANNE LAMOTT teacher who suffers from a terminal illness, becomes one of the café regulars after Louise helps her change a flat tire. The novel lacks a well-constructed plot; Lamott concentrates instead on the relationships between the characters and the particulars of their daily lives. Community is a recurrent theme in Lamott’s work, and the group that forms the nucleus of Jessie’s Café is a tightly knit bunch who treat each other more as family than friends. The love the characters have for one another often transcends their differences, including their religious beliefs or lack of them. For example, Jessie is a devout Christian and Louise is not. During the time Lamott was writing Joe Jones, she had begun to attend St. Andrew Presbyterian Church, a multiracial church in Marin City. One Sunday as she walked by, she was drawn in by the music and was welcomed by the congregation. The openness of the people attracted her, and she continued to attend services, even though she had no interest in Christian doctrine. Louise’s attraction to religious faith may reflect the appeal Christianity had for Lamott, but Louise, like her creator, could not wholly accept something as intellectually insubstantial as faith. Many believers strive to stave off doubt. Lamott, on the other hand, was a nominal doubter who struggled to stave off faith. The novel’s lack of a well-structured plot elicited many scathing critical reviews. Lamott admits it was her worst novel, describing it to Pamela Feinsilver of Publishers Weekly as being “just all over the place. I wasn’t in control of my life, and you can tell the writer is not in control of her material. It came out about a year before I got sober. My self-esteem was at an all-time low; I was totally broke; my life just felt like it was slipping away from me and I didn’t know how to stop it” (p. 30).

because she was bleeding heavily. As the bleeding finally stopped, she sensed a presence in the room with her. She remembers: I became aware of someone with me, hunkered down in the corner ѧ I knew beyond any doubt that it was Jesus. ѧ And I was appalled. I thought about my life and my brilliant hilarious progressive friends, I thought about what everyone would think of me if I became a Christian, and it seemed an utterly impossible thing that simply could not be allowed to happen. I turned to the wall and said out loud, “I would rather die.” (Traveling Mercies, p. 49)

The presence was so insistent that finally she surrendered to its persistence with characteristic irreverence: “Fuck it ѧ You can come in” (p. 50). The love and support of the parishioners at St. Andrew coupled with her conversion experience caused her turn her life around. In 1986, she entered a recovery program and stopped writing for six months so that she could get her life in order. All New People (1989) was the first novel she published after she achieved sobriety. Nanny Goodman, the book’s main character, echoes the alienation and stress that Lamott experienced during her troubled childhood. “I was a very tense little kid. I was Nanny in All New People. I don’t think children who grow up in healthy, welladjusted households get migraines at four years old,” she told Feinsilver in the interview for Publishers Weekly (p. 30). Narrated in the first person, All New People follows Nanny on a journey of self-discovery. Deeply unhappy but not knowing why, she visits a psychologist who uses hypnosis to help her revisit the past twenty years of her life. A sympathetic yet unsentimental portrait emerges of her eccentric family, which includes her father, Robbie, a writer who is always short of money; Marie, her saintly mother and a devout Christian; her brother, Casey, who becomes involved with drugs; her hard-drinking uncle, Ed, and his longsuffering wife, Peg; and Marie’s best friend, Natalie. Other friends and acquaintances include Nanny’s wayward best friend, Pru, who has an abortion when she’s thirteen, and Mady, whose well-to-do, straitlaced parents force her to break off her friendship with the unconventional Nanny.


Lamott’s battles with alcoholism, drug addiction, and bulimia brought her to a crisis point by the time she turned thirty in 1984. In 1984, she also had an abortion. Later that same week, she was in bed after a difficult night in which she had gotten very drunk but then “sobered up quickly”


ANNE LAMOTT The story explores the social changes taking place during 1960s, just as Nanny is coming of age. Lamott again sets her novel the Bay Area, where drugs are in plentiful supply and the hippie lifestyle is predominant. Nanny, an awkward, insecure eleven-year-old who is subject to migraines, is an outsider who desperately wants to belong. She becomes friends with Mady, but the friendship sours when Nanny’s grandmother, Bette, takes the girls to see the horror film Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? Bette thinks it is about dolls. The film so traumatizes Mady that her disapproving parents forbid her to play with Nanny again. After her relationship with Mady falls apart, Nanny befriends Pru, a girl from the wrong side of the tracks who initiates Nanny into the grown-up world of makeup, fashion, smoking, and drinking. Nanny’s friendship with Pru provides her with stability as her family life disintegrates. When her aunt, Peg, leaves her alcoholic uncle, Ed, he has a brief affair with Natalie, and fathers a child with her. Casey becomes more involved in San Francisco’s drug culture and is arrested for smoking marijuana. His eventual addiction alienates him from the rest of the family, and he leaves home and lives on the streets. The main part of the story ends with Nanny’s thirteenth birthday celebration. Ed and Peg are back together and have an uneasy but cordial relationship with Natalie, who has remarried and moved away, taking Ed’s child with her. In the last chapter, an epilogue of sorts, set twenty years later, Lamott attempts to tie up loose ends: Robbie is dead; Pru was murdered at the age of twenty-one; Casey is a divorced father with a nine-year-old son; Marie is active in volunteer work; and Nanny has been married and divorced. Although it is satisfying to know what happened in the lives of the characters, the leap in years leaves much unsaid. The last chapter seems irrelevant and somewhat disconnected to the rest of the story.

she became pregnant. The baby’s father, who was married, was insistent that she have an abortion. She chose to have the child, and she gave birth to a son, Sam, on August 29, 1989. Lamott had always drawn on her own life for literary material; after Sam’s arrival, she made a graceful leap from autobiographical fiction to memoir in her often-humorous account of her early experience as a single mother, Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son’s First Year, which appeared in 1993. Writing in diary form, she chronicles the familiar problems every new parent deals with, including colic, early morning feedings, and diaper rash, but her narrative goes beyond the duties of new motherhood to describe her conflicting emotions and sometimes out-of-control fears. In one same-day entry as she prepares for Sam’s three-week-old birthday party, she declares, “Sam is so beautiful and I feel such desperate love and protectiveness that my chest tightens with it” (Operating Instructions, p. 35). Then two paragraphs later, she reveals her annoyance when “the colic kicks in ѧ I end up frustrated and sad and angry. I have had some terrible visions lately, like of holding him by the ankle and whacking him against the wall, the way you ‘cure’ an octopus on the dock” (p. 36). The burden of responsibility for a vulnerable child, sleep deprivation, financial problems, and the lack of a supportive partner drain her psychologically and emotionally. Her faith, however, provides her with spiritual strength, and Sam’s endearing traits bring her a joy that she has never before experienced. She remarks, “Still, you know what Samuel means? It means ‘God has heard,’ like God heard me, heard my heart, and gave me the one thing that’s ever worked in my entire life, someone to love” (p. 176). Lamott often expresses regret that Sam will grow up never having a relationship with his father. Yet she is thankful for the community of family and friends who become Sam’s surrogate parents. Entries for the first seven months are devoted to the challenges she faces and to the people who support her emotionally and spiritually during and after her pregnancy: the members of St. Andrew Presbyterian Church; her younger brother, Steve; her childless longtime friend and


Not long after Lamott became sober, and in the same year that All New People was published,


ANNE LAMOTT Lamaze coach, Pammy; her mother, Nikki; and her mother’s twin sister, Pat. Entries for the last five months are punctuated by grief, however, when she learns that Pammy has terminal breast cancer. Stories of the debilitating chemotherapy treatments Pammy must endure take on a special poignancy when one realizes that Lamott stands at the juncture of the lives of two people she loves most—one who is just beginning his earthly existence and the other who is facing the end of hers. As Pammy’s terminal illness progresses, Lamott learns that she has to accept that there are no easy answers when one is faced with pain and suffering, but one can find meaning through faith. Operating Instructions marked a turning point in Lamott’s career as a writer; not only was it her first commercial success, but the diary form of the book showcased her emerging talent as a memoirist. In Operating Instructions, she also reveals her conversion to Christianity, which provides her with dimensions she explores more fully in later works. Questions such as “Who is Jesus?”; “What impact does a relationship with God have on one’s daily life and social interactions?”; “How does prayer function?”; “How does belief affect one’s political sensibilities?”; “How does one live out faith in today’s world?”; and “Why does God allow pain?” are issues that she addresses in her subsequent works with earthy humor, candor, and her own brand of idiosyncratic belief.

which was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.” (Bird by Bird, p. 19)

Her father’s advice to his son is far from the romantic notions many would-be writers have of the craft and the financial rewards they expect to glean from it. Lamott nips those notions in the bud as she provides a reality check and attempts to instill a sense of discipline in her students— the same discipline her father inculcated in her. She notes that good writing doesn’t just happen; “It is a matter of persistence and faith and hard work” (Bird by Bird, p. 7). When her students ask “But how do you do it?” she describes how the process works for her in a series of anecdotes, humorous stories, and practical advice. Chapters on short assignments—filling a space the size of a one-inch picture frame with words—allowing yourself to write “shitty first drafts” (p. 21) and conquering perfectionism (“the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people,” p. 28), are meant to make the process less intimidating for fledgling writers. She also offers insights into characterization, plot, dialogue, point of view, and the importance of asking someone to read drafts. Lamott advises her students that “plot grows out of character. ѧ So focus on character” (pp. 54–55), and she cites William Faulkner as an example of an author who creates such compelling characters that readers want to discover what his characters will do: the behavior of his characters dictates the storyline and reflects his unique viewpoint. Lamott notes that “all you can give us is what life is about from your point of view. You are not going to be able to give us the plans to the submarine. Life is not a submarine. There are no plans” (Bird by Bird, p. 55). Certainly Lamott’s own fiction is strongly character driven. The enjoyment she derives from getting into the nitty-gritty of her characters’ lives is apparent in the way she creates and explores their multifaceted behaviors. For example,


After becoming an established author, Lamott began to travel and teach writing workshops. She compiled the hard-won lessons she learned about writing in the 1994 volume Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. As the subtitle suggests, Bird by Bird is part writing manual and part memoir. Her father’s influence is apparent throughout the book, and Lamott tells of the particular incident that inspired the title: Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write,


ANNE LAMOTT Elizabeth’s genteel but destructive alcoholism; Rosie’s gutsy precociousness; Louise’s motherly concern; Nanny’s confusion and fear; Marie’s crazy Christianity; and the noble and reprehensible traits of other individuals who populate Lamott’s stories are memorable because of their resemblance to everyday life. Although critics have taken Lamott to task because of her weak plots, her stories are at their best when she creates multidimensional personalities.

honing her skills on the court, but even her talent isn’t enough to boost her self-image. Simone becomes pregnant, and Rosie is her only confidante. The pressure of the matches, the detachment of her mother and stepfather, Simone’s pregnancy, and her own struggle with teenage angst become too much for her, and she resorts to cheating at tennis. Based on the lines “You shall love your crooked neighbor / with your crooked heart” in the penultimate stanza of W. H. Auden’s poem “As I Walked Out One Evening,” the title of the novel throws Rosie’s crooked little heart into sharp relief. She believes she is successfully hiding her indiscretions until she is confronted by Luther, a creepy indigent who has an unusual eye for the game and who watches Rosie intently from the bleachers.

The most important insight Lamott has for her students and her readers is that one should tell the truth as one understands it, and Lamott herself is consistently lauded in reviews of her fiction and nonfiction—whether positive or negative—for her honesty, candor, and transparency. Her straightforwardness springs from what she calls the “moral point of view,” which encompasses one’s most passionate beliefs and interests. She notes that “you need to put yourself at their center, you and what you believe to be true or right. The core, ethical concepts in which you most passionately believe are the language in which you are writing” (Bird by Bird, p. 103). Lamott’s drive to communicate truth as she perceives it gives her own work the energy and integrity that has won her a loyal following.

Lamott says that she sought out the counsel of a mother and her teenage daughter in preparation for writing about Elizabeth and Rosie during this stage in their lives. Her portrayal of adolescent melancholy is emotionally and psychologically on target, as Rosie, moody and sullen, defies her mother. Elizabeth, meanwhile, finds herself playing out the role of her own mother when she demands of Rosie, “I want you to look at me when I’m talking,” and observes that “having a teenage daughter was one’s punishment for having been a teenage daughter” (Crooked Little Heart, p. 20). Lamott also refreshed her own memories of what is was like to be a juvenile tennis champion by attending many games. She provides detailed, energetic, play-by-play descriptions of some of Rosie’s matches, offering a vivid picture of the pressures of competition and the driving ambition of the players. Lamott’s focus is again on her characters and the minutia of their lives at the expense of a robust plot. Yet her sensitive treatment of the trials of adolescence, emerging sexuality, coming to terms with loss, the moral issues in competitive sports, and the value of friendship and love more than compensate for a vigorous storyline. Blue Shoe, published in 2002, is the first novel in which Lamott introduces an overtly religious main character. Although secondary characters such as Jessie in Joe Jones, Rae in Crooked Little Heart, and Marie in All New

Lamott’s love of favorite characters from her 1983 novel caused her to return to the story of Rosie, Elizabeth, James, Rae, and Lank in a 1997 sequel titled Crooked Little Heart. She told Malcolm Jones, Jr., in a Newsweek profile that “of all my characters, these were the closest to my heart. And of course, they are secretly facets of myself” (p. 78). Rosie, now a thirteen-year-old tennis champion, is grappling with the insecurities of adolescence as well as unresolved grief for her dead father. Although Elizabeth is happily married to James, she, like Rosie, has never come to terms with the death of her first husband, and she enters into a deep depression. James, however loving and caring, is preoccupied with his writing and is unable to pay full attention to the emotional wounds of his wife and stepdaughter. Rosie’s tennis partner, the voluptuous, boy-crazy Simone, only helps add to Rosie’s sense of awkwardness and her preoccupation with body image. Rosie compensates for her insecurities by


ANNE LAMOTT People were portrayed as Christians, Mattie Ryder is the first of Lamott’s protagonists who is a regular church attendee and who talks to God frequently. Mattie is newly divorced from her husband, Nicky, and therefore is a newly single mother to her young children, Ella and Harry. After her marriage breaks up, Mattie moves back into the dilapidated house in which she was raised; her mother, Isa, has moved to a retirement community. The house is infested with rats, and Mattie calls an exterminator. The company sends Daniel, who confesses that because it is his first day on the job and he doesn’t like to kill animals, he is not up to the task. Instead, Mattie asks him to chop wood and do other odds jobs. Mattie is reluctant to admit it, but she’s attracted to Daniel—even though Daniel is married and appears to be very much in love with his wife, Pauline (an unstable but beautiful woman), and Mattie herself is still sleeping with her exhusband. Daniel shares Mattie’s faith and agrees to go to her church. Eventually they are accompanied by Lewis, an elderly African American man who resides in the same retirement community as Isa and is a good friend to Mattie’s mother. Other characters include Mattie’s brother, Al, and his girlfriend, Katherine; Neil Grann, a close friend of Mattie’s parents; Neil’s daughter Abby; Neil’s grandson, Noah; and William, with whom she has a brief affair. One day Mattie notices a Volkswagen bus that she believes was owned by her father during the 1960s. She discovers that her father sold the bus to Neil, who then gave it to his daughter, Abby. The driver of the van who bought it from Neil after Abby totaled it tells Mattie that he found an odd collection of items in the glove box, which included a small blue plastic tennis shoe. He gives Mattie the items, and she carries the tiny shoe around with her like a talisman. Mattie and Al also discover other artifacts from their parents’ past in the attic of Mattie’s house, including letters from Neil to their father, Alfred. The brother and sister decide to track down Neil’s daughter, and they discover that she’s mentally ill and living in squalor in a ramshackle beach house. Abby’s son, Noah, works in a nearby town library. As Mattie and Al

dig into the Granns’ past, they discover surprising secrets that apply to their own family. Meanwhile, Isa’s mental state is slowly declining. A defining event occurs when she crashes into heavy equipment on the side of the highway and is arrested for reckless driving and leaving the scene of an accident. Her children recognize that her cognitive processes are waning, and Mattie takes her to the doctor, who says that Isa has suffered a series of small strokes. It is evident that she can no longer live on her own, but she refuses to move to the assisted living section of her retirement community. She insists that Mattie take her in, but Mattie is unwilling. Eventually Isa is forced to reconsider and adjusts to her new circumstances in assisted living after reuniting with an old friend. If Mattie’s relationship with Isa is difficult, her relationship with her ex-husband is complicated. Although Mattie prays for strength to keep from sleeping with Nicky, she cannot resist asking him to come over on some trivial pretense. When she learns that he and his girlfriend, Lee, are expecting a baby, she turns to William, an old acquaintance from middle school. Despite her relationship with William, she still yearns for Daniel, and eventually her affair with William comes to an end. Daniel moves in with Mattie after he and Pauline dissolve their marriage. Blue Shoe echoes familiar themes from Lamott’s previous memoirs and novels, including alcohol abuse, challenges of single parenthood, and the influence of faith on one’s life. The novel adds a new element, however, not found in her pervious work—the portrayal of Isa’s battle with Alzheimer’s disease and her family’s struggle to compassionately deal with the effects of her mental decline, including their attempts to find her the right care. Mattie’s struggle to attend to her mother touches on a larger societal problem as baby boomers strive to provide for their aging parents’ needs. Lamott’s own mother, Nikki, who passed away in 2001, also suffered from Alzheimer’s disease, and Lamott’s heartwrenching portrayal of Isa’s confused state is no doubt drawn from life.


ANNE LAMOTT Although readers may identify with Mattie’s struggle to care for her mother, Mattie’s overt Christianity is another matter. In the eyes of some, Mattie’s love affairs could be seen as antithetical with her profession of faith. Mattie is far from a perfect believer, which is typical of how Lamott views human nature: Christians, like anyone, are by definition flawed and fallen and need to be redeemed from their brokenness. Lamott’s editor warned her that some readers would be “turned off” by Mattie’s habit of chatting with God; Lamott, however, did not accept his criticism, responding that she refused to be censored. Lamott feels that in portraying Mattie as an imperfect human being, she is merely telling the truth as she sees and has experienced it. She noted in an interview with Agnieszka Tennant for Christianity Today: “I wanted to write about a character who is a Christian and yet not the kind of Christian that you might encounter at a Christian bookstore. Somebody who is crabby—you know, like me—and lusty, and a mess, and a true believer.”

one safe place to another. Like lily pads, round and green, these places summoned and then held me up while I grew. Each prepared me for the next leaf on which I would land, and in this way I moved across the swamp of fear and doubt. When I look back at some of these early resting places—the boisterous home of the Catholics, the soft armchair Christian Science mom, adoption by ardent Jews—I can see how flimsy and indirect a path they made. Yet each step brought me closer to the verdant path of faith on which I somehow stay afloat today. (Traveling Mercies, p. 3)

In addressing her bohemian family life, her coming of age in California during the hippie movement, her drug and alcohol abuse, abortion, unhappy love affairs, and unconventional religious conversion, she doesn’t sugarcoat any of her faults. Instead, she admits to being a “bad born-again Christian” but doesn’t hesitate to proclaim her faith: “I am a believer, a convert. I’m probably about three months away from slapping an aluminum Jesus-fish on the back of my car, although I first want to see if the application of stickum in any way interferes with my lease agreement” (p. 61). Although her love for Jesus has saved her from her self-destructive tendencies, her faith has not transformed her into a conservative fundamentalist. She remains a socially conscious, politically liberal feminist. One might assume that her liberal thinking would lead her to be more tolerant of other points of view within the Christian community. However, dedication to liberal causes seems to make her just as intolerant as those on the Christian right. In “Knocking on Heaven’s Door,” she tells the story of a crosscountry flight where she is seated beside a man who is enjoying Left Behind, a best-selling novel about the Apocalypse by the fundamentalists Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins. Lamott had been critical of the book in a review, calling it “hard-core right-wing paranoid anti-Semitic homophobic misogynistic propaganda—not to put too fine a point on it” (p. 60). Her traveling companion also sizes her up and seems to be just as unaccepting of her as a fellow believer, despite the small gold cross she wears. Then he draws a line in the sand when he tells her that he and his wife are homeschooling their children because they dislike the radical feminist direction of his


Lamott’s trilogy of spiritual memoirs has allowed her to slip from the constraints of fiction and candidly write about her life as an imperfect true believer. In February 1996, Lamott began a new venture, “Word by Word,” a column for the online magazine Salon. The columns took the form of a diary, not unlike her brief entries in Operating Instructions, and became the basis for the twenty-five essays in Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith. The essays cover familiar themes that thread through her previous work, including dealing with aging, coping with loss, struggling with low self-esteem, parenting, and recovering from substance abuse. However, her reflections concerning her troubled past are illuminated by her Christian faith and open a window on how her belief shapes her life. Lamott opens this 1999 collection with a stunning image of how she views her spiritual growth. Tracing her progression from agnostic to devout believer, she notes: My coming to faith did not start with a leap but rather a series of staggers from what seemed like


ANNE LAMOTT county’s school system. The tension between them is defused, however, when a crisis during the flight opens their eyes to the fact although they hold opposite political views, their mutual Christian faith transcends their differences. Some of the most delightful essays in the collection reflect Lamott’s views on parenting. She is no longer coping with the financial worries and new-mother jitters that were so evident in Operating Instructions. Now that Sam is older a new set of challenges awaits them both, which is often characterized by a battle of wills. In “Why I Make Sam Go to Church,” she initially answers the question by saying, “I make him because I can. I outweigh him by nearly seventyfive pounds” (p. 100). Her real reasons, however, go far deeper and are more complex than the threat of physical strength. The diverse, activist congregation at St. Andrew offers Sam opportunities to observe how Christians who are committed to the tenets of their faith can transform the lives of their neighbors. The people of St. Andrew take Jesus’ second great commandment—“Love thy neighbor as yourself”—seriously, as Lamott discovers when she is pregnant with Sam:

programs on Ash Wednesday. Leaving the house to walk off her anger, Lamott ponders the meaning of ashes: “I thought about ashes. I was sad that I’m an awful person, that I am the world’s meanest mother. I got sadder. And I got to thinking about the ashes of the dead” (p. 94). Her thoughts lead her to the memory of scattering a handful of Pammy’s ashes in San Francisco Bay years before. Her description of the gritty texture and “metallic” taste of her friend’s remains makes her grief less abstract and more concrete. Her meditation on death turns her thoughts back to Sam, and she realizes that someone who loves her son may scatter his ashes to the wind one day. With this painful recognition of Sam’s mortality in mind, she trudges home to resolve the differences between her and her son. Negative self-image is a major concern in Lamott’s work, and her preoccupation with her appearance is revealed in two essays, “The Aunties” and “Sister.” In “The Aunties,” a euphemism Lamott uses to describe her “feta-cheese” thighs, she addresses her insecurity about her aging body. Her self-deprecating humor is apparent when she tells how she squeezes into a too-small black bathing suit and “waddled down to the beach” during a Mexican vacation. She decides to treat her thighs “as if they were beloved elderly aunties, the kind who did embarrassing things at the beach, like roll their stockings into tubes around their ankles ѧ It did not trouble me that parts of my body—the auntie parts—kept moving after I had come to a full halt. Who cares? People just need to be soft and clean” (p. 202).

Now, a number of the older black women live pretty close to the bone financially on small Social Security checks. But routinely they sidled up to me and stuffed bills in my pocket—tens and twenties. It was always done so stealthily that you might have thought they were slipping me bundles of cocaine. One of the most consistent donors was a very old woman named Mary Williams, who is in her mid-eighties now, so beautiful with her crushed hats and hallelujahs; she always brought me plastic Baggies full of dimes, noosed with little wire twists.

Although it seems she’s on the road to selfacceptance, the lean, athletic bodies of the young women cavorting on the beach bring her up short. Confronted with society’s idealized standard of beauty, she grasps for reassurance: “Yet here I was, almost naked, and—to use the medical term—flabbier than shit, but deeply loyal to myself” (p. 205). Her response to feeling exposed and vulnerable is to return to her hotel and nurture her less-than-perfect body by applying rose-scented oil to her legs and dressing in her best clothes. She cannot turn back the clock, but she can “shine a little light on oneself” by being kind and gentle to her body.

(p. 101)

Lamott has found comfort and encouragement in her church community, and she wants to share that sense of belonging with Sam. Of course she realizes that Sam must find his own way spiritually, but she and her fellow parishioners are at least laying a foundation to which he can return if he loses his way, as she did. Lamott’s concern about her parenting skills serves as a launching point to a meditation on mortality in “Ashes.” She begins by describing a heated argument she has with Sam when he refuses to forego one of his favorite television


ANNE LAMOTT “Sister” addresses another of Lamott’s longstanding preoccupations—her frizzy, unruly hair. Smarting over the teasing remarks she endured from friends and family over the years, she tried everything to tame and straighten her hair. Two African American friends, a mother and daughter, suggest that she allow them to weave her hair into dreadlocks. At first she refuses because she believes that “it was presumptuous to appropriate a black style for my own liberation” (p. 234). Finally she accepts their invitation and experiences spiritual and emotional emancipation. As her neighbors weave the strands of her wiry hair, Lamott likens the encounter to receiving a sacrament: “I felt the connection and the tenderness, the reciprocal healing offered by the laying on of hands ѧ Marlene worked with the grave sense that we were doing something meaningful— politically, spiritually, aesthetically” (p. 236). The ritual has a transforming effect on Lamott. As she looks in the mirror, instead of a woman whose hair looks like she “stuck her finger in a light socket,” she sees someone “beautiful— royal, shy, groomed. Beautiful. Strange. Mulatto” (p. 237). All the scars from the barbs she received over the years begin to heal, and she feels liberated from her insecurities and valued for who she is.

reminiscent of the episode in Traveling Mercies where her friends weave her hair into dreadlocks. Kornfield’s gift reminds her of other red cords—Christ’s blood, umbilical cords, and the red cord the Israelite spies give to Rahab to tie to her window so that she will be spared during the invasion of Jericho. Each of these red cords symbolize connection—Christ’s blood as the link to a loving, forgiving God; the umbilical cord as the life-giving link between mother and child; Rahab’s cord as a device that displays her association with the chosen people; and Kornfield’s cord as a token of friendship, love, and affirmation. Yet connection can be a tenuous state, easily broken, as Lamott discovers when, full of the peaceful fruits of her reflection, she arrives home and fights with Sam about his nonchalant attitude concerning an unfinished homework assignment due the next day. In a rage, she leaves with her dog, Lily, to walk off her anger in the hills behind her house. After a period of reflection, she looks down to see that she has stepped in excrement on the ground. She cleans off her shoe with a stick and wonders, I don’t know why God won’t just spritz away our hardships and frustration. I don’t know why the most we can hope for on some days is to end up a little less crazy than before, less down on ourselves. I don’t know why we have to become so vulnerable before we can connect with God, and even sometimes with ourselves.

She reflects on life as she enters middle-age in Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith, published in 2005. Similar in composition to Traveling Mercies, the book comprises twenty-four essays that deal with aging, parenting, reconciliation, mortality, doubt, faith, and spiritual and emotional growth. This body of work reveals a mellower, less neurotic Lamott who strives to live more deeply and embrace each day as a gift. The second essay, “Red Cords,” sets the tone of reverence that runs throughout the collection. She begins by telling the story of how she, a Presbyterian, came to wear a thin red cotton cord on her wrist. Jack Kornfield, a well-known Buddhist author, tied it on Lamott’s wrist during one of their frequent walks together as a reminder that she is deserving of love and acceptance. He remarks, “You have gotten an A-plus, Annie, for your work during this life” (Plan B, p. 25). His gentle action approaches the sacramental and is

(p. 28).

Yet true connection requires vulnerability and humility found in the untidiness of life. Reconciliation is the subject of the essay titled “Sam’s Dad.” Lamott had not written about John, Sam’s father, since she mentioned him briefly and with bitterness in Operating Instructions. Yet the fact that she had kept two pictures of John demonstrates that she instinctively knew the subject was not closed and that Sam would one day ask about his father. At age six, he does and when he is seven, Lamott and her son launch a concentrated search after she receives a note from John that was “one sentence of grief and pride and outreach” (p. 35) but that did not provide a phone number. Feeling her son’s frustration and pain, she prays one of her


ANNE LAMOTT favorite prayers, “Help me, help me” (p. 36). A week later, she sees the obituary of John’s father in the newspaper and is finally able to get in touch with him. After their initial meeting, John waits for Sam after school. When a classmate asks Sam who the man is, Sam replies proudly, “Oh—that’s my dad.” Although the story of John and Sam’s reconciliation ends happily, Lamott stresses that “things are not perfect because life is not TV and we are real people with scarred, worried hearts. But it’s amazing a lot of the time” (p. 40). Lamott’s third spiritual memoir, Grace (Eventually): Thoughts on Faith, was published in 2007. Now in her mid-fifties, Lamott in this book is at her most political, openly and unapologetically proclaiming her liberalism, weighing in on controversial issues such as abortion, euthanasia, and the war in Iraq. She is also at her most poignant as she reflects on her mother’s death from Alzheimer’s; her increasingly contentious relationship with Sam, who is now a sometimes surly teenager; and her own personal and spiritual growth. As the word “eventually” in the title suggests, this collection of twenty-four essays does not represent the conclusion of Lamott’s personal story. She sees herself and her life as works in progress, and most of the essays close on an open-ended note.

so she decides to stage a protest on July 14, 2006. She issues a rallying cry in her online column for Salon and imagines a large turnout where her compatriots would turn off their cell phones for the day; wear green to show their connection to the natural world; plant bulbs; and share food with the hungry. Her dreams of transforming the world fall on deaf ears, and the grand mass demonstration she envisions turns out to be a lonely protest of one as she stands under a tree downtown wearing a green T-shirt and carrying a homemade sign proclaiming “One People. One Planet. One Future.” Except for one hostile man in a wheelchair, she receives no response to her “revolution.” The world has changed in more ways than she thought, and she makes her way home, wondering if October, just before the election is held, would be a more opportune time to hold a protest. Not all of Lamott’s efforts to speak out on social issues are ignored. During the weekend of January 14, 2006, Lamott, along with Jim Wallace the founder of Sojourners, a progressive Christian organization, and Father Richard Rohr, a Catholic priest, participated in a panel discussion at a conference titled “Politics and Spirituality: Seeking a Public Integrity.” Lamott reports in her essay “The Born” that a man from the audience took the microphone and asked how the panelists could stand for peace and justice and at the same time countenance the “murder of a million babies every year in America” (p. 100). The other panelists react evasively, trying to neutralize the tension in the room. When the moderator asks Lamott if she wants to respond, she writes: “I did: I wanted to respond by pushing over the table” (p. 100). She tries to curtail her anger but cannot stop it from spilling over and launches an impassioned defense of “women whose lives had been righted and redeemed by Roe v. Wade” (p. 101) and insists that “a woman’s right to choose was nobody else’s goddamn business” (p. 102). She had stepped across a line, which was made plain by the shocked silence that gripped the room. She views her stance on abortion as a moral imperative and believes it is socially irresponsible to bring unwanted children into the world who are likely to be victims of poverty.

In an essay titled “Junctions,” she rails against the current political and social predicament: I went home and read The New York Times, usually one of my favorite things, but today it made me crazy. Where will the madness end? The great Andean glaciers are now melting! George Bush’s decisions and movements will take a thousand years to recover from, because his people have done such major damage everywhere. We have become a country that you wouldn’t want to leave your children alone with. (Grace, p. 234)

She realizes, however, that fuming about the deplorable state of the nation will not necessarily change anything. In “Bastille Day,” she wants “to figure out how to say, ‘Enough’—and be part of the revolution that would save the world. Or at least help people keep the faith” (p. 214), and


ANNE LAMOTT Many Christians would disagree with her conclusions. Her vehement response, however, demonstrates her commitment to tell the truth as she sees it, not only as a writer but as a believer as well.

incomplete in the course?” (p. 94). The essay powerfully illustrates her deeply held belief in a person’s freedom to choose his or her own destiny. In her previous memoirs, she is straightforward about her troubled history with drugs and alcohol, as well as her psychological and emotional vulnerabilities. Her personal struggles are disturbing but are common problems with which many people can empathize. In “The Born” and “At Death’s Window,” however, she explores broader issues from a position of extreme social liberalism that has made her a controversial figure within the Christian community and caused her to be excoriated by rightwing, centrist, and even some progressive Christians.

Perhaps the most startling example of the views she holds that at odds with traditional Christianity is revealed in “At Death’s Window.” She begins the essay with the words: “The man I killed did not want to die, but he no longer felt he had much of a choice” (p. 91). She goes on to tell the heartbreaking story of her good friend Mel, who suffered from terminal cancer. As Mel’s health declines, Lamott offers to “help him die on his own terms, if he wanted” (p. 93). It is not the first time she has entertained the possibility of euthanasia. Years before, she and her brothers were prepared to administer a lethal overdose to their father should he ask, but the rapid decline in his level of lucidity prevented him from making the request. Mel, however, remains mentally competent to the end, and as he becomes worse, he and his wife, Joanne, eventually decide to accept Lamott’s proposal. Although Lamott admits nervousness about how she should proceed, she describes almost dispassionately her clandestine attempt “through underground ways” (p. 96) to procure the necessary lethal dose of drugs. When the time comes, she crushes the pills, mixes them with applesauce, and administers them to her friend. He bids them good-bye and peacefully falls asleep, never to awaken. The essay could be regarded as a confession, yet there is no indication that Lamott feels guilt or doubt about her actions. Her response to Mel’s suffering is consistent with her long-held beliefs concerning euthanasia. She notes that at first Mel found her advocacy of assisted suicide incongruous with her Christian faith. Lamott has demonstrated throughout her work that she is little interested in doctrine, and she does not try to reconcile her belief in euthanasia with Christian theology. Instead she comments: “I believe that life is a kind of Earth School, so even though assisted suicide means you’re getting out early, before the term ends, you’re going to be leaving anyway, so who says it isn’t okay to take an

Apart from airing her political views, Lamott also includes essays on familiar and less controversial subjects. In “Samwheel,” Lamott offers a glimpse of how she deals with a rebellious seventeen-year-old who has just gotten his driver’s license. Similar to several essays in other collections that focus on her relationship with her child, “Samwheel” begins with a fight between mother and son. Sam has only half-heartedly complied with the chore he’s been assigned, of washing the two family cars; they are still dusty and dirty. When Lamott accuses him of lying to her about washing the automobiles, Sam replies, “I’m not a liar. I just did a lousy job” (p. 188), and she slaps him for his insolence. Guiltstricken, she takes off in her car and muses about the pitfalls of being the parent of a mouthy teenager. She grieves because she feels “that the boy I loved is gone, and in his place is this male person who pushes my buttons with his moodiness, scorn, and flamboyant laziness” (p. 189). She laments the wonderful years they shared until his junior year in high school, “when the tectonic plates shifted inside him,” and wonders “What has happened? Who is this person?” (p. 191). Her questions are typical of generations of parents, including her own father and mother, who have wrestled with teenage defiance and insubordination. As she mentally flagellates herself for her own bad behavior, she suddenly understands that he has his own sins and his own will, and he is ultimately responsible for his own


ANNE LAMOTT actions. Part of our flawed human nature is that we occasionally are cruel toward each other, but we also have the ability to forgive. Mother and son do eventually forgive one another, but Lamott realizes that forgiveness is only the first step in healing the breach between them.

OTHER WORKS Bird by Bird with Annie: A Portrait of Writer Anne Lamott. Film by Freida Lee Mock. Sander and Mock Productions, 1998. Word by Word. Audio CD of Anne Lamott, recorded at an Austin Writer’s League Seminar in 1996. Writer’s AudioShop, 2004. Hard Laughter. Play adapted from Lamott’s 1980 novel by Ann Brebner and Laurel Graver; directed by Jayne Wenger, and produced at the Wooden Duck in San Rafael, California. Sixteen performances, April 25–May 18, 2008.

Lamott has commented that her objective is to write books that she herself would enjoy reading—books that tell the truth and make her laugh. The frequent appearance of her fiction and nonfiction at the top of the best-seller lists attests to the fact that readers can identify with her flaws and insecurities and appreciate her honesty and humor. Although her later work is unabashedly Christian in terms of Lamott’s worldview, the subjects she treats—personal insecurity, loss, the search for something greater than ourselves, the fear of death—are universal concerns that make us human and touch the lives of us all.

CRITICAL AND BIOGRAPHICAL STUDIES “Anne Lamott.” Contemporary Authors Online, Thomson Gale, 2007. Domina, Lynn. “Lamott, Anne.” In American Women Writers: A Critical Reference Guide from Colonial Times to the Present, 2nd ed. Edited by Taryn Benbow-Pfalzgraf. Vol. 3. Detroit: St. James Press, 2000. Pp. 2–3. Espinoza, Galina, and Karen Brailsford. “Open Book: Drawing on Her Trials—from Alcoholism to Her Mom’s Alzheimer’s—Writer Anne Lamott Bares All in Her Work” People, November 25, 2002, pp. 149–150. Patterson, Margot. “Carbonated Holiness: In Their First Encounter, Writers Anne Lamott and Elizabeth Gilbert Fizz with Wit.” National Catholic Reporter, April 18, 2008, pp. 17–18. Tennant, Agnieszka. “‘Jesusy’ Anne Lamott: Chatting with a Born-Again Paradox.” Christianity Today, (http://www. January 1, 2003. Weaver, Wendy A. “Journeys Toward Hope: The Quest of Delbanco’s The Real American Dream in the Autobiographical Writings of Anne Lamott and Kathleen Norris.” Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture 5:124– 134 (fall 2002).

Selected Bibliography WORKS OF ANNE LAMOTT NOVELS Hard Laughter. New York: Viking, 1980. Rosie. New York: Viking, 1983. Joe Jones. San Francisco: North Point Press, 1985. All New People. San Francisco: North Point Press, 1989. Crooked Little Heart. New York: Pantheon, 1997. Blue Shoe. New York: Riverhead, 2002. Imperfect Birds. New York: Riverhead, 2010.

INTERVIEWS Ashbrook, Tom. “Anne Lamott on Faith.” On Point Radio (, March 23, 2007. Buturian, Linda. “Media Diet: Anne Lamott.” Utne Reader, May–June 1999, pp. 110–111. Elam, Angela. “A Good Story to Tell.” New Letters 73:117– 132 (fall 2007). Feinsilver, Pamela. “Anne Lamont: The California Writer Talks About the Birth of Her Son and the Rebirth of Her Career.” Publishers Weekly, May 31, 1993, pp. 30–31. Fisk, Molly. “Anne Lamott: One Bird at a Time” Poets and Writers, September 1996, p. 52. “God Lets Me Start Over.” Christian Century, July 8, 1999, pp. 743–744.

NONFICTION Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son’s First Year. New York: Pantheon, 1993. Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. New York: Pantheon, 1994. Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith. New York: Pantheon, 1999. Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith. New York: Riverhead, 2005. Grace (Eventually): Thoughts on Faith. New York: Riverhead, 2007.


ANNE LAMOTT What It Takes To Be a Writer.” New York Times Book Review, March 5, 1995, p. 19. (Review of Bird by Bird.) Hall, Alexandra. Review of Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith. New York Times Book Review, March 7, 1999, p. 19. Innes, Charlotte. “What Would Jesus Do?” Nation, November 18, 2002, pp. 56–58. (Review of Blue Shoe.) Ives, Nancy R. “Joe Jones.” Library Journal, May 1, 2004, p. 154. (Review of the Joe Jones audiobook.)

Kovach, Ronald. “Straight Shooter: Anne Lamott Succeeds with Honest Writing.” Writer, April 2003, pp. 24–29. Lachnit, Caroll. “Anne Lamott: Taking It Bird by Bird.” Writer’s Digest, June 1996, p. 30. McDermot, Molly. “The Writer Women Love.” Redbook, December 1997, pp. G8–G9. Nelson, Dean. “A Conversation with Anne Lamott.” University of California Television (, February 9, 2007. Reichl, Ruth. “At Home with Anne Lamott: Laughter, Death, Lollipops.” New York Times, December 1, 1994, pp. C1, C10.

Jones, Malcolm, Jr. “Lowercase, High Class.” Newsweek, April 28, 1997, pp. 78–79. (Review of Crooked Little Heart.) Lemmel, Barbara. “Eavesdropping.” Christian Century, January 10, 1999, p. 53. (Review of Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son’s First Year.)

REVIEWS Baker, Thomas. “California Dreamin’.” Commonweal, March 9, 2007, pp. 29–30. (Review of Grace [Eventually]: Thoughts on Faith.) Bausch, Richard. “Look Deep into Your Life.” New York Times Book Review, October 22, 1989, p. 8. (Review of All New People.) Bochynski, Pegge. Review of Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith. In Magill’s Literary Annual, Pasadena, Calif.: Salem Press, 2000. Pp. 764–767. Cassidy, Thomas. Review of Crooked Little Heart. In Magill’s Literary Annual, Pasadena, Calif.: Salem Press, 1998. Pp. 211–215. Cheever, Benjamin. “Like Watching Tennis.” New York Times Book Review, August 17, 1997, p. 21. (Review of Crooked Little Heart.) Dederer, Claire. “I Like Me, I Really Like Me: Anne Lamott’s New Age Heroine Learns to Accept Her Imperfections.” New York Times Book Review, October 13, 2002, p. 34. (Review of Blue Shoe.) Dukes, Carol Muske. “Just Do It: A Common-Sense Look at

Review of Grace (Eventually): Thoughts on Faith. Publishers Weekly, January 29, 2007, p. 60. Review of Hard Laughter. Publishers Weekly, August 8, 1980, p. 78. Review of Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith, by Anne Lamott. Publishers Weekly, December 8, 1998, p. 43. Tyler, Anne. “A Good Family.” New York Times Book Review, October 12, 1980, p. 11. (Review of Hard Laughter.) Winner, Lauren F. “Born Again, Again: Anne Lamott Is Still Thinking About Her Faith, Her Family and Her Thighs. ”New York Times, May 1, 2005, p. G30. (Review of Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith.) ———. “Tales of a Reluctant Convert.” Christianity Today, February 8, 1999, pp. 76–78. (Review of Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith.) Zaleski, Jeff. Review of Blue Shoe. Publishers Weekly, August 26, 2002, pp. 40–41.



