Friday, March 27, 2015

Strong Female Characters, Willa Cather & Edith Lewis



Very few writers can write strong female characters. Of course Willa Cather gave us Ántonia and Alexandra from O! Pioneers. From reading The Selected Letters of Willa Cather (edited by Andrew Jewell and Janis Stout) you get a sense of how much she loved and appreciated women, especially the girls she surrounded herself with growing up.

Willa Cather and Edith Lewis shared an address, first at 5 Bank street (1913 – 1927) and then at 570 Park Ave. in New York City. Edith Lewis was a gifted editor. Surely their’s was a partnership. Many have tried to suss out the exact nature of their relationship. A tomboy growing up and at times a cross-dresser in high school and university, Cather is thought to have been a lesbian. The editors of Cather’s letters looked at the two women’s correspondence. “There aren’t, you know, explicit kind of descriptions of the nature of their relationship in here,” Jewell said. “Instead, what you get is Edith Lewis’ perpetual presence in Cather’s life in many different ways. When Cather sent graduation gifts to her nieces, it would be from Aunt Will and Ms. Lewis.

“So what is there is a sustained sense of a life shared, and to me that’s powerful evidence in understanding their relationship.”

It is clear that, as Cather and Lewis moved forward together into the war years (1915) and beyond, Lewis provided many forms of support (financial, editorial, emotional) crucial to Cather’s emergence as a major creative artist. Edith Lewis’s marks are evident on typeset pages of My Ántonia and on the final proofs for Shadows on the Rock. When Cather died in 1947, Edith Lewis was named executor of her literary estate.

The only other writer I feel who wrote masterfully about women was Flaubert. How could a man Gustave Flaubert write women so well? See “A Simple Heart,” a short story about a French housemaid. His perspective on Emma Bovary would suggest that he’d been born female—it was as if he were inside her, seeing everything from her eyes. He might have been a bit conflicted sexually—though there is no (excuse the pun) hard evidence.

“Emma, on entering, felt herself wrapped round by the warm air, a blending of the perfume of flowers and of the fine linen, of the fumes of the viands, and the odour of the truffles. The silver dish-covers reflected the lighted wax candles in the candelabra, the cut crystal covered with light steam reflected from one to the other pale rays; bouquets were placed in a row the whole length of the table; and in the large-bordered plates each napkin, arranged after the fashion of a bishop's mitre, held between its two gaping folds a small oval-shaped roll. The red claws of lobsters hung over the dishes; rich fruit in open baskets was piled up on moss; there were quails in their plumage; smoke was rising; and in silk stockings, knee-breeches, white cravat, and frilled shirt, the steward, grave as a judge, offering ready-carved dishes between the shoulders of the guests, with a touch of the spoon gave you the piece chosen. On the large stove of porcelain inlaid with copper baguettes the statue of a woman, draped to the chin, gazed motionless on the room full of life.

Madame Bovary noticed that many ladies had not put their gloves in their glasses.

But at the upper end of the table, alone amongst all these women, bent over his full plate, and his napkin tied round his neck like a child, an old man sat eating, letting drops of gravy drip from his mouth. His eyes were bloodshot, and he wore a little queue tied with a black ribbon. He was the Marquis's father-in-law, the old Duke de Laverdiere, once on a time favourite of the Count d'Artois, in the days of the Vaudreuil hunting-parties at the Marquis de Conflans', and had been, it was said, the lover of Queen Marie Antoinette, between Monsieur de Coigny and Monsieur de Lauzun. He had lived a life of noisy debauch, full of duels, bets, elopements; he had squandered his fortune and frightened all his family. A servant behind his chair named aloud to him in his ear the dishes that he pointed to stammering, and constantly Emma's eyes turned involuntarily to this old man with hanging lips, as to something extraordinary. He had lived at court and slept in the bed of queens!

Iced champagne was poured out. Emma shivered all over as she felt it cold in her mouth. She had never seen pomegranates nor tasted pineapples. The powdered sugar even seemed to her whiter and finer than elsewhere. The ladies afterwards went to their rooms to prepare for the ball.” Part 1:Chapter VIII

Right now a new book titled Hausfrau has been described as Madame Bovary meets Anna Karenina meets Fifty Shades of Grey. It was written by my very good friend Jill Essbaum. It begins: Anna was a good wife, mostly. Read an interview with Jill from TIME magazine!!

I’ll be blogging more about Hausfrau more later on.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Willa Cather's Bad Memory



In a recent post I wrote about My Ántonia, an early century—last one—novel by Willa Cather about life on the Nebraska plains—before they became the Nebraska wheatfields and then the Nebraska cornfields.

