Fairfield Porter: Artist, Writer, Heretic

In the early 1950s, during the high noon of Abstract Expressionism, the painter Willem de Kooning did something heretical. He started incorporating the recognizable figures of women in his lush, muscular pictures. One fine boozy evening, Clement Greenberg, the don of New York art critics, walked up to de Kooning in the Cedar Tavern and issued what amounted to a fatwa. “You’re dead,” Greenberg told de Kooning. “You can’t paint this way nowadays.”

This decree from on high had an unintended effect on one of de Kooning’s friends and early champions, the figurative painter Fairfield Porter. “I thought, ‘Who the hell is he to say that?’” Porter wrote later. “He said, ‘You can’t paint figuratively today.’ I thought, ‘If that’s what he says, I think I will do just exactly what he says I can’t do! That’s all I will do.’ I might have become an abstract painter except for that.”

Porter did not become an abstract painter. In fact, he never painted an abstract picture, choosing to avoid the revolving fashions of his age—Abstract Expressionism, Pop, color field painting, Minimalism, Conceptualism—and produce figurative paintings with a rigor and single-mindedness that now make him look nearly heroic. As one critic put it, “Porter was not only a maverick, deliberately out of step with his time, but a heretic, who dissented from the central tenet of the credo of his age.” Rather than tapping into the ferment inside him, Porter painted the world around him as he found it—landscapes, houses, the ocean, people, domestic scenes. Rackstraw Downes, a fellow figurative painter and a sharply perceptive writer on art (and a 2009 MacArthur fellow), describes Porter’s still lifes as “the art of painting whatever was left on the table after breakfast, just as it is.” Porter had a maxim that explains this approach: “When you arrange, you fail.” He added, “An artist who seeks subject matter is like a person who cannot get up in the morning until he understands the meaning of life.” Porter’s concerns, as Downes put it, were “informality and the everyday,” not the formal, the composed, the spectacular. Downes notes that Porter admired Boris Pasternak’s poetry, which spoke to “The endless repetition/Of unrepeatable days.” And so, Porter painted what was in front of him, producing a body of work that amounted to an elegant rebuttal of Clement Greenberg’s claim that it was no longer possible for a figurative painter to say anything new. As Porter said of what motivated him: “When a critic suggests that something is not worth doing because it has been done before, he is in effect urging the artist toward one of the more exciting aspects of art, the attempt to achieve the impossible.”

Yet it would be wrong to suggest that Porter’s artistic and literary output was merely a reaction to Clement Greenberg. Porter’s work was much more ambitious and organic than that. A telling glimpse of it is now on view (through May 24) at the Betty Cuningham Gallery in New York. This intimate show is most notable for eight smallish oil paintings on canvas board, never exhibited before, that Porter produced late in life while on a teaching assignment at Amherst College. One of the paintings, characteristically, is the unspectacular view out of Porter’s studio window—a snow-covered slope leading up to brick campus buildings fronted by naked trees. Another is a view across a parking lot to a plush carpet of fall foliage. Both are studies for large, major paintings, and as such they provide a window into Porter’s creative method, the way he worked up ideas.

They’re lovely pictures by themselves, but they’re made more lovely by the fact that they are in the act of becoming. The Amherst paintings include a couple of female nudes, plus landscapes and still lifes that verge on the abstract. Rounding out the show are some underworked drawings and a pair of richly worked late paintings—a forest, and a rambling house on a cold spring day—and a portrait of Porter’s son from 1955. The sitter does not look like he’s enjoying himself, but the portrait is a delight.

Porter died in 1975 at the age of 68, but it was not until 1984 that he received his first career retrospective, a massive show at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts subtitled “Realist Painter in an Age of Abstraction.” Though he may have been underappreciated during his lifetime, Porter was not exactly unknown. He began exhibiting in the early 1950s, and he was an avid museum- and gallery-goer, producing a large body of insightful writing for ARTnews and The Nation that was collected in the 1979 book Art in Its Own Terms, edited and introduced by Downes. In the estimation of curmudgeonly Hilton Kramer of The New York Times, the book placed Porter “among the most important critics of his time.” It’s hard to argue with the assessment. Reading the book is like hanging out with a tuned-in uncle who knows the score and delights in sharing it with you. Porter wrote effortlessly, voraciously, enthusiastically about artists who were then showing—de Kooning and his wife, Elaine; Jasper Johns; Alberto Giacometti; Jane Freilicher; Joseph Cornell; Isabel Bishop; Alex Katz—and he wrote with equal ease and authority about Cezanne, Rembrandt, Whistler, and his personal favorites, Vuillard and Bonnard. Porter exhibited none of the contempt for abstraction that Greenberg and Company exhibited for figurative art. Porter’s tastes were catholic, free of cant and snobbery. He loved making and looking at art, and his writing makes his love infectious. Here’s a typically clear-eye Porter sentence: “A genuine and ordinary reaction to paintings and sculpture, like one’s first impression of a new person, is usually very much to the point.” Here’s another: “The best criticism is simply the best description.” The clarity of his writing style may have come, in part, from the company he kept: among his close friends were the poets James Schuyler, John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, and Frank O’Hara. Porter’s wife, Anne, was a finalist for the 1994 National Book Award for poetry.

Betty Cuningham was kind enough to give me a tour of the current show when it opened, and we started off talking about Porter’s achievements as a writer. “His wife, Anne, told me that Fairfield thought he was a better writer than painter,” Cuningham said. Then she led me to the wall of pictures from Porter’s Amherst sojourn, and she said, “They’re slow paintings. I think it takes a long time to see him—the richness of the paint, the clarity, the way he works.” I mentioned the affinities between Downes and Porter—accomplished artists and writers, unapologetic iconoclasts—and she said, “They’re painters who know how to express themselves in words. They’re taking you on a trip through the painting—while trying to find their own way. They both go to a painting with tremendous humility.” Finally, I asked her if she thought Porter’s posthumous reputation has finally caught up with his achievements. “Yes, I do,” she said, “I think he is appreciated.”

I think—I hope—she’s right. The first signs of a reassessment of Porter were the publication of Art in Its Own Terms and the Boston retrospective. They were followed by a well-received biography by Justin Spring, Fairfield Porter: A Life in Art, which revealed that Porter, despite his privileged upbringing, was no stranger to trauma and misfortune. He was also an avowed opponent of big government, nuclear power, the dehumanizing effects of technology, and, of course, the gospel according to Clement Greenberg. Then came a collection of Porter’s letters edited by Ted Leigh, with an illuminating introduction by David Lehman. And in 2010, the Parrish Museum in Southampton, N.Y., put up a show called “Fairfield Porter: Raw—The Creative Process of an American Master,” a mix of finished, unfinished and abandoned works that revealed how Porter worked. It all adds up to buttress Cuningham’s belief that Porter’s achievement is, at last, appreciated.

Late in the run of the current show, I sat in the gallery and watched people walk in off Rivington Street. They were all shapes and sizes and ages, but I noticed that they all took their time taking in the pictures on the walls. They’re slow pictures. They reward close attention. They’re the work of a heretic who dissented from the credo of is age and, in doing so, gave us art that will last because it is timeless.

Sacred Trash: How to Dismantle a Library

We’ve been given marching orders, but I can’t bring myself to do it.

In between classes I duck into the library to appraise the situation. It’s bad. The building has succumbed to decay. A stone’s throw from where I sleep, the library—aka the Sifriya (ספרייה) because everything here has a Hebrew name, as well as an abbreviation: The Sif—stinks with no fans or functional windows. Forget about that glorious mountain breeze endemic to Camp Ramah in the Poconos, the room smells like 50-year-old carpet, like tube socks, lake scum, fallen pines. But the fug and must are a comfort. This is the smell of my childhood. I am no longer a child and yet still I’m here, working at camp. A psychology for another day: my choices steeped in nostalgia, arrested development, a pressing hunger for vicarious joys. But the practical answer is teaching has become an affordable way to bring my kids here for the summer. I’m an adjunct. Over the years, I’ve come to view this month upstate as my own rustic residency: I teach by day and write at night. It may be no Yaddo, but time moves at a slower place, allowing for deeper concentration without the pull of city life or the buzz of social media.

Narrow in scope, modest in size, it’s remarkable we have a library at all. We have one because this is not a sports camp or an arts camp but an educational camp, a Jewish educational camp, and, as the story goes, we people of the Book have been known to geek out on the written word.

A familiar fantasy: If you build it they will come. When the building was erected in the ’70s, the stacks were filled floor to ceiling with donations from synagogues, existing libraries, day schools, generous readers. When I was a camper we called the Sif “the new building.” We unfurled sleeping bags and watched the Raid on Entebbe every summer on that rust-colored rug. And yet: Even back when the place was new, the books inside were already old.

