Quote“O blessed letters! That combine in one all ages past, and make one live with all!” - Samuel Daniel
Thackeray in TampaLately I've been enjoying Robin Bates' blog, Better Living Through Beowulf, in which he interprets modern events through the prism of classic literature. In his most recent post, he examines the Republican Party's mythical belief that all business owners are entirely self-made, with no government help (the dishonest and already-tired "We Built It" mantra), with relevant passages from Thackeray's Vanity Fair, including this one:
To account for your own hard-heartedness and ingratitude in such a case, you are bound to prove the other party’s crime. It is not that you are selfish, brutal, and angry at the failure of a speculation—no, no—it is that your partner has led you into it by the basest treachery and with the most sinister motives. From a mere sense of consistency, a persecutor is bound to show that the fallen man is a villain—otherwise he, the persecutor, is a wretch himself.Although those passages leave me with absolutely zero interest in ever reading Vanity Fair, I still find Bates' discussion to be quite interesting.
Ten Years of Metra, continued
Another photo from my daily Metra commute. The structure in the center is a guard tower at the old Joliet Penitentiary. I like how the train's motion, the low morning sun and the misty window make this look like a watercolor painting. Which was totally accidental on my part.
Happy Birthday, NortonThe Norton Anthology of English Literature turns 50 this fall, and the New York Times runs a fine interview with the book's founding general editor, M. H. Abrams, and the curent general editor, Stephen Greenblatt.
Even now in its somewhat bulky form, people keep their Norton Anthology for their whole lives. And they do that for a reason. They do it because they sense that it’s not something that just comes and goes. They trust it and want to return to it. That’s something again that our culture has too little of and that the anthology has passionately served.Count me as one of those people. Though I was a business major in college, I still have my Norton Anthology from my freshman English class, along with its companion volume, The Norton Anthology of Short Fiction, from another literature class. I continue to hang on to them, despite not having read either edition in years, simply because someday I might want to return to them. And that's enough to keep them on my shelf.
Ten Years of Metra, continued
Another casual photo from my daily Metra commute. That's my precious monthly ticket. Shortly after I first started riding Metra, I lost my ticket (left it in the holding clip on the upper level of the car) just a few days into the month, and had to buy another one, full price. That's an expensive mistake I haven't repeated.
Ten Years of Metra
As of this month, it's now been ten years that I've been commuting to work on Metra between Joliet and Chicago. Like many public transit commuters, I have a love-hate relationship with Metra: love, when I'm immersed in a good book with a cup of coffee; hate, when never-explained delays get me home 45 minutes late. To mark the occasion, over the next few weeks I'll be posting photos from my commute. Above is the vestibule which divides each rail car.
Frank Chance: First Baseman, Manager... Author?
You may have heard of Frank Chance, the old-time Cubs Hall of Famer. (Besides being one of the finest first basemen of his era and manager of the last Cubs team to win the World Series, he was also immortalized  in verse by Franklin P. Adams as part of the "Tinker to Evers to Chance" infield.) But who knew that Chance was also a published novelist? I was browsing through Southern Illinois University's annotated bibliography of Illinois fiction, and was pleasantly surprised to stumble across this entry:
The Bride and the Pennant; The Greatest Story in the History of America's National Game, True to Life--Intensely Interesting, by Frank L. Chance, Manager of the Chicago "Cubs." With a Preface by Charles A. Comiskey, President of the White Sox. Chicago: Laird & Lee, Publishers. [1910.] 182p.Though the book is pretty obscure, I did find this undated review by Clarence E. Turner in The Journal of the Rutgers University Library.
Harry Sherman, star pitcher for the University of Chicago baseball team, flunks out of school in his senior year and is no longer eligible to play varsity baseball. On the rebound, Sherman joins the New Orleans Bears and begins the rigorous training and grueling round of travel and performance required of professional baseball players. Although the plot concerns a New Orleans team, the deciding games for the pennant are played in Chicago, making that city the site for much of the action of the novel. Professional baseball has seen sweeping changes since 1910, and the baseball buff will find considerable entertainment in comparing the game as it is described in this novel with the game as it is played today. (N. Y. Times Book Review, 6/11/1910, p. 336.)
This curious little book is of undoubted interest to the baseball fan or to the baseball historian. As literature, it does what the minor works of a period always do: it throws into relief, as by a process of caricature, the conventions and fads of the moment and becomes thus a kind of sad and amusing footnote to Edith Wharton.Sounds like its obscurity is justified by the quality of the prose, which is about what one would expect from a professional athlete of a hundred years ago. Still, it's probably an interesting period piece, especially for baseball fans. Good luck finding it, though.
 "Ruthlessly pricking our gonfalon bubble" might be my favorite line of poetry, ever.
“The story loses everything when you try to put things in service of a theme.”
I share some thoughts on Richard Wright's Native Son in my latest post at the Contrary Magazine blog.
Love this: an 87-year-old doctor in Rushville, Illinois, who works seven days a week, still does house calls and charges $5 per visit. If the medical profession was more like him, we wouldn't even need the Affordable Care Act.
