Thadious Davis on Faulkner

Thadious Davis is a Professor Emerita of English at the University of Pennsylvania. She is one of the leading Black scholars of the work of William Faulkner. She is the author of Faulkner’s “Negro”: Art and the Southern Context (1982), and Games of Property: Law, Race, Gender, and Faulkner’s Go Down Moses (2003). Here are two snippets from Faulkner’s “Negro” that I want to share with you:

“ Faulkner has created a mythical region out of his own imagination and his creative understanding of the South, her traditions and legacies. Since then he has scrutinized his created world and set it forth in minute detail which ultimately magnifies the most significant aspects of the human situation. His characters (the Sartorises, and Compsons, Dilsey and Nancy, the Sutpens and Snopeses alike)  are people caught in the act of life, and they are distinctly southern, not incidentally but by dint of his conscious, repeated design. His intense probing of the human condition urges the reader to interact imaginatively in translating the experience of the exposed people of the South into symbolic meaning.”

“Unfortunately, his (Faulkner’s) ‘ Negro’ has often received critical attention solely because of the sociological implications relating to southern society. The focus is on discovering Faulkner’s ‘real’ feelings or attitudes toward blacks, at the expense of viewing his people as characters. In addition, identifying Faulkner the Mississippian too closely with his individual characters or narrators has resulted in some hysterical and misleading writing on the race issue in his fiction.”   

Ellen Blum Barish at Max and Benny’s Author Series

Ellen Blum Barish will be relaunching the popular Max and Benny’s author series on Monday evening, July 19. The series will be starting its 11th year. I will be in conversation with Ellen that evening as we discuss her recently published memoir, Seven Springs. The presentation begins at 7:00 PM. Seating is limited, so please make your reservation for the event at www.maxandbennys.com.           

The Bookshop

Penelope Fitzgerald’s novel, The Bookshop, is truly a delightful book. It tells the story of Florence Green, a World War Two widow, who opens a bookstore in a long-abandoned centuries-old house in a small town in Suffolk. It’s a tale of Florence’s courage to go ahead with the bookshop despite the opposition of the most powerful woman in town who had designs to make the ancient house a community arts center.

Fitzgerald believed that the world we live in is divided in her own words of “exterminators and exterminatees.” And the spunky Florence falls into the latter category, as the powerful Mrs. Gamart triumphs in the end. Yet her grace and tenacity in fighting the good fight to the end are inspiring.

Penelope Fitzgerald began her literary career rather late in life at age 58. Her first novel was published at age 60. She soon received literary recognition as her third novel, The Bookshop, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1978. The following year, her novel Offshore, won the Booker Prize. Both these novels reflected true life experiences of the author, who had worked in a Suffolk bookshop and lived on a barge on the Thames.       

      

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The Dalkey Archive

Flann O’Brien’s The Dalkey Archive is a delightful book. O’Brien himself wrote to his editor that “the book is not meant to be a novel or anything of the kind but a study in derision, various writers with their styles, and sundry modes, attitudes and cults being the rats in the cage.”

The “study in derision” of the most interest to me was how James Joyce and Ulysses were mockingly depicted. The book’s protagonist, Mickey Shaughnessy, discovers Joyce working as a barman in the Irish coastal town of Skerries. The author had posted an obituary of himself, as he fled France before the Nazi occupation. The whereabouts of his family are unknown.

The dialogue between Shaughnessy and Joyce that ensues is purely wild literary phantasmagoria. Here are some tidbits of this madcap dialogue:  

MS- “Mr Joyce, tell me about the writing of Ulysses.”

JJ- “I have heard more than enough about that dirty book, that collection of smut, but do not be heard saying that I had anything to do with it.”

MS- “But Ulysses?”

JJ-  “I don’t want to talk about that exploit. I took the idea to be a sort of practical joke but didn’t know enough about it to suspect it might seriously injure my name. It began with an American lady in Paris by the name of Sylvia Beach…..the truth is that she fell in love with me. Fancy that!”

MS- “How did Miss Beach express her love for you?”

JJ- “She swore to me that she’d make me famous….But her plot was to have this thing named Ulysses concocted, secretly circulated and have the authorship ascribed to me.  Of course at first didn’t take the mad scheme seriously.”

MS- “But how did the thing progress?”

JJ- “I was shown bits of it in typescript. Artificial and laborious stuff, I thought….Of course it wasn’t Sylvia Beach who showed me those extracts.”

MS- “Who was it?”

JJ- “Various low, dirty-minded ruffians who had been paid to put this material together. Muck-rakers, obscene poets, carnal pimps, sodomous sycophants, pedlars of the coloured lusts of fallen humanity. Please don’t ask me for names.”

MS- “Tell me more about Ulysses.”

