Week Nineteen: An Interview with NPR’s Nina Martyris!

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Nina Martyris

 

The journalist Nina Martyris has written for many publications including The Guardian, The New Republic, Salon, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Times of India, Slate, and The Millions.
She is also a regular contributor to NPR, where she writes about food politics, and this week she graciously agreed to be our book club guest!
Two of Nina’s articles serve (pun intended) to shed light on food politics in United States social history.

 

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Frederick Douglas

 

 

In the first article, Frederick Douglass On How Slave Owners Used Food As A Weapon Of Control  (NPR’s “The Salt,” 2/10/17) Martyris tells us;

“Hunger was the young Fred’s faithful boyhood companion. “I have often been so pinched with hunger, that I have fought with the dog – ‘Old Nep’ – for the smallest crumbs that fell from the kitchen table, and have been glad when I won a single crumb in the combat,” he wrote in My Bondage and My Freedom. “Many times have I followed, with eager step, the waiting-girl when she went out to shake the table cloth, to get the crumbs and small bones flung out for the cats.”

Her article explores Douglas’s slave narrative within the context of food used by masters as a form of violence and oppression against slaves.

The second piece studied is  How Suffragists Used Cookbooks as a Recipe for Subversion (NPR’s “The Salt” 11/5/15).

This piece and one very touching one about women visiting Susan B Anthony’s grave, were NPR’s two most-tweeted pieces on the evening of Nov 8 of the most recent presidential election.

 

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members of the women’s suffrage movement planning to march.

 

“In the movie Suffragette,” says Martyris, “ Englishwomen march on the streets, smash shop windows and stage sit-ins to demand the vote. Less well-known is that across the pond, a less cinematic resistance was being staged via that most humble vehicle: the cookbook.”

Both famous authors and everyday women distributing pamphlets on the street contributed recipes which sprinkled a healthy dose of revolution in-between the pickles and gravy.

Cookbooks as revolution? Absolutely, and we’ll have seconds.

 

On Thursday at 12:30 EST Nina joined us for a “live” Facebook chat

Here’s the great conversation we shared. Enjoy!¹

 

Nina Martyris: Hi Celeste! Are we on?

Celeste Helene Schantz:  Welcome, Nina Martyris! Yes, we’re on! Thank you so much for joining The Wonderlings today. It’s much appreciated! As you can see, we have some questions lined up . . .

Nina Martyris:  Thank you for your question and for inviting me to do this chat. Very flattered!

Celeste Helene Schantz: Nina, what drew you to write about food culture and politics?

Nina Martyris: Well, the answer is a mix of the political and personal. I’ve always been interested in literature, culture and politics, especially the ways in which they crisscross in our daily lives. Food, however, was something I was barely interested in until I got married and more or less had to start cooking (else I’d starve!).

One day, I was looking up an Italian recipe which had oregano in it. The chef providing the recipe added a little history. He said oregano only became popular in the US after WWII. Before that it was used largely by Italian immigrants. It was American soldiers who fought on the Italian front who tasted this fragrant herb and brought a taste for it back home. Then it began to boom. Consumption went up 6000 per cent in the 1950s. I was fascinated by this story — and the window it opened on how food travels and how history affects our palates.

On a whim, I pitched a “how oregano became popular in the US” story to NPR on the anniversary of V-E Day. The editor loved the idea, and that became the first of a series of food-history-politics stories.

Celeste Helene Schantz: Had you written for NPR before?

Nina Martyris: No, that was my first pitch. The editor was testing me, but she gave me a chance, which I’ll always be grateful for. I think she was intrigued by the idea of soldiers and oregano.

Celeste Helene Schantz: David Delaney asks: “Nina, Do you believe most wars are ultimately fought over food? “the Taste of War” notes that WW2 was fought for that reason. Has the author found an instinctual need (that becomes obsessive) for the security more food seems to provide people? And do you see any parallel in food use (control as in American slavery) and any current situations on our planet?”

Nina Martyris: Hello David! I’m so glad you posted in advance. It gave me a chance to do some preparation. I’m going to answer it in three parts.

Nina Martyris: Your question goes to the very heart of historical conflict. On a light note, the first conflict between man and God was fought because of an apple. But more seriously, yes, food has always been a major reason for conquest.

