Culture Shock: Reassessing the Workshop

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1.

I had been living in Japan for 20 years when I moved back home to the United States in 2011. Upon my return, I decided that I would finally focus my energies on creative writing. But where to begin? The more I consulted friends and colleagues, the more I heard the same thing, over and over

“Whatever you do, don’t get an MFA.”

I received this advice from published authors and, even more frequently, from MFA-holders themselves. My understanding of MFA programs was limited—I’d heard of the prestigious “Iowa Workshop” but was otherwise completely unaware that MFA programs in the U.S. had exploded in popularity over the past two decades.

In Japan, there is no such thing as an MFA. People who want to be writers study things like literature and journalism. My own undergraduate background was in philosophy from Berkeley, and I later got an MA in Japanese literature and linguistics from the University of Wisconsin at Madison. In grad school, we read voluminously, wrote translations, and did literary analysis. After graduating, I worked as a translator in the fields of business, government, and academia. It was around this time that I had what was probably the best creative-writing “craft” experience of my life: I was hired to translate a novel from Japanese to English.

More than once I’ve been told by successful writers that if I wanted to become a writer, I should copy out by hand my favorite novel. “You have to write out the entire thing,” one of them told me. “You can’t imagine how illuminating it can be.” I’ve never done this exercise myself, but I believe that I’ve experienced its intended effect doing literary translations. Translating a novel was a formative experience for me as a writer because I learned that writing is like any other art: while talent can’t be taught, technique can be learned. So, how exactly does one learn technique? I decided to take creative writing classes, earning my Certificate in Creative Writing from UCLA Extension and attending classes through Stanford Continuing Education’s program, as well as a handful of other writing centers. It was then that I experienced the creative writing workshop for myself.

So, what is a workshop?

It is, first and foremost, an American invention. The basic idea is that a group of writers, sometimes called a cohort, submits a set number of pages to the group—usually students submit in small groups or singly. The cohort then provides structured feedback concerning strong and weak points in the writing with suggestions for development and revision. During this time the authors are under “a cone of silence,” a kind of gag order. Authors are not allowed to speak during their own workshops until the end, at which point they can thank their cohort and perhaps provide clarification or ask a question or two.

In his 2021 book Craft in the Real World: Rethinking Fiction Writing and Workshopping, Matthew Salesses argues that, at base, workshops should enable writers to articulate their artistic visions. I remember when I started working on my certificate at UCLA Extension, a friend in one of my first classes told me that the best outcome I could hope for was that “the classes will help you understand what you like.” I was skeptical. Is that all? But as I continued to study, I came to agree with my friend. It is valuable to be able hammer out one’s own artistic vision through conversation with other people. For this reason, giving feedback is usually more valuable than receiving it, which is also something most writing teachers will tell you.

But Craft in the Real World also vigorously critiques the American MFA program and the workshop model in general. (Salesses was just appointed assistant professor of writing at Columbia University’s MFA program.) Salesses wonders: if only one type of writing is held up as “good” and the programs remain highly insular, how can an artist articulate a unique vision? He writes:
If you have been taught to write fiction in America, it is a good bet that you have been taught a style popularized by Ernest Hemingway and later by Raymond Carver, sometimes described as ‘invisible,’ that is committed to limiting the use of modifiers and metaphors, to the concrete over the abstract, to individual agency and action, and to avoiding overt politics (other than the politics of white masculinity). Instead of a political argument, a character might angrily eat a potato.
Ironically, the workshop’s roots are overtly political. It was by reading two books—Anis Shivani’s Against the Workshop: Provocations, Polemics, Controversies and Eric Bennett’s Workshops of Empire: Stegner, Engle, and American Creative Writing during the Cold War—that I learned about how the U.S. government, via the CIA, interfered in the creation of the Iowa Workshop, and how this interference continues to inform the multitude of writing programs we have today. From 1941 to 1964, Iowa Writers’ Workshop director Paul Engle fundraised for the program by using explicitly anticommunist rhetoric, promising to promote American values through the teaching of creative writing. Among the program’s donors were the Rockefeller Foundation, State Department, the Fairfield Foundation, and the Asia Foundation, the latter two of which were CIA front groups.

And so the Iowa Workshop became a form of soft power to push back against Soviet collectivist ideas. As a result, writes Bennett, the Workshop was mandated to promote stories centered around the private life of the individual. Literature was to highlight “sensations, not doctrines; experiences, not dogmas; memories, not philosophies. Anything to ensure collectivist movements would not form.”

Elif Batuman, in a 2010 essay in the London Review of Books called “Get a Real Degree,” argues that these rules have become so embedded in creative writing shops that today they are not questioned. Sometimes called psychological realism, the basic canon encourages a kind of writing style that is based on strong individualism, an encapsulated self out in the world. And in fiction, as well as a lot of nonfiction, the name of the game is something we call “conflict.”

You will often hear in workshops that conflict is the fuel that drives all story. We are taught to begin in-scene—and then, teachers tell you, “stay in scene”—and to begin as close to the central point of conflict as possible. From here the story moves toward its resolution. Along the way, there must be plenty of “character development.” One of my fiction teachers told me that this focus on character arcs is almost an obsession in American literary fiction.

Americans read far fewer books in translation than readers in places like Japan, Poland, France, or Spain, and the workshop is even more insular than the general reading population. My biggest complaint about my workshops, shared by many of my cohorts, is that we read the same books and stories over and over again. There is a case to be made that this insularity and practice of narrow reading has helped create a canon of bland and cookie-cutter books.

2.

Throughout Craft in the Real World, Salesses questions the extreme whiteness of creative writing programs. (Tongue and cheek, Batuman, in her London Review of Books essay, places “writing classes” at #14 on a list of “stuff white people like.”) Speaking anecdotally, my writing classes and workshops have overwhelmingly been taught by white female instructors. Taught by faculty that is so homogenous—racially, linguistically (teachers have been primarily monoglots with no experience reading globally in other languages), and in gender—the classes present a narrow and skewed system of aesthetic values.

In her 2017 book The Girl at the Baggage Claim: Explaining the East-West Culture Gap, Gish Jen unpacks the way differing underlying concepts of self inform the various storytelling traditions around the world. Throughout her career as a writer, Jen has made a case for fiction that combines both Eastern and Western craft. In the West, she says, this concept is something she calls the “big pit self,”
a self unlike any other in the world, assertive and full of self-esteem, and yet anxiously protective of its self-image and obsessed with self-definition. Why is it, exactly, that Americans must have fifty flavors of ice cream when other cultures are happy with ten? Why do we talk about ourselves so much? Why are we consumed with the memoir? Why is personal growth so important? Does self-esteem come at a price? And why do we see work the way we do, and how did we get this way?
In contrast to the “pit self,” Jen explores a notion of self that is far more prevalent outside the Western world, the interdependent “flexi-self” associated with collectivistic societies. In this case, the boundary between self and world is “nowhere near so absolute. It is, rather, porous and fluid—a dotted line.” It would only be natural that this latter sense of self would inform the writing traditions of those countries. And so, the American workshop can be encouraging or stifling depending on one’s background. Because, as Salesses argues, the workshop is all about societal expectation. Being so firmly founded in cultural norms and ideology, it will not promote artistic rule-breakers or genre-defilers.

3.

After 20 years in Japan, where for the last decade I thought, dreamt, and read mainly in Japanese, my thinking and writing now reflects Japanese storytelling styles. I prefer more meditative writing with constant pivots and turns. I love surprises, and prefer the lyric over the concrete, the “nobility of failure” over the hero’s journey. And more than anything, I love books that refer to other books.

Salesses, who was born in Korea, reminds us that not all traditions favor conflict, or character-driven models, like the hero’s journey. He cites Chinese, Korean, and Japanese stories, which “developed from a four-act, rather than a three- or five-act structure: in Japanese it is called kishōtenketsu (ki: introduction; sho: development; ten: twist; ketsu: reconciliation).” The kishōtenketsu structure informs fiction, nonfiction, theater, and even the movements of the tea ceremony. It is a profoundly different aesthetic system from the Western model, with its primary focus on conflict. Perhaps the most common critique I hear from Western readers about Japanese fiction is that nothing ever seems to happen.

Last year, I reviewed Multispecies Cities: Solarpunk Urban Futures for the Asian Review of Books. Multispecies Cities is a collection of climate fiction set primarily in the Asia-Pacific, that seeks to imagine what cities might look like in a future of multi-species co-existence and green justice. The stories are filled with a polyphony of voices—some non-human and a few non-alive—working together to bring about solutions that address global warming, the extinction of animal species and the coming climate disaster. The stories in Multispecies Cities call on us to change not just what we write about, but how we write. The stories themselves question progress-based narratives and stories of the individual, or the lone hero. At first, Western readers might even feel disoriented by these stories of cooperation and immersion in the environment, where rivers speak and stars can be heard. You might need to re-read some of them to assess what is going on when no-one wins or loses, overcomes or fails—because at first glance nothing seems to change.

Salesses laments that we have come to teach plot as a string of causation in which the protagonist’s desires move the action forward. He says:
Western fiction can often be boiled down to A wants B and C gets in the way of it. This kind of story shape is inherently conflict-based, perhaps also inherently male (as author Jane Alison puts it: “Something that swells and tautens until climax, then collapses? Bit masculo-sexual, no?”). In East Asian fiction, the twist (ten) is not confrontation but surprise, something that reconfigures what its audience thinks the story is ‘about.’
In workshop, “Nothing happens” is always meant as a criticism, an inherently bad thing. This can be stifling for a writer who doesn’t read for urgency or conflict in everything.

5.

I have spent roughly half my life in Japan and half in America. For so long, I had two languages switching back and forth in my mind, one for America, one for Japan. There were different clothes, ways of speaking, foods to eat, body languages, and styles of friendships. It has been an enormous adjustment to permanently return to America in mid-life. I have had to relearn and get reacclimated to a lot. But I never would have expected that reading and writing would be the most challenging adjustments so far. I had not realized how insular American publishing is, how few books that might broaden Western tastes are actually translated for the American market, and how translations are almost completely ignored in creative writing classes. And how students are made to read and re-read the same books over and over again.

And so, I find myself in a quandary. It is not that I think we should scrap existing syllabi, but rather that we must make room for other storytelling traditions in these programs. And this must start with reading. As Matthew Salesses repeats again and again in his book: what is being taught as universal rules of good writing in these programs is nothing more than a highly narrow understanding of literary taste.

I wonder how we can ever change the world if we don’t first change our dominant mode of storytelling, with its intense and politically-motivated focus on individual experience and conflict? The future of creative writing programs should be radically inclusive, allowing not just for a multiplicity of voices but of a wide variety of traditions. There is room on the syllabus for wider reading that pushes back against the established rules of the workshop—literature in translation, for instance—that would infuse new ways of thinking, fresh forms, and more creativity into a cookie-cutter literary landscape.

As I look toward my own studies, I feel ambivalent. As someone who, as a reader, tends toward more international styles of storytelling, I have never been a huge fan of writing that is scene-driven, nor have I ever been all that interested in the hero’s journey—much preferring Borges and Calvino to Carver or Hemingway. Before I do anything else, I think I need to make my own rules. There is value in the workshop. My writing courses have challenged me to think about how and why people read, to engage with the purpose of the art. I am convinced that people read not just to be entertained, but to be enchanted. There are many roads to that place of enchantment, some less traveled. But in the end, that is a road that I will have to discover for myself.

The Poetic Life of Samuel Menashe

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Samuel Menashe, who died 11 years ago this month, lived most of his life in a three-room railroad flat on Greenwich Village’s Thompson Street. He was reluctant to call himself a poet, though if accused, he wouldn’t deny it. In 2003, at the age of 79 and after decades of toiling in relative obscurity, he was awarded the Poetry Foundation’s first-ever “Neglected Masters Award.” This all-too-fitting capstone cemented Menashe’s legacy as a poet of unambiguously astonishing power who, several honors and admirers aside, was famous most of all for not being famous.
Looking for a thread of silver lining, it might be tempting to pigeonhole Menashe as a poet’s poet—he had many celebrated champions, among them Donald Davie, Stephen Spender, Danielle Chapman, Dana Gioia, and, perhaps most meaningful for Menashe, Austin Clarke, who praised Menashe’s work in the Irish Times and even recited some of it on the radio. Menashe’s most crucial ally was probably the poet Kathleen Raine, who helped him find a London publisher for his first collection and contributed its forward. But to say that Menashe had any major impact on his peers or the generations that succeeded them would be a stretch. When, as an experiment, I googled “influenced by Samuel Menashe,” it took .57 seconds to return exactly zero results.