Stefanie K. Dunning THE WORK OF Reginald McKnight has been hailed as exemplifying the “New Black Aesthetic,” the term coined to describe contemporary African American post–civil rights era literature. The characteristics of this new black aesthetic include protagonists who are black and yet deeply involved with what we might call the larger white society. Their stories involve complex negotiations of identity where little is stable, and, in post-modernist fashion, essentialized notions of what it means to be black or white are contested and the boundaries of identity redrawn. The kind of cultural work McKnight does is exemplified by his critique of what constitutes black ways of speaking. He argues that there is no one black way of speaking—that however any black subject speaks makes that speech black. So even someone like Bryant Gumbel, often held up as the farthest from representing authentic black identity, speaks in a black idiom, according to McKnight.

Only he, however, seems to notice any troubling telltale marks of miscegenation, so the reader is left to wonder if he is crazy and is projecting his lynching and raping rampages from another time into the present (in this story, 1965) or if it is possible that the child is his. “Rebirth” reprises James Baldwin’s title story from the collection Going to Meet the Man (1965). In Baldwin’s story, a white man dreams of lynching a black civil rights protester, and part of his wish is granted when he is able to brutalize the man in jail. Baldwin captures the erotic component of the lynching desire well, and these subtleties are also present in McKnight’s story, exploring the nausea of racial hatred that is at once murderous and lustful. McKnight’s story goes further than Baldwin’s, however, as Treadwell believes that the child is his. Thus, McKnight dramatizes the entanglement of his racist white characters with the black characters in a way that isn’t staged in the Baldwin story. It is the knowledge and recognition of his potential offspring that perhaps alters the old man’s behavior toward the newborn. The title of the story seems to play with the idea of exactly who is reborn; is one to think that this infant is this old man’s chance to live again?

The new black aesthetic is evident in all of McKnight’s work, which takes racial metaphors of American and African American literature and revisits them to expose the persistence of racism while at the same time offering new readings of, and fresh ways of experiencing, the question of racial identity in a post–civil rights era America. An example of the way McKnight restages moments from American literature can be seen in his short story “Rebirth,” the final story of his 1988 prizewinning collection, Moustapha’s Eclipse.

Treadwell’s conflict does not redeem the old man; instead it shows that he can only feel tenderness for a person he perceives to be an extension of himself. Maggie Green, the maid, Tossie, Maggie’s mate, his stepdaughter Clara, and even his wife LouEllen are summed up as either just “niggers” or “goddamn wom[e]n” (p. 121). About Maggie, he says, “She’s only got two things she’s good for. Housekeeping’s one ѧ” (p. 124). These insults mirror his contempt for everyone in the story except the only other white man, Myron, who takes a much less harsh view of “niggers” than Treadwell does.

Theodore Treadwell, the white and elderly protagonist in “Rebirth,” is about to throw his black maid’s baby to the ground in a rage when the newborn opens his eyes to reveal that they are gray, like his are. Treadwell takes this as a sign that the child is his, having already confessed to raping the maid on more than one occasion.


REGINALD McKNIGHT “Rebirth” provides a stark and telling contrast to the title story, “Uncle Moustapha’s Eclipse,” in which the main character, Idi, tells tale after tale to the American protagonist, an anthropologist collecting African folktales. McKnight’s African characters work as the opposite of the white American characters, and rather than pushing the protagonist away, they pull him closer, often against his will. Conversely, the white characters (like Treadwell) fight desperately to keep themselves separate from the black people around them. The Senegalese characters in this collection of short stories offer kola nuts, beer, prostitutes, and endless fantastic tales of their escapades. They invite the American in, even though he isn’t always sure that “in” is where he is going when the story begins. Treadwell, on the other hand, works hard to maintain and enforce a constantly collapsing gap between himself and black “others.”

African American who takes a position with the Peace Corps in Senegal for multiple, but largely indeterminate, reasons. We meet Evan as he rides on a bus and experience with him his revulsion toward the people around him (especially toward a boy standing beneath him whose head is covered with crusty sores) and his desire for a woman against whom he presses himself in the crowd. The experience on the bus is surreal, and, like Evan, the reader does not know what is reality, and what is malaria-induced delusion. McKnight uses Evan’s Western presumptions about African voodoo against the reader. Evan, of course, doesn’t truly believe in the supernatural. At the same time, when he does begin to ponder whether some of the experiences he’s having are indeed magical, his perception of these events will be clouded by his Western notions about African spirituality. Later, Aminata, the Senegalese woman with whom Evan falls in love, mocks Evan’s perception of African spirituality. She argues that Western fear about African spiritual beliefs would be akin to her fearing America because of tales about vampires and werewolves. Evan is chastised by this perfectly logical reading of the cultural presumptions of Westerners, but that doesn’t prevent him from having a series of undoubtedly reality-bending experiences.


Many of McKnight’s stories are set in Senegal, in western Africa. In addition to both of his novels, several of his short stories are set there as well. McKnight’s work, set in Africa and in the United States, naturally invites comparison between the two locations and between the two peoples. McKnight illustrates these differences without suggesting that somehow Africans are better than white Americans. The welcoming, but not always honest, Senegalese characters serve to show how reserved the American protagonist is and therefore critique American identity in general. McKnight’s American protagonists in the African stories are not malicious like the white American characters are in other stories, but these Americans are no Afrocentric optimists, either. They do not look for an “authentic” black experience. They are foreigners there, not “brothers,” and McKnight’s stories at once resist the temptation of a Pan-Africanist ethos, while at the same time presenting the American sensibility as paranoid, stunted, and incomplete. These issues of race and nationality take on amazing life in McKnight’s first novel, I Get on the Bus (1990). Evan Norris is a middle-class

The novel’s bus itself is not a normal bus, and the novel’s narrative style mimics Evan’s ride. The protagonist is never quite clear why he got on the bus or where exactly he is going; likewise, the reader feels as if she is going somewhere, that she will discover something as the novel progresses, but what is shown, instead, is a pastiche of Evan’s life. In a seeming fugue state, Evan finds himself at the house of a Monsieur Dueye, who nurses him back to health. Monsieur Dueye is a marabou, an African healer, and in addition to sheltering Evan during his illness, he gives him a strange red tea. Presumably this causes the hallucinations Evan is never able to decode. Every relationship Evan has in Senegal disintegrates into confusion; his love affair with Aminata (Monsieur Dueye’s daughter), at first innocent and exciting, becomes yet another enigma he is destined not to understand. Like-


REGINALD McKNIGHT wise, his friendship with a black American expatriate, Ford, demonstrates that no one, American or African, is exactly what they appear to be. Ultimately, Evan’s own sense of himself unravels completely; he’s not sure if he is simply a sick American or a “demm,” a person who eats the souls of others. His voyages on the bus are often conduits for the experience of being in another person’s body. He eventually becomes, temporarily, the woman into which he presses his erect penis on his first bus ride. Throughout the novel, Evan becomes the boy with the sores on his head, Calvin Whitaker, the black man at the American Cultural center where he attempts to get a job, and his black American friend, Ford.

departure point in the Atlantic slave trade, and feels little identification with former slaves. He has none of the venom that Calvin Whitaker of the American Cultural Center has against the Africans, who warns Evan that if “they” could do it all over, they’d happily sell them into slavery again. Evan feels neither racially prideful about his ancestral connection to Africans (as Ford does) or disdainful of them; his feelings about being in Africa are emotionally neutral, while his experiences are charged with confusion, pleasure, and pain. McKnight’s black characters are among the few in contemporary American literature that do not rehearse the themes of black anger or black oppression in a way that is as predictable as it is understandable. This does not mean, of course, that his work avoids the question of race or minimizes its importance. In some sense, all of McKnight’s work is about race. But it treats race differently than most American readers might expect it would. His characters do not evidence the same reactions to racism, or discussions of race, that have historically defined black characters in protest literature. McKnight’s work seems less interested in making the case about the injustices of racism. This isn’t because making such a case isn’t important; rather, it is because the case has been made and made well for generations by talented writers of all backgrounds. McKnight’s work presents an aspect of black experience which exposes the uneasy relationship that the middle class, the “cultural mulatto,” to use his term from I Get on the Bus, has to blackness and all the expectations embedded in the term “black.”

Evan is not simply a toubob, Wolof for “outsider” or “stranger,” with the magic of Africa being enacted upon him; he’s magic himself. When a bewitched dog is made to follow him, Evan is told that the animal is afraid of him. He doesn’t understand the magic he is part of, and Evan looks endlessly to the people around him— his Senegalese host family, his American friend, his girlfriend, even his girlfriend’s betrothed fiancé—to find the answers about his pointless bus rides, his horrible headaches, his body’s jumping and his inability to keep food down. Is it malaria? He asks everyone. He is advised to go home on more than one occasion, but he resists. Somehow, Evan cannot pull himself away from the drama of his life in Senegal. He admits, throughout the novel, that though he knows he is deteriorating, he is enjoying his descent; the spectacle of his demise, he says, is like being high. I Get on the Bus dramatizes the crisis of identification that many of McKnight’s protagonists experience. Evan is middle-class and, devoid of a kind of racial angst, characterizes many representations of the contemporary black subject. Evan never expresses a desire to find his black self in Africa, and only chooses Senegal to appease the nationalist invective of his girlfriend, Wanda. Originally he’d planned to go to Central America, but he chose Senegal and is happy that Wanda is satisfied that at least he’ll be around black people. Evan himself feels no particular allegiance to the Senegalese, or any Africans for that matter, due to race. He visits Goree Island, a

Wanda, Evan’s American girlfriend, articulates a traditional, black nationalist stance on the race question when she tells Evan that white people can never really love black people, can never really be friends with black people. Evan never adopts Wanda’s position on black-white relations, but he does want to appease Wanda. In fact, the most striking aspect of Evan’s personality—and what separates him from Wanda and the Senegalese—is his inability to say no to anyone. Evan has no filter, neither for his white friends in Denver nor his black lover, Wanda, nor the Sene-


REGINALD McKNIGHT galese people he befriends. It is this aspect, this rejection of no one, which reads in a black nationalist context as lack of pride, which translates into a kind of cultural impotency. This kind of disintegration of blackness, or lack of valuation of it, has been fiercely resisted in the black community because for many it bleeds too effortlessly into the white supremacist agenda of black oppression. But this reading of a kind of non-grasping relationship to blackness misses the significant work such renderings of blackness do in the humanizing project of the black “other.” It is, actually, only this kind of representation of the black subject than can undo, or effectively deconstruct, the other. Holding firmly to blackness, whether it be a denigrated or prideful representation of such, only cements the “other” in our consciousness. McKnight’s protagonists contest the construction of all of these black others, even those that ostensibly are positive representations of blackness.

Marine Corps. He was honorably discharged in 1976 and returned to Colorado, where he enrolled at Pikes Peak Community College. He went on to graduate with honors from Colorado College in 1981. Ultimately, McKnight would complete a master’s degree at the University of Denver in 1987. McKnight taught at several universities and in 1981 received a Thomas J. Watson Foundation fellowship, which enabled him to spend a year in Senegal, western Africa. He would spend a second year in Senegal teaching English at the American Cultural Center. Both critics and McKnight himself have noted the importance of his time in Senegal on his work. McKnight has admitted that he didn’t consider himself a writer until he went to Senegal, and several critics note that it is the polarity between the African and American experience that influence and nuance McKnight’s work in important ways. McKnight continued to work in higher education, holding a variety of positions in American universities. As his fiction received more critical acclaim, he found employment at increasingly more prestigious institutions. Though he started his teaching career, upon returning from Senegal, at Arapahoe Community College, he would eventually work at the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University. A much-noted incident at the University of Pittsburgh influenced McKnight’s career. Upon learning that his colleagues had told racist jokes at a party, McKnight decided to leave the university. He notes that he could not continue to work with people he knew harbored such thoughts, and that as the days passed his dislike for his racist colleagues grew ever more intense. It was this incident which precipitated his move to the University of Maryland in 1994. As of 2009, McKnight was Hamilton Holmes Professor of English at the University of Georgia. Critical reception of McKnight’s work has been good; his book of short stories, Moustapha’s Eclipse, in addition to winning the Drue Heinz prize in 1988, also won the 1989 Ernest Hemingway Foundation award from PEN American Center. The critical acclaim afforded Moustapha’s Eclipse opened doors for McKnight’s career and


Reginald McKnight was born to Frank and Pearl Anderson McKnight on February 26, 1956, in Fürstenfeldbruck, Germany. His father was a cook in the U.S. Air Force, and originally stationed in Germany. McKnight is what in common parlance is often called an “army brat,” having moved frequently throughout his childhood. McKnight lived not only in Germany but also in New York, Alabama, Texas, Louisiana, and California. McKnight spent many important years in Colorado, however, and considers Colorado Springs and Denver his home. The multiple locations of McKnight’s childhood serve to add flavor to his stories, which take place all over the United States and accurately portray the differences in accent, style, and society in different parts of the country. Because he grew up in so many diverse locations, McKnight has said he “hit the ground running” as a mimic. Interviewers have noted that he can switch from a Southern drawl, to a Middle Eastern accent, to a New Yorker’s voice in the span of a few minutes. McKnight followed in his father’s footsteps and joined the military, enlisting in the U.S.


REGINALD McKNIGHT established him, early on, as one of the foremost voices in postmodernist fiction. McKnight’s second book of short stories, The Kind of Light That Shines on Texas (1992), was also well received. The title story of that collection won a Kenyon Review New Fiction Prize and an O. Henry Award. McKnight’s novel He Sleeps (2001) also received critical acclaim and explores the complex nature of postmodern black identity.

overlapping interests of Clint and Marvin, while also dramatizing the space between them. Once, when he is alone, Clint licks his arm as Marvin does to himself, wondering what wonder the ritual holds for his fellow student. Marvin is the hero of this story; though Clint avoids him, Marvin spares Clint the humiliation, and the pain, of being beaten up by one of their white classmates. “The Kind of Light that Shines on Texas” is similar to some of McKnight’s other meditations on black relationships. The story implicitly rejects the notion that all black people will get along simply because they are black. It also contests the assumption that the logical, and only viable, response to a racist environment is racial solidarity. These high school students do not band together at all, and they do not constitute a group in the least—even the white bully recognizes differences between them, singling only Clint out and avoiding Marvin. Instead of becoming one homogenous group, each of the three is locked into his or her isolated, individual world. Marvin licks his arm and Ah-so never, ever speaks. Clint just dodges everyone, hoping that no will think he is black like the other black kids yet knowing he’ll never be accepted as white either. The inequality between the black and white characters is not only dramatized by Clint’s trouble with the bully, but also by their teacher, who never praises any black student in the class and makes racist comments.


In addition to contesting the standard literary tropes of blackness, McKnight’s characters often inhabit “other spaces,” where reality bends. In his story “Roscoe in Hell,” in The Kind of Light that Shines on Texas, the main character finds himself in hell after overdosing on crack cocaine. The entire short story occurs in a kind of dreamlike unfolding, where the protagonist, Roscoe, participates in a raucous, bacchanalian party where he is the guest of honor. Though we are made to understand that the character is black, as are many of the people at the party, this story’s racial politics bears little resemblance to McKnight’s other work. Yet what it shares with both He Sleeps (discussed in detail below) and I Get on the Bus is the sense of being elsewhere. Roscoe is not sure if he is dreaming, between life and death, or simply dead and in hell as he has been made to believe. In the title story, “The Kind of Light that Shines on Texas,” the main character, Clint, is only one of three black students at his Texas high school. Predictably, the black kids avoid each other like the plague. One of them, a boy named Marvin, spends all day licking his arm and sleeping. The other, an African girl named Ah-so, sits silent and stony-faced, utterly separate from those around her. Clint is out of his element, but also not quite sure what his element is. He is not one of the white kids, nor does he feel any kinship to the other black kids at the school. Racial tension increases when Clint is challenged to a fight by a bully named Oakley. Marvin intervenes on Clint’s behalf, but is punished for fighting. As he is taken away, he fixes Clint with an unflinching stare. The story poignantly demonstrates the

McKnight’s story “Into Night” explores the brutality of a mother beating her child and contextualizes spanking as another form of racialized brutality against black subjects. A grandmother listens as her daughter beats her son, who, while screaming and crying, pleads, “Mama? Mama? I love you. I love you” (p. 130). The grandmother is shocked that, until she hears her grandson’s screams, she had never questioned the wisdom of this form of discipline. She occupies multiple points on her own historical timeline—she is a child being beaten, a mother beating her child (her daughter, who is now beating her own son), and the witness to her grandchild’s beating. McKnight is able to break through the boundaries of beater/beaten through the character of the grandmother, who develops a fresh critique of spank-


REGINALD McKNIGHT ing but is unable to do so in a self-righteous manner. In this way, McKnight merges victim and victimizer. McKnight’s story “The Homunculus: A Novel in One Chapter” is the story of man who cloisters himself for days on end and spends all of his time writing. He produces so much text that eventually a miniature “him” is born from the pages. The little man starts to eat all of the text the protagonist has created and grows to full size, becoming a clone of the writer. One cannot help but think of McKnight’s comments about his sojourn in Africa where he confesses he spent the better part of every single day, and night, writing. McKnight’s other stories, especially those which put a black character, usually an adolescent, in an all-white educational environment, also represent the protagonist in a kind of other world, in a dimension separate from an implied realm that is more sane and balanced. All of McKnight’s characters are out of their element, so to speak. But if these protagonists can’t be at home in Africa, or in America, or even in hell, where then is home? McKnight’s novel He Sleeps is a tour de force that interrogates exactly this question. McKnight examines the theme of the almost-but-not-quite-black man in Senegal in his short story “He Sleeps,” and in a novel of the same name. The persistent theme of the black American who realizes the extent of his cultural dislocation by visiting Africa belabors an important point McKnight makes in all of his work: there isn’t one way to understand what blackness is.

relationship to blackness is tenuous and his presence in Senegal is not inspired by any PanAfrican ideology. So when the Senegalese Kourman family moves in, without Milworth’s consent, to his rented house, the quiet aggressiveness of their actions renders Milworth powerless to contest their presence there. They slowly take over every aspect of the house, and Milworth’s nights are soon spent listening to the incredibly attractive Kene Kourman have loud sex with her husband Alaine. This domestic arrangement not only requires the culturally distant Milworth to confront Africanness, and to ponder its relationship to his blackness, but it also foregrounds the crisis around race and sex that drove him to Senegal in the first place. Like Evan, the protagonist in I Get on the Bus, Milworth has terrifying dreams, forcing him to question whether or not the Kourmans are using voodoo against him. At times he wakes up in blood; at other times, he has sexual dreams about Kene. In his usual adroit fashion, McKnight shakes the boundaries between sleeping and waking, between a life dreamt and a life lived, so that Milworth is never quite sure what any of his experiences mean. The novel begins with a letter from Milworth to his sister, Rita, describing his returning home from work one day only to find the Kourman family having lunch in his foyer. The unexpected nature of their arrival, and the fact that they never explain why they are there, parallels the experience of blackness for the postmodern African American. Blackness is an identity that one gets whether one wants it or not; one simply becomes aware of it one day and the subject, literally, must live with it in much the same way Milworth must live with the Kourman family. Frantz Fanon writes famously in his essay “The Fact of Blackness” that the experience of being black occurs at the site of naming, of language: “Look, a Negro!” McKnight’s protagonist’s extended confrontation with the Kourman family plays out the tensions of recognition and desire as they intersect with blackness, fiddling with the notion of the “fact” of blackness and unnerving the supposedly stable boundaries of identity. In his 1993 essay “Confessions of a Wannabe Negro,” McKnight talks


He Sleeps is the story of Bertrand Milworth, who goes to Senegal to find himself after his marriage reaches a critical point due to an affair he has. His goal in Africa is to study urban legends, or contemporary Senegalese folklore, but his experiences there are far from academic. He Sleeps completely reworks the interracial narrative in unexpected ways. McKnight’s protagonist, Milworth, is married to a white woman and has, in fact, never had sex with a black woman. His


REGINALD McKNIGHT about “elbowing” space for himself in black culture. Going to Africa, as problematic as that is (a topic discussed at greater length to come), is one way McKnight finds a place for himself in blackness, as a “deracinated” black man. But that finding of self is not attributable to an African society which holds a special, romantic secret to the black self. Travel works, rather, to help McKnight find himself in history. These complicated negotiations of blackness, from both a historical and literary perspective, frame Bertrand Milworth’s experiences in He Sleeps. The other interlocutor of Milworth’s experience in Senegal is his guide and friend, Idrissa, who is as inscrutable to the protagonist as are the Kourmans. Idrissa mediates many of Milworth’s mundane experiences in Senegal—he helps him find a place to live, shows him where to eat, and does research for him at the library—but he cannot help Milworth decode Senegalese society and norms; in fact, the cultural gap between Milworth and those around him only grows as the novel progresses which is a counterintuitive move. Typically the longer one spends in a new location, the more one learns, and the more at ease one becomes with a place and its people. This is not the case for Milworth, whose life disintegrates into confusion as the novel progresses. In this way, McKnight’s novel contests the typical narrative structure which suggests that the novel is about finding one’s lost self or becoming a coherent and unified subject. Instead, in He Sleeps, Milworth becomes undone. The line between fact and fiction in He Sleeps is further blurred by the inclusion of Milworth’s notes on the “ULs,” as he calls them, the urban legends he is ostensibly there to collect. His task, trying to research the most interesting and recurring urban legends, to see what amount of truth is in them or not, parallels his own search for solidity and answers. His wife, Rose, remains a distant, ambiguous character—who says one thing and does another—until she sends him divorce papers. The confusion Milworth feels, his sense of losing touch with reality, is evidenced when McKnight writes:

discomfiting of all, a rigid breathlessness, a great black hand squeezing heart and lungs, invisible ropes and bands restraining arms and legs, everything in him ossifying, toughening, tightening. These things alone were enough to enthrall him, but not until this morning did the strangeness coalesce into scene and story, dialogue and action. He had never imagined the feeling of dreaming, how the thing lingers like yesterday’s drunkenness— somewhere deep in the body where the mind can’t see it. (p. 22)

Though Milworth’s dreams oppress him—he admits he’s never dreamed before coming to Senegal—his waking life is perhaps stranger than what he sees when he sleeps. One morning, upon rising he hears a chicken clucking. He follows the clucking to discover that the sound is coming from inside the couch. He reaches inside a slit in the couch to find a chicken, bound up, and leaves it on a note for the Kourman family in the foyer. He then goes outside to shower, only to stare too long into the sun, and to faint, bleeding from his tongue. Experiences like this, which occur with no narrative warning, catch the reader by surprise in much the same way Milworth is himself unaware of what is happening, or will happen to him. Increasingly Milworth finds himself feeling as if he is dreaming, even when he is awake. He notes that the heat and light of Dakar should stimulate him, make him feel alive and awake, but instead he feels as if he is under a dream during his waking hours. He struggles to communicate his sense of losing the hard edges of reality to Idrissa, but is unable to reach across the void to make himself understood. He is powerless to understand and diagnose his state, much less treat it. He Sleeps portrays blackness as an existential crisis by signifying on the “return to the motherland” mythology so prevalent during the Black Power movement that characterized Afrocentric discourse. Many African Americans after the success of the civil rights movement turned to Africa as the place to reclaim and rectify a battered identity that suffered so long under the burden of white supremacy. “Black is beautiful” became the slogan that characterized the notion that all things black, and this included Africa, should be embraced as evidence of black equality, and

For two weeks now, Bertrand’s head had been buzzing with strange voices, flickering images, and, most


REGINALD McKNIGHT perhaps superiority. Later in the twentieth century, novels like Paule Marshall’s Praisesong for the Widow (1983), as well as films like Sankofa (1993) and Daughters of the Dust (1991), all celebrated and upheld the idea of an African past, or at least an African-inflected past, as the cultural salvation of the African American. The notion that an Afrocentric ethos could directly contest anachronistic Eurocentrism (so damaging for African Americans) is what motivates Afrocentricity and most return-to-Africa narratives.

Knight urges black people in the diaspora and in Africa to see themselves as a collection of societies and cultures—not as one monolithic group— Africa does function, at least symbolically, as a place of transformation. For his characters, like Milworth in He Sleeps and Evan in I Get on the Bus, however, Africa teaches them that there is no solid, coherent identity to which they can return, and that by looking for an unchanging self they will only find dreams, fugue states, and perhaps death. Things go from uncomfortable to horrible for Milworth when he is accused of having sex with Kene, held against his will by Kene’s husband Alaine and his friends, and then informally tried by them. They seize Milworth’s journals and use them as evidence of his lust for Kene, who he maintains he never had sex with. During the interrogation, Milworth is accused of coming to Africa to have sex with an African woman in order to undo his sense of inferiority. Milworth refers to the entire interrogation as a dream, and he is not sure if it is real or not, continuing a theme present throughout He Sleeps and I Get on the Bus. The “dream” ends with Milworth admitting to an affair with Kene which he never remembers and Alaine delivering punishment by circumcising Milworth. He removes the foreskin and drops it on Milworth’s chest, suggesting that he has “made him a man” (p. 204).

Reginald McKnight’s work, however, problematizes the idea that returning to Africa involves anything more than confusion, madness, and illness for the black American subject. Yet McKnight’s work is not culturally smug about African, specifically Senegalese, culture; it isn’t that one culture is better than the other. McKnight’s work regarding the black American in Africa demonstrates that the notion of brotherhood among black people around the world has much less healing power than supposed during the Black Arts Movement. His work, instead, stages the cultural divide between black American and black African subjects in order to contest essentialized notions of race. Saidiya Hartman, in her 2007 book Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route does much the same thing through the genre of historical and academic memoir.

The novel ends with a series of letters to Rose, who has mailed Milworth divorce papers, in which Milworth claims to still love Rose but explains some of the peculiarities of their life which led to their separation—such as the fact that he never wanted to live in the same house with her. Milworth finally admits that the reason he never let himself get close to Rose is that he has been truly, and secretly, terrified by racism. He parallels his fear of living openly with her, as husband and wife, to the pain of enduring a kidney stone, and recalls horrifying stories of actual violence against an interracial couple and salacious racist critique that kept him from living fully with Rose. He recounts the incident of a man who kidnapped an interracial teenage couple, murdered them, and cut off their ears. Milworth becomes convinced that the world is full of

Bertrand Milworth is not your typical black nationalist looking for his authentic self in Africa; his marital crisis with his white wife drives him to Africa, so the basic outline of the narrative of black identity crisis, which leads one to a true home, is in place for the novel He Sleeps. McKnight then brilliantly tweaks the story line so that all the expectation of insight and enlightenment to be gained from a cultural homecoming is repeatedly thwarted. Some critics argue that McKnight’s protagonists in Senegal draw from his own experience in the West African country. In the 2001 African American Review interview “‘Under the Umbrella of Black Civilization’: A Conversation with Reginald McKnight,” McKnight credits the time he spent in Africa with making him into a real writer. So though Mc-


REGINALD McKNIGHT people like this man, but his terror is suppressed until his experience in Senegal—as horrific as it is—allows him to name and claim the more intimate, domestic danger he has long denied. Milworth is heroic because he avows his love for Rose despite the fear that white men only see him as man with a “King Kong dick” (p. 209). Furthermore, rather than embracing a new image of his black self, Milworth is stabilized not by a stronger identification with “blackness” after having been in Africa, but rather by recognizing that he does love Rose despite the risk it involves. In this sense, his sojourn in Africa doesn’t take him deeper into blackness or further away from whiteness. He Sleeps, then, reverses the back-toAfrica narrative where the solution to a cultural and racial identity crisis is usually a greater sense of blackness. Instead of finding an essential blackness in Africa, Milworth experiences a fuller recognition of the histories that shape, and perhaps warp, one’s desire. In addition to the short story “He Sleeps” from the collection White Boys, McKnight’s story “Palm Wine” also appears in the novel He Sleeps. Bertrand, an idealistic, but culturally narrow, African American anthropologist tells a group of Africans he is there to recover lost culture. The Africans help him to find the drink of palm wine, which the narrator has romanticized, but which he later finds barely potable. Ultimately the Africans reject him as condescending and Bertrand becomes an old man who regrets his inability to make meaningful connections with the Africans he met. Like the rest of McKnight’s American protagonists in Africa, what one gets from living in Africa is, perhaps, not what one expects.

younger brother named Dean and an older sister named Alva; his parents are stern and strict African Americans trying hard to survive in a very racist American military system. The novella begins with John, one of Derrick’s friends in Texas, telling him that in “places like” Louisiana, in the deep South, “coloreds” are still lynched (p. 118). Derrick’s entrance, then, into the society of the Louisiana military base is tainted by an unspeakable fear that all the white people he encounters will present threats to his safety. He attempts to share his fears with his brother Dean, but Dean is less concerned with racism in general and shrugs it off. His sister Alva, when approached, is surprised that Derrick never noticed the racism they experienced before. While the Oates family tries to adjust to yet another new home and location, their neighbors, the Hookers, react negatively to their black neighbors. Typically, black families live in another part of the base and their children attend a mostly black high school. The Oates family, however, lives next door to the Hookers and their children attend the mostly white high school. The Oatses are not political freedom fighters; it is inconvenient for the Oates children to go to the mostly black school because it is on the other side of town and the family only has one car. The patriarch of the Hooker family, Eugene, has a complicated past with black people. As a child he spent a significant amount of his upbringing in a mostly black Baltimore neighborhood where the black children, by his account, taunted him and regularly beat him up. His mother eventually married a black man who worked as a butcher and for this transgression, Eugene could never forgive her. As a result, he harbors extreme anger toward all black people. He lectures his three sons about the boundaries between “niggers” and white people, advising them how they are to structure their relations with their neighbors. His wife, Tonya Hooker, listens silently but later sows seeds of dissent within her favorite son, Garret. She doesn’t agree with Eugene’s views on race, but says little to openly contest his racist diatribes.


The most notable selection in White Boys is the novella of the same name. “The White Boys” chronicles the experience of twelve-year-old Derrick Oates as he moves with his family from south Texas to Louisiana in the late 1960s. Like McKnight’s own father, Derrick’s father is a military man, and because of this the family moves frequently. Derrick has two siblings, a

Against all odds Garret and Derrick become friends; Garret’s brothers tease him and suggest


REGINALD McKNIGHT that he has a crush on Derrick, which Garret of course denies. One of the older Hooker boys, Devon, develops a true crush on Alva. He notes that her skin is the color of caramel and that she watches his favorite television show, The Prisoner. When rehearsing how he could justify his crush on a black girl, Devon imagines saying to Junior, his older brother, “You know how hard it is to find a girl who’s even heard of that show?” (p. 204). But Devon never gets the chance to articulate why he cares for Alva so much, because Junior draws him into a teasing game in which he, Devon, and the other white kids end up taunting Alva by calling her “Mammy” and “Aunt Jemammy.” His love for Alva, then, goes unspoken, buried beneath the waves of his desire.

with Tonya, who seems eager to befriend her, not only to counteract her husband’s racism, but to solidify her own sense of herself as different from her husband. Tonya has no idea that her husband and sons plan to “teach Derrick a lesson” on the fishing trip and that she is part of their plan to lure him away from the safety of his family. Interestingly, the oppressive dynamics of Derrick’s own family is illustrated in a scene from the family’s first week in Louisiana. It is snowing outside and Derrick wants to play in the snow; he takes snow off a car to make a snowball and is confronted by the car’s owner, Mr. Hooker. His father sternly interrogates him about the incident and admonishes him not to embarrass the family. The reaction of Derrick’s parents seems over the top until the narrative shifts to reveal that Eugene Hooker is drawing exactly the kinds of conclusions about his new black neighbors that Derrick’s parents fear people will if they step out of line in even the smallest way. And though the Oateses turn out to be right about how racist whites will perceive Derrick’s innocent, childlike behavior, their constant and harsh disciplining of Derrick, and exclusively Derrick, reveals them to be unfair, oppressive parents. Derrick recalls a beating he got from his mother that is brutal and frightening, and his father recalls beating Derrick once with a cord, possibly only sparing the child’s life because his wife and mother intervened. Derrick’s world is an incredibly inhospitable one, both inside and outside.

McKnight problematizes the notion that because the Hooker children are the next generation they should be less racist than their father is. Like his son Garret, Eugene Sr. also had a black friend back in Baltimore, a boy named Dennis Tansimore, who ends up submerged beneath a morass of complicated racial feelings. Eugene maintains his friendship with Dennis even after leaving Baltimore until Dennis starts to push a rather aggressive interracial politics, writing that nothing is more beautiful than “a black mouth on a white breast” (p. 179), and inviting Eugene to remake the future through interbreeding. Eugene cuts off relations with Dennis, thinking that he has lost his mind, gone crazy. When Garret is teased one day by his brothers about his feelings for Derrick, his father questions him and Garret speaks against his friend, saying that Derrick “annoys” him, and has brought pictures of lynched men to school to show him. Garret relates accusations of Derrick being a communist and suggests that Derrick’s behavior as an agitator is what accounts for his dislike of him. Equally afraid that Garret is becoming a “sissy,” and that he isn’t sufficiently hateful toward the young black boy, Eugene devises a plan to teach Derrick “his lesson” (p. 179), and pressures his son into agreeing to go along. Eugene enlists his wife Tonya to “welcome” the Oates family to the base and also to invite Derrick on a fishing trip. In the process, Tonya takes Portia—Derrick’s mother—and Alva shopping. Portia is uneasy

As the novella progresses, Garret becomes increasingly uncomfortable with the plot to “teach Derrick a lesson.” The plan, according to a whispered conversation he has with his brother one night, is to take rope, tarp, and other lynching paraphernalia on the fishing trip. They will string Derrick up, and, when he is afraid enough, tell him that they’ve changed their minds but that if he doesn’t want to really end up dead, he’ll stay away from white people and in his place. Ironically, perhaps, Garret saves Derrick from this horrible fate by calling him a nigger. Derrick is on the school bus, trying to engage his friend in conversation, but Garret is withdrawn and eventually tells Derrick he’s tired of talking to a


REGINALD McKNIGHT “black nigger.” This throws Derrick into crisis and he flees the bus, stumbles around the schoolyard and eventually runs toward his schoolteacher, an ambivalent anchor in his swirling, uneven world.

day, however, his teacher (undoubtedly aware of what happened) reads a story about a black and a white boy who, through the tragedy of a tornado, realize they are same. The class is silenced and awed by the lesson, and Derrick feels that it is a transcendent, almost holy moment, and he realizes that neither he nor his classmates could experience this moment had the boy not called him a “nigger.” In both instances, the word “nigger” does more than injure. It actually presents the opportunity for a dialogue which otherwise would not have been possible, and in the second instance, it spares Derrick greater pain.

The implication is that Derrick will now not attend the fishing trip and thus be spared the humiliation, trauma, and danger of a faux lynching. “The White Boys” might be one of McKnight’s most overtly critical works on racism. Like the short story “Rebirth” (discussed at the beginning of this essay), “The White Boys” offers an unflinching look into the interior racial world of both a black and a white family. The Oates family is constricted in proportion to the rampant racism around them. The Oates females, when driving with Tonya on a shopping trip, pass a laundromat with the words “Whites Only” painted on the outside. Alva jokes bitterly, “Now what kind of laundromat only does whites?” (p. 186). The rule of Jim Crow is everywhere and the effect of that de facto and social racism on the lives of the Oates family is palpable. Likewise, the Hookers show the white family in flux; Tonya is consciously antiracist, while Devon and Garret, while never directly opposing their father’s views, harbor feelings of intimate connection with their neighbors, the Oateses. As pessimistic as the story is on many levels, there is also hope embedded in its torturous unfolding. Though Garret repudiates Derrick in a horrible, painful way, he does so in order to spare his friend a deeper, and a much more dreadful, humiliation. Garrett uses racism as a tool for very particular reasons and he bends that tool for his purpose; he subverts his father’s racist rhetoric to paradoxically save his friend, who could never experience the word “nigger” as anything other than an insult.

“The White Boys” is a painful story about a boy out of joint with the entire world. Like the protagonists in McKnight’s other work, Derrick has no place to call home and no community of comfort. He is an outsider in Louisiana and he is an outsider in his own home. His outsider status within even his own family is exemplified by the matter-of-fact way he mentions to his brother Dean that he is “the one [his parents] don’t like”; his brother glumly agrees (p. 135). McKnight’s work shows that there are many ways to be a cultural mulatto, to be neither here nor there, to be a subject that belongs nowhere and yet has been everywhere. Though McKnight’s work critiques uncritical celebrations of an ahistorical, unflawed African past and culture, the fact that so much of his work is set in Africa has made him an expert of sorts on the subject of African and Senegalese culture. In that capacity he has edited a 1996 volume of African quotes called Wisdom of the African World. In the introduction he writes, “Africa is everywhere. It is in our genes, our dreams, our memories, our barely expressible aspirations.ѧ Africa is everywhere, and it may be many things, but it is not a single thing” (pp. xv– xvi). McKnight deconstructs the idea of a single, mythic, romanticized Africa by calling into question preconceived notions about Africa and the terminology he is required to use in the volume he is editing. There is no “African mind,” he argues, and even the term “Africa” itself says less than we think, for who really is African and to whom does Africa belong? McKnight demonstrates his complicated sense of how to represent

The use of the word “nigger” by Garret parallels another moment in Derrick’s life; he recalls being the victim of the slur as a younger child in Colorado. While playing on a baseball team, he performs horribly and one of his teammates calls him a “nigger.” Derrick is mortified at the slur, but he is more horrified by the fact that the white adults around him seem to approve and actually laugh when the boy hurls the insult. Later that


REGINALD McKNIGHT the wisdom of the African world when he tells a Nigerian proverb about a talking skull who claims he died because of talking. He ends his introduction on this ambivalent note, leaving the reader not with a solid sense of something concretely “African,” but instead with the idea of saying too much as the actual danger. Rather than use many words to say much about what it means to collect African wisdom, McKnight steps back from the urge to define in that way and leaves much for the reader to decide on his or her own. In most interviews with McKnight he repeats the idea that blackness is whatever it is at any given moment, in any given context—sometimes recognizable, and sometimes not. His work is also a meta-textual example of how one can be so concerned with something, in this case with blackness and race, and at the same time work to effect change around what those categories have historically meant. What also emerges about McKnight in examining his life is his remarkable commitment to the craft of writing. He is utterly self-made; he has no Ivy League–granted MFA behind his name. His success is based entirely on the beauty and insight of his writing. As important as renegotiation of black identity is to McKnight, and as much as he writes about it, his writing is also about writing itself. In several short stories as well as in He Sleeps, the characters keep journals, collect folktales, and otherwise experience the world through writing.

talks, or the way he walks. McKnight is an interesting mixture of experiences and accents, all of which “mixed rather curiously on his tongue,” and produce him as a subject others see as “not quite” black. In this essay, McKnight recalls a moment when he was six years old and a girl at his school, Marsha—who is spectrally attractive to McKnight with her Aryan features—breaks up his contemplative reverie of her when, after overhearing him tell another classmate that he was born in Germany, rudely and insistently argues that “Coloreds can’t be born in Germany.” It is not only Marsha’s ignorance, and insistence upon being right when she is so clearly wrong, that makes this moment difficult. It is her refusal to acknowledge that a black person could be more than what she imagined him to be. Marsha’s youthful mistake is one that is repeated throughout McKnight’s life in the sense that recognition of who he is never attainable. Instead of being taken for who he is at face value, he suffers an endless series of validating interrogations, from both black and white people. He recounts a black classmate asking him whether his mother or father is white, because he talks like a white person. In college, a white colleague asks him if he can talk like black people and, when he says he can, demands proof. For both black and white people, McKnight is never what they expect. This is baffling to McKnight because who he is, the way he speaks, or the way he walks, is not due to any affectation on his part. He admits never desiring to be white or even thinking of what it would be like to be white. If McKnight doesn’t read as black it’s not because he is refusing a blackness that is real and identifiable in order to claim whiteness. McKnight doesn’t even rule out the possibility that there is some “essential blackness,” but says that if it can be found it will be a multiplicity of experiences, a “palimpsest upon which there are no erasures.”


McKnight perhaps sees his writing as his way to carve a space for himself in the black world. In his brilliant essay “Confessions of a Wannabe Negro,” McKnight explores his relationship to blackness as a “cultural mulatto.” McKnight argues that blackness is not any one thing and any authenticating discourse that attempts to make it so does nothing but reduce blackness to a set of “repeatable performances.” McKnight narrates incidents where he is at once rendered “black” by racism—such as when he is called a “Hippie Nigger Bigot”—and also when he is called a “white paddy,” because of the way he

McKnight’s work, and his life, is perhaps of more interest now than ever before. Since the election of the first African American president, the question of whether or not the nation has overcome its racism, and what it means to be black in a Post-Obama era, is being asked at


REGINALD McKNIGHT every level, and in almost every corner, of our society. McKnight’s articulations of black identity pre-dated Barack Obama’s rise to political power, but certainly predicted some shifts in American society that make it possible to imagine black identity as expansive, broad, and multifaceted in much the same way McKnight’s rendering of the black subject is.

Assimilation. Edited by Gerald Early. New York: Penguin, 1993. Pp. 95–112. Wisdom of the African World. Novato, Calif.: New World Library, 1996.

Selected Bibliography

Megan, Carolyn E. “New Perceptions on Rhythm in Reginald McKnight’s Fiction.” Kenyon Review 16, no. 2:56–62 (spring 1994).


Murray, Rolland. “Diaspora by Bus: Reginald McKnight, Postmodernism, and Transatlantic Subjectivity.” Contemporary Literature 46, no. 146–77 (spring 2005).

CRITICAL AND BIOGRAPHICAL STUDIES Govan, Sandra Y. “A Stranger on the Bus: Reginald McKnight’s I Get on the Bus as Complex Journey.” In Contemporary African American Fiction: New Critical Essays. Edited by Dana A. Williams. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2009.

