It comes as no surprise that ancient Greek literature draws a lot of interest. It seems to provide a broken and twisting path to the roots of Western society, giving insight into symbolism and tradition. On the other hand, the remnants of long dispersed societies often produce more questions than answers. One such work is Homer's Odyssey, which is largely regarded as a foundational text of Western culture. But while the gaps and incongruities inspire new readings, criticism all too often unwinds a text without providing new answers.
Margaret Atwood has used a different process to reconcile the mixed meanings and messages of Greek mythology. Her latest novel, The Penelopiad (2005), is a retelling of the Odyssey, but in this version, Odysseus' wife Penelope is the narrator and the twelve hanged maids perform the chorus. Using her perspective as a storyteller, Atwood reveals that, "The story as told in The Odyssey doesn't hold water: there are too many inconsistencies"(xv). This, however, is a reality common to ancient texts, and it is not unusual that artifacts contradict each other. Atwood explains that Homer's Odyssey is only one version of a story that originated from oral tradition; meaning that there were probably more versions of Odysseus' tale than we have record of. Although Atwood is hardly the first to notice and point out these observations, The Penelopiad is one of few attempts made to fill in the blanks from the shores of Ithaca; a project that requires both creative research and invention.
In the introduction, Atwood derives two interesting questions from a careful reading of the Odyssey: why did Odysseus and his son Telemachus hang the twelve maids and what was Penelope really up to during the twenty years Odysseus was away (xv)? Different points of view always brings forth new information, which is why The Penelopiad retells the tale from Ithaca, focusing on Penelope and the maids. Although Homer's Odyssey is the primary source of details, Atwood relies on several other texts, including Robert Grave's The Greek Myths, to help fill in some of the gaps that leave readers unsettled after Homer's version. In the end, The Penelopiad keeps the plot and events of the Odyssey intact. What Atwood has revised or, in some cases, brought to light, are a few key details that cast a slightly different interpretation on these ancient events.
The Penelopiad begins in Hades, the underworld where Penelope, Helen, Antinous, and all the other famous characters have been residing for thousands of years. At several points Hades is discussed at length, although Penelope speaks neither negatively nor positively of her eternal home; it seems that she is more or less neutral to its atmosphere. This is confirmed by the fact that, while her husband Odysseus, son Telemachus, and cousin Helen have all taken another turn at life--reborn for 'little excursions' as Helen refers to them--Penelope doesn't want to run the risk: "My past life was fraught with many difficulties, but who's to say the next one wouldn't be worse?" As myths relate, Penelope was never as outgoing and adventurous as her kin. Known for being a homebody, Penelope spent a good deal of her life weeping in despair. And even though Penelope has far more agency and accountability in The Penelopiad, her calculated reserve and unwavering virtue stand fast even in the afterlife. Penelope's complicity and mild nature are commonly interpreted as powerlessness, but, using careful research, Atwood has suggested a different vision. Penelope's mother was a Naiad, a water nymph who seemed to be quite detached from the palace life of her royal family. Despite her absence in Penelope's life, she gave a very insightful speech on her daughter's wedding day,
"Water does not resist. Water flows. When you plunge your hand into it, all you feel is a caress. Water is not a solid wall, it will not stop you. But water always goes where is wants to go, and nothing in the end can stand against it. Water is patient. Dripping water wears away a stone. Remember that, my child. Remember you are half water. If you can't go through an obstacle, go around it. Water does" (43).This explains Penelope's frequent weeping, in both Homer and Atwood's telling. This also sheds some light on Penelope's style of diplomacy, never using force to confront a situation, but always clever strategy and wit.
Atwood also gives readers a different spin on Odysseus and Telemachus. We see these men through Penelope's eyes as she relates her interactions with each. Her reading of Odysseus is candid but loving; Penelope acknowledges her husband as a clever trickster, a storyteller who could convince his listeners of anything:
"…he could convince another person that the two of them together faced a common obstacle, and that they needed to join forces in order to overcome it. He could draw almost any listener into a collaboration, a little conspiracy of his own making. Nobody could do this better than he: for once, the stories don't lie" (45).While her thoughts on Odysseus were balanced with admiration, insightfulness, and devotion, Penelope was acutely aware of her husband's way of thinking, as well as the brand of tactics he used. There are several incidents in The Penelopiad where Penelope collaborates with Odysseus to deceive others. Even as stories of Odysseus' escapades and romances are relayed to Penelope--which she never wholly doubts nor subscribes to-she keeps faith in her husband's devotion to her or his ability to find a way home.
Telemachus, on the other hand, is not given such a generous reading. Spoiled by Eurycleia, Odysseus's childhood nurse, and lacking his father's presence, Telemachus is depicted as a reckless, disrespectful, and thoughtless teenage boy. Readers may wonder if Telemachus is really the son of Odysseus and Penelope, given his lack of intuition and rationality. Penelope relays quite a few examples of Telemachus's behavior, such as his uncouth attitude toward the suitors, his rash attempt to save his father, and his posture toward his own mother, Penelope. How could two of the most clever and insightful figures of the ancient world have produced Telemachus? Yet, when considering the environment that Telemachus grew up in, his actions should not come as a surprise.
As Homer's Odyssey relates, Odysseus and his men did not sail straight home after the Trojan War. In fact, it took Odysseus just as long to get back to Ithaca as it did to defeat Troy--ten years to end the war and another ten years to find his way home. During this time Penelope managed the kingdom and, as described in The Penelopiad, she did so with a great deal of success. Intelligence and wit made Penelope a tactful overseer, allowing her to increase the size and value of Odysseus's estate while he was away. Atwood implies that her strong presence--strong in that she was not only ruling a kingdom, but building upon it as well--attracted the attention of suitors.
"The Suitors did not appear on the scene right way. For the first nine or ten years of Odysseus's absence we knew where he was--he was at Troy--and we knew he was still alive. No, they didn't start besieging the palace until hope had dwindled and was flickering out. First five came, then ten, then fifty--the more there were, the more were attracted, each fearing to miss out on the perpetual feasting and marriage lottery. They were like vultures…" (103).The Suitors put Penelope in a very difficult position; no one was sure whether or not Odysseus was alive, and because he had been away so long, interested parties began to advance on his kingdom. When Odysseus left for battle, he took most, if not all, of his soldiers, leaving Ithaca defenseless. Penelope couldn't turn away the onslaught of Suitors since that would have been brusque and offensive. Instead Penelope played the keep-your-friends-close-but-your-enemies-closer game and accepted the Suitors encroachment. In return, Penelope was able to monitor their actions and stay informed about external events. The situation was unpleasant and suspicious, but it probably sheltered Ithaca from more dangerous scenarios. This point is just one of many connections Atwood has drawn between Homer's details, supplying a logical explanation that the Odyssey lacks. Of course, Penelope couldn't entertain and keep track of all the Suitors by herself; she needed an army of girls to do this.
The maids play a huge role in The Penelopiad, retelling their side of the story in chorus lines between the chapters. They describe themselves as the children of slaves, serfs, and peasants, spending their lives in the palace, cleaning and cooking and using their bodies to get by. Penelope had a very special relationship with her maids since she raised many of them herself,
"The male slaves were not supposed to sleep with the female ones, not without permission. This could be a tricky issue. They sometimes fell in love and became jealous, just like their betters, which could cause a lot of trouble. If that sort of thing got out of hand I naturally had to sell them. But if a pretty child was born of these couplings, I would often keep it and rear it myself, teaching it to be a refined and pleasant servant. Perhaps I indulged some of these children too much" (88).There were a dozen maids that Penelope was particularly close to, one of whom was Melantho of the Pretty Cheeks. These twelve maids were like sisters to her, "They were my most trusted eyes and ears in the palace, and it was they who helped me pick away at my weaving…" (114). Penelope asked these maids to get close to the Suitors, to learn as much as they could about their intentions and activities. The maids' hospitality towards and association with the Suitors later cost them their lives, a fate that Penelope was helpless to affect.