A longstanding librarian once sat behind the desk though I’ve never seen a person check out a book. I don’t know what she did—read the occasional picture book to younger children, stories about latkes run amok, or the Golem of Prague—but at least during her tenure there was some pretense of order: benches straight, wrappers in the trash. Without oversight, the place has fallen into chaos.

“Clear it out,” we’ve been told. “Everything must go.” For days, I do this: I visit the library. Before lunch, during rest hour. The shelves are mossed in dust and mouse droppings and dead flies. I vanish in the stacks, remove a book. Paperbacks crumble in my hand, pages thin as insect wings. Cloth covers separate from hardbacks, glue breaking from spines, unraveling threads of dried tack. I open them anyway. I say hello to Sholem Aleichem, to Isaac Babel and Isaac Bashevis Singer, The Wise Men of Helm. I touch the sordid remains of Looking for Mr. Goodbar. Maybe I pocket one or three.

Past summers I’ve stolen Herzog, Call It Sleep, The Mind-Body Problem. I am a thief, but I prefer to imagine my actions as redemptive. Whatever I take is not missed. Better with me, I tell myself. Better to cherish these titles in the comfort of my home then to let them rot, up here, exposed to the elements, suffer more damage, sustain another unloved and lonely winter.

How can we possibly get rid of them all?

Initially, I possess an impulse to open my arms and rescue the entire shabby library, some kind of foster mother of orphaned literature, to squirrel it away to my cabin, filling every surface with text, and suffocate a romantic death from vellichor, from the hopelessly wistful longing of worlds lived through used books.

But I’m fooling myself. For one, there are practical matters: I hardly have room for a bed in my bunk much less a library. How could I drive my spoils back to Brooklyn? As it is, either child or duffel may need to be strapped to the car’s roof. There are also health issues: These books are coated in forty years of death and bat shit.

Rodents, insects, cobwebs thick as surgical gauge. This is to be expected. It is camp. We are not versed in archival preservation. Books sit out on the shelves untreated season after season.

The bats are a more recent development. Apparently, the library’s infested. There is nocturnal video footage to prove it. A colony has been living in the ceiling for god knows how long. Bats flit through the stacks, raining midnight urine and feces. The brittle bodies of Night (of which there are nine copies) splashed in a sickly yellow film.

“What’s that disease you can get from bats?” I ask? My co-worker hands me gloves and a mask.

We are the education staff so it is only natural that the task falls to us. We have been summoned to break down the library. To eliminate the problem.

This is our fate. And so it becomes our crime.

I warn everyone. The arts and craft staff, the counselors. I tell the campers I teach, I tell my own kids: They’re emptying the library. This is your last chance.

No one comes. My kids look at me like, Mom, why are you talking? Two minutes, I beg, and they comply to avoid further embarrassment. My daughter finds a battered Marjorie Morningstar, my son The Magic Barrel.

That leaves thousands of books to go.

Some of my colleagues are more efficient. They get down to business, try to lessen the blow by keeping the banter bubbly, a warm bath of memories. Oh how I loved The Bread Givers! C’mon, has anyone actually read S.Y. Agnon?

At first we make piles, like that home improvement show: Trash, Donate, Keep. We fill crates with those in decent condition; those with enough relevancy and staying power to be transferred. The hope: If not here, perhaps on shinier shelves they may be plucked, handled, loved, read.

Because we aren’t getting rid of a library altogether. After it’s torn down it will be rebuilt. We remind ourselves this to feel less terrible about what we’re doing. We’re not Philistines, Romans trashing the Second Temple, whose destruction we’d commemorated on Tisha B’Av only days before.

We all tell stories in order to live with ourselves.

There will still be a library: new and improved.

Tova Mirvis stays. Nomi Eve, our illustrious alum. Michael Chabon, Dara Horn. We save James McBride, Bruno Schulz. For the Relief of Unbearable Urges. Kaaterskill Falls.

Other questions arise: Why does the library house 98 percent Jewish, Hebrew, or religious texts? Had the limited catalogue been born 40 years ago upon the notion that it should reflect the camp’s ideological focus? Or was the content far less intentionally curated? Could it be this is merely the inventory received upon a call for donation? I don’t know. Perhaps this is why the books have sat largely untouched for almost half a century. Wouldn’t everyone benefit from a collection that is broader, more pluralistic in scope? Does a Jewish camp need a strictly Jewish library?

In grad school, I wrote a thesis on Jewish American literature, pitting the tenets of iconic authors: Roth, Bellow, Kafka, Malamud against concerns of contemporaries: Judy Budnitz, Nathan Englander, Myla Goldberg, Ethan Canin. This was in 2002. In interviews, we talked about the dangers and merits of labels. Could there be a unifying ethos, or was this thinking inherently reductive? The grappling felt necessary, however fraught.

Then, as now: Is the category still relevant, or have principles of “Jewish American” been subsumed into the mainstream? Can classification ever be useful or is it solely problematic? To what extent can outsider status be claimed in the face of widespread assimilation? Against the evergreen backdrop of anti-Semitism?

Of course, it’s personal. These are the books I grew up on. Women, too: Cynthia Ozick, Grace Paley, but overwhelmingly, men. Theirs are the cadent voices in my head, followed by the murmurings of the siddur, the desert wanderings of the five books of Moses. They fuel my passion, frustrations, and rage.

All my life, in some way or another I’ve been writing toward or against this canon. These are the contradictions I carry: The push/pull of tradition, the identification with custom and rejection of law, the foundational wrestling with patriarchy. Classic themes: anxiety, alienation, annihilation, guilt, expectation, desire. Who am I? A Jewish writer, a female writer, a mother writer, an American writer, an East Coast writer, a writer of a certain age, and so on. I recognize the enormous privilege of being able to embrace and slough labels, to see identity as expansive and not limiting. To be this and this. All of these are what make me.

Roth is dead two months. I find a honeyed clipping inside the pages of a book from a local Philadelphia newspaper. The date: 1981. Zuckerman Unbound had just come out. Here he is in the photo, wide slab of forehead, hair dark and thick, bushy at the ears. He looks stern but ironic, young and not, the way fathers look like fathers even when they are just people hanging a coat, cracking jokes through tears, trying to eke out an imperfect life.

The “keep” crate fills quickly. We can save one Malamud, but we don’t need five paperbacks of The Fixer. We probably don’t even need one, if we’re honest. One copy of The Chosen, for old time’s sake. After all, Potok is another famous alum. Where would I be without Seize the Day? But how much Bellow can we possibly hold onto? When is it time to let go?

Donate, we decide. Donate, Donate. Now the donate bins are bursting because we are—I am—being sentimental. Remember: books are losing pages, pulp dissolving to dust, covers defiled in waste. Who would want them?

The Salvation Army in Honesdale has no demand for literature of this ilk. To donate would be more burden than gift. We are in the boondocks. An ugly reality: No one is coming for them. Crates marked “donate” devolve into recycle. We are not ready to call them trash, even as we drag out the industry-strength garbage bags, stuff them with sexism, electric prose. Oh the campfire we could build on Roth alone!

In this way we yield to our directive. We kill, destroy. We throw out the Jewish canon.

There is a heat wave and our bodies are slick with sweat, with filth, our fingers blackened. We cough on dust, on lousy air. Israeli staffers are summoned to address the secular Hebrew catalogue, to sift through Amos Oz in his native tongue, to salvage Curtis Sittenfeld’s translated Prep from the tragic heap.

Then there are the rabbis. The rabbis have a duty unique from the lay staff. They must weed out religious texts: prayer books, Torah, the shelves upon shelves of commentary. But they can’t simply toss the tattered and torn. A law prohibits Jews from destroying God’s name when it is written out in full, not abbreviated. Four Hebrew letters: Yud. Hey. Vav. Heh.

Instead, the holy word is buried in a special place called a Genizah, which means “hiding,” or “to put away.” Rabbis designate volumes to this repository. Later, they’ll be transferred to a ritualistic resting place. There is a small burial spot on boys’ campus. Every year the ground is opened to receive these sacred pages. This year, there is so much; we can’t possibly accommodate it all. Some will be shipped to a cemetery off-site.

In the afternoon, our director visits. He understands what he’s asked of us. He is an academic and a reader and he has no slim grasp of history. The purge continues. We’ve dragged a fortress of garbage bags onto the porch and are racing against the clock. Soon, it will be dusk. Another day, then Sabbath, and all work will stop.

The director brings us Fanta and Chipwiches from the canteen as a reward for our efforts. We crack cans on the porch, our lips blazing orange, and for a minute we are not callous educators and rabbis, but children, hopped up on sugar. We close our eyes and tilt our faces toward the sun.