In the introduction to his 2005 self-titled collection, Menashe writes, “When the Beat poets ‘made the scene,’ I heard the pious platitude that it was good for poetry, but it was not good for my poetry. If confessional poetry was to the fore, I had nothing to offer its devotees.” Echoing these sentiments, Don Share, another notable admirer, wrote upon Menashe’s death, “In our time of poetry movements, schools, coteries, and communities, Samuel Menashe was singular and self-sufficient.”
Share’s observation has a more positive spin than Menashe’s own, though one can’t help but wonder if Menashe’s singularity didn’t perhaps necessitate his self-sufficiency. There is no doubt strength in numbers and, counterintuitive as it may seem, being part of a movement can actually help an artist to stand out. The creator who goes it alone might garner interest and admiration, but it can be harder to determine their overall relevance, which to a critic means it’s harder to justify writing about them. In fact, even some of the most visionary and fearlessly independent artists like Picasso and Dylan were at least partially associated with larger movements (in their cases, cubism and folk, respectively), even as they clearly dominated them. Davie perhaps put it best when he wrote, “One trouble is that [Menashe’s] poems are as far from being traditional as they are from being in the fashion, or in any of the several fashions that have come and gone, whether in British or American poetry, over the last twenty-five or for that matter one hundred years.” Being consistently out of fashion is hardly a recipe for recognition, let alone financial comfort.
Would Menashe then have been better off if he’d tried to attach himself to a more “fashionable” movement? Could he have ingratiated himself, for example, with the Beats? This seems unlikely. While the spirituality in Menashe’s work would surely have resonated with the likes of Ginsberg and Kerouac, those poets’ energy, exuberance, and expansiveness, not to mention their legendary subversiveness, could not be more different than Menashe’s dignified, finely chiseled poems.
How about the confessional poets then? There is plenty of autobiography in Menashe’s poetry, but its minimalism and enigmatic nature puts him at odds with that movement, as well. As Danielle Chapman notes, Menashe “doesn’t dredge through memories or parade us through his bedroom, and, except as the archetypal mother, father, or friend, he rarely makes mention of specific people or places.” When he does dig into his roots, however, the results are marvelous:

My father drummed darkness
Through the underbrush
Until lightning struck
I take after him
Clouds crowd the sky
Around me as I run
Downhill on a high—
I am my mother’s son
Born long ago
In the storm’s eye

What about the New York School? “No, they won’t have me,” Menashe said of the city’s famed poetry scene of the 1950s and ‘60s. It doesn’t seem a good fit anyhow: While poets like Frank O’Hara and John Ashbury wrote charmingly and inventively about their struggles to put words on the page, and about the form itself, their work is worlds apart from Menashe’s spare approach to the same subject matter:

The statue, that cast
Of my solitude
Has found its niche
In this kitchen
Where I do not eat
Where the bathtub stands
Upon cat feet—
I did not advance
I cannot retreat

None of this is to say that Menashe’s work exists in a vacuum. In a wonderful video interview from 2009, we are treated to a shot of some of the books that clutter his shelf, which include Shakespearean sonnets and collections from Blake, Frost, and Yeats. In interviews, Menashe would frequently cite the influence of Blake and of English translations of the Hebrew Bible. The latter might raise the question of whether Menashe could be thought of as a Jewish poet—a valid proposition. The son of Russian-Jewish immigrants, his first language was Yiddish, and Jewish themes pervade his work. His first American collection was called No Jerusalem But This, whose title poem “The Shrine Whose Shape I Am” contains these lines:

There is no Jerusalem but this
Breathed in flesh by shameless love
Built high upon the tides of blood
I believe the Prophets and Blake
And like David I bless myself
With all my might

At times, he is unabashedly spiritual and some of his poems could almost pass for psalms:

O Many Named Beloved
Listen to my praise
Various as the seasons
Different as the days
All my treasons cease
When I see your face

However, “Jewish poet” is an exceptionally broad category, and if some of his themes may overlap with modern Hebrew poets like Yehuda Amichai and Hayyim Nachman Bialik, there is also something distinctly American about his cadence. And unlike modern Yiddish writers like I.B. Singer or the masterful Chaim Grade, Menashe experienced and wrote about World War II through the lens of having been a U.S. soldier rather than a Holocaust survivor. He took part in the famous Battle of the Bulge in the Ardennes, and his wartime experiences suffuse his work, even as they’re often veiled in mystery:

Do not scrutinize
A secret wound—
Avert your eyes—
Nothing’s to be done
Where darkness lies
No light can come

Menashe is similarly ill-suited to be grouped in with the so-called “Deep Image” poets who gained prominence in the ‘60s and ‘70s. The rich, vivid language of poets like Gallway Kinnell, James Wright, and Diane Wakoski is replaced in Menashe’s poetry by a far simpler, sparer vocabulary. His minimalism is in fact part of what makes his work so intimidating: he wields so much power with so few tools.
I wonder if Menashe ever felt tempted to adjust his poetry in order to better fit in—perhaps, but then he would have been a different poet. Whether intentionally or unconsciously, many creators have been all too willing to compromise their work by allowing forces beyond pure, unadulterated self-expression to impact its creation. Samuel Menashe, it seems, never made such a bargain.
In his later years, Menashe sometimes seemed rueful about his lack of recognition, even as he marveled over his long overdue accolades and the legacy they granted to his work. In a 2005 interview with Adam Travis of the Poetry Foundation, he said that his had been “the opposite of a life buttressed by grants and having a publisher and going to him every few years with new poems. Each time I’ve had to start from scratch.” When asked if there were any merits to obscurity, his reply could not have been more emphatic: “NO! No, no, no, no, no! You want your work to be read. Obscurity means you’re not read.”
Even if Menashe’s underappreciation has on some level come to define him, is that really so terrible? In my own brief but fateful encounters with Menashe over the years, I never once thought of him as unsuccessful. Watching him recite his poetry in his regal, Jimmy Stewart-like voice before a loving crowd at the Bowery Poetry Club was nothing short of magical. Success can take many forms and can mean different things depending on the artist or the medium. Samuel Menashe focused on the work rather than the scene, lived frugally and modestly and achieved his much-deserved recognition just in time to get some satisfaction and no small measure of bemusement out of it. There’s a purity to the way he led his artistic life, a charm and grace. You might very well call it poetry.

A Debut Novelist Imagines Life After Her Own Death

I was 17 years old when I died.
In the years after my death, I liked to use this line as an ice breaker in conversations, always enjoying the disturbed reactions. Even alone, I found myself compulsively scribbling the same sentence again and again—I was 17 years old when I died. Over the proceeding years, one sentence eventually became two, two became three. Seemingly outside of my own choice, my brain, desperate to process my death, forged the beginning of a story. The story evolved, as most stories do. It wasn’t about me. Not exclusively. It became a story about a woman in the throes of true love with a promising life ahead of her who dies of lymphoma, cryogenically preserves her body, and is resurrected 100 years later in a world where it is illegal to be a resurrected human. Ultimately, it became a story about the repercussions of cheating death—the way I had.
The truth of my death is much more common. I died in a car accident on the way to take my junior year biology final. I don’t remember any of it, the moments before my death or the many minutes I was without a heartbeat. In fact, that period where I wasn’t alive distinctly stands in my mind as a stark nothingness, a vacuum of time where I didn’t exist. I can still feel it, the scar of not existing, as real as I feel the scars on my face that I try to hide behind thick bangs. It was mere chance that my life was returned to me. My unlikely guardian angel was a former EMT with a history of substance abuse who happened to be driving by when she saw my sky blue VW bug crumpled underneath a relatively unscathed Suburban SUV. She leapt to my rescue, scaling the smoking wreckage and heaving my lifeless body through the broken windshield. With her bare palms, she held my severed temporal lobe artery to try and buy time for the ambulance to get there and restart my heart. At least that’s the story as it has been told to me. Stories from others are all I have to rely on to know anything about my own death. I was told that they worked on my body the entire ride to Grady Hospital in Atlanta and were only finally able to resuscitate me as we arrived. I was rushed into surgery. and they repaired my bleeding brain. A few hours later I awoke, having been given a second chance. I had come back to life—or at least a version of me did.
As traumatic as that morning was, I wonder if I wouldn’t be so marked by death if my accident was all I had to deal with. If my own death was all I had been forced to endure, then maybe that sentence never would have wormed its way into my pen and I never would have written the story that became my debut novel The Awoken, which publishes on August 9. But unfortunately, mine wasn’t the only death in the spring of 2005. Two weeks before my own death, my childhood best friend died in a car accident on his way home from work.
Charlie was 17 years old when he died.
We’d been friends since we were seven. He was goofy and charming and kind. We made plans of living together after college in Los Angeles and going to the beach every day. A year before we died, I took him to my high school dance and hated it when my friends flirted with him. We were never romantic, but still I wanted him to myself. He somehow knew, walking away from the gaggle of girls surrounding him to sit with me and put his feet in the cold pool next to mine. We didn’t talk. We didn’t need to. I just rested my head on his shoulder while the world spun, only our future lay ahead of us.
The proximity of our life-ending events is mere coincidence. Sadly, there was no passing EMT with a troubled past looking for redemption. Charlie died and stayed dead while I had the privilege, and shouldered the guilt, of coming back to life. To this day, my death haunts me. Shards of glass remain trapped beneath my skin. Every few years one will push itself close enough to the surface that it’s uncomfortable, and I have to get it removed. When that happens, I’m face-to-face with what could’ve been. I walk through life shadowed by the corpse of myself from a parallel universe who was not as lucky. The universe where I, like Charlie, died and stayed dead. Or better yet, a universe where Charlie and I switch places.