In addition to closing the gaps left by myth, Atwood has provided readers with an informed and compassionate account of events as described in Homer's Odyssey. The story and details are the same, but Atwood tells the tale from Penelope's position; the situation is different, but the context is still built upon the original literary material. The Penelopiad gives a perspective that grounds the epic in relatable human experience, adding meaning and significance to otherwise mysterious events.
Margaret Atwood is the author of over thirty books of fiction, short story, poetry, and literary criticism. Some of these publications include, The Circle Game (1964), The Edible Woman (1969), The Handmaid's Tale (1985), Cat's Eye (1988), Wilderness Tips (1991), The Robbers Bride (1993), Alias Grace (1996), Morning in the Burned House (1996), The Blind Assassin (2000), and Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing (2002). Margaret Atwood has received countless awards for her writing, including The Booker Prize for The Blind Assassin (2000), and the Governor General's Award for both The Handmaid's Tale (1986) and The Blind Assassin (2000). Margaret Atwood has received over fifteen honorary degrees and was named Ms. Magazine's Woman of the Year in 1986.
Doris Kearns Goodwin
During an interview for C-SPAN's "Booknotes" on January 1st, 1995, Doris Kearns Goodwin was asked whether she will write another book. Ms. Goodwin replied, "Oh, sure. What else am I going to do?" Fortunately, for history buffs and political junkies alike, Goodwin has indeed continued her award-winning literary journey. In this voyage, she has documented the personal and political lives of numerous U.S. presidents from Lyndon Johnson in her first book, Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream (1976), to John F. Kennedy and his family in The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys: An American Saga (1987, updated 2002), to Franklin Roosevelt in No Ordinary Time (1994), and now to Abraham Lincoln in her newest book, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. In each of her books she has been able to reveal the human traits so many of us wish to learn about these figures from the past. Goodwin is able to so boldly paint precise portraits of her subjects that readers may view her as the history teacher they never had but always desperately wanted.
Doris Kearns Goodwin herself once said, "I think that what the audience likes to hear are some of the stories that reveal character and the human traits of some of these figures who might otherwise seem distant from them" ("Goodwin Quotes" on womenshistory.about.com.) Indeed, what brings readers back time and again to the writing of this celebrated author is the way in which she is able to memorably portray larger than life figures as simple human beings. In Goodwin's books, we see idealized one-dimensional characters re-formed into whole human beings with faults, sensitivities, and struggles with immense personal battles. Everyone knows what these leaders accomplished in their political lives but we are never taught who they are. And because Goodwin portrays these pillars of history in the midst of everyday struggles common to all, they become not only more human, but greater in what they eventually achieved and additionally serve as grand inspiration for Goodwin's readers.
With Team of Rivals, Goodwin offers to her readership her most thorough and intimate biography to date. By implementing a comparative approach to the biography, she presents a fresh view of Abraham Lincoln. Illinois State Historian Thomas F. Schwarz calls the book "a comparative perspective producing new and compelling insights into Lincoln's personal and public life." Goodwin not only portrays our 16th President with stunning vigor and remarkable freshness, she also highlights the lives of men and women who surrounded Lincoln, specifically focusing on the men in his cabinet: those "rivals" who through Lincoln's invitation and real brilliance became his sturdy and reliable "team." Goodwin said in an interview about her new book, "This book places [Lincoln] in the center of his extraordinary team of rivals, each of whom thought they should have been president instead of Lincoln when his term began. But by the end, he had mastered them all." However, it is evident in her biography that Lincoln did not "master" them through callous manipulation or aggression but rather through the greatness of his personality, ethics, and morals. His "rivals" seemed simply unable to remain the competitors of a man they liked so much. By showing her readers how Lincoln accomplished this goal of turning foes into friends Goodwin also shows us what kind of a man Lincoln really was. Through Goodwin's eyes we can see the real character of this simple Illinois lawyer. His stature is revealed through captivating and detailed storytelling as Goodwin explores the ins and outs of a man who would rise to become one of the most loved figures in American history. As Harold Holzer, author of many books on Lincoln, writes, "The book is splendid-I felt like I was at every cabinet meeting, every crisis conferences, every hand-wringing visit to the telegraph office...It's a triumph." In Team of Rivals, destined to be a best-seller and award-winner, Goodwin writes as Lincoln lived: abundantly, precisely, and intensely.
Goodwin garnered praise and admiration beginning with her first book, Lyndon Johnson & the American Dream. She worked for Lyndon Johnson in the White House, starting as a White House Fellow at the age of 24, and became friends with the 36th President. She helped him write his memoirs after he specifically requested her assistance, and later went on to write his official presidential biography three years after his death. While visiting the Writers Institute in 1995, Goodwin commented, "He talked with me of his fears, of his nightmares, of his sorrows, and I was able in some ways to see him as few others had." Goodwin's intimacy with Johnson translates unmistakably through her remarkably conversational narrative in Lyndon Johnson & the American Dream. The book landed on The New York Times bestseller list and was described by one reviewer at that newspaper as, "The most penetrating, fascinating political biography I have ever read . . . No other President has had a biographer who had such access to his private thoughts." Indeed, readers of this rich and brilliantly told story will find that they, too, gain very personal insights into the president's political ideas and personal feelings. It is both Goodwin's impressive abilities as a storyteller and her precise and personal knowledge of the life of Johnson that lends the book its intimate style and page-turning prose.
Her book The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys (1987), which examines the life of John F. Kennedy, and two generations of his family, stayed on The New York Times bestseller list for five months and was also made into a six-hour miniseries on PBS. The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys, which took Goodwin a decade to write, is both scrupulously researched and gracefully written. Publishers Weekly wrote of the book, "…[Goodwin] makes the family, with all its contradictory interplay and immutable bonds, the focus of her story, and the result is personal and fascinating."
Goodwin was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1995 for her intimate portrayal of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt in No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor-The Home Front in World War II (1995). It was also awarded the Harold Washington Literary Award and The Ambassador Book Award, in addition to being on The New York Times bestseller list for a total of six months-longer than any of her other books. No Ordinary Time is a dazzling portrayal of the relationship between the Roosevelts during the war years and is truly a masterpiece in its depth and style. But this exposition is more than an invaluable treasure trove of historical facts and figures: it is the story of two remarkable people; their history, struggles and triumphs come alive through Goodwin's invaluable historic perspective and remarkable ability to tell a complicated story in a delightfully simple way.
Goodwin begins her impeccably researched and beautifully written book on the Roosevelts by describing FDR's transcendent reveries to himself during stressful days in the White House, wherein he would imagine himself as a boy, sledding down and climbing up the snowy hills of home in Hyde Park. By use of his imagination, FDR was able to disregard his physical predicament to transform his life, if only for a few moments. In this same way, Goodwin takes her readers on vicarious journeys through the lives of historical figures we thought we knew, only to find that by truly knowing them through her exemplary books, we come to understand each of them in a more complete, candid, and enlivening way.
In 1997, Goodwin left the world of presidential history and began to look more thoughtfully and in greater depth at her own past. She wrote Wait Till Next Year: A Memoir (1997), whose title refers to her hopeless lamentations over the repeated failures of the Brooklyn Dodgers while growing up. Wait Till Next Year was hailed in The Washington Post as "an equal among memoirs by Louise May Alcott, Carson McCullers and Harper Lee." In a 1995 interview on C-SPAN's "Booknotes," Goodwin commented, "My real love of history started with baseball…my father taught me to keep score when I was seven years old, and somehow I would recreate the games for him when he came home from work…I thought without me he'd never know what happened…because he never told me all the scores were in the newspaper the next day." Goodwin's memoir is told with the same richness of detail and honest portrayal of people as can be found in her presidential narratives and is inspirational to baseball fans and non-baseball fans alike. Wait Till Next Year was honored by being placed on The Book-of-the-Month Club.