For instance, as I’m typing out this response, I have by my side a delicious cup of tea, two of whose ingredients (tea leaves and sugar) have a history covered in what Jonathan Swift liked to call “blood and treasure.” Britain was so addicted to tea that it fought two opium wars with China to protect the source of this afternoon elixir. And every cup of tea was sweetened by sugar grown by slaves on British-owned Caribbean plantations. Shelley, Southey and other radicals didn’t take sugar in their tea as a form of protest (one more of my NPR pieces!). In India, where I’m from, one of the most landmark mass protests against British rule was Gandhi’s Salt march against the punitive salt tax (which was much like the Boston tea tax). So yes, food features prominently as a source of conquest and war.

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Tea has a long and quite political history

Nina Martyris: To move more specifically to your question about WWII. Thank you for pointing me to Taste of War by Lizzie Collingham, whose book Curry I dip into frequently. Collingham does pursue her thesis doggedly, but there’s no question that Hitler invaded Russia in 1941 for one overwhelming reason: bread. He had his eye on the rich soil of Ukraine, the bread basket of the region. Before Hitler, during the thirties, millions in Ukraine starved thanks to Stalin exporting its wheat to crush peasant rebellion. The Ukrainians even have a word for it: Holodomor (Man-Made Famine). Hunger and war are bedfellows.

Nina Martyris: And, finally, about examples of food wars from today. The Ivory Coast in West Africa is a heartbreaking example — of a non-violent food war (though hunger is a form of violence). This country is the world’s largest producer of cocoa producing 40% of all cocoa in the world. Big companies like Mars, Hershey and Nestle use Ivorian cocoa for their chocolate.

 

Everyone loves chocolate, yes. Why then is poverty on the rise in this otherwise well-off country?

 

The answer is complex but to put it briefly, cocoa is a source of wealth but also a crop that is used as a weapon of control by MNCs and the country’s politicians. Politicians have been known to block exports of cocoa and seize control of cocoa income to fund the buying of arms. MNCs, who want bumper crops, often push for unsustainable farming practices which has long-term effects that poor farmers have to face. We enjoy chocolate so much today, but there’s no doubt that it, too, comes covered in “blood and treasure.”

Anna Schantz: Nina Martyris and now we see consumer boycotts of some foods for political or environmental reasons: eschewing products using palm oil, in order to protect the dwindling orangutan population comes to mind. And veganism.

Shabnam Mirchandani: Nina Martyris , I so appreciate the fact that your writing is not driven by retributive passion or soapbox morality, instead you have a panoramic historical vision. Hats off to you!

Shabnam Mirchandani: Nina, what was the readership like when Douglass’s work was first published? When a writer (as custodian of facts) has to be heard in a resistant or hostile environment, the challenges must be immense. To relate this question to your personal experience: do educators, commentators, scholars, artists, and writers have to take on the role of a hermeneutical mafia of sorts when there is a major dislocation in the codes observed in public discourse, and multi-faceted, in-depth exploration of issues is no longer prioritized? In this present time, which I like to call a period of etymological burlesque, how does a journalist who is a curator of history as it is unfolding, remain true to his/her calling?

Nina Martyris:  Shabnam! I’m here today because of you. But more important, you were one of the first people who encouraged me and made be believe that I could become a journalist. You were such a fabulous, imaginative teacher – one of a kind. I can still remember your wonderful lecture on Van Gogh.

Nina Martyris: To answer the first part of your question, it’s comforting to know that Douglass’ autobiography was very well received. It got good reviews and became an immediate bestseller. Within three years, it was reprinted nine times, and translated into French and Dutch. It is still the most widely read slave narrative in American history. Scarcely surprising given Douglass’ eloquence and the powerful theme he tackled — his life as a prism into the misanthropy of slavery.

Celeste Helene Schantz: Thank you, Shabnam! Nina Martyris, she is a treasure 🙂

Shabnam Mirchandani: Nina Martyris thank you, you were the best and brightest, and I could not be prouder of what you have accompished.

Shabnam Mirchandani Celeste Helene Schantz it is kind of emotional to experience this virtual reunion, so thank YOU!

