How James Fenimore Cooper Redefined Pioneer

Pioneer. The word often evokes esteem and reverence here in America, and those bold enough to earn the honorific are vaulted to an almost holy, prophet-like status. We cheer technological pioneers like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates; extol political pioneers such as Jeannette Rankin and Barack Obama. Then there are the archetypal pioneers, the Daniel Boones and Kit Carsons: the frontier folk who transformed a rag-tag group of colonies into an international powerhouse, people who made “pioneer” a verb. But “pioneers,” frontier or otherwise, weren’t always lionized. “Pioneers” were originally disdained in America, and they wouldn’t be respected today if it weren’t for the author James Fenimore Cooper.

coverThe people we today call “pioneers” were referred to as many things pre-Cooper—“back-settlers” or “foresters,” chiefly—but rarely “pioneers,” and when they were described as such, the meaning was closer to the word’s French origins, les pionniers, a circa 1520 military term for an army’s vanguard. They were the first wave of foot soldiers sent to absorb the conflict’s initial brunt. In other words, pioneers were poor schlubs sent on a kamikaze mission. These ill-fated men were respected for their sacrifice but were in no way, shape, or form enviable. They were doomed. This nihilistic stink remained after the lexeme “le pionnier” transitioned into civilian vernacular around 1600, and it even stuck around once the word wound its way into English, too. Just consider its usage in 1782 by J. Hector St. John de Crèvecœur, a French-born naturalized citizen who wrote in his tome Letters from an American Farmer: “[Frontier pioneers] are a kind of forlorn hope, preceding by ten or twelve years the most respectable army of veterans which come after them…In all societies there are outcasts; this impure part serves as our precursors or pioneers…”

But, yes, de Crèvecœur’s French, so let’s consider an utterance from a person born in the New World: Dr. Benjamin Rush, surgeon general of the Continental Army and a signatory to the Declaration. Rush who spoke for a generation when he described back-country pioneers in 1787 as “generally a man who has out-lived his credit or fortune in the cultivated parts.” While integral to paving the way for more decent folk down the road—“The small improvements he leaves behind him generally make [his land] an object of immediate demand to a second species of settler…men of some property.”—pioneers were still disposable. They were backward, anti-social weirdos looked at askew for living apart from society proper, begrudgingly respected only for the improvements they made on that land. They’re expendables unfit for emulation, much like les pionniers.

And so it went for even more decades, well after real-life pioneers pushed into new lands in Ohio, Tennessee, and beyond. As late as 1823 we see Yale president and Minister Timothy Dwight noting in his book, Travels in New England and New-York, “The business of [the forester or pioneer] is no other than to cut down trees, build log-houses, lay open forested grounds to cultivation, and prepare the way for those who come after them.” Then, echoing most other mainstream Americans, he sneered, “These men cannot live in regular society. They are too idle…too shiftless, to acquire either property or character.” But Dwight would be one of the last to speak of the pioneer in such a derogatory manner, because just as the pious educator was trash-talking frontier dwellers, the author James Fenimore Cooper was preparing to celebrate them in a novel entitled, simply, The Pioneers.

coverA rising literary star known for his 1821 Revolutionary War thriller The Spy, Cooper’s latest work told the tale of Templeton, an upstate New York hamlet that evolved from an insignificant smattering of log cabins into respectable town. Based on Cooper’s own childhood in a town his father founded—“[Readers] may be glad to know how much of its contents is literal fact,” Cooper wrote in his original introduction—The Pioneers was filled with assiduous and tenacious heroes building a wholly American town out of nothing but wilderness. This wasn’t a place like Boston or New York, tarnished by colonial influence, trod by imperialist boots. It was all-American. And Templeton was a template for countless towns across America; these outposts-turned-hubs were a “singular feature in American life at the beginning of this [18th] century,” wrote Cooper, and he believed they were destined to become the engine and impetus for an expanding American empire, all crafted by pioneers of the highest order.

The Pioneers was a game-changer, both etymologically and culturally. Linguistically speaking, Cooper’s repurposing of the lexeme “pioneer” imbued the figure with heretofore unprecedented honor. They were still the front-line of “civilization,” but this was now an estimable position indeed. Like other post-colonial subjects-turned-citizens, i.e. Noah Webster, Cooper was trying to define a distinct American identity via language, and adapting “pioneers” was a perfect route toward this end—and, apparently, quite palatable, too: the public ate it up. As James D. Wallace notes in Early Cooper and His Audience, “Readers displayed an early and continuing interest in the ‘real-life’ prototypes of Cooper’s fictional heroes.” (Wallace also notes that the “rearguard” literati wrote scathing critiques of Cooper’s mass-marketed novel.) Haters aside, within a few years the word “pioneers” is being used with deference: author Zachariah Allen praises “persevering” pioneers in his 1832 work The Practical Tourist: “It requires a firm heart for a solitary individual to enter the wilderness alone, for the arduous enterprise of clearing up new lands.”

