The highlight of my reading life this year was, no contest, the new novel from the Irish volcano Kevin Barry. His Night Boat to Tangier was short-listed for the Booker Prize, and it provides all the pleasures his fans have come to expect, including pyrotechnical language, a delicious stew of high lit and low slang, lovable bunged-up characters, rapturous storytelling, and a fair bit of the old U(ltra) V(iolence), in the form of a knife to a knee, a gouged-out eye, and heart-crushing betrayal. The setup—two aging Irish gangsters waiting for a woman at the ferry terminal in the seedy Spanish port of Algeciras—has obvious echoes of Beckett. But Barry told me in an interview that while writing the book he was actually much more under the sway of Harold Pinter’s early plays from the 1960s, especially The Caretaker and The Birthday Party, with their sneaky undertows of menace. Don’t bother trying to parse the influences. Do yourself a favor and read Night Boat to Tangier, then go to Barry’s earlier, equally brilliant work.
While writing an essay on the great comedian and Blaxploitation star Rudy Ray Moore—occasioned by Eddie Murphy’s comeback role as Moore in the new movie Dolemite Is My Name—I happened upon an insightful book by Jim Dawson called The Compleat Motherfucker: A History of the Mother of All Dirty Words. The book places trash-talkin’, kung-fu-kickin’, full-time-pimpin’ Moore in a context of other broad and bawdy black comedians, from Moms Mabley and Pigmeat Markham through Redd Foxx and Richard Pryor. Dawson makes the valuable point that Moore’s cult status among black audiences was based on his authenticity, which in turn was built on his decision to “stay on the fringes, below white society’s radar.” Smart move. The man was a sui generis genius.
As research for a nonfiction book I’m writing, I read a pair of books that explore the origins and contours of America’s class system. The first was the classic The Mind of the South by a North Carolina newspaperman named W.J. Cash, who committed suicide five months after the book’s publication. Its cold appraisal of the Southern class system, from the loftiest aristocrats down to the lowliest trash, led C. Vann Woodward to call it “the perfect foil” for Margaret Mitchell’s magnolia-scented fantasy Gone with the Wind, published two years earlier. The second book was Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America, which generated an unexpected flash of insight: Donald Trump and Andrew Jackson are actually the same person! Isenberg must have been thinking of Trump when she wrote this about Jackson: “Ferocious in his resentments, driven to wreak revenge against his enemies, he often acted without deliberation and justified his behavior as a law unto himself.” She adds that the presidential personality “was a crucial part of his democratic appeal as well as the animosity he provoked. He was not admired for statesmanlike qualities, which he lacked in abundance.” I grew suspicious that Isenberg was writing a cleverly coded takedown of Trump, but I realized that was unlikely because the book was published five months before the 2016 election. And some people still doubt that history repeats itself.
I got my first taste of Edwidge Danticat’s fiction through her terrific new collection of short stories, Everything Inside, deft explorations of the small moments of joy available to the Haitians who populate these tales, set mostly in Haiti and Miami. And finally, on the occasion of Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s 100th birthday, on March 24, I read his new memoir, Little Boy, an ebullient summing up of a century of life richly lived.
Stalin’s Russia was full of self-promoting con-men with invented personas, ambitious intellectuals with questionable credentials, and audacious imposters who for a time succeeded in both faking it and making it. Even some of the highest officials of the Communist Party were revolutionary improvisers lacking either the experience or training to do what history demanded of them. Mikhail Sholokhov (1905?- 1984) can be viewed as the most talented and successful of them all. Rising from obscure, rural origins, he impersonated a great writer long enough to truly become one. He earned the admiration of Joseph Stalin. Sholokhov gamed the most important mark in the Soviet Union. Or was it perhaps the other way around?
Sholokhov had written several promising, but by no means brilliant, short stories by his early twenties. His writing career was on the verge of stalling when he somehow managed to acquire an archive that was left behind when anti-Soviet forces were routed by the Red Army during the Russian Civil War. At a minimum, this archive appears to have included an unfinished novel that ended around 1919 and a trove of scrapbooks consisting of stories, sketches, newspaper clippings, and articles spanning over a decade of Cossack history. In 1926-27 his work with “the big thing,” as he sometimes called it, became more than a novel. It became a mission. From the moment he started to connect narrative threads and patch seams, he transformed from passive consumer to passionate co-creator. He moved, merged, and juxtaposed texts, combining them with new sections drawn from his own background. He added communist threads and amplified communist characters to create the Soviet Union’s epic equivalent to Gone with the Wind. The result was the first volume of Quiet Don, a deeply tragic epic centered on two star-crossed lovers and the twilight of a culture swept up into a whirlwind of war and revolution.
In 1927-28, the first volume of the planned trilogy became an overnight success. Sholokhov was immediately vaulted into the spotlight of Soviet celebrity and acclaimed as a rising star of Russian literature. The novel was hailed as a War and Peace of the revolutionary era. With fame came envy and suspicion. In Moscow, one of Sholokov’s first editors, Feoktist Berezovskii, became highly skeptical of his rapid metamorphosis from an apprentice into a virtuoso. It just seemed too good to be true. He doubted that astonishing prose could emanate from the pen of the same young author whose short story he had laboriously edited just three years earlier.
The ensuing plagiarism scandal brought Sholokhov to Stalin’s attention. In early 1929, rumors began to circulate in Moscow that an old woman had written to Soviet authorities claiming that her son, who disappeared during the Civil War, had written a novel. She insisted that the recently published chapters of Quiet Don were identical to her son’s book. As the story spread, it became more and more elaborate. In some versions the poor old woman was going from publisher to publisher hoping to arrange a tearful reunion with her missing son. In others, she was angrily demanding justice from the authorities. When the rumors reached Stalin, the controversy became a matter of life and death for Sholokhov.
In March 1929, the editorial board of Pravda (the Soviet Union’s most important daily newspaper) convened an ad hoc tribunal to examine the allegations that Sholokhov had plagiarized Quiet Don. Several days later, Pravda publicly exonerated Sholokhov and pronounced the plagiarism gossip to be “malicious slander being spread by enemies of the proletarian dictatorship.” Although Sholokhov weathered the plagiarism scandal, bureaucrats soon banned the newest installments of his novel as anti-Soviet.
Critics complained that his sympathies were not unequivocally on the side of the proletariat. They accused him of humanism, pacifism, and worst of all, objectivism. He dared to portray class enemies without expressing excessive, exaggerated hatred of them. In a desperate effort to save Quiet Don, in the spring of 1931 Sholokhov appealed to Maxim Gorky, Russia’s most famous living writer. The ploy worked. A few weeks later Gorky invited him to a meeting to discuss the novel at his mansion in the heart of Moscow. When Sholokhov arrived Gorky was not alone. A remarkably familiar mustachioed face filled the large room with his presence. The mustache belonged to a face made famous by newspaper engravings and grainy photos of May day parades.
That evening Joseph Stalin decided to discuss characters and scenes in Quiet Don rather than unravel conspiracies or analyze grain reports. Following introductions, Gorky receded into the background. Stalin beckoned Sholokhov to approach. In seconds it became clear that this was no social call. Stalin immediately accused Sholokhov of sympathizing with some of the revolution’s most vicious adversaries. Resorting to one of his favorite tactics, Stalin advanced a series of damning allegations. These were calculated to knock his adversary off balance and unmask his true character. Would his target retreat? Would he submit and become subservient? Or would he push back?
Sholokhov saw the dictator’s eyes burning like those of a tiger ready to pounce. The snap decision he made in that instant had the potential to either influence his life for decades or to end it. He stood his ground. With his career on the line, he confidently argued with Stalin and vigorously defended his audacious decision to write sympathetically about the Cossacks, the former tsarist military caste which rose in rebellion against the Soviet government.
Stalin was impressed by Sholokhov’s tenacity. Concluding his barrage of questions, he started to reminisce about his first, albeit temporary, taste of dictatorship in 1918. The dictator and the writer bonded over conversations about battles which had faded from public memory but would soon become central to the emerging Stalin cult. Elated, Sholokhov departed from the mansion with the most coveted prize in the USSR—Stalin’s telephone number.
Though fate had smiled upon him that evening, Sholokhov soon discovered that a dictator’s favor comes with daily dangers and crushing burdens. As Stalin’s prized protégé he would have to become a new man. That fateful meeting in a mansion forever changed the calculus of young Sholokhov’s literary gambit. The instant Stalin revealed that he too was a fan of the novel, Sholokhov understood that he was in way too deep. The novel transformed him into a Soviet Scheherazade. His very fate now hinged on satisfying a dictator’s literary cravings. He would have to become a cunning courtier to stay alive during the Great Terror. An opportunistic, literary caper became a life-long con…with no possibility of escape.
This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly and originally appeared on publishersweekly.com.
I met Chuck Palahniuk in Pasadena, California, at a signing for his latest book, Adjustment Day. When I arrived, 30 minutes ahead of time, there was already a long line. Young girls and boys were standing there with the yellow book in their hands, waiting to see him. Everybody was particularly excited because they knew that he was not only going to sign books but also talk with them individually and take some pictures with them, writer and reader posing in fighting positions. “He really wants to give back to his readers,” one of the girls at the log-in point told us. I waited in line, reading and talking with the others. Some came from North Hollywood, some from Orange County. “What about you?” I’m asked. Palahniuk’s fans want to know each other, they discuss when and how they read Fight Club, they joke and bicker about its real meaning.
One of my critical theory graduate friends explained to me once, “The first rule of fight club is nobody knows what Fight Club is about–not even the author.” Thus, if you ask Chuck Palahniuk, he might answer: It’s a romance. It’s just The Great Gatsby updated a little.
At the end of Palahniuk’s tour for Adjustment Day, I emailed with him to chat about his books and the psychology of his main characters.
The Millions: Tyler from Fight Club and Talbott from Adjustment Day can be psychopaths, but they also say things that all of us have thought at least once in our lives. How do you construct the psychology of your characters? Do you think that we can consider them the Raskolnikovs of our time?
Chuck Palahniuk: Talbott has no child, no heir or apprentice, and he’s trying to pass along all the wisdom he believes he’s acquired in his lifetime. This is what any responsible parent does, so does it make him a psychopath? Likewise, Tyler is trying to empower another person with the only skills Tyler has. They both might be wrong-headed, but their motives are sound. Neither is malicious, so I’d say neither is a psychopath. Most likely that makes me a psychopath. I’ll embrace that idea. As for either one being Raskolnikov, I can’t say because I’ve never read Crime and Punishment.
TM: There’s a sense that all your characters are so fragile and scared, and angry with society, and all they look for is “one something that explains everything.” Do you feel that in our society there is an avoidance of complexity and conflict?
CP: Please, let’s not kid ourselves. I divide my life between two states that have both legalized marijuana. Not to mention that I staggered through my 20s in a cloud of dope smoke, never daring to write a word. Opiate abuse is soaring. We’re so bombarded with complications and conflict that our lives make a Kafka story looks like a cute kitten video. We’re starving for the One Big Idea that will simplify our world and unite us. What a relief that we have Jordan Peterson to show us the way, at last.
TM: One of the most interesting themes of your work is the issue of power—the idea that power is not about controlling the body but controlling the mind. Are you drawn to the topic by an influence of French philosophy, or has it been shaped primarily by your own life experiences?
CP: Experience is our first teacher. Academia merely gives language to what we’ve lived. Me, my background is journalism so I’m always surveying people and looking for patterns between their seemingly disparate lives. These larger, shared patterns I try to illustrate with fictional stories. The last and most abstract way of communicating real life stuff is via the buzz words of Foucault and Derrida and Heidegger.
TM: You said that Adjustment Day is a rewrite of Gone with the Wind. In the book the characters discuss the repetition of the American narrative model and the importance of breaking with tradition. How is this important for you as a writer?