These dual, soul-altering events led me to that indelible sentence which then led me to write a novel. It wasn’t that simple of course. I wasn’t a novelist. At that point, I was a screenwriter and a documentarian, but I’d always been an avid reader. I grew up on big, fantastical adventures like Dragon Riders of Pern and The Chronicles of Narnia and Lord of the Rings. After my death, my reading shifted along with the rest of my life. I wore thin my copy of Frankenstein, drawn to stories that questioned the very definition of life. Until then, death had been abstract, something I read about in books, and so after my death, I turned to books to make sense of it.
More than a decade later, I still found myself pulled back to that sentence, back to my original word document, and only then did I admit to myself that this was a novel. I began writing. Although it seems naïve to say now, the truth is that I wasn’t consciously aware that I was writing a story about my death. To anyone reading this, I imagine it seems absurd considering The Awoken is about a woman, eerily like myself, who dies young and then is given a second chance at life. But I wasn’t aware it was also about my death until I read my first completed draft. The nothingness I had experienced was there on the page, anthropomorphized as the ultimate antagonist. My husband always knew, as did my mother, but they never pushed me on it. Meanwhile, my editor at Penguin Random House didn’t even know I was in a car accident until we were in copyedits, more than a year into our relationship. But there it was on the page, plain as day. I still had a lot of work to do around processing my death, and even more clear was the fact that I was terrified of ever dying again.
Since my and Charlie’s deaths, I’ve developed an obsessive interest in life extension science. When I crawled out of my hospital bed at 17, I wanted nothing more than immortality. I convinced myself I was immortal, and I even tried proving so by playing an ultimate frisbee game only two weeks after my death. The doctor had ordered me to strict bed rest. I wasn’t even supposed to go downstairs to the kitchen, but I couldn’t lay there with death surrounding me. Much to my mother’s horror, I ran across a football field with a pseudo-aneurism the size of a golf ball protruding from my temple, ready to explode if strained. My defiance stemmed from something deeper than mere teenage rebellion. It was a primal necessity. I had to be immortal, or else be forced to face my mortality. I never wanted to see that nothingness ever again. This overriding need to stay far away from death for as long as possible is what brought me to learn about cryogenics in the first place. So it was only natural that I used cryogenics as the method by which my protagonist, Alabine Rivers, gets her second chance. In fiction, we, perhaps me most of all, can viscerally consider the nuances, dilemmas, and ramifications of such a world where death isn’t the end.
Fear of death is a part of life, I’ve been told. It’s what makes us human. But to be honest, after my research, I now share an equally powerful fear of humanity attaining immortality. Since the dawn of man, we’ve fantasized about escaping death—from Herodotus’s Fountain of Youth all the way to today’s billionaires of Silicon Valley pouring their wealth into life extension research. Unlike the ancient Greeks, Elon Musk actually has a chance of cheating, or at least delaying, death. Never before has humanity, through science, been so close. The emerging field of cryogenics is at the heart of this. Imagine a pause button. A person with organ failure able to wait until the perfect transplant comes available. A cancer patient able to wait until a cure is developed. A victim of a car accident able to be frozen at the scene to prevent bleeding out, regardless of luck.
You don’t have to imagine it, people have been preserving themselves for decades, awaiting the day science figures out how to resuscitate a human. We already know how to bring rats back from preservation. Humans won’t be long off. In Yuval Noah Harari’s book Sapiens, and even more so in his follow up book Homo Deus, Harai details humanity’s past, present, and future attempts to defeat death. While my heart races at the idea, Harai clinically and academically considers what would happen to our world in such a future where death is no longer inevitable. He writes that civilization has kept going on the singular knowledge that everyone, despite race, wealth, or privilege, will face death. What happens if that great equalizer is taken away? Some believe the wealthy will live forever while the marginalized remain unable to shed their mortality. Or, maybe it would be the reverse. Those brought back from the dead might be seen as a blight against mankind. Our new tool of resurrection seen as a direct attack on God. Afterall, in a world without death, God is no longer necessary. This is the world I forged in my novel.
The ethics of life extension are complex, and now I question my need for immortality. Don’t get me wrong, I still am terrified of the nothingness, but I was surprised to find the alternative similarly terrifying. Would I, like my character Alabine, actually choose to preserve my body? It was psychologically hard enough for me to come back from the dead once, would I really want to do it again? Would you? This is the question we should all be asking ourselves. We’re on the precipice of species altering developments. Even this very day, any of you can call up Alcor, the preeminent cryo preservation company in the US, and pay real money to cryogenically preserve your body. You die with an agreement for Alcor to resurrect you when it’s possible, most likely into a world that is so foreign, so different to what you know today, without the loved ones you know today, that one must question if it’s even worth it. That is my biggest hesitation in calling Alcor myself, along with the clear financial constraints. My before-death self is a different person than who I am now. I have her memories and her body (at least most of it), but there’s something in my core that has changed. An intangible quality that separates me from her. I recognize her, but am different. I don’t have her hope. I don’t have her carefree outlook on life. I don’t even have many of her friends left as I systematically separated myself from them in the months that followed, believing that they just would never understand. The metamorphosis from her to me was hard. The idea of doing that again and again without end is crippling. What if the next time I didn’t recognize the girl they woke up at all? What if the time after that, I no longer even wanted to?
Perhaps fortunately, that world remains merely the fodder for fiction. For now. There are many hurdles to jump before we can claim we’ve defeated death. It could be argued that inventing the technology to resurrect a human might be the easiest part. Convincing the world to embrace such an immortal existence would likely prove a greater challenge. As we’ve seen acutely in recent years, science can be vilified, and not everyone trusts it. Although we learned to clone mammals a quarter of a century ago, we have yet to see a cloned person born (independently verified, that is). Change is hard, and humans are pack-minded creatures; we ostracize those who are different. Imagine the divide between those who have been dead and those who haven’t. Like Dr. Frankenstein, we would have to redefine what life is, and decide if those who have touched death should be seen as the same as those who haven’t.
It was my own death that made me see the value and fragility of life, a perspective I find separates me, even now in my thirties, from my peers. I wonder how fundamentally our civilization would change if we all met the nothingness and gained that perspective. Then again, would life retain meaning once humans have done away with death? Would I carry the same preciousness of my life re-given if I didn’t have the comparison of Charlie’s life taken? Regardless of if I would actually choose to preserve my body, I certainly am prepared to fight for a future world where second chances are doled out to anyone who asks, and not just the billionaires. What a kinder and more loving world this would be if second chances weren’t “hard to come by,” left up to chance or privilege, but instead available to everyone.
In my early twenties, my Facebook messenger randomly dinged with a message. It was from my guardian angel EMT. We had never spoken before, despite my multiple attempts to contact her and thank her for saving my life. Her message showed up in the “other” inbox for people you’re not friends with, so it was only by chance that I even saw she’d sent it. She told me that in the years since she held my bleeding body, she’d been silently watching me on social media go to college, make friends, lose friends, direct films, and write stories. She told me that watching me live in turn saved her life. She got sober. She got her second chance too.
I write this essay weeks before The Awoken is due to be released into the world. I am excited and scared—feelings I assume I share with most debut authors, but I have an added unsettling layer. The day The Awoken publishes becomes yet another start of a new chapter in my life. Like the day my first film came out. The day I got married. Or the day I had my son. These are all chapters that Charlie will never get to have. I try to push these dark thoughts out of my head, as terrifying as the nothingness itself. I try to focus on the fact that I am working hard to do something with my privilege of life. Even if I never choose to cryogenically preserve my body, perhaps in writing this novel, I’ve already preserved a piece of myself to live forever—my words and thoughts inscribed for generations to come. Meanwhile, I’ll keep reading new articles about the developments in cryogenics, continually wondering what if.

From Cover to Cover: On the Pigeonholes of Publishing

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I’m proud of being a writer, of being a woman. But I’m not sure how I feel about the category of “woman writer.” Am I also a writer of “women’s fiction” even when my protagonists are male? The woman who writes male protagonists also seems to invite the urge for gender camouflage. Would S.E. Hinton’s portrayals of tough men be as popular if she were published as Susan Eloise? Would J.K Rowling Harry be as beloved by both girl and boy readers if she published as Joanne? My most recent novel, The Evening Hero, is about two generations of Korean American male OB-GYNs. I never seriously considered a male pseudonym, but author colleagues who read drafts have often suggested it; at one point I thought of publishing under my gender-neutral Korean name, Myung.

I am haunted by what a librarian once told me: over the course of her career, she’d found that girls will read books about girls or boys, while boys generally will not read books about girls. In fact, a librarian at the Morton Grove Library in Illinois once begged me to write a YA novel that had a boy on the cover because, she said, too many Korean American boys felt they had to sneak-check out my female-led YA novel, Finding My Voice, which they reportedly enjoyed, but also wanted a book they could carry around without being teased.

It has often felt like there is a tax on being a woman writer, especially if you are competing directly with male writers. My editor comps The Evening Hero to two of his male authors—comparisons I feel are apt but that I also take a little bit as a challenge. Carrying that anxiety of not wanting to be relegated to the “less than” category without a fair fight, I took a lot of it to what would be the first impression of the book: the cover design.  I made sure to ask for a bold, text-forward font that is the hallmark of big male-authored novels for my proudly female name (when you add the Ok, which means “jade,” to Myung-Ok, the name becomes distinctly feminine).

I went further and forwarded on as suggestions the primary-colored Paul Bacon covers from the 50s, the “big book look” of instantly recognizable male-authored books like Portnoy’s Complaint, Slaughterhouse-Five, Catch-22. Because my novel spans countries and time periods with ginseng as a motif, I’d suggested an abstract cover with a priapic ginseng root as an element, maybe like Bacon’s cover of Peter Benchley’s Jaws, but ginseng instead of a shark.

In the prototypes I received, I got zero roots, no boldly colored text. Instead, I got flowers (not sure what they signified in the book), as well as a figure of a Korean woman! Who was that? She is looking out a window and dressed in an upper class Joseon-era hanbok that doesn’t clearly correspond to any character in the novel but does correspond to a bunch of recent novels set in Korea by fellow women writers. (At least her head was intact.). It was my agent, Kim Witherspoon, who preserved the ginseng motif by coming up with the idea of an abstract root design, which the designer then paired with traditional Korean colors plus text-forward renditions of my name. When I saw it, it was like seeing my son after birth: that’s it. I’m sure there were abject sighs of relief behind the walls of Simon & Schuster.

I had another anxiety, however, over the stickiness of the tropes of “ethnic writing.” As if there is a white America and Europe and the rest of us are just orbiting it. When I was growing up, the only book I could find with an Asian person on the cover was Farewell to Manzanar, co-written by a white man; most people thought The Good Earth was Asian American literature. Then along came Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club, the success of which ironically made it a stand-in for all Asian American literature. In workshops, people either told me that I write like Amy Tan. Or that I don’t. There was always commentary on the amount of rice (or not) in my work, compared to hers, and where was the scene where the white boyfriend puts too much soy sauce on his rice and the aunties are horrified? It was then that three of my friends and I started the Asian American Writers’ Workshop, as a way to nurture ourselves almost in secret until we could dig ourselves out of the hole the culture dug for us.

Before the cover creation process had even begun for The Evening Hero, I requested (reasonably or not, I am not sure) a Korean book designer. Working on a novel for 18 years, I had clear ideas of what I wanted and needed, and I explained to my team that back when the New York Times had op-eds accompanied by illustrations, my editor, also Asian American, always commissioned a Korean or Korean diasporic artist. The illustrations became something that not only synergistically expressed the mood of the piece, but they deepened its themes.

For instance, an article about our family’s Americanization via the repeated Thanksgiving ritual had an amazing illustration of Korean songpyun rice cakes slowly turning into a basted turkey. Even for op-eds like the one about my son getting acclimated to New York, which had nothing to do with being Korean, they still hired a Korean artist and later, even had a gallery-type show and invited the authors to stand with their art. They picked that “My Son and the City” piece, the one that wasn’t overtly Korean, and yet, as I stood proudly next to the blow up of “my” illustration, there was something about it that felt very me, which is to say, the Korean American parent of my son.

I carried that approach to my book cover, and am grateful Simon & Schuster listened and took that extra step. Every time I look at my book cover now, I feel a kind of new-parent pride and glee. The other designs with the flowers and lady looking out the window were perfectly nice, even beautiful, but weren’t quite right. They kept expressing something of “other,” including past books by other Asian American women writers, but not me.

It’s not that I wanted to be treated as white male writer—this implies that being a woman writer, an Asian American writer, is somehow automatically less. It’s more that I wanted the full package of the book—the story, the text, the aesthetic elements like the cover—to reflect that I’m a woman and my main characters are men, to pick myself out of the mold, make my way without falling into the pigeonholes and the Joy Luck Club booby traps, to get to the place where the book reflects all of this, and all of me.

Time Is Not the Longest Distance: Rereading ‘The Glass Menagerie’ as a Nonfiction Writer