And it was precisely this popularity that gave the pioneers so much power on a broader cultural level, too: pushing Romanticism to the forefront of the American imagination. While the aesthetic movement and its adoration of nature had been subtly eclipsing the reason-based enlightenment for almost two decades, Cooper’s humanistic portrayal of life in the “hinterland” helped usher the movement, and pioneers, into the mainstream. Once portrayed as forbidden and sinister, woods and unvarnished vistas were now divine, and the pioneers within were admired for their place therein.

The most notable and immediate example of this evolution is Thomas Cole’s seminal 1826 painting, “Daniel Boone Sitting at the Door of His Cabin on the Great Osage Lake.” Admittedly inspired by Cooper’s work, Cole’s the first major portrayal of Boone in such a respectable, almost gentlemanly manner. The iconic countryman had already been a folk hero for decades, ever since John Filson’s 1784 reportage The Discovery, Settlement and Present State of Kentucke, but where Filson highlighted the gruffer, authentic bits of frontier life—infamously louse-ridden log cabins were realistically described as “not extraordinary good houses”—Cole’s rendition was purposefully rosy: a ray of heavenly light shines upon Boone and his pooch, a sturdy and charming cabin keeping the darkness at bay. This was Romanticism on full blast, and it was just getting started.

coverWithin a few short years the literary and artistic markets were filled with prose, poems, paintings, and lithographs dedicated to the pioneer Cooper helped reinvent: painters Asher Durand and Jasper Francis Cropsey were some of the early American artists to imitate Cole, depicting handsome and strapping pioneer families nestled into the woods, and Cooper himself spun off an entire franchise: The Leatherstocking Series, the most famous installment of which is The Last of the Mohicans. While earlier Americans had bashfully compared themselves to their estranged but still more “civilized” cousins in England, they now proudly celebrated themselves as a unique nation, and the forests and the pioneers were integral to this self-conception. They were an American-styled Moses, forging forests into towns that begot cities that begot states, propelling the American people into promised lands. They were pushing the country westward, toward what journalist John O’Sullivan would later call “Manifest Destiny.”

And this idea that whites were “destined” to conquer the continent of course brings us to a crucial aspect of American pioneering: the displacement and annihilation of Native Americans. Like les pionniers marching into battle, the American pioneers so many idolized were the first wave in the white man’s seizure of land occupied by First Nations, or “red-skins,” another term Cooper’s work popularized. Though it was first recorded in 1815, in a speech by Meskwaki tribal leader The Black Thunder, Cooper’s usage in such a wide-read tome as The Pioneers cemented it in the American vernacular. Wayne Franklin notes in his biography of Cooper that linguist Ives Goddard defended Cooper’s usage of red-skin, describing it as “an affectless designation for Native Americans,” but intention aside, the effect was very real: Cooper’s work graphically explains how Europeans “dispossessed” Indians of their land and decimated them with violence and alcohol, but he nevertheless described America’s first nations as “animal” and “savage.” He bestows upon them a certain naïve grace, a detail that helped fuel the tenacious “noble savage” narrative, but Cooper’s work primarily perpetuated the idea that Indians would always be outmatched by the unparalleled, unbeatable pioneer, figuratively and literally.

Not incidentally, it was this post-Pioneers cultural shift that laid the groundwork for Andrew Jackson’s presidency and the subsequent Trail of Tears. The nation’s fresh admiration for the rural helped “Old Hickory” trounce scion John Quincy Adams in 1828, an electoral victory aided in part by a campaign narrative hyping Jackson’s childhood in the country’s “interior,” away from the Europeanized East, and it was this same fervor that built support for Jackson’s crusade against Native people. And we see less malignant outgrowths of the Pioneers elsewhere in the political realm, too: Congressman Henry Clay sang the pioneers’ praises in the House of Representatives in 1832: “Pioneers of a more adventurous character, advancing before the tide of emigration, penetrate into the uninhabited regions of the West;” and during the presidential campaign of 1840, the so-called “log cabin election,” newspaper editors bent over backward to trumpet candidate William Henry Harrison’s youth as a “pioneer in the wilderness.” This was an outright lie: Harrison grew up wealthy on a Virginia plantation and didn’t move to Ohio until he was 39, and once there he converted a preexisting log cabin into a 16-room mansion. And though his political opponents publicized this fact far and wide, the truth didn’t matter to the average voter. The idea of the pioneer was already so much bigger, so much more alluring than any reality: Even eye-witnesses described Harrison’s mansion as a “log cabin” during that reality-warping campaign, a contest that established a winning formula for Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan, and, yes, even Abraham Lincoln’s White House runs.