Nina Martyris: Moving on to our contemporary age of “etymological burlesque” — love the phrase — yes, as a journalist one is acutely conscious of how, in this age of fake news, facts are twisted, language is corrupted, and history misrepresented.

 

Indeed, the spur that got me researching the Frederick Douglass story was Fox news commentator Bill O’Reilly’s glib comment that slaves were well-fed. This from an educated person who writes on history. So I turned to Douglass’ book and began to read about what it was like to grow up as a slave. Of course it was an awful story, but Douglass is such a fine writer and thinker that his writing went beyond the misery to reveal the cynicism underpinning the system, and how food was used as a weapon of control. This piece touched a chord. I think it’s my most-read piece on NPR second only to the suffragist article.

Nina Martyris: Finally, talking about etymology, I did another short piece for the Economist on the word “mogul” at the time when Trump was calling for a Muslim ban. My point was that Trump enjoyed being called a real-estate mogul by the press, probably unaware that the title comes from the most powerful Islamic dynasty in history. My point being that we are all interconnected and influenced by other cultures even without knowing it. So bans are an absurd policy.

Shabnam Mirchandani: Nina Martyris very astute observations, and you have harvested much from these teachable moments. It takes a lot of stamina and courage to wade through the sheer volume of dubious material being fed to us. As Stephen King recently pronounced: “The road to hell is paved with adverbs” ( “bigly” comes to mind…)

Anna Schantz:  I’ve recently been involved in a number of enlightening discussions concerning cultural appropriation, particularly regarding music and dress, and particularly in reference to Indigenous peoples in Canada (Happy Indigenous Peoples Day, as well as Junet eenth, btw!). I’d like to ask Nina if she considers cooking and food culture an area calling for more sensitivity in appreciation, or whether it is perhaps exempt from rampant dominant culture commodification.

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When are we respecting and educating ourselves about food and when are we appropriating it? (Photo by James Sutton, Unsplash)

 

Also, how would she suggest we all, white and people of colour, might approach the celebration of food and our varied histories with it, for the promotion of greater mutual understanding and peace? Thank you!

Nina Martyris:  Hi Anna! Thank you for your wishes and for this question. Yes, it’s a tricky one — and it goes to the heart of freedom of expression. Who gets to tell whose stories? I’ve thought about it and I feel quite strongly that anyone should be able to write about anything. The job of a writer is to imagine and empathize and identify with people beyond those from his or her background. So if an Indian writer wants to set a novel in the American Mid-West she should go right away. Likewise, if a White American wants to write about China or India or any culture, he should go right ahead. I’m with Lionel Shriver on this one.

When it comes to food, the same rule should apply, in my view. Anyone should be able to cook anything. If a Vietnamese chef wants to make shrimp and grits, great. If a Southern chef wants to make pho, great.

 

The second half of your question — how we might approach the celebration of food and our varied histories with it, for the promotion of greater mutual understanding and peace — is in wonderful counterpoint to David’s question above. Food has been a historical source of conflict but it can also be a marvelous and delicious bridge between cultures. Breaking bread with a new group of people makes it slightly harder to hate them.

Nina Martyris: Anna, I’d also be interested in your views on cultural appropriation.

Anna Schantz:  Nina Martyris the recently resigned editor of a Canadian publication felt the same way. I think his refusal of any kind censorship and admittedly too flippant attitude regarding appropriation caused an uproar, partly because it was taken the wrong way. I understand your prioritizing freedom of speech, particularly journalistic freedom.

Nina Martyris:  I think my view is unpopular among liberal circles, but I feel strongly that stories belong to everyone.

Anna Schantz: I believe that it is not a level playing field, however, and that people of privilege owe a debt of respect and greater care when using traditions from marginalized peoples. In a perfect world it would not need to be legislated.

Nina Martyris:  Yes, I agree one should always be sensitive, but the freedom of speech absolutists who bridle even at that kind of demand. I’m not an absolutist, but lean towards that kind of freedom.

Jeri Harbers Thomson: In the suffragette article you say that a Henry James, Sr. was in favor of a woman’s right to vote, but that he didn’t feel many would avail themselves of that privilege. In our last presidential election, it was suggested (wish I had a cite here, but that he didn’t feel many would avail themselves of that privilege. In our last presidential election, it was suggested (wish I had a cite here, but memory fails!) that one reason. Clinton lost the election is because many women were swayed against voting for her by their husbands, because many men did not want a female president…especially a female Commander-in-Chief. Do you feel there is merit in this suggestion?