SHORT STORY COLLECTIONS Moustapha’s Eclipse. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1988. The Kind of Light that Shines on Texas. Boston: Little, Brown, 1992. White Boys. New York: Henry Holt, 1998.

INTERVIEWS Ashe, Bertram D. “‘Under the Umbrella of Black Civilization’: A Conversation with Reginald McKnight.” African American Review 35, no. 3:427–437 (autumn 2001).

NOVELS I Get on the Bus. Boston: Little, Brown, 1990. He Sleeps. New York: Henry Holt, 2001.

Walsh, William. “We Are, in Fact, a Civilization: An Interview with Reginald McKnight.” Kenyon Review 16, no. 2:27–42 (spring 1994).


Nicholas, Xavier. “A Conversation with Reginald McKnight.” Callaloo 29, no. 2:304–321 (spring 2006).

“Confessions of a Wannabe Negro.” In Lure and Loathing: Essays on Race, Identity, and the Ambivalence of


JIM WAYNE MILLER (1936—1996)

Morris A. Grubbs IN A 1986 review of The History of Southern Literature (Louis Rubin, et al., 1985), Jim Wayne Miller took an unpopular stand against what he termed “literary history as defined by English departments: polite, decorous knitting societies convinced of their own superiority” (p. 88). Titled “ѧ And Ladies of the Club,” republished ten years later in The Future of Southern Letters (1996), the satirical review shows Miller’s unwavering defense of the Appalachian South as a vital contributor to southern letters. As Miller characterized it, The History of Southern Literature paints the south as a homogeneous place by foregrounding writers of the lowland South and backgrounding those of the Appalachian South, all the while blurring the rich distinctions between the South’s regions: “The editors have inherited the mantle of Stark Young & Co.: self-appointed official guardians of the South’s literary reputation, which accounts for the (perhaps unconscious) desire to banish poor cousins to the outhouse and put out the best uncracked china for company” (p. 88). The book’s emphasis on a “one South,” Miller argues, “do[es] not permit the ‘many Souths’ to emerge” (p. 90).

written. “But seem like hit’s a power of trouble to go to” (p. 87). Sut’s focus on the “trouble” that the author goes to reflects Miller’s signature doggedness, evident throughout his career, in challenging established and popular opinions. It also points to his drive to define the merits of a diverse and inclusive literature and to defend the literature of his home region—specifically the mountain culture of western North Carolina and eastern Kentucky. In surveying Miller’s literary accomplishments, one is hard-pressed to contain and categorize them, for he was highly accomplished as poet, fictionist, and essayist, was an acclaimed scholar of Appalachian literature and culture, and was a tireless teacher and mentor to scores of colleagues and younger writers. Both in his writing and in his teaching, the thread running through his work is his indefatigable faith in local places and local people as wellsprings of literature—or, as his students often heard him say, paraphrasing the poet William Stafford, “All literature is local somewhere.” The poet and novelist Robert Morgan, who studied under Miller, puts it this way: “Rereading his poems reminds us that he is not only a poet of the mountains, but of the planet” (p. 27).

Miller’s review assumes the form of a dialogue with Sut Lovingood, during which the author explains the book’s shortcomings to Sut, who prompts him for more explanations while nipping from a bottle of Jim Beam and plotting his escape to a young widow’s house. An homage to the literary tradition of Southwest humor, the review is crafted as an encounter set in Capehart’s Bar and Baitshop. The author is poring over the volume and writing his review when in walks Sut, the figure out of George Washington Harris’ famous frontier yarns. “You shore know how to ladle out words,” Sut says after listening to the author read the few sentences he has

With his mantra of localism without provincialism, Miller incited new levels of literary selfawareness in southern Appalachia. He was well known for his compelling presence at public readings, visits to schools and colleges, and writing workshops. “He was a kind of circuit rider, traveling these mountains to maintain the circuit—a lineman keeping our lines hooked up and functioning,” fellow Appalachian writer and workshop leader George Ella Lyon said of Miller after his death in 1996. With his car doubling as a library of Appalachian poems and essays, Miller


JIM WAYNE MILLER traveled, as Lyon described it, “because of us, because he saw what we needed—to have our voices gathered, written about, confirmed, to have our history spoken—and he took it on” (p. 32). His role as a founder and nurturer of a whole new community of Appalachian writers and scholars may be Miller’s greatest legacy, a feat immeasurable. “What he did was critical for me, for us, and for contemporary literature,” Robert Morgan has said. “As we say in the mountains, he was clearing new ground.ѧ He was deeply learned in the history of ideas, and he knew how to place his insights about the mountains in the context of wider and older cultures” (p. 28).

home to live and work? How do we preserve our local history and memory? How do we convince the coal industry to stop ravaging southern Appalachia? Sylvia Ahrens has summed up his accomplishments succinctly: “Miller spent his life defending Appalachia, building a pride in the people, pointing out their history, revealing their future, scorning the destructions, trying to keep the arts alive in education, and giving us the eyes to see the region as it was meant to be seen” (p. 80). William Faulkner in his Nobel Prize speech in 1950 said that the only writing worth the struggle springs from the “problems of the human heart in conflict with itself”—of the heart pulled two ways. Much of Kentucky and southern Appalachian literature arises from this conflict, and Miller’s work hits at the very core. As a borderland, a transition or in-between land, Miller’s adopted state of Kentucky is fertile ground for conflicts in values and identity. As fellow Kentucky writer Bobbie Ann Mason and others have noted, Kentucky is neither southern nor northern, eastern nor western, but a region in between. As such, it may have greater tendencies toward identity ambiguity or ambivalence than some other regions of the country. And as is often pointed out, Appalachia is a land of contrasts—of breathtaking views and breathtakingly ravaged landscapes—more like moonscapes—that are the results of strip mining and mountaintop removal. Other tensions include small-scale self-reliant communities in conflict with urban and mass culture; traditional farming in conflict with industrial agriculture; the mythical images (both positive and negative) in conflict with the stark realities (again, both positive and negative). All of these conflicts—and the powerful feelings of discontentment and yearning arising from them— are especially palpable in Jim Wayne Miller’s work.

Miller’s role as a literary promoter, not only of writers of his region but of literature generally, was legendary. In his travels throughout southern Appalachia to schools and colleges, as visiting writer, Kentucky poet laureate, and chair of the Kentucky Humanities Council, for example, Miller would often subordinate his own work to that of others. As many of his friends and colleagues have noted, Miller was as prone to reciting and discussing a student’s or littleknown local writer’s work as he was his own, and he would often place the work in the context of world classics in order to develop a point or present a theme. Miller’s understanding of how the universal human condition is dramatized on the local stage is one of the qualities that makes his work so dynamic and valuable. He was driven by the eternal question, How do we balance the callings of the world with the callings of home? When he sat down to write, he brought to the table his deep interest in world languages and regional dialects, his doctoral training in both American and German literature, his years of university teaching. He wrote with a kind of unified double vision, as if from one eye he saw the world through a universal lens, and from the other eye a local lens, balancing the distant and the near. Although he was a man of the world, a scholar of high ideas, he was also very much a man of the people, driven by practical, civic questions: How do we improve our local schools, make our children proud of where they are from, make it not only possible but desirable for them to return

Before his death from lung cancer at age fifty-nine, Miller produced a formidable body of work that included several books of poems, translations, many uncollected (at present) short stories, a play, two novels, several edited anthologies, and scores of essays, articles, introductions, and prefaces. He also edited works by Jesse Stu-


JIM WAYNE MILLER art, James Still, and Cratis Williams. He was consultant for poetry workshops in Kentucky, Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Indiana, and West Virginia. Widely recognized as writer, scholar, and teacher, Miller in 1986 was named Kentucky poet laureate by the Kentucky General Assembly. Among his many honors were faculty awards at Western Kentucky University for teaching, research, creativity, and service; the Distinguished Alumni Award and honorary doctorate from Berea College; the Thomas Wolfe Literary Award; the Zoe Kincaid Brockman Memorial Award for Poetry; Booklist’s Best Book of the Year citation; and the Appalachian Writers Association’s awards for Book of the Year and Outstanding Contribution to Appalachian Literature.

fish and go foxhunting with his grandfather Smith. Unable to read or write, S. Fred Smith became the muse for much of Miller’s poetry, most particularly the poems in Copperhead Cane (1964) and Dialogue with a Dead Man (1974). Both sets of grandparents were models for the grandparents of the fictional Robert Jennings Wells, the protagonist of Miller’s two novels, Newfound (1989) and His First, Best Country (1993). During his senior year at Leicester School in 1954, Miller met a recruiter and trustee of Berea College in Berea, Kentucky. From him Miller learned of Berea College’s mission to educate students from southern Appalachia while providing them with work opportunities to fund their education. He entered Berea College the following fall and, while taking the required classes, began working in the college bakery. During his sophomore year he met his future wife, Mary Ellen Yates, a junior serving as the student instructor in his German course. “I discovered that German grammar was fascinating,” he has said in his entry in the Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series (CAA), “especially when Mary Ellen illustrated it” (p. 280). A student from Carter County, Kentucky, Mary Ellen was an English major, and from her he learned about an exclusive writers group, Twenty Writers, which he was invited to join. By the end of his sophomore year, Miller had declared English as his major and German as his minor. Some of Miller’s professors encouraged him to read writers from southern Appalachia: “At Berea I became acquainted with the work of [Harriette] Arnow, and of Jesse Stuart, James Still, Wilma Dykeman, and others.ѧ In Mountain Life and Work [a magazine published at Berea] and elsewhere I began to come across stories, poems, and essays reflecting the Appalachian region, its history and heritage, problems and promise. This work caused me to examine my own experience more carefully than ever before” (CAA, pp. 283–284). In the spring of his junior year, Miller was awarded a scholarship to live in Germany as part of the Experiment in International Living. He graduated from Berea in the spring of 1958, and in August of the following year he and Mary


Jim Wayne Miller was born October 21, 1936, in Buncombe County, North Carolina, to James Woodrow Miller and Edith Smith Miller. The eldest of six children, Miller grew up in rural Leicester, not far from Asheville. He shares his Buncombe County roots with writers Thomas Wolfe and Wilma Dykeman, and folk musician Bascom Lamar Lunsford. While Miller’s father worked mostly away from the home and family farm, choosing to work in and around Asheville, young Miller spent much of his early life in the sphere of both sets of grandparents. His paternal grandparents, the Millers, lived in “an old twelve- or thirteen-room house that was three stories climbing up the side of a hill,” just about five miles from Miller’s home. They were “landed” farmers, Miller has said in an interview, who “had enough land to have sharecroppers” and were among the first in the community to have the modern conveniences of indoor plumbing, electricity, and a telephone (Beattie, p. 241). His maternal grandparents, the Smiths, were sharecroppers, and, in their sixties, moved to a house on Miller’s parents’ farm and raised the farm’s burley tobacco allotment. Miller grew up helping with all the farmwork. When he wasn’t tending the family’s vegetable garden and potato patches and milking cows, he would often


JIM WAYNE MILLER Ellen were married, the two having secured teaching jobs at the military base in Fort Knox, Kentucky.

In the fall of 1963, having completed his doctoral coursework, Miller took a faculty position in the Department of Modern Languages and Intercultural Studies at Western Kentucky University, where his wife would also secure a position in the English Department. With their two sons, born in 1962 and 1963 (a daughter would come in 1967), the couple moved to a home near the campus in Bowling Green, Kentucky. By 1965 Miller had completed and defended his Ph.D. dissertation on the nineteenth-century German poet Annette von Droste-Hülshoff, a regional writer with an especially strong sense of place.

After Mary Ellen completed an M.A. at the University of Kentucky in 1960, the couple moved to Nashville, where in the fall Miller would enter graduate school at Vanderbilt University. He had planned to pursue his doctorate in English in the department famous for its Fugitive/Agrarian writers, but the head of the German department noticed Miller’s interest in the German language and his experience abroad and offered him a prized National Defense Education Act Fellowship to study German. Miller accepted, arranging also to minor in English and study under Donald Davidson, the sole member of the Fugitive/Agrarian group remaining in Nashville, and Randall Stewart, the renowned Hawthorne scholar.

By the early 1970s, in a time of vast outmigration from rural areas, Miller was beginning to sharpen his critique of the industrial mindset and its effects on his home region. The More Things Change The More They Stay the Same (1971), a collection of folk ballads, shows Miller’s deep concern with the emotional and ecological effects of strip mining in his home region. Some of the ballads tell of the disastrous modern-day results of the “broad form deed,” so named because it gave the deed holders the right to extract coal by any means necessary. But the despair in this volume is tempered by humor and small signs of hope. In “Loving on Borrowed Time,” for example, a blues ballad mostly about poverty and repossession, the human will sings in the final lines: “No lights, no gas, no telephone / And loving on borrowed time.” Miller’s first major collection of poems, Dialogue with a Dead Man (1974), which would “vault him into prominence” (Dyer, Contemporary Poets, p. 346), heralded the next significant step in the poet’s movement away from the personal grief and loss pervading Copperhead Cane and toward a familial and communal wakefulness. Published by the University of Georgia Press, the book re-collected most of the poems appearing in Copperhead Cane, accompanied by two new sections, “Dialogue with a Dead Man” and “Family Reunion.” Miller has described these latter sections as “growth beyond” the personal. He commented on this poetic maturity in an interview with J. W. Williamson: “You start out with the immediate and the personal concern, but you move out from that

During his three years at Vanderbilt, Miller regularly published poems and stories in the campus literary magazine, and in 1963 he sent a cycle of ten poems about the death of his grandfather Smith (identified only as “S.F.S.”) to Maxine Kumin at the Writer. Kumin printed one of the poems, “Hanlon Mountain in Mist,” and devoted much of her “The Poetry Workshop” column in that issue to praising his poetry: Although each exists in its own right, the poems take strength from one another; the uses to which they put regional material make a continuum. Through it, the poet’s grief runs like a variegated thread. In one poem there is expressed a passionate sense of loss; in another, the voice of satire is raised in anger at the hypocrisy of the minister; further, the tone is softened with gratitude for the intangible gifts received in a longtime relationship with the dead man; and most conclusively, his death is accepted as having made life meaningful. (p. 22)

Miller has commented in an interview with L. Elisabeth Beattie that Kumin’s column was a breakthrough that led to several editors contacting him for more poetry. One of them, Robert Moore Allen, asked him to consider submitting poems for a collection, an encouragement that led the following year to the publication of Copperhead Cane (1964).


JIM WAYNE MILLER into a concern with peripheral family members and then finally get on off to people that you don’t have any direct or blood relationship with at all. You get more and more involved with humanity” (pp. 208–209).

included in The Mountains Have Come Closer, winner of the Thomas Wolfe Award. Before he would turn again to the figure of the Brier for his next major collection, Brier, His Book (1988), Miller would publish two more collections of poems: Vein of Words (1984), musings on his experience of directing poetry workshops and named Best Book of the Year by the Appalachian Writers Association; and Nostalgia for 70 (1986), a miscellany of poems drawn from Miller’s life on campus, at home, and on the road—a collection that captures “the disillusionment of the suburban academic” (Dyer, Contemporary Poets, p. 346). The title of the latter refers to the speed on the interstate, where one can race through the landscape as a distant observer and not interact with it. In Brier, His Book, Miller continues his growth of the Brier, extending his worldview, with the Brier seeing that his Appalachian experiences are not isolated but international. “In Country of Conscience,” for example, which Miller dedicates to the Lithuanian poet Czesław Miłosz, the Brier connects with those living subjugated lives, for he too lives in “a cultural periphery.” The Brier, Miller continues in his essay in the Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series, “surveys the multicultural situation of eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, where local cultures, folkways, and traditions have long been subjugated to ideology and imperial hegemony” and understands that there are “two of every country”—one that is rooted deep, the other that is “seen from the height of some idea” (p. 290).

Although he would ultimately fix his gaze as scholar and writer upon southern Appalachia, Miller continued to nurture his deep interest in German writers. “There’s a phenomenon in German literature that’s known as Heinmatsliteratur, Heinmat meaning homeland,” Miller told L. Elisabeth Beattie. “Heimatsliteratur is writing that is sort of consciously regional, and I’ve been influenced” by it through writers such as Edward Moerike and Theodor Storm (p. 257). On sabbatical leave in 1970 to pursue his interest in German and Austrian poets, Miller befriended Emil Lerperger, a Salzburg poet deeply committed to writing about the people and places of his home region. Miller later selected and translated over forty of his poems, which he published in a bilingual edition as The Figure of Fulfillment (1975). His translation of Lerperger’s poetry, Miller’s colleague Robert Martin has said, “sprang from the same concern for the level of minute particular where affection for people and places can be expressed.” Studying Lerperger and other German writers, Martin continues, helped Miller “sharpen his sense of place, helped him look to the places where people are most real, to answer how we can recover our identities after the holocaust of modernity and nationalism” (p. 15). The discovery and recovery of identity— individual and communal—in the distortion of the modern industrial and consumerist hall of mirrors, or “the American Funhouse” as Miller would term it, would become the poet’s core theme in his next collection, The Mountains Have Come Closer (1980). This theme is crystallized in the figure of the Brier, the character for which Miller is best known. The Brier represents the conflicted modern Appalachian, at once in love with the traditional agrarian world and the modern consumerist world. Miller’s often-cited poems “The Brier Losing Touch with His Traditions” and “The Brier Sermon—You Must Be Born Again” are two of the many Brier poems

In addition to the poetry produced in the 1970s and 1980s, Miller also published numerous pieces of short fiction and nonfiction. Among the essays in this period that bolstered Miller’s reputation as a scholar of Appalachia are “Appalachian Values/American Values” (published in a series of six installments between 1977 and 1979); “Appalachian Education: A Critique and Suggestions for Reform” (1977); “Reading, Writing, Region” (1984); and “Appalachian Literature: At Home in This World” (1984). During this time Miller also helped edit and reprint several of Kentuckian Jesse Stuart’s works for the Jesse Stuart Foundation, compiled antholo-


JIM WAYNE MILLER gies, reviewed scores of books, served as poetin-residence at several schools and colleges, and regularly led sessions at the Hindman Settlement School Writers Workshop and other workshops across southern Appalachia.

almost to the very end fishing, teaching, and learning.” (pp. 14–15). Having received his terminal diagnosis in June, Miller died on Sunday, August 18, 1996.

In the late 1980s Miller turned to the novel to further explore his themes and reach still wider audiences. His first novel, Newfound, a comingof-age story, is enjoyed by children and adults alike. Miller’s choice of having his young protagonist, Robert Wells, narrate the story of his growing up in rural Newfound, North Carolina, and going off to college in Kentucky allows him to create an intimacy and trust that is particularly appealing to young readers. And like Mark Twain’s classic Huckleberry Finn, another youthful novel told in first person, Newfound also has a level of complexity and resonance that will reward literary scholars and critics. Miller’s second and final novel, His First, Best Country, treats themes that are more adult in nature. The story is told through a third-person point of view, combined with letters to a cousin (one unsent, one sent) and letters to the editor of a local newspaper. The narrator’s language is playful and stunningly masterful, reflecting the language and thoughts of the linguistic-literarycultural-scholar as protagonist, the grown-up, worldly version of Robert Wells. The novel rises above Newfound in the way it treats the reader to richly metaphorical and lyrical prose throughout. One reviewer, Joyce Dyer, has called it a “small miracle.” “At its best,” she continues, “it is Miller at his best. What we hunger for most it provides: an eloquent interpretation of pain born from inevitable change” (Appalachian Journal, p. 206). After His First, Best Country, Miller turned with ever more intensity to helping promote the works of other Appalachian writers, coediting with Robert Higgs and Ambrose Manning the ambitious two-volume anthology of Appalachian writing, Appalachia Inside Out (1995). George Brosi sums up Miller’s tenacious promotion of his fellow writers’ works: “Jim Wayne Miller actually was involved in many more works celebrating others than books he wrote himself.” Brosi recalls that while battling lung cancer in the last few months of his life, Miller “persisted


The death of Miller’s Grandfather Smith at age eighty-seven in 1962 was a watershed event in the young writer’s life. Not only were the two men hunting, fishing, and field companions, but to the budding poet the older man’s death also signaled the loss of a deep and abiding tie to the land—to Miller’s native ground in rural Buncombe County and to the agrarian way of life itself. The poems in his first collection, Copperhead Cane, which appeared less than two years after his grandfather’s death, testify to the poet’s profound grief from this double loss. In the opening and title poem, Miller likens the old man’s uncanny solitary craft of transforming sourwood into spiraling canes to the poet’s solitary craft of transforming experiences into poems, a feat “wrought out of my gnarled grief.” In the second poem, titled “For S.F.S. 1875– 1962,” the poet recounts the grave journey of the coffin to its resting place on Newfound Hill. Seeing the pallbearers skillfully navigate through the clay mud, keeping their dress shoes clean, the poet recalls a time when, during a camping trip years earlier, he witnessed how “wisely” his grandfather walked, steadfast on the slippery earth in Doggett’s Gap. With its movement from a present image awakening a buried life, this poem presages a central metaphor in Miller’s work: the past walking. In “Hanlon Mountain in Mist,” one of Miller’s most haunting poems, culminating in a darkly mysterious final couplet, the poet tells of a time in the aftermath of his grandfather’s burial when he is visited by neighbor Ril Sams, a fellow fox hunter. Sams tells that his hounds sensed something at the misty top of Hanlon Mountain the night before, and that he turned back and came home when the hounds stopped in their tracks: “I trust the hounds: they know what made them stop, / what waits there in the mist on Hanlon’s top.” In addition to the power gained


JIM WAYNE MILLER from ambiguity, the poem is remarkable for its harmonious and seamless marriage of iambic pentameter and natural speech. Also remarkable is the poem’s natural integration of details, imagery, and mood. Miller has explained the poem’s genesis in his essay in the Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series:

companion are hoeing a row together when suddenly their two hoes strike, or so it seems, metal on metal, in the earth. The poet quotes his grandfather, with whom he last hoed: “When two strike hoes,” I said, “it’s always sign they’ll work the patch together again sometime.” (p. 26)

Though the setting might well have been the Ozarks, those place names came from western North Carolina. But I think no one would suspect that many of the poem’s details came to me from New England, for just before I wrote the poem I had been reading Hawthorne’s Mosses from an Old Manse.ѧ The poem is a combination of things, some from direct experience, some from reading. But reading is an experience, too, and for me always had been.

Delving down below the row’s surface, the poet discovers a buried plowpoint, probably belonging to his grandfather. With the irrational now explained away, the poem, drawing to a close, cycles back into the world of imagination in its final couplet, where the poet, resting, watches his companion beside him go back to work. “Meeting” is representative of Miller’s cyclic vision, which synthesizes the living and the dead, light and shadow, reason and imagination. In “Dog’s Eye,” the poet asks his companion why he has not spoken, and in the next poem, “Listening,” the dead man speaks, saying he was waiting until his living companion had moved beyond his grief and come to understand that the dead are not in earth or sky but in the living. In Part Three of Dialogue with a Dead Man, titled “Family Reunion,” the point of view broadens from the personal to the familial, from grief to hope. The book ends with two companion poems, “Visitors” and “Family Reunion,” culminating in a vision of the dead—the “departed who pose / all year in oval picture frames”— arriving in cars for a large picnic with the living. Gathered around the feasting tables, shaded by oaks and maples, the dead, the poet reflects,

Hawthorne’s passage—about a stormy and foggy day at the Manse, culminating with an image of “the demon of the tempest” in his “abiding place” at the “summit” of a distant hill—was, the poet says, “something I experienced no less than my grief over my grandfather’s death” (pp. 282–283). The grandfather appears as a figment in several of the Copperhead Cane poems. In “Burning Tobacco Beds,” for example, the poet, as he talks to himself “and to the flames,” thinks he sees his companion “through the smoke.” The grandfather’s death often shares the stage with the tobacco culture’s passing. In “Hanging Burley,” the poet, while standing up in the barn rafters looking down, conflates the two: A funeral mood below me on the ground: A blank-faced filing past the loaded sled; A coming with a solemn swishing sound; Tobacco borne as if it were the dead.

are looking out of the eyes of children, young sprouts whose laughter blooms fresh as the new flowers in the graveyard.

In Dialogue with a Dead Man, published ten years later, Miller expands the grandfather’s ghostly role, with the first section repeating most of the Copperhead Cane poems and the second portraying the two—the living and the dead—as field and hunting companions in the present. In “Stalking,” the poet hears footsteps in the leaves behind and up ahead of him, comparing his companion to “the trout that strikes / and quickly moves” (p. 25). In what is one of Miller’s bestknown poems, “Meeting,” the poet and his

(p. 78)

The following year saw Miller’s translations of Austrian poet Emil Lerperger’s poems, titled The Figure of Fulfillment (1975). Miller moved quite easily between writing his own poems and translating Lerperger’s, perhaps because the two poets shared not only similar rural backgrounds, though worlds apart, but also cyclic redemptive visions. The poems Miller selected range in oc-


JIM WAYNE MILLER casions from grief at the loss of a child to the death of a neighbor to the horror of concentration camps. Here is Miller translating one of Lerperger’s “Salzach sibyl” poems (the poems are untitled):

perspective further beyond the personal and helping him see with greater clarity that issues of Appalachian identity are issues shared worldwide. This broader vision would help shape Miller’s subsequent poetry, most particularly his cycle of Brier poems, in which he would try to grapple with the identity crisis in Appalachia—one of the “countries within a country,” as he would say later in Brier, His Book (p. 65).

In the evening when the mountains climb down to the town, the Salzach sibyl gathers the lost thoughts of hurrying people like sheaves. She is always harvesting, her dark cloak growing ever darker.


The late 1970s saw Miller’s poetry take a turn from the predominantly elegiac toward the didactic balanced with humor. The Mountains Have Come Closer (1980) and Brier, His Book (1988), the two major collections published between 1980 and his death in 1996, contain many of his most popular poems. (The two collections were combined and published posthumously as The Brier Poems in 1997.) Miller explained the genesis of his Brier figure in his essay in the Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series:

And here is the sibyl in the next poem: She no longer cares where her grave will be. But woe betide if she should cease to think (thinking is weeping), for then even the cemeteries would fade: ѧ All springs to come, all summers and falls are rooted in her thoughts.

I had been coming across derisive jokes about “Briers,” southern Appalachians who had moved out of the region to Ohio, Illinois, and Michigan, since the late sixties. My appropriation of the figure represented a movement beyond my personal experience to a point where I could write of the collective experience of several million southern Appalachians known to other Americans chiefly through the stereotypes found in popular fiction, in movies, and on television.

(p. 65)

The sibyl appears as a figure not unlike Miller’s poet, absorbing the despair and grief around him, and, through imagination, offering a means of triumph, of communal succor. At the end of The Figure of Fulfillment, in his biography of Lerperger, Miller writes: “As a poet Lerperger was born in apocalyptic times, in the shadow of death.” He continues:

(pp. 286–287)

In his public readings, Miller portrayed the Brier as an “Appalachian Everyman.” As he explained in an interview, the Brier is not the stereotypical mountain man, not the classic old-time mountaineer; rather, he is “a man living and thinking and experiencing in this time, in contemporary time, gaining some awareness of a sense of community with a larger group of people than he’d ever dreamt of” (Williamson, p. 209). Miller’s modern Everyman lives in two worlds, the traditional agrarian culture of his heritage and the consumerist mass culture of the present, and so he lives often in a state of conflict and ambivalence.

His World War II experience has continued to inform his poetry. But the poems transcend any preoccupation with the poet’s individual fate. Indeed, there is a striking absence of self-absorption and concern with personal circumstance. Still, his poems are local in their origins, detail, and texture, yet by no means limited. “Fate,” Lerperger says, “is at home anywhere.” Nor do the poems leave concreteness behind when his vision dilates to comprehend the whole of western civilization. (p. 91)

The act of translating Lerperger’s poetry was a formative experience for Miller, pushing his


JIM WAYNE MILLER The Mountains Have Come Closer is divided into three sections, with the Brier rising in the second (“You Must Be Born Again”) and leaping to center stage in the third (“Brier Sermon”). The poems in the first section, “In the American Funhouse,” give clues to the forces coalescing to urge the Brier forth: the modern flood of material things; ringing telephones; people and all of their rituals—weddings, commencements, church services; the poet’s realization that his suburban children do not understand his rural heritage, and so on. In the section’s final poem, “Going South,” the poet envisions his figurative death while sitting in his car “in a long line of traffic / on an evening in November / when mercury vapor lights are coming on” (p. 16).

longer authentic, they stop buying his chairs. The Brier responds by returning to eastern Kentucky and promoting himself as a stereotypical mountain chair maker. But in the evenings, after he closes his doors to customers and media, he returns to the way of life he enjoyed in Cincinnati, where he liked to put on his flowered sport shirt and double-knit pants, and open a can of beer and watch the six-thirty news on tv out of New York and Washington. He had to have some time to be himself. (p. 44)

The poem’s irony and ambiguity underscore the dilemma of many modern Appalachians: Who am I? Where do my allegiances lie? Must I choose one world or can I sustain a double life?

The next section features poems that explore more fully the Appalachian crisis of identity, experienced by those who have left home to seek jobs in cities outside the region. The section’s protagonist, the Brier, referred to in third person, is discovering what he has left behind. In “Turn Your Radio On,” the Brier, residing in a northern city, is always aware—awake and in his dreams—of the southerly direction toward the mountains of home. He gazes for hours at old photographs of family members, their thoughts invading his. Across space and time, “like a powerful transmitter,” they speak to him: “this place / belongs to us, their faces said, and we belong to it” (p. 22). In many of the poems, the Brier has a kind of double identity, unsure of who he is or where his allegiances lie. He is untrue to himself and to others. As the poet says in “Down Home”:

The contrast between the real and the as-ifreal is at the very heart of “How America Came to the Mountains.” In it, the Brier recalls how, when he was a child, a flood of modernity came rushing over his homeland. His family then moved temporarily to “Is” Illinois, but the Brier moved back home and has “lived in As If, Kentucky, ever since” (p. 48). “Brier Sermon—You Must Be Born Again” is one of Miller’s longest and best-known narrative poems. In it, the Brier, having felt called to preach one Friday night, stands on a street corner the next morning and holds forth. His message is aimed at saving the lost—those who are plagued by a malaise rooted in their crisis of identity: “Because we’ve been carried a long way around,” the Brier explains, “we’ve got so far away from home, we don’t know where / we are, how we got where we are, how to get home again.” The Brier speaks of how his listeners’ ancestors prepared and “left us a home here in the mountains,” but the descendants think “it’s too oldfashioned.” The Brier explains to his listeners that they need not live in the past, for “You can’t, even if you try,” but, he reminds them, “the past is living in you” (pp. 53–55). At the heart of the sermon is Miller’s signature theme of the divided self. Through little stories aimed to catch and hook his audience (for the Brier is skilled at appealing to his audience and hitting his mark), the

He had to admit it: he didn’t live here any longer. He was settled in a suburb, north of himself. (p. 28)

The theme of the elusive quest for self, or the alignment of disparate selves, is seen most clearly in “The Brier Losing Touch with His Traditions,” a poem in the third section. Once a traditional chair maker who was “discovered” by northerners, the Brier gets famous, moves to Cincinnati, upgrades to power tools, and wears stylish clothes. When his customers see that he is no


JIM WAYNE MILLER wild animal—as his companion, his civilizing influence who keeps him in check, is away.

Brier seeks to reawaken his listeners’ true selves, the part of them they have suppressed in their attempts to fit into the modern American funhouse. Miller commented on his “Brier Sermon” in an interview with Loyal Jones: “It employs a concept—a concept of being born again—as a metaphor for talking about a new understanding and a new view of one’s history and heritage.ѧ I wanted the words to be accessible to people of many different religious persuasions” (pp. 71– 72). Brier, His Book, while continuing Miller’s quest to offer a window into the complexities of Appalachian identities, treats a more diverse range of topics and themes than the earlier Brier poem collection. “The Faith of Fishermen,” for example, is a mystical poem about going beneath the surface of our modern constructions to marvel at the primal nature hidden beneath. “We need to know,” the poet says, “wonders are still alive at the base / of the steel and concrete world we’ve made” (p. 17). In “In This Dream,” the Brier imagines a car ride with his father and grandfather, who is driving, but his grandfather’s heart has stopped beating. In the back seat are two of his grandfather’s hunting companions, a couple of foxhounds, a muskrat caught in a steel trap, a black bear. The poem is an eerie reminder of how the dead continue to drive us—are often at the wheel—in our present. Two other poems recount episodes that have counterparts in Miller’s novel Newfound.


After Brier, His Book, Miller turned his attention more toward fiction, publishing Newfound in 1989. The first of his two novels with protagonist Robert [Jennings] Wells, Newfound is a bildungsroman and a portrait of the artist as a young man. Told in first person, the novel follows Robert from the summer before his sixth-grade year through his entrance as a freshman in college. Robert and many of the events are loosely autobiographical, with the novel set in a version of Miller’s native ground in rural Leicester, North Carolina. With younger siblings Eugene and Jeanette, Robert grows up in the orbit of both sets of grandparents: his dad’s parents, Grandpa and Grandma Wells, who have a big farm, a large two-story home, some tenant houses, and a supply store; and his mother’s parents, Grandpa and Grandma Smith, who live on the Wells’s farm in one of the tenant houses and sharecrop the Wells’s tobacco allotment. In twenty-nine chapters the novel traces Robert’s growth and change as he awakens to the intricacies and complexities of family and begins to move beyond home. One of Robert’s first forays into the adult world is experiencing the growing tensions between his mom, Nora, and his dad, James—a tension that grows into marital separation, causing young Robert and his siblings to have to leave their home to go live with his mom at Grandpa and Grandma Smith’s house. James, a college drop-out, is self-reliant and enterprising, but he is not inclined to farm and yearns for deliverance from the confines of his rural life. As the novel opens, he has just lost his job and has an immediate plan: with Robert’s help during the summer break from school, he will make and sell cement blocks. Nora is doubtful of the whole enterprise. At first the blocks are a bust, but after a time they become a novelty and a magnet for neighbors to stop and gather around and talk. They enliven the whole community, and eventually people buy them for small construction projects. When Robert returns to

In the book’s second section, titled “Land and Language,” the poet reflects on the metaphorical richness that abounds—or that once abounded—in Appalachia. “Written on the Land” tells of people who have written their stories upon the landscape, only to have those stories buried under water by the construction of a man-made recreational lake, “like ink spilled on a page” (p. 29). In “Land and Language,” the poet reflects on how “that country of coves and ridges lives” on in the language of those who may try to rise above it with the trappings of modern life (p. 38). “The Brier Grows Wild,” one of the most playful poems in the collection, tells of the primal self rising in the poet—of the poet becoming a


JIM WAYNE MILLER school, he sees many of the finished projects from his seat on the bus as it makes its rounds, and he is proud. After block-making, James tries welding and wiring and hauling, while his marriage continues to disintegrate. With young Robert often wavering in his allegiance to each of them, the tension between James and Nora is eventually too great, and, combined with an eruption of anger at Eugene, the two agree to separate.

ness of social and economic differences expands his capacity for empathy: “I would sit on the school bus and look at J. D. Marler and his little brother Carl and Mack Woody ѧ [and] I’d think about their fathers, Coy Marler and Jess Woody, and about their mothers and brothers and sisters and grandparents” (p. 38). The class contrast is especially evident in the way the transient Sutherland family—who makes woven chairs and baskets—is perceived as inferior by Grandma Wells. Robert doesn’t understand, nor accept her view: “They worked, they were friendly, and they could make good chairs and baskets. They were a family. Yet we sat around and made fun of them. I felt ashamed, going along with it” (p. 154). Robert values the Sutherlands’ chairs he sees on porches throughout Newfound as he does the constructions made of the cement blocks he and his dad had made. Robert is drawn to those who may be perceived as misfits—maybe not surprising since in some ways he is one himself, his interest in poetry and his drive to succeed academically setting him apart from the main currents of people in Newfound.

Robert’s sense of family is heightened by his parents’ separation, and he realizes the tremendous loss of what he once had. He links this loss to the gravity of the ravaged landscape not far away: “But now that Mom and Dad had separated, it was if the trees had been uprooted and torn from the mountains, as if the mountains had been cut and scarred, their tops thrown into the valleys, like the mountains that had been stripmined over in Bunker County” (p. 67). As Robert spends more time with both sets of grandparents, he becomes aware not only of the oddity of their living on the same big farm, but also of what emerges as class distinctions between them. He notices, for example, that the driveway to Grandma and Grandpa Wells’s two-story house is “like a tunnel” (p. 67), with tall pines whose branches shut out the light. They have cedars and rosebushes around their house and peacocks in the yard. In contrast, the Smiths live in one of the farm’s three tenant houses, with less-grand fowl, guineas, in the yard. Moreover, Robert has heard Grandma Wells divide people into two classes, “the good livers and the sorry” (p. 75), and he sometimes worries that she may consider the Smiths to be among the latter.

His fascination with Velma Sexton, whose childhood illness left her retarded, shows his inclination to be an observer of a side of life that is unsettling and unpleasant. Velma lives in a house near Grandma and Grandpa Wells. Often, on Sunday afternoons, Robert would go to an upstairs bedroom and spy on her through binoculars. He would imagine that if he called her name, she would acknowledge him, endearingly, “like a dog whose name you call” (p. 180). Later, when Robert gets his driver’s license, one of the first places he goes is to the Sextons’ with his Grandpa Wells to buy some tobacco plants. While Robert is on the porch, Velma suddenly jumps on him: “All I saw was a blur of white, and then something hit me, landed in my lap, and locked onto me.ѧ I was looking right into her face, feeling her hot breath, and I could see she had bad teeth and several hairs on her chin, tough and black as hog bristles” (pp. 183–184). Viewing a fascination from a distance is one thing; confronting it head-on is another. The scene is emblematic, heralding the clash of myth and reality that will, eventually in the novel’s

As with Mark Twain’s development of the hero in Huckleberry Finn, part of Robert’s growth in the novel is his emerging awareness that the surface of things can be misleading. And like Huck, Robert is developing his own convictions: “I wondered if Grandma Wells thought that Grandma and Grandpa Smith belonged to the sorry people. If she did, she was wrong, because they weren’t shiftless; they worked, and they worked hard” (p. 77). Earlier in the novel Robert projects himself into the lives of the two other sharecropper families, imagining what it might be like to live in their houses. His growing aware-


JIM WAYNE MILLER sequel, characterize Robert’s growth beyond his distant and nostalgic view of home. Robert’s awareness of the perceived contrasts of people extends to the town kids versus the rural kids. This distinction is evident in the attitude of the nurse, Miss Hudspeth, at the West Cordell Consolidated school, who assumes the eighth graders from the closed rural Newfound school have head lice. She checks Robert’s hair and he doesn’t have any, but she admonishes him to wash his hair more often. “I never grew accustomed to feeling shame,” Robert says. “Each time, it flared up hotter than before, and raced from the center out, popping and cracking like a brush fire, leaving everything black and smoldering inside” (p. 98). As he moves through high school, Robert is able to triumph over perceived inferiority by rising to the level of salutatorian and giving a speech titled “Citizens of Somewhere.” In his speech he wonders why so many people leave Newfound and become, in Grandma Smith’s words, “citizens of nowhere,” why they have to leave to find work someplace else while tourists flood in to enjoy Appalachia’s natural beauty, and why strip-miners are destroying that beauty. “I talked about the Sutherlands and the baskets and chairs they made, about oldfashioned ways and modern ways, about mules and missiles. I said I thought I was somebody from somewhere, from a place I would be leaving to attend college, but hoped to return to” (p. 205). The novel’s overarching theme of growth and change is embodied not only in Robert but also in many of the other characters, especially his parents. His dad eventually becomes a congressman’s assistant, a position allowing him to try and make a difference in the stand against strip mining in Appalachia. His mom teaches herself to type and begins to learn to drive. She studies for her GED, often working through math problems as her children do their homework. In his high school senior English and history classes and in his coursework at Berea College, Robert’s academic interests begin to intersect with and validate his heritage. Mr. Bennett, his high school English teacher, shows particular interest in Robert’s use of language and the

expressions he would use in discussions and writings—“things I’d learned from Grandma and Grandpa Smith,” Robert says (p. 169). In his history class with Miss Sloan, Robert learns for the first time about the term “Appalachia,” and Mr. Bennett introduces him to two important books on the region: Our Southern Highlanders and The Southern Highlander and His Homeland. “When I read these books,” Robert says, “I found a lot of things Grandma and Grandpa Smith said” (p. 169). In some of his coursework at Berea College he learned that the reason his grandparents use certain words the way they do is because of the rich linguistic history of the people who settled Appalachia. Miller leaves Robert at Berea College on the threshold of an ever-widening journey that will distance him more and more from home. While he realizes at novel’s end that wherever he may travel Newfound will be within him, Robert is nonetheless haunted by the mysterious push and pull of home, wondering why some people leave, not looking back, and why others try to leave but cannot. Miller will plunge the older Robert into the heart of these questions in the sequel, His First, Best Country.


Whereas Miller’s first novel explores how the home world is imprinted on one’s character and serves as an identity fortification in the journey away from home, his second novel is an expansive exploration of the attempt at permanent homecoming. One of the pervasive themes in Kentucky and southern Appalachian literature— maybe all of literature—is confinement and escape. Characters feel trapped in their present or by forces from their past, they yearn for some kind of deliverance, and they find a way out. This pattern is commonly manifest in the conflict between home and the world beyond home, but what makes the theme so interesting, so dynamic, is that the source of confinement is often a shifting target, moving between home and the world beyond. When characters are at home, they yearn for the wider world; when they are in the wider world, they yearn for the moorings of home


JIM WAYNE MILLER (often defined as the place where they came of age, the place where their consciousness and conscience awakened). As an Appalachian writer who is also a scholar of German literature, Miller is particularly drawn to this conflict, for the loss of home, or the threat of it, pervades the history and culture of these two regions of the world. But it is a universal theme, and one which surfaced perhaps with more intensity in the twentieth century than in any other time. Miller tapped into a major human vein when he created his fictional persona Robert Jennings Wells. Seen often in Newfound reading a book of poetry, young Robert has grown up and made a career in writing and college teaching in His First, Best Country, whose genesis was a short story by the same title published in 1987, followed later as a play produced at the Horse Cave Theatre in Horse Cave, Kentucky. Past middle age and on a four-month leave from his university, Jennings, as he is now called, has returned to his native home to finish a book on Newfound and to see if he just might want to stay.