And thus, frontier pioneers became an integral part of the American identity, portrayed in art high and low for generations to come, from Currier & Ives lithographs to Disney-branded Davy Crocketts; pioneers inspired iconic fashions like coonskin caps and buffalo plaid; and the archetype defined the American character in ways more profound and deeper than even the cowboy. “The most characteristic figure of the New World for the first two centuries was the man of the ‘trace’ or trail: the settler who, carrying a rifle and an axe, adventured into the wilderness and there hewed out a clearing, built a cabin,” historian Hamlin Garland wrote in his 1923 biography of Crockett, the “typical pioneer.” And as for the term “pioneer” itself, it ventured into new territories, attaching itself to the likes of aviation vanguard Amelia Earhart, education titan Booker T. Washington, and space age pioneer John Glenn. And almost always the word’s invoked with awe and held up as a template for those that follow. And it all started thanks to one author’s decision to reclaim and redefine a word. By recasting the pioneer, Cooper elevated a lamentable, pitiable character into a hero who shaped the American identity, for better or for worse.

The post How James Fenimore Cooper Redefined Pioneer appeared first on The Millions.

Source: https://themillions.com

Launch Time

I’m going on a trip around NZ with the family next week, but I’ll still be posting comics! I’m drawing them before I leave, and then queuing them up LIKE A PRO. I’ve already drawn/streamed one buffer comic, and I’ll be streaming the next one Tuesday my time if you wanna catch an early glimpse! I’ll also try doing some IRL streaming whenever I get in range of my phone’s data.

Also I’m posting the Patreon packs before I go, too!


Source: http://ift.tt/2sEQ0jF

Dear Claire: On Letters From My Readers

I started writing in isolation. For me, it was the natural result of reading too much: those extra words bred in the pools between my ears, multiplying and evolving, and finally spilled out of me in a tidal rush. I read everything when I was young. I loved the privacy of being a reader, and how a book could be a shield between me and the rest of the world.  When I read, I felt reality melt away. It was the same when I wrote. Time flowed differently, moving at the pace of the stories I scratched out. I did not mind being alone inside those stories. I wrote for pleasure, because it felt natural, and because if I did not the excess of ideas in my brain would have nowhere to go. A hundred years ago, doctors bled patients to release the bad humors in their blood. My writing was no different. I was jabbing for a vein, trying to vent some of the pressure building up inside me.

Among other things, I wrote letters to the authors I liked the most. I was prepubescent, addicted to books about faraway lands, women in armor, talking animals, and terrible quests. My letters were unabashedly enthusiastic. I wrote to Beverly Cleary, Brian Jacques, Lois Lowry, Robin McKinley. These letters were long and very detailed, and always included a couple of questions.

Who draws the maps that are printed in the endpapers?
What character is your favorite to write about, and why?
Do you only write one book at a time or plan the whole series?

I was crushed when I learned that a writer whose work I loved was deceased, and could not be reached by mail. (C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien missed out.) I sent my fan letters through the regular post, to the author c/o their publisher. The address was usually printed on the inside of the book, on the ISBN page. I remember dropping these letters into the mailbox, never doubting that they’d reach their destination.

coverNow that I am grown up, I understand how unlikely it was that these letters reached their intended recipients. However, once or twice there was a response. This was like finding a message in a bottle on the beach. It confirmed my belief that writers were real people, not mythical creatures. They received mail. They wrote back to children like me, answering my questions and thanking me for reading their books. I still have Brian Jacques’s letter somewhere, a response to a letter I wrote right after I finished Mossflower for the fourth time.

He said that the animal characters in his books were based on the people he knew. “For example, Gonff is me!” he wrote. That exclamation point pierced my heart. I read the Redwall series again, this time imagining Brian at his desk, laughing while he wrote Gonff’s dialog. I wrote again, asking more questions, this time about who the other characters were based on, and why he used so much poetry in his stories, but I don’t remember if I sent it. I think I felt, even then, that I’d been lucky to get a letter from the master’s desk. I knew better than to push my luck.

Because I was a reader, and he was a writer, and I understood that it wasn’t his job to become my friend, simply because I loved the books he’d written.

coverThis was before the Internet, when the only way to get in touch with a stranger was to find them in the phone book or through their publishing company. Now, authors have their own websites. Twitter accounts. They share their email addresses and other contact information online. If you want to get in touch with your favorite writer, it’s not difficult to do that. My friend, the late Katherine Dunn, who wrote Geek Love, was my neighbor in Portland. Her phone number was listed in the white pages, which I know because I looked her up. I remember staring at the digits, printed in cheap ink on nearly transparent paper and wondering who in their right mind would have the gall to actually call her up and ask her about her novel.