CP: Once you recognize the myth you’re retelling, then you’re truly free to cleave unto it or to violate the myth. So many groups are calling for civil war, or self-segregating, it seemed like a new American civil war novel was needed.
TM: One of your characters talks about Flaubert’s Bouvard et Pécuchet, comparing the difficulty of finding fulfillment in his life and even to Kurt Cobain’s life. Do you think that parable is more relatable today than in the time of Flaubert?
CP: My guess is, yes, it is more applicable today. We have so much more social mobility. Our values are more fluid. And with more options we’re free to experiment and avoid our Dasein. Each of us knows her or his destiny, but we will move heaven and earth to avoid getting to it. Having said that, damn, I could use a Percocet.
If I’m gonna tell a real story, I’m gonna start with my name.
Not unlike George Herbert Walker Bush, my full legal name, as it reads on my birth certificate, has four pieces, not the usual three.
Marie Myung-Ok Grace Lee.
People assume Myung-Ok is my middle name. But it’s just my name, one that was benched, like a junior varsity player, for my entire childhood, and then revived–but not for the reasons one might think–when I needed an “author name” for my novel.
When my parents came to the U.S. from Korea in 1953, one of the first things they did was choose “American” names. Grace for my mother; my father loved William, partly for its Will-I-Am, Seussian pun. He never understood why people subsequently shortened it to “Bill,” which kind of ruined everything.
Being a Korean War refugee/Korean immigrant in the 1950s was a rare thing, given the racist U.S. immigration laws that barred Asians. Pivotal to their new American life was a doctor with the World Health Organization, whom my father worked with at a liaison office during the Korean War. His name was Leonard Schuman, his wife was Marie, which is how my brother came to be Leonard and then I, following, am Marie.
My first big publication was an essay in Seventeen when I was still in high school. I don’t remember being asked or consciously choosing how my name would appear, and it is listed simply as Marie Lee. But for subsequent publications, including a slew of young adult novels, I asked to use Marie G. Lee to include my mother (even though “Lee” is a surname for both parents).
I now teach in college, to students who grew up with my novels, and I’m always touched to hear about what they mean to young readers. However, the first time an actual young reader came up to me and said, “You’re Marie G. Lee,” which I heard as MarieGEE Lee,” I wondered who this MarieGEE she was so enthusiastically searching for was, and almost turned around to look before I realized she meant me. Being called by this name felt as weird as referring to myself in the third person. I had an eerie sensation of the person I was to the reader—Marie G. Lee—separating from the person I was to myself. Marie G. Lee was an entity, while I was a person.
Appropriately, I then put Marie G. Lee as my name on my boilerplate speaking contracts and soon noticed that I, Marie, was a better advocate for this Marie G. Lee when it came to negotiating speaking fees; I didn’t take it as personally. There is a business side to writing, and she was it.
In my 30s, I went to Korea for a year as a Fulbright Fellow to research my next novel. I’d barely passed the oral language test and so my fellowship was contingent on taking language classes, since my project involved taking oral histories of Korean birth mothers.
In class, I started out using my name, Marie, because, well, it’s my name. The only other time I’d had a situational name was in my years of high school German, when my name was Beate.
But soon enough I noticed “Marie” would either be transliterated as “Mari,” which is a place-holder for counting animals, or, what my relatives cheekily used: “Mori,” which means “head.” The white people in my university Korean class adopted Korean names and wore them proudly, like a costume, so I decided I’d might as well put my official but never-used name to use.
For our Fulbright business cards, the clerk asked for the Chinese-based characters underlying my Korean name. “Lee” means plum tree. Myung means brilliant, Ok means jade/crystal. There was something about writing out the pictographs that made me think about how my father would, throughout my childhood, always indulge me by taking me to the rock and crystal show whenever it came to our town. How he was always so convinced I was “brilliant” enough to be a doctor. How “Marie” was an homage to another person while my Korean name was not only a kind of aspiration and hope my parents had (and weirdly personified in my obsession with clear quartz crystals), the “Ok” was also a generational marker that linked me not only with my sibling (Michelle/Chung-Ok), but with my distant cousin, Soon-Ok, whom I’d only met now, as an adult. We were strangers, but the “Ok” always reminded me of our shared generation in the Lee family tree, that the relationship ruptured by immigration still endured via our linked names.
Leaving Korea, I also left Myung-Ok behind. Nobody in America called me that. I became Marie again and didn’t think about it until, ironically, my Fulbright novel—many years later—was acquired by a publisher. Ever since I’d started publishing, I’d had a sporadic problem of another Marie Lee, a white writer whose Cape Cod Skull Mystery series was quite popular, judging from the fan mail she received, i.e., the fan mail I received. Once, I even mistakenly had one of her royalty statements appear in my mail, which made me wonder if the same thing was happening to her. My agent promptly rooted out the problem—Books in Print, the bible of booksellers, had the IBSNs of two of our books switched. This was also in the pre-digital era, so the mistake would remain until a new edition came out.
My new publisher suggested going forward I use as an author name something beyond Marie Lee and MarieGEE Lee. We agreed Marie Myung-Ok Lee would really differentiate me from the other writer.
That was in 2005, and I have been using Marie Myung-Ok Lee for my “writing” name all this time. There was some question about “consistency,” since I’d used Marie G. Lee as a published name for years, but I decided not to worry about it—I could always go back to MarieGEE, later, but Marie Myung-Ok got some immediate results: First, I stopped receiving Cape Cod Skull Mystery fan mail. But I also realized that just looking at my name, and hearing it, even when people pronounced it incorrectly (Myunk-ok, Myung-O.K., Mee-Yung, etc.) it felt like me, a separation but also an integration in a way I’d never had when I was MarieGEE Lee.
Writers obviously know the power of words, and how naming something sets it on a certain path. Mine was inadvertent, but other writers have named themselves with more intention. Poet Leslie McGrath (Feminists Are Passing from Our Lives) says, “My married name is Taylor and that’s ‘family’ persona, but my writer’s name is McGrath, which was my grandmother’s maiden name. She grew up poor and Irish, never made it beyond high school, and always wanted to write. Each poem and book I publish is a tribute to her.”
“As a hapa [half-Asian], it was hugely important for me to be Karl Taro Greenfeld (True) instead of Karl Greenfeld. The latter made me sound like another male Jewish writer, nothing wrong with that but also not who I am. But, strangely enough, it was a magazine editor who decided to put my middle name on a story I’d written about Japan. I was 25 and hadn’t thought of doing it myself. As soon as I saw it in print, I knew it would be my byline.
Margaret Elizabeth Mitchell (Pretty Is)—not that Margaret Mitchell—says, “I write as Maggie. I do it partly because of Gone with the Wind and partly because I like creating a bit of distance between my selves and my lives. That’s always appealed to me—I used to invent pseudonyms as a little girl, most of them horrible….”
Those who make it up as they go in life and writing find both good and bad in not having a consistent author name. Novelist Randy Susan Meyers (Widow of Wall Street) calls her evolving names, some of them imposed, her bête noire. “I publish under my given name—using my middle name so folks know that I’m a woman. In the U.K. they made me be R.S. Meyers. Legally, I go by my husband’s name. Yet in some places, I am known by my long-ago first husband’s name.
“When I am in a store and they ask my name, I always pause…I wish I’d never taken either husband’s name. But…there are times it’s great to choose who I want to be when.”
Myung-Ok is my first name and so I also enjoy, when filling out fellowship forms, cramming Myung-Ok next to Marie, because that’s where it belongs. Occasionally I’m asked to put it in the slot for “middle name,” but I always refuse: it’s not my middle name. And as the American-born daughter of immigrants, why should I have to bend to the form? Since the racist laws were changed in 1965, there are more and more Asian immigrants and their children also with compound first names. We are Americans. The form should change for us.
And while author’s names need to be individual, and distinctive, the way my generational name connects me to my sister, Chung-Ok, and my cousin Soon-Ok, so, too, I enjoy a connection with other Korean American writers like Nora Okja Keller (Fox Girl) and R.O. (Okyong) Kwon (The Incendiaries), something MarieGEE didn’t do.
Perhaps the author name is also a brilliant tool that should be used as such. Friends and family call me Marie, and Koreans revert to Myung-Ok—but no one uses both. Marie Myung-Ok Lee then becomes the embodiment of my writing, a protective shell that diverts the attention from that overly open, curious part of me that I need to be able to write in the first place. I’m not talking about being fake with an alias, I am talking about being able to engage with people who’ve read my writing, and therefore have a their own relationship with “me,” which can indeed be startlingly intimate, but a different kind of intimate than in the relationships I have with the people I am close to in my life.
But names can evolve and change. We will see.
Image Credit: Pixabay.
This July, I published my first novel, An Innocent Fashion, the story of a queer, biracial millennial who spirals into a depression after landing his dream job at a fashion magazine. The book was aptly pitched as “The Bell Jar meets The Devil Wears Prada” — with one foot firmly in each of both the “literary” and “commercial” realms. Yet the latter half of this equation proved the source of a major frustration. Specifically, I was self-conscious about other people’s biases against fashion, the commercial (read: “unserious”) theme on which my whole novel pivoted. In interviews I downplayed the fashion element over and over, explaining that despite being set in the office of a fashion magazine, the book was complex, using fashion to explore deeper societal issues.
Part of my preoccupation with “seriousness” came with the territory of being a first-time author; I yearned to be well-respected, considered “good enough” for one’s work to count as capital-L Literature. But the other part stemmed from a truth I’d been fighting from a young age: that fashion, which I had been passionate about from a young age, was not a very serious or important subject.
I grew up within a tight-knit Cuban family in Miami, surrounded by traditional values including the sharp distinction between male and female gender roles. As do many others, I learned that fashion was “for girls,” the subtext being that as it was somehow lesser — a frivolity. Personally, I didn’t see why fashion should be considered inherently more trivial than any other form of creative expression — writing, for instance, or fine art. I maintained that fashion’s unfair reputation was a reflection of my conservative environment. But even as an undergraduate at liberal-minded Yale, where intelligent peers sometimes expressed a heady disregard for the sartorial sphere, the effects of an entrenched bias were still evident. Others didn’t think as highly about fashion as I did; everywhere I went, fashion was considered frivolous.
Many books that embraced fashion as subject matter seemed to confirm and perpetuate this notion. As far as I could tell, fashion-oriented books fell primarily into the category of chick lit — juicy reads like Confessions of a Shopaholic and Bergdorf Blonds, in which “fashion” was a code word for the same kind of guilty pleasures afforded by junk food and reality TV. Of course, the biggest phenomenon in this league was The Devil Wears Prada.
Because like the author of Prada, I too had been a fashion assistant when I wrote my book, Prada had made for an inevitable comparison to An Innocent Fashion from the start. But unlike my book, however, in which even the least likable characters defy overarching stereotypes, Prada devotes 360 pages (and the film equivalent, two hours) to driving home the idea that fashion is not only frivolous, but also, inexplicably, “bad” — and that the people who love it are some inevitable combination of mean, superficial, and/or stupid. Aspiring to a career in”serious” journalism — the protagonist Andy Sachs paints an unanimously damning picture of her colleagues: nasty, brutish, and dagger-heeled.
The result of this reductive portrayal of the fashion industry is that pithy stereotypes remain unchallenged — a missed opportunity.
After all, it wasn’t always this way. If, in many realms, fashion has had an unfair reputation as a shallow womanly diversion, in literature it was put to use by some of our most important authors.