Because of her broad knowledge of history and important insight into the world of presidential politics, Goodwin is a regular on such programs as "Meet the Press," "The News Hour," and "Think Tank," among many others. In addition, she was a political analyst and commentator for NBC during the last presidential election cycle. She is a regular guest and contributor to numerous political and/or presidential documentaries on television, including countless productions on PBS and The History Channel. There is a good reason why Goodwin's brain is often picked. She brings a special enlightened perspective concerning the problems and political events of our time because she has great knowledge of and respect for the past. Without fail, Goodwin treats her readers to this same kind of in-depth exposition in each of her books.
Eva Romero is an undergraduate English major at UAlbany and an intern at the NYS Writers Institute.
COMPLETE WORLD KNOWLEDGE
As Presented by John Hodgman in The Areas of My Expertise
The critics have spoken: John Hodgman is funny, even hilarious, according to some. "John Hodgman is funny in this way where sometimes I just stare at the paragraphs trying to figure out how he's doing it…I mean, even if he's making it all up, why's he thinking about Apollonaire's razor or what to tip a hotel lullaby service in the first place?" asks Ira Glass, host of Public Radio's "This American Life". The critics are of course referring to Hodgman's new book, The Areas of My Expertise (2005). A great proportion of reviews indicate that this book is a fabulous buy. Darin Strauss, author of Chang and Eng has said, "I urge you to buy it-if you need to, send me an email and I'll kick in a couple bucks" and Dave Eggers, "Even if you buy this book for the 700 Hobo Names alone, you will have gotten more than your money's worth."
Hodgman has produced what he calls a "compendium of COMPLETE WORLD KNOWLEDGE," a phrase appearing in capital letters throughout The Areas of My Expertise. Hodgman's book is an improvement on Poor Richard's Almanack, The Book of Lists, and similar texts. Hodgman admits that it may be difficult for readers to believe that this work contains COMPLETE WORLD KNOWLEDGE, especially given its narrow focus, which are the areas of John Hodgman's expertise. Yet the book's front cover clearly states what can be found inside: "Matters Historical, Matters Literary, Matters Cryptozoological, Hobo Matters, Food, Drink & Cheese (a Kind of Food), Squirrels & Lobsters & Eels, Haircuts, Utopia, What Will Happen in the Future, and Most Other Subjects." These are just a few of the topics covered in The Areas of My Expertise; I personally recommend the section "What You Did Not Know About Hoboes". Hodgman claims that his book's advantage over "almanackian predecessors," as well as libraries, is that "all of the historical oddities and amazing true facts contained herein are lies, made up by me. This of course allows each entry to contain many more truths than if it were merely factual" (17). Of course, true bits and pieces have slipped into the book, and Hodgman continues by illustrating how this has happened:
"If this last point seems confusing to you, consider the banal and truthful statement that follows:This technique makes it difficult to decipher between fact and embellishment, although, given Hodgman's supreme inventiveness, most readers will have some sense of where imagination has filled in the gaps.
"Secrets of the Mall of America" gives a brief description of Hodgman's adventures in the most frequently visited mall in the United States. After leaving the professional literary agent business, Hodgman became a columnist for a national magazine of men's fitness and adventure (if this is true), primarily writing about food. Not only does the mall have 520 stores (most of which sell baseball caps), but it also has an amusement park, chapel, school, and post office. By 'Day 4' Hodgman has found a secret tunnel lined with skulls connecting the Pottery Barn to the amusement park. At the Cereal Adventure theme park-also in the Mall of America--Hodgman witnesses the production of Lucky Charms; leprechauns are turned into marshmallows, although their green hats are shipped back to Ireland. Beware of the owner of the new pastry shop, Granny's Squeezecakes, she's democracy's worst enemy.
If readers are looking to get the most profit out of their rabbits, see the section on "How to Raise Rabbits for Food and Fur: The Utopian Method," which gives detailed guidelines for governing a rabbit kingdom. Also helpful from this section is "Table 16: Worship V. Weight Table for the Raising of Utopian Rabbits," which helps to explain the correlation between rabbit weight and religious belief. This of course is not the only section on animals; in fact, Hodgman provides many interesting tidbits on animals. "All Kinds of Squirrels" is particularly detailed, giving a brief history of relations between squirrel populations. Several of these squirrel populations have had transnational interactions, although the seven species listed are all quite unique; these include, Eastern Gray, Eurasian Red, American Red, Bronze, White/Albino, Flying, and Black. Only the Bronze squirrel lives under water. Lobsters, crabs, eels, dogs, cats, and, of course, monsters are some other animal topics covered in The Areas of My Expertise.
Interspersed throughout the book are stories about hoboes. For instance, how Hobo Joe Junkpan became Secretary of the Treasury of the United States, or the great showdown between Hobo King Joey Stink-Eye Smiles and Walker Evans. Hodgman also explains the details behind President Roosevelt's Hobo Eradication Plan, also know as "The New Deal." Of course, after Stink-Eye Smiles fought Walker Evans, the hoboes disappeared, most likely escaping to some other world. Yet, hoboes are still well connected to our mainstream reality, primarily through squirrels and the 51st state, Hohoq, more popularly known as "Ar." That's right, in The Areas of My Expertise there are fifty-one states, and many more interesting facts that are sure to keep you reading all night--according to John Hodgman.
John Hodgman is no longer a professional literary agent. But, he now hosts and curates "The Little Gray Book Lectures," a regular colloquium of readings, songs, discussion among other things. Inspired by "The Little Blue Book" instructional pamphlet, the Lectures are held almost monthly in Wiliamsburg, Brooklyn. These evenings always have a theme, such as Lecture No. 25: The Animals: Are They Our Enemies?, Lecture No. 8: How to Throw a Curveball, and most recently, Lecture No. 32: How to Prepare Manuscripts for Publication. Performing at each event is "The Little Gray Book Lectures" Musical Director Jonathan Coulton. At each Lecture Coulton presents an original song based on the evening's theme. Chuck Klosterman, author of Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs and the Esquire Magazine column "Chuck Klosterman's America" says,
But the only thing anyone really needs to know about John Hodgman is that he puts on the single-most interesting literary event I've ever experienced, and he somehow manages to do this every month. And the reason this works, I suspect, is because the Little Gray Book series is not necessarily about words; it's mostly about ideas. It's about little ideas examined in the largest possible sense, and it's about big ideas dissected through the smallest possible details. The Little Gray Book series operates the same way creative people think about life.John Hodgman is a contributing writer at The New York Times Magazine and often appears on public radio's "This American Life." His work has been published in The Paris Review, McSweeney's, One-Story, and The Believer.
On Judy Emlyn Johnson's Poetry in Cities of Mathematics and Desire
Judy Johnson's trust in language, her love of landscape, of literature, of all the Gods before her and her intense mapping of our political world, both deconstructed and constructed, comes clear in this latest book of poems. At its edge a belief in beauty and at its center the strong hold of the existential thought.
As poet, Johnson grasps intellect by the horns and tosses it in the wind of the day and the night shimmering as it does in the shadow and light of stars.
She is a master poet with strong limbs to lift history off places and play with its ride and its disorder and its function. Hers is a brilliant manifestation of life's simple liberties in all their complex tones.
She makes license with her trope, her love of form, her love of chance and randomness. Her voice(s) leer at questions, unfolding them as she incites rancor, answers, confusion, calm, and deliberate fancy.
She is a master painter and musician and to hear her voice as I read her dark symphonic tones allows the common beauty of poetry to be song.
Jill Lepore Introduction, September 27, 2005
For many years now I have greatly admired Jill Lepore's work, so it with pleasure that I formally introduce her to you tonight.
Professor Lepore comes to us from Harvard University, where she is Professor of History. She previously taught at Boston University, UC San Diego, and Yale University, where she also received her PhD in history.
But she is not just a teacher, she is also a writer.
And tonight, as you know, she is here to talk about New York Burning: Liberty, Slavery, and Conspiracy in Eighteenth-Century Manhattan. This is only the latest in her distinguished--and, I might add, prolific--collection of writings. So I want to take a few minutes and highlight some of the common threads in her body of work thus far, characteristics of her writing that have made her one of the most accomplished historians of the United States today.
Professor Lepore's work has often highlighted aspects of the past that have been forgotten, or at least overlooked.