When I was younger, that person would have been me. But that was when I was a reader, and a child. Now I am a writer, and I understand how fiercely we must guard our privacy. When I started writing for money in 2006, I was not thinking about anything except getting published. I wanted to get my name out there: I wanted to get paid. I wasn’t thinking about what kind of writer I might turn out to be. I was also completely unprepared for the responses that readers had to my work.

Up to then, my experience with readers was limited to close friends and other writers, or at least embryo writers, who went to workshops and took creative writing classes on the weekends. We read each other’s work seriously, with an eye towards craft. We knew how to give each other constructive criticism, each negative comment balanced by a positive. We never said things like, “I liked this,” or “Your main character upset me.” Our feelings were not part of the discussion. I wrote stories that were disturbing, lyrical, strange, and moody. Most of them were not very good. I didn’t aim to please my reader, because I had no idea who that person would be. I wrote because I liked writing, and the stories I made were reflective, I think, of my intense focus on my inner world. My stories were pointed at myself: my fantasies, fears, dreams. When I wrote, I felt like I was gazing at my own reflection. I saw myself as a nymph, with charcoal skin, drawing stars on its forehead. A fragment of nature. I felt powerful when I wrote, and full of magic. I created worlds, beautiful worlds, and tore them into pieces.

That sense of self evaporated when I got my first letter from a stranger.

You bitch.

It was a nasty feeling, like finding a hateful note on your windshield. Learn how to park. I read the letter several times, trying to understand what I’d done wrong. The story in question upset this reader: upset him to the point of profanity. There was no constructive criticism in the note, or even an explanation of what exactly was so offensive about my story. I read it a few times, face on fire, and then crumpled it up and threw it away. I thought, later, that I should keep this note, the way I was keeping all my rejection letters. If I had, I’d have enough to paper my bedroom. Because, apparently, what I write—the way I write—maybe the way I am—is enough to provoke a stranger into writing to me. And, paradoxically, although my writing is deeply private, even when it is published and read by millions of people, something about it suggests that I am a person who is interested in hearing from you. Yes, you.

Even though you’re not supposed to read the comments, I always read the comments. And I always open the emails, no matter what the subject line says. Maybe this is my inner masochist, but when I read these letters—both the wonderful and the abusive—I start to get a sense of what kind of writer I have become.

I recognized the brittle, devastating truth in your stories.

This essay articulates something that I’ve been trying so hard to get at. Thank you. I was in tears.

I am a writer who makes people cry, because I tell them the truth about themselves. I am a writer who infuriates people. My readers told me this. Because of them, I am learning who I am.

Whether I like it or not, the way I am seen by readers, and the person they think I am, is an important aspect of my development as a writer. When I committed to writing for money, and becoming a writer in public, I also committed to growing. That means expanding my conception of myself, improving the quality of my writing, and making an effort to connect with readers. Reader responses are not reviews, and they’re not criticism. They’re raw, usually spontaneous reactions to my work. They’re valuable to me because they make me feel like I’m sitting right next to the reader, watching them bite their lip or roll their eyes as they scroll down the page.

What have readers seen in me? More than I’ve ever seen in myself. When I write about recovering from heroin addiction or alcoholism, I get a small flurry of messages. People write to ask for help, compare their recovery to mine, or criticize me for not taking the same path they did. When I write something controversial, the comments section wonders if I’ve relapsed. I’ve been called horrible names. I’ve also been branded as a non-feminist, a liar, a slut, a loser who doesn’t deserve to have a boyfriend, an idiot, and a genius.

I once received a four-page letter from a woman, asking for help with her long distance relationship. She’d read an essay of mine, guessed my email address, and gotten in touch. Like me, she was coming to terms with the fact that her boyfriend was imaginary. She shared the intimate details of her relationship, asked for help, and then apologized for maybe overstepping her bounds. You don’t have to write back. It just means so much to know that someone else has gone through this and come out alive. I waited two days before I decided to respond.

The personal emails, especially the ones who encourage me to keep writing, mean the most. It takes time and effort to find my contact information, write a message, and press send. The person who’s willing to jump through those electronic hoops has something important to say. The least I can do is read it. Even if I don’t like what they say, or it’s stupid or hurtful, I read it. It reminds me that I can’t win over everybody—that my writing is not for everyone—and that I don’t need to be universally celebrated to be happy.

Most of all, these letters remind me that I am real. I’m not an imaginary or mythical creature, spinning yarns in a grove somewhere. I’m a person, read by people, and the porous membrane between us can be punctured by the messages between us. The more I share about myself and the bigger my stories get, the more responses I receive from people who identified. I make stories and I get letters. Is it a dialog? No. It is a new way to see myself: not isolated, and not alone, but connected, transmitting, and bright.

Image Credit: Pixabay.

The post Dear Claire: On Letters From My Readers appeared first on The Millions.