Consider Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, in which, after her husband’s death, she can’t bear to throw away his shoes, which she compares to vital organs: “How could he come back if they took away his organs, how could he come back if he had no shoes?” There’s Sylvia Plath, whose novel The Bell Jar paints a portrait of a woman on the verge of losing her sanity, while working for the fictional equivalent of Mademoiselle in the ’50s. While the superficial magazine goings-on provoke the main character’s despair as she realizes her powerlessness to resist her destiny as a wife/mother/homemaker, she is frequently transfixed in earnest by the beauty of clothes and shoes, and “a whole life of marvelous, elaborate decadence that attracted me like a magnet” — making her relationship to fashion complex and real. In Edith Wharton’s society novels, corsetry and ruffles help Wharton make elegant, searing criticisms of class and gender inequality (“If I were shabby no one would have me,” says Lily Bart in The House of Mirth, “a woman is asked out as much for her clothes as for herself”) — while who could forget the meaningful implications of fashion in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, or The Great Gatsby, or Gone with the Wind?
Contemporary books touting fashion as subject matter rarely, if ever, offer such depth or complexity, while those that revolve around fashion magazines nearly always feature a cast made up exclusively of privileged white women. This perhaps more than anything is what I hoped would distinguish my novel. Given the precedent set by annals of homogeneously populated chick lit, the main character isn’t who you’d expect. He’s a person of color, queer, and the opposite of rich — an outsider named Ethan for whom the glamour of fashion represents the inaccessibility of the American dream. In the Prada-sphere, Ethan would surely be reduced to a stock character — most likely, a white woman’s sassy gay best friend.
The need for nuanced representations of fashion in fiction has never been greater. Fashion offers a unique lens to view some of the most important issues of our time: class, gender, race, and sexuality. Depictions of fashion in literature can and should reflect that, providing new ways to engage with the dialogue of human progress, challenging our ideas about society and personal identity. These goals, after all, are at the heart of literature and fashion alike.
See Also: Clothes in Books and Ways to go Wrong
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
“There are two sound ways for a girl to deal with a young man who is insistent. She can marry him, or she can say ‘No.’” — Ladies’ Home Journal, May 1961
In 1962, a 40-year-old woman published a guide for single girls that shocked a nation (and spawned future memoir-manuals.) The author was Helen Gurley Brown, and the book was Sex and the Single Girl: The Unmarried Woman’s Guide to Men, Career, the Apartment, Diet, Fashion, Money and Men.
Racy title aside, the simple teal-blue book jacket was far from flashy — if anything, it looked like a secret handbook. But the message inside was loud and clear, and Helen megaphoned it to the world: Single girls had sex, and often with multiple partners before marriage. Why pretend otherwise? “Should a man think you are a virgin?” she asked in one chapter. “I can’t imagine why, if you aren’t. Is he? Is there anything particularly attractive about a thirty-four-year-old virgin?”
Drawing from her years of experience as a penny-pinching bachelorette in Los Angeles, Helen gave single women advice on everything from keeping a budget and finding an apartment to wearing makeup, meeting men, and staging a successful affair — she’d survived plenty of trysts with married men — but she was no longer single herself. She was comfortably married to the editor and movie producer David Brown, who had conjured up the idea for the book in the first place, and her status as Mrs. Brown was the ultimate testament to the fact that her man-trapping tips really worked, at any age.
Though Sex and the Single Girl had no shortage of critics (Robert Kirsch of the Los Angeles Times called it “as tasteless a book as I have read this year”), it was an instant bestseller, generating a multimillion-dollar franchise that included an eponymous movie (starring Natalie Wood and Tony Curtis); a nationally syndicated column, “Woman Alone,” written by Helen and aimed at single girls; a recorded album called Lessons in Love, which offered gems like “How to Talk to a Man in Bed;” a second book, Sex and the Office; and, of course, a magazine, the new Cosmopolitan, which Helen revamped from a staid general-interest title into a sexy single girl’s bible in 1965.
The original Sex and the Single Girl also inspired countless imitations, among them a cookbook, Saucepans and the Single Girl (“Guaranteed to do more for the bachelor girl’s social life than long-lash mascara or a new discotheque dress,” it promised), Sex and the Single Man, and Sex and the Single Cat. “A publisher asked me to write a ‘me-too’ book — about sex and the college girl,” Gloria Steinem told me in a recent interview. She declined, but future food critic Gael Greene took on the task of reporting from the real frontlines of the sexual revolution: the nation’s college campuses. Her book, Sex and the College Girl, hit shelves in 1964.
Along with guidebooks for single girls, there were also stern warnings. In 1963, two young, unmarried women were murdered in their apartment on the Upper East Side; one had been a Newsweek copy girl, the other a teacher. The high-profile double homicide was dubbed the Career Girl Murders, and it terrified thousands of single, working girls across New York City. It also inspired a morose 125-page safety manual, Career Girl, Watch Your Step!, written by Max Wylie, the father of one of the victims, who cautioned the Sex and the Single Girl set about the dangers of dating and living alone in the big city.
There’s no doubt that Helen Gurley Brown deserves credit for ushering in the sexual revolution and singles culture, but she was hardly the first woman to tackle writing a cheeky, charming guide for bachelorettes. Five decades earlier, in 1909, Helen Rowland, a noted satirist who penned biting aphorisms about the battle of the sexes for the New York World newspaper, collected her columns into an illustrated book of epigrams titled Reflections of a Bachelor Girl. (She began the column after the demise of the first of her three marriages.) Rowland followed up with more books, including A Guide to Men, published in 1922 — the era of the flapper, with her short skirts, bobbed hair, loose morals, and penchant for cigarettes and petting parties.
That year, Helen Gurley Brown was born in the small town of Green Forest, Ark. She grew up during the Great Depression, when wives and widows flooded the workforce, taking on jobs once meant for their husbands. Necessity paved the way for a new breed of woman who was capable of taking care of herself, and didn’t have to rely on a man — and popular culture reflected her newfound independence. In the summer of 1936, when Helen was 14, Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind topped the bestseller lists, as the nation fell in love with a flawed and fiercely determined heroine named Scarlett O’Hara. The same year, a Vogue editor named Marjorie Hillis published a self-help guide for single women titled Live Alone and Like It: A Guide for the Extra Woman.
Who exactly was this Extra Woman, or E.W., as The New York Times later dubbed her? She was a woman who earned her own money and liked to spend it, and to reach her, Hillis’s publisher, Bobbs-Merrill, ventured far beyond the bookstore to places where single women congregated. “They sent their salesmen to department stores around the country with a multi-page memo that outlined how to pair quotations from the book with items from the store, like negligees and pajamas, compact furniture, and cosmetics,” says Joanna Scutts, who is currently working on a book about Hillis, The Extra Woman. “Hillis was resolutely a believer in material pleasure, beautiful objects, and the comforts of surrounding yourself with the things you loved.” (Three decades later, Helen Gurley Brown’s publicity team pitched Sex and the Single Girl to boutiques, singles resorts, and secretarial schools. In L.A., one bookstore’s window display featured the guide, opened to the chapter “How to Be Sexy,” paired with a black bikini.)
In many ways, Hillis’s books and their offbeat promotion offered a valuable blueprint for Helen Gurley Brown, with one major exception: Live Alone and Like It spoke primarily to a savvy, city-dwelling reader, while Sex and the Single Girl addressed a far simpler creature. It was meant for the plain, small-town girl — or “mouseburger,” to use Helen’s famous coinage — who might have aspired to be more like Hillis’s sophisticated reader, or Hillis herself, only with a much more active sex life. (A minister’s daughter from Brooklyn, Hillis had pragmatic attitudes about sex but didn’t obsess over it, or men, the way Helen did.)
Still, despite their differences, both authors recognized that the so-called problems faced by single women could actually be assets, even enviable luxuries. Long before Helen declared the working single woman as “the newest glamour girl of our time,” Hillis addressed her with a cut-the-bullshit approach. Might as well face it: “An extra woman is a problem…Extra women mean extra expense, extra dinner-partners, extra bridge opponents, and, all too often, extra sympathy,” she wryly observed in her first chapter, “Solitary Refinement.” And yet, the right attitude could turn it all around.
Being a “live-aloner” had its perks: namely, total freedom. Without a man of the house to serve, a woman could tend to herself, breakfasting in bed, basking in her nightly beauty ritual, and best of all, she could have her own bathroom, “unquestionably one of Life’s Great Blessings,” Hillis wrote. Like a witty, worldly aunt, Hillis doled out bon mots on other subjects like decorating a modern apartment for one, mixing a classic Manhattan, and the importance of having a chic bedroom wardrobe. “We can think of nothing more depressing than going to bed in a washed-out four-year-old nightgown,” she noted, “nothing more bolstering to the morale than going to bed all fragrant with toilet-water and wearing a luscious pink satin nightgown, well-cut and trailing.”
Hillis also leveled with the legions of single women about the pros and cons of sex outside of marriage, and having an affair. “Certainly, affairs should not even be thought of before you are thirty,” she wrote. “Once you have reached this age, if you will not hurt any third party and can take all that you will have to take — take it silently, with dignity, with a little humor, and without any weeping or wailing or gnashing of teeth — perhaps the experience will be worth it to you. Or perhaps it won’t.”
In 1937, Hillis published Orchids on Your Budget, predating Helen Gurley Brown’s practical financial advice for single girls, followed by Corned Beef and Caviar for the Live-Aloner — a recipe book that might have inspired Helen’s later Single Girl’s Cookbook — and New York Fair or No Fair, a travel guide for women headed to the 1939 World’s Fair. (The same year, at the age of 49, Hillis shocked her readers by marrying Thomas H. Roulston, a wealthy widower who owned a chain of grocery stores, and moving to Long Island.)
Most of these single-girl guides have gone the way of the chastity belt, but in the spirit of HGB, here are some of the wittiest and weirdest, along with some choice advice — take it or leave it.
Title: The Young Lady’s Friend (1880)
Written By: Mrs. H.O. Ward, compiler of “Sensible Etiquette”
Written For: Proper young ladies of America
On Keeping Cool: “The less your mind dwells upon lovers and matrimony, the more agreeable and profitable will be your intercourse with gentlemen.”
Title: Advice to Young Ladies from The London Journal of 1855 and 1862 (published in 1933)
Selected By: R.D., from the weekly columns of “Notice to Correspondents”
Written For: Proper young ladies of England
On Coquetry: “Flirting is heartless and unprincipled; it leads to callousness in other respects, sullies the female mind, provokes retaliation, and is sure to end in heart-burnings, sorrows, and too frequently disgrace.”
Title: Reflections of a Bachelor Girl (1909)
Written By: Helen Rowland, columnist for the New York World who became known as “the female Bernard Shaw”
Written For: Men and women wanting a good laugh
On the Importance of Taking the Long View Before Taking a Vow: “Before marrying a man, ask yourself if you could love him if he lost his front hair, went without a collar, smoked an old pipe, and wore a ready-made suit; all of these things are likely to happen.”
Title: Live Alone and Like It (1936)
Written By: Marjorie Hillis, Vogue editor
Written For: Single career girls in the city
On Ladies and Liquor: “There is no simpler way of entertaining successfully than having a cocktail party, and there is no surer way of making a casual guest have a good time, than serving a highball. For breaking ice, mixing strangers, and increasing popularity, alcohol is still unrivaled.”
Title: Orchids on Your Budget (1937)
Written By: Marjorie Hillis
Written For: Style-conscious live-aloners with limited funds
On Fashion Sense: “A cheap dress worn with good accessories will fool more people than an expensive dress worn with cheap accessories.”
Title: Sex and the Single Girl (1962)
Written By: Helen Gurley Brown
Written For: Small-town girls thinking of moving to the big city for romance and recognition
On How to Meet a Man: “Carry a controversial book at all times — like Karl Marx’s Das Kapital or Lady Chatterley’s Lover. It’s a perfectly simple way of saying, ‘I’m open to conversation,’ without having to start one.”