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At the end of Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie, the play’s protagonist, Tom, declares, “Time is the longest distance between two places.” Rereading the play recently, I thought instantly of “narrative distance,” an aspect of writing craft that my undergraduate students and I discuss when studying personal essay and memoir. I use “distance” not as a stand-in for time, but for intimacy, immediacy, humility, or authority. Distance is where we negotiate the artifice of nonfiction, I tell my students: When writing about ourselves, we might feel a certain amount of authentic proximity or detachment between two “places,” between now and then, us and them, self and subject, but we always make decisions in representing or manipulating it.
Tom’s assessment—that time is the longest distance—has often rung true for me in life, but not in literature. Writing in the present tense, I’ve found, does not guarantee “closeness” or urgency, just as writing in the past tense does not always create emotional remove. Proximity and distance can live in any number of elements beyond verb tense, from point of view to sentence structure to the balance of scene and analysis. All of these contribute to how emotionally invested—or disinvested—a piece of writing feels, helping to establish what Matthew Salesses, in his book Craft in the Real World, calls the work’s “orientation toward the world.”
The Glass Menagerie takes place in a St. Louis tenement not unlike the one where Williams spent his youth (and just a few miles from the apartment that I, like him, gave up to pursue writing). Tom is an unhappy young man working at a shoe factory—as Williams once did—to provide for his overbearing, impenetrable mother, Amanda, and his fragile, anxious sister, Laura, who spends her days tending to a collection of miniature glass animals. In his opening monologue, Tom explains that the play originates from his own memory. “Being a memory play,” he says, “it is dimly lighted, it is sentimental, it is not realistic.” The play is comprised of a series of “episodes,” or remembered scenes that map the family’s disintegration. Many episodes end abruptly, unnaturally, leaving you grasping for closure. It’s vaguely frustrating, like trying to pinpoint a familiar scent.
In the production notes for The Glass Menagerie, Williams describes a cryptic element of the play that never made it to Broadway: a “screen device” that would project images and text directly onto the wall through an instrument called a “magic lantern.” The technique dates back to the early horror shows of the 18th century. They were called “phantasmagoria”—a crowd of phantoms. Williams hoped the magic lantern would serve as a kind of poetic exoskeleton, emphasizing the “architectural” nature of the play’s episodic structure. Throughout the manuscript, instructions for the magic lantern appear in the style of stage directions, indicating what should appear on the wall and when. Sometimes the image or legend operates like a section heading, foreshadowing an important phrase or event; other times it seems to work more like an intertitle in a silent movie, narrating in real time.
As I lost myself in The Glass Menagerie’s crowd of phantoms, I became even more certain that narrative distance is not so much about time and space as it is about filtration and mediation, about obstacles and illusions. Williams anticipated that “the screen [would] have a definite emotional appeal, less definable but just as important” as its structure. When Amanda calls Laura onto the fire escape to make a wish on the moon, a moon appears on screen. When Laura recoils at the news that an old flame will be coming for dinner, the screen reads, “Terror!” These slides package nostalgia and anxiety into discrete, digestible units. They also keep us aware that we’re perceiving them, forcing us to contend not only with the play’s architecture, but its artifice. As in memory, the core emotion isn’t visceral feeling—love, hope—but the longing for it, which, as we all know, can feel a lot like the real thing.
This kind of meta-awareness can be frustrating, even alienating. In my undergraduate literature course last spring, I taught Claudia Rankine’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, a hybrid work that incorporates visual elements like photographs and diagrams to interrupt and reinforce Rankine’s exploration of American exceptionalism, racial violence, family strife, mental illness, and mass media consumption. Most students identified with the speaker’s numbness and grief at the state of the world, but that didn’t mean they liked reading the book. They complained about the “depressing” tone and the onslaught of images, despite acknowledging that their sense of cold detachment and distraction might be exactly the point.
There’s an interesting tension here between a reader’s desire for intimacy—a Western reader, at least—and a writer’s need for distance, achieved in The Glass Menagerie through the magic lantern. Hidden in the screen legends throughout the play are fragments from poems by writers like François Villon and Emily Dickinson, poems that, when they aren’t fractured into tiny shards, read like death breathing close and hot on your neck. Meanwhile, on stage, Laura nearly faints at the arrival of her “gentleman caller,” at the outside world knocking at her door. This layering of text and image and experience certainly creates a mood, but scholars suggest these grim allusions also hold deep personal significance for the playwright. Williams based the character of Laura—nicknamed “Blue Roses” by her girlhood crush in the play—on his own sister Rose, who, after being diagnosed with schizophrenia, received one of the country’s first frontal lobotomies. In his introduction to The Glass Menagerie: A Collection of Critical Essays, R.B. Parker writes, “Rose’s tragedy was a traumatic experience for Williams from which he never freed himself. He spent much of his career addressing in his artworks his desire to atone for the guilt he felt for being unable to protect or save her.”
Like Williams, I left someone in St. Louis. I left a whole life there, a whole self, and I don’t think my leaving will ever stop feeling like a betrayal. I have spent years trying to write my way back, trying to find a way in. I’ve written through the “screens” of color theory, architectural theory, logical determinism, Newton’s laws of motion, and even Wallace Stevens’s “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” all in the hopes of distancing myself enough from that time to make sense of it.
When we write around or under or through, it can feel like easing ourselves into a very hot bath. But I want to believe that this can benefit the reader as well as the writer. The numbness of mediation can force us as readers to confront our own modes of feeling, thinking, or relating to others. In the case of The Glass Menagerie, for example, the screen device reminds me that my own memories of St. Louis—particularly the most salient, painful ones—are just emblems of a story I’ve told myself about the past. I’m reminded that nostalgia flattens conflict and regret into a shape we can live with.
What does it mean, then, that Williams axed the screen from The Glass Menagerie’s debut? He writes in his introduction that the actors’ talent made it superfluous. And so the magic lantern was gone, just like that. It strikes me as an act of extraordinary self-restraint, and of courage, to unhitch the play from its scaffolding. What would Rankine’s “American lyrics” be like, I wonder, without their images, icons, and interruptions; without the maps that help us lose ourselves in the phantasmagoria of modern life?
At the end of the play, Tom leaves his family and St. Louis behind, as Williams himself did. He travels to outrun his past, “attempting to find in motion what was lost in space.” Williams may have realized that he needed the magic lantern more than his audience did: as a way to screen himself from the truth that he had abandoned the people who loved and needed him, who made him who he was. It must have been painful to recreate a version of his own claustrophobic, volatile household on the page, his sister’s evolving mental illness, and his desertion. “When a play employs unconventional techniques,” Williams wrote, “it […] certainly shouldn’t be trying to escape its responsibility of dealing with reality, or interpreting experience, but should be attempting to find […] a more penetrating and vivid expression of things as they are.” Perhaps once he found his way to the truth, he could stop projecting and just remember.
It’s possible that the biggest lesson here might not be about narrative distance at all, but about revision: that it happens at all stages of the writing process, and that until the lights go down, it’s not too late to pull back or move closer. That in the early stages, it is not a failure to get lost in the dream. We can surround ourselves in a crowd of phantoms and emerge alone.

Enlightenment, then Laundry

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Fallacy though it may be to imagine the narrator of a verse as equivalent with the poet, it’s impossible not to imagine the words of Robert Frost read in that clipped Yankee-via-San-Francisco accent of his, to intuit the blistering cold of a New Hampshire morning or the blinding whiteness of the snow-covered Franconia Range, the damp exertion of sweat under a flannel collar and muddy boots trudging across yellow and brown leaves slick with early morning ice. Frost is forever a poet of loose coffee grounds dumped into boiling water and intricate blue and red quilts, of wooden spoons hanging from hooks next to gas stoves and of curved glass hurricane lamps, of creaking wooden floorboards and doors swollen with summer’s humidity. Visiting his white clapboard, gable-peeked farmstead in Derry, New Hampshire, and perambulating in the golden woods of sugar maple and red oak and it’s hard not to romanticize the old man, eyeing him along the rough granite stone wall that he mended every spring, the famous structure whereby “Good fences make good neighbors,” which he wrote about in his 1914 collection North of Boston. The poet was always fixing things—mending, building, working. Our greatest singer of chores.

He’s at it again in his poem “Two Tramps in Mud Time,” which he wrote around 1934, five years into the Great Depression. In a cold New England field our narrator is chopping wood when he is approached by two hungry vagrants looking for paid labor. There’s something vaguely ominous about the unemployed lumberjacks, as “one of them put me off my aim/By hailing cheerily ‘Hit them hard!'” I envision the startled narrator wobbling a bit, axe stuck in aborted oak atop a chopping block. “I knew pretty well what he had in mind:/he wanted to take my job for pay.” What eventually follows is a digressive, ethical rumination, one that seems entirely foreign at a time when the gig economy has become ubiquitous. “The time when most I loved my task/The two must make me love it more/By coming with what they came to ask.” Propriety and dignity is such that the tramps won’t accept mere charity, but Frost’s enjoyment of his housework prevents him from parting with the chopping of timber. “I had no right to play/With what was another man’s work for gain./My right might be love but theirs was need,” says the narrator. Ambiguous as to what he does, if the desperate men convince him of the necessity of their task, as indeed Frost knows that their continued presence will eventually move him to turn over the axe. Yet in the chore, here amongst the warm sun and the chill wind, his “object in living is to unite/My avocation and my vocation… where love and need are one.” Frost really liked housework.

My own inclinations regarding chores are decidedly less romantic; well into my twenties, my existence was that of the stereotypical heterosexual bachelor. Living out of hampers, eating over sinks, kicking discarded magazines under the sofa. When I was an undergraduate, and even more dissolute in my habitations, my dorm room was piled with old newspapers, so that any enterprising geologist could excavate backwards through strata of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and discover George W. Bush’s reelection, the invasion of Iraq, Colin Powel’s U.N. testimony. My attitude matured with experience, or at least I got sick of living in filth—and I got married of course—so much so that I even developed an occasional affection for chores, their straightforward, contemplative, and measurable necessity. To clean cups, mugs, glasses, and dishes; to soap up a bowl or scrub crusted sauce from a fork, loading up the machine and placing that little alien detergent pod into its compartment; toggling between stream and spray to clean the sink of bread crusts and globs of yogurt. Lithuanian-American poet Al Zolynas describes as much in “The Zen of Housework” from his collection The New Physics, how his rubber gloved hand filled up a wine glass with water and soap, “thousands of droplets/of steam—each a tiny spectrum—rising/from my goblet,” what he designates the “grey sacrament of the mundane!”

Easy to valorize if nobody is making you do it; Frost’s hobby was apparently chopping wood, and most of us do our dishes and laundry because the alternative is disgusting, but there is a risk to turning the vacuum into meditation tool. The narcissistic self-regard of the husband proud of having moved a coffee cup to the sink. Without some self-awareness you might sound like the Berkely philosopher Paul Feyerabend, who told an interviewer that he most enjoyed doing housework, seeing it as an act of devotion to his wife. After he died, his wife said that Feyerabend had never done any chores.

Notice the differing words we use to describe vacuuming or cooking—from meditation to hobby to housework to chore to domestic labor—all of which depends on who is doing it for whom and what’s compelling them to do it. By contrast to Zolynas’ lyric, former Poet Laureate Natasha Tretheway writes in a poem from her collection Domestic Work about a maid for whom “All week she’s cleaned/someone else’s house,/stared down her own face/in the shine of copper—/bottomed pots, polished/wood, toilets she’d pull/the lid to.” Historically, housework has been synonymous with women’s work; whether poorly renumerated or not paid at all, the scrubbing, dusting, and washing are marked as feminine. When Frost was outside playing lumberjack, what was Elinor Frost was doing? She was inside picking dried johnnie cake batter off of the iron stove top, she was washing those musty red flannels with their stink of the woods, she was mixing soap and water in a dented steel bucket and letting the suds flow over a bathroom floor. Betty Friedan describes the score in The Feminine Mystique: “As she made the beds, shopped for groceries, matched slipcover material… she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question—’Is this all?'”

Ironically, as the second wave feminism of the 1960s and 70s smashed through (some) boundaries regarding women’s role in the workplace, the onus of domestic labor didn’t shift more equitably to male partners. According to a Gallup poll from 2020, even though women are now more than half the workforce, and on average contribute more to their family’s finances (even while a gender wage gap endures), they still are responsible for laundry in 58% of households and cooking in 51%—not to mention childcare. Important since housework, it must be said, is also often hard. Despite those technological miracles of capitalist utopia—the washing machine, the dishwasher, the vacuum cleaner—chores are not just time-consuming and monotonous, but arduous. There was a reason why activists started the International Wages for Housework Campaign in 1972, a call for a universal basic income that acknowledged that women’s domestic labor was indeed labor. Writing about the history of women’s labor in the nineteenth-century home, Susan Strasser explains in Never Done: A History of Housework how women’s “contributions could not have been more central. The household was… a center of production, where women spun, wove, and sewed raw fibers into apparel, and converted unprocessed plant and animal matter into meals.” Chores can be meditative, but to forget that they’re also instrumental is also to forget the people who actually do them.

A question Frost implicitly grapples with: what is the difference between the work we do for ourselves and the work we do for others? Trethewey writes how “Sunday mornings are hers,” a still busy day where “church clothes [are] starched” and floors are washed with “buckets of water. Octagon soap.” But the language that describes these chores is so different, joyful even. Rhythmic. There’s a “record spinning/on the console, the whole house/dancing” while she cooks on the stove, “neck bones/bumping in the pot” and “a choir/of clothes clapping on the line.” This maid who still has to clean on her day off is at least cleaning for herself, and not unlike the narrator in Zolynas’s poem, she’s got her moments of domestic transcendence as she “beats time on the rugs,/blows dust from the broom/like dandelion spores, each one/a wish.” I don’t know if she loves this work, but there is a similarity between Trethewey’s character and Frost’s narrator, that distinction between working for pay and working for oneself. What defines chores is that they have to be done. Domestic work is never done, a constant war of attrition against entropy. But also, in a circumscribed way it can be finished perfectly: A writer can always add another word or a painter another brush stroke, but once a dish is lemony clean it can be as fresh as a new mind.

If there is a danger in forgetting that the chore is work, there is also a loss if we don’t remember that Frost and Zolynas and Trethewey have a point. Housework can be a practice, a ritual, a sacrament—the very art of life. Chores can even be countercultural, in a way, as necessary work for an adequate life, rather than for increasing the profits of an invisible entity housed in that aforementioned glass and steel monolith. Still, it’s hard to interpret chores as innately subversive, especially if we rely on Comet and Arm & Hammer, Palm Olive and Tide, Kenmore and Dyson, Frigidaire and General Electric. Not long after the 2008 economic collapse, and perhaps as part of the general zeitgeist where anarchic self-sufficiency manifested itself in the heady utopianism of Occupy, there was a softer rise in enthusiasm toward ways of doing chores that didn’t put money in the pockets of executives at Whirlpool or Proctor & Gamble. Suddenly some hipsters became homesteaders, hammering espresso machines into plowshares. Sticky mason jars filled with pickled tomatoes and acerbic asparagus, frosted growlers of yeasty homemade ale, home ground coffee, an enthusiasm for strenuous carpentry among women and delicate knitting among men. During the high-water mark of the late capitalist Anthropocene, it’s “no wonder some began reaching back even further, to simpler times they’d never known firsthand,” writes Kurt B. Reighley in United States of Americana: Backyard Chickens, Burlesque Beauties, and Handmade Bitters—A Field Guide to the New American Roots Movement. He explains that “these modern pioneers are latching on to handcrafts, well-made shoes… They’ve stopped paying exorbitant gourmet prices for sun-dried or roasted tomatoes, and started learning to can their own, fresh from a local, sustainable source, maybe their own yard or a nearby farmer’s market.”