Source: https://themillions.com

Dear Claire: On Letters From My Readers

I started writing in isolation. For me, it was the natural result of reading too much: those extra words bred in the pools between my ears, multiplying and evolving, and finally spilled out of me in a tidal rush. I read everything when I was young. I loved the privacy of being a reader, and how a book could be a shield between me and the rest of the world.  When I read, I felt reality melt away. It was the same when I wrote. Time flowed differently, moving at the pace of the stories I scratched out. I did not mind being alone inside those stories. I wrote for pleasure, because it felt natural, and because if I did not the excess of ideas in my brain would have nowhere to go. A hundred years ago, doctors bled patients to release the bad humors in their blood. My writing was no different. I was jabbing for a vein, trying to vent some of the pressure building up inside me.

Among other things, I wrote letters to the authors I liked the most. I was prepubescent, addicted to books about faraway lands, women in armor, talking animals, and terrible quests. My letters were unabashedly enthusiastic. I wrote to Beverly Cleary, Brian Jacques, Lois Lowry, Robin McKinley. These letters were long and very detailed, and always included a couple of questions.

Who draws the maps that are printed in the endpapers?
What character is your favorite to write about, and why?
Do you only write one book at a time or plan the whole series?

I was crushed when I learned that a writer whose work I loved was deceased, and could not be reached by mail. (C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien missed out.) I sent my fan letters through the regular post, to the author c/o their publisher. The address was usually printed on the inside of the book, on the ISBN page. I remember dropping these letters into the mailbox, never doubting that they’d reach their destination.

coverNow that I am grown up, I understand how unlikely it was that these letters reached their intended recipients. However, once or twice there was a response. This was like finding a message in a bottle on the beach. It confirmed my belief that writers were real people, not mythical creatures. They received mail. They wrote back to children like me, answering my questions and thanking me for reading their books. I still have Brian Jacques’s letter somewhere, a response to a letter I wrote right after I finished Mossflower for the fourth time.

He said that the animal characters in his books were based on the people he knew. “For example, Gonff is me!” he wrote. That exclamation point pierced my heart. I read the Redwall series again, this time imagining Brian at his desk, laughing while he wrote Gonff’s dialog. I wrote again, asking more questions, this time about who the other characters were based on, and why he used so much poetry in his stories, but I don’t remember if I sent it. I think I felt, even then, that I’d been lucky to get a letter from the master’s desk. I knew better than to push my luck.

Because I was a reader, and he was a writer, and I understood that it wasn’t his job to become my friend, simply because I loved the books he’d written.

coverThis was before the Internet, when the only way to get in touch with a stranger was to find them in the phone book or through their publishing company. Now, authors have their own websites. Twitter accounts. They share their email addresses and other contact information online. If you want to get in touch with your favorite writer, it’s not difficult to do that. My friend, the late Katherine Dunn, who wrote Geek Love, was my neighbor in Portland. Her phone number was listed in the white pages, which I know because I looked her up. I remember staring at the digits, printed in cheap ink on nearly transparent paper and wondering who in their right mind would have the gall to actually call her up and ask her about her novel.

When I was younger, that person would have been me. But that was when I was a reader, and a child. Now I am a writer, and I understand how fiercely we must guard our privacy. When I started writing for money in 2006, I was not thinking about anything except getting published. I wanted to get my name out there: I wanted to get paid. I wasn’t thinking about what kind of writer I might turn out to be. I was also completely unprepared for the responses that readers had to my work.

Up to then, my experience with readers was limited to close friends and other writers, or at least embryo writers, who went to workshops and took creative writing classes on the weekends. We read each other’s work seriously, with an eye towards craft. We knew how to give each other constructive criticism, each negative comment balanced by a positive. We never said things like, “I liked this,” or “Your main character upset me.” Our feelings were not part of the discussion. I wrote stories that were disturbing, lyrical, strange, and moody. Most of them were not very good. I didn’t aim to please my reader, because I had no idea who that person would be. I wrote because I liked writing, and the stories I made were reflective, I think, of my intense focus on my inner world. My stories were pointed at myself: my fantasies, fears, dreams. When I wrote, I felt like I was gazing at my own reflection. I saw myself as a nymph, with charcoal skin, drawing stars on its forehead. A fragment of nature. I felt powerful when I wrote, and full of magic. I created worlds, beautiful worlds, and tore them into pieces.

That sense of self evaporated when I got my first letter from a stranger.

You bitch.