Title: Career Girl, Watch Your Step! (1964)
Written By: Max Wylie, father of career-girl murder victim Janice Wylie
Written For: The Sex and the Single Girl set
On Bachelorettes in the Big City: “Don’t think of yourself as being safe. Think of yourself as being in danger all the time. This will make you wary. There is no better protection than an awareness of the dangers that might engulf you.”
Title: Saucepans and the Single Girl (1965)
Written By: Jinx Morgan and Judy Perry, college roommates-turned-cookbook authors
Written For: Unmarried women looking for the fastest way to a man’s heart
On Cooking for the Man in a Brooks Brothers Suit: “If you can cook without tripping over it, by all means wear your chicest hostess skirt. This is known as packaging the product.”
Title: Helen Gurley Brown’s Single Girl’s Cookbook (1969)
Written By: Helen Gurley Brown
Written For: Cosmo Girls
On Ending the Affair: “When it comes to that dinner you know in your heart is to be the longed-for (on your part) last one, you must plan as wickedly as for a lovers’ feast. It shouldn’t be too difficult. Through careful observation of your companion through the months or years you’ll know everything he actively hates — what gives him tummy cramps or causes him to break out. These are the foods you carefully prepare and feed him tonight.” Suggested dishes: Ceviche, Lamb Kidneys and Bacon, Refritos with Cheese.
Once again in 2015 some of the literary firmament’s brightest stars were extinguished. We lost a pair of Nobel laureates, a pair of former U.S. poets laureate, beloved novelists, prize-winning poets, a tireless human rights activist, a wily agent, a revered teacher, a champion of black writers, a writer of shameless sexcapades, and memoirists who refused to flinch when dissecting their first-hand experiences with addiction, persecution, disease, and the horrors of Jim Crow. Here is a selective compendium of literary obituaries from 2015.
The Robert Stone novel that sticks in my mind is Dog Soldiers, winner of the 1975 National Book Award, the story of a Vietnam-to-California heroin smuggling scheme gone horribly wrong. It’s also a singular portrait of how the blissed-out ’60s, which Stone experienced first-hand with Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters, turned into one very bad trip. Stone, who died on Jan. 10 at 77, produced eight big novels, a pair of story collections, and a memoir, books in which danger is everywhere, Americans behave badly either at home or in some far-flung hot spot, and neither God nor any hope of salvation is to be found. Stone was an American rarity: a writer who dared to walk in the footsteps of Joseph Conrad and Graham Greene, and never stumbled.
Anne Moody produced just two books in her lifetime, but her debut, the wrenching memoir Coming of Age in Mississippi, is as timely today as it was when it appeared in 1968. Moody, who died on Feb. 5 at 74, told in spare unflinching prose what it was like for the daughter of black sharecroppers to grow up in the Jim Crow deep South, and then to dare to join the civil rights struggle. She worked with various organizations — the Congress for Racial Equality, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People — once getting dragged by her hair from a Woolworth’s lunch counter sit-in, while watching a fellow protester get bloodied by a brass-knuckle punch. After leaving the movement, she moved to New York City, where she wrote her memoir, then lived quietly for decades working non-writing jobs. Late in life, she acknowledged to an interviewer that writing her memoir had taught her a painful lesson: “I came to see through my writing that no matter how hard we in the movement worked, nothing seemed to change. We were like an angry dog on a leash that had turned on its master. It could bark and howl and snap, and sometimes even bite, but the master was always in control.”
Moody’s only other book was a slim collection of short stories for young people called Mr. Death.
In 1976 I came upon a book of poems that proved that art can be made from absolutely anything, including a night-shift job at the Chevy Gear & Axle factory in Detroit. The book was peopled with autoworkers, fading boxers, and working stiffs, people who stubbornly refuse to admit defeat in the face of the monstrous forces that belittle them. The book was called Not This Pig, the second volume of poems by a Detroit native named Philip Levine, who died on Feb. 14 at 87. On the back cover, Levine explained that the book is filled with “the people, places, and animals I am not, the ones who live at all costs and come back for more, and who if they bore tattoos — a gesture they don’t need — would have them say, ‘Don’t tread on me’ or ‘Once more with feeling’ or ‘No pasarán’ or ‘Not this pig.’” Reading that book was the birth of a passion for Levine’s poetry that endures to this day and shows no signs of flagging.
Levine was born in Detroit in 1928 and went to work in a soap factory at 14 — the first in a long string of factory jobs that could have crushed his body and spirit but instead gave him the raw material for a body of work that would win him high honors, a devoted readership, and a stint as U.S. poet laureate. His great subject was the people who do the brutal manual labor that usually gets ignored, by poets and everyone else. When I wrote an appreciation of Levine four years ago (here), I quoted a 1999 interview in which Levine realized, looking back, that Not This Pig was the book that gave him his voice.
“Those were my first good Detroit work poems — the poems in Not This Pig…,” Levine said. “It’s ironic that while I was a worker in Detroit, which I left when I was 26, my sense was that the thing that’s going to stop me from being a poet is the fact that I’m doing this crummy work…I’m going to fuck up because what am I doing? I’m going to work every day. The irony is, going to work every day became the subject of probably my best poetry. But I couldn’t see that at the time. And it took me another ten years to wake up to it — that I had a body of experience that nobody else had.”
Günther Grass’s life turned out to be an illustration of just how treacherous and slippery the high moral ground can be. After blazing onto the world literary stage with his 1959 masterpiece, The Tin Drum, Grass spent his long and productive career as Germany’s self-anointed conscience, pushing his countrymen to face up to the dark strains of their history, especially the rise of Nazism and the Holocaust. Grass, who died on April 13 at 87, railed against militarism and nuclear proliferation, opposed German unification, denounced the Catholic and Lutheran churches, supported Fidel Castro’s Cuba and Nicaragua’s Sandinista government, and spoke of the “unchecked lust for profit” that drove German companies to sell weaponry to Saddam Hussein. He also found time to be a novelist, playwright, essayist, short story writer, poet, sculptor, and printmaker. In 1999 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.
But it was not until 2006, on the eve of the publication of a memoir, Peeling the Onion, that a dark truth emerged. For years Grass had claimed he was a flakhelfer during the war, one of many youths charged with guarding antiaircraft gunneries. But finally he admitted that he had been a member of the elite Waffen-SS, notorious for committing many atrocities. Though Grass was not implicated in any war crimes, the belated revelation caused a furor.
“My silence over all these years is one of the reasons I wrote the book,” he explained. “It had to come out in the end.” In the memoir he added, “The brief inscription meant for me reads: ‘I kept silent.’”
James Salter is often pinned with that grimmest of labels, “a writer’s writer.” Even worse, James Wolcott called Salter America’s “most under-rated under-rated writer.” I prefer to remember Salter, who died on June 19 at 90, as a writer of gem-like sentences that added up to a handful of highly accomplished novels and short stories, a man who lived a long and fruitful life and, in the bargain, had no peer when it came to writing about flight.
In 1952 Salter flew more than 100 combat missions in an F-86 jet, hunting and fighting MiG-15s in the skies over Korea. His writing about flying — most notably in his first novel, The Hunters, and in his memoir, Burning the Days — has won high praise, including this accolade from a fellow military pilot, Will Mackin: “Salter’s writing about flying made me miss flying even while I was still flying.” Salter took a dim view of such praise: “I have said many times I don’t want to be considered one who once flew fighters. That’s not who I am.”
So who was James Salter? A writer who put the exact right words in the exact right order to produce books full of beauty and insight and pain — six novels, two collections of short stories, a book of poetry, essays on food and travel, and a memoir. (Salter also wrote screenplays, including the 1969 Robert Redford movie Downhill Racer. It wasn’t art, Salter acknowledged, but the Hollywood money was wonderful.) Salter was also a writer who craved the broad popularity that never came his way. He explained the craving this way: “You can’t be admitted to the ranks of writers of importance unless you have sales.”
Like Philip Levine before him, Theodore Weesner, who died on June 25 at 79, turned his indifferent early years into indelible writing. Instead of soul-crushing factory jobs, Weesner had to contend with an alcoholic father and a teenage mother who abandoned him and his older brother when they were toddlers. After living in a foster home and dropping out of high school to join the Army at 17, Weesner went on to attend Michigan State University and earn an M.F.A. from the Iowa Writers’ Worskhop.
His first novel, The Car Thief, was published in 1972 to critical acclaim, and it has become a cult classic. The novel, which was reissued in 1987 as part of the Vintage Contemporaries series, reads as neither a screed nor a cry for help, but rather as a tender and clear-eyed portrait of a troubled boy, 16-year-old Alex Housman, whose only available means of self-expression is to steal cars. Weesner went on to produce half a dozen other works of fiction, which, like his debut, won critical praise but a modest readership. Late in life, Weesner seemed to come to terms with his fate. In 2007 he told an interviewer, “I get this ‘neglected writer’ a lot…The Car Thief got a lot of awards and praise and was widely reviewed. And (since) then no one has given me a whole lot of credit.”
I would not presume to single out the best book by E.L. Doctorow, who died on July 21 at 84. But I’m convinced Ragtime was both his best loved and his most influential book. Published in 1975, it did something unheard-of at the time: it mingled fictional characters with historical figures — Harry Houdini, Emma Goldman, Booker T. Washington, Henry Ford, and many others — to create a vivid portrait of America on the eve of the First World War, the dying moments of the nation’s heedless exuberance and innocence. The novel was not universally loved. John Updike famously dissed it, and William Shawn, editor of The New Yorker, refused to run a review of it. “I had transgressed in making up words and thoughts that people never said,” Doctorow said years later. “Now it happens almost every day. I think that opened the gates.”
Ragtime opened the gates for writers of wildly different temperaments to start inserting historical figures into their novels, either at center stage or in the background. These writers included Joyce Carol Oates (who channeled Marilyn Monroe), Colum McCann (Rudolf Nureyev, Philippe Petit, and Frederick Douglass, among others), James McBride and Russell Banks (John Brown), and Don DeLillo (Lee Harvey Oswald and Jack Ruby). For Michael Chabon, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, Doctorow’s fiction — including Loon Lake and World’s Fair, but especially Ragtime — offered novelists a “magic way out” of the confining box made by the reigning ’70s vogues of “dirty realism” and post-modernism. In The Guardian two days after Doctorow’s death, Chabon wrote, “In opening that particular door, Doctorow made a startling discovery: done properly, the incorporation of historical figures into a fictional context did not come off as some kind of smart-ass critique of subjectivity and the fictive nature of history. Done properly it just made the lies you were telling your reader — with his or her full and willing consent, of course — sound that much more true. And that small-t truth then became a powerful tool for getting across whatever Truth, subjective or fragmentary though it might be, that you felt you had it in you to express.”
By the time she died on Sept. 19 at 77, Jackie Collins had produced some 30 steamy novels that tended to carry a Hollywood zip code and sold more than half a billion copies. Collins, who was born in London, was refreshingly candid about the shameless commercialism of her fiction. “I never pretended to be a literary writer,” she once said. “I am a school dropout.”
Her writing style brought to mind the USA Today columns of Al Neuharth — short sentences, liberal use of fragments, no words that would send readers to the dictionary. Her books were also loaded with sex, beginning with her debut, The World Is Full of Married Men, from 1968, when, as Collins put it, “no one was writing about sex except Philip Roth.” Perhaps Collins’s keenest insight was to understand that literature, like nature, abhors a vacuum, and so she set about filling it to the brim. And she did her research. While still a teenager, she visited her actress sister Joan in Hollywood, where she met and bedded a hot young actor named Marlon Brando. When an interviewer suggested in 2007 that America had become a great big titillating Jackie Collins novel, she replied, “That’s true. When Clinton had his affair and the Starr report came out, reviewers actually said, ‘This is like a Jackie Collins novel.’ But in my books, the sex is better.”