If anything, the pandemic exacerbated these sentimental desires; or, let a thousand sourdough starters rise. If the American sense of nostalgic chore work harkened to certain (often pernicious) myths of the frontier—rustic cabins and gas stoves, cracked leather and rusted machinery—than across the Atlantic there has been a retreat into a sort of cozy, fantasy Cotswold: warm ale by a hot fire in the cold pub kind of domesticity. A leader in that trend is Tom Hodgkinson, editor of The Idler and advocate for a Chestertonian anarcho-medievalism. In Hodgkinson’s view, corporate capitalism has severed our connection to the numinous, and in the quotidian repetition of chores we redefine ourselves. As a credo, Hodgkinson writes in Brave Old World: A Month-by-Month Guide to Husbandry, or the Fine Art of Looking After Yourself that the “most important but generally the most neglected of everyday living are simply these: philosophy, husbandry, and merriment. Philosophy is the search for truth… Husbandry is the art of providing for one’s family, and merriment is the important skill of enjoying yourself: feasting, dancing, joking and singing.” In Brave Old World, Hodgkinson gives detailed and witty instructions on everything from wood-chopping and bread-baking to pig-slaughtering and field-planting. Archeologist Alexander Langlands promotes a similar ideology in his book Craeft: An Inquiry Into the Origins and True Meaning of Traditional Crafts, writing that in our alienated age there is an attraction towards “making… and making with a perceived authenticity: by hand, with love; from raw, natural materials; to a desired standard.” I’ll admit, the aesthetic appeals to me; the actual labor doesn’t.

Considering how much time we spend in grocery stores, or vacuuming, or doing laundry, or taking out the trash, it’s often occluded in our literature, albeit we know that Jeeves dusted and somebody was starching Mr. Darcey’s collars. “One can travel quite deep into the literary archive without finding a single reference to the activities that keep households running, and keep those within them alive,” writes Lisa Locascio in Lit Hub, and yet she argues that the “tasks grouped under the humble name housework are not only necessary, but poetic, provocative, and complex.” Housework exists at the nexus of many things—race and gender, the personal and the public, the routine and the transcendent. Perhaps it’s her Midwestern Calvinist practicality, but Marilynne Robinson endows the everyday with charmed straightforwardness, elevating the chore to its rightful place, nowhere as much as in her appropriately named Housekeeping, whereby she imagines having “swept the whole floor of heaven,” the eschatological work of “reclaiming… fallen buttons and misplaced spectacles,” whereby chores themselves are the work of reparation and repair. In cleaning, in organizing, in making that which is disordered ordered, there is a sense that “everything must finally be made comprehensible,” as Robinson writes, what “are all these fragments for, if not to be knit up finally?,” the verb itself a conspicuous conflation of feminine housework with fixing the universe.

Chores are the undercurrent of literature, because housework is so much like writing, particularly in editing and revision. (Besides, chores are either the thing done to avoid writing, or what doesn’t happen when writing commences, or what the author expects someone else to do as they write.) To be done well, both writing and housework must be done every day, lest the dust and cobwebs overcrowd your house and your manuscript, the dishes piling up in the sink like uncleaned sentences, trash overflowing in bins as if over bloated paragraphs. Or even worse, to leave a wall unpainted like a page left blank. And both, when done contemplatively, can focus the mind. Chores can be monotonous, back-breaking, thankless, but they can also be meditative, even ecstatic. That writing shares these aspects with housework is important. So too is the ritualized aspect of both endeavors, at least if there is to be any success in either. Read any of the dozens of dialogues that constitute the “Writers at Work” series collected across The Paris Review Interviews, a celebrated feature conducted largely by George Plimpton for nearly half-a-century, in which authors elaborated on how they organized their desks, or what brand of typewriter ribbon they used, or when during the day they most often labored. Worth more than a whole shelf of post-structuralist literary criticism, the “Writers at Work” series proves that theory and praxis are identical. Everything depends on where you work, what tools you use, and your schedule. It’s no different from a sink full of dishes. Writing requires the same dutiful regularity, for a person “must sit down and get the words on paper, and against great odds,” says E.B. White. “This takes stamina and resolution.” Raymond Carver also emphasizes regularity, saying “When I’m writing, I write every day,” in the same way that if a household lets receipts gather on the table and circulars in the mailbox, the situation becomes unmanageable. John Ashbery countenances against falling into bad habits, bemoaning the sloppiness that ensues if one happens to “stay up too late and sleep in too long” while Gabriel García Márquez concurs that any writing requires “extraordinary discipline.” Just as the goal of housework is parsimony and economy, Louis Erdrich recommends overwriting the ending of a piece and then going back “to decide where the last line hits.” Perhaps most crucial, and that which separates the happy writer from the tortured, the joyful gardener from the merely muddy, the zestful carpenter from one who keeps hitting his thumb with a hammer, is that the “most important thing is to be excited about what you are doing,” as James Dickey says. All of this advice is prosaic. So are instructions on how to clean a room.

If writing gestures toward an abstract world beyond, we must not forget that it’s always been a grubby job as well, of ink trapped under ragged cuticles and of aching elbows and wrists. Because we think of domestic work in less grand terms, the physicality stands out more, and yet chores can gesture to a certain beyond as well. Robert Pirsig’s countercultural classic Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance makes a case for the mystical possibilities of chores. Pirsig writes that people associate engine metal with “given shapes—pipes, rods, girders, tools, parts… as primarily physical,” but for those who actually fix such machines, the “motorcycle is primarily a mental phenomenon.” Writing is more physical than is supposed and the chore more mental, the two meeting in the middle. Another similarity, as Pirsig describes it, is that whether fixing a bike or writing an essay the “solutions all are simple—after you have arrived at them. ” Machines are extensions of our mind, can even alter and redefine the mind. Once you’ve realized that writing is a physical activity, defined by its own exertions, its own discomforts, its own ennobled suffering, and not just something ephemeral in the head, then you’re thankful for the technologies that make it possible—the pen, the typewriter, the word processor. Domestic work and technology have always been connected like hand in rubber glove. Even something as under-theorized as Carol Gantz’s subject in The Vacuum Cleaner: A History is rightly understood as “one of the ‘machine age’ marvels of the early twentieth century,” to cleaning what the personal computer is to writing.

Vacuuming, admittedly, doesn’t have the same romance, but Raymond Carver made something brilliant out of that mundane ritual in his short story “Put Yourself in My Shoes,” the genesis of which was a single sentence: “He was running the vacuum cleaner when the telephone rang.” The line appeared as if a mantra in the author’s head one day, later unspooling like a cleaner going over a carpet in rigid, tight turns. Other types of domestic labor have always drawn the attention of writers, been endowed with significance and romanticized. Gardening is celebrated as an artful and (literally) regenerative duty. A sense that in charting tomato vines’ progress, basil plants becoming lushly green with spring showers, craggy oregano growing green-brown against the autumn sun, is a bit like seeing a manuscript slowly take form. “If you have a garden in your library,” Cicero famously wrote in a letter from 46 B.C.E, “everything will be complete.”

Gardening speaks a vernacular both primal and cozy, and as such it draws writerly attention more than toilet scrubbing does—we read The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett and not The Secret Outhouse, after all. A garden is a mysterious space, intertwining vines clinging to a red-brick wall, dirt under fingernails and engorged vegetables, a sense of freshness and safety but also of sexual reproduction and perhaps the erotically illicit, as in that original paradise from which we were all expelled. In The Art of Love, Ovid sings of how “mid soft green there springs a sacred font”; Andrew Marvell avers that nothing is “as am’rous as this lovely green” in “Upon Appleton House.” For those who truly love gardening, the word “chore” is an obscenity for an activity nearer to vocation. Jamaica Kincaid movingly writes in My Garden that her own attempts shall never match her idealized vision, but “for me [that] is the joy of it; certain things can never be realized and so all the more reason to attempt them,” but my own Zen is significantly less chill. I’m merely an enthusiast for sitting in gardens—porches, stoops, or patios are also great—but I’ve never been a partisan of the dirt like those who possess a true green thumb. When it comes to produce, my housework extends rather to going to the grocery store which processes all of those goods of the garden (or farm rather), an enchanted place in my mind that as long as I go when it’s late and empty calms me as much as if I were a Buddhist monk circling a prayer wheel.

“This place recharges us spiritually, it prepares us, it’s a gate-way,” Don DeLillo writes of the supermarket in White Noise, and underneath the luminescent hum of the lights in a midnight Giant Eagle I concur; the place where with “hungry fatigue, and shopping for images” Allen Ginsberg had ecstatic visions of Walt Whitman “poking among the meats” and Federico García Lorca by the watermelons, of “peaches and what penumbras… Wives in the avocados, babies in the tomatoes!” Vegetables from a garden are so odd-shaped and dirty; give me rather the pyramid of oranges whose spherical perfection is marred only by the little nipple on top, of gleaming Macintoshes and Granny Smiths, of jumbled mountains of phallic bananas and crisp heads of lettuce, not to mention that shrink-wrapped steak and chicken breasts divorced from any sense that they were cut from a once fleshy creature. Not to speak of the rows and rows of pre-fabricated chemical American goodness, Oreos and Swedish Fish, Kit Kats and Cape Cod potato chips. Benjamin Lorr provides a bit of perspective in The Secret Life of Groceries: The Dark Miracle of the American Supermarket, explaining that the “fresh apple you bite into has typically been sitting in dormancy for close to a year. Red cherries, that epitome of summer freshness, might have been stuck stabilized for two and half months. Bananas, avocados, tomatoes, and limes land somewhere in between.” Capitalism’s illusion of choice is the same as the illusion of freedom. I don’t normally care, as long as it tastes good.

Preparing food is how I express love. “I do think the idea that basic cooking skills are a virtue, that the ability to feed yourself and a few others with proficiency should be taught to every young man and woman as a fundamental skill,” writes Anthony Bourdain in Medium Raw. “[It] should become as vital to growing up as learning to wipe one’s own ass.” Writers, as you might know, always exist in a state of heightened, vibrating anxiety, hyper-attuned to observation and analysis, forever shifting words and sentences in our minds. Such a state is only alleviated by writing itself, or somehow turning your mind off, which is no easy thing. Cooking is the great mind-emptier, not because you can do it without thinking, but rather the opposite—you must be fully and completely emersed in feeling measurements and sensing temperature, of timing with your internal clock and constantly examining and tasting, of throwing spaghetti at the wall to see if it sticks. When preparing food, one immerses oneself into the flux, into the flow, and time itself becomes hyper focused. During the earliest days of the pandemic, not long after our son was born, I invented Pasta alla Campeggio, a dish named after the Cardinal who acted as Pope Clement VII’s legate to the court of Henry VIII. I should explain that this meal only has to do with Campeggio because we were rewatching the sublime ham of The Tudors during this period, and I enjoy the mixture of guttural consonants and soaring vowels in the Cardinal’s name, a word as pleasurable on the mouth as I hope that the food I’m preparing will be. I thought naming the food something that pretentious was funny.

Pay attention—a recipe. For Campeggio, I normally use a dry Italian pasta, preferably De Cecco brand, but Barilla is fine. Always a medium width spaghetti, anything thin and all the stuff you’re using to make the sauce will weigh it down, anything too thick and the gravy doesn’t emulsify over it in the way that you want. When boiling the water for the pasta, make sure that it’s as salty as the Aegean, and for reasons unclear to me I always add a liberal pour of olive oil. While the spaghetti is being prepared, I use a large circular skillet to make the sauce. By caveat, no measurements are offered; everything is done by intuition. First, heat up thinly sliced shallots from two bulbs and a heaping pile of already diced garlic, but be careful that nothing browns too much. Then, pour in enough extra virgin olive oil so that it coats the entire surface of the skillet, though not so much that you end up with a greasy mess. Everything is kept on lowish heat when you add about a quarter pound of very thinly sliced Jamon de Iberico (or prosciutto, though the Spanish ham is smokier), allowing it to curl slightly under the heat like the pages of a book being burnt, and then cool everything down slightly by dumping in around two dozen halved cherry tomatoes. Finally, right before adding the spaghetti, the equivalent of half-a-wheel of camembert (though brie also works) is distributed throughout the skillet in thinly cut strips, while the pasta (now drained of water of course) is mixed directly into the resulting sauce, rapidly swirled throughout so that the oil covered cheese adheres directly to the noodles. Serve immediately.