A major theme of this blog is memoir or to be specific memoir-ish. My Ántonia pulled heavily from Cather’s own memories of growing up in Nebraska. Like Jim Burden she immigrated from Virginia to Nebraska and grew up on her grandparent’s farm before moving into town, Red Cloud (Black Hawk in the book). There are many parallels between Cather’s own life that in fact the novel reads like a reminiscence. A sort of sentimentality settles on the characters as if rendered through the telescope of memory.  

Since getting a Kindle last fall I’ve been experimenting with getting eBooks from the library. Amazon doesn’t make it easy but after a list of steps determined to take me back to Amazon and leave a digital footprint I’ve successfully downloaded a number of books. One recent download has been The Selected Letters of Willa Cather, edited by Andrew Jewell, Janis Stout. Cather was a prodigious letter writer and asked before she died that her estate destroy certain correspondence. Also as part of her will the letters that remained out there were not allowed to be published until 2016. Ahead of that date the estate gave permission for a small number to come out in 2013. This edition, 752 pages, is only 20% of the total correspondence archived.

Here is an excerpt of an early letter—insight into the mind of a writer. In a letter to Irene Miner Weisz (b. 1881) the youngest daughter of James and Julia Miner of Red Cloud. She was a lifelong friend of Cather's and prototype for Nina Harling in My Ántonia. Dated January 6, 1945, 72 years, 2 years before Cather’s death, in this missive she  relates already feeling fragile health-wise. “I think I can honestly say that I wrote for pleasure, and not from vanity. When I wrote about the people I loved and the places I loved, they came back to me so vividly, that it was like having them all over again.—No matter how hard I worked at my job all through the week, I always wrote for my own pleasure on Saturday and Sunday.”

Goes on: “I have managed to recapture a good many of the pleasures of the past, in one book or another, but I have had to pay for my pleasures as I went along. After My Ántonia was published, Father pointed out to me half a dozen incidents—things I had done or seen with him (the two crazy Russians, etc.) and I honestly believed that I had invented them. They simply came into my mind, the way things do come when one is interested.

So that terrible story Ántonia relates about the Russian wedding party and the wolves chasing down and consuming the bride and groom comes from something she heard as a child. The story has always left an impression on me and obviously on a young Willa.

Excerpt from Willa Cather’s My Antonia.

When Pavel and Peter were young men, living at home in Russia, they were asked to be groomsmen for a friend who was to marry the belle of another village. It was in the dead of winter and the groom's party went over to the wedding in sledges. Peter and Pavel drove in the groom's sledge, and six sledges followed with all his relatives and friends.

After the ceremony at the church, the party went to a dinner given by the parents of the bride. The dinner lasted all afternoon; then it became a supper and continued far into the night. There was much dancing and drinking. At midnight the parents of the bride said good-bye to her and blessed her. The groom took her up in his arms and carried her out to his sledge and tucked her under the blankets. He sprang in beside her, and Pavel and Peter (our Pavel and Peter!) took the front seat. Pavel drove. The party set out with singing and the jingle of sleigh-bells, the groom's sledge going first. All the drivers were more or less the worse for merry-making, and the groom was absorbed in his bride.

The wolves were bad that winter, and everyone knew it, yet when they heard the first wolf-cry, the drivers were not much alarmed. They had too much good food and drink inside them. The first howls were taken up and echoed and with quickening repetitions. The wolves were coming together. There was no moon, but the starlight was clear on the snow. A black drove came up over the hill behind the wedding party. The wolves ran like streaks of shadow; they looked no bigger than dogs, but there were hundreds of them.

Something happened to the hindmost sledge: the driver lost control-- he was probably very drunk--the horses left the road, the sledge was caught in a clump of trees, and overturned. The occupants rolled out over the snow, and the fleetest of the wolves sprang upon them. The shrieks that followed made everybody sober. The drivers stood up and lashed their horses. The groom had the best team and his sledge was lightest-- all the others carried from six to a dozen people.

Another driver lost control. The screams of the horses were more terrible to hear than the cries of the men and women. Nothing seemed to check the wolves. It was hard to tell what was happening in the rear; the people who were falling behind shrieked as piteously as those who were already lost. The little bride hid her face on the groom's shoulder and sobbed. Pavel sat still and watched his horses. The road was clear and white, and the groom's three blacks went like the wind. It was only necessary to be calm and to guide them carefully.

At length, as they breasted a long hill, Peter rose cautiously and looked back. `There are only three sledges left,' he whispered.