"I never went into medicine to make money," he says. "I wanted to be a doctor, taking care of people."
He works seven days a week, opening his office for an hour before church on Sundays. He has never taken a vacation and rarely left Schulyer County, except for the occasional medical conference.
If someone gently suggests that he cut back, his answer is always the same.
"What if someone needs me?"
(Photo by Chris Walker, Chicago Tribune.)
Chicago, a study in contrasts
Wow, just...wow. The glittering Palmolive Building on Michigan Avenue, framed by the degradation of Little Hell (just a few blocks to the west) and foregrounded by that casual act of vandalism - although there seemingly wasn't much left to destroy on Orleans Street by 1952. The neighborhood was apparently undergoing one of the city's periodic waves of urban renewal.
Rejection number twelve arrived last week for Wheatyard, from a small but well-regarded press whose publisher I've known casually for around a year and first met in person at AWP last winter. Though I doubted that the book would be a good fit for the press, I took a low-risk chance based mostly on the personal relationship. So I'm not very surprised at the rejection. Fortunately, over the weekend I connected with another small press which has a fairly unique publishing model, and is actually looking to fill slots its current publication schedule. (Which is a refreshing departure from many of the publishers I've researched lately, who have either suspended operations or are booked solid for the next five years.) So this morning I submitted the manuscript. I have several reasons to be optimistic about this latest one, and as always I'm keeping my fingers and toes crossed. Onward.
"...that mile-long babel where you've been elbowed and cheated..."
In Clara Louise Burnham's 1894 novel Sweet Clover: A Romance of the White City, a visitor to Chicago's Columbian Exposition contrasts the glorious but antiseptic fair grounds ("the White City") with the bustling and gritty Midway area just outside, which Carl S. Smith (in Chicago and the American Literary Imagination, 1880-1920) describes as "a strange grab-bag of culture and carnival where a visitor could get a tour of a mock-up Japanese village, a ridge on the Ferris Wheel, a gander at the dwarf elephant Lily in Hagenbeck's Animal Show, or even a peek at the provocative danse due ventre in the 'Streets of Cairo.'" Burnham's character marvels:
"...when you come out o' that mile-long babel where you've been elbowed and cheated, you pass under a bridge - and all of a sudden you are in a great beautiful silence. The angels on the Woman's Buildin' smile down and bless you, and you know that what seemed like one step, you've passed out o' darkness into light...perhaps dyin' is goin' to be somethin' like crossin' the dividin' line that separates the Midway from the White City."
Like many writers of that era, Burnham (who was no relation to the fair's mastermind, Daniel Burnham), saw a sharp distinction between the White City (as the urban ideal) and the Midway (as the urban reality). With the latter's strong (if amplified) similarity to Chicago itself - in the 1890s, the city was still closer to a cutthroat prairie boomtown than a sophisticated metropolis - it's clear that Miss Burnham did not admire or approve of the city as it was then. Even though the alternative, as represented by the White City, is ethereal and unsustainable (the buildings were literally made of plywood and plaster), the author still prefers it to the livable, if messy, reality. That attitude, along with a narrative that sounds overly melodramatic, makes this book one of the few discussed by Smith that I'm not interested in hunting down to read at length.
Dancing, er, picnicking on Stalin's grave
Struck by the oddity of this window sign, I did a Google search which produced a news item from the Tucson Daily Citizen on March 9, 1953, which reported that Irwin Berke, the owner of the shop (which offered "Town and Country Garb for the Discriminating Woman"), took out a classified ad in a Chicago newspaper to announce the employee picnic:
Berke, a 37-year-old ex-navy veteran, said he paid $200 for the advertisement. He said he "always hated the guy and this seemed like a good way to show it." Berke said he didn't think his four employees would actually show up for the picnic, but "with Stalin dead I'll buy them dinner or throw a picnic with champagne."
Sounds like a great, if eccentric, boss.
Technology and literary fiction
Last week The Millions ran an interesting piece by Allison K. Gibson on technology's place in literary fiction.
I wonder about works of fiction that take place in a world identical to that which you and I inhabit, except for one thing: technology is all but ignored. I’m not referring to Luddite authors here — to Jonathan Franzen’s rejection of e-books and Twitter. I’m talking about whether a character in a literary novel set in the year 2012 need even be aware of Twitter, or at the very least, email.
This got me thinking about my current project, the story collection Where the Marshland Came to Flower. (Admittedly, its status wavers daily between "in progress" and "about to be abandoned." I hope it's still the former, but I can't say for sure.) Without diving into the manuscript for reference, it occurs to me that the technology in the stories (which occur in roughly the 2003-08 timeframe) probably isn't any more advanced than cable TV and compact discs. I'm not sure there's even a cellphone or pager anywhere. The lack of modern technology was not at all intentional - in fact, I wasn't even aware of it before reading Gibson's essay - and I'm not sure the presence of smartphones and social media would change the stories very much. And in fact, most of my characters are older people (sixties and up) who are not likely to embrace technology.