“To me, life without veal stock, pork fat, sausage, organ meat, demi-glace, or even stinky cheese is a life not worth living,” writes Bourdain in Kitchen Confidential. I heartily concur. By no means am I a great chef; I’m at most a passable ad hoc cook for my family, and most of my recipes involve heating up a tortilla with Prego and plastic shredded mozzarella and calling it “low carb pizza” or dousing chicken breasts in Frank’s Red Hot Sauce. Yet Campeggio is my Brandenburg Concerto, my Nighthawks at the Diner. If done well, you have a Taoist synthesis of the pork’s feral gaminess and the creaminess of the cheese, the spaghetti has an al dente snap while the tartness of the tomatoes cools everything down. It must be eaten quickly and in obscenely prodigious amounts, and subsequent convalescence means that you’ve accomplished your aim. If preparing food and enjoying it with your family is a devotion of love, than the evidence of that act are the chores left over, the plates with bits of dried ham stuck to them, the slick forks and spoons and the skillet with detritus of browned shallot and garlic affixed within. Sometimes, as is the case when eating with a toddler, there is laundry to be done, oil and tomato stains to get out of shirts and pants. Because chores are only over when life is, which is part of the wisdom that they impart. Not perfectionism or completism, but the dutiful, continual, never-ending thisness of our lives.

Housework offers contemplation, yes, but more importantly it is a reminder of our inescapable physicality, of the materiality of being in this world. There is—or should be—a democracy in that, the often filthy, boring, grueling nature of what it means to simply have the honor of existing in this fallen creation, the joy, beauty, and ecstasy of the whole thing. One can tell the difference between those who never do any housework and those of us who do, for the former have callouses on their souls, they’re divorced from such an intrinsic part of what it means to be a human. Those who never make their bed or take out the trash, change a diaper or wipe a plate, whether because they pay someone else to do it or expect that it’s always the responsibility of another person (probably their wife). Most of all, chores wait for no person. Solve a difficult equation, compose perfect measures of music, or craft a beautiful sentence, and afterwards the dog still needs to shit, shoes have to be put away, and the stairs must be vacuumed. As the Zen parable has it, after you’ve reached enlightenment, ascended to Nirvana, and comprehended the illusory nature of existence, you’re still going to have to do the laundry.

Some Strange Eruption: Watching ‘Station Eleven’ and Teaching ‘Hamlet’ to the Class of 2022

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Every year, starting in April, when the long-simmering hunger for prom, summer, and The Great Adult Beyond bubbles over, I teach Hamlet to my class of high school seniors. My students were born a few years before the first iPhone-anvil crashed through our attention spans. A more merciful teacher might cut a word-drunk dinosaur like Hamlet, but I won’t. Not because I’m a canon-worshiper who thinks the mere presence of Shakespeare suggests rigor. With each passing year, I see my students struggle more and more to decipher Hamlet’s torrents of language, but they are also increasingly comfortable with Hamlet himself. As faith in the inevitably progressive trajectory of their world falters, they inevitably understand and identify with him.

Hamlet has always been a vehicle for our existential vibrations, but the angst of my students has spiked. The class of 2022 negotiated the normal contortions of teenage growth on abnormally unstable ground—school closures, remote learning, masking, sickness. Isolated, shepherded onto already-addictive devices, watching an insurrection and police and vigilantes shooting unarmed Black men on their cell phones, seeing Covid case counts tick up and down and up again, they felt despondent, vulnerable, annoyed, and anxious. When asked to participate in class, younger students reddened and fidgeted, waiting for me to leave them alone. It wasn’t unusual to notice a ninth grader swiping the mousepad like a DJ scratching an inaudible record, watching an unfinished document shake and blur on the screen. The kids are not alright has become a tedious but accurate copy editor’s headline crutch. It wasn’t going wonderfully for American teens before the unimaginable froze their lives, but now it’s worse. 

Time went out of joint, and so did they.

Every May, my seniors give short speeches for a public audience. This year, four concerned procrastination, and all but one fittingly felt hastily written. Many reflected on various unanticipated disruptions to their teenage lives, the buffet of slings and arrows that torpedoed their plans: adjusting to remote learning, being hospitalized for severe allergies, moving to a new city, healing from a season-ending sports injury. Inspired by college rejections, one student, an aspiring actress, wrote of accepting an uncertain future: the identity of a dedicated artist in a world that doesn’t always value art. The starving artist feeds the world, she wrote.

I begin our Hamlet unit with an anonymous poll.

My first question asks students to assess their world: is it chaotic, confusing, beautiful, unfair, disappointing, boring, or full of possibility? They can check as many boxes as they like. When I gave the poll in April, 10 shoppers at a Buffalo grocery store had not yet been murdered in a hate crime, and nineteen children had not yet been massacred in Texas while police officers waited outside of school. This poll might yield different results now. You can see the breakdown below.

Their assessment feels less withering than complicated, honest. I suspect some students checked every box—the savvy move. Even in April, these young stakeholders on the brink of graduation were fixated on the years stretched out before them, their fields to plow, their selves to shape and proclaim, and decided, like Shakespeare’s protagonist, that they saw a mess, a jumble of uncomplimentary realities and feelings. 

Sometimes I have students write short stories for class, where they can work through hardships under the protective veil of fiction. Impenetrable, challenging, Hamlet is likewise an appealingly foreign playground for reflection. Disinterested as they might be in royal succession drama, students find the play reveals, in Hamlet’s words, their “inmost part.” Other questions in that same poll document their difficulties with decision-making and knowing themselves, as well as the same constellation of family problems that afflicts Hamlet (minus, usually, the murder).

Reminds me of Hamlet, I sometimes write on senior speech grading rubrics. 

When I watched HBO’s adaptation of Emily St. John Mandel’s novel Station Eleven earlier this year, I thought of my seniors and Hamlet. The show uses the play to examine how people respond to disruptive events beyond their control—including a global pandemic far deadlier than ours. Individual characters perform scenes to express feelings they cannot otherwise communicate. 

Station Eleven largely revolves around Kirsten, a lead player in a ragtag theater troupe that formed in the two decades since the pandemic decimated the planet. In the second episode, she plays Hamlet in his first appearance, when he sees his recently widowed mother marry his slimeball uncle. He’s grieving, resentful, calling the world “an unweeded garden.” At age eight, Kirsten lost her parents to the pandemic. Right before the performance, she loses her close friend, Charlie, the actress playing Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother. Charlie’s about to give birth. Before they go onstage, Kirsten counsels a fledgling member of the troupe—the new Gertrude—who isn’t sure he can play the part. 

“I’m not a mom,” he frets. 

“It’s not about you,” she says. “Put all your attention on me. It’ll free you up.” 

Dressed in a bizarre costume—a speed skater’s cowl, a cape with what look to be Sideshow Bob’s dreads protruding from the back—Kirsten’s losses nonetheless consume her. Her raw, halting performance is spliced with a montage of scenes from the crushing start of the pandemic—the taping of air ducts, the text from the hospital announcing her parents’ death. When I’m watching, I tear up. Given our real pandemic, her trauma feels familiar. Burdened by her sadness, she’s strapped on Hamlet like a suit, a role as heavy as the cape swaying behind her. Shakespeare freights the personal pain, the representative pain of a traumatized world, with an ancient weight, a reminder that there’s nothing new about despair in the face of the absurd and devastating. I have taught too many teens who have lost parents and friends—I grieve for them. I imagine my own daughter losing me to absurdity. Kirsten chokes through the scene. It isn’t amazing acting, despite her talent and passion, and it’s also not quite healing. It might even be torture. But this creation and sharing of art is the only arena where anything resembling catharsis can happen, where Kirsten might let her wounds meet air.  

After students parachute into Hamlet, once they machete through thickets of words, activities further graft it to their lives.

I’ve adapted “Wheel of Existential Torture” from a colleague. Hamlet sits in the middle of the board. Students consider secondary characters: what does each value, and how is Hamlet clearly, or potentially, influenced by their relationship? Students see how Hamlet gets nudged and inspired and dismayed by others as he pursues authenticity. Spokes shoot out from him, the axis point. There’s one for the gangster-king Claudius, another for the late King Hamlet,an apparent paragon of monarchial prowess; and one for those false friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, “sponges” who cynically chase vicarious power. There’s even one for the Actors, free-spirited shapeshifters, adaptable and good-humored. You see Hamlet imitate or engage every spoke at some point, trying on values and inclinations like costumes. 

Then, students create their own wheels, identifying the friends, mentors, family members, and even fictional characters who have guided them. They see how they’re also nudged, inspired, and dismayed, how they too accept, reject, and revise maps drawn by others. It’s a complicated tug-of-war, not usually harmonious. An older brother, for example, models what a teacher rejects. The contradictions and discomfort and messiness that come with a search for meaning are the point. Hamlet is a portal, a way to get them out of themselves and then back in again. 

Sometimes, we do “Act VI,” a fan-fiction experiment in which students write and perform the first episode of an imagined “second season.” Characters survive the Act V bloodbath and check out of the hospital, I explain. The rest is not “silence”; instead, students find opportunities for dialogue, healing, reinvention, and justice—a way forward for the characters, as should be true in real lives inevitably scrambled by tragedy. 

In the final episode of Station Eleven, a young man named Tyler uses an Act III scene for a wrenching reunion with his mother, Elizabeth, once a well-known actress. She’s Gertrude now, and he uses Hamlet’s fury as a conduit for his own. Later, Clark, a rival and friend to Tyler’s father, becomes Claudius, and Tyler gets to (almost) play out a vengeance fantasy—a spur for Laertes and Fortinbras as well as Hamlet. Here, a wiser Kirsten directs, matching people and characters, conscious of how the work they do as actors fits the work they must do as people.

“It’s the only way he’ll talk to me,” Elizabeth tells Clark, explaining why she wants to play Getrude opposite Tyler’s Hamlet. “It’s all I want.”When he’s playing Hamlet, Tyler presses a dagger to Clark’s neck in a divergence from the script. “I loved him too,” Clark gasps, referring to Tyler’s father. Art—the willingness to create within it, to build off the source material—averts calamity. The show goes on. The characters survive. They’re freed up.

Unlike the silenced artifacts in Clark’s Museum of Civilization, an installation intending to preserve pre-pandemic culture, Hamlet doesn’t live under glass. It is a perpetual motion machine, forever ripe for reimagining, renewal, infinite meaning-making. The storyworld of Hamlet has become an infinite space to explore and mine. That’s what fuels me, I tell students, that’s why I do my work of teaching. We need art to show us who we are. Survival, as the show’s tagline (and the troupe’s motto) goes, is insufficient. 

There is another narrative thread that runs through Station Eleven, one that takes place in the leadup to the pandemic, when Kirsten and Tyler are children. In flashbacks, we meet Miranda, a brilliant, obsessive, and isolated artist with profound pain in her past. She feverishly devotes herself to her work: namely, a graphic novel that she has been writing for years, about a marooned spaceman who “can’t feel time.” She makes only a few copies of the completed graphic novel before the pandemic strikes, but they find their way into the hands of young Kirsten and Tyler, who grow to treat the book like gospel. 

Like my student, the actress committed to her craft, Miranda has no pretense about whether her work will endure. Whether it will be forgotten or canonized, whether it will disappear or, like Shakespeare, reach readers centuries in the future. All creation is uncertain in this way. But my student got it right: The starving artist feeds the world. 

Last June, I gave a speech at the 2021 graduation ceremony. I used a line from Hamlet—“the readiness is all”—to try to explain that, to cope with future crises, graduating seniors would be buoyed by flexibility, a sense of justice, compassion, humor, and the desire to maintain the dignity of others. Not toughness. Not mere resilience. A year and several surges later, in the wake of mass shootings, the Roe reversal imminent, climate change perhaps irreversible, the point holds. Tragedy, I attempt to explain at some point, is about the audience, not what it watches. Tragedy, I say, is about you, me, us. The calamity can be averted. Maybe not the tragedy of a country or world. But maybe the personal tragedy of settling for an unexamined life or committing to inauthenticity or collapsing with fear or stepping on others to gain sops of privilege. 

If they learn nothing else by the time their graduation caps land, I hope they learn this. 

“Shakespeare – Hamlet” by Dimitri Tavadze is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0. 