Grace Lee Boggs
The indefatigable social activist and prolific author Grace Lee Boggs died in Detroit on Oct. 5 at the age of 100. The daughter of Chinese immigrants, she was born above her father’s Chinese restaurant in Providence, R.I., and raised in Jackson Heights, Queens. While earning degrees from Barnard and Bryn Mawr, she steeped herself in the writings of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Immanuel Kant, and Karl Marx, then moved to Chicago and started organizing protests against slum housing.
Her life changed in 1953, when she relocated to Detroit and married James Boggs, a black autoworker and activist. Together they plunged into the city’s radical politics, protesting racism, sexism, and police brutality. Malcolm X was a frequent visitor in their home. When fires and shootings swept Detroit in the summer of 1967 — a justified rebellion, not a senseless riot, in the eyes of Boggs and her fellow radicals — she reached what she described as “a turning point in my life.” She began shunning confrontation in favor of nonviolent strategies, a path she followed for the rest of her days. She founded food cooperatives and community groups to fight crime and to stand up for the elderly, the unemployed, and people fighting utility shutoffs. She planted community gardens. Always, she kept writing. She published her autobiography, Living for Change, in 1998. In her final book, The Next American Revolution: Sustainable Activism for the Twenty-First Century, published in 2011, the former radical aligned herself with Henry David Thoreau, Mahatma Gandhi, and Martin Luther King. “We are not subversives,” she wrote. “We are struggling to change this country because we love it.”
The above list doesn’t pretend to be comprehensive. Here are some other noteworthy literary deaths from 2015, in alphabetical order:
John Bayley, 89, was an Oxford don and literary critic whose moving memoir, Elegy for Iris, recounted his life with his wife, the Booker Prize-winning novelist Iris Murdoch, both before and after she was stricken with Alzheimer’s disease. Elegy was published in 1999, shortly before Murdoch died, and two years later it was made into a movie starring Jim Broadbent as Bayley and Judi Dench as the ailing Murdoch.
David Carr, 58, was a celebrated New York Times columnist who weathered cancer, alcoholism, and crack cocaine addiction, then wrote about his battles with verve and black humor in his 2008 memoir, The Night of the Gun.
Assia Djebar, 78, was an Algerian-born novelist, poet, playwright, and filmmaker who was often mentioned as a Nobel Prize candidate for her unflinching explorations of the plight of women in the male-dominated Arab world. Djebar was also adept at kicking down doors. She was the first Algerian student and the first Muslim woman admitted to France’s elite École Normale Supérieure, and the first writer from North Africa to be elected to the Académie Française. Despite these achievements, she insisted, “I am not a symbol. My only activity consists of writing.”
Ivan Doig, 75, produced 16 works of fiction and non-fiction that celebrated his native western Montana, where the Rocky Mountains begin their rise “like a running leap of the land.” Doig, whose affecting final novel, Last Bus to Wisdom, was published posthumously, liked to say he came from “the lariat proletariat, the working-class point of view.” The critic Sven Birkerts called him “a presiding figure in the literature of the American West.”
When Charles F. Harris, who died on Dec. 16 at 81, went to work as an editor at Doubleday in the mid-1950s, the work of black writers was a niche market that was treated more like a ghetto by New York publishing houses. Harris helped change that, most notably as chief executive of the nation’s first black university press, Howard University Press, where he published Margaret Walker, Nikki Giovanni, Jean Toomer, Walter Rodney, and many other black writers. Harris also founded Amistad Press, which published critical volumes on Zora Neale Hurston, Richard Wright, and Alice Walker, among others.
Jack Leggett, 97, was a novelist, biographer, editor, and teacher who was the director of the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop from 1970 to 1987. He stocked the nation’s oldest creative writing program with big-name teaching talent, including John Cheever, Gail Godwin, Raymond Carver, Frederick Exley, and Leggett’s eventual successor, Frank Conroy. Students included Jane Smiley, Sandra Cisneros, T. Coraghessan Boyle, Michael Cunningham, and Denis Johnson. During Leggett’s tenure there was a fundamental shift in students’ approach to writing, which he summarized this way after a decade on the job: “In 1970 there were a lot of kids out of the armed forces and the Peace Corps. They were an undisciplined lot. They would say, ‘Don’t tell me about form.’ Now they are very interested in technique. They want to know what novelists have done in the past. And it shows in their work.”
When Leggett arrived in Iowa City there were about a dozen creative writing programs in the country. Today, for better or worse, there are more than 200.
Colleen McCullough, 77, was a neurophysiological researcher who decided to write novels in her spare time and wound up striking gold with her second book, the international bestseller The Thorn Birds, in 1977. A panoramic tale of McCullough’s native land, it was made into a popular TV mini-series and was often called “the Australian Gone With the Wind.”
The Scottish writer William McIlvanney, 79, became known as “the father or Tartan noir” for his novels featuring the Glasgow cop Jack Laidlaw. McIlvanney was also a poet, essayist, teacher, short story writer, TV narrator, and, in the eyes of The Telegraph, “the finest Scottish novelist of his generation.”
Sir Terry Pratchett, 66, the knighted British novelist, produced more than 70 immensely popular works of fantasy, including the series known as Discworld. It was a Frisbee-shaped place balanced on the backs of four elephants who stood on the shell of a giant turtle, a place populated by witches and trolls and a ravenous character known as Death. While frequently ignored by serious critics, Pratchett had fans in high places. A.S. Byatt applauded his abundant gifts, not least his ability to write “amazing sentences.”
Ruth Rendell, 85, was the British author of more than 60 mystery novels that hit the trifecta: they were intricately plotted, psychologically acute, and immensely popular with readers and critics, selling some 60 million copies worldwide and winning numerous awards on both sides of the Atlantic. Chief Inspector Reginald Wexford was her most durable character and a sort of alter-ego. “I’m not creating a character,” Rendell said, “so much as putting myself as a man on the page.” Along with her friend P.D. James, who died in 2014, Rendell is credited with exploding the confines of the mystery genre. In a 2013 interview, Rendell vowed she would never stop writing. “I’ll do it until I die,” she said. Her final novel, Dark Corners, was published in October, five months after her death.
Oliver Sacks, 82, was a neurologist who used his patients’ conditions, from amnesia to Tourette’s syndrome, as starting points for his bestselling books about the human brain and the human condition. He called his books “neurological novels.” More than a million copies are in print.
Timothy Seldes, 88, was one of the last of a vanishing breed — an old-school literary agent and editor who believed that literature should be seen as a vital source of oxygen for the nation’s culture, not as product that needs to be moved. How quaint. He was, in a word, a gentleman, whose devoted clients included Anne Tyler, Jim Lehrer, Annie Dillard, and Nadine Gordimer.
William Jay Smith, 97, was a poet, critic, memoirist, translator, and teacher who served as U.S. poet laureate from 1968 to 1970. His poems, both tactile and empirical, embraced rhyme, meter, and other conventions deemed passé by many of his contemporaries. To his credit, Smith ignored them. In “Structure of a Song,” he offered this lovely anatomy of the making of a poem:
Its syllables should come
As natural and thorough
As sunlight over plum
Or melon in the furrow,
Rise smoother than the hawk
Or gray gull ever could;
As proud and freely walk
As deer in any wood.
So lightly should it flow
From stone so deep in earth
That none could ever know
What torment gave it birth.
James Tate, 71, was a Pulitzer Prize- and National Book Award-winning poet who believed “the challenge is always to find the ultimate in the ordinary.” His 17th book, Dome of the Hidden Pavilion, has come out posthumously, and it’s marked by his trademark surrealism and wordplay, deployed in narrative-driven prose poems that Tate turned to in his later years. He never lost his child’s sense of wonder at the plastic magic of language, its ability to startle. These lines come from his final book:
I was sitting on the porch when I watched my neighbor’s kids walk by on their way to school. One of them turned and waved to me. I waved back. That’s when I realized they were zombies.
Tomas Tranströmer, 83, was an accomplished pianist, an amateur entomologist, and a trained psychologist who worked with juvenile offenders. He was also a popular and beloved poet, sometimes called “Sweden’s Robert Frost,” whose crystalline, sometimes chilly poems won a Nobel Prize in 2011.
C.K. Williams, 78, was a Pulitzer Prize- and National Book Award-winning poet who, unlike James Tate, wrote morally charged, politically impassioned poems about such weighty topics as poverty, love, death, war, climate change, and the shootings at Kent State University. Like Tate, Williams moved toward longer ribbony lines that freed him to “talk about things.” Shortly before he died, from multiple myeloma, Williams completed a collection of poems about death and dying. He called it Falling Ill.
Rest in peace. Through your words you will all live on.
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald never won a prize. In 1925, the year it was published, the Pulitzer went to Edna Ferber for her novel So Big. How many readers have read this book or remember it?
In 1952 Catcher in the Rye lost the Pulitzer to The Caine Mutiny by Herman Wouk. Catcher in the Rye is a short novel told in the first person and is about a teenager disenchanted by the world of adults. The Caine Mutiny weighs in at over 500 pages and is a sprawling novel of life and mutiny on a Navy warship in the Pacific dealing with the moral complexities and the human consequences of World War II. Which work would now be regarded as literature?
Poor Ernest Hemingway. In 1930 A Farewell to Arms, along with The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner, lost the Pulitzer to Laughing Boy by Oliver La Farge. In 1941, the year that Hemingway published For Whom the Bell Tolls, no Pulitzer was awarded in fiction at all. We may remember the winner of a prize, but we often fail to recall the finalists that year or the vast array of deserving works that were overlooked.
Now that awards season is upon us, with various lists of contenders for the Booker, the National Book Award, and soon the National Book Critics Circle Award and Pulitzer Prize, it is interesting to step back and examine the place of prizes in literature. Do they necessarily reward greatness or works that, like a fine wine, gain stature over time? Do they simply reflect the taste of the jury at a particular moment in history? Or is it a little of both?
Prizes are not awarded by an omniscient god. They are based on a jury. The Pulitzer typically invites three to five judges to recommend works that then go to its 19 to 20 member board of newspaper journalists to make the final decision. The National Book Award seats five jurists. According to its blog, Critical Mass, The National Book Critics Circle divides “into informed, committed teams that focus on one category each. Those committees take their judging to the finalist stage, after which the board reunites into one massive voting group to choose the winners.” Although their choices may be worthy, does the 24-board-member committee have its ear tuned to the winds of media hype? When they meet to choose their finalists, typically announced in January, are they looking for the best books that year, books that may have been overlooked by the judges of the National Book Awards, for instance, which holds its award ceremony in November? Or do they hop on the bandwagon and support the same five or 10 books that — because a seven-figure advance was paid and publishers have a vested interest in getting the books known — are getting all the attention? Or because the NYTBR has chosen to give the book front-page acknowledgment? Or because a particular author’s work has been ignored in the past, even if the new work isn’t as strong as earlier work? Do they purposely seek out a book by a smaller press to stir up debate? Why is it that the same books generally tend to be acknowledged by various prize committees?
Roxana Robinson, president of the Authors Guild says, “I am very wary of a book that has won more than one prize. Then it seems like a lemming award. Two things I wish would change: One, that prize-awarders would agree tacitly not to award more than one prize to any given book. There are always a number of good books in any season, and for one book to get more than one award is a huge waste of public attention — there are other books that could use it. Two, I wish some of the many First Novel awards would shift their sights to writers in mid-career. Those are the writers who often need support, if their first books weren’t blockbusters, or didn’t win a prize.”
About awards, author Alix Kates Shulman’s feelings are mixed: “Of course I like getting one, which feels validating, and my desire to read a book shoots up a little bit if it has won an award, even though I know the process is basically corrupt. Awards help the few and hurt the many and probably make literary culture a little less welcoming to most writers and more clubby. Having been on award committees, I’ve seen that those who have an advocate or friend on the committee (preferably male and loud) are the ones who usually win. And then there are those writers, some very good ones who never win (or who seldom get reviewed): I’ve seen them get discouraged and even depressed — the opposite of validated.”