Finally, the trucks arrive. We sling bags onto flatbeds with fresh gusto, steel-toned plastic stretched to breaking. We set up an operation chain. Pass, hurl. Drivers make trips. We’re told the books are headed to recycling dumpsters located across the road. From there, they’ll be recycled, returned to pulp, made into paper, they’ll turn into books once again. I do not challenge this. I don’t rush to the camp’s dusty edges to inspect their final destination nor do I investigate the recycling system of Wayne County, Pennsylvania.

There is no Kaddish. There are only girls laughing, headed up for dinner.

Maybe it’s less about loss but about what remains. I try to picture future generations walking this tired earth, churning up the fields. What will they find? Time capsules of scrunchies, mixed tapes, putty. Will there still be a camp here, a library in 50 years? Will people dig up buried prayers? Or will the worms have gotten to them, turning the sacred to soil?

As the sun sets behind the dining hall, I arrive at an uncertain peace. Everywhere is an infinite mourning. All we can do is cast our hope on those who’ll follow into these woods: their thoughts and discoveries, what they’ll do and make, the new books they’ll write onto shelves, how they’ll bristle against all the difficult living questions whose answers I may never know.

Was Jordan Peele’s ‘Us’ Inspired by an Edgar Allan Poe Story?

In Jordan Peele’s new movie, Us, the Wilson family—father, mother, son, daughter—encounters their own strange doubles, who’ve come to exact a terrible revenge. But the Wilsons aren’t the only family to be stalked and menaced. In the second half of the movie, it becomes clear that nearly everyone else in the United States is encountering their doubles—and with similar results.

There are two Americas, Peele suggests. The first is populated by the leisure class and the second is made up of an aggrieved, murderous underclass. So far, so standard, but what exact social issue or experience is Peele attempting to make literal? Us never feels like a straightforward critique of capitalism. The many elements of the story—including the numerous allusions and Easter eggs—never really add up to anything we’ve got words for. We’re left sensing a larger theme we can’t quite name.

And maybe that’s as it should be. Peele is working in the realm of the unspeakable, and as Rod Serling’s famous Twilight Zone intro goes, that territory “lies between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge.” Some of it is unconscious. Even the geniuses don’t always know exactly what they’re laying bare.

Just take what is arguably the source material for Us—Edgar Allan Poe’s 1839 short story “William Wilson,” in which a young man encounters, and ultimately murders, his own uncanny double. “William Wilson” initially appears to have an almost annoyingly obvious meaning: The man’s double is his conscience, or superego as Freudians would have it, and we’re all our own worst enemies. Except I’m not sure we’ve ever really understood Poe’s story. What if “William Wilson” isn’t about what it’s always seemed to be about?

I’d like to float a fresh theory about “William Wilson,” which I think casts light on Us, too. It comes down to the autobiographical nature of Poe’s story and to new research published by the British psychoanalyst Joy Schaverien, namely her work on Boarding School Syndrome.

Schaverien first coined the term “Boarding School Syndrome” in a 2011 paper. In treating patients over many decades, she began to detect a distinct pattern—“an identifiable cluster of learned behaviors and emotional states”—in those patients who’d attended Britain’s elite boarding schools. The image of such education as the pinnacle of privilege has blinded us to the cruelty of the practice, she argued, characterizing the phenomenon as “socially condoned abandonment of the very young” in her 2015 book, Boarding School Syndrome: The Psychological Trauma of the ‘Privileged’ Child.

Children who are separated from their families and put into boarding school at a tender age, she’s written, “suffer the sudden and often irrevocable loss of their primary attachments.” Even when not bullied or mistreated at school, the experience of being sent away itself may constitute a “significant trauma” that children may experience as “literally unspeakable.”

“There are no words to adequately express the feeling state and so a shell is formed to protect the vulnerable self from emotion that cannot be processed,” Schaverien has said. “Whilst appearing to conform to the system, a form of unconscious splitting is acquired as a means of keeping the true self hidden.”

“William Wilson” reads like a virtual case study in Boarding School Syndrome. And Poe wrote the story in part about his own experience of boarding school. As most fans know, Poe lost his biological parents early, with both succumbing to tuberculosis in 1811. Few people realize that he effectively lost his family all over again, when his foster parents, John and Frances Allan, put him into boarding school.

The Allan family had moved from Richmond, Va., to London in 1815 so that John could open up a new branch of his business. But Frances quickly grew depressed and withdrawn, and John’s business tanked with the broad economic downturn that began in 1816. Little Edgar, per the longstanding tradition for boys of his age and class, was sent off to school at age six. He first lodged with the Misses Dubourg in a nearby neighborhood. At nine, he was transferred to the more prestigious (and more expensive) Manor House School, in Stoke Newington, much further from the Allans’ home in central London.

Poe used the Manor House School as the initial setting in “William Wilson,” more or less explicitly. The story offers extensive details of its building and grounds. Poe didn’t even bother to change the name of the headmaster, Reverend Bransby (who, according to one source, did not appreciate the mention).

Here the narrator, on his very first day, encounters another boy who’s also entering the school that day. This boy shares the narrator’s name and birthday, as well as every “counter of person and outline of feature.” Other students assume they are brothers.

Though the narrator struggles to define or describe his feelings about his double, he does register “uneasy curiosity” at the “knowing and strangely sarcastic smiles” and “advice not openly given but hinted or insinuated.” Something about this other boy causes him to recall “dim visions of my earliest infancy—wild, confused and thronging memories of a time when memory herself was yet unborn.” When at last the narrator murders his double, the other William Wilson responds, “how utterly thou hast murdered thyself.”

The double, of course, is a part of the narrator, his own twin. Or perhaps he’s the narrator’s shell, formed the very day he was put into boarding school. Poe may have been portraying his own unspeakable experience, giving his own psychic split a literal treatment. “William Wilson” drew on some contemporary literary sources, too, but it’s still among the most autobiographical of Poe’s tales.

Art, Schaverien wrote in her book, “offers a way of revealing imagery which has previously had no other form of representation. It shows what cannot be spoken and mediates between conscious and unconscious.” She described one patient who insisted that, on his first day at school, he had “murdered” a part of himself. The man eventually recovered, in part by drawing pictures of his experiences—including a portrait of his “soul murder.” (“They made us cut ourselves in half!” he told Schaverien. “Can it ever be put back together?”)

Reading “William Wilson” in context of Boarding School Syndrome isn’t just an exercise in armchair diagnosis. It raises the possibility that what Poe portrayed in the story—consciously or unconsciously—isn’t solely the symbolic killing of one’s conscience or superego but a deeper and more intimate kind of “soul murder,” through which we become dead to our own feelings, including empathy. The same goes for Peele’s Us.

Though Freud popularized the term “soul murder,” it’s more lately been used to describe abused children who experience psychic splits and by the historian Nell Irvin Painter to explain the psychological dynamics of slavery in antebellum America, including what Painter identified as a deadening of conscience among the privileged, literal master class.

Here’s one example Painter offered.
John Nelson was a Virginian who spoke in 1839 about his own coming of age… He says, when he was a child, when his father beat their slaves, that he would cry and he would feel for the slave who was being inflicted with violence. He would feel almost as if he himself were being beaten, and he would cry. And he would say, “Stop, stop!” And his father, “You have to stop that. You have to learn to do this, yourself.” And as John Nelson grew up, he did learn how to do it. And he said in 1839 that he got to the point where he not only didn’t cry; he could inflict a beating himself and not even feel it.
Is it just me, or in all this does the inchoate subtext of Us start to become clearer? What if Us is also about a kind of soul murder, the soul murder that results from privilege, from constantly observing terrible shit and not doing anything about it, from our becoming numb to the inequities (and iniquities) of class in contemporary America, from our loss of attachment to anything resembling collective interests? What if Us isn’t really about class struggle so much as the dreadful knowledge so many of us live with and are—at the same time—effectively deadened to: our awareness that so much of what’s good in our lives depends upon the exploitation, even subjugation, of people who, but for the circumstances of their birth, are just like us?

Maybe we just don’t have a name for this syndrome yet, even though we can sense it effectively operating at scale among us. But I think that, one day, in what I hope is a slightly more enlightened age, we will. Then we might see Us, like “William Wilson,” as a case study ahead of its time.