Nina Martyris: Hi Jeri! Thanks for this question about the suffragist piece.

Nina Martyris Though I wrote it in 2015 (the peg was the Meryl Streep movie), NPR re-posted it on social media on the evening of the election last year. It became one of if not the most tweeted pieces. This piece and one on women visiting Susan B Anthony’s grave in Rochester. It was so touching to see literally thousands and thousands of (mainly) women tweeting and commenting on it. It was a real moment. It’s something I’ll always remember.

Of course the next morning we knew that things had turned out differently!

Nina Martyris: To answer your question. I worked that Henry James Sr. anecdote into my article because I was so taken aback by the sheer condescension of his views. I’m glad his student fought him over it.

 

About the election, I’m quite sure there are women everywhere who vote the way their husbands do. Indeed when women in America were fighting for their Great Cause, many men were bewildered by their demand, saying that women were already represented by their fathers, brothers, husbands and sons, so what did they want the vote for?

 

Even Frederick Douglass who was a staunch support of the suffragist movement, broke with it a little when it came to giving the black man the right to vote before women were given it. He said white women already had their husbands voting for their interests, whereas Blacks had no suffrage to represent them, and that if the black man voted, then, in an indirect way, the black woman would be represented too.

 

So perhaps some women did vote according to their husbands’ diktats but I would like to believe that they were not the majority. I’ve met many women (especially young women) who said they didn’t want to vote for Clinton. Many of them couldn’t abide Trump either, but they seemed to be thinking independently. One can only hope they were and that Henry James Sr. was wrong.

Anna Schantz:  Nina Martyris so moving!

Rick Williams: Question for Nina Martyris: I read these two articles plus her article on Gandhi being “the most punctual man in India” as well as “Auden’s 1939 Elegy for Yeats.” These articles appear to have required a lot of research and then reduced to a super ef ficient short article. I’m curious about Nina’s research and writing habits. Would Nina share some of her research and writings habits?

 

(side point: Is she like Gandhi checking her watch all the time or more like Auden when he writes “Stop all the clocks.”)

Nina Martyris:  Oh Rick! That question is like balm for my tired eyes. You’re so right. For each article, I have to read (or dip into) at least three or four books, apart from googling away like a worker bee to get all that information for those stories. Apart of course from cross-checking facts all the time. I always have reams of leftover research.

 

The clock is draconian — though unlike Gandhi (and Auden — he was fanatically punctual), I’m less conscientious and am always racing till the very last minute to meet a deadline. As a freelancer, I have to come up with unusual ideas — that’s the challenge. So I try to approach old stories from a fresh angle — for instance, everyone knew of Auden’s Yeats elegy, but the conversation and spinoffs it generated was something I worked out and connected.

Celeste Helene Schantz: Speaking of the clock, we’ve a few moments to go. Any last questions for Nina?

Celeste Helene Schantz: Nina, can we expect a book from you at some point?

Shabnam Mirchandani: Plan to write a book any time soon?

Nina Martyris: Have to think of a theme — non-fiction if at all.

Nina Martyris: After we finish this chat, I have to go back to researching a piece on — well, I can’t disclose it right now, but please read it if you can. It has to do with the Nazis. Nazis and food!

Shabnam Mirchandani: “Mein Food!” . . .

Celeste Helene Schantz: Nina Martyris, it’s been a pleasure speaking with you. The time has gone much too quickly! Friends, feel free to carry on this fascinating conversation, and look for the recap in our Sunday Gazette. Nina, we’ll be looking for more of your wonderful rich prose and excellent articles! Thanks for joining us today.

Anna Schantz: Thank you, Nina!

Shabnam Mirchandani: THANK YOU Nina dearest!

Rick Williams: Unbelievably fantastic!

Nina Martyris: Thanks, Wonderlings! You’ll were great. Such good questions. Made me think, read and argue with myself. Bye for now.

 

Thanks to the wonderful members of The Wonderlings group who took time and consideration to participate in our discussion with Nina.

As usual, you rock!