Pavel reached the brow of the hill, but only two sledges followed him down the other side. In that moment on the hilltop, they saw behind them a whirling black group on the snow. Presently the groom screamed. He saw his father's sledge overturned, with his mother and sisters. He sprang up as if he meant to jump, but the girl shrieked and held him back. It was even then too late. The black ground-shadows were already crowding over the heap in the road, and one horse ran out across the fields, his harness hanging to him, wolves at his heels. But the groom's movement had given Pavel an idea.

They were within a few miles of their village now. The only sledge left out of six was not very far behind them, and Pavel's middle horse was failing. Beside a frozen pond something happened to the other sledge; Peter saw it plainly. Three big wolves got abreast of the horses, and the horses went crazy. They tried to jump over each other, got tangled up in the harness, and overturned the sledge.

When the shrieking behind them died away, Pavel realized that he was alone upon the familiar road. `They still come?' he asked Peter.

Now his middle horse was being almost dragged by the other two. Pavel gave Peter the reins and stepped carefully into the back of the sledge. He called to the groom that they must lighten-- and pointed to the bride. The young man cursed him and held her tighter. Pavel tried to drag her away. In the struggle, the groom rose. Pavel knocked him over the side of the sledge and threw the girl after him. He said he never remembered exactly how he did it, or what happened afterward. Peter, crouching in the front seat, saw nothing. The first thing either of them noticed was a new sound that broke into the clear air, louder than they had ever heard it before--the bell of the monastery of their own village, ringing for early prayers.

Pavel and Peter drove into the village alone, and they had been alone ever since.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Hey, Man! Groovy!





Who knows how the mind works, but this past weekend I suddenly remembered that funky movie Go Ask Alice. Reading a Wiki summary of the story it is impossible to believe the impact this movie/book once had. Its message scared me to death.

In the early 70s I was in middle school—a time fraught with great unhappiness. It wasn’t hard to imagine the main character’s insecurity, fear of failing, having to navigate the troubled waters of friendship.

Looking back now, Go Ask Alice is laughable, full of about every fear-mongering cliché one can think of concerning drugs, the bad guys who do drugs, and how easily one is sucked down, held in the vise-like grip of addiction. It was seemingly written as an object lesson.

The diary format gave the book an authority it didn’t deserve. It seemed so real. Of course I didn’t know any better.

Almost immediately the book’s authenticity was questioned. It was written by Anonymous. Now it tops the list of faked memoirs.

The “author” was a Mormon youth counselor with an agenda to make sure America’s teens stayed away from drugs—and ironing their hair and all the hippie fashion that went with that lifestyle. Even her claims of authorship have been disputed. Her bio or purported PhD has also been called into question. Who’s surprised?

I actually have enjoyed many novels written in diary form. Joan Blos won a Newbery Award in 1980 for A Gathering of Days: A New England Girl’s Journal 1830 -1832. It is the fictious story of a young girl growing up in New Hampshire who despite loss displays courage and an indomitable spirit. The entries read real and made me feel as if I were there. I had this same method in mind when I wrote the first draft of what was to be my YA novel Beyond Paradise, but a diary kept through 4 long years of war—though it lent immediacy to the history—was clunky and cumbersome, hard for the reader to keep with what themes were important and what was simply news about the war. I gave it up and sent it through the re-write machine with the help of my editor Rosemary Brosnan at Morrow Junior Books. Thanks so much!

Monday, March 16, 2015

Go Green St. Paddy's Day

365 Affirmations for the Writer will be on sale for ONE DAY ONLY Tuesday, March 17th. 

99 cents 

Click here for ordering information.

Friday, March 13, 2015

The Descent



William Carlos Williams’s “The Descent” is a poem worth remembering. Below is an excerpt:

Memory is a kind
of accomplishment
a sort of renewal
even
an initiation, since the spaces it opens are new places
inhabited by hordes
heretofore unrealized
of new kinds—
since their movements
are toward new objectives
(even though formerly they were abandoned).

Next week, March 17th, my book 365 Affirmations for the Writer will be on a 1-day ONLY special at Amazon. Download the book for only .99 cents—76% off the regular price.

Passaic Falls that fed the industries of Paterson, NJ

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

After Hours

A piece called "Fourth of July Anarchy (Foster Beach" has been included in After Hours, a journal of Chicago writing and art. They had a booth at Chicago Book Expo where I picked up a card about how to submit. Attending book and publishing fairs is a great way to find out what journals are looking for and a chance to thumb through the journal to see if your work is a good fit.