The Radical Class Consciousness of Queer Regency Romance

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With splashy Jane Austen adaptions and Netflix’s Bridgerton hitting screens, Regency fever is more prevalent than ever. The Regency Era, a period of British history roughly spanning 1795–1837, has long enjoyed an outsized place in the contemporary imagination. Its empire-waist gowns, sprawling manor estates, and deliciously repressed sexualities make for some of the most iconic backdrops for romantic plots. These plots often follow a Cinderella-like arc: not only does the scrappy heroine win her hero in the end, but she marries up, finding economic security for herself and her family through her new role as Duchess or Viscountess. The typical Regency story imagines perfect continuity between emotional and financial needs. Property is transferred and wealth consolidated with a kiss.

But a new subgenre of queer Regency-era romance are turning the manor-house love story on its head. For the protagonists of recent novels by Joanna Chambers, KJ Charles, Alexis Hall, Cat Sebastian, and Olivia Waite, falling in love inevitably leads to economic ruin, and so much for the better. Like Jane Austen and her successors, these writers never pretend that love and money can be separated. But they suggest that queer love may contribute to the erosion of wealth and the strict nuclear family inheritance structures that protect it. It unravels the social fabric, rather than weaving spunky heroines into its cloth.

This emergent genre has become especially resonant as of late, when gay rights feel alarmingly fragile once again. For more than a decade, the federal legalization of same-sex marriage in the United States has made gay love a private matter for those who could afford middle-class respectability, an act that transgresses no laws and presumes no political allegiance. That privacy is now under siege from a Supreme Court abetting minoritarian rule, having articulated its interest in overthrowing Obergefell v. Hodges alongside Roe v. Wade. Within this context, queer intimacy feels more political again, even for middle-class LGBTQ people who don’t concern themselves too much with labor and anti-racist organizing. Since Regency-era romances feature gay love in an era where sodomy was criminalied, they necessarily align the lovers with the most marginalized in society. In consequence, these novels imagine queer love and sex as always political. Rather than repeating the Cinderella dream of marrying up, they invent a new one, no less fantastic: romantic love as a conduit to solidarity.

The woman who popularized the Regency fantasy is not well-known outside of romance circles, but her fingerprints are all over the ongoing obsession with the period. Georgette Heyer helped to invent the historical romance novel during her prolific career; from 1921 to 1974, she penned 32 romances and 22 books of other genres. Heyer was a devotee of Austen and a passionate researcher of the Regency era, filling her books with period details. She was also a terrific snob. Her novels almost exclusively concerned the upper classes and the social machinations of the London ton, or seasonal parade of nobility. When a member of the landed gentry fell for an unworthy ingenue in a Heyer romance, she was often revealed to be of surprise noble birth. Far more troubling than Heyer’s obsession with status is her racism and anti-Semitism; she traded in offensive stereotypes as a matter of course. But her influence on the genre cannot be overstated. When today’s queer romance writers embrace the loss of social prestige, they are writing back to Heyer, with affection and rebuke on every page.

Heyer’s assumptions about what made for a good romance have become embedded in the structure of the genre, defining its rhythms in tandem with its politics. Her heroines often express twentieth century sensibilities and are rebuked by their more conventional associates. Nevertheless, her endings are always conservative. A modern attachment to romantic love never gets in the way of reproducing class hierarchies. As romance scholar Pamela Regis puts it, “The marriage is companionate. It also satisfies dynastic conditions. In this, Heyer has it both ways.” This means that the historical romance novel, like the Shakespearean comedy before it, ends in closure—namely, with a betrothal. The line of inheritance is preserved; the estate is safe. Lively, headstrong young women are incorporated into the ancestral home, rather than disrupting it. This ending still pays dividends in period pieces—take the central romance of PBS’s Downton Abbey (2010-2015), which has a twentieth century setting but what we might call a Regency structure. A Regency romance could describe any narrative in which romantic love preserves and consolidates the existing social hierarchy, with minor additions for spice. In Downton Abbey’s case, heroine Mary falls in genuine love with the one and only person who will inherit her father’s estate, ensuring that it remains in the family. As usual, a traditional ending is awfully convenient.

This genre has continued into the present in heterosexual romance, with meaningful updates. Regency romances of today often challenge the legitimacy of the aristocracy, acknowledging the pernicious, previously silent presence of slavery and colonialism in propping up characters’ wealth. They may also incorporate feminist heroines with their own career aspirations, not to mention elements of kink, such as Scarlett Peckham’s excellent Secrets of Charlotte Street series, albeit in a slightly earlier eighteenth-century setting. However, the educated, kinky heroine of today often still gets her duke or viscount in the end. I have no problem with this; romance is an escapist genre, one that has both embraced and grappled with the problematic angles of desire for many decades. But the recent emergence of the queer Regency romance is attempting something completely new with the genre, something that preserves its pleasures while upending its conservative structure.

Take, for instance, Cat Sebastian’s first novel, The Soldier’s Scoundrel (2017). The relationship between aristocratic Oliver and working-class Jack goes sour when Jack decides their class differences are insurmountable. “No matter what you do,” he tells Oliver, “I’ll be the sordid part of your life.” Ever more determined, Oliver sets off in hot pursuit of disgrace. He learns how to cheat at cards and hires two brothel workers to sit in a private room and play games with him. Eventually this campaign of self-sabotage has its intended effect; Jack comes to retrieve him. The dissipated Oliver tells him, “No matter how often I told you that I want you more than decency or honor or rules, it wouldn’t get through your thick skull. So I decided to show you.” The two men take up suitably shabby lodgings together and resolve to be happy all their days. As it turns out, there is no grander gesture than giving up one’s decency.

In effect, this novel imagines disgrace as the fall from both economic and social status at the same time. Giving up one’s decency, or moral good name, has inescapable financial consequences. To live in the truth outside of heterosexist morality means living in light squalor. The stakes for this kind of disgrace are relatively high; embracing it, as Oliver does, makes for a rather affecting commitment to one’s beloved scoundrel. Unlike the traditional Regency novel, these texts perceive love as primarily inconvenient, disruptive rather than coherent, and worth it all the same.

In a recent interview with romance blogger Sam Hirst, Sebastian described her plotting philosophy. “I couldn’t just do the same set pieces, the same tropes,” she said. “Romance, as we’re used to it, it restores order.” Sebastian builds here on fellow romance author Racheline Maltese’s observation that the romance genre at present has a “compliance wing” and a “liberation wing,” in which the protagonist must either “bend themselves” or “bend the world” to find their joy. Sebastian’s work necessarily belongs to the liberation wing. Since the relationships she writes about are illegal, the lovers have to “challenge the order of things. I can’t have them be like, happy and rich at the end.” As Sebastian describes it, queer desire threatens the logic of all forms of social hierarchy.

In Sebastian’s 2018 novel, A Gentleman Never Keeps Score, the protagonist begins the story clinging to his precarious position in London’s polite society. Through his love affair with a free Black man who operates a working-class pub, he gives up his ambivalent and shame-tinged affiliation with aristocracy, befriends his servants, lies to the police, liquidates his wealth to repair the collapsed pub, and takes up rooms above it with his lover, his former servants, and their illegitimate child. In this novel, love and sex are the routes out of respectability and into community.

By rejecting the ominous threat of losing social capital, these novels dismantle the primary narrative tension that has historically propelled the genre. The risk of a property becoming entailed, or of losing one’s creature comforts, is deflated when disgrace becomes a real and appealing option. Alexis Hall depicts this option with comedic aplomb in Something Fabulous (2022), which gives up Heyer’s pretense to realism in favor of a silly, universally queer, and genre-savvy romp through the countryside. The protagonist Valentine, a duke who has a sudden and disorienting sexual awakening, jilts his new lover when he claims he has to put the dukedom first. Everyone else in the novel finds this noble gesture preposterous. When he confesses all to his mother, she calls him ridiculous. “I have to marry,” he protests, repeating the party line, “to secure the line of succession.” “Darling,” his mother replies, “what’s-his-name can inherit. Your uncle William’s son.” She snaps her fingers. “Ernest. That’s it.” In a single blow, Valentine’s mother rejects the menace of Austen’s Mr. Collins and a hundred other inheriting cousins besides. She also advises him to forgive his tenants’ debts and settle money on the young lady he originally intended to marry. Rather than transferring wealth through the closed intimacy of a marriage, the novel implies, an estate can be diffused through a network of social responsibility and affection.

Of course, this reimagined Regency ending is still a fantasy of its own kind. These writers imagine long-term romantic intimacy as inherently compatible with social justice. Giving up respectability never seems to threaten the basic sustenance and happiness of the primary characters. In Joanna Chambers’s Enlightened (2014), love interest Lord Balfour deliberately disgraces himself in a gentleman’s club, an act that, for complicated plot reasons, simultaneously frees him from an unwanted engagement and rescues a friend from her abusive marriage to another Lord. This, too, is a powerful fantasy of convenience. He enjoys his degraded status in domestic bliss with protagonist David, exiled from London but nevertheless cozied up in his quiet Scottish estate. Taking a stand has never been so relaxing.

I note the impossible happy closure of these novels by no means as a critique. Romance is, again, a pleasure genre, one never primarily attuned to verisimilitude. And those of the genre that do devote themselves to collective action above tortured desire and swoony sex scenes can come to feel like eating one’s literary vegetables, which is not romance’s purpose. The best of the genre manages to make class traitorism an essential component of the pleasurable romantic plot. What, after all, is more appealing than a distinguished gentleman in breeches ready to throw over all his privilege for love of you? This emerging subgenre can teach us a great deal about how queer and queer-supporting readers fantasize. Love is no longer a realm beyond politics. On the contrary, we want to imagine a world in which the delicious quickening of queer desire leads us to reconceptualize social hierarchies—and in which that undertaking is successful, with lots of filthy sex and quiet Sundays in the bargain.

As we face an uncertain future for LGBTQ rights, we might learn from these books how to reconfigure our fantasies. In these novels, the success of love consummated and communities reunited always means economic sacrifice, if not outright poverty. A happy ending doesn’t necessarily mean permanent safety or wealth. The queer theorist Jack Halberstam once called this idea the queer art of failure. Sebastian goes a step further. She too advocates for queer precarity, but paints it with such lush detail that it feels like an escapist fantasy, a place we might want to dwell. Along with her contemporaries, she wields underappreciated literary skill to depict fantasy material in the context of precarity and loss. The fact that these books manage to find pleasure—social, carnal, and literary—in such a scene is nothing short of a miracle. We may find them both inspiring and comforting in the fight to come.

Jackie Johnson, Deborah Thurman, and Laura Vivanco contributed many helpful insights to this essay; the author is very grateful. 

Shelf Life: On the Stories Our Books Tell About Us

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For the last two years I’ve worked almost solely from home, meaning I spend most of my days on  video calls. The setup of my apartment is such that there are few good places to Zoom. I take most meetings from the hallway near my bedroom, an interior passage where, over a decade ago, my dad and I built shelves for all my books.

Are you in a library? a co-worker once asked me. No, I laughed. Although it does feel like it here sometimes. I’ve also been asked: Is that a fake background? And, perhaps the most common question: How many of those books have you read?

I probably should know the rough ratio of the books I’ve read to the number of books I own. But I don’t. I’ve added and subtracted too many titles over the years. Besides, when it comes to the books a person puts on display, sometimes the actual books themselves are beside the point.

The first proper bookshelf that I ever owned was in a shabby Chicagoland walk-up during my last year of college. The place had bad water and clanky radiators, but I loved it because the mantle of the broken fireplace in my bedroom was perfect for the little cache of novels I had begun to assemble. At that stage in my life the books I owned were signals to be sent as much as texts to be read. Looking at them on the mantle, they conjured a future world where I would be an adult who did meaningful things. For the young and ambitious, it’s almost instinctual to surround yourself with books that prefigure who you intend to be.

I still own many of the big books from that first line-up: Joyce’s Ulysses, Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky’s translation of The Brothers Karamazov, and Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose. Despite parading them on my shelf, I knew almost nothing about these novels—I had not read them. But my professors and peers I admired spoke of them with reverence, and like a good apprentice I did as I was told when it came to book buying.

A confession that will surprise no one: the books on that first bookshelf were not there for purely intellectual pursuits. I was 20 years old, after all. I flirted with more than one girl by showing off the books in my keep. Why yes, that’s a hardcover copy of The Satanic Verses. Yeah, I’ve read it. It’s actually pretty good. So tell me, what kind of books do you like?

Skip ahead a few years to a fifth floor walk-up in Brooklyn Heights. By then I had a full-time job and I owned enough (cheap) furniture that I needed help moving into my new place. I paid two burly Eastern European guys to haul my stuff up five flights. They didn’t speak much English, and I don’t remember them saying much except: You have too many books.