For further reading:

Here is the excellent  Afro-Culinaria, a food blog authored by Michael W. Twitty, (Twitter: @Koshersoul /Instagram:@thecookinggene/Michael W. Twitty on Facebook), a writer, independent scholar, culinary historian , and historical interpreter personally charged with preparing, preserving and promoting African American foodways and its parent traditions in Africa and her Diaspora and its legacy in the food culture of the American South.

Read Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglas for free, online!

 

¹Very minor edits made in transcribing our interview from Facebook for the purpose of clarity.

Week Thirteen: Mothers Writing Letters: “Désirée’s Baby” by Kate Chopin and “Roman Fever” by Edith Wharton

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In honor of Mothers Day, here are rich stories about mothers and the theme of letters sent. In both “Désirée’s Baby” and “Roman Fever,” a mother (or soon-to-be mother) sends an epistle which will change the course of events of the characters’ lives.

 

“Désirée’s Baby” by Kate Chopin

 

The author Kate Chopin, often compared to Guy De Maupassant,
set her short stories in in the bayous and backwaters of New Orleans—a lush Creole world surrounded by Louisiana plantations prior to the American Civil War when slavery was still “lawful,”

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image:enotes.com artist unknown

Chopin boldly and intentionally inventories the differences among the mixed inhabitants:
negro, dark, yellow, quadroon, fair, La Blanche, white . . .

. . .what effect does color have when a mother gives birth in old NOLA?

Here is “Désirée’s Baby,” a slight and deceptively simple story by Kate Chopin, published in 1893. Let us know your thoughts.

You can read it here.

 

Vocabulary Terms:

La Blanche –“the white one”

quadroon –a person of ¼ African-American descent

creole –a descendent of original French settlers in Louisiana; the term comes from the Spanish word criollo, meaning “a child of the colony

high yellow– a term for very light-skinned persons of African-American descent. It is a reference to the golden yellow skin tone of some mixed-race people. The term was in common use in the U.S. at the end of the 19th century and the early decades of the 20th century.

miscegenation: Interbreeding between members of different races; marriage or cohabitation between members of different races, especially in the U.S., between a black person and a white person.

 

A bit about Kate Chopin . . .

 

Kate Chopin’s biography:
Chopin was born Katherine O’Flaherty in St. Louis into a prosperous Irish-American family and her upbringing, with its convent schools and debutante balls, was conventional for a young woman growing up in the post-civil war period. At nineteen she married Oscar Chopin, a cotton broker from New Orleans. After her husband experienced setbacks in business, she lived with him on a plantation near Natchitoches (pronounced “Nackatish”) , an area that provides the setting of the stories later collected in Bayou Folk (1894) and A Night in Acadie (1897). From her experiences there she absorbed a rich mixture of stories and dialects from the intermingled French and black cultures.katechopin
After her husband’s death in 1883, Chopin returned to St. Louis with her six children and began her literary career, soon placing stories and regional sketches in popular magazines such as Vogue. Much of her later work is remarkable for its frank depiction of woman’s sexuality, a subject rarely broached in the literature of the era, and Chopin became the subject of controversy after the appearance of The Awakening. The negative reception of that work caused Chopin to suffer both professional and social ostracism; her work was removed from libraries and Chopin was obliged to drop her membership in several St. Louis clubs. The scandal surrounding The Awakening effectively ended her active career as a writer, and she published little until her death five years later.

 

For more on Racial Distinctions:

The Strange History of the American Quadroon by Emily Clark pertains more to the Revolutionary War era but the information on Quadroon culture is worthwhile.

An article in the Huffington Post explores it

For more on Kate Chopin:

The International Kate Chopin Society

 

Works Available Online

“The Story of an Hour” (1894)
“A Pair of Silk Stockings “
Desiree’s Baby (in collection with other stories)
Desiree’s Baby (this story only)
“Regret,Century 50 (n.s. 28) (May 1895): 147-49.  (Page images at MOA)
“Ozeme’s Holiday,”  Century 52 (n.s.30) (Aug. 1896): 629-31 (Page images at MOA)
“I Opened All the Portals Wide” (poem; Century 58 (July 1899): 361-362 (Page images at MOA)
“Tante Cat’rinette” Atlantic 74 (September 1894): 368-373. (Page images at MOA)