Her first book, The Name of War: King Philip's War and the Origins of American Identity, published in 1998, focused on a little-known 17th century war between New England colonists and Native Americans that was vicious, bloody, and deadlier -- in proportion to total population -- than any other war in U.S. history. Yet, curiously, this war has hardly registered in Americans' historical memory.
Lepore's book brought this war to the forefront again in a highly engaging narrative . . . and she didn't stop there: the question of why this war has not been remembered along with other American wars is also explored. Turning to the memoirs, histories, and dramatic renditions of the war that first documented the event, Lepore explains that the dominant voice in these writings came from the white colonists, who created a distorted narrative of their own victory (when, in reality, the war's outcome was more ambiguous). Their remembrances served their purposes in other ways as well, casting themselves as civilized people and the natives as savages. This made the war, and its remembrance, a pivotal moment in the hardening of cultural boundaries between Native Americans and white Americans.
I don't think anyone who reads this book can deny the war's important place in American history anymore. And in recognition of her innovative approach joining the past with the remembrance of the past - and suggesting one cannot disconnect them -- Lepore was honored with the Bancroft Prize for the best book in American history.
Professor Lepore's work is also distinguished by an unwillingness to remain trapped in the conceptual boxes that often confine historians. Her work is sweeping in scope, encompassing in its embrace of multiple and diverse voices.
The Name of War looked not only at the writings of colonists but considered also the very few voices of Native Americans that survived -- making this, in the words of one reviewer, "a model of what multicultural history can be."
Her second book went in a different direction but shared this approach: entitled A is for American: Letters and Other Characters in the Newly United States and published in 2002, this work examined the innovative ways of communicating that emerged in the United States after the Revolution. She begins with Noah Webster's attempts at spelling reform when he tried to Americanize the language and distance it from Great Britain (this is the time when the "u" dropped out of "honour" and "colour"). She then moves on to Cherokee literacy, slaves communicating in Arabic, sign language, the Morse Code, and concludes with Alexander Graham Bell's invention of the telephone.
Never before had a historian pulled together all of these disparate -- and sometimes conflicting -- groups into one book. Yet doing so yielded important new results, with fresh questions about these inventions and their role in defining the American national character.
Professor Lepore's work is further distinguished by her ability to bridge that oft-mentioned "divide" between academic and popular writing.
Reviewers of these first two books have praised her "riveting prose," as well as her style that is "meticulous but accessible," "engrossing," and has the "immediacy of journalism." That is praise that many historians may aspire to, but unfortunately, few often earn.
For Lepore, elegant, engrossing, and accessible writing has become a trademark. Not only is this evident in her published books, but also in the innovative online magazine that she co-founded, Common-place.org. A quarterly magazine focused on early American history, Commonplace describes itself as "a bit friendlier than a scholarly journal, a bit more scholarly than a popular magazine." It is both a place for "elegant prose and worthy ideas."
If you go online and visit the magazine you will see that it is geared toward a wide audience, from scholars to high school teachers, museum curators to any early American history "buff." There's a chat room called the "Coffee Shop," as well as essays on widely diverse subjects that are all written in an engaging, often personal, manner. It is a magazine that has helped transcend boundaries between the popular readers and the academics, exploiting the capabilities of the internet to build a community between these often separated groups.
Yet nothing makes history more accessible to a wide audience than the ability to tell a story. And in her latest book, New York Burning, Professor Lepore tells one good story.
It is the tale of yet another little-known or studied event, a conspiracy in New York City in 1741 during which fires erupted in Manhattan, fears of slave revolt spread through the white population, and ultimately 100 black men and women were arrested, many of whom were later executed. It is a tale of mass hysteria, of a miscarriage of justice, and ultimately of the role -- the destabilizing role -- of slavery in New York City's history.
Lepore's book pieces together the story of this event and its aftermath, and as with King Philip's War, reclaims the conspiracy from any historical amnesia. You will not forget it after reading this book.
I will leave it to Professor Lepore to tell you even more about her latest book.
By Amy Murrell Taylor, Assistant Professor, Department of History
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Jill Lepore's new book, New York Burning: Liberty, Slavery, and Conspiracy in Eighteenth Century Manhattan (2005), is history-writing at its very best: meticulously researched, richly reimagined, beautifully phrased, tautly plotted, and accessibly presented. The book also succeeds in illuminating an episode in colonial history that has been largely ignored or forgotten, a plot-alleged or real-by black slaves to burn Manhattan to the ground and murder its white inhabitants.
"Nearly 200 slaves were suspected of conspiring to burn every building and murder every white. Tried and convicted before the colony's Supreme Court, 13 black men were burned at the stake. Seventeen more were hanged, two of their dead bodies chained to posts not far from the Negroes Burial Ground, left to bloat and rot. One jailed man cut his own throat. Another 70 men and women were sold into yet more miserable, bone-crushing slavery in the Caribbean. Two white men and two white women, the alleged ringleaders, were hanged, one of them in chains; seven more white men were pardoned on condition that they never set foot in New York again."Much of the testimony used to convict the alleged conspirators was coerced or otherwise tainted. Indeed, many white contemporaries viewed the trials as a form of mass hysteria, and some even compared them to the Salem witch trials- though, as Lepore points out, the Salem trials had not caused nearly as much bloodshed, nor had witches been burned at the stake in Salem, as black men were burned in Manhattan.
While Lepore leaves the impression that some small number of slaves may have been involved in a conspiracy, and in starting the fires, she makes it clear that most of the accused were certainly innocent. Most were the victims of a society on high alert for cabals of all sorts. Lepore writes of the 18th century in general that:
"There was always a villain to be caught, a conspiracy to be detected. The century was lousy with intrigues. Nearly everyone, and enlightened, reasonable people most of all, spotted plotters lurking behind nearly every shadow, and arsonists in the flicker of almost every flame."Lepore demonstrates how this anxiety succeeds in invading the popular culture, and devotes some interesting discussion to George Farquhar's comic play, "The Beaux Strategem," which she calls "a pretzel of plot twists." At one point a servant, who is a buffoon, pledges to uncover a plot,
"Ay, sir, a plot, and a horrible plot. First, it must be a plot because there's a woman in't; secondly, it must be a plot because there's a priest in't; thirdly, it must be a plot because there's French gold in't; and fourthly, it must be a plot, because I don't know what to make on't."Lepore demonstrates uncanny parallels between this play, which was the only play to be performed in Manhattan on a large scale during the winter of 1741--and, as such, the "talk of the town"--and the "Great Negro Plot" which was "uncovered" within days of the play's debut.
In Manhattan, in particular, people had reason to be fearful. The British colonies were at war with Spain, and most of Manhattan's force of soldiers had been sent to the Caribbean to fight the Spanish, leaving the island exposed and vulnerable. War with France also appeared imminent. Pirates periodically raided shipping, and hostile Indians always posed a threat in the hinterland.
In addition to external enemies, there was a pervasive fear of internal ones. The previous decade had been dominated by political party conflicts that some believed might soon erupt into open warfare. Parties became synonymous--particularly among those most closely associated with the British administration--with sedition and treason. Lepore demonstrates persuasively that the authorities displaced their fear of party dissent onto the Negroes, whom they depicted as having formed a secret political party, with its own rules, rituals and hierarchy. Indeed, Lepore also shows that the blacks, during the course of their own social gatherings, may have emulated or parodied elements of party meetings, as well as Masonic rituals, observed in their masters' clubs and homes. This displacement of political suspicion, Lepore argues, served to unify the disunified whites against a common enemy, and to promote harmony in white society at the expense of black slaves.