Martha Cooper: A Reluctant Icon

This year’s Tribeca Film Festival featured a new category called “This Used to Be New York.” One of the category’s three entries was the Australian filmmaker Selina Miles’s debut feature-length documentary, Martha: A Picture Story, about the renowned street photographer Martha Cooper. As I settled into the screening room, I was feeling anticipation tinged with dread. The anticipation came from my unquenchable hunger to time-travel back to the bunged-up, brawling, beautiful New York City of my youth; the dread came from my fear that this movie was going to be another work of misty-eyed nostalgia. The category title “This Used to Be New York” was the first red flag, and the description of the movie in the festival catalog was the clincher. It read:
Selina Miles’ film is a portrait of photographer Martha Cooper, who, with inimitable energy and a sharp eye, recorded images of New York City in the 1970s and 1980s—eras when the city’s vibrancy was deemed dangerous. Cooper’s images of graffiti and hip hop culture showcased a joyous street life that now exists simply as frozen smiles in a city transformed by real estate greed.
Wow. I trust you’re beginning to understand my dread. The writer of the above paragraph claims that the city’s vibrancy of the ’70s and ’80s “was deemed dangerous.” Anyone who lived in the city in those years knows there was no deemed about it. The city was dangerous by any definition of the word, whether you define it by the murder rate, street crime, the onslaught of AIDS, the city’s teetering finances, or the countless abandoned and burning buildings. Of course there was an upside to that danger—an untethering of old sexual, social and artistic restraints, a sense that anything goes, a flowering of creativity that Martha Cooper chronicled and that continues to inspire artists today, from those who lived through it to those who were born after it had passed, from Patti Smith to Colum McCann, Will Hermes, Garth Risk Hallberg, and many others.

The writer of the paragraph in the catalog concludes that Martha Cooper’s photographs showcased “a joyous street life that now exists simply as frozen smiles in a city transformed by real estate greed.” Now we’ve arrived at the true source of my dread: this movie was being offered up in service of the facile cliché that New York City used to be an interesting place but it got bled dry by big money, and all the artists got pushed out when the hedge-funders moved in. As someone who has been struggling to cover grand-larceny New York rents for most of my adult life, I can certainly corroborate that the city is—always has been, always will be—awash in real estate greed. As I write these words, I can look across the street at an ugly new 60-story glass condo tower and, next door to it, a construction site where another one is clawing its way into the sky. These abominations will never stop coming. There are more than 60,000 homeless people in the city today, and a hedge-fund gazillionaire just paid $240 million for a penthouse on Billionaires’ Row near Central Park. So, yes, there is real estate greed and there is obscene money and there is inequality in New York City today, and there is no denying that these forces have had a chilling effect on people struggling to make art. But to say that everyone is wearing a “frozen smile” is just lazy and wrong, and it feeds the blooming cottage industry of nostalgia, which I define as the yearning for a time that never existed, a time when everything was supposedly cheaper, freer, better.

This nostalgia is nothing new. It dates back at least to the 1920s, when Edmund Wilson lamented that rising rents were driving writers and artists out of Greenwich Village, and a much-loved cultural gathering spot called Frank Shay’s Bookshop closed down, possibly because rents were rising and demographics were shifting. The ür-text of disillusionment with New York might be Joan Didion’s essay “Goodbye to All That” from her nonfiction masterpiece, Slouching Towards Bethlehem. The essay was Didion’s take on an old story—how a young person’s infatuation with New York, “the shining and perishable dream itself,” slowly unravels. In 2010, Patti Smith declared, “New York has closed itself off to the young and the struggling…New York City has been taken away from you. So my advice is: find another city.” Three years later, the musician David Byrne wrote a widely read essay bemoaning the way great wealth in the hands of the few was making the city untenable for the many, especially creative people. “Middle-class people can barely afford to live here anymore,” Byrne wrote, “so forget about emerging artists, musicians, actors, dancers, writers, journalists and small business people. Bit by bit, the resources that keep the city vibrant are being eliminated.” He described the city as pockets of gated “pleasure domes for the rich” surrounded by the striving 99 percent of the rest of us.

That same year, Sari Botton edited a collection of essays by 28 women that borrowed its title from Didion’s essay (which was borrowed from Robert Graves’s memoir about his life through the First World War). Botton’s book, which carried the subtitle Writers on Loving and Leaving New York, was a string of bittersweet farewells in the Joan Didion mode. Perhaps a tick too bitter, because a year later Botton followed it with a more upbeat collection called Never Can Say Goodbye, which was a string of unabashed mash notes to the city, bearing the subtitle Writers on Their Unshakable Love for New York. I was particularly taken by Rosanne Cash’s essay, “New York, in the Mirror,” which catalogued the many downsides of New York life today—the crippling cost of living, of course, plus the demolition of cherished places to make way for franchise restaurants and nail salons and condos, the influx of obscene money, the hordes of tourists clogging the High Line. But in the end, Cash realizes she still loves living here. I agree with her conclusion about the recent changes: “It’s too bad, but it’s the way it is.” She might have added: It has been this way since forever, so quit whining and get on with it.

When Martha: A Picture Story started rolling, my dread gave way to delight. Miles had wisely steered clear of the cockeyed nostalgia promised by the catalog notes and instead focused on her subject, a young woman with an unkillable dream of making it as a photographer in New York in the 1970s. There is home-movie footage of a young Martha Cooper in Japan with her husband, where she became fascinated by the subculture of tattooing, then more footage of her prowling the bunged-up and beautiful streets of New York’s Lower East Side and the Bronx in the 1970s, camera in hand. Eventually she got hired by the New York Post, which gave her a license (and a paycheck) to chronicle the life of the streets, from the slums to Central Park. She gained entrée to the crews of artists who were coating subway cars with their rococo, loopy dreams, most notably the underground star Dondi. This, in turn, led her into the nascent world of hip hop, the deejays, break dancers and b-boys who had such an implausibly large hand in shaping today’s global culture. Economic hardship was a constant for Cooper, but she had found her place in the city and you get the feeling she wouldn’t have given it up for anything. Interviewed on camera, Cooper, now white-haired, comes off as intrepid, self-deprecating, very funny, deeply private, and nearly monastic in her devotion to chronicling the life of the streets. “I’m not comfortable with the idea that I’m a legend or an icon,” she says at one point, though she has clearly become both, with fans all over the world. As for New York back in the day, yes, it was dangerous, she says, “but it was actually a great place to explore.” As for what drove her to turn street life into art, she says with a shrug: “I believed in it.” And the subject of her art? “It’s about people who are making New York City their own.”

As it happened, both Miles and Cooper were on hand for the screening I attended, and after the credits finished rolling, they stood at the front of the theater to take questions. A man in the audience asked Cooper if she had visited Brooklyn recently and seen all the fabulous street art sprinkled between all the obscene new condo towers. To her credit, Cooper didn’t take the bait. She said, “I don’t like to look backward. Yes, this city is getting iffy, but there are still interesting things out there. I don’t think gentrification is all good or all bad. I just wish I had gone to Williamsburg and Bushwick and taken more pictures.”

This drew an appreciative laugh. The next questioner asked Cooper if she saw herself as an artist or as an historian and anthropologist. “Now that’s a good question,” Cooper said, clearly implying that the leading question about gentrification was not. Cooper, in her humble way, said she never considered herself an artist. She said she was always more interested in documenting and preserving subcultures that were destined to blaze and then vanish. If nobody documents them, they will not only vanish, they will also be forgotten. History can’t live on memory alone. Without a whiff of pretension, Cooper made her life’s work sound almost like a holy calling. And in doing so, she implied that nothing—not money, not gentrification, not the corporate ooze now overtaking New York—has the power to keep her and her kind from pursuing their calling. I had walked into the theater feeling anticipation tinged with dread. I walked out feeling recharged and reborn. Thank you, Selina Miles. And thank you, Martha Cooper.

Our Time in the Barn: Reading ‘Charlotte’s Web’ with My Daughter

Spring has been falling all week in a mystic drizzle. All I can say is: huzzah. What a hard Midwestern winter it’s been. We hunkered down in our house—myself, my wife, our four-year-old daughter and infant son, an ailing spaniel that can hardly walk—and read E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web over and over. And over. And over. In fact, this winter I read Charlotte’s Web dozens of times. I read it to my daughter every night before bed and then again over breakfast and sometimes lunch. If that seems like obsessive behavior to you, then (a) you’re right, and (b) you probably aren’t the parent of a young child.

Not that I’m complaining. I would rather read Charlotte’s Web for the thousandth time than “make a milkshake” by putting imaginary ingredients in an invisible blender while my daughter goes to the potty, or pretend she is a cow that has to be milked and then let out to pasture, or be instructed to “talk about the egg” she has become by curling up into a ball on the floor. (There is a kitten in the egg. Its tail and whiskers are rainbows.) At least Charlotte’s Web is not mindless, no matter how many times we read it.

My wife, who is Jewish—and who refuses to read the book anymore—jokingly referred to our cyclical reading of Charlotte’s Web as “Simchat Torah,” a reference to the Jewish holiday that accompanies the completion of the annual Torah reading cycle. Each week at every synagogue in the world a section of the Torah is read aloud. Every synagogue reads the same 54 sections in the same order. In the last week, the book is finished—and immediately begun again. Simchat Torah celebrates that cycle and the way the Torah gives structure and meaning to people’s lives. So, it was with Charlotte’s Web. As soon as I read the last paragraph and closed the book, always with great ceremony, my daughter would insist that we go back to the beginning. In this and other ways reading Charlotte’s Web became a ritual. We were marking something. One phase of childhood was ending, another just beginning.