The Awakening 

Bayou Folk (1894) at the University of North Carolina includes the following stories:

A Night in Acadie (1897) at the University of North Carolina contains the following stories:

 

“Roman Fever” by Edith Wharton

 

The author Edith Wharton adeptly depicts the seething emotions under the starched and corseted members of her society which inevitably surface.
Wharton portrays families such as the Astors and the Vanderbilts at the height of the social ladder; there are also the ‘arrivistes’ who come from old names and old money, earning their fortunes more recently; often richer than the aristocrats.
They entertained themselves by going to the theater and opera, by attending lunches and house parties, and by traveling abroad . . .
Sometimes it’s when travelling abroad that the true passions of the aristocracy are finally exposed.
And it’s while traveling abroad that we are first introduced to two mothers: Mrs. Slade and Mrs. Ansley:
The two women simply dine together on the terrace of a restaurant in Rome. What could possibly be revealed on such a lovely day?


Here is “Roman Fever” by Edith Wharton.

 

A bit about Edith Wharton . . .

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Edith Wharton moved to Paris in the early 1900s. Not long after, in 1913, after her affair with Morton Fullerton had ended, she divorced her husband of more than 20 years. (source: North Country Public Radio)

Edith Wharton (1862-1937) was born into a tightly controlled society at a time when women were discouraged from achieving anything beyond a proper marriage. Wharton broke through these strictures to become one of America’s greatest writers. Author of The Age of Innocence, Ethan Frome, and The House of Mirth, she wrote over 40 books in 40 years, including authoritative works on architecture, gardens, interior design, and travel. She was the first woman awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, an honorary Doctorate of Letters from Yale University, and a full membership in the American Academy of Arts and Letters.¹

 

For information on The Mount, Edith Wharton’s home:

http://www.edithwharton.org/discover/edith-wharton/

Additional Reading:

Edith Wharton at Home: Life at The Mount by Richard Guy Wilson (2012)

My Dear Governess: The Letters of Edith Wharton to Anna Bahlmann edited by Irene Goldman-Price (2012)

 

Novels

Novellas and novelette

 

Short Stories

Non-fiction

As editor

 

 

Bonus material: A letter from Bette Davis to her daughter:

 

bettedavisandchildren

 

To round out our week on the theme of mothers, letters written, and regrets, here’s one from Hollywood icon Bette Davis to her daughter.

The actress Bette Davis was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1983. After surgery she experienced a number of strokes which left her partially paralyzed. Then, in 1985, her daughter, Barbara, published a controversial book, titled My Mother’s Keeper, that exposed their rumored troubled relationship and painted Davis in a terrible light. Two years later, Bette Davis published her own memoirs—at the very end was this letter to her daughter:

Dear Hyman,

You ended your book with a letter to me. I have decided to do the same.

There is no doubt you have a great potential as a writer of fiction. You have always been a great storyteller. I have often, lo these many years, said to you, “B.D., that is not the way it was. You are imagining things.”

Many of the scenes in your book I have played on the screen. It could be you have confused the “me” on the screen with “me” who is your mother.

I have violent objections to your quotes of mine regarding actors I have worked with. For the most part, you have cruelly misquoted me. Ustinov I was thrilled to work with and I have great admiration of him as a person and as an actor. You have stated correctly my reactions to working with Faye Dunaway. She was a most exasperating co-star. But to quote me as having said Sir Laurence Olivier was not a good actor is most certainly one of the figments of your imagination. Few actors have ever reached the towering heights of his performances.

You constantly inform people that you wrote this book to help me understand you and your way of life better. Your goal was not reached. I am now utterly confused as to who you are or what your way of life is.

The sum total of your having written this book is a glaring lack of loyalty and thanks for the very privileged life I feel you have been given.

In one of your many interviews while publicizing your book, you said if you sell your book to TV you feel Glenda Jackson should play me. I would hope you would be courteous enough to ask me to play myself.