But just off the top of my head I can also think of three or four younger characters (teens and twenty-somethings) for whom walking around with their noses buried in their iPhones, or regularly updating their Facebook status, would be perfectly normal (and even expected) behavior. As I revisit the manuscript (or if I revisit), I'll be on the lookout for logical points where technology could subtly be added. I'm not sure it will change the plot at all, but at least it can make the narrative more true to life.
"...the great and gloomy inland metropolis..."
In his 1914 memoir, A Son of the Middle Border, Hamlin Garland describes his first entry from rural Wisconsin into Chicago, on the train.
I perceived from the car window a huge smoke-cloud which embraced the whole eastern horizon, for this, I was told, was the soaring banner of the great and gloomy inland metropolis, whose dens of vice and houses of greed had been so often reported to me by wandering hired men.
Ouch. I'm guessing he was never hired by the Chicago tourism board. Carl S. Smith quotes this passage in Chicago and the American Literary Imagination, 1880-1920, in an interesting section devoted to the initial reactions (whether actual or fictionalized) of writers to seeing the city for the first time from an incoming train. Those reactions seem to be neatly divided between horror (like Garland) and an optimistic sense of adventure and opportunity (like Theodore Dreiser).
This Sunday, August 12, my daughter Maddie and her band, Nuclear Plankton, are performing in Minipalooza, a benefit rock festival. Minipalooza is a great program put together by West Side Music (where Maddie has been taking guitar lessons for the last two and a half years) which organizes kids into bands, who then rehearse a handful of songs every week and finally perform at the festival. There will be three kid bands performing, plus two "grownup" bands. I've heard Nuclear Plankton practice a few times, and they're really good - at Minipalooza they'll be doing "I Love Rock and Roll" (with Maddie belting out the lead vocal, with a great Joan Jett snarl), the Beatles' "Come Together", the White Stripes' "Seven Nation Army" and the Surfaris' "Wipeout."
Minipalooza should be a lot of fun for the whole family (all-ages show!), cheap ($5 cover), and for a good cause - the Muscular Dystrophy Association. It's at Live 59 in Plainfield (16108 Route 59, between Renwick Road and Fraser Road), starting at 2 PM. If you happen to be in the area on Sunday afternoon, please consider attending. I'm sure you'll enjoy it!
Want ads for lonely readers
Right now I'm loving the recently launched tumblr, "Ads from the Saturday Review of Literature", which reprises classified ads from that magazine from 1925 to 1960. Here's a memorable item from Friday:
LONE MALE, sub-par in gregarious and aggressive behavior would correspond with intelligent, feminine, lone female. Box 79-B.
"Sub-par in gregarious and aggressive behavior" also describes me very well. Fortunately, I was able to find my intelligent, feminine, lone female. I hope this guy was as lucky.
Keep it real. Please.
This week's New York Times Book Review assesses Karl Taro Greenfeld's new novel, Triburbia. I was chagrined, nay, appalled to read these dialogue excerpts:
“We are a prosperous community...Our lofts and apartments are worth millions. Our wives vestigially beautiful. Our renovations as vast and grand in scale as the construction of ocean liners, yet we regularly assure ourselves that our affluence does not define us. We are better than that. Measure us by the books on our shelves, the paintings on our walls, the songs on our iTunes playlists, our children in their secure little school. We live in smug certainty that our taste is impeccable, our politics correct, our sense of outrage at the current regime totally warranted.”
“It seems like when I meet a man in his 20s or 30s, he does something in advertising or marketing, but is more defined by his hobby of riding fixed-gear bicycles or some intense and very particular food enthusiasm.”
“They could live the latest version of the American dream...some mixture of drinking in bottle-service nightclubs and pursuing a creative career as a video producer or painter or performance artist.”
Mind you, each of these examples is spoken dialogue. But who, exactly, talks like this? Even in upper-crust Manhattan? "Vestigially beautiful"? "Very particular food enthusiasm"? "Bottle-service nightclubs"? To me, phrases like this are generally acceptable in third-person narration, marginally acceptable in first-person narration, but never, ever in dialogue. These aren't characters speaking. Talking like this, they are nothing more than megaphones for the author's brainy thoughts. Yes, it's true that all fiction channels the author to some degree, but good authors veil their pronouncements in vivid characterization and realistic dialogue. But the prose in these examples is so blatantly artificial that I doubt I would believe these characters for even a minute, if I actually read the book. Which now I certainly won't be doing.
This is one of the sharpest observations that I've ever encountered about American politics.
"Policy formation is the province of a bipartisan power elite of corporate rich [Rockefeller, Mellon] and their career hirelings [Nixon, McNamara] who work through an interlocking and overlapping maze of foundations, universities and institutes, discussion groups, associations and commissions...Political parties are only for finding interesting and genial people [usually ambitious middle-class lawyers] to ratify and implement these policies in such a way that the under classes feel themselves to be, somehow, a part of the governmental process. Politics is not exactly the heart of the action but it is nice work—if you can afford to campaign for it."
I've never read Vidal, and suspect that his novels are much too lengthy and densely-written for my taste. But I'm quite interested in his essays, particularly United States: Essays 1952-1992, which I could easily see myself working through at my leisure, as I've pleasureably been doing with nonfiction books lately.