It was a nasty feeling, like finding a hateful note on your windshield. Learn how to park. I read the letter several times, trying to understand what I’d done wrong. The story in question upset this reader: upset him to the point of profanity. There was no constructive criticism in the note, or even an explanation of what exactly was so offensive about my story. I read it a few times, face on fire, and then crumpled it up and threw it away. I thought, later, that I should keep this note, the way I was keeping all my rejection letters. If I had, I’d have enough to paper my bedroom. Because, apparently, what I write—the way I write—maybe the way I am—is enough to provoke a stranger into writing to me. And, paradoxically, although my writing is deeply private, even when it is published and read by millions of people, something about it suggests that I am a person who is interested in hearing from you. Yes, you.

Even though you’re not supposed to read the comments, I always read the comments. And I always open the emails, no matter what the subject line says. Maybe this is my inner masochist, but when I read these letters—both the wonderful and the abusive—I start to get a sense of what kind of writer I have become.

I recognized the brittle, devastating truth in your stories.

This essay articulates something that I’ve been trying so hard to get at. Thank you. I was in tears.

I am a writer who makes people cry, because I tell them the truth about themselves. I am a writer who infuriates people. My readers told me this. Because of them, I am learning who I am.

Whether I like it or not, the way I am seen by readers, and the person they think I am, is an important aspect of my development as a writer. When I committed to writing for money, and becoming a writer in public, I also committed to growing. That means expanding my conception of myself, improving the quality of my writing, and making an effort to connect with readers. Reader responses are not reviews, and they’re not criticism. They’re raw, usually spontaneous reactions to my work. They’re valuable to me because they make me feel like I’m sitting right next to the reader, watching them bite their lip or roll their eyes as they scroll down the page.

What have readers seen in me? More than I’ve ever seen in myself. When I write about recovering from heroin addiction or alcoholism, I get a small flurry of messages. People write to ask for help, compare their recovery to mine, or criticize me for not taking the same path they did. When I write something controversial, the comments section wonders if I’ve relapsed. I’ve been called horrible names. I’ve also been branded as a non-feminist, a liar, a slut, a loser who doesn’t deserve to have a boyfriend, an idiot, and a genius.

I once received a four-page letter from a woman, asking for help with her long distance relationship. She’d read an essay of mine, guessed my email address, and gotten in touch. Like me, she was coming to terms with the fact that her boyfriend was imaginary. She shared the intimate details of her relationship, asked for help, and then apologized for maybe overstepping her bounds. You don’t have to write back. It just means so much to know that someone else has gone through this and come out alive. I waited two days before I decided to respond.

The personal emails, especially the ones who encourage me to keep writing, mean the most. It takes time and effort to find my contact information, write a message, and press send. The person who’s willing to jump through those electronic hoops has something important to say. The least I can do is read it. Even if I don’t like what they say, or it’s stupid or hurtful, I read it. It reminds me that I can’t win over everybody—that my writing is not for everyone—and that I don’t need to be universally celebrated to be happy.

Most of all, these letters remind me that I am real. I’m not an imaginary or mythical creature, spinning yarns in a grove somewhere. I’m a person, read by people, and the porous membrane between us can be punctured by the messages between us. The more I share about myself and the bigger my stories get, the more responses I receive from people who identified. I make stories and I get letters. Is it a dialog? No. It is a new way to see myself: not isolated, and not alone, but connected, transmitting, and bright.

Image Credit: Pixabay.

The post Dear Claire: On Letters From My Readers appeared first on The Millions.

Source: https://themillions.com

Poem of the Day: I, Too

I, too, sing America.
I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.
Tomorrow,
I’ll be at the table
When company comes.
Nobody’ll dare
Say to me,
“Eat in the kitchen,”
Then.
Besides,
They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed—
I, too, am America.
Langston Hughes, “I, Too” from Collected Poems. Copyright © 1994 by The Estate of Langston Hughes. Reprinted with the permission of Harold Ober Associates Incorporated.

Source: The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes(Vintage Books, 2004)

Langston Hughes

Biography
More poems by this author

Source: http://ift.tt/xd0win

Art Quote of the Day

Art Quote of the Day: “When I draw something, the brain and the hands work together.” – Tadao Ando “When I draw something, the brain and the hands work together.” Source: BrainyQuote http://ift.tt/2CBhQkd

In Praise of Unfinished Novels

Several years ago, I spent a summer traveling back and forth between Baltimore and Washington, D.C., to visit the Ralph Ellison papers stored at the Library of Congress. I had long been enthralled by Invisible Man, Ellison’s seminal 1952 novel of race and identity in the waning years of Jim Crow. But I wasn’t taking the train into the nation’s capital twice a week because of anything he had published during his lifetime. I was there to immerse myself in the26 folders containing the thousands of pages of drafts and notes for a second novel Ellison had spent 40 years writing but never completed.