I have much to quarrel about in your book. I choose to ignore most of it. But not the pathetic creature you claim I have been because of the fact that I did not play Scarlett in “Gone With the Wind.” I could have, but turned it down. Mr. Selznick attempted to get permission from my boss, Jack Warner, to borrow Errol Flynn and Bette Davis to play Rhett Butler and Scarlett. I refused because I felt Errol was not good casting for Rhett. At that time only Clark Gable was right. Therefore, dear Hyman, send me not back to Tara, rather send me back to Witch Way, our home on the beautiful coast of Maine where once lived a beautiful human being by the name of B.D., not Hyman.

As you ended your letter in “My Mother’s Keeper” — it’s up to you now, Ruth Elizabeth — I am ending my letter to you the same way: It’s up to you now, Hyman.

Ruth Elizabeth

P.S. I hope someday I will understand the title “My Mother’s Keeper.” If it refers to money, if my memory serves me right, I’ve been your keeper all these many years. I am continuing to do so, as my name has made your book about me a success.²

 

¹Information from the official website for The Mount, Wharton’s home.

²Letter seen in Letters of Note by Shawn Usher (Public Library)Chronicle Books (May 6, 2014).

 

Week Five: “A Rose for Emily” by William Faulkner and “Between Solitude and Loneliness” by Donald Hall

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Illustration from an article in The Atlantic by Joe Fassler.

“A Rose for Emily” by William Faulkner

“A Rose For Emily” is a classic short story by William Faulkner, anthologized in so many required reading collections that one loses count:
William Faulkner (born William Cuthbert Falkner), (September 25, 1897–July 6, 1962) was an American author. One of the most influential writers of the twentieth century, he was awarded the 1949 Nobel Prize in Literature. His reputation is based on his novels, novellas, and short stories. However, he was also a published poet and also was a screenwriter of such movies as The Big Sleep.

“A Rose For Emily” is a deceptive story, short and yet within its few pages lays a mystery. And each reading of the story will reveal nuances and details perhaps missed the last time.
The story begins with the funeral of Miss Emily Grierson, an eccentric lady of the town whose life was caught up in her home. For your consideration, here is  “A Rose for Emily.”

Can you tell what happened?

“A Rose For Emily” originally appeared in These Thirteen, a 1931 collection of short stories. The collection was dedicated to his first daughter, Alabama, who had died nine days after her birth on January 11, 1931, and to his wife Estelle.

These13

The First Edition of These Thirteen

Faulkner’s first release of short stories, it contained the following pieces:

Additionally,  modern and comprehensive collection of Faulkner’s stories can be found in  William Faulkner Collected Stories from Vintage (Amazon, here)

faulknercollectedstoriesindex

From the Vintage promotional materials:

Forty-two stories make up this magisterial collection by the writer who stands at the pinnacle of modern American fiction. Compressing an epic expanse of vision into hard and wounding narratives, Faulkner’s stories evoke the intimate textures of place, the deep strata of history and legend, and all the fear, brutality, and tenderness of the human condition. These tales are set not only in Yoknapatawpha County, but in Beverly Hills and in France during World War I. They are populated by such characters as the Faulknerian archetypes Flem Snopes and Quentin Compson, as well as by ordinary men and women who emerge so sharply and indelibly in these pages that they dwarf the protagonists of most novels.

“No man ever put more of his heart and soul into the written word than did William Faulkner. If you want to know all you can about that heart and soul, the fiction where he put it is still right there.” —Eudora Welty

“For all his concern with the South, Faulkner was actually seeking out the nature of man. Thus we must turn to him for that continuity of moral purpose which made for greatness of our classics.” —Ralph Ellison

After reading “A Rose For Emily” it may be of use to regard a poem by Faulkner entitled  “After Fifty Years” (find it here): a meditation on mortality.

It’s an interesting poem in several ways. It may be useful to discuss why Faulkner chose the form of the sonnet for this piece.

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Faulkner at UVA

Additionally, true scholars and fans of Faulkner must certainly peruse an incredible resource: the website archive, Faulkner at Virginia.

In 1957/58 William Faulkner was Balch Writer in Residence at The University of Virginia. While he was there, he gave many class lectures and answered many student questions.

Frederick Gwynn and Joseph Blotner, members of UVA’s English department, had the idea to record these sessions on a reel-to-reel tape recorder, and create transcripts of those lectures.