For that Brooklyn apartment I bought two freestanding bookcases for the vestibule,making my books the first thing visitors saw upon entering. I was showy with those bookcases, performative. But that was the stage of life that I was in. I was still collecting anything that looked like it would fit on the shelves of my life, and I was still overeager to show off my learnedness–or more precisely, my hunger for learnedness–to anyone that stopped by. On weekends I’d prowl used bookstores for new additions to my collection. One day I’d bring home something old, like a Brontë. Another day, something borrowed from a friend, like Beloved. Or something blue, like Breakfast of Champions.

I worked in the Financial District and often returned home quite late, sometimes because I was at the office toiling away, but usually because I was out with coworkers or friends or both. Stayed out till three or four in the morning. Tired, eyes raw, tipsy, at the far end of a night I’d hike up the stairs, one, two, three, four, five stories and turn the key in the apartment door and there they were, waiting, silent, judgy: my books. Right where I’d left them.

If the books on my first bookshelf were once signals for who I wanted to be, then the books on those Brooklyn shelves were reminders of what I still needed to do. There was in the solemnity of their silence something that made me feel more than a little chastened. I was 26 by then. Had I made any headway on the books I’d intended to read? Had I forgotten all the ambitions I had, in both literature and life? The rows of books were long lines of dares, double dares, triple dares. Get to it, boy, their spines all read.

My Brooklyn roommate had an actress girlfriend who sometimes spent weekdays at our place while my roommate and I were at work. She embarked on a project to read through every book of interest in the vestibule. I said she could read whatever she liked. I admired her determination, but envied how much time she spent with the books I had not gotten around to reading. I moved out before she got through everything.

Not long after I moved out of the Brooklyn apartment, I visited my brother in Austin. All I remember now about his place are the milk crates where he kept his books. He had lots of books—some of them gifts from me—but he didn’t like owning books. It costs more to keep a book, he said, than to buy a new copy every time you want to re-read it. Because how often do you reread most books? I presume he was right about the math, seeing as he’s an engineer. But I didn’t really believe what he was telling me. His equation left out something that can’t be counted. Yet it did do one important thing: it forced me to accept that the books you keep aren’t kept just for reading or rereading.

Two months after our son was born, my wife Raina and I moved into our current apartment in upper Manhattan. Walking with Raina through our new, empty rooms, we asked that age-old question: where to put all our stuff?

For me, the ideal place for the books was a wall near the master bedroom. It was an out of the way spot where guests were unlikely to see the books. The opposite of the primo placement I had wanted for bookcases in apartments past. But I was after something else. In this space, I’d see the bookshelves every day when I went to bed and first thing in the morning when I got up. That was more than enough for me now.

It was a challenge to fit all the books into the narrow passage. Shelving units would crowd the space. Luckily, my dad offered to build custom shelves. When I was a kid, he built the bookshelves in our living room, which was where we stored the full set of encyclopedias that my mom bought, one volume at a time, from the supermarket near our home. For weeks he and I traded emails about the design, placement, and materials. For the first time in  at least a decade I had to count how many books I had in order to figure out how many shelves we needed. The final number made me sheepish. That’s all right, he said, when I told him we needed far more shelf space than I originally estimated.

As a kid, I remember my dad lounging on the beach reading mass-market paperbacks—Cussler, Clancy, Grisham. He didn’t pick books to impress people, not that I could tell. He wasn’t the kind of person to cultivate a pretentious bookshelf. He just built them. You read books for yourself; you built shelves to hold things. It didn’t have to be more complicated than that.

To put the new bookshelves together, my dad stayed in our New York apartment for a long weekend. The two of us worked for two long days installing and then pulling out and reinstalling materials. I say we, but really, I just held things; he made measurements, drilled, hammered, and fixed anchors in drywall. If a shelf was wiggly, he’d mutter to himself, Nope. It’s fine, I’d say. He shook his head. You’ve got that little baby, he said. He’s going to climb these shelves when you’re not looking. These have to be strong enough to hold the books and his weight, too.

The end result was, is, beautiful. Six white shelves, each about nine feet long. The first is a foot off the floor and the last is less than two feet from the ceiling. My son is 10 now and the shelves likely wouldn’t hold his weight, but he’s past the age where I worry. I’m not sure what the absolute upper limit is for the number of books the shelves can hold, but I can tell you that it is more than enough for my purposes now.

Thanks to the pandemic, more people see these bookshelves than any other setup I have, now that I work in front of the books on a daily basis. An ironic twist, I suppose, in the long history of all the books I’ve set in a line over my life.

A month ago I culled 52 books from the shelves. Books that I still have not read, or that I read and don’t care to keep. I like the look of the shelves without those books: the revised line of spines now more closely follows the line of my life as it has been lived—what I show on a bookshelf these days is less and less about an imaginary self that I wish I could or should be. I’m not trying to show off what I am reading, not trying to impress anyone. Now my bookshelves remind me of where I’ve been, who I am, and what it’s taken to get here.

The Literary Afterlife of F.O. Matthiessen

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Even if you’ve never heard the name F. O. Matthiessen, you’ve felt his influence if you’ve read Walden, The House of Seven Gables, or Moby-Dick, or any number of American literary classics. As a Harvard professor from 1929 to 1950, Matthiessen helped solidify the stature of American writing at a time when “literature” often meant English literature. His most enduring legacy is as one of the founders of American Studies, an interdisciplinary field that draws from multiple areas of study, but especially history and literature.

Francis Otto Matthiessen was born February 2, 1902 in Pasadena, California. His father, Frederick William Matthiessen, Jr., was heir to the company fortune of Westclox, makers of the well-known Big Ben alarm clock. Matthiessen attended Yale College, graduating in 1923. Yale blossomed into a Rhodes Scholarship with two years at Oxford, followed by graduate study at Harvard, where he received his Ph.D. in 1927.

As a scholar and author, Matthiessen was especially attuned to writers who were as yet unknown or outside the boundaries of accepted literary tastes. His first book Sarah Orne Jewett was the first literary biography of the 19th century author, now considered a foundational figure in American literary regionalism. Some of his subjects were canonical insiders-in-the-making: At the time Matthiessen published his books, The Achievement of T.S Eliot: An Essay on the Nature of Poetry (1935) and Henry James: The Major Phase (1944), neither writer enjoyed the stature they do today.

American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman remains Matthiessen’s best-known work. Published in 1941, it surveys the writing of Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Melville, and Whitman, who published many of their seminal works in the window of 1850 to 1855, in the run-up to the Civil War. The book contributed to the birth of American Studies and secured Matthiessen’s reputation as one of the leading critics of his day. But since the peak of Matthiessen’s popularity in the early-to-mid 20th century, literary scholarship and studies has largely moved on. Matthiessen’s understanding of canonical literature skewed white and male, whereas most critics and writers today debate the relevancy of a canon in the first place, much less who gets into it. Despite some of its outdated views, the book undeniably helped shape a new discipline—a rare feat, especially in the humanities—so Matthiessen has remained a force to contend with in scholarly debate, even if only to react against his ideas and literary judgments.

Despite Matthiessen’s wealthy family and his privileged path to the ivory tower of academia, he was an ardent socialist activist and champion of economic equality. A great friend to organized labor, Matthiessen believed that civil and political freedom meant comparably little if not accompanied by economic opportunity and security. He helped found the Harvard Teachers’ Union, which tried to build bridges to other segments of the labor movement; vocally supported the 1948 Progressive Party presidential candidate, Henry Wallace; and was associated with at least eight groups deemed “subversive” by the U.S. Attorney General in the late 1940s.

Matthiessen spoke out on just about any topic connected to progressive politics, except the one that touched his own life most directly: homosexuality. Matthiessen was a gay man involved in a relationship—effectively, in all but name and legal rights, a marriage—with the painter Russell Cheney. Matthiessen himself used the word “marriage” to describe their relationship: “Marriage! What a strange word to be applied to two men! Can’t you hear the hell-hounds of society baying full pursuit behind us?” Cheney was 20 years Matthiessen’s senior, but they had much in common: they both came from wealthy families, were educated at Yale, and were members of the college’s elite senior society, Skull and Bones. The two men met on the ocean liner Paris in 1924, and up until Cheney’s death in 1945, they remained a couple, establishing their home base in Kittery, Maine. Matthiessen had long struggled with depression, but it was compounded by unspeakable grief after Cheney died. On the night of March 31, 1950, Matthiessen checked himself into the Manger Hotel, which stood near North Station in Boston, and jumped from a twelfth story window.

Since Matthiessen’s death, there have been three scholarly books published about his legacy, as well as many articles examining everything from his criticism to his politics to his homosexuality. But surprisingly, Matthiessen has enjoyed a curious literary afterlife thanks to the work not of scholars but of novelists.

In 1952, just after Matthiessen’s death, Truman Nelson’s novel The Sin of the Prophet was published. Nelson was a self-educated, working-class writer, who made his living at the General Electric plant in Lynn, Massachusetts. Nelson had once heard Matthiessen speak at an organized labor meeting, and recalled his words that the person who meets “the ultimate challenge of life is the one who can be with the oppressed against the oppressor.” Afterward, Nelson wrote a letter to Matthiessen, and they started meeting regularly on Sundays, Nelson’s only day off. The Sin of the Prophet, which Nelson dedicated to Matthiessen, is a historical novel that opens a window into pre-Civil War Boston, dramatizing Unitarian minister Theodore Parker’s attempts to defy the Fugitive Slave Act and secure freedom for Anthony Burns, an escaped slave. Like Matthiessen, Nelson was indebted to 19th century American authors, especially Emerson, Thoreau, and Melville. Whereas Matthiessen read these authors to envision greater socioeconomic equality, Nelson read the same authors, along with Matthiessen’s analysis of their work, to agitate for greater racial equality.

The Sin of the Prophet was followed by May Sarton’s 1955 novel Faithful Are the Wounds, an uneven book that tells the story of Harvard Professor Edward Cavan, who dies by suicide, purportedly over his failed progressive political activism. Sarton makes ample use of the facts of Matthiessen’s life, such as his support for Henry Wallace’s Presidential campaign and the legal battle over Matthiessen’s bequests to “subversive” organizations. But Sarton never captures in a believable way Cavan’s motivation for taking his own life: a parallel storyline to Matthiessen’s heartbreak over the loss of Cheney, the most important relationship of his adult life, is absent from the novel. Sarton, herself a lesbian who settled in York, Maine, not far from where Matthiessen and Cheney made their home, drops beads about Cavan’s homosexuality, describing him as “not the marrying kind,” but goes no further. This was not an unreasonable calculation to make. In the mid-1950s, Sarton could not write about an openly gay character, at least if she wanted to see her book in print by a national mainstream publisher.

Perhaps the most richly imagined novel inspired by Matthiessen came from Mark Merlis in 1994. Merlis worked principally as a health policy analyst in philanthropy and government, but he also wrote four well-received novels. His first, American Studies, toggles back and forth between the present story of Reeve, a former student of the Matthiessen-like character Tom Slater, and Slater’s past story of sexual entanglement with a male student, his entrapment by Harvard, and his ultimate suicide. Merlis’s book embroiders the facts of Matthiessen’s story more than Sarton did: Slater dies by putting a gun in his mouth, rather than jumping from a hotel window. Nor was Matthiessen ever accused of or suspected of molesting any of his students. But Merlis captured and expressed the practical and emotional uncertainties that LGBTQ people experienced in pre-Stonewall America.

Louis Hyde, Matthiessen’s Skull and Bones brother from Yale, also contributed to the scholar’s curious literary afterlife by editing a collection of Matthiessen and Cheney’s love letters, Rat & the Devil: Journal Letters of F.O. Matthiessen and Russell Cheney, in 1978. (“Rat” and “Devil” were Cheney and Matthiessen’s respective Skull and Bones nicknames.) On his death, Matthiessen left his house in Kittery to Hyde, as well as roughly 3,100 letters that he and Cheney had exchanged in their lifetimes. A heterosexual investment manager, Hyde was an unlikely editor of a collection of gay love letters. Yet something about Matthiessen and Cheney’s love story captured Hyde’s imagination.

Matthiessen’s homosexuality often made him feel like an outsider, or at least an outsider trapped in an insider’s body and life, so he was frequently sensitive to the role of outsiders in capturing truths about life in America. It may seem surprising that a gay, politically progressive, socialist opponent of economic inequality should be such an astute interpreter of American life and in America and its native literature. But then again writers like Matthiessen are often the ones who most clearly see the divergence between America’s professed ideals and its reality, and who identify those aspects of America society that the self-appointed “defenders” are usually unwilling to acknowledge. As he wrote in the early 1930s: “Our most powerful individuals have again and again been dangerously isolated from or opposed to society as a whole.” Matthiessen recognized the power of this perspective, and Nelson, Sarton, Merlis, and Hyde have in turn recognized Matthiessen’s work and life as expressing something essential about American life, too.