Genre

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I had an interesting e-mail exchange this week. A gentleman who is writing a biography of John Williams, the author of Stoner (among other works), contacted me because he had found a folder in Williams’ papers with my name on it.

I had written to Mr. Williams back in the 1980s, when I was working on my doctoral dissertation, with some questions about Stoner. He answered courteously, and to my surprise I now find that he rarely talked about his own work. So my letter from John Williams was of some worth to his biographer.

One of the things I asked him about was his thoughts on genre. Stoner was published in 1965, when the “academic novel” was in its first heyday, and I had wondered whether he had gone out of his way to flout the conventions of that subgenre. He replied that he was aware of the academic novels, disliked them intensely, but wasn’t consciously setting out to “correct” them. As with all statements of author intention, I took his opinions with a dose of skepticism.

Nowadays, I find myself in a similar situation. I write “historical novels.” But the phrase “historical novel” is all too often a pigeonhole. Calling something a “historical novel” automatically sets up certain expectations in people’s minds, for better and for worse. The challenge for the writer is to use the conventions of a genre without becoming trapped by them — something that Williams did marvelously in many books, but especially well in Butcher’s Crossing, which in my opinion has always been underappreciated.

On Twitter

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I am on Twitter, but I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve not mastered the art of communicating on that particular social medium. I’m instinctively reticent about my own life, which a lot of people broadcast on Twitter, and I have a hard time compressing my thoughts into manageable form.

Some of the people I follow on Twitter junk up my feed with random links that don’t add anything, and some engage in continuous self-display that just annoys. Probably my favorite Twitter feed is my friend and fellow Columbia resident Daniel Green, a highly engaged literary critic. He reads widely, thinks a lot about what he has read and written, and posts comments and links that create a great sense of continuing conversation. If you’re at all interested in the state of contemporary literature, you should follow Dan Green.

Restoration

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Restoration

Here’s an image of the shape-note hymn that is the basis for “This Old World,” the hymn from which I took the title to my new book.

Like many shape-note hymns, it’s drenched in the helpless state of humanity and the abject dependence of the human on God. Shape-note lyrics make me think of Jonathan Edwards, although they typically were written after Edwards’ time. But they have the same bracing theological feeling. You have the sensation of standing on a precipice, with the void below you and the wind blowing hard.

Sorry that the image I reproduced is somewhat blurry. Here are the lyrics, if you can’t make them out:

Mercy, O thou Son of David! Thus blind Bartimeos pray’d;

Others by thy grade are savéd, O vouchsafe to me thine aid.

(Accent added for clarification of rhythm.)

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Favorite Ozarks Books – 5

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Potosi

The image above is the frontispiece to Henry Rowe Schoolcraft’s Scenes and Adventures in the Semi-Alpine Region of the Ozarks Mountains of Missouri and Arkansas, published in 1853 and taken from Schoolcraft’s earlier journals from 1818 and 1819. People generally count Schoolcraft’s journals as the first piece of descriptive writing about the Ozarks.

As an explorer, Schoolcraft comes off as a klutz in his journals. His horse is constantly getting away from him, tumbling down a bank or trying to swim a river in a bad place. He and his companion employ local hunters to guide them or bring them provisions, but their guides regularly disappear with their goods or meat. He consistently chooses the wrong stream fork and has to backtrack.

But he’s not really a klutz – he’s a twenty-five-year-old Easterner with a fine education, a keen eye for geology, and a good deal to learn about the frontier. He and his companion spend the three months of their expedition in near-constant fear of the Osage Indians who roamed the Ozarks at the time, and their fear is justifiable. Had they met a band of Osage warriors that deep in their countryside, they would likely have been robbed at the least.

You can read Schoolcraft’s journal at Project Gutenberg, but a better experience is the 1996 edition published by the University of Arkansas Press. The dedicated Ozark geographer Milton D. Rafferty edited this version, and it’s nicely annotated, with Schoolcraft’s route mapped out as best Rafferty could decipher. My friend Steve Yates has written about Schoolcraft here.