What's so exciting about this particular submission is that it is my first published "poem." Actually it is a prose poem or it could even be described as a lyrical flash memoir. Composed after hiking up to Foster Beach for the 4th of July fireworks. We went for the show that goes off above the Saddle & Cycle Club and encountered something radically different. All around us revelers were setting off their own fireworks, creating chaos and anarchy. I think the situation would have brought on PDS for a wartime vet. There were no safeguards in effect. Generally everyone and anyone was letting loose explosives. I saw a rocket shoot through a crowd about knee-level instead of straight up into the air. People were diving for cover, it was that dangerous. But like how a roller coaster can be freaky and exhilarating at the same time--so too was Foster Beach on the 4th of July. It was CRAZY.

Also included in this WINTER issue of After Hours are poems of John Vietnam Nguyen, a rapper and hip hop artist from Uptown who while attending the University of WI at Madison accidentally drowned while saving the life of another swimmer. His death was truly tragic as he was just at the start of a promising writing career. Check out the journal and download an issue.
John Vietnam

Friday, March 6, 2015

My Ántonia



“Some memories are realities and are better than anything that can ever happen to one again.”
My Ántonia

A book I seem to come back to again and again is My Ántonia by Willa Cather. Often I don’t have time to read all the books I want to—so why do I continue to re-read ones from the past?

Always I am seeing something new, or traveling back over worn roads that in their familiarity call me home.

Some reduce My Ántonia to an immigrant’s story. It is Jim’s the narrator’s memoir as well as the story of a Czech (Bohemian) neighbor girl. Or cast in another light—we are all newcomer’s to a place we have to conquer and eventually tame, we all strangers here.

I love Cather’s work. It is her descriptions of place that transport me. In Death Comes for the Archbishop we read about New MexicoppLand of Enchantment, of pastel pink clouds, golden sunsets, of sagebrush mesas and waterless arroyos, of Kit Carson and horse thieves. It also contains many racial stereotypes and assumptions that native Indians were children looking for a religion to which they could devout themselves. Yet, it is also the story of enduring friendship between two Frenchmen called from their homeland to serve along the frontiers of the new West in America. Memory plays a large role in telling their story.

Memory also is how we learn about Ántonia. The whole story is one giant recollection, told through the pen of Jim Burden. He seeks to relive his childhood and growing up years in rural Nebraska. He takes us down roads and over grassy swells. “There was nothing but land; not a country at all, but the material out of which countries are made.” For him it is all gone—for us we have never even known a time without highways, internet, supermarkets—Jim remembers a time before fences, before the sod was broken, and the grasslands plowed under, and when he returns he sees that even Ántonia is a little worse for wear, having lost her teeth and aging beyond her years.

“Antonia came in and stood before me...It was a shock, of course. It always is, to meet people after long years, especially if they have lived as much and as hard as this woman had. We stood looking at each other. The eyes that peered anxiously at me were - simply Antonia's eyes. As I confronted her, the changes grew less apparent to me, her identity stronger. She was there in the full vigor of her personality, battered, but not diminished...”

It is a memoir of nostalgia where the past is romanticized. My heart can’t help breaking when Jim remembers the good-natured cowboys Jake and Otto that helped out around his grandparent’s farm. How when they left when the old folks moved into town, Jim would never hear from them again.

 In the course of the story we read about other settler’s memories. Ántonia’s father is debilitated by his memories of the old country; he longs for what he has left behind. While Russian Peter is petrified by the mistakes of his past, continuing to live a life of regret.

One of my most favorite images from the book is a story Jim tells of going on a picnic with Ántonia and Lena right before leaving for college. The sun is hanging low in the sky and captures perfectly a symbol for his childhood and the Great Plains. “There were no clouds, the sun was going down in a limpid, gold-washed sky. Just as the lower edge of the red disk rested on the high fields against the horizon, a great black figure suddenly appeared on the face of the sun. We sprang to our feet, straining our eyes toward it. In a moment we realized what it was. On some upland farm, a plough had been left standing in the field. The sun was sinking just behind it. Magnified across the distance by the horizontal light, it stood out against the sun, was exactly contained within the circle of the disk; the handles, the tongue, the share—black against the molten red. There it was, heroic in size, a picture writing on the sun.”

The book ends with Jim returning to visit Ántonia now a grandmother. He follows the old roads back—“As I went back alone over that familiar road, I could almost believe that a boy and girl ran along beside me, as our shadows used to do, laughing and whispering to each other in the grass. . . . I had the sense of coming home to myself, and of having found out what a little circle man's experience is. For Ántonia and for me, this had been the road of Destiny; had taken us to those early accidents of fortune which predetermined for us all that we can ever be. Now I understood that the same road was to bring us together again. Whatever we had missed, we possessed together the precious, the incommunicable past.”