Twenty-Five Ways to Roast a Raven: The Spiciest Criticism of Edgar Allan Poe

“The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as best I could, but when he ventured upon insult I opened a Google doc and started keeping track.” That’s how the story goes, right?

Well, no, but isn’t it high time we made a list of all the worst insults lobbed at Edgar Allan Poe? Seems like once every decade or so, some eminent, eloquent critic comes out with an article summarizing the widespread negative view of Poe among Poe’s contemporaries and in academia and the higher reaches of arts and letters. Richard Wilbur, Karl Miller, and Kevin Jackson, for instance, all made excellent contributions to the field of Poe apologetics (apoelogetics?). You also have the brilliant book-length defenses: Brett Zimmerman’s indispensable Edgar Allan Poe: Rhetoric and Style (2005) and Jerome McGann’s magnificent The Poet Edgar Allan Poe: Alien Angel (2015). And yet, for all the tea that’s been spilled, no one’s ever made a ranked list of the most piquant remarks—the rudest, most spiteful and biting criticisms.

So I give you my own version, from mildest to meanest, while inviting you to vote for what you think is the absolute worst insult here and to arrange your own ranked list. Feel free, too, to add any insults I’ve left out—because what you’ll find below is not by any means comprehensive. Caesar himself was stabbed just 23 times, whereas with Poe, I’ve found you either stop the count at 25 or begin to lose your taste for the exercise.

Mark Twain
“To me [Poe’s] prose is unreadable—like Jane Austin’s [sic]. No there is a difference. I could read his prose on salary, but not Jane’s.”

Kevin Jackson
“One might go so far as to say that Poe is the worst writer ever to have had any claim to greatness.”

Allen Tate
“Poe’s serious style at its typical worst makes the reading of more than one story at a sitting an almost insuperable task.”

Aldous Huxley
“To the most sensitive and high-souled man in the world we should find it hard to forgive, shall we say, the wearing of a diamond ring on every finger. Poe does the equivalent of this in his poetry; we notice the solecism and shudder.”

W.B. Yeats
“I admire a few lyrics of his extremely and a few pages of his prose, chiefly in his critical essays, which are sometimes profound. The rest of him seems to be vulgar and commonplace.”

Edith Wharton
“That drunken and demoralized Baltimorean…”

T.S. Eliot
“That Poe had a powerful intellect is undeniable: but it seems to me the intellect of a highly gifted person before puberty.”

H.L. Mencken
“[Poe was] a genius, and if not of the first rank, then at least near the top of the second—but a foolish, disingenuous and often somewhat trashy man.”

Henry James
“An enthusiasm for Poe is the mark of a decidedly primitive stage of reflection.”

Rufus W. Griswold
“Poe exhibits scarcely any virtue in either his life or his writings. Probably there is not another instance in the literature of our language in which so much has been accomplished without a recognition or a manifestation of conscience.”

John Frankenstein:
You, drunken mad-dog, EDGAR ALLAN POE —
Is it my fault that I must call you so?
Your works, like you, are born of alcohol;
Horrid monstrosities, distortions all…”
George Gilfillan
“His heart was as rotten as his conduct was infamous. He knew not what the terms honour and honourable meant. He had absolutely no virtue or good quality, unless you call remorse a virtue and despair a grace. Some have called him mad; but we confess we see no evidence of this in his history. He was never mad, except when in delirium tremens.”

Yvor Winters
“This is an art to delight the soul of a servant-girl; it is a matter for astonishment that mature men can be found to take this kind of thing seriously.”

Harold Bloom
“No reader who cares deeply for the best poetry written in English can care greatly for Poe’s verse…I can think of no other American writer, down to this moment, at once so inescapable and so dubious.”

D.H. Lawrence
“Poe tried alcohol, and any drug he could lay his hand on. He also tried any human being he could lay his hands on.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson
“The jingle man.”

Hiram Fuller
“A poor creature…in a condition of sad, wretched imbecility, bearing in his feeble body the evidences of evil lying.”

William Crary Brownell
“He evinced the singular cleverness of the children of this world…his writings lack the elements not only of great, but of real, literature.”

Paul Elmer More
“The poet of unripe boys and unsound men.”

Owen Dudley Edwards
“Endless self-indulgence, wallowing in atmosphere, incessant lecturing, ruthless discourse on whatever took the writer’s fancy, longueurs, trivialisations, telegraphing of punch-lines, loss of plot in effect, loss of effect in plot…In sum, what Poe lacked above all was a sense of his reader.”

Thomas Dunn English
“The very incarnation of treachery and falsehood.”

Bryan W. Proctor”
“Edgar Allan Poe was incontestably one of the most worthless persons of whom we have any record in the world of letters.”
Arthur Twining Hadley
“Poe wrote like a drunkard and a man who is not accustomed to pay his debts.”

George Orwell
“At worst…not far from being insane in the literal clinical sense.”

W.H. Auden
“An unmanly sort of man whose love-life seems to have been largely confined to crying in laps…”

You wonder: Why exactly has Poe, among all American writers, proven such a popular shooting target? This list, as you’ve seen, reads like a virtual Literary Who’s Who, beginning with those who knew the man. “Of all men Poe had best reason to pray that he might be delivered from the hands of his friends,” as Atlantic Monthly put it in 1896, referring to Rufus W. Griswold, Poe’s great frenemy, who wrote that hit job of an obit.