My daughter is four and, believe it or not, everything is starting to change. She’s learning to read. She spends more time looking in the mirror, making faces, taking her glasses off and putting them on and taking them off again to see which look she prefers. Her afternoons are filling up with lessons—swimming, ice skating, soon ballet and gymnastics—instead of the free play she’s used to. Kindergarten starts next year. Play dates loom.

At the heart of Charlotte’s Web are two subjects about which my four year old is intensely curious: friendship and death. Charlotte (the spider) and Wilbur (the pig) are each other’s first and best friends. They ease each other’s loneliness, on rainy days, especially. They play. Charlotte tells Wilbur stories and sings to him. By writing the words “some pig,” “terrific,” “radiant,” and “humble” in her web, Charlotte saves Wilbur’s life, convincing Homer Zuckerman that Wilbur is extraordinary, a miracle, and so should not be slaughtered for smoked bacon and ham.

As for what Wilbur does for Charlotte, well, that’s a little harder to parse. Wilbur himself asks about it near the end of Charlotte’s life. “‘Why did you do all this for me?,’ he asked. ‘I don’t deserve it. I’ve never done anything for you.’ ‘‘You have been my friend.’ replied Charlotte. ‘That in itself is a tremendous thing.’” It is, isn’t it? They lift up each other’s lives—that’s how Charlotte puts it. Friendship teaches them that they are capable of love. Will my daughter find such a friend in her kindergarten class? Until this winter, her only real friend was her doll, New Baby, but the times they are a changin’. Last week I watched her skate around the ice rink with a girl whose helmet she admired. (It had a unicorn horn.) She was smiling the whole time.

Death is Charlotte’s Web’s other great subject and, as I said, a topic of some fascination for my daughter. The cemetery we pass on our way home from school never fails to bring up new questions, which range from the logistical (Does the body go up and down or side-to-side?) to the existential (Does life get sillier and sillier and then we die?) to the just plain weird (Do we all die in the same hole?). My answers (side-to-side, no, no…but also yes?) never satisfy either of us. I don’t know what’s behind her questions, whether fear, anxiety, simple curiosity. Is she grasping after her own finitude? Maybe. Is the world made strange when she sees those headstones from the road? Not sure. I guess we both have our questions. We both want to understand something that is essentially unknowable.

My daughter wept the first couple times we read about Charlotte’s death, which happens in the last paragraph of the next-to-last chapter. So did my wife. (Whenever my wife cries during reading, which happens not infrequently, my daughter insists on tasting her tears.) Since those initial traumas, my daughter hasn’t let us get close to that paragraph, requesting that we skip it many chapters in advance. In Charlotte’s Web death is wrenching. White ends that last paragraph: “No one was with her when she died.” It’s inevitable. Not just inevitable, though: necessary. Death, weirdly, gives the world shape and meaning.

There is a discernible order to things in Charlotte’s Web. Three times a day, the hired man Lurvy walks down to the barn with food for Wilbur. Goslings hatch every spring. In early summer the birds come out and start singing (“everywhere love and songs and nests and eggs”). In early fall, spiders lay their egg sacs full of baby spiders—514 of them for Charlotte—and then die. In late fall, the squashes and pumpkins are brought into the barn to protect them from frost. Time exists and brings change, but change makes the world beautiful.

The book takes place over the course of a year, shaped by the seasons of both nature and human life. Fern, the eight-year-old girl whose native sense of justice saves Wilbur from an untimely death—and from whose perspective we witness all the goings-on among the animals—grows up by the end of the book, drawn finally away from the simple world of the barn by a boy her age named Henry Fussy. In the first chapter Fern is nursing Wilbur with a bottle. In the last she’s absent. White treats this change with characteristic equanimity and humor. “She was growing up,” White writes, “and was careful to avoid childish things, like sitting on a milk stool near a pigpen.”

My daughter is not there yet—she would happily sit on a milk stool near a pigpen—but she is growing up. The world is coming into focus, big with possibility, vertiginous and changeable. Reading Charlotte’s Web on repeat was a comfort in the face of these changes, for both of us. It was a way to process the loss of what was, the anticipation of what will be. Sitting together at the end of the day, me propped against the side of her bed, her under the covers, the two of us making a T, we said goodbye to our own time in the barn (that kitten, those rainbows), even as we looked ahead to what’s next.

“Who wants to live forever?” Templeton (the rat) asks in the last chapter. He’s right, but I hate how carelessly he says it. Charlotte is gone. Fern has moved on. Fall passes. Winter comes, then spring, bringing frogs and sparrows, new friendships and adventures. Our baby has started on solids. Our spaniel struggles to get his hind legs up our two front steps after a walk. Suddenly, the neighborhood is teeming with robins, which my daughter attempts to befriend, and a fox even trotted up to our door this morning. The world is unfolding its hands again, full of gifts. It will lead her a little farther away from me, as it does every year. We’ve moved onto Stuart Little, but I still steal glances at Charlotte’s Web, the sublime last chapter in particular. If you have time this spring, I suggest you do the same. E.B. White perfectly captures the mixed emotions of the season: “The light strengthened, the mornings came sooner. Almost every morning there was another new lamb in the sheepfold. The goose was sitting on nine eggs. The sky seemed wider and a warm wind blew. The last remaining strands of Charlotte’s old web floated away and vanished.”

In Praise of Poems That End with Questions

To end a poem with a question is to
offer an invitation. Here, the poet says, now it’s your turn. Rhetorical or
direct, a question requests our participation. We sit up, re-read, and become a
part of the poem.

A question, then, closes a poem with an opening. “Breathing” by Irene McKinney ends with two questions. Her poem starts with the line: “When I refuse to see the chair has presence / I trip over it repeatedly.” Yet when she smells “the oil of hands on the wooden arms of the chair” and sees the “careful fittings of the joints,” she knows the chair has place and space. She will push forward through her life, past chair and even through stream and snow, although she is “wet and cold, hunched against the touch / of the flakes.” She perseveres because she is still breathing, because our “lungs are a happiness kit / that we can carry everywhere and assemble / where there’s time and inclination.” She pauses, we imagine, and then ends: “Why not? / I repeat, I mean it, why not?”

I mean it: McKinney’s question feels entrenched and yet open, a gesture. Don’t doubt that poems are written to be read—and questions offer readers a space to enter. “Naming the Heartbeats” from Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s Oceanic is an explanation of the narrator’s penchant for pet names. She calls her children “Sugarpie, / Honeybunch, Snugglebear,” although “What I call my husband is unprintable.” She ponders the names of collected animals, but wonders about the unnamed moments of existence, ending with a beautiful question: “And what is the name for the movement we make when / we wake, swiping hand or claw or wing across our face, like trying / to remember a path or a river we’ve only visited in our dreams?”

Nezhukumatathil asks, so we’re left to wonder. A poem can leave us like that: unsure, our eyes closed, meandering and meditating. I feel the same way when I read Mary Oliver, who ended several poems with questions. In fact, her poem “How Would You Live Then?” is composed entirely of questions. “What if,” Oliver asks, “a hundred rose-breasted grosbeaks / flew in circles around your head?” And then: “What if the brook slid downhill just / past your bedroom window so you could listen / to its slow prayers as you fell asleep?” Her questions are connected by a certain sentience to the world around us—a presence that we know exists but Oliver gives a particular form. Her final question: “What if you finally saw / that the sunflowers, turning toward the sun all day / and every day—who knows how, but they do it—were / more precious, more meaningful than gold?”

Oliver’s homiletic touch comes from that concluding question, as if we are to close the book, go outside, and consider her words. Other poetic questions call me to attention and send me back through the poem to comb and cull. Analicia Sotelo’s “Ariadne at the Naxos Apartment Complex, 10am” from Virgin begins in what the narrator calls a garden, among “A/C units dripping green-black rivers, // the residue of last night’s rain / sitting in a cheap cherub’s eye.” She ends in ambiguity: “Except the light is blind this morning / like a child at a funeral // asking, What are we all standing here for?”

We don’t have the answer. A poem that ends with a question might leave us without satisfaction—but what do we desire, exactly, at the end of a poem? What does it mean to be complete? In “Dark Slides” by Chase Twichell, we look over the shoulder of a narrator who sifts through overexposed slides of her father’s carrot garden, a horse with “blood-flecked froth at the bit,” and a sled abandoned in the snow, “Footprints, but no humans visible. / Who saved this one, and why?”

