Saturday, March 21, 2009

Woolf and the City at the Merc

I'll be leading a Reading Group at the Mercantile Library in New York leading up to the Woolf Conference in June. We'll read four Woolf novels and talk about Woolf & the city:
Mondays: April 6, April 20, May 4 and May 18

Led by Anne Fernald
$50 for members; $65 for nonmembers
Virginia Woolf made a permanent mark on London when she left the staid neighborhood of her birth and moved to Bloomsbury in 1904. This group will focus on Woolf as a city writer: how the city inspired her imagination and how she chronicled its many aspects. This focus allows us to celebrate Woolf’s London, to explore how she turned her daily walks into adventures, and to discuss the place of the city in our imagination. For April 6, please read Mrs. Dalloway. We will read Orlando, Flush, and The Years in subsequent weeks.
Click here to sign up!

Thursday, March 19, 2009

A Happy Story from Publishing 100 Years Ago

I’m attending bits and pieces of the Society for Textual Scholarship Conference at NYU this week (and giving a paper there tomorrow). Today’s plenary panel was terrific. Bob Scholes gave an engaging paper on advertising in modernist magazines. He compared Pound's injunctions for writing imagist poetry with advice for admen written at the same time: it would be hard to tell them apart. Full of lovely irony. My old friend Cliff Wulfman gave a really smart paper about all the technological challenges of digitizing literature.

But, in light of the dire news about publishing that’s been floating around these past months, I thought you might be especially interested in George Bornstein’s “The Colors of Modernism: Publishing Blacks, Jews, and Irish.” (Shouldn’t it be “the Irish?”) He offered a history of New York publishing houses in the early 20th century.

While we think of Viking and Knopf as powerhouses of publishing, these houses were founded by Jews who’d hit the glass ceiling in WASP-dominated Boston. These editors, according to Bornstein, moved to New York, but couldn’t afford to acquire the established texts. So, while Houghton Mifflin up in Boston was publishing new multi-volume sets of Longfellow and Emerson (this made me laugh out loud, but I was the only one), Ginsburg and Oppenheimer of Viking and the Knopfs set out to find avant-garde texts, texts by other Jews, by immigrants, and by African-Americans. Harcourt Brace was the only Gentile-run house to join this trend. They did so because they hired Joel Spingarn, a Jew, an early supporter of the NAACP and colleague there of DuBois, and a former professor of comp lit at Columbia. Professor Spingarn had been dismissed from his job at Columbia for defending a colleague’s dismissal (ah! academic freedom!) so, his former students hired him at Harcourt, eventually making him a full editorial partner.

First among these was B. W. Huebsch, the first American publisher of James Joyce. Bornstein showed us Huebsch’s device, a seven-branched menorah (it looked like a fancy Georgian candlestick to me, but I trust him), on the title page of Joyce's Exiles.

This paper was a really lovely cultural history. A rich celebration of how a group of artists, exiled from the mainstream, became the mainstream by banding together.

Harcourt’s big moneymaker was Keynes’ Economic Consequences of the Peace and it’s through Keynes that they got their entrĂ©e to Bloomsbury. Harcourt remains Woolf’s American publisher to this day.

Bornstein’s story emerges, I think, out of a desire to counter a narrative, common in the 1990s, of high modernism as politically right wing, elitist, and narrow.

But it’s too easy to turn the cosmopolitan story into a dream sequence that overlooks the broader truths of anti-Semitism, race riots, lynchings, and anti-immigration legislation of the time. Or the facts of rifts within even the cosmopolitan circles of artists. I would like to have heard more nuance there, but it mostly flickered behind the paper. He told us that Harcourt is to be commended for publishing Sandburg’s essay on the Chicago race riots without pausing long enough over the fact of that unrest. He saluted Knopf’s courage in publishing Van Vechten’s Nigger Heaven without pausing long enough (though pause he did) over the opportunism of that white promoter of Harlem.