What happens to writers who do win awards? Does it affect their own perceptions of their work? I asked Pulitzer-Prize winning poet Philip Schultz. “Winning the Pulitzer Prize affected me in many helpful, sustaining ways. It was certainly surprising. The attention it brought to my work helped me find more time to actually write, which no doubt affected my process, too. But one’s creative process is a mysterious, unknowable source, and I doubt anything external can really affect what takes places at its core.”
The Pulitzer and National Book Awards help the publishing industry because they ignite sales and interest in books in general and invite traffic into the bookstore. If consumers go to the bookstore to purchase the latest novel by Jennifer Egan or Elizabeth Strout after it won the Pulitzer, the likelihood is that they will pick up or be made aware of another book. Prizes affect sales, advances, and influence. Prize-winning books that earn a gold stamp of approval, even if the judging that goes on behind the scenes is subjective, tend to be volumes that book club members will choose for their book club inflating further the worth (and sales) of the book. But while prizes offer a greater visibility for an author and his or her award-winning book, do they necessarily validate a work’s artistic worth?
Joyce Hackett, whose novel Disturbance of the Inner Ear won the Kafka Prize for fiction, said her book “gained far more recognition that it might otherwise have, after it won. Still, prizes reflect one thing: the taste of this year or this era’s committee. A book like The Known World, which won every prize, has only grown in stature since it was published. On the other hand, the Nobel list is littered with people who are no longer read.” But still she sees the benefits of such distinction: “One of the great things about literature is that it’s as individual as the souls who read and write it. Well-read people can have completely contradictory, equally valid lists of what’s great and what’s unreadable.”
Perhaps, in the end, a work’s worth can only be based on the beholder’s sense of what qualifies as greatness, and it is the artist alone who holds the power of validation over his or her work.
When Jean-Paul Sartre was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1964, he refused to accept it — as he did for all awards — out of fear that by accepting the award he would be aligning himself with an institution. He believed that individuals must create their own purpose in life. “The writer must therefore refuse to let himself be transformed into an institution, even if this occurs under the most honorable circumstances, as in the present case,” he said. “If I sign myself Jean-Paul Sartre it is not the same thing as if I sign myself Jean-Paul Sartre, Nobel Prizewinner.”
I can’t think of many writers today who would not want to sign their name as a Nobel Prize winner.
Image Credit: Flickr/Lars Plougmann.
Welcome to a new episode of The Book Report presented by The Millions! This week, Janet and Mike get inspired by Harper Lee’s new Go Kill a Watchbird, and talk about sequels to classic books they’d like to discover.
Discussed in this episode: Go Set a Watchman and To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, racist Atticus Finch, The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, A Christmas Story by Charles Dickens, Scarface (dir. Brian De Palma), Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, The Family Stone (dir. Thomas Bezucha), Dermot Mulroney, Sarah Jessica Parker, Claire Danes, Animal Farm by George Orwell, middle school plays, old-timey editorial cartoons, Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell, Scarlett O’Hara’s nonsense, The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger, Holden Caulfield’s stupid cap, selling out, the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling, the forgotten students of Hogwarts, Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Jean Valjean.
Cut for time from this episode but likely to be included as an extra on the eventual DVD: 2 Naked 2 Dead by Norman Mailer.
Move over Bella and Edward; Scarlett and Rhett were the original young adult power couple. At The New York Times, Claire Needell argues that Gone with the Wind is the epitome of the young adult novel. “The choice between two starkly different lovers (one gentlemanly, one roguish) appears, for the very young, to be a choice between two utterly distinct potential identities, two possible roads through life.”
One problem with modern American romance is that very little can prevent two Americans who love each other from getting married. (So long as they don’t share a combination of sex chromosomes, and it’s fair to say the tide is turning on that one.) This freedom — relatively unheard of in human history — is perhaps why we have more romantic comedies these days than romantic epics. It’s a limitation dictated by the times. Any story where two heterosexual Americans face any serious obstacle on the path to marriage is going to strain credulity or just plain bug people. While I’ve seen neither Valentine’s Day nor New Year’s Eve — and at the risk of being factually incorrect — I simply can’t imagine those kinds of movies trade in a currency of love problems whose snags aren’t pretty easily untangled. Such stories, as a classical matter, deal, rather, in misunderstandings, missed signals, crossed signals, and bunglings of translation from one heart to another. They’re nice and all, but does anyone out there get hit where it really hurts when they see or read a romantic comedy?
There’s something better, obviously, a more heightened version of the old Boy Meets Girl, Loses Girl formula. I’m talking about the previously mentioned romantic epic, and I’m talking about this because I’ve had a running conversation with my dear wife over the last few years about just what makes a romantic epic epic. This conversation hit a high point recently, as we’re finishing Gone with the Wind, a book I’ve been reading to her since last June.
Somewhere out there, you’re thinking, “Oh my God, I’m a Gone with the Wind fanatic!” Look — I don’t want to insult you, but if you’re a harder-core fan of Gone with the Wind than my wife, I’ll wear a red dress and dance the Macarena on the courthouse lawn. They just don’t make Gonezos (©) any bigger than my spouse. You cannot physically restrain her from paroxysms of joy when the damn thing’s on. She quotes from the film’s dialogue the way 2003-04 circa college guys spat lines from Old School. We’ve never been to the “Road to Tara Museum,” but it is strictly a matter of time.
She’s not alone, obviously. Gone with the Wind inspires mad devotion, in part, I think, because it works as both a romantic epic, and a tale of female empowerment. One reason for the story’s universal appeal, in fact, might lie in how neatly it nails a tricky middle ground between the Left and Right on issues of feminism. Scarlett is a thousand percent devoted to women’s rights — except really in any plural or political sense: Scarlett wants freedom for herself; she’s only truly interested in economic freedom; and could frankly give a damn about the rights of other women, or political liberty, voting, etc. She understands — with a clearsightedness that would be cynical if it weren’t so simply observant — that having money means you don’t really need to vote. For instance, late in the novel, she and Rhett entertain Georgia’s Scallywag Republican Governor at their tacky new McMansion, and even though Scarlett bears a real grudge against the Gov and all his Yankee ilk, she butters them up nonetheless, the better to use them for her own purposes.
In this sense, Scarlett is both a proto-feminist hero, and an almost Ayn Rand-y paragon of self-advancement. Not only does she tickle the imaginations of liberals and libertarians, but her canny progress from marriage to marriage takes place entirely within the boundaries of so-called “traditional” womanhood — something I’d bet more than a few Schlafly-types have found validating.
Even Scarlett’s devoted anti-intellectualism works to her advantage. You will not find a character in American fiction more rigorous in her disdain for abstract or philosophical topics (except as they give pasty old Ashley Wilkes something to be amazing at). Scarlett is interested in nice things, food, money, property, and getting what she wants — nothing else. The key feature of her character is therefore a sort of materialistic pragmatism — and since every branch of American politics considers itself “the practical one,” Scarlett occupies prime real estate to be adored by all sides.
All that being said, and just as ludicrously fantastic a character as Scarlett O’Hara is (the highest compliment you can pay a fictional character is Odyssean, and boy oh boy, is Scarlett Odyssean), none of this would register if Scarlett weren’t given an appropriately larger than life backdrop against which her labors could unfold. The Civil War? Check. Gone with the Wind also wouldn’t work, though, unless there were real problems for the story’s centerpiece romance. Something has to impair the parties’ full consummation in order for the love story to qualify as epic. The more grand the obstacle, the more epic the romance.
A quick survey of romantic epics bears this out. War, of course, is about the grandest and most epic obstacle a love affair could ever trip over. (See The English Patient). Class distinctions also place high on the list. (Likewise Atonement). Tragic events (cue flute from “My Heart Will Go On”) are obviously another. In my opinion, the most epic American romance of the past ten years was a little flick called Brokeback Mountain (based on the short story from Annie Proulx’s “Close Range,” whose lingering after-effects are a version of the same gut-gnawing pity induced by the movie). Brokeback Mountain is a romantic epic for the same reason only same-sex couples are really good candidates to have epically problematic love stories, at least in modern America: the problem for that story’s couple is pretty damn intractable, given their time. In fact, Brokeback Mountain has a harder edge than other classic romances, because the characters aren’t simply kept apart by grand circumstance, but by a threat of doom. Some band of redneck vigilantes would definitely have murdered Jack and Ennis if they’d ever tried to live together happily. The fact that death was a strong possible outcome — because of their love, and not incidental to it — puts that story on a high plane, stakes-wise.
Of course, Scarlett and Rhett face nothing like that. In fact, the inductions drawn from this drive-by survey point to a troubling conclusion for Gone with the Wind’s “epic” status. Scarlett and Rhett aren’t really kept apart by the Civil War. Rhett’s such a dastard that he sits most of the conflict out, right there in Atlanta, with Scarlett and the other ladies, speculating in foodstuffs and running off to England every now and then. Scarlett is in mourning, of course (her first husband died almost immediately after the War broke out), so preemptive norms of seemliness might interrupt the pair’s march to happiness — but Scarlett didn’t even like Rhett at that point, and all Rhett was interested in (I don’t think this scandalous wrinkle is mentioned in the movie) is having Scarlett be his mistress, his (goddammit, but it fits) “no strings attached,” “friend with benefits.”
Rhett does eventually run off to fight, in the last days of the Confederacy, and by the time he and Scarlett cross paths again, Scarlett’s desperate for cash to save Tara, and throws herself into Rhett’s arms, an offering of virtue given in sacrifice for the survival of Tara. Rhett sees right through this (with help from Scarlett’s grubby little turnip paws, of course), and flat, dropkick rejects her, sending her right into the arms of old Frank Kennedy. Once Frank dies, Rhett swoops in and proposes marriage, knowing he can’t wait forever to catch Scarlett between husbands. They marry, seem fond of each other, until Rhett figures out Scarlett is never going to get over that God damned Ashley Wilkes, and it’s “Adios amiga.” Microphone drop. I don’t give no damn.
But take a closer look: What does this story lack that other romantic epics have? Are Rhett and Scarlett kept apart by war? Class distinction? Tragedy? Disease? Threat of destruction?
Nope. They get together because they can, and they break up because one gets pissed at the other. A less grand set of circumstances could not be found.
This is not epic — this is mundane.
At this point I’m in deep trouble. If the takeaway from this essay is that Gone with the Wind lacks the status of an epic romance — that it is, in fact, nothing but a love story with two rather bratty protagonists — my wife is not going to be happy with me.
Fortunately, the genuine size of Gone with the Wind, the sheer land area it occupies in the American imagination, offers enough glitz and orchestra to rocket even the flimsiest of romances up to orbital heights. Whether we’re talking about the novel or the movie, this story is celebrated. The film is such a gigantic deal that it’s easy to forget how enormous a deal the novel was: It won the Pulitzer Prize, captivated the nation, is apparently (if you believe Pat Conroy’s introduction to my copy) given a Biblical place of honor on many a Southern coffee table, and had its movie rights sold off for the unheard of at the time sum of $50,000. At any serious gathering of top shelf American cinema, Gone with the Wind would be at the Kane, Casablanca, Godfather table. Even as non-pop-culture-obsessed a writer as Flannery O’Connor has a story (one of her weirder ones (and that’s saying something)) that involves the famous Atlanta premiere of Gone with the Wind: “A Late Encounter with the Enemy,” which in classic Flannerian style makes us feel both sorry for and annoyed by a cranky genteel Southern White who thinks too highly of himself, in this case because they gussied him up for the movie premiere in a Confederate military costume, which now that he’s way older thinks is actually his original battle uniform and so insists on wearing to special occasions.