Beyond Poe’s contemporaries, you have the down-their-noses sneering of highbrow literary figures and would-be highbrow literary figures, together composing what Brett Zimmerman called “the smog of critical hostility that hangs over the Poe canon.” The choicest example, or so I think, is Harold Bloom’s nasty 1984 essay in The New York Review of Books, not only indefensibly snotty in tone but also a grievous sin against hospitality because Bloom used the same piece as the introduction to the 1985 Modern Critical Views edition of Poe’s work. And while dude claims to be speaking of Poe, but “The Inescapable Poe” is more accurately the inescapable Bloom. It’s the ne plus ultra of literary get-off-my-lawns.

On the other hand, you have those who criticized Poe fairly sharply while also writing about him with incredible insight, like D.H. Lawrence and Allen Tate. And this is to say almost nothing of those Poe admirers whose adaptations and interpretations are arguably insulting, like John Cusack portraying Poe as a lech drooling over high-class cleavage in 2012’s The Raven, or Lynn Cullen’s 2013 quasi-historical romance Mrs. Poe. Whether these bits of fan art are goofy fun or edging into character assassination depends on who’s watching, who’s reading.

Poe, anyway, knew something about snobbery and slinging vitriol, given his own sometimes-hyperbolic critical career. No one would ever accuse the guy of being suave and taking things in stride. In his fiction, and often in his essays and reviews, Poe’s nerves are exposed—like he broke the crown off one of his teeth and there’s an abscess and maybe someone should call 911 because he might be dying of a brain infection any second now. This style was intentional, but that doesn’t mean it’ll be to everyone’s taste. That children love Poe’s work seems to be, for some, another strike against him, causing more than a handful of detractors to describe his work as juvenilia. You have to guess they’ve never read his stuff as an adult, when its metaphorical nature comes through with such gutting poignancy. Finally, professional jealousy, and the comorbid tendency to look down on any popularly successful work, must carry a good deal of explanatory power. Call it Poe’s Razor.

Still, it’s a simplistic view that considers all these insults as simply insults—rather than the kind of PR that even good money can’t buy. Poe’s notoriety attracts new fans. It’s not just true in our own day: Poe and P.T. Barnum shared an era, and as Barnum said, “Every crowd has a silver lining.” I think of all the almost supernaturally eloquent Poe defenders—drawn, as I have been, by a sense of moral indignation in seeing one we admire so wronged, as well as out of respect for our legion of forebears and what Shawn Rosenheim rightly called “pathological identification” with our subject. It might be a sad club, but it’s our club, and today, Edgar Allan Poe counts nearly four million fans on Facebook, a further 64,000 on Quora, and another 20,000 on Wattpad. Also, 3,500 people belong to the Poe subreddit. All this nearly 200 years after his death. As a writer, you could do a whole lot worse. I mean, the insults make you laugh. But Poe’s success in spite of these insults? You just cackle with glee.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

The Millions Top Ten: October 2019

We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for October.

This Month
Last Month

Title
On List

1.
1.

The Practicing Stoic: A Philosophical User’s Manual
6 months

2.
2.

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead
3 months

3.
4.

The Memory Police
3 months

4.
3.

Pieces for the Left Hand: Stories

3 months

5.
6.

Inland

3 months

6.


The Topeka School

1 month

7.
7.

The New Me
6 months

8.
5.

Normal People
6 months

9.
8.

The Nickel Boys
4 months

10.
9.

The Testaments: The Sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale
2 months

This month Lucy Ellmann’s Ducks, Newburyport, which appeared on our list amidst a dark horse run toward the Man Booker Prize, is replaced on our list by Ben Lerner’s The Topeka School, which will doubtless make some prize runs of its own. As Hannah Gersen noted in her capsule for our Great Second-Half 2019 Book Preview, “The pre-pub blurbs for Lerner’s third novel are ecstatic, with his publisher calling it a breakthrough and Claudia Rankine describing it as ‘a powerful allegory of our troubled present.'” Clearly, many Millions readers are tantalized.

Elsewhere on our list, titles jockeyed for slight changes in position. Margaret Atwood’s Booker-winning novel The Testaments, a sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, slid to 10th. September’s eighth book moved to ninth. The third swapped places with the fourth. You get the picture. Next month, three slots will open as three books are bound for our Hall of Fame. Any guesses on what will fill their places? Keep in mind: Year in Reading is around the corner. Start budgeting now.

This month’s near misses included: The Golden State, The Lightest Object in the Universe, The Hotel Neversink, and How to Be an Antiracist. See Also: Last month’s list.

Must-Read Poetry: November 2019

Here are five notable books of poetry publishing this month.

Aviva-No by Shimon Adaf (translated by Yael Segalovitz)

“I can’t speak about it in Hebrew, but in English it’s easier. Maybe because for me the English language contains distance. Hebrew is too intimate.” Shimon Adaf wrote Aviva-No as a book-length elegy for his sister Aviva, who died suddenly at 43. Originally published in Hebrew in 2009, Adaf’s collection appears here in English for the first time, with a skilled translation by Segalovitz. Adaf composed the collection during the year after her death, so he “was forced to spend part of the year of mourning in two worlds, the one of my childhood that had been infused with the presence of my sister and the one of the present, in which she was terribly missing.” The coexistence of Hebrew and English reminds the reader that this is a book of occasion: on outpouring of grief, confusion, and the slippery attempt to capture both through language. The book is steeped with arresting scenes like the poem in which Adaf’s mother explains to the grandchildren that “we will / never see Aviva again.” He hears his mother cry, “not that howling lamentation, just the flow / of one whose strength vanished in the flame.” Afterward, his mother comes to him, and said “how simple it is to see / in the dark, like an ember glowing wild — / losing a child means always losing a child.” A book of remarkable power.