He ended with T. S. Eliot, whose politics I don't admire (duh!) but whose "The Waste Land" I adore. Boni and Liveright, the house that made their name with Toomer's Cane were Eliot's American publishers. And, Bornstein argues, that Eliot's appearance on the Boni and Liveright list emphasizes the polyglot nature of the poem: something that was supported by the list itself. That is, every title on their list was jazz-influenced, so the jazz and pop elements of the poem, the parts of the poem that celebrate immigration and cosmpolitanism, and cultural hybridity, are all familiar to anyone who's familiar with that house. This, he argues, helps account for Ralph Ellison's somewhat surprising over-praise of Eliot. There is a lot more to say about that: about Eliot's racism, about whether or not people know books in the context of their publisher, about Ellison's snobbery, and about the greatness of both Ellison and Eliot.

I do think this is, in the main, a really really good story for us to know. As we think about Kindle and digital rights management (DRM to you) and the death of the newspaper, it’s really thrilling, I think, to remember, too, that 100 years ago, there were people in New York who loved great writing and didn’t pause over creed or race or ethnicity to publish it and, in so doing, were able to serve both art and commerce. So, though I have my questions about the emphasis of this paper, I mostly found it very, very interesting and inspiring. And though I've ignored the women here, Bornstein did not: he continually referenced Lilian Hellman, Nella Larsen, and more as crucial players in this story.

As we sit here, trying to earn a living with our tweets and our blogs, shaking our heads at the ginormous advances offered to another idiotic memoir by a celebrity, it’s moving and encouraging, I think, to imagine Knopf, Huebsch, Ginsburg & Oppenheimer, Boni & Liveright, gutting it out, making money, and bringing us great, great art.

Bornstein’s paper is part of a forthcoming book from Yale University Press. A chapter of it appeared in the September 2005 issue of Modernism/modernity (which may be behind a firewall for you). He has a very sweet pro-Obama op-ed here.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

War and Fate

All the work I do on Mrs. Dalloway has had me thinking a lot about war, soldiers, and war writing. I have become convinced that the very minor character in that novel, Miss Isabel Pole, is a character of bad faith, urging Septimus to read Antony and Cleopatra and comparing him to Keats. No wonder he volunteered to fight; no wonder he returns traumatized.

I have been thinking a lot about returning soldiers. Worrying about them and listening intently whenever Paul Rieckoff is on t.v. talking about IAVA and veteran’s issues. He was the guest on one of the WNYC podcasts on my iPhone, so I listened on the plane out to San Francisco. I also checked my email, and there was a message from the academic vice president announcing the creation of a task force on welcoming returning veteran’s back to Fordham.

Then, just to continue the theme, once at the conference, I saw that San Franciscan Dave Eggers was speaking on a panel on war writing. I loved Heartbreaking Work, advised a thesis on McSweeneys. Though I know it’s fashionable to turn up my nose at Eggers, I actually think he’s amazingly cool. I’d love to be the one to have founded 826 Valencia, to have resisted all that rampant snark. At the panel, the moderator interviewed Eggers about What is the What and then six veterans read from the work they had done in Maxine Hong Kingston’s writing group. They spoke about their book, Veterans of War, Veterans of Peace. It was deeply moving.

They spoke about listening to difficult stories, telling them, and not asking stories to turn out to be inspirational or moving or redemptive. They read a wonderful Tim O’Brien quote to the effect that if you feel redeemed at the end of a war story, you have been lied to.

At the book exhibit, then, I bought A Soldier’s Heart, Elizabeth Samet’s account of teaching at West Point. So far, I find that she capitulates too much to the military perspective for my taste. But she is smart and I’m learning about military culture from it.

All of which to say that I think I’ve found my way in. Maybe nothing will come of it; maybe something will. But I’m going to write to my university’s committee and see if they will think about writing and reading as a piece of the veteran’s program. I don’t know what will come of this, but perhaps this can be a way for me to contribute… We’ll see.

Monday, March 16, 2009

When You Were Small

I was in San Francisco over the weekend at the CCCC (the National Council of Teachers of English’s big Conference on College Composition and Communication). It’s a HUGE conference, held this year at the downtown Hilton, much bigger than the MLA.

