Joanna Scott's debut novel, Fading, My Paracheene Belle (1987), earned almost unanimous critical praise for its inventive portrayal of an aged man coming to terms with the death of his wife after more than fifty years of marriage. The novel provides a rich mixture of fable and allegory, as the old man relates his extravagant history in a unique and fabulous dialect that is, as David Profumo writers in the Spectator, "unrelenting. . .precise and visionary."
Continued critical success followed with the publication of Scott's next three novels, The Closest Possible Union (1988), Arrogance (1990), and The Manikin (1996), and her first story collection, Various Antidotes (1994). As a Publisher's Weekly reviewed of The Manikin observes: "With versatility and virtuosity to spare, Scott has employed her fecund imagination and intensely observant eye in [her first] three highly praised novels. . .and one story collection. . .Each of the novels was distinguished by an unusual protagonist, meticulously detailed settings, a gothic atmosphere and Scott's interest in the junctions where life and art, or life and science, meet.
The unusual protagonist of The Closest Possible Union is fourteen-year-old Tom, who is apprenticed to the captain of his father's slave-ship on its voyage to and from Africa: a journey, as Cynthia Johnson Whealler writes, which is both "geographic and spiritual" forming the narrative spine for this "beautifully written, but complex and disturbing" coming-of-age novel. Arrogance, a fictionalized account of the controversial Austrian expressionist painter Egon Schiele, centers on the painter's 24-day incarceration in a village jail on charges of seducing young girls that have modelled for his unrestrained sketches--an ambitious examination, as Sybil Steinberg writes, "of the artistic imperative and its obsessive nature, the power of social conventions and fabric of life in Vienna at the turn of the century." The oddness of both setting and character continue in The Manikin, which takes place in a deteriorating mansion in upstate New York in the 1920s inhabited, as Donna Seaman writes, by a widow and "a group of strong-willed servants, including. . .a peculiar, old, reclusive master taxidermist."
Scott's most recent novel, Make Believe (2000), marks a clear departure from the gothic tone and texture of her earlier novels. Make Believe tells the story of two sets of grandparents (one white, one black) involved in a custody battle over their four-year-old grandson Bo. In a perspective that shifts between the various characters, the narrative follows the self-righteous grownups acting out their secret desires, resentments and agendas, while the precocious Bo tries to make sense of this tragically fallible adult world. Make Believe "is a compelling story that will leave readers haunted by Scott's powerful moral vision" (Publisher's Weekly).
Joanna Scott has received numerous honors for her writing, including Guggenheim and MacArthur Foundation fellowships (in 1993 at the age of 31), a Pushcart Prize, the Rosenthal Award from the Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters and most recently a Lannan fellowship. She has been a finalist for the prestigious Pen/Faulkner Award twice (for Arrogance and Various Antidotes) and was selected as a finalist for the 1997 Pulitzer Prize for The Manikin. Her stories, have been included in Best American Stories (1993) and The Pushcart Prize, and in 1992 she won the Aga Khan Award from The Paris Review for her story "A Borderline Case."
"among the most original and enchanting in modern fiction" - Robert Olen Butler
Distinguished scholar and poet James Longenbach is the author of several works of literary scholarship on Modernist poets and poetry, including Modernist Poetics of History (1987), Stone Cottage: Pound,Yeats and Modernism, Wallace Stevens: The Plain Sense of Things (1991), and Modern Poetry After Modernism (1997). He has also recently published a debut collection of his own poetry titled Threshold (1998).
Threshold has been well received critically. In its exploration of shifting spaces between different states of human experience, the collection offers a poetic voice that is compelling and fresh while Longenbach remains sharply attuned to the traditions out of which he writes. Publisher's Weekly notes that Longenbach's poetry is akin to that of Seamus Heaney "both in form--gentle iambics distribut[ing] themselves over tercets, couplets and quatrains--and in his inclination toward the liminal in nature. . .Like the Modernists on whom he has written so capably. . .Longenbach places his mind against every external thing and creates artifacts of language at the borders and boundaries." The boundaries that are explored, adds Kirkus Reviews, are those "between human and spiritual existence, between man and nature, between parent and child, and between the everyday and the transcendent. . .Longenbach's wonderfully circular Threshold of the Visible World exemplifies his keen metaphysic: all in all, an impressive debut."
Some of Longenbach's critical works have come to be considered seminal studies of the authors and works they explore. As Michael Beehler has written of Wallace Stevens: The Plain Sense of Things in the journal Criticism: "Longenbach's book will, I think, become a classic of Stevens criticism, one providing not only a coherent argument for the political and social importance of Stevens' work, but also a carefully nuanced portrait of the events and debates in which that work takes (its) place. With this book, Longenbach has made an importance contribution to our thinking about Wallace Stevens."
James Longenbach was the recipient for a National Endowment for the Humanities fellowship in 1987-88. He is currently a professor of English at the University of Rochester.
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