This website featuress those clips, which you can explore by title, where the author answers the students’ questions in class asked about “A Rose For Emily” and all of his other works. My recommendation is to explore this website on a full screen if possible, and start with the tab “Contexts”. Then, click on “Clips” to see the recordings organized by novel and story title. It’s a treasure trove.

Faulkner on audio, articles, photographs, transcripts, magazine clippings – I strongly encourage any student studying William Faulkner to explore this website, if only to hear him teach you how to pronounce ” Yoknapatawpha.”

 

“Between Solitude and Loneliness” by Donald Hall

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Illustration from The New Yorker

The second selection for Week Five is an essay by the poet Donald Hall, entitled “Between Loneliness and Solitude” (The New Yorker.)

From his biography:

“Donald Hall is considered one of the major American poets of his generation. His poetry explores the longing for a more bucolic past and reflects the poet’s abiding reverence for nature.”
In December 1993 he and Jane Kenyon were the subject of an Emmy Award-winning Bill Moyers documentary ,  A Life Together. In the June 2006, Hall was appointed the Library of Congress’s fourteenth Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry. He lives in Danbury, New Hampshire.”

Here, Hall examines his long partnership with his wife, the poet Jane Kenyon. What are your thoughts on Hall’s essay?

Hall’s essay can be found here.

The language is sparse, reflective and declarative.

From the website of The Academy of American Poets:

“Hall has published numerous books of poetry, including The Selected Poems of Donald Hall (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015), The Painted Bed (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2002) and Without: Poems (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1998), which was published on the third anniversary of his wife and fellow poet Jane Kenyon‘s death from leukemia. Other notable collections include The One Day (Mariner Books, 1988), which won the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and a Pulitzer Prize nomination; The Happy Man (Secker & Warburg, 1986), which won the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize; and Exiles and Marriages (Viking Press, 1955), which was the Academy’s Lamont Poetry Selection for 1956.

In a review of White Apples and the Taste of Stone: Selected Poems 1946–2006 (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2006), Billy Collins wrote: “Hall has long been placed in the Frostian tradition of the plainspoken rural poet. His reliance on simple, concrete diction and the no-nonsense sequence of the declarative sentence gives his poems steadiness and imbues them with a tone of sincere authority. It is a kind of simplicity that succeeds in engaging the reader in the first few lines.”

It’s worthwhile to take a few moments to read Hall’s poem, “The Painted Bed.”

It provides an interesting tangent to the study of his essay as well as  Faulkner’s story and poem.

Additionally, check out “My Son, My Executioner” –another poem which was added to the Wonderlings discussion by member Rick Williams, in which the narrator laments;

We twenty two and twenty five,
who seemed to live forever,
observe enduring life in you
and start to die together.

(from “My Son, My Executioner”)

In an interesting synchronicity, here is Hall reciting the poem (first in the lineup)  as part of a program at, of all places, The University of Virginia, where Faulkner was writer in residence. And so we come full circle. Enjoy.

Week One: Perspectives on Race: “Notes of a Native Son” by James Baldwin and “Everything That Rises Must Converge” by Flannery O’Connor

 

“Notes of a Native Son” by James Baldwin

James Arthur Baldwin (August 2, 1924 – December 1, 1987) was an American novelist, essayist, playwright, poet, and social critic. His essays, as collected in Notes of a Native Son (1955), explore palpable yet unspoken intricacies of racial, sexual, and class distinctions in Western societies, most notably in mid-20th-century America, and their inevitable, if unnameable, tensions.

Read Baldwin’s work here.

Find some excellent supporting educational materials here.

 

“Everything That Rises Must Converge” by Flannery O’Connor

Mary Flannery O’Connor (March 25, 1925 – August 3, 1964) was an American writer and essayist. An important voice in American literature, she wrote two novels and thirty-two short stories, as well as a number of reviews and commentaries. She was a Southern writer who often wrote in a Southern Gothic style and relied heavily on regional settings and grotesque characters. Her writing also reflected her Roman Catholic faith and frequently examined questions of morality and ethics. Her posthumously compiled Complete Stories won the 1972 U.S. National Book Award for Fiction and has been the subject of enduring praise.

Everything That Rises Must Converge is a collection of short stories written by Flannery O’Connor during the final decade of her life. The collection’s eponymous story derives its name from the work of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.

Find this compelling short story here.