Some Glad Morning by Barbara Crooker

Crooker often returns to her ekphrastic influences (as she did in Les Fauves and More), and here she crafts some wonderful pieces about aging—our bodies slowed down, spread, inevitably solemn. On the ekphrastic side, there are pieces following Hopper, Mackintosh, Cézanne, Renoir, Derain: “Even the shadows scream for attention.” Most consuming in this collection, though, are the moving poems of memory and worry; of fractured past and uncertain present. In “Personal History”: a narrator writes of the light she lost, “Her skin, on my fingertips, / petals of heliotrope.” How the “pollen of memory clings to my sleeves. / As small as the wind’s shadow, the fleeting / glimpse of her face.” Elsewhere she writes of late September, “how the light is beginning to dim, / tarnished like old silver rubbed thin, / a note from a lover read over and over.” Later, in “Corvus Triolet,” the snowy yard is “full of crows, / their voices ragged scraps of pain.” Their presence “reminds me still that grief is slow, / it comes again like a refrain.” She writes of a Marian statue on a back road near Auvillar, France, “in the midst of a harvested field, stubble at your feet.” Her lines are written with a beautiful chord of melancholy: “Your eyes are cast down, hands folded, lips closed. / Nearby, in a neighboring tillage, someone / in a sunlit vineyard is turning the blood / of ordinary grapes into wine.”  

Black Mountain Poems edited by Jonathan C. Creasy

John Andrew Rice, one of the founders of Black Mountain College in North Carolina, claimed “our central and consistent effort now is to teach method, not content; to emphasize process, not results; to invite the student to the realization that the way of handling facts and himself amid the facts is more important than the facts themselves.” The poet Charles Olson, who taught during the final decade of the college’s existence, told Robert Creeley, “I need a college to think with.” The vision of Black Mountain was of community and collaboration, and Creasy’s approach is a holistic one—he widens the scope to not merely students and professors, but those influenced at a distance. Included here: Denise Levertov, Robert Duncan, John Cage, Hilda Morley, among others. A fine, pocket-sized companion to an important artistic moment.

Alisoun Sings by Caroline Bergvall

Alisoun Sings completes a trilogy for Bergvall, following Meddle English and Drift. She has described this final book as “my take on Chaucer’s wonderful loud-mouth liferider proto-feminist Wife of Bath.” In her Prologue/Preface, Bergvall writes that she senses Alisoun “coming through as a concert of sounds and lives and purposes from a vast patchwork of influences, events, and emotions that accord with her, and revitalise her presence among us.” The result is part experiment and part experience, delivered in “transhistoric English.” The language evolves here, making Alisoun solidly in the forgotten and misunderstood past, while invading the present. This is a manifesto, an affirmation of identity, a recognition of a voice finally given shape. Alisoun says: “first left me reminde youse Im a local lasse. Yes not rose nor trained articulat, yet a wyse woman with appetites. I have lived and live on.” And she continues. 

Oblivion Banjo by Charles Wright

“I find myself in my own image, and am neither and both. / I come and go in myself / as though from room to room, / As though the smooth incarnation of some medieval spirit.” Oblivion Banjo spans from Hard Freight (1973) to Caribou (2014), and the healthy selections capture Wright’s particular magic—his leaning lines, his probing questions, his invitation for us to join the worlds of his poems. In one poem, he wonders about St. Thomas and the “wound that cannot be touched.” “Wish him well,” Wright says. “His supper was not holy, his gesture not sinless. / May ours be equal to his, / whatever sky we live under.” His questions spur and sometimes singe. Elsewhere, Wright offers calm melodies, even within tense moments. The ending of “Appalachian Lullaby” is prayer: “Gently the eyelids close. / Not dark, not dark. But almost. / Drift away. And drift away. / A deep and a sweet repose.” 

November Preview: The Millions Most Anticipated (This Month)

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We wouldn’t dream of abandoning our vast semi–annual Most Anticipated Book Previews, but we thought a monthly reminder would be helpful (and give us a chance to note titles we missed the first time around).  Here’s what we’re looking out for this month—for more November titles, check out our Second-Half Preview. Let us know what you’re looking forward to in the comments!

Want to know about the books you might have missed? Then go read our most recent book preview. Want to help The Millions keep churning out great books coverage? Then sign up to be a member today.

The Revisioners by Margaret Wilkerson Sexton: Sexton’s first novel, A Kind of Freedom, was on the longlist for the 2017 National Book Award and appeared on a number of year-end best-of lists. The Revisioners, a multigenerational story focusing on black lives in America, begins in 1925, when farm owner Josephine enters into a reluctant, precarious relationship with her white neighbor, with disastrous results; nearly 100 years later, Josephine’s descendant, Ava, out of desperation, moves in with her unstable white grandmother. The novel explores the things that happen between; the jacket copy promises “a novel about the bonds between a mother and a child, the dangers that upend those bonds.” (Edan)

In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado: After the runaway and wholly deserved success of her magnificent short story collection, Her Body and Other Parties, Machado returns with a memoir chronicling an abusive relationship. Juxtaposing her personal experience with research and cultural representations of domestic abuse, the book defies all genre and structural expectations. Writer Alex Marzano-Lesnevich writes that Machado “has reimagined the memoir genre, creating a work of art both breathtakingly inventive and urgently true.” (Carolyn)