Ellison began work on the untitled novel (long excerpts of which were published in 2010 as Three Days Before the Shooting . . .) less than a year after the publication of Invisible Man. He had envisioned it as a sweeping tragedy of race in America centered on the story of a boy named Bliss, whose skin appears white but whose parentage is ambiguous. Adopted by a former black jazz trombonist turned preacher named Alonzo Hickman, Bliss would eventually discover the protean power of racial ambiguity and reinvent himself as a white, race-baiting United States Senator from Massachusetts. Years after his ascent to political prominence, he would deliver an improvised speech on the Senate floor that would be cut short when his estranged son attempted to assassinate him from the balcony. After being shuttled to a local hospital, Bliss would confront his own tragic past alongside the man who had raised him.

coverShortly after Ellison died in 1994, his wife, Fanny, implored Ellison’s literary executor, John Callahan, to tell her whether her late husband’s second novel had a beginning, a middle, and an end. As Callahan sifted through the reams of writing that filled Ellison’s home office, he found only fragments, some of which were virtually novels unto themselves.

As I sat in the Library of Congress’s reading room poring over drafts swamped with marginalia, paragraphs for episodes that never materialized, and ephemera scribbled on the backs of grocery store receipts and old envelopes, I was alternately entranced and dismayed. Amidst this thicket of sentences and ideas, I had hoped to discover a plan, an ending, or—better yet—an explanation for why this writer of the first order hadn’t completed what he was certain would be his magnum opus. I never found any of these. Instead, I was given an inside view of artistic struggle stretched across decades that had resulted not in the conquest of an author over form but in a sprawling curiosity cabinet of literary possibilities.

coverThe duration and singular focus of Ellison’s work on his second novel seemed to me without parallel in literary history. Even Robert Musil, who had spent two decades laboring over The Man Without Qualities (still only half the time Ellison spent), managed to publish two volumes of the work during his lifetime. Ellison’s failure to finish his novel struck me as something for the record books, unintentional though it may have been. The thrill I felt in living in Ellison’s unfinished world—where a scrawled note or a stray revision could shuttle me down a new intellectual rabbit hole—was distinct from my experience with completed novels. It was more collaborative, more free-wheeling, more alive with—for lack of a better word—novelty. And it led me to wonder if unfinished novels constituted a genre of their own and, assuming they did, whether it would be possible to assemble a canon of literary catastrophes.

covercovercovercoverAfter scouring archives and bibliographies in search of this canon, it became clear that not all unfinished novels are unfinished in the same way. The most familiar type, I discovered, were those left unfinished at an author’s death that would have almost certainly been completed had the author lived a year or two longer. This is especially true of unfinished novels from the Victorian era, a period known for prolific writing. Charles Dickens’s The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Wilkie Collins’s Blind Love, and Elizabeth Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters are just a few examples. Later in the 19th century, Gustave Flaubert died while writing Bouvard et Pécuchet. And more recently, the Chilean novelist Roberto Bolaño managed to produce a fair-copy manuscript of his masterpiece, 2666, before he died of liver failure in 2003 at the age of 50.

coverSome novels left unfinished by authorial death are also haunted by mortality, which makes their unfinishedness feel more fitting. Jane Austen’s unfinished novel Sanditon, about a group of hypochondriacs languishing at an English health resort, is such a novel. Its obsession with illness infects the narrative, enervating the central courtship plot. According to the critic D.A. Miller, the novel’s prose is similarly depleted, which led him to quip that Sanditon is the sole Austen novel to feature a death, that of the author as inimitable stylist.

coverThere are occasions, too, when an author, anxious about the fate of their unfinished work, seeks to destroy it before it can be made public, incineration being the preferred method. Franz Kafka asked this of Max Brod in the 1920s and Vladimir Nabokov of his wife and son in the 1970s. Nikolai Gogol took it upon himself to burn most of the second part of Dead Souls shortly before he died in 1852. In 2016, the late fantasy writer Terry Pratchett told his friend Neil Gaiman—in what I take to be a wry commentary on this trope of literary obliteration—that he wanted all his unfinished projects “to be put in the middle of the road and for a steamroller to steamroll over them all.” This request was executed last fall in Salisbury, England, by a steamroller named Lord Jericho.

But the most interesting unfinished novels, to my mind, are those whose authors strived tirelessly to complete them but who, finally, couldn’t.

covercoverThe term we often hear used to describe this vague condition is “writer’s block.” This pseudo-psychological diagnosis is so common as to be immune from critique. Yet it profoundly mischaracterizes the turmoil and energy that are elemental to literary failure. It implies immobility and obstruction when, in fact, unfinishedness is often a consequence of overflow and excess. Mark Twain wrote multiple iterations of his unfinished novel The Mysterious Stranger, Nathaniel Hawthorne aborted three romances in as many years at the end of his life, and David Foster Wallace generated heaps of prose for The Pale King before he committed suicide in 2008.