Think about that. Gone with the Wind is such a huge deal, Flannery O’Connor wrote a story that hinged on its status in the texture of Southern life. Flannery O’Connor. It doesn’t get any bigger than that.
Which is all to say, something is epic about this story. Can it be an epic because it makes us feel epic? A horror story scares us, a comedy makes us laugh, a tragedy makes us cry — I suppose a romance makes us feel, uh, twitterpated — is that, then, the real mark of genre? Not some academic’s induction based on a leisurely survey of the available material, but the specific kind of blast the story delivers, the special effects it drives into the hearts and guts of readers?
If that’s the case, then I think I’m sitting pretty with my wife. Because Gone with the Wind has got the chops in spite of the fact that the love problem at its center is not only mundane, but teenagerly so. Rhett really does love Scarlett, but has to act like he doesn’t, to protect his feelings, because he knows Scarlett never got over Ashley being the one man she couldn’t have. Drop that love triangle right into a CW plotline and nobody’s going to raise an eyebrow.
In other words, Gone with the Wind surpasses the un-epicness of its romance, and makes us feel romantically epic all the same. This is a serious accomplishment. I wish I could explain how it’s done. Of course, part of it is the historical backdrop, but I think a more important factor is just the expansiveness of the couple, particularly Scarlett (though Rhett’s a pretty insanely intriguing character, too — I’ve heard rumors he was based on Sam Houston — go read about that crazy bastard some time).
But maybe it’s epic because it’s just so successful as a story. I think we need to feel that a story is about everything in order to let it in, let it move us. That’s the mark, I think, of the true masterpiece, and if anything could coherently separate “literature” from “fiction,” that’d be it. It’s a pretty simple standard, actually — all any story has to do is just show us the meaning of life.
Gone with the Wind qualifies. Something in Scarlett’s practicality, something in her determination, something in her hunger (I don’t mean the turnip-eschewing kind, I mean the way Scarlett from the very first scene is driven by this crazy, all-consuming, no-boundaries-recognizing hunger for everything, the way she just wants it all) — there’s something brutal and fine to that. In her strange optimism, too, the way she pushes everything unpleasant from her thoughts, so that faced with the collapse of her third marriage, she is almost transported, idiotic, almost insensate, in her belief that she can fix it all, have it all, that she can get Rhett back — which of course wouldn’t mean that she’d have to give up on Ashley, too — and, most impressively, in her faith that tomorrow holds all the space you’ll ever need to get what you want, and keep it.
This is one of the strange centers of the world, a vein of pure human talent, unearthed and irrefutable, mysterious, friendly, beckoning, and fully beyond us.
Is it my imagination, or do an inordinate number of writers die in motor vehicle accidents? Maybe I tend to notice these grisly deaths because I’m a writer, an avid reader of obituaries, and also a car lover with a deep fear of dying in a crash. But I’m convinced by years of accumulated empirical evidence that writers outnumber the percentage of, say, nurses or teachers or accountants who die in car and motorcycle accidents. (Similarly, an inordinate number of musicians seem to die in plane crashes, including the Big Bopper, John Denver, Buddy Holly, Otis Redding, Ritchie Valens and Ronnie Van Zant, to name a few.)
Why do so many writers die in motor vehicle mishaps? Are they reckless drivers? Prone to bad luck? Likely to indulge in risky behavior? I don’t pretend to know the answer(s), but I have noticed, sadly, that writers who die in crashes are frequently on the cusp of greatness or in the midst of some promising project; sometimes they’re at the peak of their careers. I offer this list in chronological order, aware it isn’t exhaustive. Feel free to add to it in the comments. Think of this as a living tribute to writers who left us too soon:
T.E. Lawrence (1888-1935) – Lawrence of Arabia, David Lean’s Oscar-winning 1962 movie, opens with the death of its subject. T.E. Lawrence (played by Peter O’Toole), the archaeologist/warrior who helped unite rival Arab tribes and defeat the Ottoman Empire during the First World War, was whizzing along a road in rural Dorset, England, astride his Brough Superior SS100 motorcycle on the afternoon of May 13, 1935. A dip in the road obscured Lawrence’s view of two boys on bicycles, and when he swerved to avoid them he lost control and pitched over the handlebars. Six days later he died from his injuries. He was 46.
Seven Pillars of Wisdom, Lawrence’s account of his experiences during the Great War, made him an international celebrity, though he called the book “a narrative of daily life, mean happenings, little people.” An inveterate letter writer, Lawrence also published his correspondence with Winston Churchill, George Bernard Shaw, Noel Coward, E.M. Forster and many others. He dreamed that victory on the desert battlefield would result in an autonomous Arab state, but negotiators at the Paris peace conference had very different ideas, prompting Lawrence to write bitterly, “Youth could win but had not learned to keep: and was pitiably weak against age. We stammered that we had worked for a new heaven on earth, and they thanked us kindly and made their peace.”
Seven Pillars of Wisdom still speaks to us today, as the U.S. fights two wars in the region during this convulsive Arab Spring. Lawrence could have been writing about Americans in Iraq when he wrote these words about his fellow British soldiers: “And we were casting them by thousands into the fire to the worst of deaths, not to win the war but that the corn and rice and oil of Mesopotamia might be ours.”
Nathanael West (1903-1940) – Nathanael West, born Nathan Weinstein, wrote just four short novels in his short life, but two of them – Miss Lonelyhearts and The Day of the Locust – are undisputed classics. After graduating from college he managed two New York hotels, where he allowed fellow aspiring writers to stay at reduced rates or free of charge, including Dashiell Hammett, Erskine Caldwell and James T. Farrell. When his first three novels – The Dream Life of Balso Snell (1931), Miss Lonelyhearts (1933) and A Cool Million (1934) – earned a total of $780, a demoralized West went to Hollywood to try his hand at screenwriting.
There he enjoyed his first success. He wrote scripts for westerns, B-movies and a few hits, then used his experiences in the trenches of the movie business to brilliant effect in his masterpiece, The Day of the Locust (1939), which satirizes the tissue of fakery wrapped around everything in Los Angeles, from its buildings to its people to the fantasies that pour out of its dream factories. The novel also paints a garish portrait of the alienated and violent dreamers who come to California for the sunshine and the citrus and the empty promise of a fresh start. West’s original title for the novel was, tellingly, The Cheated. It was eclipsed by John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, which was a published a few weeks before it and went on to win the Pulitzer Prize, then was made into a hit movie. West wrote ruefully to his friend F. Scott Fitzgerald, “Sales: practically none.”
In April of 1940 West married Eileen McKenney. Eight months later, on Dec. 22, a day after Fitzgerald had died of a heart attack, West and McKenney were returning to their home in Los Angeles from a bird-hunting expedition in Mexico. Outside the farming town of El Centro, West, a notoriously bad driver, gunned his sparkling new Ford station wagon through a stop sign at high speed, smashing into a Pontiac driven by a poor migrant worker. West and McKenney were flung from the car and died of “skull fracture,” according to the coroner’s report.
Marion Meade, author of Lonelyhearts: The Screwball World of Nathanael West and Eileen McKenney, closes her book with what I think is a fitting eulogy: “Dead before middle age, Nat left behind no children, no literary reputation of importance, no fine obituary in the New York Times ensuring immortality, no celebrity eulogies, just four short novels, two of them unforgettable. When a writer lives only 37 years and ends up with very little reward, it might seem a waste, until you look at what he did. For Nathanael West, what he did seems enough.”
Margaret Mitchell (1900-1949) – Gone With the Wind, Margaret Mitchell’s only novel, was published in the summer of 1936. By the end of the year it had sold a million copies and David O. Selznick had bought the movie rights for the unthinkable sum of $50,000. Mitchell spent the rest of her life feeding and watering her cash cow, work that was not always a source of pleasure. Her New York Times obituary said the novel “might almost be labeled a Frankenstein that overwhelmed her,” adding, “She said one day, in a fit of exasperation as she left for a mountain hideaway from the throngs which besieged her by telephone, telegraph and in person, that she had determined never to write another word as long as she lived.”
She gave up fiction but continued to write letters, and her correspondence is filled with accounts of illnesses and accidents, boils and broken bones, collisions with furniture and cars. In fact, she claimed she started writing her novel because “I couldn’t walk for a couple of years.”
On the evening of Aug. 11, 1949, Mitchell and her husband John Marsh were about to cross Peachtree Street in downtown Atlanta on their way to see a movie. According to witnesses, Mitchell stepped into the street without looking – something she did frequently – and she was struck by a car driven by a drunk, off-duty taxi driver named Hugh Gravitt. Her skull and pelvis were fractured, and she died five days later without regaining consciousness.
F. Scott Fitzgerald, a writer whose familiarity with failure surely colored his opinion of Mitchell’s staggering success, said of Gone With the Wind, “I felt no contempt for it but only a certain pity for those who considered it the supreme achievement of the human mind.”
Albert Camus (1913-1960) – He had planned to take the train from Provence back to Paris. But at the last minute, the Nobel laureate Albert Camus accepted a ride from his publisher and friend, Michel Gallimard. On Jan. 4, 1960 near the town of Villeblevin, Gallimard lost control of his Facel Vega sports car on a wet stretch of road and slammed into a tree. Camus, 46, died instantly and Gallimard died a few days later. Gallimard’s wife and daughter were thrown clear of the mangled car. Both survived.
In the wreckage was a briefcase containing 144 handwritten pages – the first draft of early chapters of Camus’s most autobiographical novel, The First Man. It closely paralleled Camus’s youth in Algiers, where he grew up poor after his father was killed at the first battle of the Marne, when Albert was one year old. The novel was not published until 1994 because Camus’s daughter Catherine feared it would provide ammunition for the leftist French intellectuals who had turned against her father for daring to speak out against Soviet totalitarianism and for failing to support the Arab drive for independence in the country of his birth. Camus dedicated the unfinished novel to his illiterate mother – “To you who will never be able to read this book.” He once said that of all the many ways to die, dying in a car crash is the most absurd.
Randall Jarrell (1914-1965) – In his essay on Wallace Stevens, written when he was 37, the poet and critic Randall Jarrell wrote prophetically, “A good poet is someone who manages, in a lifetime of standing out in thunderstorms, to be struck by lightning five or six times… A man who is a good poet at forty may turn out to be a good poet at sixty; but he is more likely to have stopped writing poems.”
In the 1960s, as his 50th birthday approached, Jarrell’s poetic inspiration was in decline. While he didn’t stop writing poetry, he concentrated on criticism, translations and children’s books. He also sank into a depression that led him to slash his left wrist and arm in early 1965. The suicide attempt failed, and a month later his wife Mary committed him to a psychiatric hospital in Chapel Hill, N.C. He was there when his final book of poems, The Lost World, appeared to some savage reviews. In The Saturday Review, Paul Fussell wrote, “It is sad to report that Randall Jarrell’s new book… is disappointing. There is nothing to compare with the poems he was writing 20 years ago… (His style) has hardened into a monotonous mannerism, attended now too often with the mere chic of sentimental nostalgia and suburban pathos.”
Though stung, Jarrell returned to UNC-Greensboro in the fall, where he was a dedicated and revered teacher. In October he was back in Chapel Hill undergoing treatments for the wounds on his left arm. On the evening of Oct. 14, 1965, Jarrell was walking alongside the busy U.S. 15-501 bypass, toward oncoming traffic, about a mile and a half south of town. As a car approached, Jarrell stepped into its path. His head struck the windshield, punching a hole in the glass. He was knocked unconscious and died moments later from “cerebral concussion.” The driver, Graham Wallace Kimrey, told police at the scene, “As I approached he appeared to lunge out into the path of the car.” Kimrey was not charged.