The most vividly drawn personality of New York Burning is Daniel Horsmanden, a Justice of the New York Supreme Court, as well as the principal investigator and prosecutor of the alleged conspirators (it was not unusual in the 18th century for a justice to perform, simultaneously, all three of those roles). Horsmanden is the book's main character not because he is likable, but because he is a well-documented public figure central to the various investigations and trials, and because he happens to be the author of the only detailed historical source concerning the events in question. Lepore writes:
"Of 133 days of arrests, interrogations, accusations, confessions, retractions, testimony, cross-examinations, judgments, verdicts, executions, pardons, threats, promises, whispers, cries of despair and shrieks of pain, almost the sole surviving record is what Daniel Horsmanden included in his Journal of the Proceedings in The Detection of the Conspiracy."Lepore corrects this imbalance by making thorough and creative use of other sources, including tax lists, maps, censuses, trade documents, and personal correspondence by numerous contemporaries. Lepore also complicates Horsmanden's perspective and undercuts his testimony by demonstrating his ethical and professional flaws: his naked ambition as a government official, his susceptibility to wild conspiracy theories, and his determination to suppress evidence to support his argument, as well as the numerous hypocrisies of his personal life, such as his secret addiction to prostitutes, and his repeated willingness to marry for money. She also shows that Horsmanden was apparently held in low esteem, and judged to be a fraud and a self-promoter, by his contemporaries, even by those who shared his general political outlook.
What is perhaps most remarkable about the book is that Lepore does not presume to know, with any precision, who is guilty or who is innocent, or whether, with any certainty, a conspiracy to burn New York actually existed. She says that while the events are "richly documented," they are also "maddeningly unknowable." It is part of her great achievement that she remains faithful to the ambiguity of the historical record, while bringing that record energetically and palpably to life.
Lepore received the Bancroft Prize and the Phi Beta Kappa Society's Ralph Waldo Emerson Award for The Name of War: King Philip's War and the Origins of American Identity (1999), an insightful account of a bloody and little-studied war that erupted in 1675 between the Wampanoag Indians and the English colonial settlers of what is now Massachusetts. Writing in the New York Review of Books, Gordon Wood called it, "A product [of] imaginative, and wide-ranging scholarship… a fascinating book." Writing in the "Boston Globe," Barry O'Connell called it, "A remarkable book shaped by a transformative and original imagination…. About what cultures see, what they remember, and what they forget."
Lepore is also the author of A is for American: Letters and Other Characters in the Newly United States (2002), a study of the role of language in forging early American identity. She is also the editor of Encounters in the New World: A History in Documents (1998), a collection of primary sources that illustrate early encounters between Native Americans and European newcomers.
A professor of history at Harvard University, Lepore is cofounder and coeditor of the Web magazine Common-place (www.common-place.org). The website, which is sponsored by the American Antiquarian Society and the Florida State University Department of History, describes itself as a "common place for exploring and exchanging ideas about early American history and culture. A bit friendlier than a scholarly journal, a bit more scholarly than a popular magazine, 'Common-place' speaks--and listens--to scholars, museum curators, teachers, hobbyists, and just about anyone interested in American history before 1900."
Mark Koplik is a Program Assistant for the NYS Writers Institute.
Andre Lorde, Bookshow transcript from January 2, 1992
Smith: Welcome to The BookShow. I'm your host, Tom Smith, of the New York State Writers Institute, which is located at the University at Albany and part of the New York State University system. My guest today is a poet of compelling power and honesty, Audre Lorde.
Lorde: Thank you, Tom. I'm very pleased to be here in Albany. "The Black Unicorn." (reads poem)
Smith: Thank you, Audre. It has been said of Audre Lorde, and I'm quoting, "Refusing to be circumscribed by any simple identity, Audre Lorde writes as a black woman, a mother, a daughter, a lesbian, a feminist, a visionary, poems of elemental wildness and hewing nightmare and lucidity." Among Audre Lorde's collections of poetry are "From a Land Where Other People Live," which was nominated for a National Book Award back in 1973, "The Black Unicorn" in 1978, "Chosen Poems Old and New" in 1982, and her most recent volume of poetry, "Our Dead Behind Us," published in 1986. Her prose works include "The Cancer Journals," which chronicle her struggle with breast cancer and her mastectomy, published in 1980, and then "Zami: A New Spelling of My Name," a novel which was published in 1982 and "Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches," 1984. She was a co-founder of Kitchen Table Women of Color Press and Audre Lorde has just been designated as the official New York State Poet for the next two years by Governor Mario Cuomo. Audre Lorde, welcome to The BookShow, and congratulations. We in New York state are proud and privileged to have you as our state poet. Audre, I'd like to ask you, going back to the beginning, going back to your roots as a child growing up in New York City, you read poetry, you recited poetry, I think you've said you communicated really in poetry. When and how did you know you were a poet? That the vocation of poetry was your true vocation? How did that happen?
Lorde: While I was in high school, Tom, I knew that writing poetry was a lifeline for me. I think I did not really begin to think of myself as a poet until I went to Mexico, which was shortly after I graduated from high school. I was about 19. Up to that point, from the time I was about 15 on, I knew that writing poetry was something I would do all of my life. I didn't know whether it was going to be central or not. While I was in Mexico. . . I really made the connection between things I felt most strongly and a real urge to express them in words that could make something happen, and that's the closest that I could formulate this process at that time. It happened there, and I knew that it was something I had to do. Knew it was something I had to do. In the same way that in 1968 when I came back from Tugaloo and Martin Luther King was killed, I knew that teaching was something I had to do also.
Smith: You're a teacher in your poetry and prose, and of course you have been a teacher in the classroom over the years. In my introduction, I quoted from Adrienne Rich, another very powerful poet. What that quote indicates is that you have written from a number of angles of vision. Yet your own poet's voice, your own persona, is very distinctive. How did that develop as a voice? I mean the unmistakable Audre Lorde voice. All these other guises of you, all these other parts of your life, and yet it's heard. Do you hear a poem before you start to write it, or what?
Lorde: Tom, you know I went to high school and we read a lot of poetry. I had a feeling of what I wanted poetry to be. I knew the poets who really spoke to me. I remember Pablo Neruda, Edna St. Vincent Millay, T.S. Eliot. They made me feel a certain way. Their words did something to me, and that was the kind of poetry I wanted to write. But I was not them. So the stories that I had to tell, things that I wanted to do were very different. I remember reading acres, reams of poetry that I felt, "Well, other people say that this is poetry, but this isn't what I think is poetry." In many respects, I defined what poetry was in the absence of it for a long time.
Smith: Your poems have always communicated an eloquent anger, an indignation at injustice and oppression of all kinds, be it racism, sexism, homophobia. Oppression all over the world, whether South Africa or South Bronx, or where. But they are controlled poems. Your rhetoric is highly controlled. It's hard, in other words. How do you shape poems like that? Because I think a lot of us, including me, when I feel exercised by something, I sputter. I write it down in my notebook and then I'm embarrassed the next day. But you have that wonderful capacity, so that the savage indignation is there yet the poems are beautifully shaped. How do you do that?
Lorde: A scream is an expression. I scream a lot. But a scream is not a poem. As I say to my students all the time, in the same way a poem is not life, it's a use of living. A poem is a use of emotion. What I'm interested in doing is not merely having you, reader, hear my scream of anguish. I want you to feel my anguish. In order to do that, I have to go into that anguish and take the pieces of which it is made and somehow arrange them in a way that they will grab you and not let you go. That's how I do it: by trial and error. By continuing to do it over and over again until I can make you feel what I'm feeling. It's not only a question of expressing what I'm feeling, it's making you feel it.
Smith: What you're describing is certainly the strategies of art. The trick is to make it feel to the reader as if it's spontaneous, that you just thought of it and there it is. Yet at the same time it has to be something that's very artful.
Lorde: But a part of it is being able to get into you. To know what makes you run, what makes you tick, what makes you respond. I have to be inside of me, knowing what it is I'm feeling and wanting to communicate, and I have to somehow be inside of you, too, knowing what will make you respond.
Smith: That brings up a number of things about your poems that I've particularly been moved by over the years. You also write, in addition to the poems of angry injustice, you also write tender and very honest love poems. Whether it's between parents and children, mothers and daughters, those poems speak to many people. You also write wonderful love poems to women. Do you feel that writing as a lesbian, as you do, gives you a very special perspective of human love in general?