A poem that ends on a question is an affirmation of the importance of questions. Seek poems that end with those open, vulnerable moments. “Why not trust / that almost everyone, even in / his own house, is a troubled guest?” asks Stephen Dunn in “The Inheritance.” In Anagnorisis, Kyle Dargan exits “Poem Resisting Arrest” with the perfect question: “This poem knew // it was dangerous to ask why?” Blas Falconer’s “Vigil” tells us that “All day, the body is / failing, the mind failing / to forgive the body for this failure.” The poem ends on an elegiac note: “You, who tended to the body, what // will you do when all / the bedding has been washed // and folded, what pain // will you tend to, now, / if not yours?”

Do you feel that? The poet gesturing to us? In “Leaving Early,” Sylvia Plath describes a room “lousy with flowers.” She’s “bored as a leopard / in your jungle of wine-bottle lamps,” and feels “stared at / By chrysanthemums” while she listens to mice “rattling the cracker packets.” Her final lines: “Lady, what am I doing / With a lung full of dust and a tongue of wood, / Knee-deep in the cold and swamped by flowers?” Plath’s question reverberates beyond the final line, as do the questions of Justin Phillip Reed in Indecency. In “Take It Out of the Boy,” the narrator is “tired / of pretending.” Told that “you always acted like / a white boy,” the narrator responds with lines “so. so black my elbows / stripe their char on the carpet.” He ends: “are we convinced?”  

I like how heavy that question feels. A poem that ends with a question has a little whisper of eternity in that curved punctuation mark. Natasha Trethewey ends her book Monument with a poem that ends with a question. “Articulation,” written after Miguel Cabrera’s Portrait of Saint Gertrude, ponders Gertrude’s devotion to the Sacred Heart. The narrator looks at her among “quill, inkwell, an open book, // rings on her fingers like Christ’s many wounds” and can’t help but think about her mother’s last portrait. She sees her mother’s face; her mother’s wounds. Her mother’s murder. How her mother “came to me / in a dream, her body whole again but for / one perfect wound, the singular articulation // of all of them: a hole, center of her forehead, / the size of a wafer—light pouring from it.”

She ends her poem with two questions:
“How, then, could I not answer her life / with mine, she who saved me with
hers? // And how could I not—bathed in the light / of her wound—find my calling

We will never know all of the answers
in poetry—but we are blessed by the questions.

Image credit: Unsplash/Evan Dennis.

Will the Real Sherlock Holmes Please Stand Up?

In 1893, Sherlock Holmes was approaching the peak of his popularity when his creator, Arthur Conan Doyle, decided to do the unthinkable. He vowed to kill off his literary progeny. The method he would use came to him on a trip he made to Switzerland that summer—he would dispose of the world’s first and most popular consulting detective by throwing him over the beautiful Alpine Reichenbach Falls.
Holmes’s apparent death was documented in “The Final Problem,” published in The Strand Magazine in December 1893. Readers were inconsolable. Legend has it that a large number thronged around the Strand’s offices, wearing black mourning armbands. Conan Doyle, though, was rather less affected. He was utterly weary of his detective, believing he kept him from better and more important work. He wanted to be a Sir Walter Scott for the next generation, not a scribbler of mere detective yarns.
By coincidence, at the same time as “The Final Problem” appeared, a real-life murder trial was playing out in Scotland. A sensation in its own right, it also served to cast a light on the extraordinary genesis of Sherlock Holmes—although few observers quite grasped its significance at the time.
At Edinburgh’s High Court of Justiciary, a private tutor by the name of Alfred Monson was on trial for the murder (and additionally, the attempted murder) of his student, a handsome young army lieutenant called Cecil Hambrough. Cecil had lived as virtually part of Monson’s family for the best part of three years, since he was 17 years old. The case caused an absolute sensation. For one thing, Monson was far from the typical defendant in a capital case. He was the son of a rector whose close family relations included Lord Oxenbridge (who had become the Queen’s Master of the Horse the previous year), Lord Galway, and the British ambassador to Austria.
Monson had been employed by Cecil’s father to prepare the boy for a gentleman’s life in the military. By the summer of 1893, Cecil was living with Monson, his wife, and their young children at the grand Ardlamont estate on Scotland’s Cowal peninsula. One stormy morning in August, Monson, Hamborough, and a mysterious third man known as Mr. Scott embarked on a hunting expedition. But only Monson and Scott came back alive. Cecil received a shotgun wound to his head and died where he fell. The local doctor accepted that a tragic accident had taken place and so the victim was buried at the family church on his native Isle of Wight, off England’s southern coast. But over the next few weeks, it emerged that Monson and his wife had taken out life insurance policies on their charge. What had appeared accident was now treated as murder. Cecil’s body was exhumed and so began one of the Victorian era’s most notorious murder investigations—one that came to be known as the Ardlamont Mystery.
For Holmes aficionados, Cecil Hambrough’s death might have evoked memories of one of Conan Doyle’s earlier Holmes short stories—“The Boscombe Valley Mystery.” That tale featured a young man who reported the death of his father—in whose company he had recently been—his “body stretched out upon the grass” in a wood. But whereas Cecil’s death was initially regarded as accidental—ensuring that a vast wealth of evidence from the scene of death was lost—in “The Boscombe Valley Mystery” the son was assumed to have had a hand in his father’s demise. So, when Holmes got on the case, he had plenty of evidence to mull over. Not so the poor expert forensic witnesses charged with figuring out what had happened at Ardlamont.
Among those experts were two of the most respected medical men in Edinburgh society, not to mention pioneers in the then burgeoning world of forensic science. Their names were Joseph Bell and Henry Littlejohn. Moreover, as chance would have it, they were the chief inspirations behind the creation of Sherlock Holmes.
Bell and Littlejohn were leading figures in the medical faculty at Edinburgh University when Conan Doyle began his medical studies there in 1876. As had been subsequently well documented, Bell had an extraordinary gift for establishing the symptoms and back stories of his patients simply by close observation of the subtlest non-verbal signals. He could tell a man’s profession from his walk, whether he had served in the military by the way he wore his hat, or where he lived from the state of his shoes.

His displays of inductive reasoning—that is to say, making broad generalizations from specific observations—fascinated Conan Doyle, who stretched the technique as far as he could in the character of Holmes. In 1892, Conan Doyle even wrote to Bell to tell him: “It is most certainly to you that I owe Sherlock Holmes.” That same year, Bell was named in the press as “the real life” Holmes. Whether or not he enjoyed the attention that this revelation engendered is moot, but his name became synonymous with that of the fictional detective forevermore.
Littlejohn, though, received no such acknowledgement in his lifetime. Yet at the time when Conan Doyle was studying under Bell (in fact, he even worked as Bell’s medical assistant for an extended period), Littlejohn was the country’s leading forensic expert. Moreover, as the official Police Surgeon, he was the first port of call for the police whenever there was a suspicious death. He was a virtual ever-present at the major murder scenes in Scotland throughout the second half of the 19th century.
He was, also, a great friend of Bell. So how could Conan Doyle not have been influenced by him in the creation of Holmes? It was only in 1929, years after Littlejohn’s death, that Conan Doyle is recorded as acknowledging his contribution. At a talk he gave in Nairobi, Kenya, he revealed that it was the methods of Bell and Littlejohn that first induced him to write a detective story from the point of view of the scientific man.

It is my belief that Littlejohn was purposefully written out of the Holmes genesis story so that he might continue his vital work unhindered. During the Ardlamont trial, Bell gave an interview to a journalist from the Pall Mall Gazette. He revealed that he and Littlejohn had been working together on cases for the police for over 20 years. Littlejohn—as the paid employee of the police—routinely called upon Bell to be his “second man” on investigations. In other words, Bell was something akin to Littlejohn’s Watson. As the press clamored for information on the real-world origins of Holmes, how much better for Bell to “take the heat” while Littlejohn (the professional detective, as it were) could continue his labors without the extra pressure of being tagged “Holmes incarnate”?
The Ardlamont case put enormous strain on both Bell and Littlejohn. The stakes were extraordinarily high and the courtroom drama intense. But for us today, it is a case that delivers in so many ways. Firstly, there is a mystery as perplexing and gripping as anything Holmes himself ever faced. Then there is the spectacle of Littlejohn and Bell in their pomp, turning over the evidence in search of truth—and so giving us a masterclass in the evolution of forensics into the scientific discipline that we recognize today. In doing so, these men of science, rationalism, and reason provided us with a compelling glimpse into the world that birthed Sherlock Holmes—still the greatest detective who ever (and, of course, never) lived.

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly and also appeared on publishersweekly.com.

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons/dynamosquito.

Memorizing and Memory: A Writer’s Estranged Cousins

1. Memorizing
My lines disappeared. I was in 10th grade, dressed in a blue-checked gingham dress and white tights, playing the lead in Alice and Wonderland for an audience of children. I’d had memory lapses before—an embarrassing one in my piano teacher’s living room in fifth grade, the specific, awkward misery of having to begin the sonatina again. The assembled families either would or would not pretend it didn’t happen, both options mortifying.  I lost my lines in ninth grade as well, playing Lucy in You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown. I was mid-song when the words atomized, but I belted out something anyway; I don’t know what.  Whatever happened that time left me unscathed.