Space Invaders by Nona Fernández (translated by Natasha Wimmer): Chilean writer Nona Fernández is revered as one of the most important contemporary Latin-American writers, and her novel explores the experience of growing up in a dictatorship and trying to grapple with erasure and truth in adulthood. Daniel Alarcón writes, “Space Invaders is an absolute gem…Within the canon of literature chronicling Pinochet’s Chile, Nona Fernández’s Space Invaders is truly unique.” (Zoë)

The Book of Lost Saints by Daniel José Older: Spanning generations, Older’s latest tells the tale of a family split between New Jersey and Cuba, who grapple with the appearance of their vanished ancestor’s ghost. The ancestor, Marisol, went missing in the tumult of the Revolution, taking with her the family’s knowledge of their painful and complicated past. When Marisol visits her nephew, he starts to learn about her story, which hinges on “lost saints” who helped her while she was in prison. (Thom)

What Burns by Dale Peck: Dale Peck has published a dozen books—novels, an essay collection, a memoir, young-adult and children’s novels—and along the way he has won a Lamda Award, a Pushcart Prize, and two O. Henry Awards. Now Peck is out with something new: What Burns, his first collection of short fiction. Written over the course of a quarter-century, these stories are shot through with two threads that run through all of Peck’s writing: tenderness and violence. In “Not Even Camping Is Like Camping Anymore,” for instance, a teenaged boy must fend off the advances of a 5-year-old his mother babysits. And in “Bliss,” a young man befriends the convicted felon who murdered his mother when he was a child. Tenderness and violence, indeed. (Bill)

White Negroes: When Cornrows Were in Vogue … and Other Thoughts on Cultural Appropriation by Lauren Michele Jackson: Scholar and writer Lauren Michele Jackson, who has written many incisive essays on popular culture and race for Vulture and elsewhere, now publishes her first book, an in-depth exploration of the way white America continues to steal from black people, a practice that, Jackson argues, increases inequality. Eve Ewing says of the book: “We’ve needed this book for years, and yet somehow it’s right on time.” (Lydia)

Vernon Subutex 1 by Virginie Despentes (translated by Frank Wynne): A writer and director dubbed the “wild child of French literature” by The Guardian, Despentes has been a fixture on the French, and global, arts scene since her provocative debut, Baise-Moi. Translated by Frank Wynne, this first in a trilogy of novels introduces us to Vernon Subutex, a louche antihero who, after his Parisian record shop closes, goes on an epic couch-surfing, drug-fueled bender. Out of money and on the streets, his one possession is a set of VHS tapes shot by a famous, recently deceased rock star that everyone wants to get their hands on. (Matt)

The Fugitivities by Jesse McCarthy: The debut novel from McCarthy, Harvard professor and author of essays destined to be taught in classrooms for years to come (among them “Notes on Trap”), The Fugitivities takes place in Brooklyn, the Bronx, and Brazil, with Parisian interludes. The novel explores the collision of a teacher in crisis with a basketball coach yearning for a lost love, carrying the former on a journey that will change everything. Of The Fugitivities, Namwali Serpell writes “In exquisite, often ecstatic, prose, McCarthy gives us a portrait of the artist as a young black man—or rather, as a set of young black men, brothers and friends and rivals.” (Lydia)

Jakarta by Rodrigo Márquez Tizano (translated by Thomas Bunstead): A man and his lover are trapped in a room while a plague ravages the city in this “portrait of a fallen society that exudes both rage and resignation.” Tizano fashions an original, astonishing, and terrifyingly unhinged dystopia in this, his debut novel. Thomas Bunstead adds to an impressive resumé with a seamlessly literary and peppery translation from the Spanish. (Il’ja)

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo: Joint winner of the 2019 Booker Prize and first black woman to receive the award, Evaristo’s eighth novel follows the lives of 12 black British people—predominately, thought not entirely, women—from different classes and identities. The Booker judges called the novel “a must-read about modern Britain and womanhood” that “deserves to be read aloud and to be performed and celebrated in all kinds of media.” (Carolyn)

Essays One by Lydia Davis: In the first half of a two-volume collection, Davis gathers a collection of nonfiction writing from the last five decades. The famed short story writer’s essays about reading and writing explore her artistic influences, literary criticism, and even annotations of her own work—which offers a rare deep dive into her craft. Publishers Weekly’s starred review says readers “should take the opportunity to learn from a legend.” (Carolyn)

The Worst Kind of Want by Liska Jacobs: Pricilla (Cilla) Messing has spent her life caring for others so she expects more of the same when she’s called to Rome to babysit her out-of-control teenage niece. Instead, while falling under the spell of scenic Italy and a forbidden flirtation, Cilla’s erratic behavior jeopardizes her future. Publishers Weekly wrote that the “intoxicating” novel is “a love letter to Italy and an evocative study of grief and desire.” (Carolyn)

The Witches are Coming by Lindy West: In a follow-up to her bestselling memoir Shrill, West’s new essay collection—complete with a title playing on the idea of “witch hunt”—explores our current cultural moment. Whether it’s #MeToo, misogyny in the Trump era, or how the media covers serial killers, West’s writing is biting, funny, and whip smart. “Satirical, raw, and unapologetically real, West delivers the bittersweet truths on contemporary living,” says Kirkus. (Carolyn)

On Swift Horses by Shannon Pufahl: Purahl’s debut novel set in the 1950s follows Muriel, a 21-year-old newlywed who has moved from rural Kansas to San Diego with her husband, Lee. Listless and restless, Muriel sets off to find the brother-in-law she harbors deep affection for. Kirkus’ starred review says, “the book is filled with such rhythmically lovely, splendidly evocative, and masterfully precise descriptions.” (Carolyn)