Was it a suicide? A tragic accident? We’ll never know for sure. One thing we do know is that this brilliant critic, uneven poet and inspiring teacher died too young, at 51, the same age as his heroes Proust and Rilke.
Richard Farina (1937-1966) – There was a time when every young person with claims to being hip and literary absolutely had to possess a battered copy of Richard Farina’s only novel, that terrific blowtorch of a book called Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up To Me. Like a handful of other novels – Tropic of Cancer, On the Road, The Catcher in the Rye, Gravity’s Rainbow and Infinite Jest come immediately to mind – Farina’s creation was as much a generational badge as it was a book. Farina’s novel, which recounts the picaresque wanderings of Gnossos Pappadopoulis, was published in 1966, after Farina and his wife Mimi, Joan Baez’s sister, had become a successful folk-singing act. The best man at their wedding was Thomas Pynchon, who’d met Richard while they were students at Cornell.
On April 30, 1966, two days after the novel was published, there was a party in Carmel Valley, California, to celebrate Mimi’s 21st birthday. Richard decided to go for a spin on the back of another guest’s Harley-Davidson motorcycle. The driver entered an S-curve at excessive speed, lost control and tore through a barbed-wire fence. Farina died instantly, at the age of 29. Pynchon, who later dedicated Gravity’s Rainbow to Farina, said his friend’s novel comes on “like the Hallelujah Chorus done by 200 kazoo players with perfect pitch.”
Wallace Stegner (1909-1993) – For a writer who lived such a long and fruitful life – he was a teacher, environmentalist, decorated novelist and author of short stories, histories and biographies – Wallace Stegner does not enjoy the readership he deserves. “Generally students don’t read him here,” said Tobias Wolff, who was teaching at Stanford in 2009, the centennial of Stegner’s birth. “I wish they would.”
It was at Stanford that Stegner started the creative writing program and nurtured a whole galaxy of supernova talents, including Edward Abbey, Ernest Gaines, George V. Higgins, Ken Kesey, Gordon Lish, Larry McMurtry and Robert Stone. He won a Pulitzer Prize for fiction and a National Book Award but was ghettoized as “the dean of Western writers.” In a cruel irony, this writer who deplored “the stinks of human and automotive waste” was on his way to deliver a lecture in Santa Fe, N.M., on March 28, 1993, when he pulled his rental car into the path of a car bearing down on his left. The left side of Stegner’s car was crushed, and he suffered broken ribs and a broken collarbone. A heart attack and pneumonia followed, and he died in the hospital at the age of 84.
For all his love of the West, Stegner knew it was no Eden. He once told an interviewer: “The West is politically reactionary and exploitative: admit it. The West as a whole is guilty of inexplicable crimes against the land: admit that too. The West is rootless, culturally half-baked. So be it.”
Steve Allen (1921-2000) – Though best known as a television personality, musician, composer, actor and comedian, Steve Allen also wrote more than 50 books on a wide range of topics, including religion, media, the American educational system and showbiz personalities, plus poetry, plays and short stories. Lovers of Beat literature will always remember Allen for noodling on the piano while Jack Kerouac recited passages from On the Road on “The Steve Allen Show” in 1959.
On Oct. 30, 2000, Allen was driving to his son’s home in Encino, California, when his Lexus collided with an SUV that was being backed out of a driveway. Neither driver appeared to be injured in the fender bender, and they continued on their ways. After dinner at his son’s home, Allen said he was feeling tired and lay down for a nap. He never woke up. The original cause of death was believed to be a heart attack, but a coroner’s report revealed that Allen had suffered four broken ribs during the earlier collision, and a hole in the wall of his heart allowed blood to leak into the sac surrounding the heart, a condition known as hemopericardium.
On the day of his death Allen was working on his 54th book, Vulgarians at the Gate, which decried what he saw as an unacceptable rise of violence and vulgarity in the media.
W.G. Sebald (1944-2001) – It has been said that all of the German writer W.G. Sebald’s books had a posthumous quality to them. That’s certainly true of On the Natural History of Destruction, his magisterial little exploration of the suffering civilians endured during the Allied fire-bombing of German cities at the end of the Second World War. I should say his exploration of the unexplored suffering of German civilians, because the book is partly a rebuke, a challenge to his shamed countrymen’s willed forgetfulness of their own suffering.
I lived for a time in Cologne, target of some of the most merciless bombing. I’ve seen photographs of the city’s Gothic cathedral standing in a sea of smoking rubble. I’ve heard old-timers talk about the war – men grousing about the idiocy of their military officers, women boasting about how they cadged deals on the black market. But I never heard anyone say a word about the horror of watching the sky rain fire. Until Sebald dared to speak.
He produced a relatively short shelf of books – novels, poetry, non-fiction – but he was being mentioned as a Nobel Prize candidate until Dec. 14, 2001, when he was driving near his home in Norwich, England, with his daughter Anna. Sebald apparently suffered a heart attack, and his car veered into oncoming traffic and collided with a truck. Sebald died instantly, at the age of 57. His daughter survived the crash.
David Halberstam (1934-2007) – David Halberstam died working. On April 23, 2007 he was riding through Menlo Park, California, in the passenger seat of a Toyota Camry driven by a UC-Berkeley journalism student. They were on their way to meet Y.A. Tittle, the former New York Giants quarterback, who Halberstam was keen to interview for a book he was writing about the epic 1958 N.F.L. title game between the Giants and the Baltimore Colts. As the Camry came off the Bayfront Expressway, it ran a red light. An oncoming Infiniti slammed into the passenger’s side and sent the Camry skidding into a third vehicle. The Camry’s engine caught fire and Halberstam, 73, was pronounced dead at the scene from blunt force trauma. All three drivers survived with minor injuries.
Halberstam made his mark by winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1964 for his reporting in the New York Times that questioned the veracity of the men leading America’s war effort in Vietnam. Eight years later he published what is regarded as his masterpiece, The Best and the Brightest, about the brilliant but blind men who led us into the fiasco of that unwinnable war. He went on to write 20 non-fiction books on politics, sports, business and social history. I think The Fifties, his re-examination of the supposedly bland Eisenhower years, contains all the virtues and vices of his work: outsized ambition and pit-bull reporting shackled to prose that’s both sprawling and clunky. Like so many writers with big reputations and egos to match, Halberstam never got the tough editor he needed.
The book he was working on when he died, The Glory Game, was completed by Frank Gifford, who played for the Giants in that 1958 title game. It was published – “by Frank Gifford with Peter Richmond” – a year after Halberstam’s death.
Doug Marlette (1949-2007) – Doug Marlette, the Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist and creator of the popular comic strip “Kudzu,” published his first novel in 2001. The Bridge spins around the violent textile mill strikes in North Carolina in the 1930s, in which Marlette’s grandmother was stabbed with a bayonet. The novel is set in the fictional town of Eno, loosely modeled on Hillsborough, N.C., the hot house full of writers where Marlette was living when he wrote the book. When Marlette’s neighbor, the writer Allan Gurganus, read the novel in galleys, he saw a little too much of himself in the composite character Ruffin Strudwick, a gay man who wears velvet waistcoats and sashays a lot. Gurganus called the publisher and demanded that his name be removed from the book’s acknowledgements. A bookstore cancelled a reading, charging Marlette with homophobia, and Hillsborough became the scene of a nasty literary cat fight between pro- and anti-Marlette camps. People who should have known better – a bunch of writers – had forgotten Joan Didion’s caveat: “Writers are always selling somebody out.”
Marlette produced a second novel, Magic Time, in 2006. After delivering the eulogy at his father’s funeral in Charlotte, N.C., Marlette flew to Mississippi on July 10, 2007 to help a group of Oxford High School students who were getting ready to stage a musical version of “Kudzu.” The school’s theater director met Marlette at the airport. On the way to Oxford, the director’s pickup truck hydroplaned in heavy rain and smashed into a tree. Marlette was killed at the age of 57. He was at work on his third novel when he died.
Jeanne Leiby (1964-2011) – In 2008 The Southern Review named a woman as editor for the first time since Robert Penn Warren and Cleanth Brooks founded the literary journal at Louisiana State University in 1935. The woman was Jeanne Leiby, a native of Detroit who had published a collection of short stories called Downriver, set in the corroded bowels of her post-industrial hometown. Her fiction had appeared in numerous literary journals, including The Greensboro Review, New Orleans Review and Indiana Review. Leiby had also worked as fiction editor at Black Warrior Review in Alabama and as editor of The Florida Review before taking the job at The Southern Review.
On April 19, 2011, Leiby was driving west on Interstate-10 near Baton Rouge in her 2007 Saturn convertible. The top was down and she was not wearing a seat belt. When she tried to change lanes she lost control of the car and it hit a concrete guard rail and began to spin clockwise. Leiby was thrown from the car and died later at Baton Rouge General Hospital. She was 46.
At the time of her death Leiby was, by all accounts, performing masterfully at a thankless job. Due to punishing state budget cuts, she had slimmed The Southern Review down, cancelled some readings and other events for the journal’s 75th anniversary in 2010, and ended the annual $1,500 prizes for poetry, non-fiction and fiction. She did all that without a falloff in quality. She was also working to merge The Southern Review with the LSU Press.
In a conversation with the writer Julianna Baggott, Leiby confided that during her job interviews at The Southern Review she’d offered her opinion that the journal had gotten stodgy and that it was too Old South and too male. One of the first things this woman from Detroit did after she got the job was to lower the portraits of her predecessors – all men – because she thought they were hung too high.
Don Piper (1948 – ) – Don Piper might be the most intriguing person on this list. He died in a car crash – then came back from the other side to write a best-seller about the experience.
On Jan. 18, 1989, Piper, a Baptist minister, was driving his Ford Escort home to Houston after attending a church conference. It was a cold, rainy day. As he drove across a narrow, two-lane bridge, an oncoming semi-truck driven by a trusty from a nearby prison crossed the center line and crushed Piper’s car. When paramedics arrived at the scene, Piper had no pulse and they covered his corpse with a tarp. Since I can’t possibly improve on Piper’s telling of what happened next, I’ll give it to you straight from his book, 90 Minutes in Heaven:
Immediately after I died, I went straight to heaven… Simultaneous with my last recollection of seeing the bridge and the rain, a light enveloped me, with a brilliance beyond earthly comprehension or description. Only that. In my next moment of awareness, I was standing in heaven. Joy pulsated through me as I looked around, and at that moment I became aware of a large crowd of people. They stood in front of a brilliant, ornate gate… As the crowd rushed toward me, I didn’t see Jesus, but did see people I had known… and every person was smiling, shouting, and praising God. Although no one said so, I intuitively knew that they were my celestial welcoming committee.
Piper recognized many people who had preceded him to the grave, including a grandfather, a great-grandfather, a childhood friend, a high school classmate, two teachers and many relatives. His story continues:
The best way to explain it is to say that I felt as if I were in another dimension… everything was brilliantly intense… (and) we began to move toward that light… Then I heard the music… The most amazing sound, however, was the angels’ wings… Hundreds of songs were being sung at the same time… my heart filled with the deepest joy I’ve ever experienced… I saw colors I would never have believed existed. I’ve never, ever felt more alive than I did then… and I felt perfect.
Alas, perfection was not destined to last. A fellow preacher had stopped at the scene of the accident to pray. Just as Piper was getting ready to walk through the “pearlescent” gates and meet God face-to-face, the other minister’s prayers were answered and Piper, miraculously, rejoined the living. This, surely, ranks as one of the greatest anti-climaxes in all of Western literature. Nonethless, 90 Minutes in Heaven, published in 2004, has sold more than 4 million copies and it has been on the New York Times paperback best-seller list for the past 196 weeks, and counting.
(Image: Orange Car Crash – 14 Times from eyeliam’s photostream)