JJ-“ I paid very little attention to it until one day I was given a piece from it about some woman in bed thinking the dirtiest thoughts that ever came into the human head. Pornography and filth and literary vomit, enough to make a blackguard of a Dublin cabman blush. I blessed myself and put the thing in the fire.”

MS- “Well was the complete Ulysses do you think  ever published?”

JJ- “I certainly hope not.”

MS- “ Mr. Joyce….I can tell you that you have been out of touch with things for a long time. The book Ulysses was published in Paris in 1922, with your name on the title page. And it was considered a great book.”

JJ- “God forgive you. Are you fooling me? I am getting on in years. Remember that.”

Mad stuff, isn’t it? Joyce then tells Shaughnessy that he wants to join the Jesuit order. Perhaps even teach at his alma mater, Clongowes Wood College. Joyce is intent on ridding the Holy Ghost from Catholic dogma.

The reader now wonders what’s up with Joyce. Has he gone mad like his daughter Lucia? Is he perhaps escaping the bonds of family for life with the Jesuits? If so, is this why he is brutally disparaging Ulysses.

The parody and satire of it all is brilliant. The Dalkey Archive is a gem of a book.     

Fanny McConnell Ellison

Fanny McConnell Ellison, the wife of author Ralph Ellison, was quite an accomplished woman in her own right. While attending Fisk University as an undergraduate, she worked as an assistant to the poet and novelist, James Weldon Johnson. She left Fisk due to financial reasons. However, she soon received a scholarship from the University of Iowa where she graduated.

Settling in Chicago, she  founded and became the Executive Director of Chicago’s Negro People’s Theater in the late 1930s. At the same time, she wrote a political column, reviews, and essays for the Chicago Defender.

She moved to New York City in 1943 to become the assistant to the director of the National Urban League. Soon she took a new position in the city working at an organization dedicated to supporting the medical missionary work of “Burma surgeon,” Dr. Gordon S. Seagrave.

Fannie McConnell married Ralph Ellison in 1946. It was a marriage that lasted until 1994, when the author died of pancreatic cancer. She was an indispensable partner in his literary work with her strong organizational and editing skills.                 

Wilde on Washington

Oscar Wilde was never one to mince words about America and American heroes. He was at his acerbic best when he wrote the following in his essay “The Decay of Lying,” published in 1891. To wit:

“The crude commercialism of America, its materialising spirit, its indifference to the poetical side of things, and its lack of imagination and of high unattainable ideals, are entirely due to that country having adopted for its national hero a man, according to his own confession, was incapable of telling a lie, and it is not too much to say that the story of George Washington and the cherry-tree has done more harm, and in a shorter space of time, than any other moral tale in the whole of literature.”         

Meeting Algren

Remembering my one encounter with Nelson Algren. From “Chicago Sketches.” Today is his birthday. He was born on March 28, 1909.

aliteraryreeder

After a filling meal of pierogis and sauerkraut at the Busy Bee restaurant in Wicker Park, I crossed Damen and hurried through the park, past the smack heads and other lost souls, arriving at the party at about nine. When I walked into the cramped apartment on Evergreen, I recognized him immediately from the photo on the jacket of my copy of The Man with the Golden Arm. Algren was sitting restlessly on a chair in the kitchen talking to a tall blonde named Dottie. He took long drags on his Marlboro and was sipping from a glass filled with what looked like rye.

A guy that I knew, Bill Schmidt, an old beatnik who owned a hole-in-the-wall bookstore on Wells, sat nearby and asked me if I would like to meet the writer he called Lord Nelson. Of course I jumped at the opportunity, and Bill introduced me to…

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Borges and Joyce

Jorge Luis Borges, the great Argentinian writer, wrote a wonderful poem about James Joyce. It is simply called James Joyce. Here it is in an English translation:

In one day of mankind all are the days

Of time, from that unimaginable

first day of time, when a formidable

God prearranged the days and agonies,

to that other day when the perpetual river

of earthly time flows round to its headwaters

the Eternal, and is extinguished in the present,

the future, the past, the passing—what is now

mine.

The story of the world is told from dawn

To darkness. From the depths of night I’ve seen

at my feet the wanderings of the Jews,

Carthage destroyed, Hell, and Heaven’s bliss.

Grant me, Lord, the courage and the joy

I need to scale the summit of this day.

Joyce and Borges had much in common. Each writer challenged the literary establishment with boldness and innovation. Both were plagued with progressive vision loss. They each spent many years in exile from their native lands. They both died and were buried in Switzerland.   

Aloysius The Great

Aloysius The Great (Propertius Press), the debut novel of John Maxwell O’Brien, is an utterly enjoyable and delightful read. It is an homage to James Joyce’s Ulysses, with allusions to Joyce’s masterpiece sprinkled throughout the book. I found it to be a divine human comedy that blends the acerbic wit of Oscar Wilde with the madcap humor of Mel Brooks. It definitely is a novel out of the common groove. But it’s a groove where you will want to be.