The Innocents by Michael Crummey: Finalist for the 2019 Giller Prize, Crummey’s latest novel follows two recently-orphaned siblings as they navigate the brutal conditions of 19th-century Newfoundland. About The Innocents, Smith Henderson writes, “what makes this story timeless is Crummey’s rich depiction of the human heart in extremis, the unflagging beat of life in a world that is too much to bear.” (Carolyn)

The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern: Eight years after The Night Circus became a literary and book club sensation, Morgenstern returns with her much anticipated sophomore novel, which has received starred reviews from Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, Booklist, and Library Journal. Steeped in her signature fantastical style, the novel follows a graduate student who stumbles upon a mysterious book that leads him to a subterranean library called the Harbor on the Starless Sea—and that’s just the beginning of the tale. (Carolyn)

All Blood Runs Red by Phil Keith and Tom Clavin: This new biography excavates the fascinating untold and nearly lost story of Eugene Bullard, a globally famous boxer, the first African-American fighter pilot, a WWII French spy, and nearly everything in between. In a starred review which calls the book “dazzling,” Publishers Weekly writes, “This may be a biography, but it reads like a novel.” (Carolyn)

Six Things You (Probably) Didn’t Know About Flannery O’Connor

Flannery O’Connor is a master of the American short story, joining since her untimely death in 1964, Hawthorne, Poe, Hemingway, and Faulkner in the literary canon. Now a fixture in textbooks and collections, she composed on an old typewriter with bookshelves nearby of modern fiction, philosophy, and theology unique among American writers. The novels of William Faulkner, the American Virgil, beside the writings of the angelic doctor Thomas Aquinas testified to wide study. Here are some interesting observations I discovered in editing Good Things Out of Nazareth.
1. O’Connor was amused about Ronald Reagan possibly acting in one of her stories. 
The prospect was long before Reagan took office and years before he was a “B” actor in Hollywood. O’Connor received word that “The Life You Save May Be Your Own” was being shopped around for an actor to play the part of the notorious, one-armed vagrant, Mr. Shiftlet. The notion of Reagan playing the part of a memorable villain was hilarious to O’Connor. Reagan playing the part did not come to fruition. O’Connor would have been been amazed that the Ronald Reagan she saw on television in the 1950s went on to become the celebrity President.
2. O’Connor actually witnessed Soviet “collusion” in the late 1940s.
She was an ardent theological anti-communist and believed Marxism to be a theological heresy. While O’Connor was in residence at the Yaddo Artists’ Colony in New York, she had become friends with another writer in the community, the poet Robert Lowell. Lowell exposed infiltration of Yaddo by a communist spy while O’Connor was there. The FBI actually had been surveilling the community when Lowell went public with his anti-communism. O’Connor was steadfast in her support of Lowell. He and O’Connor would leave Yaddo but remained friends. O’Connor provided stability to Lowell’s sometimes erratic personality.

3. A Georgian, O’Connor resisted being labeled a Southern writer.
In a letter, O’Connor asks a professor friend who had been lecturing on Southern literature, “What is that?” In 1956, O’Connor wrote another friend about her teachers, “They were agrarians—such people as John Crowe Ransom and Robert Penn Warren…That was all part of what is now pompously called the Southern literary renascence.” Walker Percy, from Louisiana, shared her aversion to literary categorization. Upon publication of his existential novel The Moviegoer, Percy wrote his editor in April 1962, “And Knopf was such a grand old house before you had truck with dirty writers. Can’t speak for Updike or Mailer but mine is the worst of all because it pleases no one. It’s too Yankee to suit Southerners, too vulgar to suit Catholics, too Catholic to suit humanists, out but not way out.”

4. O’Connor may have objected to the way her stories have been studied.
 “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” for example, has appeared in anthologies for many years. She may have not intended it be studied in isolation divorced from the short story cycle in which it first appeared. While the publication of individual stories has increased O’Connor’s popularity, the reading of the stories out of sequence of a cycle may have undercut her intentions. In several letters O’Connor conceives of the collection A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Other Stories (1955) as an exposition of the seven deadly sins modeled on Dante’s Purgatorio. Sequencing of the stories is essential. The letters reveal O’Connor intended larger contextual revelation of a specific order. This vital principle better enables readers to understand her fiction is not just about roadside killings, hangings, and gorings.


5. O’Connor’s voting preferences remain obscure.
Like a young Bill Clinton, O’Connor listened to an exciting speech delivered at the 1956 Democratic convention by Governor Frank G. Clement of Tennessee. The governor criticized President Eisenhower for too much golf, a topic that remains popular. In a letter from 1960, O’Connor defends John Kennedy against anti-Catholic paranoia. Other letters reveal some of O’Connor’s politically active friends embraced an outlook not mentioned in Democratic debates today. In the 1950s and through the election of Kennedy there existed a vibrant tradition of the “yellow dog Democrat.” Such Democrats would vote for a “yellow dog” rather than a Republican. “Yellow dog” Democrats had heard vivid recollections of Republican war policy during the Civil War and Reconstruction, including dismal tales about “Mr. Lincoln’s army” and General Sherman’s “smoky march” in 1864 through Georgia and South Carolina. O’Connor’s teachers and friends (as well as William Faulkner) had all learned much of their history and political loyalties from Civil War veterans themselves. O’Connor could be irreverent about ancestor worship, however, evident in the story, “A Late Encounter With the Enemy” and the senile character, “General” George Poker Sash.
6. O’Connor’s steady reading of Catholic theologians changed in the final months of her life.
Several friends sent her books by C. S. Lewis. While in an Atlanta hospital O’Connor writes a professor friend: “it’s a great pleasure to be reading C. S. Lewis on the subject [of prayer]. And I was liking the one [book] on miracles too. That stuff is right up my alley. I couldn’t close the book and make anybody believe in miracles but what his kind of a book does is something for the imagination.” Lewis strengthened O’Connor right up until the end. She was too weak for a manual typewriter and used an electric one and hid “Judgment Day” under her pillow from her doctors. O’Connor discovered the apologetic power of C. S. Lewis—the core “mere Christianity” that has comforted and strengthened many in all manner of trials and tribulations. O’Connor read him like countless others, as an apologist who provided spiritual strength.
This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly and also appeared on publishersweekly.com.