In general, however, no memory lapses.  Not at the sixth-grade safety assembly run by a cop who held up a license plate.  When he quizzed 500 of us seated on the gymnasium floor 10 minutes later, I was the only one who could recite the numbers. I’d memorized them from boredom.  No problems either when I played Eliza in My Fair Lady the summer after seventh grade.

Alice in Wonderland was different. I stopped trusting my memory.  Betrayed at age 14, I lost faith that anything would ever stick again.  I saw my inability to memorize as a terrible weakness, and it haunted me.

Years of viola study followed. I got to the point where I could identify most any piece on any classical radio station. It takes practice, but it’s not exactly memorizing; composers leave tracks as clearly as deer crossing a snowy field. You get to know a composer’s output—Johannes Brahms left us only four symphonies (he destroyed more); César Franck wrote one piano quintet. Composers’ nationalities become as recognizable as flags. If a piano quintet sounds French, and/or has phrases that mirror those in César Franck’s Symphony in D Minor, it’s not too hard to narrow it to the right piece. And once you’ve played or performed a composition, it stays with you as surely as remembering how to walk.

To me this is uninspiring; more akin to reciting the times tables than interrogating music’s mysteries. Much more meaningful are the memories that accompany first hearing or first playing:

I’m 16, on the edge of a metal folding chair, heart palpitating, listening to five students playing in a rehearsal room too small to contain the sound.  At a music camp in Orono, Maine, I’m hearing the Brahms Piano Quintet in F Minor for the first time.  I’m in an adrenaline-fueled high; I’m a jockey on a winning horse. 

I’m at my music stand in the living room of a math professor from M.I.T. with whom I played chamber music, weeping that I have lived in ignorance of the third movement to the Schumann Piano Quartet in E Flat Major. The sound covers me like a hot blanket of grief, first the violin and the cello and then my part!  The viola gets that heartbreaking melody, the one that sings to the world’s beauty slipping away, to the impermanence of love and life.

I don’t care if I sound hyperbolic; that’s what I felt. I’m not so different with books.  Ask me whether I’ve read a certain book or a certain author, what it’s about, when I read it, who recommended it to me, and I’ll answer.  But aren’t those memories somewhat meaningless?  I’d rather share the feeling I had—the breathtaking experience of reading Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse for the first time, of being unable to contain my excitement about Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, of rushing to complete Robertson Davies’s trilogies; the deep serenity of living with May Sarton for months on end, and the connection I felt with Vikram Seth’s An Equal Music.

For a career in classical music, recognizing any piece won’t cut it. Books, of course, are beside the point. To become a professional violist, you must memorize; you have to be able to take an audition without sheet music, an ability I lost at age 14.

And yet, I entered college with the aspiration of becoming a professional musician. For a year or two during that time, I studied with a viola teacher who tried to cure me of my memorizing deficit.  Our lessons were in his apartment on New York’s Upper West Side where he lived in an Old World space, dimly lit with lamps that must have come from Vienna in the 1930’s, walls lined with sheet music, and floors laid out in imported Persian rugs. He recommended I study the ads on New York City buses and memorize the numbers or words I found in them. Also, I should note and memorize the numbers on the rear of city buses.

Ultimately, I broke down and left music.  My departure was, to my mind, an epic failure; my inability to memorize one of the many reasons for my defeat.

2. Memory
My mother died when I was in my early 40s. Her death was sudden and shocking—a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer for a strong athletic woman who had never been sick. She was gone in the space of eight weeks.

In ways I don’t fully understand, her death unloosed my writing.  Granted, my relationship with mom was intimately tied up with books and the written word.  She worked as a copy editor and editor.  We shared a great interest in reading.  Granted too, that I had been writing all along, if writing means keeping a journal and sending snail mail after it went the way of the telegram.  Or writing memos at work.  And inhaling books.  But writing—the kind where you make a commitment and stick to it, where you attempt to take yourself seriously—didn’t come until after mom died.

It was then that I uncovered something altogether different from my memorized files of books and musical compositions.  I discovered a trove of personal memories that went back to at least age three.  Or more accurately, I found I could access those memories, which I began to appreciate as a generous gift from the writing gods. Memory is a writer’s nutrition and sustenance, her sine qua non.

The cabinets of memory I discovered after mom died were not remotely orderly.  Stashed with my memories were other people’s recollections, memories that others had forgotten but I retained.  Memories that were crammed into file folders, pieces torn off and gone missing, others like so many balled-up drafts.  There were minute details about my siblings, granular information about school lives, friends and frenemies, secrets and intimacies. Don’t ask me to recite a poem.  If, on the other hand, you want to know the name of my sister’s fifth grade teacher and what poems this terror of a teacher made her memorize, I’m on it.

I found myself mucking around in exhaustive details about my parents’ jobs; their friends’ careers, marriages, and children. Questions began arising in droves.  Why did my father talk more about work than his emotional life? Why did my mother shy away from friendships with women?  Random gossip from my early employment reared up and insisted on reinterpretation, indiscretions ranging from salacious to violent; memories that in the time of #MeToo would sink more than a few professional careers.

Writing, I quickly discovered, doesn’t thrive on memorization.  And memories that are free from doubt, anxiety, and pain are nearly useless.  Writing thrives on conflict and those  irreconcilable, problematic memories. Were my overstuffed memory files a cause or symptom of my efforts to write in earnest?  Perhaps both.

My father died last spring.  With his death, I find myself slogging through memories too large to manage.  They’re not so much painful, as awkward and uncomfortable.  They keep me up at night, in part because so many of those memories are not mine. I hear dad recounting stories about his friends and colleagues, but fewer about himself.

Like mom, my father was a creature of the written word, a highly skilled wordsmith, author of two books and countless articles on varied subjects both personal and professional (he was a trial lawyer).  He was the second of four children.  His mother lost most of her hearing during his birth. To that physical disability he credited his clear speaking voice, which became stentorian in the courtroom.  That does not, however, account for his vast vocabulary—an endless cache of words. Dad’s parents were extraordinarily intelligent, but his mother had a sixth-grade education and his father never finished high school.

Oh, but daddy could speak.  His words are emblazoned on my memory. They land on the pages I write—ubiquitous, textured, yet not easy to digest. Does anyone use the word obliterate anymore?  Does anyone ablute when entering the shower?  I doubt wifty is even a word.

Words came tumbling out of my father, huge ones, short ones, fat ones, skinny ones. He was a stickler for precision. He kept a huge dictionary behind his chair at the dining room table. If we weren’t sure of a word’s definition, he would dive into the book and demand, “Will you accept Webster’s Unabridged as a source?” He never read one of my junior high school social studies papers that he didn’t thoroughly mark up, because words matter and it’s always possible to be more precise.

Words are memories, but they are tools too, carving out bits of text from the lumpy rind of the past.  It’s a daily effort—often exhausting—to try to keep the commotion of family memories at bay while simultaneously holding onto those noisy recollections.

I see now that I’m lucky for my memory, however unruly and ill-behaved it is.  I mine it every time I put pen to paper.  It is brine for my writing, even if I’ll never fully understand it.  Wading through the chaos, I’ve learned that memory is more useful than memorizing.  I might even forgive myself that shortcoming.  I’m beginning to realize memorizing is too far removed from memory to qualify as even a distant relative.

Image credit: Unsplash/Siora Photography.

We Need to Talk About the Canon: Demographics in ‘The Norton Anthology’

In the last 20 years or so, the discussion of diversity in the American literary canon has exploded, garnering space in mainstream media outlets. A wide array of magazines, journals, and websites have tackled the issue. A 2013 New Yorker article titled “Canon Fodder: Denouncing the Classics” details the prickly and vague assumptions with which experts attempt to define canonical works. Other articles aim to deconstruct or expound upon the problem, often with similarly severe titles: “What is Literature?: In Defense of the Canon” (Harper’s, 2014); “The Literary Canon Is Still One Big Sausage Fest” (Jezebel, 2012); “Reconstructing the Canon” (Harvard Political Review, 2018), “The Canon Is Sexist, Racist, Colonialist, and Totally Gross. Yes, You Have to Read It Anyway” (Slate, 2018).

The majority of literary Americans—readers, writers, editors, publishers, professors, reviewers, and so on—are now all too aware of the serious problems surrounding literary inclusivity and representation. As a result, recent years have seen an uptick the publication and recognition of writers of more diverse backgrounds. This positive gain is due, in part, to an expanding network of organizations that support diversification, including VIDA, Lambda Literary, Cave Canem, Kundiman, and others.