Jennings’ understanding of the drive for “glimpses” of the primal spirit is one of the many instances in the novel where we see Jennings own glimpses into the confinement of the human condition, the stranglehold of the personal. His view of hunters, some of them anyway, as people who may be trying to reach out and touch something much more powerful than themselves, without understanding it, reflects his own inclination to understand human nature in all its mystifying complexity. As the novel unfolds—through a third-person narrator and framed by letters Jennings writes to his cousin—we learn that he and his wife were divorced two years earlier, that his grandparents and parents have died, that Eugene runs a filling station in California, and that Jeanette has married into the military. Jennings himself, while staying tethered to his native home but mainly to the myth of it, has led a rootless life. When he tallies up his residences, he realizes he has lived in “more than twenty apartments or houses, which, at the time, he considered permanent” (p. 74), an existence in stark contrast to the rooted life he had known during his first seventeen years. Changes abound in Newfound. At one end of Cordell County are “Jesus people” and “back-tothe-landers”: holistic medicine practitioners, herb growers, spinners, dyers, weavers, solar carpenters, calligraphers, dulcimer makers—many “living in renovated barns, mobile homes and geodesic domes” (p. 2). Barns have been transformed into places where “kindred cosmic souls come together” (p. 5). On the other end is a seam of coal where the landscape is already ravaged and others are “scheduled to be trashed by strip mining.” We learn later in the novel that Jennings has written a critique of strip mining in his book How America Came to Cordell County. Part of the county is slated to be submerged in water by the Corps of Engineers, and one of the reasons Jennings has come home is to buy an old log house in the water’s path and move it to his farm. The impending lake, which will bury a big swath of country, looms in the background of the novel, as it does in James Dickey’s Deliverance, as yet another way the industrialist world is usurping and flooding the traditional agrarian

A career studying and teaching literature has afforded Jennings the opportunity to peer often and deeper into the human heart, a journey he began as a child reading poetry and observing the human drama as it is played out on a small local stage. Like his younger self as portrayed in Newfound, Jennings questions certain accepted attitudes and assumptions, even if they have been part of the fabric of his own consciousness in the past. In his youth he did not question, for example, why the men and boys, including himself, were so drawn to hunting wild creatures. Now, however, in a leap of understanding, he thinks he comprehends a little better the human impulse to want to shoot and kill them: Killing them [the wild creatures] was just their clumsy, ignorant way of trying to hold a wonder in their hands.ѧ But every time they’d tried to hold in their hands the wonder that was the life of something wild, they’d had to watch the wonder fade, grow dim and lusterless, breathed out in bloody bubbles through the nose.ѧ They’d killed for imperfect fleeting glimpses, for the opportunity to come close to something amazing and beautiful. (p. 18–19)


JIM WAYNE MILLER world. Further, as in Dickey’s novel, the lake expands into a metaphor for layering and duplicity, for how the surface belies what is hidden from view. More and more, as Newfound changes, its past finds ways of manifesting itself. Jennings’ growing awareness and affirmation that he is the past rising is at the heart of the novel:

him with a can of kerosene in hand, stops him with a .38 caliber pistol, makes him strip naked, and sends him off into the night. The scene is charged and edgy, and the long-term implication is clear: Jennings will be looking over his shoulder if he stays in Newfound. But the peril is balanced in the novel by Jennings’ budding relationship with Roma Livesay, who succeeds, as no one else does, in revealing to him his paradoxical nature: that although he praises rootedness in his writing, “he’d flitted around, in universities, in Europe, and knew his people more as an idea than as individuals” (p. 95). Jennings first met Roma when he was sixteen and she was a small child. As teenagers, Jennings and Roma’s older brother Clyde hunted together, and one day while Jennings was waiting for Clyde to come out of the house, he saw little Roma sitting on the porch, her “cotton panties pushed to one side” as she “massaged her crotch and stared up at him” (p. 45). Now divorced and in her mid-thirties, and having come home herself after completing some graduate work, Roma has been following Jennings’ career through the books he has published. She stops by one day for a visit, and the two seem instantly drawn to one another. The novel builds to their sexual consummation, beside his parents’ graves, where his past and present merge: “He was going there again— coming home, to his first, best country, now strange and new” (p. 214).

I’m not myself, Jennings thought. At least not just myself. I’m mostly other people. For it seemed to him it was his grandfather’s hand he held out in night air soft as mole’s fur; his grandfather’s eyes that saw the quarter moon holding water for September rains. (p. 75)

Early in the novel, he thinks of all the people who were there before his family came, how the early settlers left hand-hewn grave stones, how the Indians left chipped flint before them, and he wonders if his poems will be all that he has to add to the layers of time and meaning. His life as an academic, writing about home from a distance in time and space, is sinking. “All that was subdued in him, his past in this place, was rising to the surface” (p. 99). This rising, however, is not without its obstacles and threats. The shape of Jennings’ development during his leave from his professional life is that of an initiation story, with his ideal of home clashing with reality. The real of the present literally assaults him in the form of Cecil Pedigo, a former sheriff’s deputy who now serves not the county but Hilliard Shelton, Jennings’ old adversary and one of the chief proponents of “Progress” in Newfound. Hilliard also happens to be the chair of the school board, and while Jennings is on his way to a school board meeting to speak against the closing of a county school, he is accosted by Cecil. In a bloody fight, Jennings stomps Cecil’s blackjack out of his hands, and Cecil retreats. Following the meeting, Jennings finds jackrocks (twisted nails meant for puncturing tires) strewn in the road near his house, and he then catches Cecil on the brink of burning his barn. In an agrarian culture, one of the worst crimes one can commit is barn burning, and, like Abner Snopes in William Faulkner’s “Barn Burning,” Cecil Pedigo is reportedly a repeat offender. Jennings catches

What ultimately rises in the novel is Jennings’ resolve to be an active participant, an intimately engaged citizen, in bettering the life of a particular place and its people. His tense exchanges with Hilliard Shelton and his violent encounters with Hilliard’s chief crony, Cecil, serve not to scare Jennings away but rather to strengthen his determination to stay. Before his academic leave, home was merely a birthright, a gift to take or not, or to take when convenient, a subject to ponder and write about in his books. Now home is a choice he has made. (“I’m back in Newfound and intend to stay,” (p. 215) Jennings writes to his cousin at novel’s end. In that choosing is a newfound commitment. In the course of the two novels, Jennings comes full circle, and his growth incites change


JIM WAYNE MILLER in those around him. Just as his dad’s cement blocks once stirred the neighbors into a frenzy of construction improvements around Newfound, Jennings’ words and actions have stirred the community and may lead to good civic action. A new solidarity—a chorus of concerned voices—rises in Newfound as a consequence of Jennings’ homecoming commitment. At the school board meeting, people who are usually voiceless rise and speak to take a stand with Jennings to improve the consolidated city school, plagued by drugs and teenage pregnancies, before allowing a much more effective rural school to close its doors and merge. Jennings has awakened in Newfound old civic urges and has renewed a faith in public debate as a means of fending off at least some of the destructive forces that have crept into the town. Now embodying the title of his high school graduation speech, “Citizens of Somewhere,” described in Newfound, Jennings has at last managed to combine his scholarship with citizenship. Miller often argued that merging the two—the global and local perspectives— for the betterment of one’s place should be the chief aim of education. His character, Dr. Robert Jennings Wells, is finally highly educated.

Nostalgia for 70. Big Timber, Mont.: Seven Buffaloes Press, 1986. Brier, His Book. Frankfort, Ky.: Gnomon Press, 1988. The Brier Poems. Frankfort, Ky.: Gnomon Press, 1997.

NOVELS Newfound. New York: Orchard Press, 1989; Frankfort, Ky.: Gnomon Press, 1996. His First, Best Country. Frankfort, Ky.: Gnomon Press, 1993.

OTHER WORKS The Examined Life: Family, Community, and Work in American Literature. Boone, N.C.: Appalachian Consortium Press, 1989. Round and Round with Kahlil Gibran. With an introduction by Sharyn McCrumb. Blacksburg, Va.: Rowan Mountain Press, 1990. (Six-page satirical chapbook.) “Jim Wayne Miller.” In Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series. Edited by Joyce Nakamura. Vol. 15. Detroit: Gale Research, 1992. Pp. 273–293. “ѧ And Ladies of the Club.” In The Future of Southern Letters. Edited by Jefferson Humphries and John Lowe. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996. Pp. 87–91.




The Figure of Fulfillment: Translations of the Poetry of Emil Lerperger. Owensboro, Ky.: Green River Press, 1975. The Wolfpen Poems. By James Still. Berea, Ky.: Berea College Press, 1986. Southern Mountain Speech. By Cratis Williams. Coedited with Loyal Jones. Berea, Ky.: Berea College Press, 1992.

Selected Bibliography

ANTHOLOGIES I Have a Place. Pippa Passes, Ky.: Alice Lloyd College, 1981. A Gathering at the Forks. Coedited with George Ella Lyon and Gurney Norman. Wise, Va.: Vision Books, 1993. Appalachia Inside Out. Coedited with Robert J. Higgs and Ambrose N. Manning. 2 vols. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1995.

WORKS OF JIM WAYNE MILLER POETRY Copperhead Cane. Nashville, Tenn.: Robert Moore Allen, 1964. Reprinted as bilingual English-German text, translated by Miller and Thomas Dorsett. Louisville, Ky.: Grex Press Library Poetry Series, 1995. The More Things Change the More They Stay the Same. Frankfort, Ky.: Whipporwill Press, 1971. Dialogue with a Dead Man. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1974.

CRITICAL AND BIOGRAPHICAL STUDIES Ahrens, Sylvia. “Jim Wayne Miller: Universal Regionalist.” Kentucky English Bulletin 47, no. 2:75–84 (winter 1998). Brosi, George. “Jim Wayne Miller.” Appalachian Heritage 37, no. 3:11–15 (summer 2009).

The Mountains Have Come Closer. Boone, N.C.: Appalachian Consortium Press, 1980. Vein of Words. Big Timber, Mont.: Seven Buffaloes Press, 1984.

Caskey, Jefferson D. “The Writings of Jim Wayne Miller: A Selective Bibliography.” Iron Mountain Review 4, no. 2:37–40 (spring 1988).


JIM WAYNE MILLER Martin, Robert. “Not Bad for a Brier.” Appalachian Heritage 25, no. 4:14–17 (fall 1997). Miller, Mary Ellen. “My Husband.” Appalachian Heritage 25, no. 4:4–5 (fall 1997). ———. “The Literary Influences of Jim Wayne Miller.” Appalachian Heritage 37, no. 3:19–24 (summer 2009). Miller, Ruth. “My Father.” Appalachian Heritage 25, no. 4:6–7 (fall 1997). Morgan, Robert. “Clearing Newground.” Appalachian Heritage 25, no. 4:24–30 (fall 1997).

Crooke, Jeff. “Sonnet Forms and Ballad Feelings.” Iron Mountain Review 4, no. 2:23 (spring 1988). Dyer, Joyce. “Jim Wayne Miller.” Contemporary Poets, Dramatists, Essayists, and Novelists of the South: A BioBibliographical Sourcebook. Edited by Robert Bain and Joseph M. Flora. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1994. Pp. 344–359. ———. Review of His First, Best Country. Appalachian Journal 21, no. 2:205–206 (winter 1994). Pp. 202-206. Edwards, Grace Toney. “Jim Wayne Miller: Holding the Mirror for Appalachia.” Iron Mountain Review 4, no. 2:24–28 (spring 1988).


Hall, Wade. “Jim Wayne Miller’s Brier Poems: The Appalachian in Exile.” Iron Mountain Review 4, no. 2:29–33 (spring 1988).

Beattie, L. Elisabeth. “Jim Wayne Miller.” In her Conversations with Kentucky Writers. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1996. Pp. 242–261. Crowe, Thomas Rain. “Rocks in the Stream: A Conversation with Jim Wayne Miller.” Arts Journal 14, no. 11:10–13 (August 1989). Jones, Loyal. “An Interview: In Quest of the Brier.” Iron Mountain Review 4, no. 2:13–21 (spring 1988). Reprinted in Appalachia and Beyond: Conversations with Writers from the Mountain South. Edited by John Lang. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2006. Pp. 53–72. Kelly, Patricia P. “An Interview with Jim Miller.” Journal of Reading 34, no. 8:666–669 (May 1991). Larson, Ron. “The Appalachian Personality: Interviews with Loyal Jones and Jim Wayne Miller.” Appalachian Heritage 11, no. 3:48–54 (summer 1983). Williamson, J. W. “An Interview with Jim Wayne Miller.” Appalachian Journal 6, no. 3:207–225 (spring 1979).

Johnson, Don. “The Appalachian Homeplace: The Oneiric House in Jim Wayne Miller’s The Mountains Have Come Closer.” Iron Mountain Review 4, no. 2:34–36 (spring 1988). Jones, Loyal. “Leicester Luminist Lighted Local Language and Lore.” Appalachian Heritage 37, no. 3:27–34 (summer 2009). Kumin, Maxine. “The Poetry Workshop,” Writer, July 1963. Reprinted as “A Variegated Thread,” Iron Mountain Review 4, no. 2:22 (spring 1988). Lasater, Michael. A Sense of Place. Television profile of Jim Wayne Miller’s work. A production of Western Kentucky University Television Center. Bowling Green, Ky., 1985. Lyon, George Ella. “Will Work for Words.” Appalachian Heritage 25, no. 4:31–35 (fall 1997).



Terry Barr TOVA MIRVIS IS an emerging American novelist whose most famous work is the 1999 national best seller The Ladies Auxiliary. Mirvis’ characters inhabit a late-twentieth- and early-twentyfirst-century cultural environment that asks them to confront issues pertaining to their mainly Orthodox Judaism. Usually writing from multiple subjective perspectives, Mirvis imagines any number of possible ways for her characters to live in the Orthodox world. Some start as Modern Orthodox and journey deeper into the culture and faith of ultra-Orthodox communities. Others begin as Reform Jews and over time embrace the Hasidic world. Some leave their communities and Jewish faith altogether. Her fictional world, then, reflects the questions being asked today by Jewish Americans of all “denominations.”

myself a Jewish writer, a Southern writer, a woman writer. I am fully all of these; they are my sources of material, they are my language and sensibility.” Still, she feels the “fear of being viewed as limited, as if being intimately knowledgeable about one world precludes the ability to see and know other ones.” Not wanting to be categorized solely as a “Jewish writer” is also a “refusal to settle down firmly inside any set of borders, to live too deeply in any one place” (in Rubin, Who We Are, p. 309). Acknowledging that the Jewish sense of identity, place, and old-world ties makes it difficult for writers, audiences, and characters to centralize specific Jewish cultural, historical, religious, or lingual traits, Mirvis goes her American readers one better. Perhaps her most enduring legacy to American literary studies is her vivid portrayal of southern Jewish life, for Mirvis is by background, if not sensibility, a southern Jewish American author, having been raised in Memphis, Tennessee. Her first published novel, The Ladies Auxiliary, is set entirely in Memphis, and her second novel, The Outside World (2004), uses Memphis as a secondary locale. The Orthodox Jewish world she paints with her prose reflects this city and the Jewish community that she still thinks of as home even though she now resides in Newton, Massachusetts.


Mirvis is part of a literary community of younger Jewish and/or “Yiddishist” American writers such as Nathan Englander, Dara Horn, Allegra Goodman, Jonathan Safran Foer, Pearl Abraham, and Michael Chabon. A growing critical controversy among some of these authors is the extent to which they claim the label of “Jewish author,” a controversy dating back at least to the celebrated author Phillip Roth’s early fiction, Goodbye, Columbus (1959) and Portnoy’s Complaint (1967), when Roth was accused of betraying all Jews by “airing their dirty laundry.” Some, like Englander, “deny wholeheartedly” the label of “Jewish writer,” but Mirvis, as she asserts in an interview with the Forward, does label herself “a Jewish writer” (Kellman, “An Anthology of Jewish Fiction, More on the Verge Than the Edge”). However, she also admits, in her essay “Writing Between Worlds,” that the question of being a Jewish writer is “so fraught ѧ I am happy to call

Mirvis is a vital part of what one might call Southern Literary Shtetlists: Jewish novelists/ playwrights from the South who are creating stories about the entrenched diversity of southern Jewish life. From Roy Hoffman’s Mobile, Alabama (Chicken Dreaming Corn), to Alfred Uhry’s Atlanta (Driving Miss Daisy, The Last Night of Ballyhoo), to Tony Kushner’s New Orleans


TOVA MIRVIS (Caroline, or Change) these authors defy the ethnically “solid South” monolith that many both in and outside of the region believe to be true. Mirvis is not even the only nationally acclaimed Memphis Jewish novelist, for Steve Stern has been writing realistic and magical-realist fiction such as A Plague of Dreamers and Lazar Malkin Enters Heaven about Jewish life in that city for nearly thirty years.

cally, Mirvis believes that her own parents resided on the “liberal edge” of that world. As she elaborated in her interview with Jacobs, her parents’ separation from the Orthodox community “gave her a slightly different perspective from many of her peers.” And this perspective led her to pathways in life that were different from the Orthodox norm. For instance, after completing high school in Memphis she spent the next year studying Talmud in Israel, which for her was a small act of rebellion that resonates in The Outside World. However, Jacob reports that because the Talmud was “traditionally studied only by men” at this time, Mirvis’ decision became the “talk of the town.”

Mirvis was born in Bethesda, Maryland, in 1972, but her family moved to Memphis when she was a child. In a faux interview given in the “Reader’s Guide” section of The Ladies Auxiliary, Mirvis is asked by one of her Memphis ladies whether, as an Orthodox Jew, she felt like an outsider in Memphis—the city is home to only nine thousand Jews, approximately one thousand of whom are Orthodox—she responded that she did, and believes that her experience is “typical” of most Jewish southerners: “When I went to school in New York [receiving her B.A. from Columbia University in 1995 and her M.F.A. in 1998], people hearing that I was from Memphis and had grown up in the Jewish community there always expressed surprise that there were Jews in Memphis.ѧ I grew up feeling very aware of being different.ѧ But still, I feel deeply connected to Memphis.ѧ I still have this sense of what it means to be from somewhere” (The Ladies Auxiliary, “A Reader’s Guide,” pp. 8–9). Indeed, as reported in a 2003 interview with Jill Suzanne Jacobs for, Mirvis is a sixthgeneration “Memphian,” her grandmother, at age two, moving with her family to the city from Germany. Mirvis maintains in “Writing Between Worlds” that growing up in such a close-knit Jewish atmosphere taught her how to “listen to the voices of a community, to hear its unsaid but certain opinions” (p. 303). She remembers attending her “purple-and-silver Orthodox shul” every Shabbos, and sitting “in the women’s section, next to my mother, one row behind my grandmother, my view obfuscated by the domes and decorations of grand hats and the mechitza that separates the men from the women” (p. 301).

Mirvis also felt this split perspective during her days at Memphis’ yeshiva high school, a place where during the morning she and the eighteen female students in her class studied secular subjects and in the afternoon Judaic studies. In a brief memoir for, she comments that “rarely did the two [courses of study] ever meet.” The girls were being “trained” to become “wives and PTA presidents,” and the classes were “regularly interrupted for motherdaughter luncheon preparations, for pizza sales, and for an ill-fated song-and-dance performance entitled Destiny: An Inspirational Evening of Song and Dance for the Women of Memphis.” Her school had strict dress codes, meaning that if a girl’s dress was “deemed too short,” she would be “rented” a replacement that suited the dress code. Or, a student could be sent home for any infraction of these rules (Mirvis, “The Scarlet Letter Aleph”). The class that she loved best—and which in a sense, stamped her entry into the outside literary world—was her high school English class, where her teacher had the students read novels that were not Jewish novels: “I’m not sure I knew there was such a thing as a Jewish novel because the line dividing our day would have kept those two words apart as well.” In that class, she insists, she felt the most “alive” out of any other time during her day. It was during that English class too that she first read Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, which, as will be discussed

While the Orthodox Jewish community in Memphis was conservative culturally and politi-


TOVA MIRVIS shortly, impacted the plot and theme of her first novel (Mirvis, “The Scarlet Letter Aleph”). While her novels do reflect this grounding in a southern Jewish Orthodox community, Mirvis’ world now revolves around maintaining her pace of writing balanced by helping her husband, Allan Galper, raise their two young sons, Eitan and Daniel. In her essay “A Writer’s Bed,” published in Poets & Writers, she notes that for years she tried to write in a crowded Starbucks. But later, the need for greater privacy and intimacy with both her family and her work caused her to take to her bed, where she can escape her sons’ “Legos and Matchbox cars strewn across the living room floor,” and where, after tossing her husband’s clothes off their bed, she can “set up for the day’s work ahead—my laptop on my lap and pillows propped up all around” (p. 21). Actually, her bed has even greater parental and literary resonance, as she notes in the “Reader’s Guide” to The Ladies Auxiliary, for when the final manuscript of The Ladies Auxiliary was about to be delivered, Mirvis, who had been confined to her bed for several months due to complications during her first pregnancy and had used that time to make the final revisions to her novel, gave birth to her first son—two months early: “One of the first things I thought about having the baby was that I had the manuscript sitting in my apartment and I needed to turn it in. I ended up delivering the two of them in the same week” (p. 9). Even today Mirvis continues writing from her bed, and her husband—who by day is a lawyer, by night an architectural historian—works in bed too in the evenings. As she says in “A Writer’s Bed”: “As we’ve worked side by side, I’ve gravitated toward his interest in architecture. In fact, it’s becoming a part of the novel I am writing,” about a southern Jewish family based on her own family history (p. 23).

“unflattering or ridiculous light” (Shalit, “The Observant Reader”). For Shalit, these authors give the “outside world” only a caricatured picture of Orthodox Jews. In a clear and concise online response to Shalit, Sara Ivry reminds us that “Unlike Orthodoxy, fiction encourages rule breaking, and its consequences can be sublime” (“Stranger to Fiction”). Indeed, in “Writing Between Worlds,” Mirvis declares that “In life, there are so many restrictions, some I will hold on to, others I have and will discard. But in writing, I don’t have to do either. I can move back and forth across borders. Legal categories draw lines. Writing blurs them” (p. 309). This important distinction between life and fiction—even when the fiction uses real-life models—can help us appreciate the strategy and thematics of Mirvis’ two novels. Although writing about any “closed” world will stir controversy and undoubtedly offend many residents of that world, exposing the beauty, the reality, and yes, the “dirty laundry” of that world to readers who know little to nothing about it, it might open eyes and minds that have been locked in prejudice and ignorance. Such is the chance that the sincere fiction writer takes.


The narrator of The Ladies Auxiliary is the community’s voice, a perspective that was inspired, according to Mirvis, by the community narrative voice in William Faulkner’s famous story “A Rose for Emily.” Near the end of the novel, after faithfully chronicling its events, the community comes to the understanding that after two central characters have seemingly betrayed their beloved Orthodox world, now “everything could be called into question” (p. 301). For this community, nothing seems certain any longer. Such a statement bites at the heart of Orthodoxy itself because its adherents are supposed to accept all laws and rituals pertaining to it and leave the questioning and interpretation to the learned, male Talmudic scholars. Questioning such laws is the pathway to chaos, disbelief, and another sure destruction of the Jewish people and


In a 2005 essay for the New York Times, the Orthodox Jewish author Wendy Shalit takes the contemporary Orthodox Jewish novelists Nathan Englander, Jonathan Rosen, and Tova Mirvis to task for characterizing Orthodox Jews in an


TOVA MIRVIS the tenets that hold them together, or so the community believes. One of the characters most resistant to change is Tziporah Newburger, who congratulates herself after the final series of “betrayals” for knowing “that ѧ once the mind was exposed to foreign ideas, who knows where it would wander” (p. 303). And yet Tziporah fails to consider that it has always been the Jewish reality to question, to debate, to reflect, and even to doubt. It is especially the Jewish way to change and adapt to circumstances that the “outside world” has forced Jews to adhere to over countless generations. Jews have always been tempted and tested by their God, and clearly, after more than twentyfive hundred years, the Jewish people continue to choose their “chosenness,” seemingly when there is no good reason to do so. Thus the novel’s as well as the Jewish people’s conflict: adhering to God’s law while questioning the reasoning behind and adapting to new interpretations of the law. It is no wonder, then, that Mirvis’ collective narrative voice wonders what the future will bring after the community’s tests:

where they belong. The community has survived by maintaining strict Orthodox standards, and when it has felt threatened by change, it has reacted by imposing even tighter restrictions. Its rabbi has served in that capacity for over thirty years, and the community expects his son to succeed his father. Continuity has become, if not a law, then a mitzvah (good deed). But into this seeming paradise come Batsheva and her daughter Ayala, newcomers who are busily moving into a recently vacated house in the community. Batsheva is ѧ different, as her arrival just before sundown on Shabbos indicates. As the community and readers learn, she is a convert to Orthodox Judaism, and in fact was not born Jewish at all. Her former husband, Benjamin, had grown up in this Memphis community, but he died in a car accident the previous year—an accident which Batsheva and Ayala survived unharmed. Hoping to stay as close to Benjamin as possible and to find a community that would accept and embrace them, Batsheva and Ayala have journeyed to Memphis from New York, with the knowledge and aid of the Memphis rabbi’s wife, Mimi. Batsheva embraces Orthodox Judaism, but her ways of doing so conflict with the community’s. In shul, she sings loudly, rather than humming demurely as the other ladies do. Her style of dress, though still modest, is more whimsical than that of the other women. And just over her left breast, she has a rose tattoo. She is an abstract expressionist painter who, very politely, speaks her mind and offers the community a fresh perspective—a change in the manner that they observe their faith. She constructs giant sukkah huts and Chanukah menorahs. She leads the women in a Rosh Chodesh new moon ceremony; she invites other outsiders and forgotten souls to her Shabbos dinners, and slowly over the first few months of her life in Memphis, the ladies come to appreciate, if not accept, her new ways, her invigorating presence in their lives. Yet there is tension, even jealousy. On Purim, Batsheva dresses as the Persian-Jewish heroine Queen Esther; moreover, she not only teaches the teenage girls art, but answers honestly their questions about her own sexual past. Worst

We tried to imagine calling into question the assumptions and beliefs that had shaped our lives. We reminded ourselves that somewhere along the way, we too had a choice.ѧ All the moments of doubt that we had had over the years came together now, and we thought about how hard it sometimes was to be religious, how elusive this God of ours could be, how lonely it was to always be different.ѧ (pp. 301–302)

As the novel bears out, however, it is a testament to their strength as individuals, as a community, and as Jews that, even though it seems too late to be doing so, the Orthodox ladies do confront their reality of doubt, fear, and choice. The Ladies Auxiliary is set in contemporary Memphis. In this “Jerusalem of the South,” which contains an Orthodox shul at its community’s center, an all-Jewish elementary and high school, a kosher restaurant, grocery, and even a bakery, several generations of Jewish Memphians have lived, worked, and flourished. Though the older generation is starting to see its young people move away, the elders still hope that their children will see the light and move back home,


TOVA MIRVIS of all, she befriends the rabbi’s troubled yeshiva student son, Yosef, who is ten years her junior. The entire community soon faces a crisis as the teenage girls rebel, Yosef becomes more distant from his parents, and Batsheva becomes more popular than the elder women and mothers of Orthodox Memphis. But, as in communities of old, when change seems too threatening, when the Ladies Auxiliary feels its hold on life slipping, when it seems that the entire history of the Orthodox Jewish people of Memphis might completely unravel, the Memphis ladies take action. They identify the source of all the trouble and attempt to institute the age-old solution to this contemporary world of complexity. In other words, they name a scapegoat: Batsheva. But is Batsheva responsible for the decision of an eighteen-year old girl to run away with her twenty-one year-old, non-Jewish boyfriend? Is Batsheva the cause of Yosef’s desire to drop out of yeshiva and maybe even out of Orthodoxy altogether? Is Batsheva the Bathsheba, tempting King David away from the righteous path? Or is Batsheva the Moabite, Ruth, Naomi’s daughterin-law, an agent for change, someone who will allow the community to welcome and absorb outsiders so as to strengthen its lines of continuity? The ladies of Jewish Memphis realize that they must decide these questions only after they decide to cast Batsheva out. This process forces all in the community to examine themselves: Are they what and who they pretend to be? And do they admit to the doubts that have been nagging them about their place in this paradise even before Batsheva arrived to challenge their notions of what is right in God’s sight? The novel’s prelude perfectly captures its major themes. The Memphis ladies consider their community “the safest place on earth ѧ and like our parents and grandparents before us, we couldn’t imagine living anywhere else ѧ [than] this God-given piece of land” (p. 9). But if this land is “God-given,” the narrative voice admits a bit later that “no one knows why Orthodox Jews settled in Memphis.ѧ it is said that the early Jews came because someone had a cousin here ѧ but though many have tried, no family has laid

definitive claim to this cousin”(p. 10). Also, though the voice asserts that the community sees itself as “part of a chain of Jewish Memphians that would extend into the future forever, as long and as far away as God in heaven,” in hindsight, when it seems too late to wonder and question what went wrong, they nevertheless do so: “Was it something we had done? Or something we hadn’t done? Was it because of us all along?” (p. 10). Thus the novel emphasizes that not only must we question and seek answers about our world and ourselves, it is never too late to begin such questioning, especially if one wants to become closer to one’s community, to Torah, and, of course, to God. Clearly Batsheva is Mirvis’ agent of change. A beautiful, blond, widowed, Orthodox Jewish convert in her early thirties would almost have to be. Though her looks, manner, and free-spirited personality seem to be the contentious issue, what really defies convention in this southern and Orthodox community is her willingness to speak her mind—a willingness that some might call naïveté. Unlike the other women, Batsheva addresses questions about Torah directly to the rabbi, refusing to wait for any man or more established Memphian to do so. Batsheva’s philosophy is strange and sometimes appealing to the other ladies of Orthodox Memphis, and they struggle to believe and accept that a person like her can be wholly Orthodox because she wants to be. When Tziporah Newburger, who takes her mikvah (religiously purifying ritual bath for married women) because it is commanded of her by Orthodoxy, finds that Batsheva wants to immerse herself in the mikvah because it brings her closer to God, Tziporah feels the affront to herself and to Judaism. She does not understand or believe that, for Batsheva, doing a mitzvah when you “don’t have to” brings the greatest “joy” (pp. 68). But then, since the ladies were born Orthodox and had no choice in the matter, they not only find Batsheva’s attitude and story of conversion strange; more crucially, they feel pangs of envy as they listen to her explain at a Shabbos dinner that she had “always [been] pulled toward Judaism, like God was calling to me.” Mrs. Levy, one


TOVA MIRVIS of the community’s matriarchs, can only remark “Really,” to Batsheva’s story since “she had never felt God calling out to her, and in fact ѧ distinctly remembered learning that He no longer called out to people so directly in this day and age” (p. 89).

made for Shabbos—tofu? Tuna fish? Everyone knew you were supposed to have chicken or roast. It was like a religious law by this point” (p. 97). More telling, when the after-dinner discussion turns to Torah, and the rabbi asks Yosef to illuminate a particularly difficult scriptural paradox, Yosef does so to his father’s approval. However, Batsheva questions the message. She does not understand the concept of tahor, a term referring to ritual purity. She wants to understand the “symbolic meaning” behind such ritual. On the other hand, Becky finds Yosef’s explanation “crystal clear,” lacking, thankfully, any ambiguity. Batsheva understands, though, that in God’s world nothing is ever so clear—that each “answer” only leads to new questions, each act carrying both literal and symbolic meaning. For Batsheva, Judaism is meaningful because we do need to “think about the reasons.ѧ When I light Shabbos candles, I think about how we need to bring more light into the world and Shabbos is the time to do this.” She affirms that she does not want to “blindly” pursue a “set of rules,” because questioning the reasons behind ritual allows her to feel as if she is “choosing” Judaism each day (pp. 111–112).

Of course, such distant envy and theological rigidity lay the groundwork for the scapegoating to come. Mirvis does not trace a clear path for her characters, however. While critics such as Wendy Shalit believe that Mirvis judges the Orthodox ladies too harshly, there is more roundness to and sympathy for them than meets the eye. Though it sounds blasphemous, these ladies admit that preparations for Shabbos, which “naturally” fall to them since they are both traditional southern and Orthodox women, have become a dreadful chore (p. 81). And who can blame them? The planning, cleaning, shopping, cooking: for each Shabbos dinner they invite many guests and often try to outdo their last dinner and, of course, compete with each other over recipes, often withholding key ingredients of these recipes from each other. While the men work, or doze, or go to shul on Friday evening, the women light candles, welcome guests, look their best, and do not stop until the last guest exits. At that very moment, they begin planning next week’s meal. In fact, sometimes during the reading of The Ladies Auxiliary one wonders if the husbands and fathers of Orthodox Memphis exist at all. If the community voice of the ladies functions similarly to a Greek chorus in, say, Aeschylus’s Agamemnon, which is composed of women and elderly men unable to fight in the Trojan War, the men of Memphis represent the warriors off fighting, never seen, rarely discussed, until the war’s end when they return triumphantly to their homes, wives, and baths (though thankfully there is no Clytemnestra in Mirvis’ Memphis).

On hearing this, the ladies’ voice agrees and realizes that Orthodox women too have many questions that need answering: “Why ѧ were we not obligated in all the commandments men were? And did God really see every tiny action that we did? Wasn’t He too busy with more important matters?” (p. 112). They begin asking questions of the rabbi; they look at their husbands’ books and help their daughters with their homework. Some, like Leanna Zuckerman, get their husbands to study with them. They learn that they “wanted to become a little more like [Batsheva]” instead of forcing her to become exactly like them (p. 113). Their complexity, their desire to change, reaches an initial climax with Batsheva’s invitation to a Rosh Chodesh “new moon” celebration, representing the monthly renewal of all women. The ladies worry that the celebration smacks of feminism. For Mrs. Levy particularly, the plans for Batsheva’s gathering are “a little far out” to

Yet for all their grace and industry, the women are often “silly” and “harsh” with each other. At Mimi’s Shabbos dinner, when Batsheva, a vegetarian, turns down the “honey mustard chicken and barbecue beef ribs,” Becky Feldman feels offended for Mimi, herself, and the entire community: “She tried to envision what Batsheva


TOVA MIRVIS suit her: “I’m no rabbi, but I don’t think we’re supposed to be messing with tradition just because it might be fun” (p. 125). Mimi, though, encourages attendance not only to support Batsheva but because this would be a “wonderful opportunity for religious growth” (pp. 125–126). Indeed, as they arrive and as Batsheva invites them to light candles and sit on the floor, they do so willingly. Batsheva reminds them that women have a “special connection” to this holiday because while waiting for Moshe to descend Mt. Sinai with God’s Commandments, the male Israelites grew impatient and built the Golden Calf as a God substitute. However, the women refused to worship the calf “because they weren’t afraid of Moshe’s absence. They didn’t think the end had come. They still saw possibilities for renewal” (p. 128).

predicament (outcast as an adulteress) and insight into the nature of sin. Acknowledging that Hester’s ability to “recognize other people’s sins” also leads to “a loss of faith,” Mirvis concludes: Yet, this knowledge also opens up the possibility for human compassion and extraordinary sympathy, a fact which even the stern [New England] townspeople come to begrudgingly appreciate about her as she tends to the sick and aids the poor.ѧ Hester knows that she is not alone in her sin; perhaps in looking at her, the townspeople know that neither are they alone in theirs.

Certainly Batsheva’s naïveté allows for such views. Becoming a favorite with the Orthodox teenagers, Batsheva is their choice to chaperone a weekend trip to Gatlinburg, Tennessee. There, when the girls gather late one night in her room, Batsheva shows them her tattoo, tells them about her first sexual experience—at age fourteen—and does not discourage them from doing what seems “right” to them, including having sex before marriage. While Batsheva sincerely considers her words and actions as being honest and as allowing the girls a sense of freedom and a new perspective to consider before they go too far in their rebellion—even reminding them that she left her old, wild life, and freely chose the restrictions of Orthodoxy—she puts too much trust and faith in the girls. She can neither win the battle with teenage hormones nor undo years of religious and social rigidity. So although her actions are definitely naive, it is nevertheless not her responsibility or fault that soon after the trip, two girls indulge in a behind-the-school marijuana break; or that other girls become more distant from and sulky toward their parents; or that on the evening of Purim, Shira Feldman runs away with her gentile boyfriend, not to be heard from again for several weeks. The ladies cannot see beyond this apparent cause-and-effect relationship, however, and to aggravate their hasty conclusions, they learn from someone’s distant New York cousin that after Benjamin’s death, Batsheva had had an affair with a close friend of Benjamin’s—a married man also in grief over losing his best friend. The ladies question not only the affair but the religious lapse it implies.

As Batsheva begins to sing, loudly, beautifully, enchantingly, the ladies realize her strength: a faith in God, which they are not sure they have. They see in Batsheva “a kind of faith that eluded us, one that would allow us to lose ourselves in it. We followed the mitzvot; we didn’t have a problem with the doing aspect. But the believing part—the loving God with all our hearts and souls and mights—was something else” (p. 129). It is tempting to stop reading at this point in the novel. The community has accepted Batsheva; she has a real place in it, and the women, inspired by her example, seem to come to a greater understanding of the meanings behind their rituals and way of life. But life is not so clear-cut. Batsheva herself warns the most rebellious teenage girl, Shira Feldman, that at times even she questions whether this Orthodox life is right for her, but adds that “we’re always supposed to be grappling with what we believe” (p. 139). This sentiment catches the tone and theme of the second half of the novel, for if Batsheva has seemed to embody the character of the Moabite Ruth in the earlier sections, the community reinvents her in the later parts as one-half Bathsheba, temptress of King David (Yosef), and onehalf “Hester Prynne,” the protagonist of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s classic of American literature, The Scarlet Letter. In her essay “The Scarlet Letter Aleph,” Mirvis writes movingly of Hester’s


TOVA MIRVIS Old-world and/or southern superstitions translate into small-town fears; when a community, or individual, feels threatened, there is a tendency to reject everything new, as if it is possible to revert to the way of life one led before. As Leanna Zuckerman attempts to explain to Batsheva why the community is upset and turning against her, and as she also tries to reassure Batsheva that the incident with the girls will “blow over,” she realizes that even if it doesn’t—and she hopes it will—Batsheva has shown her at least “that religion didn’t have to be a mold turning out clones” (p. 219). She realizes that this community does not necessarily treat each other, not to mention supposed outsiders, any better than other communities do.

children have left Memphis for good. They have not merely rejected the particular Orthodoxy of this “Jerusalem of the South.” They have rejected her and the generations of her family who founded and perpetuated this Jewish oasis. While Tziporah and Mrs. Levy lead the vocal opposition against Batsheva, others support her. Rena Reinhard, Ladies Auxiliary president, understands that Batsheva is not likely the responsible party for the teenagers’ rebellion. Rena provides a dose of reality, at least to herself, but at the auxiliary meeting that decides Batsheva’s fate, it is the other Orthodox “outsiders,” Naomi and Leanna, who publicly defend Batsheva. Leanna demands to know what Batsheva has “done wrong ѧ Everything is based on rumors and gossip.ѧ Is there even one thing we know for a fact?” (p. 273). And Naomi, with a pent-up anger she has felt most of her life, rebukes them all: “All this talk about how friendly we are as a community, what a special place this is—what does any of it mean if we treat someone who’s a little different than us in such a close-minded way?” (p. 273).

The novel builds to a point of decision: should Batsheva be fired from teaching the older girls of Memphis? Do her “sins” and “temptations” warrant such a step? Tziporah asserts the role of authority: the parents must have the ultimate control over who teaches their children. Batsheva has indulged the girls, given them permission to defy both religious law and community standards, though Tziporah has no firsthand knowledge that any of these assertions is true. Complementing Tziporah, Mrs. Levy is prepared to make a great personal sacrifice. When Batsheva and Ayala first arrived, she took it upon herself to nurture the child and give her all the things she was certain that Batsheva could not provide. She baked challah and cookies for Ayala; she babysat whenever needed, and even when at odds with Batsheva, she still made a point of including Ayala in her annual Purim gift baskets. Now, at the point of firing Batsheva, Mrs. Levy assumes that afterward, Batsheva and Ayala will leave Memphis, which means that she will “lose this child she had grown so close to. But that, she knew, was the risk she took when she became close to children and grandchildren not her own.ѧ But she would accept this loss with grace. It would be her personal sacrifice for the sake of the community” (p. 262).