Ten Essential Music Biographies

I am a biography junkie. I started reading them in third grade via a 1960s elementary-school series—primers on Madame Curie, Florence Nightingale, and George Washington Carver come to mind. But as a teenager, I was obsessed with rock ‘n’ roll and devoured the first music biography I got my hands on: Anthony Scaduto’s 1971 biography of Bob Dylan. When I moved to New York from North Carolina in search of punk rock, I became oddly fascinated with vintage honky-tonk, rockabilly, and folk, largely because I read Chet Flippo’s moving story of Hank Williams’s tragically short life, Your Cheatin’ Heart (1981), Nick Tosches’s scorching Hellfire (1982) on Jerry Lee Lewis, and Joe Klein’s masterful Woody Guthrie: A Life (1980).
Since then, I’ve read too many music memoirs, “as told to’s,” and music biographies to count. Among my all time-favorites are the Etta James/David Ritz co-write, Rage to Survive and, of course, Patti Smith’s Just Kids. Though I can easily recommend several excellent biographies of bands, particularly Evelyn McDonnell’s Queens of Noise: The Real Story of the Runaways and Bob Mehr’s Trouble Boys: The True Story of the Replacements, I’m going to limit my Top 10 list (in alphabetical, not numerical order) to biographies of individual musicians. I’m currently reading (and enjoying) Robert Hillburn’s definitive Johnny Cash: The Life, but I’ll never finish that hefty volume in time to meet the deadline for this piece.

1. Heavier than Heaven: A Life of Kurt Cobain by Charles R. Cross

A longtime music writer based in Seattle, Cross covered Cobain’s band Nirvana from its earliest gigs, and his incisive reporting on Cobain’s broken childhood in Aberdeen, his brilliance as an artist, songwriter, and musician, and his tragically short life is powerful and heartbreaking. (Cross’s biography of another Washington State icon, Jimi Hendrix—Room Full of Mirrors—is also exceptional.)

2. Lou Reed: A Life by Anthony DeCurtis

DeCurtis’s astute analysis of Lou Reed’s lengthy career–and his empathetic coverage of the complicated artist’s walk on the wild side of life–makes this book a page turner. Reading DeCurtis’ account of Reed’s heroin addiction was helpful as I tackled this subject when writing about Janis Joplin.

3. Hickory Wind: The Life & Times of Gram Parsons by Ben Fong-Torres

Fong-Torres’s detective work uncovered the real story of the “cosmic country” pioneer’s childhood in Georgia and Florida (a tale right out of Tennessee Williams), as well as illuminating Parsons’s tragically short music career. He doesn’t let Parsons off the hook for his foibles, while giving him his due as a brilliant but flawed artist. (Full disclosure: Fong-Torres invited me along as an assistant on his research travels and taught me how to write biographies along the way.)

4. Bing Crosby: A Pocketful of Dreams – The Early Years, 1903-1940 by Gary Giddins

A novice on Crosby’s oeuvre, I read renowned jazz critic Gary Giddins’s in-depth study of one of the 20th century’s early stars to learn about the era from which my first biography subject, Gene Autry, emerged, and I wasn’t disappointed. I got quite the education—and enjoyment—from reading Giddins’ detailed account of the crooner’s first 37 years. Volume 2, Swinging on a Star: The War Years, 1940-1946, which came out last year, is on my “to-read” list (hopefully before my annual viewing of Holiday Inn and White Christmas).

5. Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley and Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley by Peter Guralnick

I know. I’m cheating. But you can’t read just one of Guralnick’s beyond-comprehensive two-volume biography of the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll. (It would be like reading only one of Robert Caro’s LBJ bios.) The writing is eloquent, the research is deeper than deep, and both books are full of heart. After reading the second one, I vowed never again to make a fat Elvis joke.

6. Shakey: Neil Young’s Biography by Jimmy McDonough

Originally, the mercurial Canadian-born artist collaborated with McDonough on this riveting account of the prolific musician’s life but withdrew from the project and tried to stop McDonough from continuing. That story alone is worth the price of admission, but McDonough’s humorous storytelling, eye for detail, and pure persistence make this lengthy tome a must-read–and it’s much more exciting than Young’s own self-indulgent and meandering Waging Heavy Peace.

7. The One: The Life and Music of James Brown by RJ Smith

I read this fascinating account of James Brown’s turbulent life before starting a biography of Alex Chilton, and the deep background on Brown’s ancestors in Georgia inspired me to try to dig up Chilton family history in Mississippi. Smith’s writing on the Godfather of Soul’s music–including “the one,” the funk beat he invented, is sharp, while the story of his career ups and downs is mesmerizing.