Schoolcrafts journal

Here’s the cover image of the Rafferty-edited version of Schoolcraft’s journal.

 

The Utopian and the Dystopian

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The question often comes to me when I’m speaking at libraries and civic groups around the state: “Why are there no utopian novels nowadays?”

I believe the utopian impulse still exists, only in a fashion so modified as to be nearly unrecognizable, but it is true that utopian novels in the vein of Herland or A Traveler from Altruria don’t come out these days. Instead, the dominant literary fashion is dystopian – especially, oddly enough, in books aimed at teenage readers.

The classic utopian novels were designed to present a critique of existing society and an alternative to the ills of that society. Today’s dystopian novels, to some extent, engage in that same critique, but instead of an alternative, they predict the dire future that awaits us if our current ills are not addressed.

The utopian novel arises from faith in human progress; the dystopian novel from its lack.

The utopian novel imagines that our better natures are held down by a faulty social structure; the dystopian novel imagines that the faulty social structure arises from our inner faults.

The absence of utopian novels shouldn’t be construed, though, as a complete absence of faith in human nature. We should remember that the utopian novel also existed as an intellectual argument, and the novel today is much less about argument and more about action. It’s intrinsically more exciting to read about a society in ruins, and the independent survivors who live in its ashes, than about a harmonious society that has solved its problems.

The utopian impulse still exists, though, and I think it has turned inward. What’s one of the largest sections of the bookstore? “Self-help.” We are bombarded with solutions . . . not for the ills of our society, but for those of ourselves. We can, the authors promise us, make ourselves perfect. Or at least darn close.

The Persistence of the Utopian Impulse

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The utopian idea continues to fascinate even today. Two interesting items:

Fox Entertainment is starting a new “reality” series, Utopia, this fall, based on a Dutch series that was a big hit in that country. The premise of the show is that fifteen people are placed in a remote location with instructions to remake society. It’s not truly a social experiment, of course, but rather a bit of entertainment along utopian themes. I may watch an episode or two just to see how they present the utopian ideal, but it sounds a lot like Survivor without the intentional privation. I notice that the TV networks no longer even employ the fig leaf of “reality,” but prefer “unscripted” instead. But who knows, maybe the personalities will pull me in and I’ll become a viewer.

Closer to home, the Missouri Germans Consortium is scheduling activities in connection with an exhibit at the Missouri History Museum that will commemorate the activities of the German emigration societies in the U.S., and more specifically the Giessen Emigration Society that led a group of around 500 colonists to the Missouri River valley in Missouri in the 1830s. The exhibition will open at the History Museum in late November, and I’m definitely putting it on my calendar!

Ellen Gray Massey

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I’ve written about Ellen Massey before, in a “Favorite Ozarks People” entry. She was a gentle and thoughtful soul who never stopped writing. In fact, this year she won the Spur Award from the Western Writers of America in the Juvenile Fiction category for her book Papa’s Gold.

Ellen died at the age of 92 last month. She was a lifetime member of the Missouri Writers’ Guild and a former president. Truly a life well lived.

Here’s a nice news story about Ellen.

Books That Change Our Lives

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In 2009, I taught a class at Culver-Stockton College called “Writing and Literature.” It was the second half of the college’s two-semester freshman writing sequence, and it’s one of those classes more eagerly anticipated by the teachers than by the students. It’s a composition course, and our job was to improve the students’ writing skills. But as grist for their compositional mills, we were supposed to pick some literary texts for them to write about.

I hadn’t taught a course like that in many years, and in fact I was pressed into service in this one because one of the regular instructors was on sabbatical. But I looked forward to teaching it. I hadn’t taught literature in a long time, even as a source for writing topics rather than for appreciation’s sake, and I was looking forward to the English teacher’s guilty pleasure – making students read works that mean a lot to you in hopes that they will also mean something to them.