Mrs. Levy rises to Naomi’s challenge in classic reactionary manner: “Who do you think you are! ѧ If you don’t like [our ideas and values] you are free to move. And in fact, I would suggest that you consider the idea very seriously” (p. 273). And also, despite their confrontational words, when the final vote is taken, it is done so in classic, nonconfrontational democracy: by prearranged secret ballot. The novel, of course, does not end on that note. Mirvis is far too perceptive a writer to allow an unequivocal ending. The community goes on; Orthodox Judaism, like its sister strains of Reform and Conservative, is alive today in the South. What is compelling, if not a bit paradoxical, though, is that a movement that seems to resist change must constantly face change, and in fact its traditions insist on its doing so. As mentioned earlier, toward the end of The Ladies Auxiliary, Mimi tells the story of the Israelite Naomi and her Moabite daughter-in-law, Ruth. By accepting Ruth into their midst, the Israelites incorporate change and thus cement their famous legacy and destiny. For when Ruth married Boaz,

Mrs. Levy is unable to see Orthodox Memphis from any other viewpoint than her own, and among the many things this view fails to account for is the fact that all three of Mrs. Levy’s


TOVA MIRVIS a rich landowner, they had a son, Oved, “who [then] bore Jesse who bore David, the king of Israel” (p. 309). New traditions are always being born, and though we might at first encounter them with trepidation, how soon after they are established do we believe that they have been a part of us for generations? And what of the history and traditions that we supposedly hold so dear, the ones that we cherish and constantly praise to ourselves and our children? The ones that hold us to higher standards of behavior toward those in our midst? When Mrs. Levy considered her sacrifice of Ayala as her personal way of preserving her community; when she saw herself in essence as the community, we are reminded of the rabbi’s words at the novel’s opening Shabbat service: “They assembled themselves against Moshe and Aaron and said: You take too much authority upon yourselves. Isn’t the entire congregation holy and isn’t God among everyone? So why do you raise yourselves above the people?” (p. 32). Any teacher’s worst fear is that as he or she provides the lesson, the students are not listening, much less understanding. The Passover story that lies underneath so much of Mirvis’ novel resonates even more deeply at the end. Certainly the thrust of the Israelites’ exodus is twofold: by having faith in God and following the leadership of God’s chosen one, Moshe, the Israelites eventually enter the Promised Land. But faith and obedience lead to liberation and freedom; the promised home is founded upon a deliverance from slavery—from one people, or person, dictating to another that there is only one way to think and to live for all time. Mirvis allows her narrative voice, which has always used the collective “we,” to have the last word—a word that holds open the door to a promising life despite the bleakness of the present day: “we still had a choice, [about being religious] even if we didn’t usually think about it like that” (p. 301). While nothing might ever be the same after the events of the past year of their lives, that does not mean that their Orthodox community has been reduced to nothing. As perhaps the greatest southern novelist, William

Faulkner, once said about another suffering people, the ladies of this community, indeed the community itself, will “endure,” if not “prevail.”


Mirvis’ second novel, The Outside World, considers the broader theme of how or whether the Orthodox Jewish world can mix with those on the outside. But it also develops more deeply the theme Mirvis raised in The Ladies Auxiliary: in adhering to strict laws and practices of Orthodoxy, can Orthodox Jews find variety in Orthodoxy and pursue their own, more personal and perhaps creative ways to be obedient to God’s commandments while at the same time reveling in the liberation and freedom promised to and found by the ancient Israelites? As if these questions are not serious enough, a deeper, perhaps more problematic question is, How do we define and distinguish what is “outside” and “inside” for Jews in this modern American life? The Outside World is set mainly in Brooklyn, New York, and concerns the strange and fragile bonds between the Goldman and Miller families. The Goldmans—Shayna, Herschel, and their children—are more committed to Orthodox Judaism, mainly because Shayna, born to two nonreligious Holocaust survivors, has converted out of love for ritual and out of a desire to fit into this highly ordered, closed world. The Millers, nominally Orthodox, are led by Naomi and Joel who, while lighting Shabbos candles and attending shul regularly, do not exactly understand why they follow these rules or why their individual practices, including those of their children Bryan and Ilana, are all so different and at variance with each other. And then, to their initial horror, Bryan, who is bound for Columbia University, chooses instead to study in Israel, trades his Yankees cap for a black fedora, announces that he is no longer Bryan but “Baruch,” and embraces ultra-Orthodoxy. Tzippy Goldman, Shayna and Herschel’s eldest daughter, in the meantime, growing tired of the shadduch’s (matchmaker) and her parents’ attempts to find her a husband, decides to venture out into the world of studying abroad in Israel


TOVA MIRVIS and of choosing her own potential marriage partner. This is, naturally, where she encounters Baruch, whom she recognizes as Bryan, a boy from her past. For the Goldmans and Millers are old acquaintances, Shayna and Naomi having been roommates at Stern College, the Orthodox women’s school in New York. And though Naomi’s husband Joel cannot stand the Millers, particularly Herschel, and is in fact the reason why Naomi has rebuffed all contact with the Goldmans for years, both families find themselves reunited by an engagement and impending wedding.

ers—have deep insights and understanding of the closed Orthodox world), Shalit argues that Mirvis “homes in on hypocrisy, but in the process she undermines the logic of her plot. The novel’s jacket copy announces that ‘The Outside World’ is meant to explain ‘the retreat into traditionalism that has become a worldwide phenomenon among young people,’ but the uninformed reader might wonder why any young person would want to be part of such a contemptible community.” She wonders further if the novel is supposed to allow us on the outside “to indulge in eavesdropping on a closed world.” Or worse, “is there a deeper urge [of some readers] ѧ to believe the ultraOrthodox are crooked and hypocritical, and thus lacking any competing claim to the truth?” (“The Observant Reader”). In her review of the novel, however, the critic Caroline Leavitt remarks that

Not to be left out of the family business, Herschel, whose life is built on investment dreams and business schemes, jumps at an opportunity to buy space in a Kroger grocery store in Memphis, Tennessee, in order to open the Kosher Connection, a kosher grocery/delicatessen combo. And to run the business, he enlists his new son-in-law, Baruch, with the tempting offer that through kosher food, Baruch can eventually live his dream of bringing Torah to the outside world. Memphis represents the outside world most obviously. Further, though, what Tzippy and Baruch and the rest of their now united and extended family learn with their move to this once-upon-a-time Jewish oasis causes them all to rethink their place in God’s world, a place where such distinctions as outside or in, modern or ultra-Orthodox, are more blurred than they ever imagined. Mirvis told Jill Suzanne Jacobs of Jbooks. com that she’d like to see an Orthodox Jewish community more involved in “issues of the larger Jewish community.” She stresses that in her belief, Orthodoxy does not have a “lock on what’s right. I think that everyone approaches God in a different way and that all ways have beauty and meaning and they are all paths to God.” Some, of course, would consider Mirvis naive, maybe blasphemous. Wendy Shalit points to some of the problems in Mirvis’ beliefs and fictional viewpoint. Labeling Mirvis as one of a rash of “outsider-insiders” (those who perhaps falsely believe and want the outside world to believe that they—these Orthodox Jewish writ-

the wonder of the book isn’t just that it’s about a specific community, it’s universal in its depiction of how families—and faith—work. How seeds are planted in children, but it’s also up to the child to see what grows. Like the eruv, the symbolic wire that keeps a community intact, there’s still airspace in any community, room to reinterpret and find your own meanings. ‘In each generation, one is obligated to feel as if he himself has come out of Egypt,’ The Outside World says, and here, at the final Passover seder, the Egypts these warm, sympathetic characters have journeyed through are not just hilariously funny, but personal and profound. (“An Unorthodox Novel”)

Both Shalit and Leavitt have legitimate points: a reader might laugh at or ridicule the characters and their beliefs. We might not agree with laws that seem illogical (separate dish racks; being unable to touch your betrothed before the wedding); we might see in ultra-Orthodox Judaism a fanaticism akin to other fundamentalist religions. Yet Mirvis depicts her characters as honestly and intentionally searching to find a clear path to meaning. Searching for answers, feeling at peace enough to ask questions; challenging interpretations and asking why things are as they are: these are not hypocritical actions. They are, rather, sincere signs of growth and acceptance that might enable the novel’s characters to reach a deeper and more sustaining faith.


TOVA MIRVIS While the novel’s main plot focuses on the journey of Tzippy and Baruch, the character who offers the most piercing insights into the novel’s themes—the variety of paths even the Orthodox can take to God; the freedom that must be present for Jews to live and worship; and the definition of the outside-inside space that seems to elude everyone at least until the end—is Baruch’s younger sister Ilana.

“She was a good girl. She listened to her parents. She got good grades. She davened when she remembered to. She went to shul on Shabbos. She wore shorts and watched TV and didn’t see what there was to be so conflicted about” (p. 31). Her “bafflement” and anger have only increased in these five days as she remembers how stiff Bryan was when she hugged him at the airport after a year apart. He explained to her that it says in the Shulchan Aruch that after bar mitzvah it is assur (forbidden) for a brother to hug his sister. “That’s crazy,” Ilana proclaims, but the damage is done:

Perhaps the greatest natural divide in the stages of growth and development is the one between adolescence and adulthood. Bar/bat mitzvahs, sweet sixteen parties, debutante balls, college/yeshiva admission: although we enjoy certain rituals, we have no one way to definitively mark that moment of passage. As rough as it is for any individual to make the transition, for siblings, when one is attempting or has succeeded in the passage and the other is left on the other side—particularly if the younger sibling is the youngest and now the only child amid a sea of adults—feelings of loss, abandonment, and even rage can develop. For Ilana, it is not just that her brother has “left” her for adulthood; he might also have left his senses by changing his name from Bryan to that very Jewish-sounding, oldworld name with the hard “ch” gutteral. Though his parents believe his “nouveauyeshiva-ish” behavior will pass, Ilana knows that they are not seeing him clearly now, this serious man who believes the Talmud has “become [his] world.” But it is hard to be a Talmudic scholar when your little sister blasts rock music all hours of the day. Though irritated, Baruch nevertheless remembers how they used to conspire against their parents to watch more TV, to find “loopholes” in the house rules. He even wishes “he could take off his tefillin and go into Ilana’s room ѧ [and] laugh and joke with her as he had once done” (p. 29). He does enter her room finally but only to ask her to turn the music down and to please call him Baruch instead of Bryan. Just thirteen, Ilana hoped for five days upon his return that her brother might become Bryan again. Though her parents pretend that everything is fine, she knows it is not. In his requests, Ilana feels her brother’s disapproval, and she cannot understand why:

It was all so impersonal: a theoretical brother, a theoretical sister, a theoretical hug. She stepped back and held up her hands in surrender. “Fine. No problem,” she had said, and wondered if the rabbis would object to her smacking her brother. In their estimation, was that sort of contact inappropriate as well? But inside her anger, she also felt ashamed, as if these rabbis and her brother were accusing her of an incestuous rabbinic sluttiness. (p. 32)

Interestingly, Naomi at least hears the strains of the new world that could be as she listens to the scene just described. From separate spaces, the noises soon “blend ѧ as if Baruch were setting the morning prayers to a rock beat, as if Ilana’s music were incorporating a cantorial undertone.ѧ as she left the kitchen, the music created, at least to Naomi’s ears, a cacophony that was pleasurable, a harmonious blending of worlds” (p. 38). Unbeknownst to her, Baruch has had a similar insight on a date with Tzippy at the Biblical Zoo in Jerusalem. There, he wondered why God created so many different species of animals. Why not one of each? But he can answer this question, for he knows that his God “clearly liked variety” (p. 73). Cacophony. Variety. Asking questions and realizing answers. But how to apply such answers to the very source of religious illumination? Do worlds collide, or do they blend? Does religious assimilation only confuse the issues, or can it make the decisions and paths of life more distinct? While Baruch certainly asks questions that open doors, Ilana is the one who charges through the openings to find the answers on the other side.


TOVA MIRVIS It is a worry that Baruch shares and even violates later when he and Tzippy do embrace, privately, at the party. This is the old Bryan, walking the “dangerous edges” where people “get lost.ѧ One kiss and he would disappear,” he thinks, and so he shrinks from his future wife, pretending their touch never happened (p. 125). Can Orthodoxy withstand or allow a more personal way to honor God? Are these “minor differences?” Do they make a difference? In his denial, is Baruch eliminating Bryan, or merely repressing him[self]? Perhaps the answer lies at a Yankees game where Baruch and Herschel, discussing their idea of a kosher grocery in Memphis, witness the variety of fans in line for the stadium’s kosher hot dogs:

To do so, Ilana often gets cues from Joel. After learning of his son’s engagement, Joel tries to assimilate this news with the ultra-Orthodox man his son has become by reflecting on his own youth. Then, “people did what their parents did. They weren’t looking to be more observant than their families. He could be an Othodox Jew and be many other things at the same time. His religion didn’t have to identify him, constrict him, define him” (p. 85). He silently reflects on the differences in religious life now where “hypocrisy masquerad[es] as faith” and wonders where God is “in what his son did and said. Was He under the hat? In between the plastic slats of the dish racks? Was His spirit sweeping through this house, a thrumming audible only to his son?”(p. 86). Such feelings are almost exactly reflected in Ilana’s comments to her mother. Baruch’s engagement has only worsened her relationship with and place in her family: “Everyone’s changing,” she laments, wishing that she too could become “someone else” (p. 109).

The men were wearing black hats and Yankees batting practice jerseys. The women wore long jean skirts and baseball caps over their snoods. There were also men in shorts, women in tank tops, men whose yarmulkes were hidden under Yankee caps, men who had come straight from the office and forgotten to put their yarmulkes back on. And kids in full Yankees uniforms with tzitzis hanging out, standing next to kids wearing baseball jerseys emblazoned YIDDLE LEAGUE. Mincha minyans formed to the right of the stand. They were like pickup games of basketball. As soon as there were ten, the prayers began

Relationships worsen as Naomi prepares for the engagement party for Baruch and Tzippy, the one event, as mother of the groom, that she can stage totally on her own. Things go well in the planning phase—Baruch and Ilana are actually getting along—until Naomi mentions the toast that she is planning to make. Informing her that his rabbi teaches “Kol kavod bat melech penimah,” translated as “the glory of the king’s daughter is inside,” Baruch says it is forbidden for women to speak in public because doing so will “blur” their private/public roles (p. 117). Naomi is hurt by this; Joel stares at his son in “disbelief,” but Ilana shouts, “ ‘What do you think? If women speak in public, it will cause lewdness or something?’ ѧ here she was, in her usual spot in the middle, wondering why these differences, minor compared to all the possibilities in the world, had to force them apart” (p. 118). She wishes she could reach out and force everyone into an enormous hug; if they all touched, would anyone be left outside? Would there even be an “inside” if they were all holding each other?

(p. 140)

Listening to Herschel’s plans for the Kosher Connection, Baruch realizes that he values Herschel because Herschel offers a “different way to see the world” than his father does (p. 142). And through Herschel’s persistence and his own rabbi’s counsel, Baruch understands that the great, learned rabbinic scholars have always “been part of the outside world” (p. 149). This insight permits Baruch and Tzippy to move to Memphis and begin a new life there running the Kosher Connection. But what Baruch fails to gather is that this is truly the beginning of his own blurring worlds—that the strict path he has been on and that he believes he should be on can be prescribed and even dictated; however, when it is finally traveled, the path taken will always bear the traveler’s personal stamp. The Outside World wants us to consider the significance or lack of it in following tradition


TOVA MIRVIS for its own sake. Ilana feels this most deeply as Baruch’s and Tzippy’s wedding approaches. Being told that she should be “excited” about her brother’s wedding; observing her “observant” brother get as close to Tzippy as he possibly can without touching her when he thinks they are alone, Ilana believes that “They who pretended to be so holy in public were just like everyone else in private. It confirmed what she had suspected: that it was all pretense. Everyone layered themselves in disguises and costumes, pretending to be something they weren’t” (p. 154). And tradition found in religion? Why go to shul on Shabbos if she didn’t feel like it, if she wasn’t sure what she believed in? On Shabbos, what if she turned out a light? Would God really care “one way or another?” (p. 154). Though she does go to shul, late, she tells Naomi that “Just because we go every week isn’t a good enough reason ѧ [it] makes no sense” to do so (p. 157). Ilana has grown too old for being told “Because I say so” if she asks any sort of “Why?” Unfortunately for her, she is still too young to be taken seriously.

to ignore her school’s rabbis before, now, as they coincidentally impose a stricter dress code, she feels caught; she listens, wants to disobey, but more than anything, she becomes “excruciatingly aware of her body. She couldn’t remember where she was supposed to put her arms, how she was supposed to sit. Her body felt naked and exposed” (p. 198). Other characters worry about appearances too, but Ilana’s honesty is without a pretense or stricture. Without trying to latch onto or uphold any one way of being, living, worshiping, she allows herself to confront “nakedly” the traps, the complications, and the tensions that hold the rest of her family in check and keep them from knowing how to reach and touch each other. Her confrontations start with her teachers. Ask them if “God really exists,” and there goes an entire morning’s class. Ask them why women “are obligated in fewer mitzvot” than men, and you hear the same answer you’ve heard “a hundred times,” the answer that stymies all thought (pp. 208–209). Except this time. Except for Ilana, who asks, “what if you don’t feel closer to God? ѧ Maybe you’re supposed to feel that way, but you don’t. Or what if you want to do the mitzvot the boys do. Then what?” (p. 209). She hears the same answer: “girls are different from boys. They’re more internal. They don’t need to put everything on the outside” (p. 209). But the girl listening is not the same Ilana, and whether she means to or not, on the play field that afternoon, in passing the jersey during the last race of the day, she removes two layers instead of one, and runs the last leg in her bra and skirt. At the obligatory family meeting that night, she explodes at her parents:

A variety of attitudes and questions continue to confront these characters, but as the novel winds down, Ilana’s questions and actions become even more daring. For somehow she knows that erasing the lines of everyone’s personal batter’s box is the only way to be noticed: the only way to escape these boxes they have all built or have allowed to be built in their names, which have only served to maintain their conflicts with each other and with the tension between the modern “outside” world and the Orthodox “inside.” Turning fourteen, spending a summer at a girl’s camp where she does not have to dress modestly, Ilana then returns home to face ninth grade and its “uniform ѧ [of] Baggy t-shirts and long jean skirts.” Her reluctance to dress Orthodox reflects that “She was no longer the wellbehaved girl whom her parents counted on even as they overlooked her. She was becoming herself” (p. 194). This new Ilana would dare wear a skirt to school whose hem was a few inches above her knees and which somewhat tightly hugged her hips. And though she has been able

Maybe I’m different than who you think I am, but so what? You always say that we need room to figure out who we are, and that we don’t have to be the same just because we’re in the same family. So that’s what I’m doing.ѧ I just don’t know if I want to be like any of you. Everyone assumes that I have to be religious just because I was born into this family. But isn’t that up to me to decide? ѧ I have no idea what I’m supposed to think. Who are you? Who are we? (p. 211)


TOVA MIRVIS Ilana’s questions are ones that many Jews do not want to answer and ones that most non-Jews do not know exist. The ever-growing branches of Judaism can strike one today as being as strange as the continuing dilution of Christianity into as many denominations as there seem to be adherents. If the Hasidic Jewish sects each derive from the Old World, eastern and central European villages and the chief rabbis who governed them, founded hundreds of years ago, where does that leave the wandering mass of displaced Orthodox? Or the Reformers who want greater assimilation into the outside world? Or the Conservatives who want that too, only not so much? Or the Reconstructionists? Or Lesbian and Gay congregations? Or, to Mirvis’ geographic scheme, the southern Orthodox?

times not knowing.” She asks him, then, what she’s “supposed to believe,” and when he tells her that she’ll have to “figure it out for [her]self,” she responds as eloquently as a fourteen-year old can: “That’s what I’m trying to do.ѧ But then I ask questions and no one answers me” (pp. 226– 227). This is by no means the end of The Outside World. There are other endings and beginnings. The Kosher Connection ends, but Pesach arrives, and at a joint seder with the Goldmans, Naomi thinks she sees Elijah drink from his long-filled cup—the harbinger of a greater glory. She chooses to bring to her seder “her unfettered wonder and belief” (p. 279). She learns from her children and also leads them: the outside world is inside them all as they tell the story of Exodus, as they participate in their own version of this ancient ritual. As they honor God ѧ and themselves, whoever they are, on this night of Pesach, which is unlike all other nights, these two Jewish families are for this moment, at least, truly one.

Ilana asks, “Who are we?” She believes that though they are of the “same family,” they don’t have to be “the same.” Isn’t she speaking as much as a Jew as she is a Miller? She thinks, wonders, whether there is a “way to live inside the folds of tradition? Did it have to be smoothed out and stapled into perfectly aligned pages? Was there no way to pass it on, full of a contradictory, messy beauty?” (p. 211).


Tova Mirvis’ beauty as a writer is that she beckons her readers into a somewhat closed world using characters that Jews and non-Jews can appreciate and grow comfortable with. The questions she asks of her characters and that she has them ask of themselves offer pertinent insights into the role of religious questioning in our society and into the diverse makeup of America itself.

Speaking such thoughts, asking soulful questions, of course, cannot guarantee answers or even that your questions will be heard. But silence clearly has not worked in the Miller family. On the Shabbos following Ilana’s outburst there is movement, an answer of sorts that comes in Joel’s decision to work through the beginning of Shabbos, to be late arriving home, to break this particular covenant. When he arrives, Naomi does ask him “What happened,” but his response is only that “I’m late.” It’s up to Ilana, after an uncomfortably silent dinner, to press the issue directly, honestly: “I know we’ve been ignoring this, but, Dad, what happened to you tonight? ѧ it’s Shabbos. How could you do that? Didn’t you think that it was wrong?” (p. 226). He answers her, simply saying that there are “Choices” that sooner or later we all must make even though “they’re not always the ones we’re taught in school, or even the ones we think we’ll make for ourselves.” He tells Ilana that “it doesn’t bother” him to be unsure, that he “can live with some-

That she has chosen to focus much of her fiction on southern and/or Orthodox Jewish life, and in doing so refrains from passing judgment on her characters and the conflicts they face, affords us the opportunity to look at ourselves as individuals and as members of whatever certain tribe we claim membership in, no matter how marginalized or accepted we at least perceive ourselves to be. And if we accept her fictional terms of questioning what we have been told, of seeking answers about who we are and want to be, we have the chance to leave her world with greater hope for our own.



Selected Bibliography

Hoffman, Roy. “Hold the Chitterlings.” New York Times Book Review, October 17, 1999, p. 21. (Review of The Ladies Auxiliary.) Ivry, Sara. “Stranger to Fiction: Wendy Shalit Wrongfully Accuses Authors of Misrepresenting the Orthodox.” Tablet: A New Read on Jewish Life (http://www.tabletmag. com/arts-and-culture/books/806/stranger-to-fiction/), February 2, 2005. Kellman, Steven G. “An Anthology of Jewish Fiction, More on the Verge Than the Edge.” Forward (http://www., October 31, 2003. (Review of Lost Tribe: Jewish Fiction From the Edge.) Leavitt, Caroline. “An Unorthodox Novel.” ( htm), 2007. (Review of The Outside World.) Sax, David. “Rise of the New Yiddishists.” Vanity Fair, Web exclusive ( 2009/04/yiddishists200904), April 8, 2009. Shalit, Wendy. “The Observant Reader.” New York Times Book Review, January 30, 2005, p. 16. (Essay discussing Tovis and others.) Shilling, Jane. “Memphis Belles.” Times (London), June 3, 2000, p. 15.




The Ladies Auxiliary. New York: Norton, 1999; Ballantine, 2000. “A Poland, a Lithuania, a Galicia.” In Lost Tribe: Jewish Fiction From the Edge. Edited by Paul Zakrzewski. New York: HarperCollins, 2003. The Outside World. New York: Knopf, 2004.

OTHER WORKS “Writing Between Worlds.” In Who We Are: On Being (and Not Being) a Jewish American Writer. Edited by Derek Rubin. New York: Schocken, 2005. “A Writer’s Bed: The Center of All Good Things.” Poets & Writers, July–August 2007, pp. 21–25. “The Scarlet Letter Aleph.” (http://www.jbooks. com/interviews/index/IP_Mirvis.htm), 2007.


Jacobs, Jill Suzanne. “Wandering a Long Way From Home.” ( IP_Jacobs.htm), 2003. Rosenblatt-Mayefsky, Chana. “Religion in a Modern World: Interview.” Publishers Weekly, March 1, 2004, p. 49.

Ellin, Abby. “Writing in the Dark: Why an Orthodox Novelist Shuns Orthodox Publishers.” Tablet: A New Read on Jewish Life ( 975/writing-in-the-dark/), July 24, 2008.



Ron Slate BIOGRAPHICAL ACCOUNTS OF writers, especially living authors, are often woven with foreshortened career narratives created for expediency’s sake. Such misleading portraits tend to inflate the significance of life events as the keys to interpreting a lifetime’s work. Take the case of Floyd Skloot. The convenient story begins with a business trip he took in December 1988 during which he contracted a rare viral illness. After suffering permanent, debilitating brain damage, he struggled to produce The Night-Side, his first book of essays, in 1996. This collection was followed in 2003 by a second book of essays, the acclaimed In the Shadow of Memory. Part autobiography, part medical inquiry, the essays were often slotted into the growing subgenre of illness narratives. The positive tone of the writing, leavened by Skloot’s humor, seemed to encourage readings emphasizing the invalid’s victory over adversity and an advocacy for greater awareness of neurological diseases. Skloot was congratulated more often for his subject matter alone than for what he discovered within it or for the way he styled his writing. As the popularity of illness narratives grew in the early 1990s, newspaper book reviewers avidly covered Skloot’s collections, making only passing mention of his poetry or novels.

persistent effort to shape a fictive life through literature. Although Skloot has underscored the importance of writing during his partial rehabilitation (he has described this latter period as an awakening), he did not undertake his essay project or his later poetry as some sort of writingas-therapy for the stricken author. On the contrary, Skloot has maintained a craftsperson’s focus on traditional forms and a plain mode of expression. While his themes have centered on the search for meaning through personal loss, the precision of his formal techniques suggests a compensating capability: to project a shaped world narrated by a stable voice, in and through which both author and reader may experience an evasion of doom. Skloot enacts a revenge on loss by forcing it to change shape in the form of literature. Although his literary voice suggests modesty in its tightly controlled narratives and considerate tones, his aims are highly ambitious because his antagonist has been circumstance itself. The charming accessibility of Skloot’s memoirs tempts the reader to use the life as the prime means of explaining any of Skloot’s individual novels, poems, or essays. Certainly the works tell us something about the life, even as we acknowledge the purely literary qualities and value of the writing. In fact, Skloot repeatedly turns our attention to the topic of self-identity, but he treats his own person in the writing as something observed objectively and never elevated in importance above anything else in the world. Nevertheless, the moral implications of his work suggest a need to reconstruct one’s life in ways that contravene a dangerous and tragic emotional fate. Recuperation from illness and recovery of memory become metaphors for a lifelong desire more fully to experience intimacy with others and to understand oneself. While forming emo-

When we consider the span of Skloot’s writing, however, and more closely examine individual works, we may find a more profound continuity in his objectives, themes, and techniques, extending from the first poems he published in magazines in the early 1970s. Furthermore, the arc of his career describes an unhurried ripening of literary skills deployed in ways untypical for his trend-conscious generation. His seven full-length collections of poetry, four books of essays, and four novels together represent a


FLOYD SKLOOT tional connections with his past, Skloot has willed himself to be the master of those memories and the maker of the links between them. In a 2008 interview with Publishers Weekly, Skloot said, “The memoirs of illness taught me how to work with fragments of memory and view writing as an act of discovery.” But working from life is always working from shards of memory for every writer. The poet never copies anything except for the residue that remains after looking. In other words, Skloot’s thematic emphasis on creative rebirth (and his rejection of heroic exceptionalism for the sick person) speaks to all artistic endeavor hinging on self-knowledge and the discovery of usable form. Coping with illness not only retaught Skloot how to create a vision of life on the page but also heightened the emotional and intellectual impact of the work. The disorientation of the mind, accompanied by a spiritual dread, had represented a threat to his identity-making art. He responded competitively, as if against an insult, and with the need to be assured that pain would not dissolve eloquence and form but rather serve as their occasions. But here again, we risk losing sight of the work itself and its effect on the reader. The maturation of his work through years of unstable health is marked by an ever-engaging narrative voice characterized by a hyper-attentiveness to the world’s disclosures. Taking an unstylish stance, Skloot has shown no interest in speaking from an ironic point apart from life. There is a chaste economy in his phrasing. Even in the very early poems, Skloot’s narrative speaker has both wept for and been wary of the world’s troubles, but he has schooled himself to translate them into the mastered tones of calm candor and an almost pious wonder. Most especially in the essays, he has depicted his childhood self as defenseless and under attack but also uncomplaining and vigilant. Clearly Skloot’s persona, his fictive self, seems intent on proving that vulnerability may generate its own kind of spiteless genius.

tient 002. The novel The Open Door reflects a fictional version of tense family relationships, a prelude to essays in which he explored his own similar background. Each of the genres has played a specific role during Skloot’s career, but poetry has been the constant and core medium, even as its preoccupations have evolved. Although he regards himself primarily as a poet, Skloot is one of a very few contemporary American poets who have won followings for both their poetry and autobiographical essays. A strong case may be made for Skloot as the most accomplished personal essayist among all poets of his generation, having been preceded by the example of Donald Hall (b. 1928). Skloot’s development as a writer is idiosyncratic insofar as he abandoned academia and literary studies, was not deeply influenced by modernist poets or novelists (though he is widely read in them), has been published mainly by university and independent presses, and earned his living as a business manager (before becoming disabled). His novels are no longer in print. A prominent national book reviewer, Skloot has nevertheless written no literary criticism. Yet his reputation as a prize-winning poet and celebrated essayist continues to grow, and his new work appears frequently in magazines and journals.


Floyd Skloot was born on July 6, 1947, in Brooklyn, New York, the younger son of Harry and Lillian Skloot, both first-generation American Jews whose parents had emigrated from eastern Europe. His brother Philip was born in 1939. Skloot’s father ran a kosher poultry shop on Union Street in Brooklyn. Mismatched in temperament and habits, the parents tolerated each other. In 1957, after his father was forced to sell his struggling business, Skloot and his family moved to Long Beach, New York, situated on a seaside strip of Long Island some ten miles east of Brooklyn. There Skloot attended public school. In 1958 his father was struck by a car and seriously injured. Skloot’s mother, portrayed in the essays as imperious, aggrieved, unaffectionate, and occasionally delusional and violent, now

The novels, poetry, and essays share many materials. The poem “A Hand of Casino, 1954” (in The End of Dreams) led to an essay on family roots, “A World of Light.” The essay “Double Blind” in The Night-Side inspired the novel Pa-


FLOYD SKLOOT fully assumed the dominant parental role. In 1961 Skloot’s crippled father died in a hotel swimming pool at the age of fifty-three. “I think he was miserable with the life he put together for himself,” Skloot wrote in his essay “The Family Story” (In the Shadow of Memory, p. 123). Elsewhere he wrote, “When Michael Henchard, in The Mayor of Casterbridge, sold his wife to the highest bidder and hoped never to see her again, he was living out my father’s deepest wish” (“Into a Maelstrom of Fire,” The Wink of the Zenith, p. 89). In “Cover Stories,” an essay about his early reading, Skloot recalls his keen interest in the cold war spy thrillers and films of the period. The character of Herbert Philbrick in the television program “I Led Three Lives” intrigued the youngster for his ability as a government agent to deal with “danger compounding danger, requiring layers upon layers of selves behind which to hide.ѧ I knew at the time that I never felt safe in my house, but didn’t connect that feeling with my passion for stories about ultra-competent observers, experts at concealment and control of their emotions, men who survived by stealth and vigilance and grim moxie” (The Wink of the Zenith, pp. 50–51). His father dead and his brother gone, Skloot lived in an apartment with his mother. In “Cover Stories” he goes on to say,

greater discipline and purpose.ѧ Be a player in the game I was writing about” (p. 54). Years later, as an aspiring novelist, Skloot would read and reread the works of Charles Dickens, Joseph Conrad, Thomas Hardy, and William Faulkner, some of which he discovered in high school. But his early attraction to popular writing suggests a young person looking for connections with the active culture. Meanwhile, in 1962 his mother became a travel agent, taking frequent trips. Skloot spent days and weeks alone, caring for himself, a time recalled in “Home Economics for Halfbacks” in The Wink of the Zenith. In the fall of 1965 Skloot enrolled as a freshman at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. His mother remarried six months later. Literature and the writer’s life became Skloot’s main interests in college. The most enduring influence on Skloot at Franklin and Marshall was Robert Russell, the English department chairman and the faculty adviser for Skloot’s senior thesis on Thomas Hardy. Blinded at an early age, Russell was an accomplished writer and scholar. Skloot recalls that as Russell’s paid reader, he recorded several novels, such as Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, as well as all the selections of Victorian writers from The Norton Anthology of English Literature, including 74 pages of Browning, 100 pages of Tennyson, and 104 pages of Arnold. “I read works of literature in a way very few young, would-be authors get to do,” he writes. “I got an education in how language flowed or failed to flow, how breath acted as a hidden punctuation within the rhythm of prose” (The Wink of the Zenith, p. 75). In Hardy’s sensibility he found a familiar “childhood-borne feeling of gloom and radical dislocation, a yearning sadness.ѧ I associated his pain with despondency over love. The novels are all driven by a crazed vision of love as torment” (p. 89).

So volatile and violent by nature, she now seemed transported beyond all restraint by the shock of my father’s death and the fear of the future. Her explosive rage, erratic and ferocious, could turn on me in a flash. With nothing and no one to constrain her, she would hit, kick, bite.ѧ There was a madness to her behavior.ѧ I thought of her as an armed missile, like the Ajax I saw at the Nike base not far from my school. (p. 51)

Skloot’s teenage reading included war and spy novels such as those by John Le Carre and Ian Fleming, popular novels like Arthur Hailey’s Hotel, Alan Sillitoe’s The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, and sports books. He claims a baseball autobiography, The Long Season, by Jim Brosnan, taught him at age seventeen that he could “make sense of what was happening, find meaning in it ѧ Observe myself and my life, as I would continue to observe the world, but with

In the fall of 1969 Skloot began graduate work toward an M.A. degree in English at Southern Illinois University (SIU) in Carbondale. He enrolled at SIU to work with the Irish poet Thomas Kinsella, having been attracted to the visiting professor’s formally taut and elegant


FLOYD SKLOOT verse. Kinsella exerted the most lasting influence not only on Skloot’s poetry but also, as it turned out, on his livelihood. Skloot had married Betsy Coale on August 10, 1970, and in 1972, when they were expecting a child (daughter Rebecca Lee), Skloot left SIU’s doctoral program in literature and took a job in the Bureau of the Budget of the State of Illinois. Kinsella had worked for Ireland’s ministry of finance, and now his protégé decided to pursue his writing independent of academia. (“I already knew that I didn’t want to be a college teacher,” Skloot wrote in his essay “Numbers,” p. 118). He was encouraged by the publication of poems in the magazines Epoch and Concerning Poetry, while the 1974 publication of the poem “Her Game” in Prairie Schooner marked the appearance of his recognizable mature voice.

“For me, the damage seems to be almost everywhere, but not too deep,” he wrote (In the Shadow of Memory, p. 40). One year after becoming sick, Skloot began his first essays dealing with memoir, present situation, and medicine, topics often intertwined. In addition, some of his earlier short stories were rewritten in 1993 to create his third novel, The Open Door. His first marriage ended in divorce in 1992; on May 14, 1993, he married Beverly Hallberg and moved to her house in rural western Oregon. By 1994, when the University Press of Florida published Skloot’s first full-length book of poetry, Music Appreciation, he had been publishing his verse for more than twenty years in magazines and journals throughout America. Just two years later in 1996, Story Line Press published The Night-Side, his first book of essays, and in 1997, The Open Door. His second book of poems, The Evening Light, was completed in 1997 but not published by Story Line until 2001. That same year, his third collection, The Fiddler’s Trance, which had been finished in the year 2000, appeared from Bucknell University Press. The End of Dreams, his fifth collection, was completed in 2002 but was not published by Louisiana State University Press until 2006, by which time his fourth collection, Approximately Paradise, completed after the former, had already appeared from Tupelo Press. Tupelo then published Selected Poems: 1975–2005 in 2008, and Louisiana State University Press brought out The Snow’s Music that year as well. With the rapid appearance of these books, Skloot was thus identified by some observers as the writer who got sick and became miraculously productive and insightful. The story is factually valid, if far too simple. But the widespread success of In the Shadow of Memory in 2003, his second book of memoir-essays, made it difficult to think of him as otherwise. His new essay publisher, the University of Nebraska Press, then published A World of Light in 2005 and The Wink of the Zenith: The Shaping of a Writer’s Life in 2008. Skloot’s poetry and essays have been frequently anthologized. He is the recipient of the PEN USA Literary Award in Creative Nonfiction,

In mid-1976 Skloot and his family moved to Olympia, Washington, where he performed staff work for the state’s legislature. That summer he began work on Pilgrim’s Harbor, a first novel that took ten years to complete and was not published until 1992 by Story Line Press. He wrote and published several short stories, beginning in 1976 and continuing sporadically to the present. His first short collection of poetry, Rough Edges, appeared in 1978 from Chowder Chapbooks. (Five additional chapbooks appeared through 2001). Returning to Springfield, Illinois, Skloot worked for the state’s construction agency through 1984, managing multimillion-dollar budgets. The next move took him to Portland, Oregon, where he worked in public policy for Pacific Power and Light. In 1986 he began writing his second novel, Summer Blue, completed in 1988 but not published until 1994 by Story Line Press. During a business trip to Washington, D.C., in December 1988, Skloot fell ill and has been disabled ever since. The initial diagnosis of chronic fatigue syndrome proved to be both inaccurate and incomplete, although the publisher of his first book of essays emphasized this particular illness for marketing purposes. It soon became clear that Skloot’s most serious health issues were neurological; memory impairment was the most disturbing of several interconnected problems.


FLOYD SKLOOT Oregon Book Awards for both poetry and creative nonfiction, three Pushcart Prizes, the Independent Publishers Book Award in Creative Nonfiction, and two Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association Book Awards for poetry. In May 2006 Franklin and Marshall College awarded Skloot an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree.

slammed bedroom door.

At the poem’s end, the speaker sees himself behind the wheel: Between lesions along the Fury’s hood, I would sight the dark ocean like a marksman— vowing never to love the way we used to love.


In that final couplet, we find the most significant difference between Skloot and his mentor. If Kinsella’s “temperament is characteristically pessimistic” and tends “to consider every gain to be no more than temporary,” Skloot’s tones are calmer (but not relaxed), the speech echoing a long-standing vow to live an emotionally satisfying life (“The Evolving Poetry of Thomas Kinsella”). “My Daughter Considers Her Body,” the sonnet below, was written in 1977 and appeared in Music Appreciation (p. 42):

Floyd Skloot describes himself as “always a person drawn to order and structure, a poet whose work often rhymed and had traditional formal organization” (In the Shadow of Memory, p. 37). He had enrolled as a graduate student at Southern Illinois University in 1969 in order to study with the Irish poet Thomas Kinsella, whose work up to that point had been taut and elegant. But at that very moment, Kinsella was disavowing strict formalism for more irregularly structured modes of writing. Skloot saw that his teacher had “made a career of going his own way ѧ a rebellious formalist, mastering skills he would forsake” (“The Radiance of Change,” pp. 119–20). Kinsella had a “habit of constantly stirring up the same basic material,” restlessly casting it in changing forms (p. 117). Thus, the student learned that a poet uses the form that best serves the purposes of the poem. Together, they held the increasingly unfashionable belief that a poem must sound like purposeful speech, even as it retains its mystery and strangeness. Kinsella’s themes also resonated deeply with Skloot: “the eminence of waste, loss and decay; the certainty of bitterness and ordeal; the simultaneous drive toward and futility of human efforts for order” (p. 119). Skloot’s earliest poems, collected in Music Appreciation (1994) dealt with domesticity, nature, and memory. In “The Fury” (pp. 29–31) the speaker recalls his parents, driving their respective cars, and his driving lessons beside his mother in her Plymouth Fury. A brutal, extended memory of family strife follows:

She examines her hand, fingers spread wide. Seated, she bends over her crossed legs to search for specks or scars and cannot hide her awe when any mark is found. She begs me to look, twisting before her mirror, at some tiny bruise on her hucklebone. Barely awake, she studies creases her arm developed as she slept. She has grown entranced with blemish, begun to know her body’s facility for being flawed. She does not trust its will to grow whole again, but may learn that too, freeing herself to accept the body’s deep thirst for risk. Learning to touch her wounds come first.

This poem exhibits Skloot’s trademark lean and unadorned diction. Despite the traditional structure, one can hear the cadences of speech. The descriptions are clear and uncomplicated. As a poet, Skloot generally respects an actuality more than an idea; his poems are not informed by theories of perception and psychology, though his essays probe the qualities and flaws of human cognition. As in a Kinsella poem, in Skloot’s work it is usually difficult to locate a central personality. This anonymity, inherited from Elizabethan poets such as Ben Jonson, suggests a

Sabbath suppers erupted in shrieks, Mother fleeing to sob behind her


FLOYD SKLOOT poet’s harsh will to serve his own experience rather than meet the reader’s typical contemporary expectation to be entertained by personality. The emphasis is placed on the senses and the apprehension of a world to shape, admire, and be affected by. “My Daughter Considers Her Body” functions through an enjoining, mimicking action: the child examines her flaws, the father examines the child, and the reader examines the father’s reaction. Skloot’s main impulse is to enact and prove the viability of more deeply felt relationships, but learning to touch his own wounds comes first. His later poems of illness thus revert to an avid willingness to create an alternative world by acknowledging grief and putting pain in its proper place. Interestingly, the daughter in the poem is “barely awake” as she notices her imperfections, a state of disorientation that foreshadows Skloot’s similar gestures of unsteady perception in the poems of illness and ghostly visions. “Chicken Market” (Music Appreciation, pp. 4–5) was drafted in 1970 when Skloot was working with Kinsella. It is the first poem in which Skloot attained his mature voice. In this poem, the speaker recalls working in his father’s poultry market. It begins,

The capon came back, a spotted brown package, taped shut, and the sale was rung.

There is an equivalency, then, between the poem and the “spotted brown package”: the poem packages its memory with the dispassion of the father, but it implies a dimension of felt experience presumably missing in the father. All the reader sees are the routine brusque actions of “the aproned man,” but the blunt description and word choices reinforce a deeper lingering emotion. “Burst,” “snatched,” “swept,” “snapping,” “wrapped,” and “dangled” express the violence of the moment, contrasted with the child’s selfimposed control. The intensity of such controlled tone, here and in “My Daughter Considers Her Body,” suggests a fear of losing equilibrium, an underlying dread. In Skloot’s ethos, nothing is more dangerous than selfish, rutted, deluded, or unexamined response. Since Skloot writes in brash opposition to these behaviors, his speaker is by implication making claims for himself, setting himself apart mainly by way of his tone of self-containment. The persona, having already taken responsibility for itself, does not feel compelled to make the reader its accomplice. Skloot’s eye does not wink, and he makes limited use of irony. It is not that Skloot’s ambitions are modest; it is that he reserves immodesty for calculated ends other than self-making. In the poetry and essays, he often makes references to pop culture. His poem “The Price Is Right” (Music Appreciation, p. 9) presents a 1950s television game show in the form of a sonnet:

He parted the doors at four. By eight the sawdusted floors were patched with clots of feathers and blood. I felt their lumps under my soles all day.