But of all the many books I read, bought, and acquired over the weekend, the one that’s haunting me is a children’s book that I didn’t buy: Sara O’Leary (text) and Julie Morstad (illustrations)’s enchanting When You Were Small. I ran across it at an amazing little store of letter press cards, books, and ephemera, Little Otsu, across Valencia from both 826 Valencia and Range where we had a GREAT dinner.

Little Henry asks about what it was like when he was small and his dad tells him a series of wonderful, fanciful lies: you had a pet ant, we used you as a chess piece, you used to take baths in the teapot... Don’t you remember?

The haunting and detailed illustrations and the dry humor make it a tender little Edward Gorey fable. There’s a second book, too, and Morstad has some ABCs as well.

I’m urging the Easter Bunny to fill the girls’ baskets with these books this year! You can see their titles at the lovely Simply Read Books website. Julie Morstad's drawings are at Canada's Atelier Gallery. And Sara O'Leary has a blog.

Monday, March 09, 2009

Frog and Toad Are Friends

I’d like to sing a little ode
about my good friend Toad,
Toad with whom I frequently take tea.

He’s not so good at sports,
and of course he’s got those warts
but Toad has been a lovely friend to me.
We took the girls to “A Year with Frog and Toad” at the Atlantic on Saturday. It was so adorable—nearly as good as last year’s awesome “Really Rosie.” The Atlantic’s children’s theater is so great. First, it’s affordable ($50 for 4 tickets—that’s practically free in NYC terms). Then, the theater itself, an old brick church, is both grand and homey. It makes the matinee into an occasion. (Pics here.)

But the songs are so charming. The opening song of friendship is all charm: admitting that one’s friend has warts but “has been a lovely friend to me” captures many deep and important ideas about friendship all in one: flaws, “loveliness”—that gentle, important, grounding quality, and then “to me,” because friendship is ours and special: it doesn’t matter if you don’t get it, he’s been my friend.

My kindergartener was delighted that some of the episodes she knows from her I Can Read books were featured in the show.

And the song, later in the show, about the pleasure of eating cookies is totally exuberant and joyous: Like the happiest love song ever, but song to the pleasure of gorging on cookies!
Eating cookies
Eating cookies
We’re so happy eating cookies
Cookies cookies cookies we adore….
The children were rapt.

I was interested to see Mark Linn-Baker thanked in the program. I always loved that silly sitcom, “Perfect Strangers,” and I liked him in it. It made me happy to think of him as a working actor, supporting this little venture.

But this morning, downloading the soundtrack for the kids on iTunes, I see that he originated the role of Toad on Broadway (the baby’s hands-down favorite character; the big girl just loved it all). What’s more, his wife Adrianne is the daughter of Arnold Lobel, the author of the Frog and Toad books. So three cheers for Mark Linn-Baker! And three cheers for great children’s theater in Chelsea.

Their run was extended for 2 weeks: this coming weekend is the last: call quick to reserve your seat!

PHOTO: Ahron R. Foster from the Playbill site.

Monday, March 02, 2009

Exasperation and Elevation

Ed Champion asked me to participate in a roundtable on Eric Kraft's new novel, Flying. (It's actually a trilogy, bound together into a very big book). I am a big fan of Ed's & I am, occasionally, nostalgic for the days of the Litblog Co-op, so I said YES.

The first installment of five is up at Ed's place.

It's a very weird book, one that I found exasperating and fascinating, as you'll see when I weigh in (at a late phase in the conversation). The conceit, however, is really interesting: a boy in the 50's builds an aerocycle, based on improbable plans from a mechanics magazine, and flies it from Long Island to New Mexico. As you might expect, the aerocycle doesn't fly, BUT many people want to believe that it does and the boy is simultaneously buoyed and ruined by keeping alive the fiction of himself as a pilot. The book we have in our hands purports to be the record of the much older man today, striving to write a memoir that sets the record straight.

There's a lot that's funny here, but the book is a spot too long for me. In any case, do pop over to Ed's blog throughout the week and listen in.