The books I chose for the students to read were mostly ones that meant a great deal to me – books that in one way or another changed my life. One of them was Henry David Thoreau’s Walden. Walden has that effect on a lot of people. A friend of my family’s told us this story: She spent a semester as an exchange student in England, and while there was talking about American literature with a British student. She glanced over his class reading list, and casually remarked, “I’m surprised that Walden‘s not on there.” He hadn’t heard of it, so he went out and bought a copy. A few months later, she heard from him again. Transformed by his experience of reading Walden, he had gone in search of his true self, wandering across England with minimal money and possessions, seeking authenticity in people and social relations with that kind of blinding enthusiasm that is the property of the young. Now, I wasn’t hoping that any of my students would drop out of school and roam Missouri like Diogenes as a result of my class, but I wouldn’t have minded if the book had the same effect on one or two of them that it had on me the first time I read it – the sense of coming to grips with a truly independent mind, and the thrill of experiencing a writer who is simultaneously deeply dissatisfied with the conformity and dullness that most of us allow ourselves to fall into, and optimistic about the greatness that we are all capable of.

Something else that I think about a lot is the right relation between humans and nature, how we are supposed to live in the world and yet not claim it, how we can achieve a good level of comfort and pleasure without ruining the world for future generations. I’m not what you would call a “back-to-nature” zealot, but some of my most meaningful moments have happened in the woods or on the river. So in addition to Walden, I asked my students to read Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild and Wendell Berry’s What Are People For? Into the Wild tells the story of a young man who is a back-to-nature zealot, whose rejection of society’s artificiality leads him to a tragic estrangement from friends and family, and ultimately to his own death. I can’t say that this book changed my life, but it serves as a very useful counterbalance to the unalloyed worship of nature that we are all a little prone to sometimes. Wendell Berry is one of the contemporary apostles of living the small and local life. His essays in What Are People For? articulate this viewpoint. I didn’t ask or expect my students to read the book and then become small country farmers; that wouldn’t be sensible, and besides, the world needs journalists and clinical psychologists and business entrepreneurs and everything else we were trying to teach at Culver-Stockton. But I did hope that they would develop some appreciation for their region and their origins. I wanted them to understand that they’re not inferior to anyone if they come from Canton, or Palmyra, or Hull, or Hamilton, and that beautiful and fulfilling lives can be led in such places as well. And I wanted them to think about their food – where it comes from, who grew it for them, what had to happen for it to reach their tables. Part of being a responsible human being is awareness of the impact of your actions, and too often we put food in our mouths, clothes on our bodies, or toys under our tree without giving much thought to the human and natural expenditures that lie behind those seemingly simple actions.

Another book that I had my students read was Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, and this really is a book that changed my life. I first read it when I was in high school; wandering in a used book store, I was intrigued by the title and bought it for ten cents without knowing a single thing about it. For those of you who don’t know the book, it was a big seller in the late 1950s and early 1960s – part Holocaust memoir, part pop philosophy. The thing that I remembered about Man’s Search for Meaning, and the quality that led me to require it for my class, was its remarkable blend of horror, realism, and optimism. Before the war began, Frankl was a successful psychiatrist in Vienna, the director of an institute that focused especially on the prevention of suicide and the treatment of those for whom life had lost its meaning. Then very swiftly he found himself in a concentration camp, stripped of his family, his possessions, his dignity, even the simple essentials of life itself, and forced every day to confront those questions that most of us rarely if ever confront: what is the purpose of my life? Is there a purpose to my life? Why should I bother to get out of bed today? Why not just die?

Perhaps because of his background and training, Frankl was able to view these questions with a measure of objectivity, even while enduring the terrible suffering of the camps. And he emerged from his experience with what he called a “tragic optimism,” and in this book he makes the case for it. His tragic optimism is perhaps best thought of as the living embodiment of existentialist philosophy, the idea that “the meaning of life” is not something outside oneself waiting to be discovered, but rather something that each of us creates through our own actions. At one point he writes, “Man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather must recognize that it is he who is asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible.” And to quote again, “We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing; the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” While this attitude is somewhat bleak, it is also quite bracing – sort of that cliff-edge sensation. From the time I first read Man’s Search for Meaning, I have reminded myself occasionally, when I get busy blaming my surroundings for some undesirable situation, that although I am subject to circumstances beyond my control, my response to those circumstances is under my control. I’m not responsible for the situations in which I find myself – but I am responsible for how I deal with those situations, and it’s in the way I deal with them that I make my life mean something.