A more accurate term, I think, is “agony.” Although the word now denotes intense mental suffering, the Greek word agonia originally meant a “struggle for victory,” and the combatant who did the struggling was called an agonist. The agony of authors like Ellison, Twain, and Wallace, along with others like Truman Capote, combined these senses. In their unfinished novels, we bear witness to a contest between an author and their work beneath which flows a current of psychological anguish. This palpable sense of friction is one of the chief beauties of unfinished novels.

Ralph Ellison’s agony was visible in the ebb and flow of his writing process. Periods of concentrated forward momentum were followed by periods of furious revision and, occasionally, of inertia. What he produced is a work that stretches both up (via his obsessive rewriting of episodes) and out (the sequences he wrote in his later were sometimes hundreds of pages long) as he ceaselessly searched for a coherence that ultimately evaded him. Although Ellison continued to assure even his closest confidantes that he would complete his novel, certain episodes he composed late in life betray his own suspicions that the work might, perhaps, be unfinishable.

In a particularly poignant sequence from the 1980s, the elderly preacher Hickman spies a tapestry depicting Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s painting “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus” in the lobby of a Washington, D.C., hotel. Breughel’s original painting imagined the grand tragedy of Icarus’s hubristic flight to the sun within a medieval world whose daily rhythms of commerce and labor reduce the boy’s fall to insignificance. The painting is so alive with the mundane activities of normal folk that Icarus is but a dot in the distance, unacknowledged by the painting’s occupants and barely visible to the viewer. As Hickman ponders the tapestry and teases out its many meanings, Ellison seems also to be reflecting on how his own novel had become a picture frozen in time, its central tragedy overwhelmed by the elaborate world he had built around it.

Although Ellison never capitalized on this insight into his own work, one can hypothesize an alternate universe in which he had embraced the unfinishability of his novel and published it as a fragmentary narrative without conclusion. Such a decision wouldn’t have been without precedence either.

covercoverIn my ambles through the history of literary failure, I discovered that not every unfinishable novel is as tortured as Ellison’s was. Indeed, many embrace unfinishability as an aesthetic virtue. This is certainly true of postmodern novels like Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, which revel in their potential endlessness, but earlier centuries had their partisans of the unfinished, too. Herman Melville concludes a chapter of Moby-Dick, for instance, with the declaration, “God keep me from ever completing anything. This whole book is but a draught—nay, but the draught of a draught.”

covercoverOne of the most famous examples of this kind of work is also among the earliest. Laurence Sterne’s rollicking 18th-century comic novel, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, begins with its titular narrator declaring his intention to relate the story of his life only to get hopelessly lost in digressions that derail any narrative momentum. Like Scheherazade in A Thousand and One Nights, he writes to defer death, every digressive thread extending his life by a few pages. Sterne published the novel in parts between 1759 and 1767 (about two volumes every two years) with the hope that he would never stop. “The whole machine,” observes Tristram, “shall be kept a going [for] forty years.” The fact that the ninth and final volume ends four years before its narrator’s birth proves just how long Sterne could have kept this up. He died in 1768.

Ellison never wrote an ending to his second novel. In the four decades he worked on it, he jotted only a few scattered notes hinting at the aftermath of his tragic hero’s death. As it stands, the novel abruptly ends in a small hospital room in Washington, D.C., with the old preacher resting beside the nearly lifeless body of his adopted son as the latter prepares to draw his last breath. That he never does leaves readers on a narrative precipice with neither catharsis nor resolution to comfort them.

That Ellison never finished his novel does not diminish his achievement, but it does alter our view of it. Unfinished novels prod us to relinquish conventional approaches to reading and to seek literary pleasure elsewhere than narrative unity. They demand that we attend to dead ends as well as to false starts, to charged silences as well as to verbal excesses. They ask us to see what meanings can be gleaned from a process that has not yet hardened into product. Though their plots may be arrested, this fact does not make them any less arresting.

Image Credit: LPW.

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Art Quote of the Day

Art Quote of the Day: “Paint the essential character of things.” – Camille Pissarro “Paint the essential character of things.” Source: BrainyQuote http://ift.tt/2C9ZKKi

Poem of the Day: Malcolm X, February 1965

i will die this month. how
i do not know. still there
is much work to be done. i
am afraid not for myself but
for betty and the girls. some
nights i stay awake looking
out the window, a gun in my
hand. i know how cruel people
can be. i have known hatred and
blindness. there are brothers
waiting to do me harm. i will
die for them. i will love them
as only i can. may allah be my
witness.
Ethelbert Miller, “Malcolm X, February 1965” from First Light: New and Selected Poems. Copyright © 1994 by Ethelbert Miller. Reprinted by permission of Black Classic Press.

Source: First Light: New and Selected Poems(1994)

E. Ethelbert Miller

Biography
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Source: http://ift.tt/xd0win