8. Redemption Song: The Ballad of Joe Strummer by Chris Salewicz

Reading about Strummer’s formation of the Clash was only a portion of what makes this biography a great read. Strummer’s early years and pre-and post-Clash musical lives are fascinating, and make it that much harder to accept the vibrant musician’s sudden death from an undetected heart problem on the eve of his band’s induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

9. Without Getting Killed or Caught: The Life and Music of Guy Clark by Tamara Saviano

Saviano spent much time with the late Guy Clark and his songwriter/artist wife Susanna Clark, and this book is as much a portrait of the couple as it is of Clark alone. It’s a moving story and an in-depth look at one of the great Texan singer-songwriter-guitarists and the Nashville boho salon the Clarks created, which included Townes Van Zandt, Rodney Crowell, and Steve Earle, among other intriguing characters.

10. I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen by Sylvie Simmons

Simmons’s biography was published two years before Cohen’s death at age 82, but it’s hard to imagine a richer portrait than this one. She delves into the stories behind the songwriter’s unparalleled work, as well as his life as a seeker, which took him from Cuba and Greece to Nashville, New York, and the Buddhist monastery on Mount Baldy. Simmons’s analysis of Cohen’s singular catalogue is exceptional, her comprehensive grasp of his unusual and multi-faceted life beyond impressive.

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

Margaret Atwood and Bernardine Evaristo Win 2019 Booker Prize

In a stunning turn of events (and perhaps even taking a page out of the Nobel’s playbook), the 2019 Booker Prize has been awarded to two books: Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments and Bernardine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other. The two winners will share the £50,000 prize.

Peter Florence, the chair of the 2019 judges, said: “This ten month process has been a wild adventure. In the room today we talked for five hours about books we love. Two novels we cannot compromise on. They are both phenomenal books that will delight readers and will resonate for ages to come.”

A few fun facts about this years prize:

The Booker Prize has been awarded to two works twice before, but this is the first joint-winner since 1993—when the rules were changed to allow only one author to win the prize at a time.
Evaristo is the first black woman to have ever won the Booker Prize.
This is Atwood’s second win (she won in 2000 for The Blind Assassin), and she has been shortlisted four times: The Handmaid’s Tale (1986), Cat’s Eye (1989), Alias Grace (1996), and Oryx and Crake (2003). 

Here are the authors that made this year’s short and long lists.

Olga Tokarczuk and Peter Handke Win Nobel Prizes in Literature

This morning’s Nobel Prize in Literature announcement marked a first in the award’s 118-year history: two awards will be bestowed—one for 2018 and one for 2019.

Shortly after Kazuo Ishiguro won the prize in 2017, the Academy was rocked by a multi-faceted scandal: Jean-Claude Arnault, the husband of Katarina Frostenson, an academy member, was accused (and later convicted) of sexual abuse, exploitation, and rape, The husband and wife are also accused of misusing academy funding. In the wake of those crises and multiple resignations, the 2018 prize and ceremony were cancelled.

This morning, however, Olga Tokarczuk and Peter Handke were awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature as well as the its 9m Swedish krona purse ($910,000+) prize.

Polish author Olga Tokarczuk won the 2018 prize for “a narrative imagination that with encyclopedic passion represents the crossing of boundaries as a form of life.”

Tokarczuk is no stranger to awards. For her novel Flights, she won the 2008 Nike Award—Poland’s most prestigious literary prize—and the English translation by Jennifer Croft would go on to win the 2019 Man Booker International award. Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones, Tokarczuk’s second novel, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, was longlisted for the 2019 Man Booker International Prize and longlisted for the National Book Award in Translated Literature.

She also recently cracked into The Millions Top Ten as well—which may be the most exciting feat of all (depending on who you’re asking, I guess). To learn more about Tokarczuk, The Millions has a fantastic review of her novel Flights, as well as an astute profile of the author by Gabe Habash.

Austrian author Peter Handke won the 2019 prize for “an influential work that with linguistic ingenuity has explored the periphery and the specificity of human experience.” The Millions predicted Handke’s chances to win in 2009. Handke is a controversial figure that even called for the Nobel Prize to be abolished in 2014 in an Austrian newspaper. 

The Millions Top Ten: September 2019

We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for September.

This Month
Last Month

Title
On List

1.
1.

The Practicing Stoic: A Philosophical User’s Manual
5 months

2.
2.

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead
2 months

3.
6.

Pieces for the Left Hand: Stories
2 months

4.
10.

The Memory Police

2 months

5.
3.

Normal People
5 months

6.
8.

Inland

2 months

7.
4.

The New Me
5 months

8.
5.

The Nickel Boys
3 months

9.


The Testaments: The Sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale
1 month

10.


Ducks, Newburyport
1 month

Meteoric rises for J. Robert Lennon and Yoko Ogawa propelled Pieces for the Left Hand and The Memory Police into the upper-half of this month’s Top Ten. In two months’ time, the books rose three and six rungs on the list, respectively. Still their ascent may not be over: Ogawa’s novel was shortlisted for the National Book Award in Translated Literature this week.

Of course, fast risers unsettle past mainstays. This month, Normal People, The New Me, and The Nickel Boys dropped several slots; two titles dropped out and were replaced by newcomers. While we root for Sally Rooney, Halle Butler, and Colson Whitehead to stay on our list, we also recognize that change is our Top Ten’s one constant. Welcome, welcome, then to Margaret Atwood and Lucy Ellmann, whose novels The Testaments and Ducks, Newburyport check in at ninth and tenth on this month’s list. Both were shortlisted for the 2019 Man Booker Prize, as we noted last month.