Lorde: Oh, well yes. Yes, I do. Loving women has given me a very special view of life and of the world, as well as of love. Also the opposition to my loving women has also taught me a great deal. I write love poems the way I write poems of protest, the way I write all of my poems. As I said, being able to get into as many people as possible who I hope will be able to respond and be able to feel what I want them to feel.
Smith: You certainly do that.
Lorde: Poetry, as you know, we're in the business of altering feeling. That's what makes poetry so subversive.
Smith: Bridging, bridging chasms between people.
Lorde: Bridging and subversive, yes.
Smith: Do you think you could read another short poem, maybe one of the tender ones? There are a lot of ones that I would select. "Sister Outsider" is one, but any one that you might like, or "Who Said It Was Simple." Lorde: "Who Said It Was Simple."
Smith: Why don't you. . . "Who Said It Was Simple."
Lorde: (reads poem)
Smith: Thank you, Audre. Let me tell our listeners that my guest today is poet Audre Lorde, author of "The Black Unicorn," "Chosen Poems Old and New" and "Our Dead Behind Us." All of those books are available by W.W. Norton and should be in bookstores or all libraries. Audre, people, particularly women, have been moved and helped by your "Cancer Journals," which were first published back in 1980. How did those journals come about? What did you want to accomplish with them?
Lorde: There's a little secret line in the "Cancer Journals" somewhere, I think I remember putting it down, where I say, "I can't be going through all of this just for myself. I've got to be able to make something of it." That's how the "Cancer Journals" came about. I knew when I found out that I had cancer, I knew that I needed help dealing with it. I went looking, and there were some things written by women, but not very much. There was nothing written by black women. There was nothing written by a black feminist. There was nothing written by lesbians. So in some respects I felt that I was doing it alone. I knew that I could either look away from it and pretend it wasn't happening and let it happen anyway, or I could really do what had become native to me by that point in my life, which was go deeply into any experience to find out what the core of it is, what the truth of that is, what there is for me to learn in it. Once I did that, I realized this can't be just for myself. I've got to put it down. Somehow, there are other women who will want to know what I'm feeling. They may be feeling something entirely different, but they need to know that this is legitimate. It is legitimate for us to speak out of our pain, out of our terror, and out of the strength that comes from dealing with that pain and terror. It is legitimate and we have a right to do that. I hoped, as I said in the "Cancer Journals," that that would be a beginning of a whole Dewey Decimal System new number of books that deal with women's experience with cancer.
Smith: A number of people I've heard say that the "Cancer Journals" exorcised a kind of fear of cancer, didn't speak particularly to their fear. I'm a gray-haired, white, 60-year-old grandfather, and I think we all have this sense that cancer is a lonely and shameful experience. I've heard people say, black and white, men and women, the "Cancer Journals" opened that up.
Lorde: Really opened. I'm so glad. That's what I wanted to happen. I wanted to say, "We who suffer experiences need to talk about them." We need to talk about them not only for ourselves, but for other people. We need to say, "This is what is happening to me, and this is how I feel about it." I think that it's a very empowering act for anybody. I'm really glad. I've been very affirmed by how many different people, people who are not black, people who are not women, who have in fact responded to me, have written and said, "This has been very important."
Smith: Another one of your particular missions: the Kitchen Table Women of Color Press. You were one of the co-founders of that with your friend, the writer Barbara Smith, who I believe is located, of all places, right here in Albany.
Lorde: Right here in Albany.
Smith: What's the mission of Kitchen Table Women of Color Press, and how's it going?
Lorde: Well, thanks to Barbara Smith, Kitchen Table Press is still a going, thriving reality. But it is very, very difficult in these times, certainly, to maintain a press that is dedicated to publishing and distributing the works of various communities of women of color across this country. That is our mission: to really take voices from communities of various women of color, black women, Latina women, Native American women, Asian-American women, and listen to what they are saying and, if possible, help this material get out into their communities, into other communities. It's been wonderful and very, very difficult. As I say, if it was not for Barbara Smith, I think that the press would not have lasted now for the ten years it has. When I think about the things I have been involved with in my life, Kitchen Table Women of Color Press is a very bright star.
Smith: Indeed it is. Incidentally, before we start running out of time, would you read another poem for me? Let me fish around here for one I like. This is from the "Our Dead Behind Us" volume. "Sister Outsider," that's fine. There's a couple others in there I love, but why not "Sister Outsider"?
Lorde: "Sister Outsider." This is the poem that gave the title to my first collection of essays. (reads poem)
Smith: Thank you, Audre. I'm talking with poet Audre Lorde about her art, about her career and about her ideas. Audre, you've been such a passionate outsider all your life, I guess. Certainly as a poet. You've been a minority voice within a minority voice within a minority voice in some respects. How does it feel, at long last at this point in your career, you're the new, official New York State Poet? How does it feel to get this mainstream recognition from the state of New York? What particular obligation from your various constituencies do you feel is involved with that?
Lorde: I have always felt that there is something in my work that is bound to offend everybody at one point or another, and I feel that that's a piece of my strength. Being named the state poet of New York is, I think, an illustration of that fact that we live in a world of intense contradictions. I feel that this is one of the contradictions that I can really grow from. I feel it's very important for poetry to have as wide a voice as possible. I believe in poetry. I believe in poetry as a weapon for change. I believe that not until we can get into the heads and hearts of as many people as possible and alter the stock reactions that we've been encouraged to have, are we going to be able to bring about change. It is slow, but it is inevitable. I believe that poetry is the weapon that will do that. That's why I say it's so subversive - because we're in the business of affecting feeling. I think being named State Poet of New York can only encourage or increase that audience. Not only for my poetry, but for the poetry, as I said, of all the disenfranchised, silenced and oppressed people.
Smith: That is truly the majority of the citizens, whether it's New York state or the country, are the disenfranchised, are the silent voices. You mentioned a little while ago W.H. Auden, and I think it was his phrase at the beginning of the second World War - that "poetry changes nothing." Poetry changes nothing. Do you think poetry can heal? As we speak now, in my lifetime, I don't think I've seen such racial bitterness, such alienation, such suffering in communities ever. Do you think poetry can not only bridge certain chasms between people but can heal the deep wounds, whether it's racism or racial bitterness, or just a general alienation between rich and poor in this country?
Lorde: It's not such so much a question of "can poetry heal wounds" as "can poetry encourage us to see and to understand how the other feels in what is happening, what is going on?" To make change then inevitable because it feels right. I feel that what poetry does is enable us to get into each other in a way that nothing else can. Yes, I think this does have to happen. I have to tell you, I don't agree that poetry changes absolutely nothing. I think poetry changes the people who really feel it and who really read it and get into it. I think that is what happens before any external change comes about.
Smith: Do you feel, whether as a poet or as a human being, optimism that some of these wounds will be healed in this country?
Lorde: I feel great optimism. I feel great optimism, but it is not an optimism that's based on airy, fairy fantasy. I think that we're in for very, very difficult times. I think the times have gotten hard, and I think they are going to get harder, Tom. I don't know whether change. . . I'm quite sure at this point that it probably will not become effective within my lifetime. I hope it will become effective within my children's lifetime. But I do know that change is coming. If we can keep this globe, if we can keep this earth spinning long enough, if we can keep the ozone from tearing apart, if we can keep from wiping ourselves off the face of this earth, change is coming. And it is coming because there are more and more of us, the small people that are demanding that it happen. As I travel all over the world, I have seen people of color, small groups of people saying, "Listen. This is not right. You've taken our land, you've used it, you've abused it, you haven't paid us for it. Give it back." We want to try another way, whether it's women, whether it's the South Sea Islanders, whether it's people in the Caribbean, whether it's black Germans, Afro-Europeans, they're saying, "There has got to be another way." That's the movement. That's the flow I'm going with. I believe in that. Yes, so I do feel optimistic. But it's going to be difficult.
Smith: You said in your very, very moving, powerful acceptance remarks when Governor Cuomo gave you the award, you said toward the end, "All of us know how little there is to lose. Not how much there is to lose, but how little." If that is not a clarion call, I don't know what is. Audre Lorde, congratulations once again and thank you for your eloquence and your honesty and your art. This is Tom Smith saying so long until next time on The BookShow.