The end-rhymes of the first two lines, the trim diction, and the brisk trimeter rhythm all work to bring the reader into the poem. If the child was startled by the sight of his father preparing to kill a fowl, the speaker remains cool, peering closely at the remembered image of his father’s hand:

One March morning in 1958 my mother guessed the price of a brand new split-level on Long Island. It is fate, she thought, God knows we need it. She could do nothing wrong that half-hour. She got the trip to Florence, doublewall Amana range, classic fox stole. Hardly daring to sip her Savarin, she sat still in the strange chill of pure luck, conceiving another life. She whispered the precise figure for a baby grand; there would be song. Mother would host luncheons on the patio or

It snatched a capon’s feet and swept him face down through the gate.

After the speaker describes the animal’s death (“squawking blood, legs / kicking air / slit / neck in first to die”) we arrive at the final lines:


FLOYD SKLOOT of his lungs when I tried to sing. All I wanted was his voice joining mine in harmony. The song did not have to be about faith in love.

soirees in the sand. Then the show ended. Her fortunes left her as they always did.

Within “The Price Is Right” is the unspoken notion that one pays a high price for the ephemeral pleasure of kidding oneself. The line blurs between reality and daydream; the mother joins millions of others who wish for the new stove and the fur wrap, but goes one tragic step further. She ignores her hot cup of Savarin coffee for “the strange / chill of pure luck” as actuality gives way to illusion. Does the son voice compassion for the mother as he recalls her folly? He does not say so directly, nor does he disparage her. If the final line has a tinge of cruelty in its slamming closure, the story has a foregone conclusion. The stakes for the speaker hang in the balance between the dangers of “conceiving another / life” and staring down the life we live. Therefore, it is implied not only that the “fortunes” worth having are cerebral and spiritual but that the poem continues to broadcast its sustaining message even after the television blinks off. The poem is proof of a permanent gain in a world of severed ties. The first section of Music Appreciation, “The Fury,” also includes poems about Skloot’s older brother. The two siblings share the dubious status of convenient targets for their parents’ grievances. In “Morning Shadows” (pp. 12–13), their mutual, common experiences are not sufficient to link them:

The extremes of the brother, the preference for a raucous sound, are incompatible with the speaker’s more simple desire for compatibility, the Everlys’ “voices fitting together.” We cannot be embraced for who we are unless we are first recognized for who we are. Skloot’s early poems of memory are spoken by the voice of the disregarded child. In “Swimmer” (Music Appreciation, pp. 26–27), the now widowed mother pretends to swim “with her feet / on the pool floor.” In search of a new husband, she set off on cruises. Near its conclusion the poem reads, I would always wish her home as I had wished her gone, ready in my fierce adolescence to be troubled Prince to her Queen.

One can hear the then-fresh influences of both Robert Lowell and Anne Sexton in Skloot’s familial reminiscences; the two poets had given permission to a new generation of writers to speak bluntly about personal matters. Nevertheless, Skloot offered only a narrow aperture to the raw material of his speakers’ psyches, unlike Sexton or Sylvia Plath. His more central models were Lowell, Robert Frost, T. S. Eliot, Dylan Thomas, Theodore Roethke, Donald Justice, Philip Larkin, and Richard Wilbur. While gazing back at twenty years of poetry published in magazines such as Poetry, Gettysburg Review, New Criterion, Southern Poetry Review, Shenandoah, and New England Review, Music Appreciation looks ahead to reflect Skloot’s post-illness emotional map. The book was completed in 1991, three years after he fell ill, and was published by the University Press of Florida in 1994. While the first section describes the shape of hurt, the second and third sections emphasize the efforts involved in creating situations of renewal. “A New Symmetry,” section 2,

My brother never told me that he dreamed what I had dreamed, that he knew between us and our sleeping parents was the last safe place we would know, a narrow space lit by the thinnest hope.

The shape of these lines, halting and irregular, show Skloot groping for an open form to contain the failing emotions of a weakening bond. At the end of “The Everly Brothers” (Music Appreciation, pp. 20–21), the two Skloot brothers ride up the elevator to their parents’ apartment: He offered me one frenzied groove of Yakety Yak at the top


FLOYD SKLOOT begins with “Wild Light” (pp. 36–37), seemingly a poem of pure observation, beginning,

the time together. It is loose skin, the six-mile run after work. No papers and sweet rolls Sunday mornings. It is the tin anniversary, new wrinkles in old stories, the text hand-set and stitched, not perfect bound.

Wild rice is Watergrass Indians gather at lake borders in northern Minnesota.

The speaker then describes wild orange, wild hollyhock, wild carrot, wild moss campion, and wild tomato. The poem reads like an exclusive catalog of sights, until the final four revealing lines:

The jagged shape of the poem follows the noticing eye: “It is worknight / sesame oil rubs, kiwi / fruit sliced thin mixed with apricot.” Only at the end does the language engage a strict metaphor: the marriage is decorated with exquisite details, but it is too fussy, too oriented to objects and forced habit, a fancy letterpress book instead of a sturdily bound volume. Things will fall apart. Part 3 of Music Appreciation is titled “The Virus.” In April 1989, some five months after falling ill, Skloot achieved a complete draft of “Brain Scan,” accepted shortly thereafter by the editor of Northwest Review, John Witte. Here the speaker gives directions to himself, as if his presence could dissipate under the ordeal of the invasive scan. It is both a warning and an admonition. The poem ends, “What matters now is the subtle / shading of mass, some new darkness afloat / in the brindled brain-sea. You must be still” (Music Appreciation, p. 65). The struggle to establish a personal stable world now takes on a more defined context, in the present tense. The poem is organized precisely with two octaves, an a-b-a-b rhyme pattern, but insists on varying its meter, allowing discernment to range freely in its found language from line to line. The title poem (p. 67) specifies the new obsession with regaining clarity of mind and purpose:

Wild tomato is the bloodberry as wild rocket is hedge mustard as wild rosemary is crystal tea and as I once entered the wild light and named it love.

Here, every ordinary or recognizable thing has a wild analog; the man too has an emerging wild identity, belonging suitably in nature. Light is perception itself, and wild light is an alternate way of perceiving reality within the aura of affection. Skloot is unabashed when it comes to naming explicit emotion even though such gestures, and the withholding of personality, are regarded as unstylish techniques. No wonder that “Chicken Market” was rejected fourteen times by magazine editors until it was taken by Confrontation. “Swimmer” was rejected twenty times until David Wagoner accepted it for Poetry Northwest in 1986. “My Daughter Considers her Body” appears in this section, along with other poems of domestic scenes and the growth of children. But Skloot’s temperament intuitively sniffs out the crack in the foundation. The dreamed-of dynamic emotional life meets the reality of one’s choices. In “Old Stories” (Music Appreciation, pp. 50–51) the speaker hints at a marriage beginning to unstitch. The poem concludes,

I may never know what virus this is, what brilliant cell rewrites the entire score my body has followed for life, throwing its symphony into chaos.

Skloot’s conceits become extended in these poems of the early 1990s, as if offering emergency support for thought and speech. A poet of compression and restraint, Skloot is less successful when packing his poems with information,

Forty approaches. It is the time apart, not


FLOYD SKLOOT straining to inform. Such is the case with “Saying What Needs To Be Said,” a description of his state of disorientation. But when he took up these materials in the essays, Skloot found the most hospitable form to continue and broaden the build-out of his experiences through illness and the continued exploration of his past, his identity, and the profundity of a newfound love in his second, lasting marriage. The final section of Music Appreciation is “The Search,” in which the poet looks back again at his youth, but now through the jumble of fractured memory. Having read the poems of memory in “The Fury,” the reader is on alert to compare the world of part 4 with that of part 1. But the voices in this section are more intent on loosening memory until it verges on a dreamstate. Thus, “Shoreline Life” (pp. 87–88), which recalls the Skloot family move to Long Beach in 1957, is given to a description of place, the narrative voice a kind of ghostly visitor to its fragile memory. “Our place was marked by slow / losses to windswept bayside / rollover,” begins the third stanza. He evokes “a beach braced / flat for winter.” Here is the final stanza:

Skloot’s second collection of poems, The Evening Light, was completed in 1997 and published by Story Line Press in 2001. An epigraph attributed to Jack B. Yeats begins the poem “Memory Harbor”: “No one creates. The artist assembles memories” (The Evening Light, p. 52). Skloot’s practice hews tightly to this notion of arranging material that waits in memory to be discovered. The disavowal of artifice is expressed in the relatively solemn or devotional tones of examination. Insofar as this approach comes with built-in limitations, the poet’s success depends on the interest of story, the fluidity of phrasing, and the strangeness of compulsion. This is why Skloot may dismiss artifice but he cannot elude it. The almost successful evasion of the artificial is his poetry’s distinguishing gesture, marked by a reserved speaker who boldly describes a self-made world that is strange specifically because of its compulsiveness. The subtle effects are exquisitely planned. The opening section of The Evening Light, “An Inner World,” brings the return of artists in states of stress: Claude Monet, Oskar Kokoschka, Gaetano Donizetti, Georges Seurat, and Vincent Van Gogh. The obvious subtext is that Skloot sees an equivalency between his situations and theirs, but such a simple explanation for these poems puts the emphasis on the extra-textual fact of his illness. These poems succeed because they are about the mind that addresses their subjects, an obsessive rapture of speculation about what it takes to make art when the artist is placed under duress, or suspended between the actual scene and the confusion of response. These are the final lines of “Manet in Late Summer” (pp. 21–22):

This was where my father moved us after his city life ended. He found us, at last, a home that could fade into air and water.

The site formerly identified mainly as a locus of family grief is now a place of respite. Accepting a livable dissolution, a fading into air and water, had become the invalid’s priority. “The Search” also introduces the first of Skloot’s many poems on artists, most of whom are portrayed experiencing either inspiration or a breakage of creative routine, illness, and sometimes an emergence into a new phase. There is “Paganini and the Powers of Darkness”: “By shadow of candlelight, voice / hoarsened with cancer, he practiced / his sinister pizzicatos” (p. 94). We also find Erik Satie in “The Velvet Gentleman,” meditating as he walks through Paris, hearing “harmonies that freeze / the soul” (p. 95).

As his movements shrink the world grows too great. All he knows must now be contained in two clusters of white lilacs, the cut flowers flaring like hope where they rest on black cloth. His bath has cooled. Across the room a vase of pinks and clematis catches the fading light.


FLOYD SKLOOT The book’s second section, “Bittersweet Nightshade,” comprises moving and severe poems of illness. They are also formally gorgeous, easeful within their traditional forms (as in “Autumn Equinox”) or fluently spoken in freer form (as in “Self-Portrait with 1911 NY Yankees Cap”). The section’s title poem is a sonnet, as is “A Change of Weather”:

spiritual aspiration. These are all serious routes toward self-acceptance, as heard in the final lines of “December Dawn” (The Fiddler’s Trance, p. 66): It is not the paved walkway that veers left but my body swayed by the brain’s pull. But still, I have never felt so strongly before that the world has become nothing but an image of what is inside me. I’ll walk until the fog lifts or something.

Some nights I dream of health as a calm sea. Some nights a clearing in an alpine wood awash in meadowgrass. But it could be a storm, a swirling tempest in the blood like a cyclone sweeping everything clean, leaving wreckage in its wake, death, a flood of grief. That would be the place to begin. Tonight I hear the rising autumn wind.

Missing the terse and emotionally complex poems of Brooklyn memories, The Fiddler’s Trance is the most even-toned and least stimulating of his books. The tones of appreciation and attentiveness are almost unrelieved. In short, there is not a lot for the reader to do; one either sings along or not. With The End of Dreams (2006), Skloot readmits measures of tension and humor to his poetry, beginning with “A Hand of Casino, 1954” (The End of Dreams, pp. 3–4), a reminiscence of playing cards with his grandfather that hinges on the secret knowledge of the child. The third stanza reads:

In the book’s third section, Skloot continues the poems of childhood and memory. Written in 1974, “Her Game” appears here, as well as “Leakage,” one of several poems Skloot wrote about his aging mother. In the fourth and final section, poems like “Sourwood Nocturne” speak of Skloot’s new rejuvenating life in nature. Completed in 2000, The Fiddler’s Trance appeared in 2001 alongside The Evening Light. Here Skloot’s arrangement of work emphasized integration of memory, arduous experience, the forms of found affection, and the imagined lives of artists and other figures. The charcoal in the hands of the artist Odilon Redon “knows in the dark landscape of dreams / the world is precisely the way it seems” (p. 26). Poets have always enjoyed narrating dream sequences for strangeness’s sake, but Skloot’s intent is quite different, as the lines above suggest. Driven to memory and dreams to gain a grasp of the world, the visionary world, the artist’s domain, delivers the world as it seems. Again, Skloot’s gesture puts artifice in its place, considering that how the world “seems” is the only way we have of knowing what the world actually “is.” Therefore, the states of disorientation depicted in his work are not only about Skloot’s literal illness but also about any mind compelled to move through confusion toward clarity. In this book, the sonorous earnestness of Skloot’s verse seeks to enable such transference of desire. The Fiddler’s Trance is a book of observation, praise, and

At seven I also know that bodies crumble but new parts can come gleaming from dark hiding places. I have seen, buried at the back of his top drawer, my father’s spare glass eye in a navy velvet box. My mother has three heads of stiff hair inside her closet, just in case, and a secret pack of fingernails in her chiffonier.

The End of Dreams and Approximately Paradise (2005, but completed after the former) show Skloot in full stride as a poet, producing some of his best work and attaining his highest levels of virtuosity. The categories of poems are the same, but the voice is deepening and loosening, still careful but less intent on enacting a monotone spiritual arrival. Displaying the harsh completion of “Chicken Market,” “Poolside” (The End of Dreams, p. 6) peers unblinkingly at the death of his father. The insistence on fearlessly looking is the poem’s unstated raison d’être. The final third stanza concludes:


FLOYD SKLOOT his role as Lear and the displeasing oddity of portraying age-induced dementia with wit:

Seconds more as he rises to stretch and blink salt from his eyes. He does not know yet. Without the least thought of time winding down, he tucks glasses in a towel on the lounger and strides across the deck as though it were nothing. He breathes, flexes his toes over the edge, dives into the cool embrace of deep water and dies.

But not play a wayward mind! Be cut to the brains, strange to himself, his entire soul wrenched free, then remember his lines but act forgetting. Understand pure nonsense well enough to make no sense when saying it.

There is an implied ars poetica here, a refusal to settle for mere suggestiveness or to use disjointed effects for imitation of a state of confusion. This Lear, fearful of his own lapses, could not bring himself “to speak the plain and awful line / that shows the man within the shattered king: / I fear I am not in my perfect mind.” “My mind’s not right,” wrote Robert Lowell in “Skunk Hour.” Skloot’s temperament will not permit such a statement; he usually speaks of loss of function, not madness. But he does start from what has gone awry; it is his overt wish for (and enactments of) affirmative destinations that is not Lowellish. Still, Skloot’s mythic self does not confuse the desire for peaceful vision and musicality with a certainty of its ultimate arrival. These are poems about—and behaving as—moments of passing clarity. In the book’s first section, there are poems about famous artists in turmoil, all attempting to hear a private music: Paul Gauguin (presented as a ghost in a waking landscape), Carson McCullers, Johannes Brahms, François Couperin. The narration of “Gauguin in Oregon” is hallucinatory, but the loss of mental acuity is not expressed through stagy images of the unexpected or broken syntax. From “Brahms in Delirium” (Approximately Paradise, p. 9):

The reader’s eye moves rapidly down the page as if diving toward the inevitable drowning death. There is no lingering over details, no sentimentality, just the candor of acknowledgment contained in a trimeter-based narrative. Skloot’s work is never more powerful than when he uses austerity and the flat voice to describe a pivotal moment. In this book, even in longer and longer-lined, denser poems like “Whitman Pinch Hits, 1861,” Skloot’s ear is perfect throughout, his narrative reflecting a confident, longer-breathed Whitmanesque pacing. In the poems about illness, Skloot’s diction is lithe and relaxed as if depressurized to calm the reader for deeper consideration. In “A Quiet Light” (The End of Dreams, pp. 31–32), he writes, It is easier if I close my eyes. The dreamy ricochet of shadows frees my mind and sometimes brings a moment’s ease. But then disembodied cries of children combing the beach for shells seem to reach me across a space defined by wind and time. I think of the long afterlife of stars, a burst of light that is pure memory.

A poem like “Dowsing for Joy” shows that Skloot will not abandon outright, positive response. But in general The End of Dreams offers rich complexity, an interplay of dark and light vision, and a precision of observation, all giving the reader a sense of an active psyche more interested in the density of experience than the assertion of beliefs. In the first poem of Approximately Paradise, “The Role of a Lifetime” (p. 3), a roughed-up pentameter with linked rhymes, a man considers

He knows he is out of his mind. He hears the swift percussion of his racing heart and feels it carry him toward what he fears most, the end of all his music, the start of everlasting silence.

These poems are juxtaposed with shorter pieces showing the natural or personal world, such as “Soft Flame,” a sonnet describing a dream. Skloot’s dreamscapes display his immodesty: How far can he stretch credulity in a visionary conceit? He does not seem to care. This


FLOYD SKLOOT strange voice expects us to take these sentimental visions literally. The second section begins with another performance poem, “Dress Rehearsal” (p. 17), where once again the player “must project ease” and wit (yet not necessarily be at ease or feel witty). But forgetting his lines in rehearsal, he exits “lost in a soft, rapturous sorrow / where nothing moves and nothing is certain.” The poem, however, is not lost but recovered from confusion, and its sorrow is muted; it is built deliberately to help us deliberate: five quatrains with linked rhymes, maintaining a firm shape for a frantic experience. Skloot has but one poetic impulse: to clean up the disorder of the mind. The descent into a loss of vision is, for Skloot, an opportunity for vision, a place to make his stand. In “Home Repairs” (p. 25), all of Skloot’s talents and tendencies coalesce into a signature poem through measured detail and tightly controlled tone:

there is Kavanagh again.” Two poems stand out at the end. The first, “Amity Hills” (66–67), is a lilting nature narrative, Wordsworthian in its contemplation, and quietly epiphanic: Time here has drawn me out beyond strangeness. Or drawn me in. I have learned that surprise is not always shock and nothing to fear.

“Amity Hills” formally imitates Dylan Thomas’ “Fern Hill” in its meter, rhyme scheme, and even its title. The second, “Reese in Evening Shadow” (pp. 70–71), is a reminiscence of the Brooklyn Dodgers shortstop: the whisper of the wind is his voice saying it will be all right, pain is nothing, stability is overrated, drugs play havoc with your game, lost sleep only means waking dreams, and illness is but a high pop fly that pulls us into shadow.

For the first-person persona and the portrayed figures, disorientation and fear come from fatigue, or are induced by meds, or result from brain damage. In poem after poem, Approximately Paradise is finally about the victory of memory over unimaginable emptiness, and of form over formlessness. The Snow’s Music (2008) brings a new group of envisioned artists. By now, this mode of poem has become a repetitive gesture. The poems themselves are executed at Skloot’s high level of expression, but they no longer yield fresh insight. What they do offer, however, is a darkening poignancy. “William Butler Yeats Among the Ghosts” (The Snow’s Music, p. 24) ends,

The summer he wallpapered his daughter’s bedroom, rain finally buckled the back deck and sluiced the loose roof shingles free to flutter off on a gust of wind. He knew what was happening before his eyes, how water goes for what holds an old house together and tears it apart from the outside in. So does the sun. A week of record heat seemed to draw the house in upon itself as he steamed, peeled and scraped through sheet after sheet of tulips, roses, toy soldiers and prancing horses. He could hear the thin cry joists make as they dry. He worked by himself, a storm of plaster around his shoulders, the air thick with mold and age, nothing left to mark the past but bare wall, a tapestry of cracks, and a door that would not stay closed.

He misses all he longed to leave. They are here but they are one, a great rise and fall of sound like a wave that never meets the shore, a vision that never grows clear.

The book’s middle section comprises poems about his mother’s Alzheimer’s illness. The final section locates the speaker and reader in a landscape close to home, or what has become a resting place at the end of an ordeal. Another poem of imagined presence, “Patrick Kavanagh at First Light” (pp. 64–65) repeats the Gauguin gestures, with the added element of a small closure: “So I have gone / nowhere after all, and realize I have been talking / to myself. Except

But one is moved more deeply by a perfect memory-sonnet, “Playing the Bawd at Twenty” (p. 7). Here the speaker reflects on his youthful self playing Pompey in Measure for Measure: “For two hours / each night I knew what to say about right / and wrong in a world gone wild with deceit.” Skloot the mature poet would make


FLOYD SKLOOT such performances his mission, since in his poems the world is rectified, and his audience listens as others have not:

a persona who wants to be embraced and understood—but on his terms. Thus, the persona comes across as emotionally receptive, intimate, informed, and modest but wields a candor, tact, and contained expressiveness with his audience that set him apart.

I saw the lost, even beyond the lights, and was at home with them all. Tongue in cheek, I spoke the truth from deep within my bones, no longer young and no longer alone.

“There’s a lot wrong with me,” the first sentence in the opening essay of The Night-Side, were Skloot’s first words written as an essay writer, composed eight months after he was stricken. Although The Night-Side covers topics that are central to Skloot’s concerns, he felt compelled to take up these subjects again in subsequent essays that appear in his three major essay collections. For instance, “Trivia Tea,” an early essay about exercising memory through a love of baseball statistics, is superseded by an essayist tour de force, “Billy Gardner’s Ground Out” in A World of Light. Similarly, Skloot approaches the portentous intersection of family, memory, and illness in “The Roosevelt Chair,” but we do not feel the full impact of this combination until the sharper-edged essays of In the Shadow of Memory (2003). In The Night-Side, we witness Skloot teaching himself how to handle the essay genre. Writing in the Journal of Medical Humanities, Martha Stoddard Holmes stated that Skloot’s essays had “transformed the genre of creative nonfiction/memoir” by releasing it from the conventions prescribed by the surrounding culture. Skloot achieved this distinction by using illness as a topical platform from which to probe issues that are transpersonal, intertwining medical research, memoir, and speculation. The results are never more provocative than in “The Painstaking Historian,” one of the essays of In the Shadow of Memory. The formal progress and unfolding insights and claims of this essay exhibit Skloot’s general techniques. He begins by discussing his mother’s inclination to fantasy as compensation for the cards life had dealt to her. Skloot’s touch is light; he begins “I don’t think my mother really believed she was Anastasia.” He continues, “My mother, Bronx born and Manhattan raised, spoke with an intermittent eastern European accent that was part Hungarian, part Russian, a little Polish, and some accidental

It has been said that poets grow by recoiling from their early themes, but this does not pertain to Floyd Skloot. In form and voice, he writes poetry of social decorum, taking the writer-reader relationship seriously, and tries to relieve the pressures that strain this link. This uncommon strategy is risky insofar as it ignores some registers of subtlety in favor of more obvious sentiment. Thematically, he has always spoken of the primacy of loss, and the necessity of maintaining a responding posture of steady, saving regard. The antidote to loss has entailed a submission to the concrete—without the comforts of concrete certainties. Skloot has written that since he got sick “the writing of poetry has become much more open for me. The poems are less formal, less cohesive, because my world and my mind are less cohesive” (A World of Light, pp. 122– 123). But the openness is relative. Skloot continues to be a highly disciplined poet, confronting chaos to capture and tame this enemy.


In the preface to The Night-Side (1999), his first book of essays, Skloot quotes and approves of Susan Sontag’s assertion that “illness is not a metaphor, and the most truthful way of regarding illness—and the healthiest way of being ill—is one most purified of, most resistant to, metaphoric thinking” (Sontag, Illness As Metaphor, p. 3). Sontag objected to the Romantic notion in the nineteenth century that illness, specifically consumption, made a person interesting and supposedly more sensitive. Certainly Skloot’s essays on illness scrupulously avoid sentimentality and overstatement, or dramatically gesturing toward a point rather than making it. But there is no question that the person speaking in the essays is “interesting.” As in the poetry, the essays present


FLOYD SKLOOT Yiddish, as though Zsa Zsa Gabor were imitating Akim Tamiroff doing Molly Goldberg” (In the Shadow of Memory, p. 72). Having enticed us through humor, Skloot then shifts gears as, in his story, his mother’s royal pretensions veer toward the exercise of power over the child. He writes, “Indeed, my mother was a born tyrant, ruthless, suspicious, given to tantrums and unpredictable violence.” There is no recrimination nor survivor’s groan in the language, suggesting a yet-to-be-revealed victory over this childhood experience. Then Skloot introduces a remarkable claim: violence to the child made him susceptible to danger by overtaxing certain neural routes. He writes:

sions, his writing is less rich, more declarative than convincing. “Responding properly to the world” is no less than the overarching act and theme of Floyd Skloot’s composite oeuvre. In the Shadow of Memory contains much variety of material and a range of tones, from grim humor and a recovered childlike delight in culture and literature to poignant and empathic stories about his family. In “Wild in the Woods,” Skloot describes the particulars of dementia he has experienced, feeling his way toward understanding how and why his condition seems designed to guide him toward understanding. He writes, The longer I dwell in this new, demented state, the more I think intelligence may not even be the most critical part. I have become aware of the way changes in my emotional experience interact with changes in my intellectual experience to demand and create a fresh experience of being in the world, an encounter that feels spiritual in nature. I have been rewoven.ѧ I have been given an area of psychological life in which to compensate for what is missing.ѧ feelings are now more dominant, less concealed, and less suppressed.

In other words, a pattern of chemically based fear response becomes embedded in the brain’s structure, rendering a person incapable of anything but a chemical hyperresponse to the least perceived danger. Stress hormones repeatedly released under pressure of abusive situations damage tissues as well as establishing a response pathway that becomes habitual (In the Shadow of Memory, p. 76)

Skloot then converts the science into felt psychology when he writes, “When the ones we love and trust turn on us, when there is no certainty of love, when the safety of our family life collapses, it takes with it our system for responding properly to the world” (p. 79). By this point, most readers will have begun to associate with the narrator. Skloot then continues the memoir, describing how he and his brother seemed to court injury, their brains “wired for over-response to stress” (p. 83). Finally, Skloot takes us to his brother’s deathbed, haunting for its unstated suggestion that the older sibling’s death is an image of Skloot’s eluded fate. It is a proxy death. The narrative effects of In the Shadow of Memory are engrossing not just because they display a man dredging his shattered memory for explanations of his present condition. The essays are propelled by the very hyper-receptivity to stimuli that signifies the psyche of the injured. Ever vigilant for insult (from the mother or the virus), the speaker maintains his composure, even when he expresses his joy or contentment at the new affection and peace he has found. When Skloot tamps down these subtle but deep inner ten-

(pp. 22–24)

“Wild in the Woods” succeeds because the abstract state described above is located in the rural scenery of Oregon and the life Skloot now enjoys with his second wife. The same holds true for “In the Shadow of Memory,” a nimble essay that moves between a recounting of falling ill, a description of his current condition and habits, and several memories. In A World of Light (2005), Skloot draws a tighter focus on the process by which he managed to regain a tenuous stability in the world. Where In the Shadow of Memory took eight years to complete, A World of Light represents four years’ work, an essayist finding his groove, drilling deeper, and conceiving the shape of a book as he progressed at a good clip. This book begins with four essays centered on the reconciliation between mother and son, the former now aged, suffering from dementia, and living in a nursing home with a Memory Impairment Unit. This collection deepens the relationship between the sick and the well by showing how “we all live in a shattered world” (A World of Light, p. x). Part 2


FLOYD SKLOOT begins with “1957,” linking a visit to his mother to memories of Brooklyn, further explored in “Billy Gardner’s Ground Out” and “A World of Light.” Skloot’s enduring connection to Thomas Kinsella is the subject of “The Simple Wisdom.” In part 3, four essays complete a circuit from Oregon life to a final visit to Skloot’s mother. The Wink of the Zenith (2008) finds Skloot purposefully reassessing his experiences in order to understand why and how he became a writer. Once again he frames his personal mythos, explaining his situation. But one notices, in the first essay, “Going, Going, Gone,” an even more assured narrative stance. “Part of it has got to come from the fact that I’m not going after any effect at all,” Skloot explained in a 2005 interview. “I’m just trying to have a light touch” (Marlboro Review, p. 24). This initial essay seamlessly enjoins the memory of moving from Brooklyn, catching the flu, playing Wiffle ball, finding a box containing his father’s bloodied clothes, hearing of his father’s death, playing stickball with his older brother, and finally, writing about baseball as an undergraduate. “The Wink of the Zenith” is a classic essay on 1950s television, and clarifies the link between Skloot’s identity and his love of pop culture. “Cover Stories” deals with his early reading. “Home Economics for Halfbacks” looks at Skloot’s solitary nature and hapless but essential teenage attempts at self-sufficiency. Essays about his college and graduate studies show him emerging doggedly as a young poet in search of form. In “Numbers,” he begins his business career. “The Voice of the Past” begins with fact checkers at the New York Times Magazine trying to confirm that Skloot’s mother did indeed sing on the radio in the 1930s, and flows into a riff on how we excavate memory for a sense of who we are in the present. He writes, “it feels as if the past is all around me, whether I remember it or not” (The Wink of the Zenith, p. 168).

gain and discovery, in the realms of experience, creativity, and relationships” (p. 2). In his four essay collections, Skloot has not only increased the awareness of neuro-illnesses, but he has used his learned ease with language, control of tone, and passion for life’s details to maximize the impact of his perspective and the delight of his readers.


It took Floyd Skloot ten years to write his first novel, Pilgrim’s Harbor. Completed in 1986, it was not published until 1992. Skloot has said that illness offered him access to a missing part of his life. Pilgrim’s Harbor shows not only that Skloot has long been concerned with this theme, but that for years he labored at fiction as the means to give shape to this greater emotional potential. Skloot’s novels are sturdily built, carefully narrated, and loyal to their author’s dream of a more fulfilling life. Pilgrim’s Harbor is narrated by Dewey Howser, the befuddled day manager of a western motel who likes his job for the manageable, limited intimacy it offers with his odd clientele. The novel draws the reader in with the same lightly humorous, self-deprecating touch that would later attract his essay readers. As in the essays, soon the novel moves to more serious ground when Dewey meets Cindy Bonds, a free spirit. The story foreshadows the changes Skloot would devise in his own post-illness life, and the novel’s diction shows Skloot’s selftutelage in writing compact prose, perfect for quipping and the concision of new conclusions. During the years of the novel’s composition, Skloot read and studied the novels of Graham Greene and Walker Percy for their tight narratives and controlled voice. But he was also attracted to the more lush feelings in works by Faulkner, Robert Penn Warren, and William Styron. But the terse address in his work is related as well to the speaker of his own poetry, an inherent preference for brevity and freshness. Summer Blue, his second novel, was written in three years from 1986 through 1988 and was published in 1994. The novel’s brief chapters were written during Skloot’s lunch breaks from

Martha Stoddard Holmes noted, “Because his writing is extensive and varied, it is impossible to read his narratives of neurodiversity within the narrow cultural scripts that equate brain injury with tragic loss and nothing else. Loss is part of what Skloot witnessed and explores, but so are


FLOYD SKLOOT his job. The main character is Timothy Packard, a forty-one-year old widower and father of his teenage daughter Jill. Timothy has not accepted responsibility for his life and now he worries about Jill. They set off together, wary but companionable, to a cabin in Michigan and then to Tim’s sister in Oregon. As in Pilgrim’s Harbor, here Skloot’s ear for light dialogue is a buoyant strength. The plot is a tour highlighted by female presences, past and present, as Timothy sorts out his relations with women. Once again, compassion and clarity are both means and ends as father and daughter confront the sources of their unease. Not coincidentally, the father/daughter relationship is taken up in several of Skloot’s essays and poems. The Open Door, Skloot’s third novel, represents his first attempt to shape a complete story loosely based on his childhood experiences. Five chapters were written before his illness and appeared as short stories in the 1970s. With great difficulty, Skloot was able to finish the novel in 1993. Here, Skloot begins to ask, via fictional means, why his parents married and stayed together through years of disappointed dreams and strife. The question would ultimately be more fully stated and answered in the essays, where Skloot could employ the restrained but intimate narrative voice best suited to deal with personal material and highly charged themes. Finally, Skloot published Patient 002 in 2007. The first chapter was written in 1991. This novel is an expansion of his essay “Double Blind” in The Night-Side, a piece on his experience in an experimental drug study. Patient 002 is an ensemble novel formed around several characters, patients taking part in double-blind study, each one wondering if he or she is being administered a placebo. Unlike Skloot’s other fictions, the novel becomes an action story when Sam Kiehl, the main character, leads a group attempt to obtain the now prohibited drug. Skloot also packs a love interest in the tale (Sam falls in love with his massage therapist) and an antagonist in the form of PER, a pharmaceutical company. The heist of the drug from PER, however, is less important to the novel than Skloot’s depictions of the patients’ anguish and common interests.

Floyd Skloot thinks of himself primarily as a poet who has supplemented his understanding of his experiences through the essay. The novels represent earlier and partially successful attempts to use the materials of memory, family tension, and illness. Yet taken together, his work in all three genres displays a remarkable singlemindedness to uncover and establish lasting connections with literary tradition, his audience, and his own memories. It is composite picture of a man seeking acceptance, offering empathy, and insisting on facing the facts.

Selected Bibliography WORKS OF FLOYD SKLOOT POETRY: FULL-LENGTH COLLECTIONS Music Appreciation. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1994. The Evening Light. Ashland, Ore.: Story Line Press, 2001. The Fiddler’s Trance. Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 2001. Approximately Paradise. Dorset, Vt.: Tupelo Press, 2005. The End of Dreams. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2006. Selected Poems, 1970–2005. Dorset, VT: Tupelo Press, 2008. The Snow’s Music. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2008.

POETRY: CHAPBOOKS Rough Edges. Madison, Wis.: Chowder Chapbooks, 1979. Kaleidoscope. Eugene, Ore.: Silverfish Review, 1986. Wild Light. Eugene, Ore: Silverfish Review, 1989. Poppies. Eugene, Ore: Silverfish Review/Story Line Press, 1994. Bittersweet Nightshade. Abingdon, Va: Sow’s Ear Poetry Review, 1998. Greatest Hits 1970–2001. Johnstown, Ohio: Pudding House Publications, 2001.

ESSAY/MEMOIR COLLECTIONS The Night-Side: Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Illness Experience. Brownsville, Ore.: Story Line Press, 1996. In the Shadow of Memory. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2003. A World of Light. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2005.



The Wink of the Zenith: The Shaping of a Writer’s Life. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2008.

Foster, Jordan. “PW Talks with Floyd Skloot.” Publishers Weekly, August 4, 2008, p. 52.


Sanasiero, Ellen. “An Interview with Floyd Skloot.” Marlboro Review 19, 2005.

Pilgrim’s Harbor. Brownsville, Ore.: Story Line Press, 1992. Summer Blue. Brownsville, Ore.: Story Line Press, 1994. The Open Door. Brownsville, Ore.: Story Line Press, 1997. Patient 002. Akron, Ohio: Rager Media, 2007.

ADDITIONAL REFERENCES Sontag, Susan. Illness as Metaphor. New York: Vintage, 1979.

OTHER WORKS “The Evolving Poetry of Thomas Kinsella,” New England Review 18, no. 4:179 (fall 1997). “The Radiance of Change: The Collected Poems of Thomas Kinsella.” Shenendoah 49, no. 2:116–125 (summer 1998).

Holmes, Martha Stodddard. “Writing Neurology: Selected Essays and Poetry by Floyd Skloot.” Journal of Medical Humanities 30:1–28 (January 20, 2009).



Susan Carol Hauser GENE STRATTON-PORTER had a mission as a writer: to improve the lives of others by teaching them lessons grounded in the power and beauty of nature. She did this through her best-selling novels, published from 1903 to 1927, especially Freckles (1904), Girl of the Limberlost (1909), and The Harvester (1911). Her books sold in the millions and many remain in print. She was a woman of her times—she held dear the values of family—but she also opened new horizons for women, including herself. She determined early in her adult life that she would be self-sufficient. She accomplished this through her writing which was based on extraordinary field study. She was known as the Lady of the Limberlost, the swamp in Indiana that provided the natural history for most of her stories.

call of “Wabash Fever,” a popular land drive. Like other prospectors, he found that the river’s bottomland was overrun by rattlesnakes, so much so that it was not habitable. He bought land away from the river and returned to Ohio to bring his family, now with a new baby, to their homestead, where they remained for ten years. In 1848 the Strattons moved to a new farm, named Hopewell, near the Wabash River, the territory Mark Stratton had earlier hoped to settle. The rattlesnakes that had forced him to move farther out had been largely purged from the area, in part as a result of the felling of the forests for timber and to make way for agriculture. The Strattons lived at Hopewell for twenty-six years, until 1874, when they moved to the town of Wabash to be closer to medical care for Mary Stratton. She suffered from the lingering effects of typhoid fever and died on February 3, 1875, four months after the move to town. Geneva was twelve years old.


Geneva (Gene) Grace Stratton was born on August 17, 1863, on a 240-acre farm near the town of Lagro (formerly LaGro) in Wabash County, Indiana. She was the twelfth and last child of Mark Stratton (1812–1890) and Mary Shallenberger Stratton (1816–1875). Nine of her siblings were living at the time of her birth, four of them—Leander, Lemon, Florence, and Ada— still at home. The others were grown and had left for marriage, school, or work. The closest in age to her was Leander, nine years her senior and the model for her novel Laddie, Leander’s nickname. Two sisters born between Leander and Geneva died of childhood diseases prior to her birth. Stratton-Porter’s parents were married on December 24, 1835, in Ohio. In January 1838 Mark Stratton left his pregnant wife and an infant to search for farmland in the valley of the Wabash River in northeastern Indiana, following the

Stratton-Porter’s childhood at Hopewell farm informed her life, including her love for the land and its creatures, and her career as a writer and photographer. Her parents were self-sufficient and successful farmers. From both she learned the pleasure of providing for oneself and the beauty of nature. Her father was fifty when she was born and her mother was forty-seven. Mark Stratton, an ordained Methodist minister, had been harsh with her older siblings, imposing strict rules of study and memorization, and he had a prodigious temper that Geneva also witnessed. But he tended toward leniency with his last child. When Geneva was born, his wife’s health was already beginning to fail and she was not always able to look after her youngest daughter. Geneva was given into her father’s care and followed him and her older brothers into the fields and


GENE STRATTON-PORTER woods. She spent her time there wandering at will, discovering the scents, sounds, and colors of the wild world that would eventually be the subject of her life’s work. One of Stratton-Porter’s favorite memories from those early years was “a gift of the birds,” as recounted in her biographical recollection Homing with the Birds (1919). Her father taught her much of what she knew about birds and encouraged her in her studies of them. However, as a farmer he had no qualms about killing birds that threatened his livelihood. One day young Geneva “heard the crack of my father’s rifle in the dooryard, then I saw a big bird whirling to earth in the milk yard” (p. 14). Horrified, she ran to the hawk and threw herself over it just as her father was about to deliver the coup de grâce. To her father’s astonishment, the hawk allowed Stratton-Porter to hold it in her arms. She knew the hawk, its nest, its mate, and its family and convinced her father to let her tend it. It had an injured wing and could never fly again and was no threat to the farm. Mark Stratton knew that hawks were ferociously wild and were not likely to accept treatment from humans. This one was nearly two feet in height with long, curved talons and a fierce beak. He feared that it would harm his young daughter. Stratton-Porter reported in Homing that “The hawk huddled against me for protection” and that her father “gazed at us in amazement.” The no-nonsense father yielded to the girl: “ ’God knows I do not understand you,’ he said in all reverence. ‘Keep the bird if you think you can!’ ” (p. 16). The next year, Father Stratton made a bequest to the girl who would become “The Bird Lady of the Limberlost.” He gave her “indisputable ownership of each bird of every description that made its home on his land” (p. 21), including the hawks and owls that he considered to be enemies of the farmer. The gift was complete and without reservation. Young Geneva embraced it. She inventoried as many of the nests on the land as she could:

and looked over the branches carefully. Not a sweet scented shrub, a honeysuckle, a lilac, a syringa, a rose bush, or a savin escaped my exploring eyes. (p. 26)

She proceeded then to the garden, the orchard, the outbuildings, the woods, the woods pasture and, lastly, the fields. In her thoroughness she demonstrated personal qualities that contributed to her later success as a naturalist, writer, and photographer. Her unfettered curiosity and disregard for personal comfort were tempered by her practical mind: Before I had finished my inventory I had so many nests that it was manifestly impossible for me to visit all of them in a day; so I selected sixty of those, which were most conveniently located and belonged to the rarest and most beautiful birds, giving them undivided attention and contenting myself with being able to point out, describe, and boast about the remainder. (p. 27)

As a consequence of her diligence, she became adept at rescuing birds, saving many and keeping as pets those that could not be returned to the wild. She had a tame blue jay, named Hezekiah, that she taught to roll cherries across the floor on command, and a rooster named Bobby that crowed when she said “Amen!” She continued throughout most of her life the practice of rescuing and protecting birds. Stratton-Porter’s mother had a complementary influence on her. Biographer Judith Reick Long, in Gene Stratton-Porter, Naturalist and Novelist, says Mary Stratton “lived by a biblical injunction: whatsoever her hand found to do, she did it with all her might” (p. 58). She contributed to her youngest daughter’s naturalist education by sending her to the woods for the roots and herbs used in compounding medicines used to treat the ills and injuries of family and neighbors. Not only did Stratton-Porter learn how to gather raw materials from this pharmacy, knowledge that would come to bear in one of her most popular books, The Harvester, she learned how to use the medicines in her treatment of injured birds. Mary Stratton provided other important lessons to Geneva that played out in the girl’s adult

So with the natural acquisitiveness of human nature, I began a systematic search to increase my possessions. I climbed every tree in the dooryard


GENE STRATTON-PORTER life and writing. Mother Stratton came from a miller’s family and knew how to entertain and to set a fine table. She was also known for her charity toward those in need whatever their background. In Life & Letters of Gene StrattonPorter, Gene’s daughter, Jeannette Porter Meehan, relates her mother’s memory of Mary Stratton:

man infringement on the natural world contributed to her later writing. The Strattons were also successful and important contributors to their local community. Father Stratton donated a corner of his farm for a church, where he conducted three services on Sundays. During the Civil War (1860–1865) the Stratton farm provided safe haven for runaway slaves. In Meehan’s Life & Letters, StrattonPorter remembers how they accomplished the dangerous task:

She was the mother of twelve lusty babies.ѧ With this brood on her hands, she found time to keep an immaculate house, to set a table renowned in her part of the state, to entertain with unfailing hospitality all who came to her door, to beautify her home with such means as she could command, to embroider and fashion clothing for her children by hand; but her great gift was conceded by all to be her ability for making things grow. At this she was wonderful.