I also had them read Self-Reliance and Other Essays by Emerson, specifically the Divinity School Address and the essay entitled “The Over-Soul.” I am not sure if my students got anything out of those essays, because they are tough, tough pieces of reading – and they are the easiest essays in the book! But being a teacher means being an optimist. You always think they might just get it – and I hope the students at least experienced what I always experience when I read Emerson: the sense of having engaged a great mind, successfully or unsuccessfully, and having come away with at least a partial understanding. Emerson is not afraid of talking about the divine, about the universal, the eternal. I find Emerson’s essays very difficult; the sentences glance off each other sometimes with little apparent connection, they are full of allusions to other works and figures from history, and of course he never stops to explain anything. But there’s always a sense that something is going on there; you catch glimpses of it, and the harder you work at his essays, the more you get out of them. There is great value to be gained from tackling something tough, even unsuccessfully. And that’s an experience every student ought to have.

If the privilege of a teacher is to inflict upon your students the books that mean a lot to you, the curse of a teacher is to have those students hate them. Or perhaps even worse, to fail to appreciate them. And I am sure that by the end of this semester, most of my class cussed my choices, once, twice, or many times. And I cussed their lack of understanding an equal number of times. But that’s all right. It’s not so much what book a person loves that is important, it’s the act of experiencing books, and perhaps coming to love a book. Books have a permanence to them; I like the way they feel in my hand, solid and stable. I like the concentration that goes into a book, the fact that someone took a long time and sustained effort to create it, and the fact that it takes time and effort to draw out its meaning. So if my students didn’t respond to my chosen books, okay. Maybe they will choose books of their own to hold dear. I think that’s the real secret to books – they speak to us in different ways and at different times. The book that resonated in my heart when I was twenty-five may leave you cold, and indeed may not speak to me in the same way today that it did then. We all have our own list of books that have changed our lives, and those lists are never the same. I’ve told you about mine – now I’d like to hear about yours.

(This piece adapted from a talk I gave to the Quincy, Illinois, Unitarian Church)

Honest Work, Just Reward

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- That’s the way to please the Lord,

or so says Javert in the musical version of Les Misérables. I had the pleasure of seeing that show at the Quincy (Ill.) Community Theatre last weekend, and for various reasons, that line stuck with me more than it had in previous performances.

Before I go on about that passage, let me gush for a moment about the QCT’s production. Quincy is a town of 40,000, with a community theater that relies on all-volunteer casts (although this production brought in a professional singer to play Jean Valjean). Yet despite those limitations, the QCT brought in a version of Les Misérables that was remarkably robust and accomplished. I give the music director, Larry Finley, a lot of credit for coordinating a tight 20-person pit orchestra with the singers. The performance was a real triumph for a small-city community theater group and a fitting 400th production in its history.

But back to Javert. He speaks that line when he is sending Fantine on her path to ruin, and of course we are meant to recognize it as the heartless abstraction that it is. It’s a way for Javert to not-think about the human being in front of him, casting her as an example of a principle rather than a person with particular circumstances. We all know people like that; I work with some of them, and there are few more frustrating sorts to deal with than those who insist on an inflexible abstraction in the face of compelling circumstances before them.

What struck me about the line this time, though, was not merely that it shows the limitations of Javert’s spirit, but that it’s so palpably false. Some of my dearest people live for their honest work – devote themselves to it – and receive no reward at all. We’ve all known people who have seen their honest and devoted work get snatched away by workplace politics and the selfishness of others.

So what’s a person to do? There’s no good answer. Persist in your work and ignore the reward or lack of reward that may come from it? Nice idea but it feels like surrendering to those who choose to play the game instead of focusing on their proper work. Play the game yourself? That’s abandoning your principles.

Dealing with our fellow human beings is a messy business, and only the Javerts of this world make it tidy in their own minds with comforting, fake abstractions. And who wants to be a Javert?

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