"An Uncorked Colored Person of Cunning and Resourcefulness"
Caryl Phillips' Dancing in the Dark
Around the middle of the nineteenth century, a British novelist not noted for liberal attitudes on the subject of race but well-known for depicting English society as a kind of puppet show, penned the following lines:
The play is done; the curtain drops,Thackeray's lines might well be applied to Bert Williams, the central figure in Caryl Phillips's quietly moving and somber novel, Dancing in the Dark, which is based on the careers of Williams and Walker, black vaudevillians who reached the height of their success in the first decade of the twentieth century. Although black, Williams darkened his face with cork, contorting it into the grotesque mask that signified the African American identity to white audiences who howled at the impersonation of a bumbling black man. Williams's commercial success, however, came at a significant cost.
Professionally, he was shamed to be merely a performer, in contrast to an actor-"a term that suggests a certain dignity, and it implies a necessary distance between the performer and the character to be interpreted" (199). Personally, that loss of distance placed Bert Williams face-to-face with a character profoundly insulting to himself-in the words of his more outspoken partner, George Walker: "Nothing seemed more absurd than to see a colored man making himself ridiculous in order to portray himself" (120). The "discolored" towel with which Williams removes his mask after each performance is a recurring motif in the novel. After his last show with the Ziegfeld Follies in 1919, for example, Williams (he is 44) "puts down the towel and stares unhappily into the mirror, conscious that too much life has flown from this one body in too short a space of time. A pulse still beats within him, that much he is sure of, but the rhythm is weaker now. Death's wing's are brushing close by and their touch occasionally startles him, and of late the heaviness of his body has begun to convince him that he may have already entered the final season of his life" (175). One could say, without exaggeration, that the ultimate cost of assuming a mask, certainly for Williams but also for many subsequent African American artists is premature death-as Phillips has written of Marvin Gaye, the terms of public success constitute "A Mephistolean pact."
The heaviness of spirit that attends Williams throughout (not simply at the end of) his career contrasts starkly with the lightness of step with which he dances the cakewalk. This spiritual freight results from the sense of participation in his own oppression. To be sure, as a performer he has mastered the ability to manipulate his audience: "He is keen that at the end of the evening, they should all leave safely and without either party having broken the unwritten contract that exists between the Negro performer and his white audience" (10). When Williams tried to dissolve the pact, stepping out of character in the 1914 film, Darktown Jubilee, the audience rioted and the papers reported: "Gone was the familiar 'darky humor' heavily laden with pathos, and in its place he gave to us an uncorked colored person of cunning and resourcefulness that left a sour taste in the mouth of all who had paid money to attend this presentation" (192). Williams' burden is augmented by the fact that neither his partner nor, more importantly, his father could accept the accommodations and humiliations required for success.
Williams made a fundamental miscalculation that evening in Detroit in 1896 when he first donned his mask:
As I apply the burnt cork to my face, as I smear the black into my already sable skin, as I put on my lips, I am leaving behind Egbert Austin Williams. However, I can at any time, reclaim this man with soap and water and the rugged application of a course towel. I can reclaim him, but only later, after the laugher.The actor, the man, disappears-and the character?
The first time he looked at himself in the mirror the predicament was clear, but just who was this new man and what was his name: Was this actually a man, with his soon-to-be shuffling feet, and his slurred half speech, and his childish gestures, and his infantile reactions? Who was this fellow? . . . However, the audience never failed to recognize this creature. That's him. . . .He looks like that. And that just how he talks. And he walks just like that. . . . But this was not Ebgert Austin Williams. This was not George Walker. This was not William E. B. DuBois. This was not Booker T. Washington. This was not any Negro known to any man. And the first time he looked in the mirror his heart sank like a stone for he knew that this was not a man that he recognized. This was somebody else's fantasy, and unless he could make this nobody into somebody, then he knew that eventually his eardrums would burst with the pain of the audience's laughter. (57-8)Oscar Wilde has observed that "A mask tells us more that a face" and this is perhaps true-but Phillips makes us aware that, if so, it is not necessarily in the way Wilde intended. The mask tells us more of the audience than the man. In the masks of Williams and Walker, Americans excitedly recognized their own creation and experienced elation rather than shame.
The mask is insidious, less because it renders the face ridiculous than because it entirely effaces Egbert Austin Williams. He may cakewalk on stage, but he sleepwalks through his life, completely unable to connect with his wife. Nor, despite his great wealth, is he able to fulfill the dream of his father of a freer life "in the big country to the north" (214). He is lost, whether immersing himself in books, notably John Ogilby's 1670 work, Africa, or ensconcing himself in Metheney's bar, where he habitually drinks in silence, avoiding his home, his wife, his life.
Lottie thinks of her husband as her real life "Jonah Man" (77)-a song from their show about a jinx, an unlucky man-but another of his hit numbers is perhaps more apt. It is titled, "Nobody":
I ain't never got nothin' from nobody, no time:This is not civil disobedience, to be sure, and Bert Williams clearly recognized that his stage persona was far from W.E.B. Dubois or Booker T. Washington; nevertheless, Dubois did in fact praise him, generously crediting his role in the struggle for civil rights: "When in the calm afterday of thought and struggle to racial peace we look back to pay tribute to those who helped most, we shall single out for highest praise those who made the world laugh . . . above all, Bert Williams."
Caryl Phillips's powerful portrait stresses not the accomplishment but the costs, not the humor but the sadness of the man, placing him in a context that invites comparison with subsequent African-American entertainers, whose lives, like this novel, are testament to "the theme of thwarted love, familial and romantic"-which, as Phillips writes in a eulogy of Luther Vandross-"forms a long line in the African-American narrative tradition." Caryl Philips is a writer who has clearly established a prominent place in, and added significantly to, that tradition-a writer whose voice is astoundingly versatile and nuanced. His work moves gracefully across borders-of history and time, of gender and race-defying audiences' and critics' efforts to impose or to affix a mask.
Allen, Ralph. "Bert Williams: the Two Faces of a Forgotten Star," American Legacy. Winter 2005.
Phillips, Caryl. Dancing in the Dark. New York: Knopf, 2005.
_______. "The Power of Love." The Guardian. 30 July 2005.
_______. "Marvin Gaye." A New World Order. London: Secker & Warburg, 2001.
By Randall Craig, Professor, UAlbany's Department of English
Sunday Gazette Article
Top of Page
Jane Smiley's Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel
If any contemporary author were to write a book about the 'novel', readers would undoubtedly be curious as to the author's qualifications for undertaking such a momentous task. Rest assured, with almost a dozen works of fiction under her belt and a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, Jane Smiley is certainly one of the best sources for comment on the broad category of the novel. Of course Smiley's experiences as a writer and teacher were only part of the foundation for her latest book, Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel (2005); as further preparation for the subject Smiley read 100 novels,
"My list is not and was never intended to be a 'Hundred Greatest,' only a list of individuals' novels that would illuminate the whole concept of the novel… One reason I didn't conceive the list as being any sort of "best of" list was that to understand the nature of the novel, sometimes the reader has to read novels that don't work for her and think about why they don't work--representative lists, unlike "my favorite" lists, have to include uncongenial works…" (271).Examining each novel, Smiley analyzes the strength and weakness of its form, elaborating on what works and what doesn't; her reflections are always thought-provoking. Although each of the thirteen chapters reflects on the novel from a different perspective I would argue that Smiley has given readers far more tools for understanding the form than the book has advertised. This is a must-read, not only for aspiring authors, but for artists of any discipline looking for some organization behind the creative process and its products. Although a literary background is unnecessary, readers beware: Smiley does not hold back the details nor endings of the 100-plus works of fiction she examines here. Yet Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel does three things very well: it gives readers both a broad and deep understanding of the novel as literature, entertainment, and masterpiece; it instructively inspires those who have dreamed of, struggled with, or given up on writing a novel; and finally, Smiley brings forth quite a stimulating reading list, assuring that, if little else, readers will be moved to read some of the novels discussed in Thirteen Ways.