In her write-up of The Testaments for our Great Second-Half 2019 Book Preview, our own Claire Cameron noted that this long-awaited follow-up to The Handmaid’s Tale was influenced by two things: “First, all the questions [Atwood’s] been asked by readers about Gilead and, second, she adds ominously, ‘the world we’ve been living in.'”

Tune in next month for another installment of As the Top Ten Turns.

This month’s near misses included: The Topeka School, The Hotel Neversink, and How to Be an Antiracist. See Also: Last month’s list.

Ten Haunting Ghost Stories for Halloween (and the Rest of the Year, Too)

I adore the haunting feelings that remain after a novel explores the deep layers of all of the memory and baggage we bring to our experiences and interactions. What we traditionally call “ghost stories” can often deliver this feeling with the greatest ease, but my favorites are generally filled with more metaphorical ghosts: fear, grief, paranoia, uncertainty. The books on this list are all stories that ushered me through the process of investigating what it is that unsettles us most and why.

1. The Inner Room by Robert Aickman

The only thing I love more than a full-size haunted house is a haunted dollhouse and this novella features both. A little girl is given a dollhouse that is completely closed, unable to be played with. The inhabitants inside are out of her reach and she resigns herself to being a passive witness, a decision that bears serious consequences when she happens upon a lifesize version of the house in a dreamy wood later on. If you loved House of Leaves and want a snapshot take on hidden space and inexplicable dimensions, then this is the story for you.

2. The Third Hotel by Laura van den Berg

In much of van den Berg’s work, I find both an exploration of loss and a pursuit of something unattainable. I believe this novel to be the pinnacle of that deepening inquiry of the way those two quests overlap and inform each other. Grief blurs the lines between reality.

3. John by Annie Baker

This is a little bit of a cheat because it’s actually a play, but it has everything I love in a novel. You don’t need to see this script produced to get the full sense of the atmosphere Baker builds though. It’s all there in the impeccable writing. A couple arrives to an inn for vacation in Gettysburg where ghosts threaten from all sides: past loves, unresolved tensions, unexplained noises, off-limit spaces, unspoken presence abound. And somehow, even as the interactions unnerve you, they also present remarkable moments of humor.

4. Guestbook by Leanne Shapton

Some might say this is a book of stories, but if the title is taken literally, what I see here is a document of ghosts finding ways to leave their mark. Shapton’s talent for activating images in the service of narrative is breathtaking. I’ve enjoyed her previous works’ ability to show the growth and dissolution of a relationship through the objects left behind (Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, Including Books, Street Fashion, and Jewelry), and a woman’s insecurities through drawings of a lover’s former partners (Was She Pretty?), but this proves the most exciting of her projects in the variety of presentations and effects, and the way they somehow combine to form an intuitive anthology of the incomprehensible.

5. Come Closer by Sara Gran

My love of ghost stories doesn’t usually wander into the realm of demonic possession, but I think about this book constantly. Imagine if Regan from The Exorcist or Rhoda from The Bad Seed had put off the evil energies until later in their lives, when they had the agency to do even more harm. In this way, Come Closer poses new formulations of age-old questions of self-awareness and responsibility. Chilling.

6. A Light No More by Robert Kloss

Robert Kloss is making up his own rules as a writer and it is a thrilling thing to watch. In all of his novels he explores the latter half of the 19th century in such a way that it appears he’s creating the world whole cloth. I appreciate the way his work, especially this book, plays with the way speculation and possibility and strangeness had more room to function in the time before the internet or even widely accessible reference books or reliable modern science. History records itself in people’s memories instead of on pages, and it’s all the more active and haunting here because of it.

7. The Hunger by Alma Katsu

The famous story of the Donner Party’s desperate attempt to survive by resorting to cannibalism turned supernatural with the suggestion of curses and creatures stalking the party at a quickly shrinking distance. Katsu excels at exploring the risk and horror of pursuing one’s greed and attempting to outrun one’s past by looking at the larger narrative of where these people began and what brought them to their end.

8. In the House in the Dark of the Woods by Laird Hunt

As a longtime lover of Hawthorne’s Young Goodman Brown, I find in this book the permission to enter into the complex female perspective denied us in that classic. This book is half fairy tale, half nightmare quest through colonial New England. If you’re a fan of the Robert Eggers film The Witch or deep diving on the Salem witch trials, this will do it for you.

9. Tracks by Louise Erdrich

I’ve reread this book so many times, and find something new with each visitation, but the scene in which the character Fleur gives birth, and the spirit of a bear appears to both threaten and empower her is one of the most powerful ghostly scenes of any book I’ve read. Add to that the fact that, in adulthood, Fleur decides to escape the violence of the men in her town by moving back into the house haunted by the ghosts of the rest of her family who died there, and the rich backdrop of a haunted community begins to take shape.

10. Ghosts by Cesar Aira

I was skeptical of this book about a construction worker’s family living a makeshift existence onsite until the very end, but the ending of this book is the reason I try to finish every book I start – in case of the rare occurrence of an ending snapping the beginning of the book into arresting focus. It’s not that the bulk of this book isn’t entertaining. It artfully builds suspense throughout, but, having not read Aira before, I wasn’t sure if he could pull off such a build up without feeling cheap or disappointing. This book, though, finds the perfect resolution while still remaining haunting, dispelling all my fears.

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

Image credit: Unsplash/Monica Silva.