But as yet, there has been very little hard data from which to discuss the extent of mis- or underrepresentation. Understandably so: such an undertaking would require a massive investment of time and resources. One manageable place to start, though, is to examine the textbook anthologies we offer American students. Indeed, these anthologies are often meant as snapshots of the canon, given to high-schoolers and undergraduates in literature survey courses nationwide. The most well-known of these is probably The Norton Anthology of American Literature.

The Norton Anthology has been a fixture in American classrooms since its introduction in 1979. This series is curated by a rotating assembly of editors, with new editions published every four to six years. W. W. Norton guards their sales figures and course adoption statistics closely, but, as of 2016, they claimed that roughly 12 million students have used The Norton Anthology of American Literature during its lifetime. It’s unclear if this figure includes resales of used books at college bookstores or reused editions in high school classrooms. Even so, this means about 4 million students per decade have used the anthology (or about 400,000 a year), on average.

This anthology series has had a foundational impact on defining what many readers and scholars would identify as an “American canon.” It follows that a demographic analysis of these books would—at the very least—yield a starting point for a more quantitative, statistical analysis of representation in the The Norton Anthology and the canon. And, like a selfie, this picture is not only a reflection of ourselves and our literary output, but a memento of who we are at this particular moment in time.

I conducted this study not for any prescriptive means, nor as any sort of definitive yardstick on the condition of American letters. At most, the findings listed here may be viewed as a measure of currently accepted levels of representation in anthologies. The central impetus for this examination was simply to contribute a data set that offers a snapshot of one version of the American canon (the version most familiar to students and teachers of literature in American high school and university classrooms).

This snapshot concentrates on the 194 writers in three books of The Norton Anthology of American Literature, Ninth Edition, volumes C, D, and E (“1865 to the Present”), published in 2017. This study excludes volumes A and B (“Beginnings to 1865”). The selection of writings included in these first volumes is limited due to the oppression and erasure enacted upon minorities in antebellum America. These early books consist mainly of unattributed oral literatures, religious tracts, letters, and memoir-narratives. Simply stated, a demographic analysis of the first two books of The Norton Anthology would be largely moot; they define the underrepresentation the study seeks to explore in the anthology’s later volumes.

A final note before presenting the data: There’s a saddening byproduct to spending a significant amount of time coding and simplifying each writer down to his or her demographic information. Writers are notoriously complex people, and they frequently make very concerted efforts to subvert easy categorization. At a certain point, I began to feel as though I was doing an injustice and, indeed, a violence to the legacy of many writers. Demographic data flattens and dehumanizes its subjects in a very uncomfortable way, and I apologize to all writers and readers for reducing people who, by their very nature, are irreducible. This study was undertaken in good faith and under the auspices of exploration and learning. I welcome disagreement, discourse, and correction, particularly from experts on demographic studies and on the identities of writers contained in The Norton Anthology.

What follows are data visualizations of information compiled from biographical and critical research. The data gets much more complex and difficult to parse at its deeper, more intersectional levels, though I plan to continue with and add to this work (and welcome others to do the same). I hope these summaries provide a starting point to further statistical analyses of representation in American literature and that this information is helpful to anyone interested in our current and future trajectory toward literary diversity.

Norton provides a full table of contents of these editions online, available for perusal here.

The Sound of Silence: Have We Forgotten How to Be Quiet?

The entire Western front went silent at exactly 11 a.m. on November 11, 1918. An armistice had been reached earlier that morning between the Allies and Germany, so it was agreed that hostilities would cease at that precise hour. Last year, audiologists at London’s Imperial War Museum used seismic data that had been gathered in the trenches as part of the war effort to recreate that moment. Now it’s possible to listen to what American troops along the River Moselle heard: repeated blasts of artillery fire for two minutes, a final explosion, and then at 11 a few gentle bird chirps in the autumn morning as everything falls quiet. An eerie, stunning, beautiful sound. The most sacred thing you will ever hear.

Everything and nothing is answered in silence as deep as that. Following such barbarity and horror, the very earth was now enveloped in a deep blanketing quiet. Novelist Kurt Vonnegut, who had experienced the nightmare of war when he was a POW in Dresden during the Allied bombing campaign of World War II, said of the Armistice that “I have talked to old men who were on battlefields during that minute. They have told me in one way or another that the sudden silence was the voice of God.” A moving and strange wisdom that understands that when the Lord speaks it may not be through thunder-clap and lightning, but rather in the final blast of artillery and a few bird chirps across a scarred field. If dissonance is the question, then silence may be the only answer.

Our present world is not quite as loud as it had been on the Western front (yet), but still we live mired in a never-ending cacophony. A century after God spoke unto the trenches of the Great War, and the volume is getting louder and louder. Not artillery shells, but the din of chatter, the thrum of status updates, the vibration of push notification. With the omnipresence of the smartphone, we’re continually in multiple conversations that often don’t deserve our attention. The 24-hour news cycle forces us to formulate hot-takes and positions on every conceivable event, from issues of political importance to fleeting pop culture phenomenon, and bellicose bloviating announces itself 140 characters at a time from the top on down. If Vonnegut is right that God spoke a century ago, then our current age is too loud to make that voice out today.

So loud is our current age, the echo of social media static resounding in our ears, that the French historian Alain Corbin writes that when it comes to silence “We have almost forgotten what it is.” If the industrial revolution heralded a landscape where silence was eliminated, the peace of town and country punctuated by the clank of machinery, then the digital revolution has shifted that very noise into our heads as well. Perhaps that’s why there has been a recent spike in interest about silence in titles like Erline Kagge’s Silence: In the Age of Noise or Jane Brox’s Silence: A Social History of One of the Least Understood Elements of Our Lives. Like Corbin in his A History of Silence, we’re all looking for a little peace and quiet these days.

Philosophy is traditionally conveyed through debate and argument. A reliance on disputation and dialogue, syllogism and seminar, would seem to proffer a noisy discipline. Yet philosophy can also be defined by a peaceful undercurrent, a metaphysics of silence. Corbain writes that silence is the “precondition for contemplation, for introspection, for meditation, for prayer, for reverie and for creation.” Silence allows us the intentionality required of thought, the presentness needed for rumination. If one model of philosophy takes place in the noisy Agora of ancient Athens, long Socratic dialogues among the sellers of lemons and olives, then another way of practicing philosophy emphasizes the quiet, the construction of a space in which thought can grow unhampered, where answers may be found among the still. Such quiet is its own philosophical method, a type of thought where answers are not generated through dialectic, but from within the soul of the thinker herself.

Something instrumental in this, where silence is a means to an end. But such an approach still has noise as its ultimate goal, in the form of declared conclusions.When parsing the significance of silence there are radical conclusions. Stillness can be the space that allows us to find future answers, but there is a wisdom that sees silence itself as an answer. In a Western tradition that very much sees logic as a goal unto itself, where truth is a matter of positive statements about objective reality, silence is its own anarchic technique, its own strange approach to that which we cannot speak. Silence can be both process and result.

From the sixth century before the Common Era when Lao-Tzu claimed that “The spoken Tao is not the eternal Tao” until Ludwig Wittgenstein’s 1924 conclusion that “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent,” silence has been a philosophical counter-tradition. Wittgenstein argued that if all of the questions of science, logic, and mathematics were somehow to be answered, we’d still have to be silent about that which is most profound. Issues of metaphysics would be passed over in a deep silence, not because they’re insignificant, but rather because they’re the most important. Perhaps it’s pertinent that the Austrian philosopher organized these thoughts while fighting in the loud trenches of World War I. Though separated by millennia, both thinkers believed that when the veil of reality is peeled back what mutely announces itself is a profound and deep silence.

Such an approach shares much with what theologians call the apophatic, from the Greek “to deny,” an understanding that when it comes to the approximation of ultimate things, it’s sometimes more accurate to say what something isn’t. Rather than circumscribe God with the limitations of mere words, we should pass eternity over in silence. Such a perspective holds that there can be more truth in uttering nothing than in a literal description. As the 9th-century Irish monk Johan Scotus Erigena wrote, “We do not know what God is.” Anticipating the monk’s contention, Jesus’s response to Pilate’s question of his origins was such that Christ “gave him no answer.” Scripture itself conveys that God’s silence is often more sacred than his declarations.

More than mere humility, apophatic theology is a profound approach that conveys that God isn’t just silent, but that in some ways God is silence. What would it mean, in our age of endless distraction and deafening noise, to inculcate silence not just for a bit of peace, but as an answer itself? What would it mean to engender within our lives an apophatic sensibility? To still the ear and mind long enough so that we could, as Vonnegut said, “remember when God spoke clearly to mankind?” Not in a booming voice, but rather in the sublime silence that permeates the emptiness between atoms and the space between stars, the very quiet where creation is born.
Image credit: Felipe Elioenay.