Of course, even the most seasoned and successful writers struggle. It was frustration with her latest work of fiction, Good Faith (2003) that compelled Smiley to look at the literary form that grounded her career. In the introduction, Smiley cycles through the factors that could explain her roadblocks-she never referred to her struggles as writers block. Fear, anxiety, and grief from 9/11 had set in, changing the state of awareness on all levels, both personally and culturally. But this was an event, Smiley wrote, and like other events it would pass. She commented on growing up during the cold war, "But really events were events. I had known events and written through them, written about them, written in spite of them…Fear of terrorism, I thought, was nothing compared to the raw dread I had felt as a child" (5). She moves on, pondering whether she had outlived her writing career. All the great novelists had writing careers of 25 years or less. Charles Dickens comes up a good deal in Thirteen Ways, certainly because Smiley recently wrote a biography on him. Apparently Dickens faded out towards the end of his career; although he kept writing until his death, he felt his creativity and inventiveness falter, and didn't really care for his last novel, Our Mutual Friend--which Smiley felt was one of his "most perfect" (6). After ten works of fiction, Smiley wondered whether her career as a novelist was spent. Yet she recognized that her life had changed considerably, and that this could have a major impact on her writing, some way or another. One difference was that she no longer taught: "Week after week for fourteen years I had expounded about writing, given tips, analyzed student stories, come up with suggestions, fielded questions" (10). Surely her role as an instructor kept her disciplined as a novelist. She discussed her work on previous novels, detailing the writing process with each; she had never had a 'dry spell' before. In the end, Smiley's used a trade secret to work through her frustration with Good Faith: she went off to read other novels, a hundred and one to be exact.
One of the most enriching aspects of Thirteen Ways is the different avenues used to examine the novel. Deconstructing and then reconstructing the form, Smiley describes the novel with five qualities: the novel is lengthy, written, prose, narrative, with a protagonist (14). This rather simple breakdown, however, produces an infinite number of possibilities when these qualities are intersected with each other. In another chapter, Smiley investigates the 'novelist', asking whether specific factors or qualities produce novelists. Of the book's many strengths, readers will be most rewarded by the historical background that is used to illustrate and support Smiley's reflections. One case in point is Daniel Defoe.
"Defoe was a London man; he lived by trade at the heart of a world that was just discovering the power of trade, of shipping, of international exploration and exploitation. He knew and wrote about the ways of the worlds--the world of the poor as well as the world of the rich, the world of the up-and-coming as well as the world of the declining and disappearing, the world of the traveler as well as the world of the captured, trapped, isolated, and abandoned. Defoe also grew up reading and listening to the King James Bible, because he came from a strongly religious Protestant household" (35).Defoe was also a 'hack writer', making his living by writing any way he could: business guides, advice books, ghost stories, polemics, and so on. By the time, Defoe wrote his first novel, he had acquired a lot of writing experience through previous work. Looking at his metropolitan location and religious background, readers can see the connections between Defoe's novels, particularly Robinson Crusoe, and the life he led during the age of Enlightenment.
As in the first chapter, Smiley identifies and expands upon a few elements that seem to encourage novel writing. Among these elements are a love of language, a childhood of prolific reading, and a feeling that one has something to say about the world. Readers of Thirteen Ways may also get the sense that novel writing is, not just taxing, but burdensome. This comes from the notion that most novelists are writing in order to make a point about something; that the inherent purpose of their writing is to express some view, value, or idea to the audience. This notion is discussed more fully in subsequent chapters, which discuss the novel in relation to art, morality, history, and psychology.
The chapter titled "The Origins of the Novel" provides a rich look at the history of the novel form. Not content to place the origins with Cervantes Don Quixote or Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, Smiley goes back to 11th century Japan and The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu,
"Although the novel was invented several times-most notably in 1004 by Murasaki Shikibu in what later became Kyoto, Japan, and once again in the thirteenth century in Iceland, in the form of the Icelandic saga, the modern novel is usually considered to have originated with Don Quixote. Like later novels, though, Don Quixote grew directly out of earlier works, and I think it is productive to look for beginnings of the modern novel right where we look for the beginnings of the modern period, and that is in Florence during the Black Death of 1347-49" (57).Smiley then takes an in-depth look at The Decameron and The Heptameron, both of which are series of tales told in a format similar to Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales. Of course the point of going back to these origins is to discover something about the context that gave birth to the novel. As stated in the quote above, looking at 14th century Florence and its social turmoil gives readers a framework for understanding some of Giovanni Boccaccio's themes in The Decameron. Preceding The Canterbury Tales by at least twenty-five years, this hundred story cycle has commonly been written off as erotic literature. But Smiley argues that The Decameron is much more, describing the intricacies of plot, narrative conventions, and value-laden lessons to be derived from what Boccaccio called a 'commedia'. Two hundred years later, The Decameron inspired Marguerite de Navarre's The Heptameron, which Smiley calls, "the essential transitional work between the medieval story cycle and the modern novel" (62). Again, Smiley furthers her case by illustrating how the novel is shaped by a multitude of influences: what literature the author was exposed to, the social and political turmoil of the day, what artistic pursuits or religious mores informed the plot, and the interplay of plot and protagonist. Yet The Decameron and The Heptameron are just two of the many literary works explored, some obscure and others world renowned.
Ultimately, Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel winds down with two sections on how to write a novel, and a case history of her most recent novel Good Faith. Smiley's method is simple but firm and her advice honest and warm. Although I've never read any books on 'how to write a novel' I doubt many of them spend over 200 pages examining concrete examples of the form before giving writing tips. Taking that one step further, I doubt many 'how to write a novel' books draw on over 100 novels to illustrate perspective. If her advice isn't anything you haven't heard before--which is unlikely since Smiley puts a unique spin on all her reflections--then at the very least, you haven't heard these writing tips within the rich context and frame of reference that they appear in Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel. If by chance the first 250 pages made novel writing seem like a walk in the park, the last chapter "Good Faith: A Case History" reminds us that even seasoned professionals struggle with the process. Using the framework set forth in earlier chapters, Smiley discusses difficulties that arose from the plot and protagonist, the specific discourse categories (elaborated on in chapter nine, "The Circle of the Novel") she was experimenting with, and the boredom that accompanied varies stages of writing,
"I diagnosed my boredom as fear, but I wasn't sure what I was afraid of. Most of the parts of my plot were already in place and I understood them. I knew enough to go on and was fairly clear how I should go on. As I noted in the introduction, I felt considerable underlying fear as a result of the World Trade Center bombings and its aftermath; performance fears rested on top of that, in particular the fear that if the plot wasn't building enough to quicken my pulse, then most likely it wasn't building enough to quicken anyone else's pulse. This is what the boredom felt like… Not only did I recoil at what I still had to produce, I also recoiled at what I had already produced. The whole thing presented itself to me as a dusty, sunburned road, and I was trudging down it" (252).Smiley's openness assures readers that, whether you are sitting down to write your first novel or your tenth, each writer will struggle with the process in some way. The trick is figuring out a strategy for working through the bumps and potholes that come up as you work.
Jane Smiley is the author of eleven works of fiction including Good Faith (2003), Horse Heaven (2000), The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton (1998), Moo (1995), Ordinary Love and Good Will (1989), The Greenlanders (1988), Duplicate Keys (1984), At Paradise Gate (1981), and Barn Blind (1980). A Thousand Acres (1991) received the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1992, the National Book Critics Circle award, and became a motion picture in 1997. Smiley is a three-time winner of the O. Henry Award for short fiction and her short story collection, The Age of Grief (1987), inspired the 2002 film, The Secret Lives of Dentists. Her nonfiction books include A Year at the Races: Reflections on Horses, Humans, Love, Money, and Luck (2004), Charles Dickens (2002), and Catskill Crafts: Artisans of the Catskill Mountains (1988). Most recently Smiley was editor of the new fiction anthology, Best New American Voices 2006 (2005).