There was a ravine running along the edge of the orchard ending in a hollow which Father Stratton dug out and made into a cave, or tunnel. The opening of the cave was heaped with stones, and the place was used as an “underground station.” During the night escaped slaves were brought to the farm and hidden in this cave, where they were given beds of straw, food, and a candle for light, and kept until the next night, when they were again picked up and taken on their way.

(p. 12)

Mary cajoled growth from the roots and seeds of even exotic vines and trees, and her flower gardens yielded more than visual beauty. StrattonPorter related, in Meehan, that “she distilled exquisite perfume by putting clusters at acme of bloom perfection in bowls lined with freshly made unsalted butter, covering them closely, and cutting the few drops of extract thus obtained with alcohol” (p. 13). Stratton-Porter said that her mother could do more things on the farm than anyone else, and could do them better and more perfectly. She summed up her mother’s character in one word: “capable.” The description tells us as much about the daughter as it does about her mother: Stratton-Porter approved of the ability to make do, whatever one’s circumstance. She practiced this in her own life and imbued the heroes and heroines in her stories with the same quality. From 1863, the year Geneva was born, until 1872, life proceeded with relative ease at the farm, which provided well for the family’s needs. Much of the land had been cleared and cultivated; the remainder, still on the brink of wilderness, was rich with game and fish. Stratton-Porter, even at her young age, was keenly aware of the changes that were taking place in her environment: the disappearance of bison from the prairies, bass from the rivers, birds and wildflowers from the forests. This early awareness of hu-

(p. 17)


The years 1872 to 1875 brought tragedies that ended Geneva’s sweet childhood. Mother Stratton’s chronic illness had gradually become more debilitating, depriving Geneva of her mother’s company and guidance. In February 1872 Geneva’s older sister Mary Ann, married to a prosperous farmer, died in an accident. On July 6, 1872, her older brother Leander (Laddie) drowned in the Wabash River. He was almost nineteen, and she was a few weeks from her ninth birthday. Laddie was her closest sibling in age and her good friend. He was thoughtful and kind and welcomed her company in the fields and woods. She was devastated by his death, a pain that resurfaced later when she wrote the novel Laddie (1913) based on his character. Geneva’s parents were also deeply affected by Laddie’s death. He was the only one of their sons who had been interested in continuing the farm. Worsening matters, Wabash County’s corn crops were destroyed by worms in 1873 and in the same year a financial panic that struck the country further impaired the profitability of the


GENE STRATTON-PORTER farm and the strength of Father Stratton’s resolve. Nearly sixty, he was not able to maintain the property and its enterprise without Laddie’s help and support. The situation was exacerbated by the escalating decline of Mother Stratton’s health, which was worsened by Laddie’s death. In 1873 Father Stratton made a difficult decision: he would rent out the farm and move the family to the town of Wabash. There his wife would be closer to medical care and Geneva would be able to attend a larger school. In 1874 the family, now consisting of Mother and Father Stratton, Florence, Ada, Lemon, and Geneva, moved in with the children’s sister Anastasia Stratton Taylor and her family. Anastasia was married to a prominent lawyer and there was ample room in her home for these additional relations. Brother Irvin was already in residence there. The move to town and her mother’s death a few months later had a profound effect on the eleven-year-old Geneva. The girl who was used to wandering in the fields and forests, following her heart and the songs of birds, felt imprisoned by her new circumstances. Long reports that Stratton-Porter was allowed to keep some of her pet birds and distracted herself from her new life by obsessively caring for them: “Religiously she scraped perches, boiled bathtubs and changed sand, all the while yearning for the woods she was forced to leave behind” (p. 73). In the years after Mother Stratton’s death, the family remaining together moved frequently, first from Anastasia’s to a rented home, then to a new home they built, then again to Anastasia’s and eventually back to their own home. Through it all, Geneva attended the local school. Although she did not like the closed nature of the classroom, her father had taught her always to do well in her work, and she succeeded for the most part in her studies. It was during these years that she discovered pleasure in writing. After the particularly successful delivery of a paper at school, she immersed herself in her new passion, as noted in Meehan:

books in school. She wrote a volume of verse fashioned after Meredith’s Lucile, two novels, and a romantic book in rhyme all during the time she should have been studying. (p. 36)

When her grades began to fail, her father forced her to give up her pets. When her sister Anastasia died in 1883, Stratton-Porter, then nineteen, used it as an excuse to stop going to school. She never returned and did not earn a high school diploma.


Geneva, who was now going by the name “Geneve,” did not regret her decision to end her formal schooling. Meehan notes that later in life she said, “Like Thoreau, I never worried over diplomas, and unlike most school children I studied harder after leaving school than ever before.ѧ What measure of success I have had comes through preserving my individual point of view, method of expression, and the Spartan regulations of my childhood home” (p. 39). In the summer of 1881 Geneve attended, with her sisters, an Island Park Assembly two-week chautauqua in northern Indiana. Held on the shores of Sylvan Lake, the setting restimulated her love of nature which had gone unnourished after the family’s move to Wabash. The chautauqua sessions were primarily religious in theme, but she also attended lectures on world problems, clean living, and using nature to provide for oneself. Geneve attended her second chautauqua in the summer of 1884 and returned many summers after that. She was so enamored of the area and of Sylvan Lake in particular that she eventually built a home there. At the 1884 chautauqua she spent much of her time exploring the natural features of the area, extending her childhood interest in the workings of nature and further preparing herself for a career as a naturalist and nature writer. Her behavior was not typical for a young woman of the time, and it attracted attention. Other young women at the chautauqua were repelled by her: she did not exhibit proper parlor manners. One day on a sojourn around the

Her ever-present desire to write mounted to fever heat. She neglected everything else and wrote. She hid in her room at home, and she hid behind her


GENE STRATTON-PORTER lake she picked plump wild berries. She strung them on a straw and, back at the assembly grounds, offered them to another woman. The gesture of friendship was received with scorn: a lady did not pick berries.

mother and was subjected to it further herself after her mother died, both in her father’s household and her sister Anastasia’s, where she and her father “boarded out.” Gene was determined to not give her life to housekeeping.

The confluence of these two streams of experience, the stimulation of the lectures and the wild environs, stirred in Geneve the first inklings of what would become a guiding passion in her life: the desire to bring to those bereft of nature an understanding of its power and beauty, both for the pleasure of it and for edification in life. As quoted in Long, she reported in a 1916 article that “On account of my inclinations, education and rearing, I felt in a degree equipped to be their Moses” (p. 95), an analogy she often used by way of saying that she could lead people out of the wilderness of their ignorance about nature.

Do not think me a carper or a howler for woman’s rights. I am not. But I sincerely believe that nine girls out of every ten who earnestly strive to make such a home as I imagine, half kill themselves at it. To lay on a girl’s shoulders the management and planning of a house, then to have her cook, wash, bake, iron, scrub, make beds, sweep, and dust,— and she must be bright, oh, yes, always bright and cheerful!—is enough to make a scold out of her. I take notice that my girl friends who have been engaged a year and those who have been married a year, look vastly different, and it sets me to pondering on the difference between a man’s engaged love and his married love. (p. 61)

This intent not to lose her life to the kitchen and laundry was contradicted by an equally strong belief in home and hearth. She valued her cosseted early childhood and admired her father all of his life, even though he was often rigid and difficult in his relationships with his children. In marriage, Gene gradually forged arrangements that suited her. In the early days, she and Mr. Porter (as she addressed him all of her life) lived in a small house in Decatur, Indiana. Long notes that she quickly became bored with the demands of the household and the limitations of the city, though she made the best of it by experimenting with cooking and by taking art and music lessons: “I did not write, but I continued violin, painting, and embroidery lessons, and did all the cooking and housework with the exception of the washing and ironing. I had agreed to love a man, and to keep his house neat and clean” (p. 121). On August 27, 1887, Jeannette Helen Porter, their only child, was born. In 1888 the family moved from Decatur to a house in Geneva, Indiana, closer to Mr. Porter’s work. The move also had important benefits for Gene: a chicken house and an orchard. Gene quickly turned the main house into an aviary, especially for injured birds that she rescued and, when possible, rehabilitated to the wild. In returning to this old

Geneve’s unconventional behavior at the 1884 chautauqua was also noticed by a male attendee, Charles Dorwin Porter (1851–1926), a self-made businessman who owned a drugstore and later a bank in Geneva, Indiana. Abiding by the custom of the times, he did not address Geneve directly. Rather, he approached her by letter through mutual acquaintances. They came to know each other through a lively correspondence, in which Geneve started using the name “Gene.” In 1885 they became engaged, and they married on August 21, 1886. Their letters, published in Meehan’s book, indicated a genuine affection for each other as well as Geneve’s interest in matrimony, but she also made it clear that she was not naive about who would benefit from a marriage: You have “concluded that I favour matrimony.” Well, so I do, for the men. I regard the pure and lovable wife as the best safeguard to man’s honour and purity; the comfortable and happy home as his rightful and natural resting place; and every loving environment that springs from such a tie one step nearer the heart of earth’s dearest and best. That’s for the man. And for every such a home some woman is the sacrificial flame that feeds the altar. (p. 60)

Gene’s opinion was grounded in life experience. She knew well the toll of household labor on her


GENE STRATTON-PORTER passion, she moved closer to the life of nature writing and photography that would become her vocation.

want to be subject to her husband’s approval for support of her path nor to the whims of the economy of the moment. She kept her writing income secret for some time, renting a post office box in town for her correspondence so her husband and others would not know of her effort and potential failure. Finally, she explained,


Although Gene had found pleasure in writing during her high school days and occasionally after that, she did not turn to it with intent until she was in her late thirties. The first publication generally attributed to her, in 1900, cannot be authoritatively ascribed to her. A short novel, The Strike at Shane’s, was published by the American Humane Education Society. Its author’s name was never revealed and Stratton-Porter never acknowledged it as hers. However, the story clearly matches that of Stratton-Porter’s own life and experiences. It is possible that she declined recognition for the work because the father in the story is portrayed as harsh. Although Mark Stratton had died in 1890, Stratton-Porter routinely portrayed him in a positive light in her published writings. In 1895 Stratton-Porter and her family moved to a grand cabin—two stories, fourteen rooms— they built at the edge of the great Limberlost Swamp not far from Geneva. In Homing with the Birds, she wrote that while first living there, she underwent a crisis in identity: “In those days I was experiencing constant struggle to find an outlet for the tumult in my being.ѧ During my early days in that Cabin I went through more agony than should fall to the lot of the average seeker after a form of self-expression” (p. 44). She tried to further develop her interest in music, but that did not satisfy the longing she felt. As her daughter remembers, she eventually found her way to writing: “the fever to write had raged within Mother until it became a compelling influence and dominated her whole life, her home, her entertainments, her amusements, and her work. After I was old enough to go to school, Mother spent many secret hours with her pen” (Meehan, p. 36). Creative expression and championing nature were major incentives for Stratton-Porter’s writing, but she was also motivated by an intense desire to be financially independent. She did not

I took a bold step, the first in my self-emancipation. Money was beginning to come in, and I had some in my purse of my very own that I had earned when no one knew I was working. I argued that if I kept my family so comfortable that they missed nothing from my usual routine, I had a right to do what I could toward furthering my personal ambitions ѧ until I could earn money enough to hire capable people to take my place. (Meehan, p. 39)

Her early writing income was from articles in magazines. The first, in 1900, was “A New Experience in Millinery,” in Recreation, a popular magazine but one that was not widely read in her locale. It was not until her first short story, “Laddie, the Princess and the Pie,” was published around 1901 (date unverifiable) in Metropolitan magazine that others in her immediate life knew that she was an author. In fact, she learned about the publication herself from a clerk in Mr. Porter’s drugstore who had read it and mentioned it to Stratton-Porter. The publisher had lost her return address and hoped that she would see the story. Their correspondence led to another story, “How Laddie and the Princess Spelled Down at the Christmas Bee,” this time fully illustrated with photographs by Stratton-Porter. Stratton-Porter had taken up photography in defense of her writing. She was appalled by the art that publishers wanted to supply for her articles, generally poorly executed photographs of stuffed birds. Her husband and daughter had given her a camera as a gift, and she quickly taught herself how to use it and process her own film. In Homing with the Birds, she expressed her delight: “I had found my medium! I could illustrate what I wrote myself! I knew that with patient work the camera could be mastered in detail” (p. 49). Her success with photography was so great that the camera company Eastman Kodak sent a


GENE STRATTON-PORTER representative to her home to find out how she succeeded in making such fine prints on their paper. As reported in Meehan, she was not completely forthcoming with him, in part because she did not want to reveal what constituted her lab: “I did not subject the gentleman to the shock of showing him that my dark-room was the family bath, my washing tanks the turkey and meat platters in the kitchen sink” (p. 50). When he asked for a demonstration of her technique, she told him she thought the local water might account for the difference in results and he left, satisfied with her explanation. The truth, however, she felt lay in her processes, which included quality plates and chemicals and techniques such as cooling gelatin for the plates on hot days by cooling the bath water with ice. Early in her career, Stratton-Porter was well known for her photographs, and American Annual Photography published them along with articles on her fieldwork. Recreation magazine published a column, “Camera Notes,” for which she was paid in photographic equipment. This allowed her to continue to improve and excel in her second profession. Fieldwork was the essence of StrattonPorter’s research for her articles, fiction, and photography. Over many years she spent hours and days slogging through the Limberlost, bringing to bear the play of the child on the work of the woman. She observed nature at work, keeping copious notes, especially on the behavior of birds, and took hundreds of photographs, many that took days to stage and hours of waiting for the right moment to shoot. She described her intent in Tales You Won’t Believe (1925):

fueled the mission behind both: to educate the populace on the value of nature for personal growth and healing and the value of preserving the Earth for its own sake. THE NOVELS

In 1902 Stratton-Porter’s brother Irvin died in an accident. The loss triggered a creative surge that resulted in her first book publication, the novel The Song of the Cardinal (1903). Walking on a road one day, she discovered a dead cardinal that had been shot, and she wrote a short love story with cardinals as the characters. She sent it to a magazine publisher who encouraged her to develop it into a novel. She did so within a month, keeping her work a secret, as was her practice. As quoted in Long, only when her husband was required to countersign her contract did she reveal the work: “With them [Charles and Jeannette] I was much more timid than with the neighbours. Least of all did I want to fail before my man person and my daughter and our respective families” (p. 173). Stratton-Porter dedicated The Song of the Cardinal to her father and in an additional gesture hyphenated her birth and married names, StrattonPorter, a practice that she continued with her subsequent publications. In both her private and public life, however, she continued to be addressed as “Mrs. Porter.” The Song of the Cardinal was received well by literary critics but sales were not exceptional. Stratton-Porter was disappointed. She had hoped to reach a wide audience and to enlighten her readers on the endangered state of wild birds. She herself had witnessed the decline and then disappearance of the passenger pigeon. She decided to write another book, this time with human characters. It was originally entitled The Falling Feather, and the main character, an orphan named Freckles, died at the end. Bertrand F. Richards, in Gene Stratton-Porter, reports that three publishers rejected it, encouraging her to change the ending. Finally, as quoted in Richards, she conceded and Freckles was allowed to live:

Primarily I went afield to make character studies of birds. I intended to write of them on a basis of scientific truth, and to make a more intimate study than had as yet been made concerning their characteristics and habits. I wished to reproduce them exactly as they lived and carried out their home lives. (p. 15)

Her knowledge of the swamp—of its wild denizens and the people who hid in it, or worked it for profit, or loved it—provided a constant basis for her writing and her photography. It also

I gave in, and I wish now I had not; but at the time I thought I was forced, and I rather think so still. I


GENE STRATTON-PORTER instruction, guidance, and sustenance. In The Song of the Cardinal she describes the Limberlost swamp, favoring its muck as much as its flowers:

had no audience and no funds to publish and exploit my own work. If I would not conform sufficiently to the judgment of the publishers so that they would bring out my books I could reach the people with no part of my message, and a lifetime of work spent in equipping myself for the work I was eager to do would be wasted to all save myself. The true flavour of the book was spoiled for me; but many have liked it as it stands.

The swamp resembles a big dining-table for the birds. Wild grape-vines clamber to the tops of the highest trees, spreading umbrella-wise over the branches, and their festooned floating trailers wave as silken fringe in the play of the wind. The birds loll in the shade, peel bark, gather dried curlers for nest material, and feast on the pungent fruit. They chatter in swarms over the wild-cherry trees, and overload their crops with red haws, wild plums, papaws, blackberries and mandrake. The alders around the edge draw flocks in search of berries, and the marsh grasses and weeds are weighted with seed hunters. The muck is alive with worms; and the whole swamp ablaze with flowers, whose colours and perfumes attract myriads of insects and butterflies.

(pp. 76–77)

The publishers also pushed her on the issue of her extensive descriptions of nature, asking her to cut out many of them. As quoted in Richards, on this she did not yield: Each publisher who saw it before production assured me that the nature stuff it contained would kill any chance it might otherwise have of becoming a popular book, and felt sure that if I would cut that out, it would bring me fame and money. I replied that the sole purpose of the book was to put the nature stuff it contained before people, I had no desire for fame, or more than a very plain living; if I changed the title and amplified the text that was all the concession I could possibly make.

(pp. 4–5)

Her appreciation of what others might consider the underside of nature was consistent with her approach to life: she did not limit herself to the confines of neatness and civilized living. For her, richness of life was bred not in the drawing room but in the primeval forest. In The Harvester, she finds transport to a higher state in the rankness of spring:

(p. 77)

Freckles was published in 1904 and has been in print continuously since then. Although Stratton-Porter liked her novels, her real interest was in writing what she called “nature books,” such as What I Have Done with Birds: Character Studies of Native American Birds (1907) and Moths of the Limberlost (1912). Here was the voice of her Moses, bringing word of nature to the populace. She claimed that she made deals with her publishers to alternate these less popular books with the well-selling fiction. However, the books were published by various houses and this claim may be apocryphal. Nevertheless, twelve of her twenty-five published books were fiction, the other twelve nonfiction or poetry. Two were collections of articles previously published in magazines. Five of her novels were serialized in magazines prior to publication in book form.

Deep layers of dead leaves cover the frozen earth, and the sun shining on them raises a steamy vapour unlike anything else in nature. A different scent arises from earth where the sun strikes it. Lichen faces take on the brightest colours they ever wear, and rough, coarse mosses emerge in rank growth from their cover of snow and add another perfume to mellowing air. This combination has breathed a strange intoxication into the breast of mankind in all ages, and bird and animal life prove by their actions that it makes the same appeal to them. (p. 23)

Nature, for Stratton-Porter, is even a religion of sorts, a philosophy that can reveal one’s place in the universe, and a practice that can result in a sense of belonging that cuts deep into the heart, into the meaning of things. One can get lost there—and found. From Freckles:


Stratton-Porter’s novels are, first and foremost, paeans to nature. In it, she finds beauty, comfort,

The young man [McLean] entered these mighty forests, parts of which lay untouched since the dawn


GENE STRATTON-PORTER she herself cleared land to build homes in the woods, she was sensitive to the cost of progress when it was executed wantonly. The Song of the Cardinal, which blatantly anthropomorphizes birds, constitutes a plea to the public to recognize the humanness of nature. The other novels look at the argument from another side, asking readers to recognize the presence of nature in their own beings and lives, and thus offering them a way to restore themselves through its model.

of the morning of time. The clear, cool, pungent atmosphere was intoxicating. The intense silence, like that of a great empty cathedral, fascinated him. He gradually learned that, to the shy wood creatures that darted across his path or peeped inquiringly from leafy ambush, he was brother. He found himself approaching, with a feeling of reverence, those majestic trees that had stood through ages of sun, wind, and snow.ѧ he was amazed to learn that in the swamps and forests he had lost his heart, and it was calling—forever calling him. (pp. 3–4)

Proper behavior is a cross-cutting theme in the novels, but it is not parlor behavior that concerns Stratton-Porter. Rather, it is proper moral behavior. For her, this includes honesty, bravery, self-reliance, respect for nature—the land, birds, animals, plants—and for other people. It also includes respect for self, including care of the body through attention to nutrition and using nature’s remedies for healing.

The character of McLean is mentor to another young man, nicknamed Freckles, who leaves an orphanage in Chicago and seeks work in the lumber camps. Freckles too finds his place within the wild setting and builds himself a simple shelter, described by the Swamp Angel, a young woman Freckles comes to love: “You like it, too,” said Freckles.

Literary critics of the time generally did not appreciate Stratton-Porter’s fiction. Writing for the Bookman in 1916, Frederic Taber Cooper found it inclined toward “verboseness and redundancy” and with a “cloying sweetness in her nature worship that puts a matter-of-fact reader somewhat out of patience.” He adjudged her books to be mere reiterations one to the next and “her over-sentimentalised characters act for the most part in a manner half way between melodrama and grown-up fairy tale.”

“Yes,” said the Angel, “I love it. Your room is a little piece right out of the heart of fairy-land, and the cathedral is God’s work, not yours. You only found it and opened the door after He had it completed.” (p. 101)

The opening of doors is a frequent theme in the novels. Freckles not only opens a door to the swamp, the swamp opens for him a door to his full potential. His innate fortitude and integrity blossom and flourish. In the end, he and the Swamp Angel marry, having overcome obstacles of experience and station in life. In promoting understanding of nature, Stratton-Porter also promotes its preservation. Freckles and Angel both fear for the future of the swamp. Angel says, describing the work of the first timber loggers who took only the finest of trees:

But Cooper and other reviewers also generally acknowledged the popularity of the books: “The fact remains that she has a rather big audience and has no difficulty in holding it.” The appeal of the work, says Cooper, is granted to be Stratton-Porter’s success with her writing voice: The author does have the faculty of making us hear the birds and smell the flowers and watch the shifting seasons and the alternating sunshine and rain. She is sincere in her passionate love of the outdoors, and because that sort of sincerity is contagious, she does for the time being trick us into imagining that we too would revel in just that sort of life and that all the pageantry of city streets is not worth one apple-tree in bloom, or the feathery wings of one of those huge, slumberous moths that make the month of June in the Limberlost a memorable epoch. The effect that she gets may be transitory, but she

They’ll drive away the birds and spoil the cathedral. When they have done their worst, then all these mills close here will follow in and take out the cheap timber. Then the landowners will dig a few ditches, build some fires, and in two summers more the Limberlost will be in corn and potatoes. (p. 101)

Although Stratton-Porter grew up on a farm that arose from swamps in just that way, and although


GENE STRATTON-PORTER strive for better lives. She did not intend that everyone live ideally, but she hoped that by striving for perfection, they might find some degree of integrity and peace. As quoted in Meehan:

certainly does get it, in spite of some crudeness and affectation and over luxuriance of style. (pp. 670–671)

In “My Work and My Critics,” Stratton-Porter answered Cooper’s charges freely, chiding the critics for failing to understand that she had executed with intention the very features he complained about:

Now what do I care for the newspaper or magazine critic yammering that there is not such a thing as a moral man, and that my pictures of life are sentimental and idealised. They are! And I glory in them! They are straight, living pictures from the lives of men and women of morals, honour, and lovingkindness. They form idealised pictures of life because they are copied from life where it touches religion, chastity, love, home, and hope of Heaven ultimately.

As for my stories, they do not contain what I know to be true of all life, but what I do know to be true of a much larger part of life than any critic I have ever known will admit. It is exactly what could be true of all life if all men would put up the fight for clean morals that The Harvester did. Fifty years of such life on the part of every man would empty our feeble-minded homes, alms houses, and prisons, and, barring accidents, would practically do away with hospitals and sanitariums. This is no Utopian dream: ask any responsible physician.

Am I the only woman in this broad land so born and reared? Was my home the only one with a moral code and religious practice? Are there not homes by the thousand in which men and women are true to their highest ideals? I have seen and been in them by the hundred.

(p. 155)

(pp. 134–135)

Early on in her writing, Stratton-Porter adopted this kind of overreaching in order to bring her message to readers who were not easily drawn to nature. As quoted in Meehan: “I lighten each Nature book with enough fiction to make it readable to those not interested in Nature work, sugarcoat their pill, so to speak” (p. 137). She was not bothered that her work was accessible to the general reader. Rather, she was proud of it:

Stratton-Porter was not herself immune to the pressures of public opinion. She considered what her place might be in literature and over time. Long reports that for a while she was dismayed by the negative reviews. In the end, however, as quoted in Long, she leaves her status as a writer in the hands of posterity: “As to whether my work is or ever will be literature, I never bother my head. Time, the hearts of my readers, and the files of my publishers will find me my ultimate place” (p. 8). Her place in literature, says Long, was ultimately defined by the Yale pundit William Lyon Phelps, who elevated her status to that of “a public institution, like Yellowstone Park” (p. 9). In the years just before and after the turn of the twenty-first century, one hundred years after the publication of Stratton-Porter’s first book in 1903, critics tended to take a larger view of her work. In her essay “The Harvester: The Natural Bounty of Gene Stratton-Porter,” Cheryl Birkelo recognized that, “Like Stratton-Porter’s nonfiction nature studies, her novels have been seriously underrated as contributions to women’s nature writing” (p. 74). Stratton-Porter, Birkelo said, had finally come to be appreciated especially for her conservationist views and ringing out a warning that our natural resources are in danger:

To-day a criticism of Laddie by a minister of the Gospel was sent to me in which he wrote of it as “molasses fiction.” What a wonderful compliment! All the world loves sweets. Afield, bears as well as flies would drown in it. Molasses is more necessary to the happiness of human and beast than vinegar, and over-indulgence not nearly so harmful to the system. I am a molasses person myself. So is my family. So was my father’s family. So are most of my friends—all of them who are happy, as a matter of fact. So I shall keep straight on writing of the love and joy of life I have found in the world, and when I have used the last drop of my molasses, I shall stop writing. (p. 136)

Stratton-Porter also had no tolerance for those who complained about the idealistic nature of her characters and plots. In fact, as with the sugarcoating of nature, she found value in presenting ideals to her readers so they might know how to


GENE STRATTON-PORTER tory of American ideas through its manifestation of a Transcendental ethos. Stratton-Porter introduces Transcendentalism to a wide range of non-academic readers by depicting men and women who experience epiphanies and serve as the translators of higher spiritual truths.

As her essays indicate, she realized fully from personal observation and history that the limits of nature’s bounty were being reached in her home region, as well as nationally and globally. The closing lines in her essay “Shall We Save Natural Beauty” read: “There may not be coal and iron, [and other natural resources] at the rate at which we are using it, to supply coming generations. Any thoughtful person realizes that there will not. Certainly to plant trees and to preserve trees, to preserve water, and to do all in our power to save every natural resource, both from the standpoint of utility and beauty is a work that every man and woman should give immediate and earnest attention.”

(p. 171)

Stratton-Porter’s brand of transcendentalism is acknowledged to be “social, rather than individual,” and dedicated to environmentalism. “Ultimately,” writes Phillips, “Stratton-Porter’s fiction exemplifies American Idealism and effectively demonstrates how American might engage in a domestic Transcendentalism” (p. 172).

(p. 74)

Birkelo also noted two of Stratton-Porter’s consistent goals: to instruct readers about and to promote the preservation of nature:

Personal epiphany is the essence of the transcendental moment and occurs in most of Stratton-Porter’s novels. In A Girl of the Limberlost, it is the widowed mother, Kate Comstock, who is most in need of this transformation. Though she has raised her daughter Elnora, she has remained utterly aloof from her. As a teenager, Elnora collects moths in the Limberlost to pay for her high school expenses, to which Kate refuses to contribute. In a first effort to finally help her daughter, as quoted in Phillips, Kate hunts a particular moth: “This way, O Lord! Make it come this way! Please! You know how I need it!” (p. 171). The one she captures turns out not to be the moth Elnora needs but it does spray Kate and the spray draws other moths to her.

Thus, the stewardship and agricultural practices that Stratton-Porter advocates in the Harvester are those of an individual highly motivated to teach the untrained citizens who made up her reading audience how to conserve the natural beauty of not only her home territory of Indiana but of all landscapes “for the good of suffering Humanity.” (p. 74)

Stratton-Porter was also acknowledged in contemporary criticism as one person among a force of conservationists who arose at the turn of the twentieth century. These included President Theodore Roosevelt, whom she praised in an essay, “By the People.” The association also reached farther back, into the nineteenth century: she was linked with Walt Whitman, who was the topic of a talk she gave to a women’s group early in her life, around 1893, and with Henry Thoreau, who served as a model for, and to whom she dedicated, The Harvester: “This portion of the life of a man of to-day is offered in the hope that in cleanliness, poetic temperament, and mental force, a likeness will be seen to HENRY DAVID THOREAU.” Her link with Thoreau was also noted in criticism that addressed transcendentalism in the novels, as in “Of Epiphanies and Poets” by Anne K. Phillips:

This moment, as with many others in the novels, can be explained in transcendental terms, says Phillips: The spray that falls on her serves not only as a physical means of enabling her to achieve her goal but also as a baptism bringing a soothing balm to her heart and soul. Returning home, she demonstrates her altered state: leaning toward her apprehensive daughter, she exclaims, “Elnora, my girl, mother’s found you another moth” (p. 178). Elnora learns that she “never had known her mother at all.ѧ” (p. 180) (“Of Epiphanies and Poets” p. 173)

She too is transformed. The prominent role of women in the novels was evident to readers all along, especially the role of the Bird Woman, who was clearly

Though overlooked and underestimated, StrattonPorter’s work serves as a significant link in the his-


GENE STRATTON-PORTER Stratton-Porter herself. In A Girl in the Limberlost the Bird Woman guides Elnora to selfsufficiency by teaching her how to gather and preserve moths that she can sell. In Freckles, she supports the romance between Freckles and the Swamp Angel and contributes to the defeat of the timber thieves. As with other themes in the fiction, especially transcendentalism and environmentalism, the role of women—feminism—was addressed more expansively in later criticism: Stratton-Porter came to be seen as an advocate for women’s rights, which included the right to make their own decisions, to have careers, and to benefit from modern conveniences. Advocacy for women meant to StrattonPorter not the larger feminist issues familiar to the last half of the twentieth century, such as pay equity. Rather, it meant more mundane gains, such as access to modern conveniences that might reduce the drudgery of household tasks. In Homing with the Birds, she writes about her situation when she was doing her early writing, fieldwork, and photography: “At this time I was doing all of the work in the thirteen-room Cabin, except the washing, and was making most of the clothing worn by my daughter; so I was what might have been considered a busy person” (pp. 50–51). Again in the role of Moses, bringing enlightenment to her readers, she redresses this situation in her novels. In A Daughter of the Land, the protagonist Kate renovates her mother’s home with plumbed water and modern appliances. A home in Michael O’Halloran is similarly improved, as quoted in “Gene Stratton-Porter: Women’s Advocate,” by Mary DeJong Obuchowski:

In the southwest corner, over the kitchen, with its share of sleeping porch outside, I should build a room especially for my cook. It would have deep windows looking into the woods, sunshiny walls, comfortable rugs and rocking chairs, and an excellent bed, so that she might feel that I truly appreciated the brand of service she saw fit to render me.

Being a woman’s advocate at the turn of the twentieth century was very different from being a feminist nearly one hundred years later. Obuchowski recognizes the fundamental nature of Stratton-Porter’s position, which acknowledged the value of mundane advantages and advancements: Her real and fictional daughters did not become physicians or lawyers, nor did they lobby for wages and opportunities comparable to those of men.ѧ For Porter it was daring enough to propose—and carry on—a career that was compatible with marriage and family. Such a career could be the more possible with sensible and comfortable clothing [such as Stratton-Porter wore], with a healthy and convenient environment at home, with a woman’s right to her own money and property—and the skill and determination to manage them—and with the self-respect engendered by a uniform (rather than a double) standard of morality. (p. 171)

Obuchowski also recognizes an important element of Stratton-Porter’s philosophy: as much as you can, live the ideals you promote. She was courageous in her adventures: when she feared failure as a writer, she wrote anyway, keeping her work secret until she found success. She was relentless in her pursuits: even the dangers of the vast Limberlost Swamp did not keep her from its equally vast treasures. Obuchowski observes that “Porter built her own life by making use of or creating those advantages for herself. Thus, what she advocated for the women in her audience was no less than what she achieved for herself and demonstrated through her heroines” (p. 171).

There’ll be a bathroom on the second floor and a lavatory on the first.ѧ We can hitch on to the trolley line for electric lights all over the house ѧ and [for a] fireless cooker, iron, and vacuum cleaner, and a whole bunch of conveniences ѧ including a washing machine and stationary tubs in the basement.

Stratton-Porter was not subtle in her message for women. She wrote about it in articles as well as in novels. In “My Ideal Home,” as quoted in Obuchowski, she promotes both an appropriate ambience for the home and a sense of gratitude for life’s gifts:


In 1895, when the Porters moved to the Limberlost cabin, the swamp was still mostly intact. Eight years later, much of it had been drained and converted to farmland. In 1909, six hundred


GENE STRATTON-PORTER oil wells were pumping in the area. In addition, Stratton-Porter’s burgeoning success was depriving her of the privacy she valued and needed in order to conduct her fieldwork and do her writing. In 1912 the family moved to a cottage on Sylvan Lake while a second Limberlost cabin was built there. Called Wildflower Woods, it was built to Stratton-Porter’s specifications. It was larger than the Limberlost Cabin, with six rooms and a photographic darkroom downstairs and seven bedrooms upstairs. The move into the new home was made in 1914. As had been the practice of Stratton-Porter’s family in her youth, relatives were welcome at Wildflower Woods. Her daughter Jeannette and her two children often stayed there, and when her brother Lemon died, she became guardian for his daughter Leah Marie. Stratton-Porter’s secretary also lived part-time at the cabin. The peace Stratton-Porter had hoped for at this new, more remote cabin did not last long. Land development followed, as did her fans. In 1919 she visited Southern California. Her sister Catherine and several nieces lived there and her brother Jerome was considering moving there. Enchanted by the land and its relative quiet and solitude, she decided to relocate. In 1920 she moved there, making it her permanent home. She maintained the cabin at Wildflower Woods until 1924, when she offered it to the State of Indiana as a bird and wildflower preserve.

trary to the prevailing stereotype, she found members of the acting community to be educated and extremely interesting and passed many beneficial hours in conversation with them, learning much.ѧ (p. 243)

Stratton-Porter found the experience invigorating and saw movies as another opportunity to carry out her life agenda of influencing her readers, and now viewers, and, as quoted in Long, “to present idealized pictures of life, pictures of men and women who inspire charity, honor, devotion to God and to family” (p. 243). In the 1920s Stratton-Porter continued to work on novels and to publish in popular magazines. She wrote a series of articles on nature for Good Housekeeping and was approached by the editor of McCall’s about contributing monthly articles to that fledgling magazine. When asked if she had a message to share with women, she said she had more than one: she had one hundred. Her didactic articles on how to raise children and be a good citizen and productive wife received enthusiastic praise. She expressed the views and values of many Americans and they wrote letters to her to say so, as quoted in Long: “From women in lovely ranch houses, from wardens of prisons, from young girls and boys, from brides and mothers, have come thousands and thousands of letters telling what Gene Stratton-Porter meant to them” (p. 230). In 1927 the articles were collected and published as a book, Let Us Highly Resolve. In 1916 Stratton-Porter published Morning Face, a volume of nature verse for children. In the 1920s she finally gave time to writing poetry, a genre that she had set aside for most of her adult life. She came to the decision abruptly, announcing one morning to her secretary that they were going to try something different. In 1922 and 1923 she published three volumes of verse. Still “what might have been considered a busy person,” she also oversaw the building of two houses, a fourteen-room vacation home on Catalina Island, which was as wild as the Limberlost had once been, and a twenty-four-room workshop-residence in a secluded area of Los Angeles that became known as Bel Air. Although she and Mr. Porter had lived separate lives for


While sunshine and a new landscape were part of the impetus for Stratton-Porter’s move to California, another force also contributed: her books were being adapted for movies. Freckles had been produced in 1917 by Paramount. Having learned how the movie business worked, Stratton-Porter opened her own studio and in 1924 produced The Girl of the Limberlost. Long describes her work on the set: On the set from eight in the morning until six in the evening, and often even longer, she was enjoying film work immensely. When they finally wrapped it up, she counted it a fine experience: “I had a grand time every minute, and gained ten pounds.” Con-


GENE STRATTON-PORTER many years, they remained connected, and the Bel Air house included separate quarters for him.

something of the unspoiled forests of her dreams, we shall have erected the monument she would have chosen; if we can write her epitaph in terms of clean rivers, clean outdoor playgrounds, and clean young hearts, we shall have done what she would have asked.


Since Stratton-Porter’s death, both of her Limberlost homes, the Cabin (Limberlost South) and Wildflower Woods (Limberlost North), have been maintained as memorials by the State of Indiana. Parts of the Limberlost Swamp (sometimes called Loblolly Marsh) are also protected, and restoration projects seek to return some of the original thirteen thousand acres to their natural state. Stratton-Porter was one of the best-selling authors of the early twentieth century. Her books were selling one thousand copies a day at the time of her death and have sold more than 24 million copies overall. Many of the titles remain in print and have been translated into thirteen languages and Braille. Twenty-two movies have been made based on eight of the novels.

Every home of Stratton-Porter’s was also a sanctuary for birds, and the same was to be true for the Catalina home. As quoted in Meehan: On the mountain I am going to set my workshop, fashioned much like the Limberlost Cabin in size and arrangement, but differing from it in architecture as it must to conform to this location; and around it I am going to begin growing the wild flowers of California. I want it, also, as I want any spot on which I live, to become a sanctuary for the birds. (p. 229)

This was one plan, one dream that Stratton-Porter was not able to fulfill. Long relates that at the age of sixty-one Gene Stratton-Porter met her death in an automobile accident less than a block from her Bel Air home when her chauffeured Lincoln was struck by a streetcar. She died, within two hours of the collision, on December 6, 1924. Prior to her death she had written, as quoted in Long, “When I am gone, I hope my family will bury me out in the open, and plant a tree on my grave; I do not want a monument.ѧ A refuge for a bird nest is all the marker I want” (p. 250). Her daughter had her remains temporarily interred in California, but Mr. Porter did not act to move them back to Indiana. It was not until nearly seventy-five years later, in 1999, that her remains were laid to rest under a massive tree back in Indiana at Wildflower Woods, along with the remains of her daughter, Jeannette.

Selected Bibliography WORKS OF GENE STRATTON-PORTER NOVELS The Song of the Cardinal: A Love Story. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1903. Freckles. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, Page, 1904. At the Foot of the Rainbow. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, Page, 1907. A Girl of the Limberlost. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, Page, 1909. The Harvester. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, Page, 1911. Laddie: A True Blue Story. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, Page, 1913. Michael O’Halloran. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, Page, 1915. A Daughter of the Land. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, Page, 1918. Her Father’s Daughter. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, Page, 1921. The White Flag. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, Page, 1923.

Stratton-Porter’s death was widely noted. An editorial in the Izaak Walton League’s Outdoor America expressed the loss felt by many. StrattonPorter was a founding member of the league. The editorial was excerpted in a life of Stratton-Porter edited by “S.F.E.”: When Mrs. Porter died the Izaak Walton League lost one of its great friends. Perhaps the most fitting tribute to Gene Stratton-Porter that we can make is to carry on in the cause for which she worked and in which she believed with every atom of her heart and soul. If we can dedicate to her memory


GENE STRATTON-PORTER McCall’s, Metropolitan, New York Times Magazine, Outdoor America, Outing, Recreation, Red Cross Magazine, Woman at Home Magazine, World’s Work, The Youth’s Companion. Gene Stratton-Porter’s papers are held at The Indiana State Museum and Historic Sites Collection, Indianapolis, Indiana.

Keeper of the Bees. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, Page, 1925. The Magic Garden. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, Page, 1927.

NONFICTION What I Have Done with the Birds: Character Studies of Native American Birds, which, Through Friendly Advances, I Induced to Pose for Me, or Succeeded in Photographing by Good Fortune, with the Story of My Experiences in Obtaining Their Pictures. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1907. Birds of the Bible. Cincinnati: Jennings & Graham; New York: Eaton & Mains, 1909. Music of the Wild, with Reproductions of the Performers, Their Instruments and Festival Halls. Cincinnati: Jennings & Graham; New York: Eaton & Mains, 1910. Moths of the Limberlost. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, Page, 1912. Friends in Feathers. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, Page, 1917. (Reprint of What I Have Done with Birds.) Homing with the Birds: The History of a Lifetime of Personal Experience with the Birds. Garden City, N.Y., and Toronto: Doubleday, Page, 1919. Wings. Garden City, N.Y.: Garden City Publishing, 1923. (Selections from Friends in Feathers, Homing with the Birds, and What I Have Done with Birds.) Tales You Won’t Believe. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, Page, 1925. Let Us Highly Resolve. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, Page, 1927.

CRITICAL AND BIOGRAPHICAL STUDIES Birkelo, Cheryl. “The Harvester and the Natural Bounty of Gene Stratton-Porter.” In Such News of the Land: U.S. Women Nature Writers. Edited by Thomas S. Edwards and Elizabeth A. De Wolfe. Hanover, N.H., and London: University Press of New England, 2001. Cooper, Frederic Taber. “The Popularity of Gene StrattonPorter.” Bookman 41, no. 6:670–671 (August 1915). Indiana Department of Conservation, Division of State Parks, Lands and Waters. “Gene Stratton-Porter: Author and Naturalist.” August 1952. (available at Indiana State University: Special Collections). Indiana Historian. “Gene Stratton-Porter.” September 1996. Available online ( genestrattonporter.pdf). (Fifteen-page issue devoted to Stratton-Porter.) Long, Judith Reick. Gene Stratton-Porter, Novelist and Naturalist. Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Society Press, 1990. MacLean, David G. Gene Stratton-Porter: A Bibliography and Collector’s Guide. Decatur, Ill.: Americana Books, 1976. Meehan, Jeannette Porter. Life & Letters of Gene StrattonPorter. Port Washington, N.Y., and London: Kennikat Press, 1972. (Originally published in 1928 as The Lady of the Limberlost: The Life and Letters of Gene StrattonPorter.) Obuchowski, Mary DeJong. “Gene Stratton-Porter: Women’s Advocate.” Midamerica 17:74–82 (1990). Rpt. in Children’s Literature Review. Ed. Scot Peacock. Vol. 87:167-171 Detroit: Gale, 2003. Phillips, Anne K. “Of Epiphanies and Poets: Gene StrattonPorter’s Domestic Transcendentalism.” Children’s Literature Association Quarterly 19, no. 4:153–158 (winter 1994). Rpt. in Children’s Literature Review. Ed. Scot Peacock. Vol. 87:171–178 Detroit:Gale, 2003. ———. “Gene(va) (Grace) Stratton-Porter.” In American Women Prose Writers, 1870–1920. Edited by Sharon M. Harris, Heidi L. M. Jacobs, and Jennifer Putzi. Vol. 221 of Dictionary of Literary Biography. Detroit: Gale Group, 2000. Richards, Bertrand F. Gene Stratton-Porter. Boston: Twayne, 1980. S.F.E. Gene Stratton-Porter: A Little Story of the Life and Work and Ideals of “The Bird Woman.” Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, Page, 1926.

POETRY The Fire Bird. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, Page, 1922. Jesus of the Emerald. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, Page, 1923. Euphorbia. Berne, Ind.: Rufus Liechty, 1986. (Serialized in Good Housekeeping, 1923.)

CHILDREN’S BOOKS After the Flood. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1911. (Short stories) Morning Face. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, Page, 1916. (Poetry)

OTHER WORKS “My Work and My Critics.” Bookman 49, no. 293:147–155 (February 1916). Contributor of poetry, stories, and articles to periodicals including American Magazine, Country Life, Current Literature, Good Housekeeping, Izaac Walton League Monthly, Ladies’ Home Journal, Literary Digest,



Benjamin Ivry HOWARD OVERING STURGIS, a wealthy American expatriate writer who spent his life in England, is mostly known for friendships with his fellow expatriate novelists Henry James (1843–1916) and Edith Wharton (1862–1937). In the early twenty-first century, however, Sturgis’ own writings, mainly three novels, Tim: A Story of School Life (1891), All That Was Possible (1895), and Belchamber (1904), have drawn renewed attention. Belchamber is doubtless Sturgis’ finest accomplishment. Yet the brainy, bookish astuteness at work in his other volumes remains attractive, although hitherto little examined.

were part of the richly aesthetic atmosphere that surrounded Howard Sturgis from his infancy. Russell Sturgis, partner at Baring Brothers & Co. bank in London, and his wife Julia were widely admired pillars of British high society, hosting guests such as Henry Adams (1838–1918), William Makepeace Thackeray (1811–1863), and Henry James at lavish banquets. The Sturgis family lived at Carlton House Terrace, a fashionable street in the St. James’s district of London, where nineteenth-century prime ministers such as Lord Palmerston, Earl Grey, and William Gladstone also dwelled. The Sturgises also kept country homes, including one described by an American literary visitor, the lawyer and author (of Two Years Before the Mast) Richard Henry Dana, Jr. (1815–1882), who wrote in his diary in 1856: “Sturgis lives in a superb house, in the Italian villa style, terraced down to the Thames, built for Lord Tankerville, too expensive for him, and bought by the American banker” (Adams, Richard Henry Dana, vol. 2, p. 110). Russell and Julia Sturgis reputedly employed the finest chef in London as their highly paid personal cook.


Sturgis’ life and work are centered on his family and friends, so his ancestry, marked by deep New England roots, is highly significant. Sturgis’ greatgrandfather Russell Sturgis (1750–1826), a noted Boston merchant in the China trade, sat for no fewer than three portraits by the American artist Gilbert Stuart. One of these portraits by Stuart (now in the University of Rochester’s Memorial Art Gallery) hung for many years in the home of Sturgis’ father, also named Russell Sturgis (1805– 1887). Like his eminent ancestor, Sturgis’ father was a highly successful New England merchant trader who spent his early years in China. Russell Sturgis married three times, and from his second marriage in 1829 to Mary Greene Hubbard, four children were born, among whom were Russell Sturgis, Jr. (1836–1909), an art critic and corresponding secretary of New York’s Metropolitan Museum, and John Hubbard Sturgis (1834–1888), an eminent architect and author of books on the arts, whose nephew Richard Clipston Sturgis (1860–1951) was also a noted architect. These half brothers in the arts world

The large home was needed to house their large family. Russell Sturgis’ third marriage, in 1846, to Julia Overing Boit (1820–1888), produced four children: Henry Parkman Sturgis (1847–1929), Julian Russell Sturgis (1848–1904), Mary Greene Hubbard Sturgis (1851–1942), and Howard Overing Sturgis, born November 8, 1855. Although technically Americans, all four siblings were fully assimilated into British upperclass life. The eldest brother, Henry Parkman Sturgis, became director of London and Westminster Bank as well as a Liberal politician in England, marrying the daughter of Henry Brand, 1st Viscount Hampden, a British Liberal politician who served as Speaker of the House of


HOWARD OVERING STURGIS Commons. In 1894 Henry Parkman Sturgis married Marie, the only daughter of the famous Victorian novelist and poet George Meredith. Howard’s sister Mary Greene Hubbard Sturgis married Bertram Godfrey Falle, 1st and last Baron Portsea. Howard’s other brother, Julian Russell Sturgis, enjoyed no less status; as a talented athlete and scholar at Eton, Julian played both the Eton field game and Eton wall game, varieties of soccer that also share some aspects of rugby, while also editing the Eton College Journal. Later Julian played successfully for the Wanderers Football Club, an amateur soccer team based in Battersea. At Balliol College, Oxford, Julian rowed for three years, after which he became a barrister and acquired British nationality. Among Julian’s many, highly conventional, society novels are John-a-Dreams: A Tale (1878), Dick’s Wandering (1882), My Friends and I (1884), John Maidment (1886), Thraldom (1887), Comedy of a Country House (1890), The Folly of Pen Harrington (1897), and Stephen Callinari (1901). Julian Sturgis also wrote the libretto for Sir Arthur Sullivan’s 1891 grand opera Ivanhoe, a stately, grandiose, pageant-like spectacle quite unlike the better-remembered comic operas that Sullivan wrote with W. S. Gilbert. In 1901 Julian also wrote a libretto based on Shakespeare for an opera, Much Ado About Nothing, by the Irish composer Charles Villiers Stanford. Julian’s conspicuous and prolific writing career in the public eye provides a stark contrast to Howard Sturgis’ willfully retired life and occasional writings. Sturgis’ novels may be seen in part as a reaction to his elder brother’s splashily ambitious precedent.

heart in his rapture at the sight of his first Xmas tree. When the doors were opened and the tree stood up with all its lights and glories he flew into the room and danced round the room with a chant of joy—‘Oh the Kissamussa tree!’ again and again repeated. And when his turn came to receive toys he begged that they might remain on the tree not to diminish its splendour” (Some Family Letters of W. M. Thackeray, pp. 24–25). As the family’s youngest child, he was constantly doted upon and shown off to his parents’ friends, as the American historian John Lothrop Motley (1814–1877) reported in an 1859 letter home: “Little H—, the youngest child of Mr. and Mrs. Russell Sturgis, is a most charming little boy” (Correspondence, p. 72). Sturgis’ mother was so strikingly beautiful that the American sculptor and art critic William Wetmore Story asked her to pose for an 1858 statue of Cleopatra, now in New York’s Metropolitan Museum. Other large-scale neoclassic sculptures by Story, whose biography, William Wetmore Story and His Friends (1903), was written by Henry James, decorated the Sturgis family home, including Bacchus (1863) and Venus Anadyomene (1864), both of which were donated in 1888, after the death of Russell Sturgis, to Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. Sturgis’ aesthetically aware family seems to have calmly accepted his high-strung artistic temperament, although writers in later years reacted less tolerantly. His distant cousin, the waspish gay philosopher and essayist George Santayana (1863–1952), after enjoying Sturgis’ hospitality for years, left sarcastic descriptions of his supposedly feminine traits. Yet Victorian sensibilities generally made room for the nervous unmarried uncle or aunt, who sublimated whatever sexual impulses they may have felt into domestic obsessions. Some twentieth-century writers seem to have been compelled to fit these individuals into neat post-Freudian categories. Howard’s lifelong love of textiles, much mocked by later writers, was not an exclusively female occupation in the Victorian world. London’s Victoria and Albert Museum possesses nineteenth-century military quilts, created by soldiers who were encouraged to sew as a pro-


Howard Sturgis grew up as an emotionally nervous lad, much attached to his beautiful, doting mother and fond of domestic pursuits such as needlework. Even as a toddler Sturgis had a strong aesthetic sense, as reported in an 1857 letter from William Makepeace Thackeray, a guest at the Sturgis country home that Christmas: “A little boy of two [Sturgis] would have won your


HOWARD OVERING STURGIS ductive activity in times of idleness, as well as therapy for the injured. The 1851 Great Exhibition of Arts and Manufactures at London’s Crystal Palace included over thirty such military quilts created by soldiers. Mastering needlework was one means to adopt a British identity; fine needlework had been referred to since the Middle Ages as opus anglicanum, or English work. In the twentieth century, men preoccupied with needlework would soon acquire a ludicrous aspect, such as the needlepoint-obsessed character Georgie Pillson in E. F. Benson’s comic novel Mapp and Lucia (1931). In the same book, a curate named “Mr. Sturgis” appears, exemplifying the stuffy propriety Sturgis represented to some who knew him. Indeed, Sturgis took most things with high seriousness, especially his needlework, as the novelist E. M. Forster (1879–1970) recalled decades after a single youthful visit to Sturgis’ estate, called Queen’s Acre, or “Qu’Acre” (pronounced “Quaker,” possibly with an ironic nod at the religious movement that helped found the state of Pennsylvania). Forster was never invited back, after being shown a prize example of Sturgis’ embroidery work and being unable to distinguish it from a banal cloth kettle-holder nearby. Forster went on to describe Sturgis in unflattering terms:

tions, his contemporaries were less judgmental about his gender identity and sexuality. In her memoir A Backward Glance, Sturgis’ friend Edith Wharton described a more appealing version of the same man, typically outstretched on a chaise longue at Qu’Acre: “his legs covered by a thick shawl, his hands occupied with knitting-needles or embroidery silks, a sturdily-built handsome man with brilliantly white wavy hair, a girlishly clear complexion, a black moustache, and tender mocking eyes under the bold arch of his black brows” (p. 225). Although Sturgis’ distant relative Santayana sneered in later memoirs about his needlework, during Sturgis’ lifetime Santayana was better disposed to him, offering praise in letters home to Boston. Another relative, the translator and critic Gerard Walter Sturgis Hopkins (1892–1961) was more understanding about Sturgis’ needlework: The fact that [Sturgis] did embroidery, that he knitted, that he sewed, might be surprising but it did not shock. To see him lying, after dinner, on the sofa, with a basket of bright silks beside him, pricking at his patterned lawn with long, white fingers, never made one feel uncomfortable. There was nothing effeminate about his execution of female tasks. All was done so naturally, paraded so little, that if one thought of it at all it was to reflect not ‘How curious,’ but merely ‘Why on earth don’t more men do needlework?’ to which question the answer came, ‘Because no other man could do it so beautifully.’

He has been compared to a clean, plump, extremely kind yet distinctly formidable old lady, the sort of old lady who seems all benignity and knitting but who follows everything that is said and much that isn’t and pounces and scratches before you know where you are—pounces on the present company and scratches the absent.ѧ He was of medium height and rather heavily built, and he gave a general impression of softness though not of timidity. His most remarkable feature was the strong growth of brilliantly white hair. The forehead was tall and narrow, the eyes soft and rather prominent, the moustache heavy and well trimmed, the complexion delicate, the voice grave and low. As to the character, kindness and malice, tenderness and courage appear to have blended, as they occasionally do with the highly cultivated.

(Introduction to Belchamber, p. x)


Typically female occupations like needlework fascinated Sturgis even before he attended Eton College, the famed boys’ school located near Windsor in England. Many other distinguished Britons who attended Eton in the nineteenth century have decried it as cruel and snobby. Yet Sturgis delighted in his Eton years, and not just because his elder brother Julian, a model student who was good at games and academics, offered some measure of fraternal protection. The Sturgis boys were known for their well-behaved aplomb;

(Afterword to Belchamber, p. 339)

Despite his abundant moustache, deep voice, and solid physique, some later writers have underlined Sturgis’ so-called androgyny. With a few excep-


HOWARD OVERING STURGIS at Eton, large pieces of soft bread, known as “sqwug,” were traditionally hurled at fellow students. Instead of throwing the projectiles back at the offenders, as some boys did, Julian and Howard would discreetly set them aside, politely turning the other cheek even during schoolboy roughhousing (Edith Lyttelton, Alfred Lyttelton, An Account of His Life, pp. 22–23).

those with whom he could share his taste for music, politics, and literature. An instance of this was the choice he and [his brother] Edward made of Howard Sturgis as their mess-mate and intimate, a boy who was absolutely indifferent at and to athletics, and who on the surface would have seemed an unlikely associate for them to select. But they needed him because he ministered to other strongly developed tastes and interests. Among these was the intense love of music which they shared with their brothers and cousins.

At Eton, Sturgis was nurtured and further refined by his classics master, William Johnson Cory (1823–1892, born William Johnson), a noted educator and poet who eventually was fired from the faculty (in 1872) for advocating a pederastic form of education. Cory was a central figure of the Uranian movement, which promoted homosexual emancipation among Victorians, led by such writers as the English socialist poet Edward Carpenter (1844–1929) and the poet and literary critic John Addington Symonds (1840– 1893). Cory’s two volumes of pederastic poetry, Ionica (1858) and Ionica II (1877), would influence Sturgis; a quote from Ionica appears as an epigraph to one chapter of Sturgis’ novel Tim: A Story of School Life. Other favorite Cory pupils who were near-contemporaries of Sturgis included such Uranians as Reginald Baliol Brett (1852–1930; 2nd Viscount Esher), a lifelong friend of Sturgis’ who in 1923 published Ionicus, a memoir of Cory; Archibald Philip Primrose (1847–1929; 5th Earl of Rosebery), who served as British foreign secretary and prime minister; and others who led prominent public lives that coincided with discreet gay sexual activity. There was also the poet Digby Mackworth Dolben (1848–1867), who died from drowning in his teens after the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844–1889) became romantically obsessed with him. Sturgis also maintained close friendships with Etonians such as Herbert Edward Ryle (1856–1925), who became a distinguished Old Testament scholar and bishop of Westminster, and the politician and sportsman Alfred Lyttelton (1857–1913) whose widow wrote in a memoir of her husband’s school days:

(Lyttelton, p. 32)

Cory was not the only master with whom Sturgis forged a lifelong friendship. Sturgis was also close to Arthur Campbell Ainger (1841–1919), an Eton master who was instrumental in establishing the Old Etonian Association and penned the lyrics for the Eton school song. Among Ainger’s other publications are An English-Latin Gradus or Verse Dictionary (1891) as well as the popular Anglican hymn “God is working his purpose out.” Drawn to such traditional establishment figures as well as the more eccentric Cory, Sturgis kept Eton close to his heart for the rest of his life. Surrounded from childhood onward by an affectionate and like-minded circle of sympathetic friends as well as a stylish family, Sturgis made these people the center of his life. He also relished the extreme personalities he encountered at his Eton lodging house, Evans’ House, ruled with an iron hand by Miss Jane Evans, daughter of an Eton drawing master, along with her sister Annie, of whom Sturgis later reminisced (contact with such complex female personalities in childhood was doubtless keenly interesting for the future novelist): I think Annie Evans was a very remarkable character. She was by nature emotional, nervous, almost hysterical at times, the last type of woman whom anyone would have suspected of any aptitude for the work she was called upon to do. Yet she undertook it with dauntless courage, and did it successfully, with what amounted to a touch of genius. She had amazing intuition about boys; it was like an instinct. The danger was that she came to trust her intuitions too much, and of course they were occasionally wrong; but the marvel was, and remains, how often, on the whole, they were right. Of course what boys will be apt to remember of her will be the little outbursts of anger, or of behaviour

[Lyttelton] was eager to make friends with all kinds of people, and sought companionship not only in games and school interests, but went farther afield and picked out from among both masters and boys


HOWARD OVERING STURGIS where he lived until after his father and mother died, in 1887 and 1888 respectively.

inevitable in a person of her excitable temperament; and there will be a danger of the real good sense and cleverness with which she filled a most difficult position being done less than justice to. There was a kind of electric brilliancy about her, the antithesis of her sister’s calm wisdom, but not in its own way less remarkable.


After a brief 1889 trip to visit relatives in Massachusetts, where he met George Santayana among others, Sturgis settled into Qu’Acre, a house on the edge of Windsor Great Park, not far from his beloved Eton. There Sturgis lived for the rest of his life with a friend and companion, William Haynes-Smith (known to everyone as “the Babe”), the son of Sir William Haynes-Smith (1839–1928), British high commissioner in Cyprus, and Alice Maud Sturgis, a daughter of John Hubbard Sturgis. Haynes-Smith is described in some current literary studies as Sturgis’ lover, despite their family ties and based on no evidence. The celibacy of gay people of the past is commonly underestimated today. Sturgis’ retiring nature, intense concentration on compensatory hobbies, and obsession with maintaining his social status among his family and friends quite possibly ensured that he did not express his own sexual desires in adulthood, even if he keenly observed his gay friends doing so. After the 1889 Cleveland Street scandal, when a gay male brothel in London was uncovered by police, and the 1895 trial of Oscar Wilde, the potential risks of an overt gay lifestyle in Victorian England would have become extremely clear. Nevertheless, Sturgis assembled a wideranging homosocial, if not homoerotic, company, including such gay writers as Percy Lubbock (1879–1965), the aforementioned Cory, George Santayana, and Wharton’s bisexual lover, the journalist Morton Fullerton (1865–1952), among others. These guests mixed freely at Qu’Acre with Sturgis’ extensive family as well as upperclass members of the British literary and aristocratic worlds. Among these social ties were continuations of his parents’ past friendships; just as Russell and Julia Sturgis socialized with Thackeray and the eminent American historian John Lothrop Motley, so Sturgis played host to Thackeray’s eldest daughter, the British novelist Anne Thackeray Ritchie (1837–1919) and to Motley’s daughter Mrs. Susan St. John Mildmay.

(quoted in Gambier-Parry, Annals of an Eton House, pp. 91–92)

In 1898 Sturgis would express his enduring affection for Annie’s sister Jane Evans (1826–1906) by arranging for the noted American artist John Singer Sargent to paint her portrait (Sargent’s oil on canvas “Miss Jane Evans” is still in the Eton College collection). At Cambridge University, Sturgis made further friendships with congenial gay professors such as the medievalist and political writer Gaillard Lapsley, also a friend of Wharton’s, and the historian Oscar Browning (1837–1923), who had also taught at Eton as a former pupil of William Johnson Cory until a homosexual scandal in 1875 drove him to Cambridge. Also present during Sturgis’ time at Cambridge were many former Eton friends like Lyttleton, who agreed to participate in college dramatics because “Sturgis refused to act unless I did, and he is wonderfully good” (Lyttelton, p. 67). At Cambridge, Sturgis performed the female role of Miss Hardcastle in an 1875 production of Oliver Goldsmith’s comedy She Stoops to Conquer. Such transvestite casting was widespread and socially accepted in public school and college at the time. An 1898 history of amateur theatrics, for which Julian Sturgis was a principle source of information, notes about the Cambridge production: “Mr. Howard Sturgis as Miss Hardcastle in a Gainsborough hat being wonderful, both in appearance and performance” (Elliot, Amateur Clubs and Actors, p. 78). Sturgis was prevented by illness from competing for a degree in the moral science tripos, a category of study that embraced economics as well as philosophy and ethics. He wrote a prize essay on the historian Thomas Babington Macaulay (1800–1859) and may have begun a draft of his 1891 novel Tim: A Story of School Life as early as his college years. After Cambridge, Sturgis returned to his parents’ home,


HOWARD OVERING STURGIS William Wetmore Story’s son Julian, a painter, was also welcome, as was his wife, the famous American operatic soprano Emma Eames (1865– 1952). At Qu’Acre, Howdie (as he was known to his circle, a Scots dialect word meaning “midwife”) hosted this unending train of visitors, comprising not just his vast family but also literary friends such as Henry James and Edith Wharton. The twentieth-century critic Queenie Leavis asserted that the benevolent invalid Ralph Touchett in James’s The Portrait of a Lady (1881) was probably based on Sturgis; however, the intelligent Touchett, who before dying of tuberculosis becomes the soul mate of James’s heroine, the American heiress Isabel Archer, has a pathos that is foreign to Sturgis’ own contented home life.

from Her Correspondence, an epistolary novel consisting of letters written by a retired actress. Sturgis also reportedly wrote some poetry in the 1890s that remained unpublished, now presumably lost, lamenting the death of his mother. By the turn of the century, Sturgis, although physically healthy, was beginning to display some typically Victorian psychosomatic symptoms such as having “a Back,” or suffering inexplicable back pain. In 1899 Henry James wrote a commiserating letter to Sturgis, then on a “bed of anguish,” and likened his younger friend’s back pain to his own much-discussed mysterious “obscure hurt” which impeded James for much of his life (The Letters of Henry James, p. 317). This tone of tender commiseration runs through James’s extensive correspondence with Sturgis and is quite different from James’s letters to younger men in whom he had a more ardent, if physically unexpressed, romantic interest, such as the British novelist Hugh Walpole (1884–1941), the Norwegian-American sculptor Hendrik Christian Andersen (1872–1940), and the Irishman Dudley Jocelyn Persse (1873–1943). James’s affection for the Sturgis family, including Julian and the elder generation, although genuine, was by all evidence entirely decorous.

To his constant stream of guests Sturgis offered an abundance of good food, produced by a talented cook, Mrs. Lees, famous for her method of preparing braised tongue. These guests also included the occasional Frenchman, such as the society painter Jacques-Émile Blanche (1861– 1942) and the dignified novelist Paul Bourget (1852–1935), a friend of James and Wharton who would be elected to the Académie Française in 1894. Yet despite welcoming these crowds of visitors, Sturgis never installed electric lights, central heating, or a telephone at Qu’Acre and strictly avoided any repairs, repainting, or renovations of any kind in a way that seemed to some friends as a symptom of his overall lifelong inertia. (Still, Haynes-Smith was an inveterate tinkerer, and in 1904, in collaboration with a Windsor neighbor, Rear Admiral Edward Cecil Villiers of the Naval Intelligence Department, was granted a patent for a newfangled steam generator.) Hospitality at Qu’Acre was carried out by a skeleton staff of elderly and sometimes ornery servants, and, as more than one visitor noted, the apparent kindness and selflessness of the host himself could at times be vitiated by a sudden flare of harshness. In 1891 Sturgis published his first novel, Tim: A Story of School Life, based on his time at Eton, which was followed, in 1895, by All That Was Possible: Being the Record of a Summer in the Life of Mrs. Sibyl Crofts, Comedian; Extracted

Similarly decorous were Sturgis’ friends; he clearly shunned the Decadents or scandal-ridden. His verbal wit, which Edith Wharton claimed deserved a Boswell, has not aged well in the few memoirs that preserve it. Of the Welsh novelist Rhoda Broughton (1840–1920), a longtime friend, Sturgis is reported to have quipped laboriously that she started writing boldly like the French novelist Émile Zola but wound up more like the prolific, highly moral mid-Victorian novelist Charlotte Mary Yonge: “When she was young, she was Zola, and now she’s Zola [older] she’s Yonge” (quoted in E. F. Benson, As We Were: A Victorian Peep Show, p. 269). What survives better is Sturgis’ determined pacifism, as early as the Boer War. Sturgis wrote to Lewis Harcourt in 1899: The row of cherub faces with little high collars in the Daily papers day by day, & “Killed” or “died of wounds” underneath makes me sick. I don’t wish Joseph [Chamberlain, British politician and Boer


HOWARD OVERING STURGIS Cornice” (1908); and a memorial article about his friend Anne Thackeray Ritchie (1919). Starting in 1912, Sturgis underwent four operations on his lower intestine, and after a few years of illness, exacerbated by worry over the catastrophic carnage of World War I, he died of cancer on February 7, 1920. Even while battling ill health, Sturgis was still active in organizing charitable efforts during the Great War, not just in England but in France as well, to support the Allied troops. Many writers have ascribed Sturgis’ relative literary silence after Belchamber’s 1905 publication to critical response from friends like Henry James or the public (see analysis of Belchamber below), yet Gerard Hopkins, who understood him better than most writers, felt that as a “dilettante of genius,” Sturgis had “put into [Belchamber] all that he had to offer in the novel form. His ensuing silence was probably as much the result of achievement as of disappointment” (introduction to Belchamber, p. xi).

War proponent] anything so good as to be haunted by their pretty ghosts, but I hope ugly Boer Generals with ghastly holes in their stomachs will surround his couch nightly. (James, Dearly Beloved Friends, p. 117)

By the turn of the century, Sturgis had matured, and his old school friend Arthur Benson commented in his diary about him during a social gathering in 1899: Howard ѧ is observing, subtle, sensitive, smoothing over and adorning all social occasions with a perpetual flow of witty, unexpected, graceful talk that never palls or wearies. He will fall in with any mood, interpret any suggestion, make the most of any shy point, and give everyone the feeling of their own brilliance. All this has increased; he used to be capable of and to indulge in very malicious little strokes of satire, which were always true enough to make them bite. I was always conscious with a kind of fearful joy that he was in the house, and used to be inclined, when either he or I entered a room, to look at him curiously to see whether he was in the melting or the freezing mood. Now, somehow, I seem to have drifted into a kind of quiet harbour with regard to him. (The Diary of Arthur Christopher Benson, pp. 44–45)


In 1902, with newfound equilibrium, as Sturgis labored on what would be his final novel, Belchamber, he accompanied his friend HaynesSmith, a sports fanatic, to the venerable St. Andrews Golf Links. Henry James commiserated in a letter, calling Sturgis a “poor victim of a golfing age, or rage. I see you at St. Andrews’, amid the wild waving of clubs & hiss of projectiles, dodging and ducking for your life—& ‘trying to write’! It’s a devotion to letters that shld. be commemorated in immortal verse” (Dearly Beloved Friends, p. 127). By 1903 the exceedingly sedentary Sturgis was complaining of rheumatic pains, for which James, himself a sufferer from gout, recommended the “blessed new remedy Aspirin—a specific against rheumatic & gouty affections [sic],” which had been marketed by the German company Bayer starting in 1899 (Dearly Beloved Friends, p. 130). In 1904 Belchamber was published, which would be followed by an unpublished story, “The China Poet”; a review (1907) of the H. G. Wells novel In the Days of the Comet; a short story, “On the Pottlecombe

John-a-Dreams: A Tale (1878), Julian Sturgis’ novel about a high-strung, intensely emotional boy, Irvine Dale (known as “Irvie”) who goes to Eton, preceded Tim: A Story of School Life, Howard Sturgis’ own Eton novel, by over a dozen years. In outdoing his brother’s tamely narrated tale with a story of frustrated love between boys that ends in death, Tim: A Story of School Life (1891) also inadvertently competed with an infinitely superior short story, “The Pupil,” which Henry James published in Longman’s Magazine the same year. In “The Pupil,” the ambiguous love between a young student and his tutor ends with the student’s death. However, Sturgis’ novel cannot fairly be compared to James’s masterful achievement, marred as it is by glaringly obvious metaphors, overdone sentimentality, and lack of self-awareness in the narrative voice. The protagonist of Tim: A Story of School Life is Tim Ebbesley, a sickly little eight-year-old who falls in love with thirteen-year-old Carol, a healthy sporting lad who accidentally grazes Tim with buckshot while hunting with his father; the


HOWARD OVERING STURGIS parallels with Cupid shooting love’s arrows are made obvious in the narrative. Tim’s father, William Ebbesley, returns from service in India (his mother died when the boy was an infant) and is disappointed that his son is pale, sickly, and girlish. Although the descriptions of the extroverted sportsman Carol and the introverted Tim, fond of indoor pursuits such as reading, may draw on Sturgis’ memories of growing up with his brother Julian, their father, Russell Sturgis, was more understanding than William Ebbesley of filial differences. At age twelve Tim follows Carol to Eton, where their ages separate them within the school hierarchy. When Carol falls in love with a young woman, the self-abnegating Tim avoids him until he pines away in mortal illness and dies after Carol visits him one last time. Accounts of mutual schoolboy devotion are commonplace in British fiction, from Dickens’ David Copperfield (1850) to George Meredith’s The Adventures of Harry Richmond (1871) to E. F. Benson’s David Blaize (1916) and beyond. A lachrymose tale of unrequited love, Tim: A Story of School Life advocates a lifelong infantile status in a way that seems to echo the childobsessed fantasies of J. M. Barrie. As Tim’s omniscient narrator reflects:

ceased to have the power of inflicting pain upon us, while they possess it in an astonishing degree in the case of their schoolfellows” (p. 98). Attraction to the aesthetic appeal of children is likened to possessing a musical ear, and Sturgis surely knew that in Victorian England, “musical” was a slang term for homosexual: “Some men are born without a fondness for children, just as some have no ear for music; their more favoured brethren look down on them with sublime contempt, but it is absurd to blame either one or the other” (p. 71). Teetering between admiration of boys and fear of their cruelty, the narrator conceals his emotions in literary allusions that were obscure even in 1891, such as when he refers to the “Vehm-gericht of collective boyhood” (p. 141). Sturgis possibly drew his knowledge of the Vehmgericht, or Westphalian medieval tribunal, from Walter Scott’s historical novel Anne of Geierstein; or, The Maiden of the Mist (1829), in which it appears. Somewhat less arcane is when Carol’s grandfather mentions the Latin words “debetur pueris” (p. 31). The Latin tag “Maxima debetur puero reverentia,” from Satire 14 of the Roman poet Juvenal, may be translated as “the greatest reverence is due the young” or “the greatest awe is owed to boys.” Being in thrall of schoolboys is a basic underlying emotion of Tim: A Story of School Life.

Some few happy people never grow up, but are boys and girls at heart all their lives. Few of us can have reached maturity without remembering periods when we have felt very old, and the pleasant shock of getting younger again; and even in the oldest people’s lives, little patches of youth blossom out now and then. But in boys the differences are even more marked. Some are little men from the time they can walk, with all a man’s self-reliance and self-conceit; others ripen very slowly; some hardly at all.

The Old Testament quotation from the second book of Samuel, “Thy love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women,” about the adoration between the biblical David and Jonathan, is also repeated relentlessly. The biblical quote appears as an epigraph on the title page, then again on pages 158–159, 185–186, and 315. In this overstated and overwrought context, when Carol kisses Tim, after the shooting accident and again on his deathbed, this staged affection reads as unlikely and mawkish, however movingly it was intended. The reiteration of precedent for homosexual love is contrasted with frequent references to The Sorrows of Young Werther (Die Leiden des jungen Werther, 1774) in the context of adult heterosexual love. In Werther, the epistolary novel by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the loving young protagonist kills himself in despair. If adult

(pp. 82–83)

An overpowering nostalgia for school days implies that life is mostly downhill later: “Indeed I doubt if at any later date a healthy popular boy is likely to taste such pure joys as during the last few years of his public-school life” (p. 162). In Tim, boys are relished as aesthetic objects, surrounded by a kind of pederastic aura: “We who look back on school-life through the softening haze of memory, forget that the boys so perfectly satisfactory from an aesthetic point of view have


HOWARD OVERING STURGIS love is a form of suicide, wallowing in sentimentality is approved of by the narrator of Tim: A Story of School Life, who relishes mid-Victorian sentimentality such as verses by Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Felix Mendelssohn’s “O For the Wings of a Dove” sung by a boy choir. Curiously, the narrator dismisses the eighteenthcentury poet Thomas Gray as “sentimental” (p. 97). This uncertain aesthetic viewpoint in Tim may be the basis for some awkward metaphors, such as when Tim buys pet mice for Carol in a shop but they die of neglect, a glaringly obvious symbol of their love. Shakespeare’s comedy As You Like It is cited among Tim’s favorite books, not ostensibly for the androgynous elements of the character Rosalind, which would suit a girlish youth like Tim, but supposedly because its rural setting is soothing for wounded hearts. Tim’s father is a stock figure, arguing for conformity and against “violent intimacies” (p. 206). The narrator pathetically describes how he discovered a pile of Carol’s letters to Tim, carefully preserved in bundles, and this somewhat musty feeling of retrospect permeates Tim: A Story of School Life. By the time of the book’s ultimate death scene, to which the reader is clearly intended to react as Dickens’ audience did to the demise of Little Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop, too many misleading and concealed notes have been rung for Tim to stand on its own merits. Nevertheless, Tim: A Story of School Life, at first published anonymously, was received in a respectful, if distant, manner by the literary press. Most reported, as did the Bookman (reprinted in the Literary World), on the author’s true identity, referring to his more famous literary brother Julian:

As a polite introduction to public notice, this nonreview was perfectly satisfactory. A German translation of the novel followed in 1895, by Natalie Rümelin-Oesterlen, a prolific Stuttgart-born translator from the English and French of such authors as H. Rider Haggard, Alphonse Daudet, and Octave Feuillet. Although some later writers, such as E. M. Forster, have had some qualified kind words for Tim, the book’s chief posterity and influence has been limited to further examples in the genre of pederastic literature such as The Garden God: A Tale of Two Boys (1905) by the Irishman Forrest Reid (1875–1947) and The Bending of a Twig (1907) by Desmond Coke (1879–1931). The wistful, unrealized longings in Tim are overshadowed by bolder statements of the same theme in contemporary works such as Frederick Rolfe’s Stories Toto Told Me (1898). Sturgis would probably have disdained such explicit writers as dangerously vulgar, not to mention the American Edward Irenaeus PrimeStevenson (1858–1942) who published under the pseudonym of Xavier Mayne such pioneering gay studies books as The Intersexes (1908); Prime-Stevenson approvingly took note of Tim as a case study. The British sexologist Havelock Ellis likewise noted in his Studies in the Psychology of Sex (1915), while discussing novels with homosexual themes: “In English the homosexuality is for the most part veiled and the narrative deals largely with school-life and boys in order that the emotional and romantic character of the relations described may appear more natural. Thus Tim, an anonymously published book by H. O. Sturgis (1891), described the devotion of a boy to an older boy at Eton and his death at an early age.” Being listed alongside Ellis’ clinical chapters on “Physical Sexual Abnormalities” would not have pleased Sturgis, none of whose future writings would deal with such unadorned gay feelings.

The author of Tim is Mr. Howard Sturgis, a younger brother of Mr. Julian Sturgis. Although not distinguished in the class lists at Cambridge ѧ he had a remarkable ascendancy over his companions, and was noted for his interest in literature.ѧ We believe the draft at least of Tim was prepared some time ago. Mr. Sturgis has reached the comparatively mature age of thirty-six.


If, as has been asserted, Tim was begun some years before its publication date, Sturgis’ next novel represented his first entirely adult effort. In

(“News and Notes,” Literary World 22, 1891, p. 499)


HOWARD OVERING STURGIS All That Was Possible: Being the Record of a Summer in the Life of Mrs. Sibyl Crofts, Comedian; Extracted from Her Correspondence (1895), Sturgis embraced the distinct technical challenge of writing an epistolary novel in which all the letters are from a single person. Instead of a variety of points of view, as in Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa; or, The History of a Young Lady (1747–1748), an epistolary novel consisting of letters from different characters, Sturgis opted instead to follow the precedent of Richardson’s earlier Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded (1740), in which only the title character’s point of view is expressed. Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther, already cited as a key text in Tim, is another precedent, pointing to the eighteenth-century inspiration for this particular literary format. Indeed, the narrator’s discovery of letters in Tim foreshadows Sturgis’ fuller investigation of a literary approach. By the turn of the century, the epistolary novel, especially from a single narrative point of view, was distinctly archaic, and the quaint subtitle of All That Was Possible added to the period-piece flavor of the novel. Even a traditional book like The Moonstone (1868) by Wilkie Collins employed several different epistolary viewpoints. By miniaturizing his scope, Sturgis was willfully creating an objet d’art, expressing his theme despite self-imposed limitations, much like the needlework to which he was devoted. All That Was Possible consists of letters written in the 1880s by Sibyl Crofts, a twenty-sevenyear-old actress, to Milly, a female artist friend living in London. Sibyl Crofts had retired to become the mistress of Lord Medmenham, but after five years, her lover marries someone of his own social class, and Crofts is paid to go away. This she does, resignedly, to a cottage in North Wales for the summer in order to meditate on her future. The Henshaws, the leading family thereabouts, own a slate quarry, and Crofts meets Norris Henshaw, a handsome nineteen-year-old student. However, the head of the family, Robert Henshaw, thirty-five years old, arrives to persuade her to stay away from his young cousin for fear of scandal. The elder Henshaw and Crofts begin a love affair, and although Crofts ponders whether

to marry her new lover or not, the question never arises because he looks upon her only as an adventuress, not a woman worthy of marriage. Although Crofts repeatedly cites the precedent of past liberated women like George Eliot, her own fate is more traditional. By speaking in the voice of a rejected or scorned woman, Sturgis embraced a tradition that later gay authors, such as Jean Cocteau in his play La Voix humaine (1932), would also employ. To avoid monotony in this story of a victimized narrator, All That Was Possible includes a dizzying range of literary references. All three of Sturgis’ novels require annotated editions, which they are unlikely to receive, to be fully understood by modern readers, yet none more than All That Was Possible. Unidentified quotes from and allusions to the Bible, Dickens, Tennyson, Shakespeare, Rousseau, Shelley, George Eliot, and George Sand are abundant. The epistolary format itself is referred to by mention of the letters of Jonathan Swift and Sydney Smith. Even the androgynous game of a male author (Sturgis) describing female woes (Crofts) is evoked in references to George Sand, who notoriously donned male clothing. Much of this literary material is incongruous in the letters of an unemployed actress, an objection Sturgis clearly anticipated and sought to mitigate by including far-fetched explanations of why Crofts should be as erudite as Sturgis: as a girl she supposedly read aloud to her father from books he favored, which gave her “early familiarity with so many authors girls don’t generally read” (All That Was Possible, 1895, p. 109). When Sibyl was fourteen, her Catholic mother, a French ballet dancer, died; however, this detail hardly explains the biblical diction in All That Was Possible, nor the constant insertion of expressions in French. Crofts’ intense love for her pet pug dog “Tib” parallels Sturgis’ well-known devotion to his dogs. He would nurse them in illness and old age, and when they died he buried them under a row of little tombstones at Qu’Acre. When Tib falls ill, Crofts reacts with near-hysteria compared to the relative calm with which she handles her


HOWARD OVERING STURGIS romantic affairs. Crofts informs Milly that she cannot appreciate “what her pets are to a childless woman” (p. 166); however, the passion for dogs as described by Sturgis is not maternal but closer to the fervent dog love expressed by later gay male writers, such as J. R. Ackerley (1896– 1967) in his My Dog Tulip (1956). Sturgis was active in the early animal rights movement, serving as president of London’s National AntiVivisection Society, a forerunner of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). He was a devoted attendee of this society’s meetings, so that when ill health forced him to be absent, the society’s newsletter, the Zoophilist and Animals’ Defender, duly explained why, citing a 1912 message from Sturgis that a “little while ago he underwent a dangerous operation, which he was getting over very nicely, but he was not able yet to leave his bed” (vols. 32–33, 1912, p. 201). Another emotion shared by Crofts and Sturgis is the admiration of young male beauty. The first description of Norris Henshaw belongs to the flowery school of pederastic prose, full of coded allusions to ancient Greece, although intended as a twentyish woman’s reaction to a man:

fellow creatures, is a very natural one, and at the root, I suspect, of most writing, whether avowedly autobiographical or not” (p. 172). Robert Henshaw expands on this theme, telling Crofts with reference to her correspondent Milly: “You are happy enough to know some one who will understand; and so you write letters. Those who do not possess such a friend, are driven to write books, in the hope of reaching some one, though they may never know they have done so.ѧ Perhaps I am less fortunate in my friends than you; anyway I have always felt a desire to write a book” (pp. 173–175). At first discreetly received, All That Was Possible eventually received some laudatory reviews, like this one from the Four-Track News, on the occasion of a 1906 American reprint: It is seldom that a book written in letter form, and all the letters by one person, holds the reader’s close attention.ѧ This is not a story to put into the hands of the young, but it deals with a problem to which adults pay all too little attention. It is well— admirably—written, and the character of Sibyl is intensely human. The ending is natural, if not quite as happy as the average novel reader might desire, an